Top Ten Books of 2017

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!

Ghost Town: The Massacre of Oradour-Sur-Glane

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.

AmazoniTunes  |  Barnes & Noble  |  Kobo

Cooking From “The Alice Network”: Biscuits and Rose Jam

“She could well imagine people coming to wait at the adjoining cafe, nibbling biscuits with rose jam, drinking too much wine, crooning along to the radio. Edith Piaf was playing now.” — The Alice Network

I love great food in books–I love to read it and I love to write it–and I love cooking out of books. There’s plenty of delicious food in The Alice Network, considering that my characters embark on a road trip across the French countryside in 1947, but when I decided to cook something out of my own pages, it was the biscuits and rose jam from the Epilogue which positively begged to be made. And they came out DELICIOUS, warm and crumbly and rose-fragrant, beautifully paired with a glass of Provençal rosé.

 

 

For the biscuits:

1. Mix 4 cups flour, 1/4 cup sugar, 2 tsp baking powder, 1 tsp salt, and 1/2 tsp baking soda in a mixing bowl.

2. Cube two sticks of cold butter and add to the dry mixture. Cut in until mixture is crumbly.

3. Add 1 cup buttermilk and 2 eggs; mix together with fork till moistened.

4. Turn dough out on floured surface, knead 5-6 times till it’s a big scraggy lump. It will be messy, but only knead enough to pull the dough together; the less you handle it, the more tender the biscuits will be.

5. Pull off fist-sized chunks into rough rounds, and space apart on greased baking sheet

6. Bake at 375 till golden. (Baking ime will depend on how big you like your drop biscuits.) Serve warm.

 

To serve:

Clotted cream can be found at stores like Wegman’s or Trader Joe’s. Rose jam can be ordered online, and it’s delicious–like eating perfume in solid form. A glass of rosé goes beautifully; just get a dry vintage rather than the sickly sweet stuff you might associate with pink wine. I picked this nice inexpensive French bottle frankly because it’s called “L’âme du Vin” which means “Soul of Wine” and comes from a Baudelaire poem of the same name. Baudelaire’s poetry runs through The Alice Network since my French villain is always quoting from the Fleurs du Mal–this seemed like a wine he would drink.

One night, the soul of wine was singing in the flask: 
“O man, dear disinherited! to you I sing 
This song full of light and of brotherhood 
From my prison of glass with its scarlet wax seals…

So if you haven’t had a chance yet, pour a nice glass of wine to go with your plate of warm biscuits, and treat yourself to The Alice Network (available on Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo)! It’s the July pick for the Reese Witherspoon book club…and this Friday I’ll be doing a Facebook Live event from the studio in LA! So be sure to tune in here at noon Pacific Time (3pm eastern) this Friday and send in your questions if you have any!

2017 Book Tour Recap: The Glitz, The Glamour, The Plumbers Butt

Last week I had great fun recapping my recent excursion to the 2017 Historical Novel Society Conference in Portland. It was my fourth conference, without a doubt the biggest and best yet—three days of fascinating panel discussions, industry chatter, historical geekery, and all the catching up that happens when you run into much-loved writer friends who you only see once a year at conferences. HNS ends on a Sunday, and normally I’d be packing to head home, flinging all my new conference books into the massive suitcase known as the Red Monster (I invariably have to sit on it and bounce a bit before the zipper wants to close—that’s how many books I buy at conferences). This year is different: with a book recently released (“The Alice Network”), I’ve got three author events in Canada set up post-conference.

If it were just me I’d be a basket of nerves, but I’m joining forces post-HNS with the wonderful Janie Chang (“Dragon Springs Road”) and Jennifer Robson (“Goodnight From London”). Our shared publisher saw us all in the same city for the conference, all with recent releases, and said “Why not?” (Bless them!) Jen and I have done presentations before–we can gab for hours about women in the world wars–and Janie and I met for the first time in Portland, but hit it off immediately. Janie is the one who hash-tagged our little triple-author tour the #HystericalFictionTour, a suggestion greeted by Jen and me with unabashed glee.

Let the good times roll…

MONDAY

8am: Janie is in Canada already, but Jennifer Robson and I are still in Portland tying up loose ends at the conference. Clutching coffee, we converge in the lobby to check out, Jen bright-eyed and cheery, me sporting my usual sleep-deprived post-conference look which could best be described as “Crawled Out From Under A Collapsed Building.”

1:10pm: Heading for Seattle and then a connecting flight into Victoria, Canada, we are hit with the opening salvo of what will be known as the Great Travel Jinx of 2017: we miss our connecting flight and now have six hours to kill in the Seattle airport before the next one. Stick two authors together in an airport, however, and we WILL find a way to kill time: we scout for our books in every single Hudson shop (“Goodnight From London” is spotted!), and over a seafood lunch we tackle the plotting problem Jen’s been having for her next book idea. By the time the check arrives, plotting problem is more or less solved.

12am: Staggering in at midnight, Jen and I grab a late, late, late dinner at a pub down the street, and realize we have still not run out of things to say about women in the two world wars.

TUESDAY

9:45am: I wander around Victoria in a blissy haze; this city is beautiful…

Bumping into two lovely Ontario tourists under a statue of Queen Victoria, I end up telling them all about why her eldest son took the name Edward VII instead of Albert, and they tell me all about how the architect of the Victoria legistlature building was apparently poisoned by his mistress. #Travelbonding

11:10am: Heading into Munro’s (one of the most beautiful indie bookshops in Victoria) I do stock signing for their supply of Alice Networks….

…buy a biography of Guy Burgess of the Cambridge Five (possible hist-fic idea there? Hmm…) and afterward run into Bruce the Moose.

I text a pic to the Overseas Gladiator who promptly texts back “HOW MUCH?!?!” He seems disappointed by my reluctance to tote an eight foot plush moose home in the overhead luggage compartment.

7pm: Janie joins Jen and me for tonight’s event at Bolen Books, and the #HystericalFictionTour has officially begun! Moderator Moira Dann asks us great questions, and we all grab dinner afterward and talk craft and marketing nonstop. Jen is on the Globe & Mail Bestseller List (Canada’s NYT list) for 10 straight weeks now, and we all cheer. Janie tells us about Chinese fox spirits, and I could listen forever.

10:10pm: After a solid week on the road, the laundry situation inside the Red Monster has become dire: a snarl of clothes that has grown as many arms as an octopus. It makes a serious attempt to drag me inside and eat me before I force the zipper shut on the last thrashing, questing sock-tentacle.

