Nothing fits better in a Christmas stocking than a book. Here are my recommendations for your next shopping trip, the best books I read in 2015 (though not all were published this year) and just who you should buy them for. Why eleven and not the usual ten? I got bored, so you get a bonus book.
1. “The Solitary House” by Lynn Shepherd.
Is there any fictional setting more delicious than the seamy underbelly of Victorian England? Lynn Shepherd dives deep under the prim-and-proper surface of 1850s London with this superbly atmospheric tale of a young detective on the hunt for a missing child and a mysterious killer who might just be a young Jack the Ripper. Street urchins, Whitechapel prostitutes, powerful men with depraved secrets, not-so-insane patients locked up in lunatic asylums, and a Dickensian Bleak House twist make this one a winner, and better yet, the first in a series. Shepherd’s young detective goes on to star in at least two more adventures.
Buy for: your mother, if like mine she is pining for the return of “Penny Dreadful.”
2. “Praetorian” by S.J.A. Turney
Delicious unpredictability is what sets “Praetorian” apart from the rest of the guts-and-glory Roman HF out there. A villain looks like he’s shaping up to be a long-term adversary, only to be suddenly killed off. Emperor Commodus comes onto the scene, trailing hints of madness, hubris, and Joaquin Phoenix, but is unexpectedly . . . a nice guy? You never quite know where the twisting path of the plot will take you, so all you can do is follow along with stalwart and endlessly likable legionary Rufinus as he is promoted from simple legionary to Praetorian guard, and thrust into a world of plots, shadows, assassinations, and heart-stopping swordplay.
Buy for: that teenage boy in your life, be it son or grandson or nephew, who doesn’t like history. He’ll be sucked into Rufinus’ adventures before he knows it, and probably beg for a gladius. Settle for getting him “Rome: Total War” and the sequel to Praetorian which is already out.
3. “The Secret Life of Violet Grant” by Beatriz Williams
A charming, quirky, witty dual narrative that snaps back and forth between Vivian, a ’60s career girl struggling to make a name as a journalist, and Violet, her scientifically-minded aunt struggling to be accepted as a physicist in pre-WWI Berlin. Vivian’s narrative as she tries to untangle her aunt’s long-buried secrets is flippant, funny, and delightful.
Buy for: the most irreverent member of your Girl Squad. She’ll see herself in Vivian.
4. “Defending Jacob” by William Landay
Read about teen killers in the media, and we all shake our heads. How could their parents not have known?” William Landay dives into that question in this tense and terrifying tale where a teenage boy is accused of murdering a classmate, and quickly becomes the town pariah as the court case grinds on. The boy’s staunchest defender is his powerhouse lawyer father, who wrestles legal demons and personal ones as he comes to face the question: what if his son is guilty after all? An unputdownable book that screams to a breathtaking climax.
Buy for: your legal beagle cousin. Watch him switch his dreams from prosecution attorney to family law.
5. “Rodin’s Lover” by Heather Webb
Camille Claudel would not have been an easy woman to know, but she sure was a fascinating one to read about. The daughter of French bourgeoisie, she has zero interest in marriage or domesticity–zero interest in anything, really, except becoming a sculptor. Prickly, proud, disciplined, and obsessed, Camille pushes away friends, alienates suitors, and uses family, all in the fierce pursuit of art. Her partner in art and love is Rodin, who understands Camille’s drive because he shares it. Powerful, poignant, beautifully written.
Buy for: your niece going off to art school. Tell her that if she starts hearing voices like Camille, for God’s sake go to a doctor.
6. “Queen of the Tearling” by Erika Johansen
The first in a fascinating new fantasy series revolving around a young queen struggling to protect her country from a terrifying neighboring empire which demands monthly Hunger-Games-like slave tributes. There is magic and mayhem and battle, but the real draw here is the young Queen herself: refreshingly plain, resolutely blunt-spoken, headstrong and compassionate and brave. She’s a real girl who dreams about romance but has no time for it with a new throne and an incipient invasion on her hands. I look forward to the next installment in her adventures.
Buy for: that smart-as-a-whip little girl in your life, whether sister or daughter or just the kid down the block who you babysit. Promise you’ll take her to the upcoming movie of this book once it comes out, starring Emma Watson.
7. “Leviathan Wakes” by James S.A. Corey
Space opera for the ages by an author team who knows how to turn up the tension like almost no other writers I’ve ever read. The world-building is impeccable, the science is sound without drowning the story in techno-babble, the space-battles are thrilling, and the characters solid: an idealistic ship captain and his shattered crew running from a lethal secret in a world where humanity has colonized the solar system but not yet the stars. There are four books following “Leviathan Wakes” in the Expanse Series, and a Sy-Fy TV show airing this month.
Buy for: your geek buddy at work who hates how women in sci-fi/fantasy so often fail the Bechdel Test. She’ll be in agony which Expanse character to cosplay next: tough-as-nails Marine Bobbie, brilliant engineer Naomi, or foul-mouthed little politician Avasarala.
8. “The Conqueror’s Wife” by Stephanie Thornton
Stephanie Thornton is rapidly becoming my favorite author for badass women of the ancient world, and this is her best yet. The focus here isn’t really on Alexander the Great, but on the people who surrounded him and shaped his legacy: his tomboy sister Thessalonike who yearns to be a warrior; scientifically-minded Persian princess Drypetis who seethes in captivity after her father is dethroned; ruthless beauty Roxana who craves power as Alexander’s wife; and the lovable Hephaestion who is the conqueror’s boyhood companion and lover. All these narrators are fascinating, and their voices interweave in a gorgeous chorus of stirring battles, opulent feasts, luxurious palaces, and a never-ending web of intrigue.
Buy for: that old college history professor you still meet now and then for coffee. He’ll swoon for the lush historical detail. If you’re feeling really evil, buy an extra copy for that anti-gay-marriage drone you drew for Secret Santa at work, and watch their heads explode as they read about all these sexually-fluid Greeks.
9. “Lords of Discipline” by Pat Conroy.
A tortured, beautiful, moving story of the friendship between four boys attending an elite Southern military academy, surviving brutal hazing and the agonies of first romance even as the school goes through its own growing pains with integration, institutional racism, and the looming threat of the Vietnam War. Betrayal and tragedy will strike one of the four before graduation, but the ending is full of a savage and gorgeous payback.
Buy for: your ex-Army dad. Ask him if all officers really had to go through hazing this horrible.
10. “The Tudor Vendetta by C.W. Gortner
The third in Gortner’s rip-roaring series about Tudor spy Brendon Prescott, who has his hands full this time around: a poisoning attempt on on the newly-ascended Queen Elizabeth, a missing lady-in-waiting, and a dire Spanish plot–not to mention a deadly adversary come back to haunt him. Tudor fiction can feel tired, but the Spymaster trilogy is fresh, fast-paced, and delightful.
Buy for: your uncle, the one whose wife made him sit through all of “The Tudors” and now consequently thinks the whole era is bodice-ripping and leather pants and pouty-lipped kings. Brendon’s sword fights and spy games will balance the scales.
11. “Medicis Daughter” by Sophie Perinot.
This is Renaissance France meets Game of Thrones: dark, addictive historical fiction that coils religious strife, court intrigue, family hatred, and betrayed innocence like a nest of poisonous snakes. Princess Margot, daughter of the infamous Catherine de’Medici, is our guide to the heart of her violent, incestuous family: a French Sansa Stark who transforms from naive beauty to accomplished game player to woman of conscience.
Buy for: your sophisticated older sister, because she reminds you of Margot’s worldly, witty, and hysterically funny mentor the Duchesse de Nevers. We all need such women in our lives.
And we all need these books in our lives, too. Hurry outside, go buy them–and Merry Christmas!
As I wrote A YEAR OF RAVENS with my six co-authors Ruth Downie, Stephanie Dray, Eliza Knight, Vicky Alvear Shecter, Simon Turney, and Russell Whitfield, we were often asked about the collaborative process. How exactly does one go about writing a book-in-seven-parts? Well, it involves a lot of emails, a lot of Skype sessions, a lot of back-and-forth Facebook chats–and we undertake it with a great deal of seriousness, as you see from this collection of direct quotes as we moved through the stages of collaboration this year.
As We Outline Our Stories
Simon: I have an eight-page outline, anyone want to have a look?
Kate: My entire outline is eleven words.
Stephanie: I want to talk over-arching themes. What are we trying to say with this book? What’s our overall message?
Vicky: Why are we talking overarching themes before we even know what happens?!
Ruth: My heroine’s name–Ria or Narina? Oh well, I’ll decide by the time I’m done.
Eliza: Really?! I can’t move forward at all until my heroine has a name.
Russell: Hey guys, my story’s already finished!
All of us: (outwardly) Wow, youre so motivated! (Inwardly) Bastard.
As We Research
Ruth: This poem I’m reading on Celtic wooing practices, `The Wooing of Etain . . .’ Not a lot of wooing in it. Sparky bunch.
Stephanie: Russ, you walked Hadrian’s Wall in full Roman armor–does chain-mail really go thunk-scratch as you walk?
Russell: It’s actually more wunk-thunk-kitch, wunk-thunk-kitch.
As We Research Some More
Stephanie: My Roman procurator’s villa is in Narbo. But I might need to change the color of the grapes in his vineyard. Maybe we can’t be sure of the climate in that specific place for whatever variety of grape existed before modern variations 2000 years ago.
Kate: Don’t mention the color of the grapes. Just say they’re ripe. Nobody cares what color the grapes are.
Stephanie: I’m putting in the color of the grapes! You can’t stop me. I’ve gone rogue.
Kate: Is that the mulish streak of an author thinking “I looked it up. I researched it. It’s going in the book or time is wasted?”
Stephanie: Absolutely! I don’t even drink wine. I don’t know the difference between a Syrah and a Chardonnay. You think I researched grape regions in France for my health? No, Madam. I did not.
As We Write
Stephanie: The f*cking king still isn’t burned.
Ruth: So many Iron Age names are completely unusable. Corotica, Auumpus, Aessicunia . . .
Russell: My hero can’t keep his willy in his subligares.
Vicky: All right, break for lunch, then back to the slaughter.
Eliza: My muse today is a bitchy bitch who bitches.
Simon: I’ve managed to put two tines of a fork into my hand.
Kate: I love you guys.
As We Procrastinate
Kate: Hey, look at this! `Buzzfeed quiz to find your Celtic name!’ I got `Floraidh, the Gentle Petal.’ Jesus. What are you guys getting?
Simon: `Muireann, born of the sea. For a man who has to travel 50 miles to the ocean, I find that amusing.
Russell: `Aidan the Fiery Rider. The ancient Celts would have seen you as the bringer of light.’ And I’m a complete slacker . . .
Vicky: I got Muireann too. And I live 250 miles from a beach.
As We Finish Our Rough Drafts
Stephanie: Slept for ten hours straight after writing 22,000 words in 4 days.
Eliza: Pulled four all-nighters and is now drinking wine straight from a jar.
Vicky: Cross-eyed from maneuvering her mind around the mental contortions needed to plausibly excuse a massacre.
Ruth: Mightily glad I finished my story when I did, because seconds later a huge spider ran across the desk. I’ll be decamping to the kitchen until it’s died of old age. Or possibly until I have.
Simon: MIA. Apparently fled all the way to Wales to get away from the non-stop barrage of Boudica emails.
Kate: Killed approximately 80,000 fictional Celts and has used every synonym in the book for “slaughter.”
Russell: Smiling like a cat in the cream because he finished his story first and didn’t skate across the deadline over-caffeinated, under-slept, and hooked up via IV to the nearest alcoholic beverage like his co-authors.
As We Edit Each Other
Stephanie: Kate, don’t have your hero kick the severed head. Soooo disrespectful.
Eliza: Two stories to edit AND another book out this week . . .
Vicky: Wait, you guys feel sorry for my story’s homicidal maniac?
Simon: ______ ______ _____! (Editing while on holiday, bumping down a Welsh country road in the passenger seat of a Vauxhall Zafira, going 25 mph behind a horse caravan).
Ruth: Well, my heroine’s unconscious through all of THAT story, so that saves me writing her any dialogue . . .
Kate: Russ, editing your foul-mouthed optio is having a deleterious effect on my vocabulary. I just told my cranky old plug-in coffeemaker to `Hurry up, you dozy f***ing cow.
Russell: You’re welcome, luv.
As We Fact Check
Stephanie: Eliza, stop looking up etymological roots! You can’t FIND a word that’s old enough! That’s the beauty of writing in the ancient world; you don’t have to do this!
Eliza: I. Can’t. Stop.
Ruth: I’ve spent the day only leaving the computer to hunt out books I haven’t used in years. I must go remind Husband that I’m still alive.
Kate: Russ, you say Gaulish, but should we go with Gallic?
Russ: Gaulish. Gallic brings to mind berets, stripy shirts, Gauloise cigs and accordion music.
As We Fact Check Some More
Kate: So, state funeral in the morning and then the pillaging starts . . . you think it could be done by 3pm or so?
Ruth: You know, I’m not sure how long pillaging takes. It’s not something I’ve ever given a great deal of thought to.
Kate: If the funeral is done by morning we have just enough time to kick off the pillaging. If that’s done by mid-afternoon, we can schedule the flogging . . . I sound like a demented event planner trying to rent a hall.
As We Make Continuity Changes
Kate: The blond slave girl mentioned in Story #3 cannot suddenly become a brunette in Story #5; the queen in Story #1 cannot possibly make it all the way north by Story #2 unless we involve a TARDIS; and that Druid cannot die in Story #4 by drowning AND in Story #7 by evisceration.
Stephanie: We need to decide on `Mona’ or `Ynys Mon,’ or the history police will crucify us.
Ruth: Crikey, don’t the history police have anything better to do?
Several voices in unison: No.
As We Work On Promo
Vicky: Ok, everyone pitch in on this Q&A.
Stephanie: Talks overarching theme.
Ruth: Talks archaeological evidence.
Simon: Talks character development.
Russ: Makes hilarious rude jokes.