WEDNESDAY

2pm: After a necessary gelato stop, we’re headed out of Victoria in Janie’s car, and off to Vancouver via the car ferry. I’ve been promised a lot of beautiful scenery, and it doesn’t disappoint—I’ve never in my life seen so many shades of blue. My travel companions grin at my wide-eyed stare across the water at the scattered islands dotting the bay.

Sadly we don’t see the resident pod of orca whales, but we do get good pics of each other rocking the wind-swept look while discussing the sincere desire we all share for a private island for writer retreats.

3:31pm: The Great Travel Jinx of 2017 strikes again with a double-whammy: an overturned truck just off the car ferry keeps us locked in place outside the Vancouver tunnel for nearly an hour and a half in the burning-hot sun…and the air conditioning in Janie’s car has stopped working. We watch the clock tick down toward our event and trade jokes about how glamorous book tour traveling really is, as the driver in the car ahead gets out to sit on his trunk and give us an hour-long display of plumber’s butt. (The back of my head is blocking your view of this. You’re welcome.)

6pm: No time for the hotel; we floor it to Janie’s house (she lives nearby, providentially) and perform a fast change in the spare room as her phlegmatic and charming New Zealander husband Geoff wisely pours all the exhausted writers wine. We gulp a half glass while still shucking out of yoga pants and into authorly clothes that will hopefully convince the audience that we are serious and responsible adults, pay homage to Janie’s cat, thank Geoff fervently, and sprint for our event.

7:05pm: Fortunately it’s a great one! The Book Warehouse is packed, we answer some fabulous questions, chat to all kinds of awesome readers afterward, and somehow end up doing a triple Wonder Woman shot for the camera. Janie and I look fierce (possibly both still feeding off the frustration of the traffic jam and the plumber’s butt) but Jen cracks up hopelessly.

10pm: Heading back to the hotel, which is ultra-modern, chic, and….Vancouver, is this really A Thing?! 

THURSDAY

9am: Janie heads off to get the car’s AC fixed–she has a steely glint in her eye that makes me lay long odds against the mechanics, who actually asked her the question: “Well, did you turn it on?” Jen and I are more happily engaged in getting a quick look around the Granville Island craft center. I end up buying a morally-questionable hat with a broad brim and a devastating oversized rose; my Queen of Spies in “The Alice Network” with her penchant for outrageous toppers would be proud.

12pm: The Great Travel Jinx of 2017 strikes again—the car air conditioning is STILL not fixed by the time to leave. We roll down windows and head out of town for Whistler, but the gorgeous scenery makes grumpiness impossible. It’s a winding mountain road ending in a lovely little ski village, and I resolve to bring the Overseas Gladiator here at once. This is a landscape chock full of dangerous things an adrenaline junkie can climb, jump off, go too fast on, or sink to the bottom of. He’ll love it.

4:37pm: Fantastic news—Janie’s “Dragon Springs Road” is a Costco pick! We all cheer, and Jen predicts she will make the Canada Globe & Mail list. (One week later, Jen is proved right: Janie and DSR hit the #4 slot!)

5:15pm: Dinner at a nice outside cafe. Spot the non-Canadian (me) who is eyeing with trepidation the signs warning to look out for bears. We are joined by the lovely Roberta Rich (her latest novel “A Trial In Venice”) for a joint panel at the absolutely jaw-dropping Squamish and Lil’wat Cultural Centre. The art and artifacts are just beautiful…

and the panel goes well as the four of us do brief readings and then toss questions back and forth. I read a bit from “The Alice Network” where my young 1915 heroine is recruited as a spy for British Intelligence, and am heartened by the chuckles from the audience.

8:40pm: Surreal—the three of us end up being eye-witnesses to a marriage proposal! Wandering back to the hotel via the Olympic Rings, a gorgeous young guy asks Janie if she will snap him and his girlfriend with his phone—and he proceeds to drop to one knee before the Olympic rings and propose. Janie clicks away madly as girl says yes, and we all offer our congratulations and admire the ring (Gorgeous Young Man has great taste in diamonds.) We all agree this would make a great scene for a book; practically have said book outlined by the time we get back to the hotel….


8:57pm: ….and then we see a black bear sauntering casually across the path in front of us. “That’s a bear,” I remark, somewhat inanely but I think quite calmly, and the three of us perform a rapid detour through a nearby parking lot. The bear looked skinny and young, not having picked up his winter insulation yet, and he wasn’t quite as big as my writing buddy Eliza Knight‘s Newfoundland pup Ladybelle.
1:30am: Last night of #HystericalFictionTour! The three of us stay up way too late planning to take the literary world by storm and laughing far too much. This is the part that stays in the cone of silence.

 

FRIDAY

8:17am: #HystericalFictionTour may be over, but not the Great Travel Jinx of 2017. I walk out of the hotel, hauling the Red Monster and a vat-sized coffee, only to see Janie’s car up on a crank and a tire sitting on the ground. My response is 100% unprintable, but thank goodness for Stuart the Wonder Valet who cheerfully swaps the flat for the spare in 15 minutes. We’re off to the airport, where Janie has kindly agreed to drop off Jen and me to catch our flights. If asteroids don’t strike the planes, which at this point I would not at all discount.

10:50am: Goodbyes to Janie and Jen—how am I going to live without these ladies? Best travel companions ever; we traveled together for three days without so much as a single snappish word passing between us. Head for my flight, where I listen horror-stricken to TSA telling me that the Red Monster must be emptied by three pounds to meet weight limits. I do battle with the laundry octopus inside, wresting three pounds of books from its maw, stuffing them into my carry-on, then cramming all the sock tentacles back in before it can become the Laundry That Ate Vancouver. TSA seems unappreciative of the narrow escape they have just had.

11:25am: Oh my God. “The Alice Network” just got the nomination as one of three possibilities for Reese Witherspoon’s online book club! Voting is today only, and I have exactly four minutes to fling this up on Facebook and Twitter so readers know to vote, before getting on my plane and being without Wi-Fi for the next six hours. Manage with about fifteen seconds to spare; the cabin doors don’t QUITE close on my fingertips.

10:50pm: The Great Travel Jinx of 2017 isn’t done with me yet. My connecting flight to Baltimore is delayed. Four times.

Midnight: I was supposed to be landing in Baltimore right now. Still in Newark, haven’t eaten all day, all airport restaurant spots and food stands are closed, and there’s no wi-fi. ****, ****, ****.