As We Celebrate Book�s Launch
Ruth: Really, this was wonderful. It’s been like a crash course in writing combined with group therapy, only funnier.
The rest of us in unison: AWWW . . .
(Then the Yanks wonder: Do the Brits hug?)
(As the Brits wonder: Five hour time difference . . . too early for the Yanks to pour celebratory drinks?)
As is now traditional: my recap of the 2015 Historical Novel Society Conference! With two HNS conferences under my belt before jetting off to Denver, 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 2015 . . .
9:58am: Packing for the conference literally at the last minute, I realize I am sadly lacking when it comes to adult clothes. I live my life in yoga pants and Old Navy tank tops; there aren’t a lot of button-downs and responsible slacks in this closet. But I do have my ace in the hole: the infamous fire-engine-red patent leather stilettos that I dust off every conference because they give me a Joan-from-Mad-Men swagger and the lofty height of 5’7. The question is, can I pair them with yoga pants?
10:14am: Why, why, why do I not have a nice set of luggage by now? My suitcase is missing a wheel, and my carry-on is a battered black backpack in which I could comfortably pack Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson complete with his helicopter from “San Andreas.”
12:02pm: Checking in with Spirit Airlines behind a pair of obnoxious suburban families who keep whacking everyone else in line with their snuggies, their sulky toddlers, and their Ford Taurus sized strollers. Idly consider swapping out the babies in the strollers to see if any of the parents notice.
3:30pm: I made a vow to myself that I would finish Part II of the current top-secret WIP before I disembarked in Denver. I’m literally typing the last sentence as the plane taxies in. 65,000 words and half done! Now it’s time to party.
5:42pm: Run into David Blixt, Stephanie Dray, Eliza Knight, and Heather Webb the minute I step into the lobby. David immediately envelops me in a bear hug, expressing his general approval that I am alive after February’s house fire, and gives me another bear hug for good measure from his absent wife, legendary Shakespearean ginger Jan Blixt. I berate him for her absence, because I adore Jan and frankly I couldn’t care less if she has to work. David, you should have blackbagged her and slung her into the trunk of your car, Henry V rehearsals be hanged.
6:32pm: Get dressed for group dinner tonight, surrendering to a brief craven wish for a long-sleeved cocktail dress. I have a burn scar on my right forearm now, remnant of the Great Conflagration, and while it’s not too noticeable, I’m still horribly sensitive about it. But I refused to re-wardrobe myself in wrist-length sleeves for the the rest of my life, so I sling some pearls around my burned wrist and tell insecurity to go fuck itself.
7:01pm: My people, there you are! Donna Russo Morin in her spike-heels and Sophia Loren zest for life, her absolutely delicious English partner who worships the ground she walks on, Gillian Bagwell and Kris Waldherr, my Day of Fire mates Sophie Perinot and Vicky Alvear Shecter, Leslie Carroll and her silver fox husband . . . these are my tribe, and it’s delicious to be among them again. I rhapsodize to Vicky about her upcoming ancient Rome YA novel (I’m beta reading; it’s delicious) and tease Donna’s Englishman about his insistence on well-done steak (so English: “cook until gray.”)
10pm: The Lobby Posse reunites when Deann Smith and Marci Jefferson join the party! This is from the San Diego conference, when a group of us closed down the hotel lobby gabbing about everything under the sun. We’re missing Michelle Moran and Teralyn Pilgrim this time around, but it’s heaven to see the others.
11:08: Cocktails, yes, keep them coming. Christopher Gortner arrives, and the party dials up to an eleven. He’s just gotten a film option for The Last Queen; toasts are drunk as I speculate who could play Juana.
12am: Return to my room to discover I have locked myself out. Trail back down to lobby for new room key. Seven hours of sleep . . .
8:05am: Why are there so many decaf machines alongside the ordinary coffee? This is a writers conference; nobody drinks decaf! Decaf coffee is like a hooker that only wants to cuddle.
9am: David Blixt’s sword workshop! He opens up with stage-combat buddy Brandon with a fight from Macbeth, in which David loses his head to a scarily-real-looking axe stroke, and Brandon immediately becomes Brandon The Decapitator in my mind before everybody resurrects and gets to the nitty-gritty of sword history. Fascinating stuff–did you know that the dances of the time mimic the fight styles? Did you know that the loop on the back of a man’s shirt was originally there to keep his baldric from slipping down and trapping his sword arm during a fight? I didn’t.
11:19am: The hands-on stuff begins. I beeline straight for a crusader broadsword, while Eliza Knight channels her Highland romance side and heads for the claymore. Feel very proud that I successfully master a sort of cross-lunge move whose name I’ve forgotten–it’s the move Inigo Montoya uses to take down three enemies in the castle hallway during “The Princess Bride.” You know the one I mean.
12noon: Lunchtime. Return to my room for my phone, realize I have locked myself out. Trail back down to lobby for new room key.
1:31: The afternoon sword workshop, on rapier/dagger/short sword–Gillian Bagwell is my sparring partner. And for everyone’s information, the groove down the middle of the blade is NOT a blood channel; it has nothing to do with blood. It’s called a fuller, and it’s there strictly to lighten the blade. We have all been warned.
6pm: Cocktail reception, and the conference officially begins! I strap on The Shoes and race around shrieking greetings to people who, in some cases, I haven’t seen since the last conference. Favorite topics include the recent Outlander smash hit on Starz, the recent shake-up at Berkley/NAL, and are headless-lady covers really finally out? (Yes, thank God.)
7:41pm: C.C. Humphreys is our first speaker and guest of honor. He’s got one of those mellifluous stage-trained English voices you can eat with a spoon–I still remember him giving the Crispin’s Day speech at my first HNS conference in San Diego. His speech is bang on (I’m absolutely with him that we are storytellers first, not historians), and he closes with a joke about a Roman centurion ordering a martinus at a bar which makes us all groan.
9:37pm: Everyone adjourns to the bar to keep gabbing. Arm in arm with Stephanie Dray in a fabulous peacock necklace, I run into an old friend–the delightful Stephanie Cowell, and take a moment to bliss out about her wonderful Marrying Mozart which was my favorite re-read of the year–and then bump into a new friend, Stephanie Thornton of the kickass ancient queens–I got to beta-read her epic upcoming novel on the women of Alexander the Great, The Conqueror’s Wife. All these Stephanies; I love every one of them.
10:32pm: The Day of Fire authors all take a picture together–we are minus Ben Kane, but otherwise a full contingent. Happily gab with Alison Morton of the splendid Roma Nova series, who gave ADoF a great review, and wants to know if the gang is doing a reprise. More on that later.
11:11pm: End up down by the fire-pit outside the pool area with Christopher, Donna + Englishman, Heather, and Anne Easter Smith. We dish dirt happily under the stars. I get strict instructions not to get too near the firepit, because I’ve already nearly burned up once this year.
12:01am: Trail upstairs only to find I have locked myself out of my room. Trail back down to lobby, barefoot, red stilettos dangling from hand, for new room key. Six hours of sleep . . .
7:04am: Prepping for the day, I unleash my secret weapon–a flat-iron that heats to a temperature at which you could forge swords, and which is the only thing to reliably smooth my waist-length mass of curls. It has a steely blue glow like it’s being thrust out of a lake for incipient kings, so I dub it Excalibur. Excalibur beats my curls into submission and out I sally.
9:15am: I’m going to miss Stephanie Dray and Christopher Gortner’s panel on “The Gender Divide,” dammit. My own panel is at the same time: “Trends In Historical Fiction” with Eliza Knight, blogger Meg Wessell, and my agent Kevan Lyon. We have a blast, and our audience is packed to standing room. Analyzing trends in publishing is like trying to analyze patterns in a goldfish bowl, but we all agree that 20th century topics are hot right now, so are love-in-a-time-of-war stories, and so are dual narratives that twine a contemporary with a historical timeline.
10:30am: I am dragged off with Heather Webb and the “Day of Fire” ladies to what turns out to be the best laugh riot of the entire conference: “What Really Happens During A Historical Romance Cover Shoot?” Kim Killion of the Killion Group walks us through it with the help of Jesse, 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 for a western shoot and is told “Here’s a Bible; think of Jesus”) and once the clothes start coming off, the Sexy/Edgy/Erotica covers get shot. Jesse 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 goes through his paces and smolders on cue.
10:59am: Oh dear Lord, this just got funnier. Jesse and his female counterpart demonstrate various clinch poses. “Cover his nipple, for the nipple haters on Amazon!” Kim calls to the female model, who obediently shifts her hand on Jesse’s Pammed-up chest. “See that space between them? That’s where I photoshop in the castle, or the flying hair. Or maybe I cut his head off.” Heather Webb and I can barely stand, we’re laughing so hard. For the record, Heather has an absolutely filthy laugh that promises all kinds of wickedness; her Empress Josephine would approve. We all line up for pics later with the amiable Jesse. I text mine at once to the Overseas Gladiator.
12:15pm: Lunch, and keynote speaker Karen Cushman, author of Catherine, Called Birdy. She has a particularly lovely phrase that catches me: Words are a net to catch the wind.
1pm: I sit down with the “Day of Fire” ladies, all of us armed with notepads, and discussion continues for over an hour. Let’s just say something’s a-brewing.
2:15pm: Coffee with my agent, the fabulous Kevan Lyon of Marsal-Lyon Literary Agency. We discuss my WIP, all 65,000 words of it, and she’s in full cheerleader mode. Tremendously relieving, because this project has had me scared at times–it’s so different from anything I’ve ever done, it feels like I’m striking out into the open ocean on a cardboard raft.
5:01pm: Change for the book signing and dinner, wielding Excalibur on the frizzies popping up around my hairline. On my way to the signing, I stop for a moment of mutual shoe admiration with Donna (in leopard spikes), Christopher (in Prada loafers), and me in my 5-inch stilettos. Who cares if my toes curl up and drop off? I love being 5’7.
6:38pm: The Day of Fire crew all sits together, so those buying our Pompeii tale can go down the line if they want it signed. We gab happily with bloggers and readers galore: Stephanie Moore Hopkins, Erin of the fabulous Flashlight Commentary, Jenny Q, Darlene Williams . . . I love these ladies, and I owe them for many, many fabulous reviews. Most of all Amy Phillips Bruno of Passages to the Past, for whom I would happily donate a kidney after she saved my bacon and ran my Lady of the Eternal City blog tour for me less than three weeks after the Great Conflagration.
6:59pm: Book signing done–and it was fun, but a mess. Half the books weren’t ordered properly, and some authors had no books at all in store for the readers to buy. Leslie Carroll lets her Bronx show about that, and she’s absolutely right.
7:36pm: Dinnertime! 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.
8:12pm: The HNS Indie Prize is announced. A Day of Fire is one of the four finalists but none of us think we have a shot of–wait, we won second place?! Go careening onstage with Vicky, Stephanie, Sophie, and Eliza, congratulating Anna Belfrage on her well-deserved first place win, and taking more pictures. Later, Stephanie’s white knight husband photo-shops Ben Kane into the picture with the rest of the Pompeii crew. The Overseas Gladiator does one better and photo-shops in Tony Stark from Ironman.
9:12pm: The Costume Pageant, narrated hilariously by
Gillian Bagwell Joan, Lady Rivers. Stephanie Dray fan-girls all over a George Washington, a Viking housewife brings down the house detailing all the bits of her costume that have been stolen by her husband on a raid, and Carmen Miranda makes an appearance with a fruit-tastic headdress.
10:10pm: David Blixt comes to waltz me randomly around the dinner tables before heading off to emcee the sex scene readings. Last time I was up to read (Cesare Borgia pinned my heroine to a table, lucky girl) and I’m happy just to watch this time around, parked next to C.C. Humphreys who has terrific sotto-voce comments throughout. Stephanie Dray’s romance alter-ego puts in a guest appearance, reading a sultry movie-palace threesome from her 20s erotica collection It Stings So Sweet that has us all reaching for our fans. Judith Starkston reads from her wonderful Trojan War epic Hand of Fire, warning us drolly not to enact this scene at home because only if you are banging a demi-god like Achilles can you have sex being held entirely in the air. And giggles split the room at a Holmes/Watson case that takes an unexpectedly X-rated turn . . . let me just say I will never look at lemon curd the same way again.
10:37pm: More drinks. The HNS Chesapeake Bay chapter (those of us in attendance) assemble for a picture around our new chapter head/Queen, Meg Wessell. We all pledge oaths of fealty to Queen Megan, First Of Her Name, and cheer wildly for several chapter-mates who got requests from agents at this conference to send their manuscript partials. Congrats, all!
11:16pm: I talk Game of Thrones plot twists with Deann, advertising tips with Christopher, Trojan War myth with Amalia Carosalla, and project advice with Stephanie Thornton (for the love of God, NO, do not write about that topic; we both know what it is, and we both know you hate the very idea, so don’t do it!) I feel absurdly pleased when C.C. Humphreys says I do an excellent British accent, and I’m in stitches when Alison Morton calls all the UK Roman-blood-and-battle authors “the bash-and-crash boys.” Things get sober as we talk declining sales in historical fiction and the current lack of interest in seemingly anything that isn’t 20th century . . . but we’re soon smiling again. Me especially, after Facebook friend Janet Butler Taylor gives me a 2013 World Champion Red Sox photo-mag. Bliss!
12:48pm: “One more martini” turns into “Closing out the bar.” I end up dancing with David around the tables again, this time a music-less swing beat. Pat Bracewell and I talk Vikings with Gillian Bagwell; internet trolls are vivisected with gusto over pretzel bites and beer-cheese; and I finally manage to buttonhole Libbie Hawker to tell her how I raced through her Egyptian epic House of Rejoicing in two days flat.
2am: Trail upstairs only to find I have locked myself out of my room. Trail back down to lobby, barefoot, black stilettos in hand, for new room key. Five hours of sleep . . .
7:44am: Wake up 45 minutes before my alarm–this weird mountain altitude has everybody’s sleep schedule out of whack. No time to wield Excalibur this morning; the hair goes in a ponytail. I feel like I’ve crawled out from under a bombed building, but the wonders of foundation and a red shirt leave me looking deceptively bright-eyed.