3:30am: Plane takes off three hours late. And then the Great Travel Jinx of 2017 gives me a parting salute—the Red Monster has been lost. Maybe the laundry octopus got out in the cargo hold and made its escape somewhere over New Jersey. I stagger home resolving to see if anything tentacled hits Newark on the morning news.

4:42am: Too wired to sleep, I greet my rapturous sleepy dogs and watch “Logan” until the sun rises and then finally crawl off to bed. Damn, but Hugh Jackman has aged well. And is this trip really over? 

 

There you have it: the #HystericalFictionTour recap (and Janie wrote one too, it’s hilarious!) All jokes and travel jinxes aside, it was a wonderful time. Confabbing at the conference with so many hist-fic writers leaves me awed and inspired every time, and it was such a wonderful privilege to hit the road afterward and meet readers in both Canada and the Pacific Northwest—huge thanks to HarperCollins and HarperCollins Canada for teaming up and making it happen. I can’t wait for HNS Conference 2019, and I’m already planning when I can see my travel mates Jen and Janie again—hopefully this time without a travel jinx.

I still have no idea what happened to the laundry octopus, thought. Watch out for sock-tentacles, Newark.

 

2017 Historical Novel Society Conference: The Recap!

As is now traditional: my recap of the 2017 Historical Novel Society Conference! With three HNS conferences under my belt before jetting off to Portland, 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 2017…

TUESDAY

This year’s travel plan is infinitely more complex than any of my previous HNS road trips. I have a recent book release complicating matters (“The Alice Network,” available on Amazon, iTunes, and B&N!) and a number of launch events both pre and post conference—the trip isn’t just a weekend this time, but a full 10 days long. And since the Overseas Gladiator came home from the Middle East at the start of June and departed cross-country for his new posting the day before I was set to head conference-ward, I didn’t start packing until 6pm the evening before. Normally this would be a cause for screaming, stressing, and otherwise lighting my hair on fire, but I end up blithely jamming things into the mammoth scarlet suitcase known as the Red Monster, sitting on it to get it closed and thinking, “Who knows what’s in there, but I guess I’ll find out when I hit the west coast.”

WEDNESDAY

3:12pm: But before Portland and the conference, there’s Seattle. I’m teaming up there with Jennifer Robson (loved her recent release “Goodnight From London” so much) and the two of us are set for a joint author event at nearby Mill Creek. Good time to give our upcoming HNS scheduled Koffee Klatch “Battle Tested: Women In The World Wars” a practice run. Our plan for this presentation is pretty much “We both revere this subject, we’ve got over a combined decade of research on it under our belts, and our enthusiasm will undoubtedly run away with us. We’ve got this!”

4pm: Seattle hotel is lovely, but why do our beds have throw pillows with Ricky Gervais in full dress uniform?! Jen and I trade perturbed phone calls, avoiding Ricky’s embroidered stare. She saw a portrait downstairs of Frazier/Kelsey Grammer in Napoleonic kit. This is somewhat disturbing.

6pm: Two Ubers and two cabs fail to respond to our calls before we finally land a driver to Mill Creek, so we’re eyeing the clock and wondering if there will be any chance to put something in our rumbling bellies before the event. How fast can two hungry authors eat two sliders apiece at a sports bar counter next to a bookstore? Four minutes flat.

7pm: University Bookstore in Mill Creek! It’s a nice lively crowd with lots of questions and lots of smiles, and they quickly find out two things about Jen Robson and me: 1) That we can gab all night long about women in the world wars, and 2) No really, ALL night long. We close down the store.

8:42pm: Ugh, ugh, ugh. Uber driver treats us on the way home to his unsolicited opinion that strip clubs are overrated because it’s all look-don’t-touch and a guy really should be able to get more bang for his buck. Jen and I adopt identical frosty expressions that Maggie Smith/the Dowager Countess of Grantham/Professor McGonagall would be proud of, and Mr. Skeevy decides silence is wisest. Ugh, ugh, ugh, I need to shower. In bleach.

10:37pm: We grab a glass of wine and a heap of truffle fries at the hotel restaurant and embark on the kind of catching-up gab-fest all writers do when they only see each other once a year at conferences: new book ideas, current writing headaches, secret plans for future books, industry trends, and maybe, if we get through all that, spouses and kids.

THURSDAY

10am: Bright-eyed and clutching our third cup of coffee apiece, Jen and I abandon Ricky Gervais with a certain relief and head for our rental car, carrying on the conversation of last night at a more or less unbroken clip for the next three hours, sometimes at 65 miles per hour (when Jen is driving) and sometimes at 85 miles per hours (when I’m driving). Jen has a plot headache for a future book that is giving her problems. We’re gonna have this solved by Portland.

12:10pm: HNS Conference! Oh, how I’ve missed my people here. Craning my neck through the hotel lobby, I get seen first by a reader who loved my last book, and we chat happily in the check-in line (I’m hoping reader doesn’t notice how awkward and garbled I sometimes get at these moments!) Barely up to my room in time to notice it is unhabited by Ricky Gervais (with or without Napoleonic uniform), I ditch the Red Monster, take a moment to wonder why on earth I packed a set of shower curtain rings, and skid downstairs for my first event. Which is…

1:30pm: Gordan Frye’s “Make Ready!” workshop on historical firearms. Three hours fly by as he gives a fantastic demonstration on the history, model, and loading procedure of everything from a matchlock rifle to a WWII Luger. I don’t quite get my chance to load a Napoleonic-era flintlock, but I still feel very Richard Sharpe as I scribble notes.

6:10pm: I strap on my red conference stilettos…..

….and head down for a fast meeting with my fabulous literary agent Kevan Lyon at the hotel lobby. We talk the recent launch for “The Alice Network,” for which we are both crossing fingers. Then I run into Janie Chang, and we fall on each other happily though we have never met before: Janie is due to join Jennifer and me on a couple of joint author events in Canada post-conference (our shared publisher saw us all in the same city with recent release dates, and said “Why not?” Bless them!) Janie and I have only chatted by email, but she won my heart sight unseen with her suggestion that we privately hashtag our triple-author events with #HystericalFictionTour, a suggestion greeted by Jen and me with unabashed glee. Janie and I are going to get along very well, I can tell. And having just finished her latest book “Dragon Springs Road,” I’m in awe of how well she writes. (Buy this book immediately.)