8:32am: Bacon and croissants with Marci, Sophie, Sam Thomas and–is that be Beatriz Williams?! Why, yes, it is. I manage not to stammer too embarrassingly when I tell her how much I adored her Secret Life of Violet Grant.
10:03am: After talking Nero for a while with the always delightful Margaret George, I head upstairs to get my luggage and check out. I have locked myself out of my room again. God DAMMIT.
10:15: Time for my Koffee Klatch. I signed up for this without the faintest notion what it was–readers signing up for a 45-minute gab session with any author they like. I kept wondering what I’d be expected to talk about, but it turns out great: I end up with a group of about eight, and we gabble excitedly about character development, where to sell ancient world fiction, and who our favorite Roman historical figures are. (Augustus and Livia, for me–world’s original power couple.)
11:50: Koffee Klatch ends 5 minutes early as my shuttle arrives ten minutes in advance. Pile on with my crammed suitcase, head spinning. Is the conference really over already?
12:34pm: My flight is late. Why is my flight always late?
3:40pm: Four hour layover in Chicago. I read Lauren Willig’s That Summer cover to cover in one sitting–Pre-Raphaelite art, a secret affair, and scandal galore; it’s wonderful.
10:17pm: My connecting flight is also late. Rot in hell, Spirit Airlines.
2am: The Overseas Gladiator is long asleep by the time I trail wearily through the door, but the Praetorian Dog greets me with sleepy rapture. By this point I am so far beyond exhausted I might as well be on another planet; sleep is impossible and coherent thought is a distant memory. Tuned somewhere between Zen and stoned, I drop my bags in the middle of the floor in a shower of hotel room keys, pour a double whiskey, and read David’s Master of Verona for the next three hours. He’s the only other conference member still awake, being midway through an overnight drive back to Chicago with his weapons arsenal, so when Brandon the Decapitator takes the wheel, David and I end up texting back and forth at 4am about the Palio races and Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew.”
5:12am: Oh, look, sunrise. I should probably go to bed.
There it is in a nutshell: HNS 2015. Apologies to anyone I’ve left out of my account, or if I’ve recounted something wrong–it’s all a big whirl in my memory, so who knows what fell through the sieve? And I may have exaggerated here and there for comedic effect. (I only locked myself out of my hotel room twice, I swear.)
But what I didn’t exaggerate is just how wonderful it is to join that group of like-minded history-mad nutcases known as the Historical Novel Society. HNS 2011 was my first conference, which I attended as a wide-eyed newbie, and HNS 2013 was my sophomore lap when the world of publishing was still pretty rosy. 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 2015.
Alison Morton was kind enough to host me for a Q&A on her blog when LADY OF THE ETERNAL CITY came out – now that Alison’s latest book in her ROMA NOVA series has been released, I’m delighted to welcome her to my blog today!
Even before she pulled on her first set of combats, Alison Morton was fascinated by the idea of women soldiers. Brought up by a feminist mother and an ex-military father, it never occurred to her that women couldn’t serve their country in the armed forces. Everybody in her family had done time in uniform and in theatre–regular and reserve Army, RAF, WRNS, WRAF–all over the globe.
So busy in her day job, Alison joined the Territorial Army in a special communications regiment and left as a captain, having done all sorts of interesting and exciting things no civilian would ever know or see. Or that she can talk about, even now.
But something else fuels her writing. Fascinated by the mosaics at Ampurias (Spain), at their creation by the complex, power and value-driven Roman civilisation started her wondering what a modern Roman society would be like if run by strong women.
Now, she lives in France and writes Roman-themed alternate history thrillers with tough heroines.
Delighted to have you on my blog, Alison! I know from past conversations that you and I are both huge fans of Robert Harris’s brilliant FATHERLAND (hair-raising thriller that leaps off the premise “What if Hitler won?”) What provided the spark for your “What if” moment, the “What if the Roman Empire survived?” question which drives your ROMA NOVA series?
Thank you for inviting me, Kate! Well, the start of Roma Nova goes back to my own ancient history. Picture an eleven-year-old girl, curly hair, sun hat fallen off her head because she is crouching down on a vast Roman mosaic, and too fascinated by the patterns to pay attention to her mother’s warnings about sunstroke. This was me in Ampurias, north-east Spain. I tipped my head up and asked my father–numismatist and senior Roman nut–who the people were who had made such floors. Who were the children who had played there? Who were the families? He explained about senators and soldiers, traders, merchants, slaves and scribes, how the Romans had come there, what they believed in, how powerful and ingenious they were. When I asked what the ladies and children did, he said they did what the men told them to do. “What would it be like if the women were in charge?” I piped up. He smiled, and said “What do you think it would be like?” And the seed of the idea grew.
I really enjoyed the cultural details from ancient Rome which made their way into your version of modern Rome: elite military forces that still carry the name Praetorian, the noble patrician families and the honored images of their ancestors, the Latin terminology and the references to the gods. But I’m a history geek who has already read a lot of these details in my own research–how did you go about making these historical touches accessible for a reader less familiar with Rome’s ancient history?
It’s a mixture of familiarity and strangeness. First and foremost, the story must be strong and connect with concerns that everybody can identify with: in AURELIA, it’s mother and daughter relationships; a woman balancing career, duty and love; good guys versus bad guys. These anchor the thread of the story for the reader.
The second is context. Readers don’t want to be hit over the head with a big lump of information, so I feed in detail or explanation via a character’s reaction to something or conversation, more often argument, with somebody. And putting a character in an environment they’re uncomfortable with lets them compare it with what is usual for them–a great opportunity to slip in some detail. As you yourself know, tiny touches of detail here and there can go a lot way!
As an example, on the first page, Aurelia walks by the imagines–statues and busts of ancestors–in the hallway in her house and the reader sees how significant and precious they are:
I left my side-arm in the safe box in the vestibule and walked on past the marble and plaster imagines, the painted statues and busts of dead Mitelae from the gods knew how many hundreds of years. Only the under-steward was allowed to dust them; I’d never been allowed to touch them as a child.
And later, Aurelia is asked to translate an incriminating note from Latin–another chance introduce a little more background about when that kind of note would be written.
And the Latin/German expressions and names? As with any historical fiction, the reader needs to feel the strangeness, to be a little off balance, to experience the unique flavour of the world and time they are entering; dropping in foreign language words is one of the most effective ways of doing this. However, no vital plot point should ever be obscured by these expressions. I’ll confess, I was a professional translator before I started writing novels and love playing with words in this way!
I loved the twist you gave on the role of ancient Roman women as guardians of the family hearth and family honor: allowing that role to expand so that the women of Roma Nova act as family heads and even Empresses in their own right. How did you envision that change overcoming the more traditional role of women in ancient Rome?
Ancient Roman attitudes to women were repressive to our eyes, but towards the later Imperial period women gained much more freedom to act, trade and own property and to run businesses of all types. Divorce was easy and step and adopted families were commonplace.
Apulius, the leader of Roma Nova’s founders in AD 395, had met Julia, the tough daughter of a Celtic princeling in Noricum. She left her native Virunum, travelled to Rome, found Apulius and married him the day of her arrival. She came from a society in which, although Romanised for several generations, women made decisions, fought in battles and managed inheritance and property. Their four daughters were amongst the first Roma Novan pioneers so necessarily had to act more decisively than they would have in a traditional urban Roman setting.
Given the unstable, dangerous times in Roma Nova’s first few hundred years, daughters as well as sons had to put on armour and carry weapons to defend their homeland and their way of life. Fighting danger side by side with brothers and fathers reinforced women’s roles. And they never allowed the incursion of monotheistic paternalistic religions. So I don’t think that it’s too far a stretch for women to have developed leadership roles in all parts of Roma Novan life over the next fifteen centuries.
Photo courtesy of Britannia www.durolitum.co.uk
AURELIA is a bit of a shift for you your previous ROMA NOVA books concentrate on Aurelia’s granddaughter Carina, and her adventures in a modern-day Rome. What made you realize that Carina’s forceful grandmother Aurelia and her adventures in the tumultuous 60s deserved their own story?
Well, in a way, it was a natural choice. As I was writing the first three books, Aurelia fascinated me more and more. She’s not only Carina’s grandmother but also acts as her “wise councillor”, drawing on a long life of service to the state. What had she done as a young Praetorian officer? And what part had she played in the Great Rebellion twenty-three years before we met her, a seasoned politician and imperial advisor in INCEPTIO? How was she connected with Conrad, Carina’s love interest, whose family was ruined as a consequence of the rebellion? Glimpses of Aurelia’s past life in the first three books were as tantalising for me as well as for readers; several demanded to know her backstory. So did I. As soon as SUCCESSIO, the third book, went to my structural editor, I attacked the keyboard.
Finally, the question you posed to me: do you think historical or alternate fiction does anything to help us understand the past, or is it purely entertainment?
We only have glimpses of what people said or felt in the past based on diaries, accounts and official and unofficial histories written at the time or later and, for the ancient Roman period at least, none of them is complete or unbiased.
Our ancestors lived in different, sometimes (to us) very strange conditions but I firmly believe they worried, celebrated, loved, laughed and wept in ways we would immediately understand. In alternate history, writers and readers can also explore different possible outcomes to historical events: what if Julius Caesar had taken notice of the warning that assassins wanted to murder him on the Ides of March? Or if Washington hadn’t crossed the Delaware River on Christmas night in 1776? Delicious fun!
If it’s well-researched and intelligently written, historical fiction, including alternate, stretches out a hand to us and guides us into a world that might have been. It fleshes out the gaps that the historical record leaves yawning. I’m a life-long learner–I went back thirty years after my first degree to study for my history masters–but I’ve found that I remember something best if I’ve been entertained at the same time.
So, in a nutshell: what is AURELIA about?
Late 1960s Roma Nova, the last Roman colony that has survived into the 20th century. Aurelia Mitela is alone–her partner gone, her child sickly and her mother dead–and forced to give up her beloved career as a Praetorian officer.
But her country needs her unique skills. Somebody is smuggling silver–Roma Nova’s lifeblood–on an industrial scale. Sent to Berlin to investigate, she encounters the mysterious and attractive Miklas, a known smuggler who knows too much and Caius Tellus, a Roma Novan she has despised and feared since childhood.
Barely escaping a trap set by a gang boss intent on terminating her, she discovers that her old enemy is at the heart of all her troubles and pursues him back home to Roma Nova…
And now, my thoughts!
AURELIA is something of a prequel in the ROMA NOVA series, detailing the adventures of Aurelia Mitela who is grandmother and adviser to the heroine of the earlier novels–but it stands alone with ease, and will be enjoyed by those new to the series and those who have been reading along. Aurelia is as steadfast as a Roman column, brave and capable, newly head of her illustrious patrician clan and struggling with the age-old balance of work, family, children, love, and the demands of her country. Roma Nova is practically a character in itself; the Roman Empire surviving through the centuries to become a tough little city state that values its women as well as its men, and still prizes Roman virtues like gravitas and service to the Imperium. Fans of ancient Rome will delight in the clever historical details woven throughout: elite guards still called Praetorians, the full pantheon of gods still worshipped, the Roman villas that might have come intact from the age of Augustus, but which are now decked out in 60s technology!
A mysterious industrial smuggling scam sends Aurelia on the hunt, only to find that she is the hunted. The pace never lets up as Aurelia tracks an old enemy from Roma Nova to Germany and even further–and what an enemy he is. He reminded me of my own smug golden-boy villain Pedanius Fuscus from LADY OF THE ETERNAL CITY, with the result that I was grinding my teeth in rage as I flipped pages faster and faster to see if he’d get his come-uppance. A racing climax and a fully satisfying ending–recommended for fans of alternate history and fans of ancient Rome!
More about the ROMA NOVA series:
INCEPTIO, the first in the Roma Nova series
– shortlisted for the 2013 International Rubery Book Award
– B.R.A.G. Medallion finalist in 2014 Writing Magazine Self-Published Book of the Year
PERFIDITAS, second in series
– B.R.A.G. Medallion
– finalist in 2014 Writing Magazine Self-Published Book of the Year
SUCCESSIO, third in series
– Historical Novel Society’s indie Editor’s Choice for Autumn 2014
– B.R.A.G. Medallion
– Editor’s choice, The Bookseller’s inaugural Indie Preview, December 2014
More about Alison:
HBO just called, and they’re giving Lady of the Eternal City the “Game of Thrones treatment!
Sigh – I wish. But until the day Weiss & Benioff are leaving me urgent voice-mails, a girl can dream – and I don’t know a writer out there who doesn’t know exactly how they’d cast their beloved characters if given a movie set and total production control. (Which we’d never get, because no writer does. But this is fantasy, right? Come on, I’ve already planned what I’m wearing to the 2016 Oscars to watch LEC win Best Picture. Red Valentino and Louboutins; very 2011 Jennifer Lawrence.)
Anyway, here’s my dream cast for Lady of the Eternal City.
Sabina: for my elegant mid-thirties heroine, I’m going with Lyndsey Marshal. As Cleopatra on HBO’s “Rome” she had an inscrutable elegance that will wear nicely on my secret-keeping Empress. Not to mention an adorable pixie cut under the various Imperial wigs.
Vix: Dan Feurriegal played a tough-grained foul-mouthed heart-of-gold gladiator in “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” – I think he can handle Vix. He’s already got the skills for Vix’s fight scenes, Vix’s wicked grin, and Vix’s ferocious expression. (He’s my arm candy for the 2016 Oscars. We look lovely on the red carpet together.)
Emperor Hadrian: this role is a tough one, since Hadrian is endlessly mercurial and vibrates between cruelty, kindness, friendship, enmity, hatred, love, and every other set of extremes you could imagine. Eric Bana with his “Troy” beard – those intense dark eyes are SO Hadrian.
Antinous: Vix’s adopted son, Hadrian’s lover, and also one of the most famous and beautiful faces of the ancient world – yeah, this one’s a poser. I’m going with Douglas Booth, who has a face so perfect it looks carved, but all that perfections melts into a surprisingly sweet smile.