7pm: Opening reception! Libbie Hawker stalks through in Viking gear, carrying a drinking horn…Stephanie Thornton drops in with Alaska breezes still ruffling her hair, whispering the latest bit of Roosevelt-related humor she’s had to google for research (her forthcoming book is on Alice Roosevelt)…C.W. Gortner greets me with a hug, wittiest man alive and perennial conference favorite…Meghan Masterson is visibly walking on air, her debut centered around Marie Antoinette coming out this August…Leslie Carroll who as Program Chair has a faint mad gleam in her eye (a gleam familiar to those who have ever felt the frenzied pressure of planning a large important event) but she looks red-carpet-worthy as always in gold sequins. Costume contest happens tonight, and there are some stellar get-ups here: Margaret Porter‘s teal satin 18th century gown with panniers, a Victorian lady, and a Greek muse.

9pm: Dinner is all individual parties tonight, so I head out to eat with Heather Webb, Judith Starkston, Kris Waldherr, and everyone else we can round up. We eat at a deeply artisanal restaurant across the street, eyeing the beef-heart tartar and honey-drizzled grilled cheeses with a certain caution.

11pm: Back to the hotel bar to circulate! Sophie Perinot staggers in hollow-eyed after the flight from hell where she was practically booted out of the cargo hold and strapped on a wing; I order her a Cosmo the size of a bucket. She and Anne Easter Smith and I talk recent historical TV series—even if you’re no fan of “Vikings” or “The White Princess,” isn’t it good to see historic series being produced? And I meet the absolutely fabulous Kate Forsyth, with her enchanting Aussie lilt and her twinkling eyes and her stupendous literary talent (have you read “Bitter Greens”?! And her next is on the Pre-Raphaelites!) Kate and Christopher and I gossip happily.

FRIDAY

8am: Who needs sleep? There are panels to go to and people to see. First up, star editor Lucia Macro from HarperCollins and star agent Irene Goodman with “Breaking In, Breaking Out, and Staying On top.” They have great points and harsh truths here, and for 8am they are also wryly funny.

9:16am: “Imagining the American Revolutionary Era” with Stephanie Dray & Laura Kamoie, Lars Hedbor and fellow Chesapeake Bay HNS Chapter member Matt Phillips. Matt has a great line about Tories, Loyalists, and native Americans: “They were Americans too; Revolutionary stories are also their stories.” 

Afterwards I corral some of my favorite hist-fic ladies before I can lose them in the shuffle—conferences are all about the crowd-wriggle, the elbow grab, and the exclaimed “THERE you are…!”

10:30am: “Innovative Promotion: Big Book Campaign on a Not So Big Budget,” with the stellar Kristina McMorris. This should be required listening for any novelist who wants to build a career, and we’re all taking notes (the room is huge; don’t be fooled by the empty seats–she got a great crowd). Wow, wow, wow—Kristina is a revelation. And where does she get all that energy?!

12:36pm: Lunchtime speaker Geraldine Brooks is mesmerising. She talks about the “swordfish-silicone implant moment” that answers the age old question “how do you get your ideas?” I am at once filled with endless sorrow that I do not have a swordfish-silicone implant story. #lifegoals

1:14pm: My one event of the day: Koffee Klatch with Jen Robson on women of the two world wars. After the Mill Creek event and the subsequent hours of car-ride gabbing, we’ve got this. Our circle of attendees is packed, and there’s fabulous give-and-take as everybody chips in with their own research stories. We could have talked for hours.

2:38pm: Gab for a while with a lovely reader named Taylor about early monotheism and polytheism in ancient Rome, then finally have a chance to catch up with Lis from our local Chesapeake Bay chapter. Lis has me sign one copy of “The Alice Network” for her, and one for the friend house-sitting her cats, who has refused to return them unless a book is forthcoming. I sign the book to her with a plea of “Please release the cats!”

4pm: Weina Dai Randel—I’m a bit in awe because I loved loved loved her recent duology on a young Empress Wu. Chinese history is so fascinating, and we badly need more HF about it; “Moon In The Palace” and “Empress of the Bright Moon” are smashing reads. Weina is as wonderful as her writing.

5:48pm: I’m not signed up for Hooch For History, but apparently nobody who went liked the absinthe. Boo. How can anyone dislike a drink nicknamed the Green Fairy that requires a special silver-grated antique spoon to prepare?

6:12pm: Kevan Lyon of Marsal-Lyon Literary Agency takes all her clients out to dinner—and there are 8 or 9 of us here, so it’s a big fun-fest of historical geekery all at one table. I meet the lovely Chanel Cleeton whose Cuba-set novel comes out soon, and we bond over cherry crumble and weird reviews.

11:45pm: Another “let’s close down the lobby” night, this time with Stephanie Thornton. We talk her next project after Alice Roosevelt—VERY exciting. Trail up to bed with heels in hand, facing six hours of slumber before it all begins again.

SATURDAY

9:11am: I sleep through the 8am round of panels despite my best intentions—there’s just enough time to apply the flat-iron I christened Excalibur to my hair, before sprinting off to the first of my morning panels: “Let’s Do The Time Warp: Controlling The Chaos When Writing Different Eras” with C.W. Gortner, Steph Thornton, and Heather Webb. This turns out to be a fun one as we all debate the various reasons we jumped time periods and Christopher brings down the house with his line about liking to dip into many eras “I’ve always been promiscuous!”

10:32am: No time to waste; next panel runs back to back as I run up to the table barely in time to join Libbie Hawker, Judith Starkston, Amalia Carosella, and the fabulous Margaret George in “Mythic Tradition & Legend vs. the Historical Record.” This one gets lively as Amalia and I have a mock-squareoff about whether the Iliad’s Paris was a coward (I’m pro, she’s con) and then we all debate the necessity of including the gods in modern narratives. Questions from the audience are great, and someone snaps a terrific pic where we all look deeply skeptical. Or maybe just Muppet-like.

11:48am: Lunch! David Ebershoff is our keynote speaker this time—I didn’t think anyone would be able to match Geraldine Brooks, but he gives a wry and moving speech about being inspired by Lili Elbe, one of the first recipients of gender reassignment surgery, and how she became his heroine in “The Danish Girl.” David’s absolutely delightful and of course we all want to get pics and find out more about the recent film adaptation with Eddie Redmayne (!) and Alicia Vikander.