Titus: I loved Tobias Menzies in Rome, and now that he’s tearing it up as Frank/Black Jack Randall on “Outlander,” I can see he’d be perfect for my sweet, serious, noble-souled Titus.
Annia: My secondary heroine has a fiery temperament and the hair to match, a marathoner with a fierce soul who has to save the Empire at the end when all the adults have screwed things up. Molly Quinn showed on “Castle” that she could play tough, intelligent, and funny, just like Annia.
Marcus: Zach Gilford, because I adored him as Matt Saracen in “Friday Night Lights,” showing the same blend of sweetness, intelligence, and awkwardness as my young Marcus Aurelius. Who never wrote “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose!” in his Meditations, but should have.
Pedanius Fuscus: for the swaggering golden-boy teenage ass who makes everyone’s lives a living hell, I have to go with the ultimate swaggering golden-boy teenage ass of all time–King Joffrey/Jack Gleason.
Servianus: the white-haired orator constantly droning “In my day . . .” could be played by no one other than Julian Glover/Maester Pycelle from “Game of Thrones.”
Mirah: for Vix’s fiery Jewish wife with a rebel’s soul, Brigid Brannagh would work very well.
Simon bar Kokhba: one final “Game of Thrones” alum. The charismatic Jewish leader whose ferocious rebellion nearly brought Rome to her knees has relatively little screen time in LEC, but he needs to pack a powerful punch. Pedro Pascal accomplished exactly the same thing in his cameo role of the Red Viper on GoT.
Hope you enjoyed my fantasy casting. Who do you see as Vix/Sabina/Hadrian & Co.?
I have been hugely touched by the good wishes, the prayers, and the wonderful support coming in from readers after my house fire of two weeks ago. It’s been a rollercoaster two weeks, but the Overseas Gladiator and I are fighting our way back to normality: burns healing, belongings recovered, progress made slowly but surely on our half-ruined house. I have the best readers, friends, and fans in the world, and I wish I could give you something back.
Fortunately, I can. Sometimes the fates line up like that.
It’s just a hair under two weeks till Lady of the Eternal City is released, and around this time, I’ll usually release the coming book’s first chapter as a sneak preview. This time I’ve gone one better: not only are you getting a teaser excerpt from LEC’s first chapter, you’re getting three bonus stories not included in the book.
LEC has been the book from hell for many reasons–some books are just problem babies while others are angel–and one of my early plot snarls came from the fact that I started the story too early in the timeline. I wanted to pick up right where Empress of the Seven Hills left off–with Vix wrestling with the impossible choice of killing his best friend; with Titus wondering if an executioner was coming for him; with Sabina in an ever-developing condition. But I ended up scrapping my original start and opening a year after the events of Empress of the Seven Hills, as Hadrian makes his long-awaited entry into Rome as Emperor. It was the right choice, but there were scenes on the cutting-room floor that I always regretted losing. And they made three self-contained little stories all on their own, so I realized I could bundle them together here: three prequel stories taking place in that missing year between Empress of the Seven Hills and Lady of the Eternal City.
Battered warrior Vix has always been Hadrian’s bitter enemy, and he vows that will never change, even when he is made Praetorian Guard and Imperial watchdog. But with his family’s lives on the line, Vix faces a bitter choice: kill a friend, or serve a foe?
Mild, scholarly Titus might once have been favored as Imperial heir, but he never wanted the throne. All he desires is peace in the arms of his new bride–but the jealous Hadrian has other ideas. A horror of bloodshed and violence interrupts Titus’s wedding night, and the man of peace finds a choice at sword-point: honor and death, or betrayal and a cell?
Elegant, elusive Sabina is desperate to escape the bleak future that awaits her as Hadrian’s Empress, and even more desperate to conceal the secret growing in her own body. But when she begs a famous seer for a glimpse into her future, she receives an astonishing vision of the Eternal City under Hadrian’s rule, and the new Empress must choose: her own freedom, or the glory of Rome?
Three former friends find new futures in blood, omen, and prophecy. Three prequel vignettes to “Lady of the Eternal City, in an exclusive e-release titled The Three Fates.
The Three Fates is available for FREE download on Barnes & Noble, Kobo, iTunes, Scribd, and Page Foundry. It is available on Amazon Kindle at 0.99, which was the lowest possible price option. The Three Fates is NOT available in print, since this is an e-release only–and there is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of Lady of the Eternal City tucked in the back.
I hope you enjoy it–and again, thank you. Thank you all.
Last week my house suffered a catastrophic fire.
I’ve been asked “How did it happen?” so many times I could tell the story in my sleep, but I’ll tell it again on the page. I think for a writer, it isn’t real until we’ve written it down.
The Overseas Gladiator was home from the Middle East, having been given ten days to fly home for his grandmother’s funeral. The day after the funeral we made the long drive home, lit a big fire in our fireplace as we’d done a thousand times before, poured a glass of wine each, and settled down to relax for the rest of a cold Wednesday night. Twenty minutes later, we were homeless.
As we sat in the firelight reading, the fire quietly ate its way out of the back of the fireplace and spread through the wall of the house. By the time a neighbor pounded on our door to let us know the back of the house was kindling, the fire had already raced up inside the wall to the attic and was sweeping through. The Overseas Gladiator tried to hose down the back wall as I raced upstairs to get the Praetorian Dog who had been locked in the bedroom since the commotion started. That was when an enormous boom of a backdraft ripped through the house, a rush of super-heated air and ash billowing down from the burning attic. The blast knocked the Overseas Gladiator back against the deck railing, and flung me down the stairs like a rag doll. Shortly after we were standing barefoot in the icy parking lot, clutching the dog and watching as three separate fire trucks arrived with sirens blaring, and fire started licking its way over our roof.
Someone noticed at some point that my arm and shoulder and cheek were toasted medium rare–I wasn’t feeling a thing–and then the night turned into a round of emergency rooms, hospital beds, paperwork, and the slow shocky process of realizing we were still alive. I was only in the hospital for one night (the burns weren’t as bad as they looked) but it was a long, strange night full of glass-sharp individual recollections.
I remember the blast that kicked me down the stairs, half tumbling and half scrambling to get under the wave of fire and ash that was falling all around me like a halo. My hair was crisped all across the top; lying in the hospital bed later, I ran my hand across my ashy knotted bun and realized that if I hadn’t clipped my hair up that night, my two-foot banner of hair probably would have gone up like a torch.
I remember seeing the OG in full-on hero mode, shoving me toward safety as he charged upstairs into a wall of smoke to save the dog–and later collapsing in the hospital corridor when he realized I was ok.
I remember unloading every curse I knew in the ambulance once the pain from my burned arm finally kicked in. I know a lot of curses. The EMTs were apparently impressed.
I remember laughing like drunken hyenas on our respective gurneys as the OG said into the silence, “Well, on the bright side, I’m not flying back to the Persian Gulf in two days.”
I remember lifting my charred eyebrows and saying “Seriously?” when an earnest young ER doc asked me “So, are you in any pain?”
Most of all, I remember the astonishment of seeing just how many people rushed to help us friends, family, complete strangers.