1:15pm: Sitting down to “Race: Writing About the World’s Most Provocative Topic” with Elizabeth Kerri Mahon, Chanel Cleeton, Weina Dai Randel, Vanitha Sankaran, and Teralyn Pilgrim. Great questions, and they don’t shy away from discussing the hard ones. The issue of more diverse stories and how to get them out to the reading public has been a hot topic, and the more discussions like this, the better.

2:34pm: A lovely Q&A with both our guests of honor, David and Geraldine, who are funny and self-deprecating as they’re being interviewed by Ed Goldberg. Such effortless stars; I can see pretty much the entire room trying not to fangirl.

I head to the book-signing afterward, catching up with some of my favorite book bloggers (yay, Erin Davies!)…

…and fellow authors (Pat Bracewell, I’m dying for that third Emma book)…

…and then it’s off to the big dinner and final evening! I’m back in tall heels and striding along at a nice height of 5’6, enjoying all the unaccustomed oxygen at this altitude.

7:22pm: The HNS Chesapeake Bay Chapter rallies for a commemorative photo around our Chapter Queen & HF book blogger extraordinaire Meg Wessell.

Queen Meg, First of her Name, long may she reign, sends us back to take our seats for what turns out to be one of the most magical events of the conference: the lovely Kate Forsyth takes the stage to tell us all the fairy-tale of Tam-Lin, and with nothing more than her voice and a few gestures has everyone completely under her spell. Hundreds of people sit silent, unmoving, not checking their phones, not even BREATHING, as Kate tells us of the icy Faerie Queen and her whip, of the tormented mortal knight in her thrall, and the brave girl who saves him.

10:56pm: A lovely tribute to Edgar Doctorow comes from Leslie Carroll, Christopher G, Elizabeth Kerri Mahon, and Gillian Bagwell—then it’s time for the Hellfire Masquerade! I get a pic with Susanna Kearsley whose sumptuous Austenesque ballgown positively begs you to ask for a turn about the room, and then proceed to dance a gavotte with Sophie Perinot as the dance-caller patiently (so very patiently) teaches us the steps. Whist is played on the fringes, and the gossip flows…how can this conference possibly be almost over? I trail off to bed long after midnight.

SUNDAY

1pm: The conference exhaustion haze is starting to hit, and a deeply foodie lunch doesn’t help. Portland, I know you’re artisanal and hip, but sweet zucchini waffles with tartar sauce is NOT a good idea.

4:22pm: HNS 2017 is officially over (boo!) and friends are departing in all directions. I’m back from the panel at the nearby Multnomah library where several fellow Morrow authors (Jennifer Robson, Stephanie Dray, Laura Kamoie, Heather Webb, Sofia Grant, and I) did a joint Q&A before we split in all different directions and left town. But I had possibly the biggest thrill ever walking into the hotel lobby and seeing a reader engrossed in her book in a lobby armchair. And it was “The Alice Network.” This has NEVER happened to me before.

8:17pm: I’m supposed to meet my agent for dinner later, but putting on yoga pants in the interim may have been a tactical error. Cannot…move…at…all…and I’ve got three author events post-conference to attend starting with tomorrow’s flight to Seattle…

10:10pm: Flinging all my new conference books into the Red Monster (I have to sit on it and bounce a bit before the zipper wants to close), I’m already missing all my friends who have departed. This is my fourth conference and I can without doubt say it’s the biggest and best so far. Interesting panels, great pre-conference workshops, and superb speeches from our guests of honor. Bravo to Jenny Toney Quinlan and Mary Tod for doing such a fantastic job coordinating the volunteers and to board members Vicky Oliver, Maryka Biaggio, Caren Wasserman, Vanitha Sankaran, Elizabeth Kerri Mahon, and Leslie Caroll–I hope they stagger home in a haze of exhaustion and sleep the sleep of the righteous.

Meanwhile, I’m off to meet Janie and Jennifer for our upcoming Canada events, where we are destined to run into a marriage proposal and then a black bear. But that’s another recap…

Reese Witherspoon’s Next Book Club Read: The Alice Network!

Reese Witherspoon and her online book club voted “The Alice Network” as their next read.

*faints dead away*

Thank you SO MUCH to everyone who cast their votes for TAN!

If you haven’t checked out THE ALICE NETWORK yet, pick it up for the 4th of July weekend and read along with Reese! It’s the tale of two women—a female spy recruited to the real-life Alice Network in France during World War I and an unconventional American socialite searching for her cousin in 1947—brought together in a road trip like no other…

Amazon: https://goo.gl/G1WNFp
iTunes: https://goo.gl/iKnVkZ
Barnes & Noble: https://goo.gl/FAZh9J
Kobo: https://goo.gl/PwTuiB

The Research Game: Fake It Till You Make It

There’s a bit in “The Avengers” where Cobie Smulders/Agent Maria Hill asks Robert Downey Jr./Tony Stark “When did you become an expert in thermonuclear dynamics?” and he deadpans, “Last night.” That’s pretty much what it’s like to be a historical novelist: the sinking realization that you need to become an expert in some new historical period, epoch, or event—and this needs to happen immediately, or your next book/next chapter/next paragraph will never happen, either.

As I set about researching The Alice Network (diving into a new historical era means major, major, MAJOR research mode) I realized that there are four distinct research phases involved in writing a historical novel. Each has its own delights and hazards…

The Dog-Paddle comes first. You have a new book idea, probably something rather vague and unformed, and you’re reading everything you can get your hands on about Murano glass-blowers or the reign of Frederick the Great or Finnish lake mythology. This is the stage where you grossly over-use the One Click Buy feature on Amazon as you load up on used research texts to dog-ear and underline; you also make dire use of the “Customers who bought X also bought Y” feature. Your plot hasn’t firmed up yet, so right now everything is grist for the imagination, and blinding flashes of inspiration come from random footnotes. You have no idea what will be useful, so you read it all, dog-paddling in leisurely fashion through an ocean of sometimes only barely connected reading material, daisy chaining from a book about Polish airmen in World War II to the bombing of London to the building of St. Paul cathedral, and realizing that with a single brilliant plot twist you can tie it all together in one smash-hit novel. This is the fun stage.

Stage two is The Deep Dive. You have your book idea; the era and plot are chosen. Now you need to narrow your focus; understand EVERYTHING about the historical period and events you will be covering. This is where you read every account you can find on the Battle of Crecy or the early life of Machiavelli. You want the picture in your mind as complete as possible before you start playing on that historical stage. It’s easy to get lost in the research here, because no historical picture will ever be complete. There’s always more to know. At some point you have to stop researching and start writing.

Stage three is The Fast Patch. This is when you’re in the throes of writing, and hit a road-block. You cannot go any further in this chapter until you have accurately figured out the mechanical innards of a Pe-5, or figured out what boat will get your hero out of Dunkirk alive. So you repair to the books, the web, and the library for a quick research fix. You don’t need to dive deep here, find out every conflicting opinion out there on the building of a Pe-5 or every single kind of boat used at Dunkirk. You just need a fast, reliable bit of historical information that will bridge the gap to firmer, more well researched ground.

Stage four, and most dreaded of all, is The Rabbit Hole. This generally comes in the editing phase, the stage where you are tearing your manuscript apart in a haze of caffeine-fueled paranoia, fact-checking everything just to be sure you are catching every single historical error that could possibly have sneaked in there. This is when you stay up till 3am trying to figure out exactly when buttons replaced ties on women’s dresses. This is when you obsess over whether there were black bears or brown bears in Imperial Rome-governed Dacia. This is when you calculate centuries-old lunar cycles in an effort to see if your heroine really could have been looking at a full moon that night. This is the stage where you vow to take up a career as a clam-digger or a burger-flipper—anything but a historical novelist.

Until the book is off to your editor, and you start thinking about the next book, and a wonderful vague idea hits. Something about Shakespeare’s Dark Lady and the Grail myth . . . and then there you are, one-click buying on Amazon for all you’re worth, happily anticipating when your new research books will arrive, and thinking that you have the best job on earth.

 

 

Three Historical Novel Society Conferences: The Highlight Reel

I’m preparing for this year’s Historical Novel Society Conference, and I’m going as a seasoned veteran, with three previous cons under my belt. Each one was fantastic and memorable in its own right. But as I pack my semi-famous red stilettos for this June, I’ve realized it’s kinda fun to look back at my last three conference recaps. Here’s a highlight reel from year to year: what has changed, what has stayed the same, and what always makes it worthwhile to go!

 

CONFERENCE PREGAME

2011: Since it’s my first time at this rodeo, I spend hours agonizing what to wear. I pack approximately thirty outfits for two days, and nothing seems right. If I wear a suit, everyone is bound to be in jeans. If I wear jeans, I’ll be the rube in a power-suited bunch of professionals. Help!

2013: I’m speaking on panels this time around; cue the nerves. Having spent a week agonizing over my presentations and changing my mind yet again about which scene I would be trotting out for the Saturday Night Sex Scene Read-Aloud, I’m packing literally the last minute before my dawn airport shuttle arrives, flinging things into my suitcase with such random logic that my first thought on unpacking is always something along the lines of “Why did I pack a set of wind-chimes and an abacus, but no pants?”

2015: I’ve been to three conferences by now; why do I not have a nicer set of luggage?! My suitcase is missing a wheel, and my carry-on is a battered black backpack in which I could comfortably pack Dwayne Johnson complete with his helicopter from “San Andreas.”

 

OPENING RECEPTION

2011: I take a deep breath and head down for the introductory cocktail hour. I don’t get two feet before Margaret George (!!!) recognizes me. She’s tiny, about up to my chin, and probably wouldn’t outweigh a stack of her own books. We talk shop about Emperor Nero, and I manage not to faint.

2013: I run around shrieking greetings to people I haven’t seen, in some cases, since the 2011 conference in San Diego. I wear my red patent-leather stilettos; the 4-inch ones that turn my toes numb, but give me a Joan-from-“Mad-Men” strut. They’re my good luck charm from the last conference, which I attended as a tongue-tied fan-girl–they were by far the most memorable thing about me. Even more than my name-tag, people at the reception glance at my feet and exclaim, “I remember you!”

2015: My people, there you are! Donna Russo Morin in her spike-heels and Sophia Loren zest for life, Gillian Bagwell and Kris Waldherr, my “Day of Fire” mates Sophie Perinot and Vicky Alvear Shecter, Leslie Carroll and Anne Easter Smith . . . these are my tribe, and it’s delicious to be among them again. C.W. Gortner arrives and the party dials up to an 11.

 

CONFERENCE KEYNOTE SPEECHES

2011: Keynote speech by power literary agent Jennifer Weltz. Not only does she give a great speech on what exactly an agent does all day and what they’re looking for, she has fabulous black lace stockings.

2013: Anne Perry is our guest speaker, and she’s got the voice of a born story-teller: low, lulling, spooky; absolute mistress of the dramatic pause. She paints such a vivid picture of Robespierre in his tumbril on the way to the guillotine, I can practically smell the blood between the cobblestones of the Place de la Greve.

2015: Diana Gabaldon is guest speaker, and she wisely gives us exactly what we want: ALL the dirt on the new Outlander show, the television process, and of course Sam Heughan.

 

BEST PIECE OF ADVICE HEARD AT CONFERENCE

2011: I catch a morning bagel with Michelle Moran, who has about three feet of glossy dark hair, and would look sensational in one of those narrow Egyptian sheaths her heroines are always wearing. “What are you writing about after Rome?” she asks me. “You don’t want to keep doing the same historical era over and over in your books, do you?” It’s a light-bulb moment.

2013: C.W. Gortner during his lunchtime speech, saying Historical fiction is often the punching bag of the industry, second only to romances . . . but remember–we celebrate a genre that is time-honored.”

2015: David Blixt during his sword workshop, complete with actual blades: “The groove down the middle of the blade is called a fuller, and it’s there strictly to lighten the blade. DO NOT EVER CALL IT A BLOOD CHANNEL.” We have all been warned.

 

FAVORITE CONFERENCE PANEL

2011: Four editors, talking about the selling and marketing of historical fiction. One admits she never wants to read another Pride and Prejudice spin-off; another says he’ll howl if he gets another manuscript about Anne Boleyn. I’m right there with him.

2013: Depicting Religion in Historical Fiction.” Mary Sharratt calls Hildegard von Bingen a power frau, Kamran Pasha skewers fundamentalists of all religions with a pithy “Fundamentalism stems from insecurity,” and Stephanie Dray brings down the house when asked when it is appropriate to critique religion: “Always, but that doesn’t mean it’s wise.

2015: What Really Happens During A Historical Romance Cover Shoot?” Kim Killion of the Killion Group walks us through it with the help of her amiable 6’8 cover model who has a set of eight-pack abs on which you could grate cheese. We giggle helplessly as Kim explains how the models start fully dressed for the Inspirational/Sweet Romance covers (the female model gets a dictionary shoved in her hand and is told “Here’s a Bible; think of Jesus”) and once the clothes start coming off, the Sexy/Erotica covers get shot. Male cover model strips down cheerfully to a kilt and boots, gets sprayed with Pam (grapeseed oil for the holistic-living models!), and is a very good sport about all the authors laughing hysterically as he smolders on cue.

 

 

BEST RANDOM HILARIOUS MOMENT AT CONFERENCE

2011: Diana Gabaldon toting a broadsword through the entire opening cocktail reception. “I promised I’d lend it for the costume show,” she explains, and later observes that any girl looking to pick up guys should just walk into a bar with a massive sword. She’s right: every man at the conference bounces up exclaiming “Oooh, can I touch it?”

2013: The costume pagaent, narrated by Gillian Bagwell/Joan, Lady Rivers. First prize is awarded to a hilarious Teralyn Pilgrim in a pristine Vestal Virgin outfit . . . worn serenely over her eight months pregnant belly. Her Vestal-in-denial routine has us all in stitches.

2015: The horror on the faces of 200+ writers as they walk into breakfast the first morning and see a wall of decaf machines. This is a writers conference; nobody drinks decaf! Decaf coffee is like a hooker that only wants to cuddle.

 

POST-CONFERENCE CONCLUSION

2011: I anticipated the great panels, the useful discussions, the industry tips. What I didn’t expect was the strange and wonderful zaniness of the people who write, represent, sell, and read the books in this world of historical fiction. As a writer, I work alone–I spend my days in yoga pants, curled up on the couch with a laptop in my lap, engaged in the solitary process of stringing one word after another. What fun to meet so many people who do the same thing; people who all give the same knowing nods when someone exclaims, “Don’t you just HATE it when the girl on your book cover has the top of her head chopped off?”

2013: HNS 2011 was my first conference, and it was an eye-opener: I’d been a professional author for less than two years, and I was going it entirely alone. It was in San Diego two years ago that I first found out what a wonderful community there is of writers, readers, and friends in this business. I don’t think I realized how lonely this job could be, when you don’t have that community. Two years later, and I couldn’t imagine being without it.

2015: The last few years have seen some sobering changes: the demise of brick-and-mortar stores; the Amazon-Hachette feud, and everything else that can have you convinced that writing is a tougher gig than ever. And it is–but what hasn’t changed is the weird and wonderful world of writers, readers, and friends in this business, nowhere more apparent than at the HNS Conference. This is a lonely job; my writer friends save my sanity on a regular basis. And as I unpack my red stilettos and my 16 new books, I already can’t wait for HNS 2017.

Top Ten Books of 2016

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 2016 (though not all were published this year) and just who you should buy them for . . .

1. “Fingersmith” by Sara Waters

A taut, atmospheric, Victorian-era thriller with more twists and turns than a Whitechapel alley. At first absolutely no one is likable in this tale, which centers around a queasy scheme to lock an heiress in a mad-house and seize her fortune. But the plot whip-lashes like a snake, accomplishing the impossible in making us empathize deeply with characters we at first despised. And the tender romance that grows between two brutalized women is a heart-breaker.

Buy for: your thriller-loving bestie who has lived for morally-gray anti-heroines ever since “Gone Girl.”

2. “The Betrayal” by Helen Dunmore

Soviet Russia comes to life here in all its paranoid complexity, seen through the eyes of an idealistic young doctor and his quiet wife, both survivors of the devastating Leningrad siege. All they want is to enjoy the tiny pleasures of life allowed by the state, but the wheels of power have a way of grinding people like this into paste, and they both know the danger they are in when the doctor is called to treat the mortally ill son of a powerful party member. Terrifying and intense to the last page.

Buy for: that Marx-reading uncle who still drones on at Thanksgiving about how communism could have worked if only. Chortle silently as you introduce him to the historical reality.

3. “The Engagements” by J. Courtney Hall

“A diamond is forever.” A sharp-witted ad-woman pens the immortal line for Tiffany’s in the 40s, and launches four seemingly unconnected stories of love, marriage, fidelity, infidelity, secrets, and and marriages. Poignant character-building, diamond-bright prose, and witty observations about the insidiousness of the wedding industry make this one a gem.

Buy for: your wedding-obsessed office intern, the one addicted to “Say Yes To The Dress.” Get her thinking about WHY she wants that dress and that big sparkly rock–innate romanticism, or clever marketing?

4. “The Vatican Princess: A Novel of Lucrezia Borgia” by C.W. Gortner

One of Gortner’s most unique heroines. Unlike his other “bad girls of history” leading ladies, Lucrezia Borgia sees the capacity for violence rooted in her family blood as a concrete thing, not a product of the scandal machine. Her struggle isn’t against revisionist history unfairly painting her as wicked and corrupt; her struggle is not to BECOME wicked and corrupt. Inside the shell of papal politics and gorgeous Renaissance settings, this is an extremely personal story about a girl fighting to save her own soul.

Buy for: your psychologist neighbor who lives down the block or in the upstairs apartment. They’ll get a kick trying to diagnose the various Borgia family psychoses, neuroses, and manias.

5. “The Wrath & the Dawn” by Renee Ahdieh

Fairy-tale retellings are nothing new, but mostly we see European fairy-tales being told, and really, it is about damn time someone delved into the rich legacy of stories further east. This YA historical fantasy retelling of the 1001 Arabian Nights stars Shahrzad, a tough, clever girl determined to avenge her cousin, who was the latest victim in the parade of brides to march into the Caliph’s bedroom and out to an executioner’s garrote. On every page the jewels sparkle, the sand grits, the perfume intoxicates, the food is mouthwatering–and the end is a dark cliffhanger. Don’t worry, the sequel is already out.

Buy for: the teenage girl in your life, whether daughter or cousin or little sister, whom you’re trying to wean off Mary Sue heroines to more bad-ass role-models. Be ready for the excited discussion of how quick wits and a fast imagination really are every bit as bad-ass as being Katniss-Everdeen-quick with a bow.

6. “The Scent of Secrets” by Jane Thynne

For all the myriad novels written about the fight against Hitler, there are few that take place in the belly of the beast–in Berlin, rather than on the battlefield or in some sympathetic Allied nation. But the world of Nazi Berlin is exactly what we get in “The Scent of Secrets,” and it’s fascinating. Heroine Clara Vine is half-German and half-English, a Mitford-esque society girl making her living on the Berlin film scene as an actress . . . but secretly she uses her connections to Nazi high society to spy for England. The details of Third Reich weddings, bride schools where German girls are trained for marriage, and the shark-like waters where high-society Nazi wives like Magda Goebbels and Emmy Goring rule the roost make for some of the most chilling world-building I’ve read.

Buy for: your fiery feminist grandmother, who will drop some very ungrandmotherly expletives about the pernicious doctrine of Kinder, Kirche, und Kuche as she devours every page.

7. “The Summer Before the War” by Helen Simonson
Humorous, heart-breaking, tender, and tragic: a small English village with its cast of eccentrics, academics, intellectuals, and locals, all thrown into disarray first by the arrival of Belgian refugees fleeing the pre-WWI conflict in Europe, and then by the overwhelming tide of war itself.

Buy for: your mother, if like mine she swoons both for rural English novels and Wilfred Owen’s war poetry.

8. “The Fireman” by Joe Hill

Writing talent must run in Stephen King’s family, because the horrormeister’s son pens a thrilling tale here. It’s a familiar dystopian saga of a band of survivors hiding from the fallout of a strange incendiary plague–but the high-wire pacing, the sympathetic characters, and some truly detestable villains make this dystopian epic a standout.

Buy for: your brother in the fire department. He’ll get a kick out of the mysterious pyro-gifted hero.

9. “America’s First Daughter” by Stephanie Dray & Laura Kamoie

Sure, I’m good friends with both authors–but this was one of the break-out historicals of the year, coming 3rd in the Goodreads Choice Awards, so clearly there are plenty of readers out there who agree with me about the merits of this warts-and-all look at one of our most complicated, troubling Founding Fathers. Told through the eyes of Jefferson’s daughter Patsy, AFD examines themes of racism, slavery, politics, revolution, domestic abuse, war, and the secret legacy that all those influences has left in America’s past.

Buy for: your civics-minded dad who still can’t understand how the election turned out the way it did, and who has been reading a lot of American history ever since to figure out how exactly we got here.

10. “Before The Fall” by Noah Hawley

A private plane inexplicably crashes into the ocean fifteen minutes after take-off, and only two survivors emerge from the wreckage. Why? This deeply character-driven twister of a story unravels forward and backward from the central accident: the survivors limping ahead into the chaotic aftermath of the crash, and the dead who one by one tell the stories that brought them to the plane on that fatal morning. Who or what caused the crash? The answer will surprise and move you.

Buy for: your brainiac husband, who lives to untangle plotty whodunits. Bet him dinner at a 3-star restaurant if he fingers the right perp. Smile, collect your filet mignon and bay scallops, and admit you didn’t get this one right on your first read either.

Get thee hence to a bookstore and finish up your holiday shopping. Happy Saturnalia!

Guest Spotlight: The Outlander Cookbook!

If you’re a fan of “Outlander” or a fan of food, this post is for you.

A few years ago when my Borgia duology was coming out, I had the idea of putting together a virtual potluck with several food bloggers who would cook Renaissance dishes out of my book. The results were fantastic, and I made the acquaintance of some wonderful cook–among them Theresa Carle-Sanders, pro chef and blogger extraordinaire at Outlander Kitchen, where she has been faithfully recreating one fabulous recipe after another from Diana Gabaldon’s epic series. And with the recent smash hit of the Starz Outlander mini-series, I wasn’t at all surprised to hear Theresa had landed an official cookbook deal!

I’ve already sampled several recipes out of this sensational cookbook (order here!) but this has to be my favorite so far–hands down winner when it came time to pick a recipe spotlight!

GOAT CHEESE AND BACON TARTS

It was a savoury made of goat’s meat and bacon, and he saw Fergus’s prominent Adam’s apple bob in the slender throat at the smell of it. He knew they saved the best of the food for him; it didn’t take much looking at the pinched faces across the table. When he came, he brought what meat he could, snared rabbits or grouse, sometimes a nest of plover’s eggs—but it was never enough, for a house where hospitality must stretch to cover the needs of not only family and servants, but the families of the murdered Kirby and Murray. At least until spring, the widows and children of his tenants must bide here, and he must do his best to feed them.

“Sit down by me,” he said to Jenny, taking her arm and gently guiding her to a seat on the bench beside him. She looked surprised—it was her habit to wait on him when he came—but sat down gladly enough. It was late, and she was tired; he could see the dark smudges beneath her eyes.

—VOYAGER, chapter 4, “The Dunbonnet”

From Theresa: Vegetarian options were tough to come by in the eighteenth century, and goat meat can be hard to find for some in the twenty-first, so I’m claiming food-from-fiction license with this switch-up from a meat pie to one-bite puff pastry rounds topped with a savory goat cheese spread. A delicious addition to the snack table at your next book club meeting or office party.

From Kate: These are a wonder. Cheese, bacon, and herbs all packed into one delicate, flavorful bite. A recipe done easily in several stages; light work for big payoff (especially if you go with frozen puff pastry). A winner!

***

Ingredients

4 slices thick-cut bacon, cut crosswise into ¼-inch strips
½ recipe Blitz Puff Pastry (page 29), chilled, or 1 pound (450 grams) frozen puff pastry, thawed
8 ounces (225 grams) goat cheese
1 tablespoon poppy seeds
3 tablespoons olive oil
Zest of 1 lemon, grated or minced
1 large egg
2 tablespoons butter
36 small fresh sage leaves, or 18 large ones, cut in half lengthwise

Method

Move a rack to the top-middle rung and heat the oven to 400°F.

In a frying pan, crisp the bacon over medium heat. Drain on paper towels.

On a lightly floured counter, roll the pastry out to a 16-inch square. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to rest for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, combine the goat cheese, bacon, poppy seeds, 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, and lemon zest in a small bowl and stir well. Cover and refrigerate.

Lightly beat the egg with 1 teaspoon cold water to make an egg wash. Use a 3-inch round cutter to cut 36 rounds from the pastry. Transfer to a parchment paper–lined baking sheet and brush with the egg wash. Bake until puffed and golden, 12 to 15 minutes. Cool completely on the baking sheet.

Reduce the oven to 300°F.

In a small frying pan, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil and the butter until bubbling over medium heat. Fry the sage leaves in batches until crisp. Drain on a paper towel–lined plate and repeat with the remaining sage leaves.

Top each puff pastry round with a teaspoonful of the goat cheese mixture and a
fried sage leaf. Heat in the oven for 5 minutes and serve. Makes 36.

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