One week later, and things are a lot better. We’re in an apartment that is starting to feel like home, and our burned-out house is scheduled to be renovated over the next six months. My burns are healing up, the pain slowly fading toward a hell of an itch. The Overseas Gladiator keeps me smiling with a never-ending string of incredibly crass jokes about barbecues, bonfires, and our very own Ash Wednesday. Insurance is paying to replace what we’ve lost, and we’ve been able to save a surprising amount the bust of Clio (muse of history) on my desk; a laptop and all my writings; my red conference stilettos.
The astonishment is still there, however, when I think how many people have stepped forward to help us. Our families, swooping in with advice and money and offers to dog-sit. Our friends, coming by with armloads of towels and supplies and home-cooked meals. The Navy, bending over backward to keep my Overseas Gladiator from having to go back overseas until this is handled. Complete strangers donating to a GoFundMe page with good wishes and prayers.
I look around me and I feel nothing but grateful. I lost a house, but I have so much: a husband, a dog, and the best family, friends, and fans in the world.
**From the Overseas Gladiator**
I asked Kate, the estimable 5’2 Toasty Badass, if I could write something to tack onto her blog post about our recent house fire.
When I asked, and she said yes, I had this vision in my head of writing some moving piece about the preciousness of life, about how everything has unappreciated value, about how the fire happened, about how you realize what you really need in life, all the typical platitudes from your average run-of-the-mill romance novel. Which tends to get turned into a cheesy movie. Starring, I dunno, Ryan Gosling.
But all I keep returning to is…… Ash. Smoke. Fire. Fear. Chaos. Grief.
Hearing the pounding on our front door by our neighbor, who saved our lives.
Hearing the terrifying, You’re on FIRE! YOU’RE ON FIRE!! and feeling everything just simply stop as the words hit like cold, methodical punches to the brain.
Seeing flames licking out from the side of our house.
Feeling like we were drowning in liquid panic as we just couldn’t move fast enough to get the hose hooked up.
That feeling of absolute, blind futility, of the purest form of utter helplessness, as I watched the flames just climb up the side of our goddamn house despite pouring water on it as fast as I could.
Hearing the backdraft explosion happen, blinking stars out of my eyes as I briefly wondered what the fuck just happened, and why am I on my back?
Hearing a series of thumps that only later I realize was my wife falling down the stairs.
Hearing her scream that the dog is trapped upstairs, and knowing that death is literally seconds away from everyone in what used to be our refuge, our sanctuary, our world, as we felt the flames spread.
Shoving Kate and our neighbor toward the front door, screaming, Out, out, out!! Everyone get the fuck out, NOW!!
And, finally checking everyone outside. Realizing that somehow we’re still alive. Injured. Damaged. Dazed. Burnt. Concussed. But alive.
This is what we keep coming back to. This what I keep coming back to. That despite it all, despite the terrible loss of our stuff and our lives being thrown into a maelstrom, we’re alive.
So…..hopefully I don’t have to stress the sanctity of life, of how everyone should appreciate what and more importantly who they have in their lives. Just find your significant other, give them a hug and a kiss. Call your parents, hug your kids, what the hell ever you think would work.
Because I damn near lost the most important person in my world. And believe me when I say that it re-calibrates your perspective.
And finally, thanks for all the love and support, everyone. It’s been simply….astonishing and wonderful to know that so many amazing people are willing to help.
From the depths of this salty Sailor’s heart, from both of our hearts; thank you. With everything we have.
I’m about to start a long road trip, throwing the Praetorian Dog in the car and heading off to spend Christmas with the Dowager Librarian in California–but I’ve got just enough time to turn out the mandatory Top Ten Books I Read This Year! blog post, just in time to help you complete your holiday shopping! Because nothing fits better in a Christmas stocking than a book. Here are my recommendations, the best books I read in 2014 (though not all were published this year) and just who you should buy them for . . .
1. “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” by Muriel Barbery. A quirky and unabashedly intellectual book about smart people thinking smart thoughts. Renee is a Paris concierge, hiding her passion for books and art behind a concierge’s stereotypical surliness; Paloma is a twelve-year-old genius being driven mad by school, life, and the stupidity around her. She’s planning to kill herself when she turns thirteen, more or less out of boredom–but a cautious friendship with the prickly Renee and a contemplative Japanese businessman changes all three lives in astounding ways.
Buy for: that ultra-smart kid in your life, whether it’s your bookworm daughter or your genius little brother or that eleven-year-old you babysit for who gets bullied because she’s already reading Jane Austen. That kid will see themselves in Paloma, and like she did probably develop a passion for French art and Japanese calligraphy.
2. “Blood Eye” by Giles Kristian. I found Kristian’s Viking series after going into serious withdrawal from Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories, and it doesn’t disappoint. This story of a boy named Raven swept up into the crew of a Viking longship is everything you want from guts-and-glory historical fiction: bone-crunching shield-walls, pulse-pounding adventures, and prose of blood-stirring action and sometimes lyrical beauty.
Buy for: your mother, if she’s like mine and absolutely adores a good skull-crushing with her evening glass of chardonnay.
3. “Prince of Shadows” by Rachel Caine. I know nothing about Caine except that she has a YA vampire series, so this book was an expected shock of deliciousness: Romeo and Juliet retold with a surprising twist. The hero and heroine here are Benvolio (Romeo’s steady best friend) and Rosaline (Romeo’s first infatuation, ditched for Juliet). This pair is smarter, older, and far more savvy than their more famous counterparts, and they struggle to stop the inevitable–all the while feeling like the “curse on both their houses” may be a literal catalyst for all this disaster, and not just a poetic conceit.
Buy for: your office-mate whose cubicle is pasted with Shakespeare quotes, and who can be heard muttering Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day as she watches the clock move toward 6pm. She’ll geek out on the way Caine weaves Shakespeare’s lines into her own dialogue.
4. “One Plus One” by Jojo Moyes. A feel-good book which also manages to be whip-smart and side-splittingly funny–no small feat to pull off. Ed is a tech-head millionaire currently on the outs for unwitting insider trading, hiding from his family and looking for new purpose. New purpose storms into his life in the form of Jess, a blue-collar single mom with a giant farting dog, a sullen teenage stepson, and a genius daughter who has to get to Scotland for a math competition if she has any chance of getting into an elite school and out of the cycle of poverty. Ed ends up driving the band of misfits to Scotland, and over the next week as his car and his life are systematically dismantled, something else starts to form–a rag-tag little family.
Buy for: that friend who’s been a bit battered by life lately, and really needs a smile on her face. Reassure her in advance that the dog doesn’t die.
5. “Live by Night by Dennis Lehane. Sequel to his fabulous “The Given Day,” and centering around a cocky Irish boy who starts low on the rungs of the Boston mob during Prohibition, and rises steadily through the roaring 20s until he is running the Florida division of the mob’s liquor business. Shifts effortlessly from 20s-era Boston to Florida to Cuba in a whirl of crime bosses, hit men, bathtub gin parties, good girls gone bad, bad girls gone good, and the inevitable consequences to a life of crime. Seedy, violent, glorious.
Buy for: your dad who has a passion for gangster movies. Tell him it’s “The Godfather” and “The Departed” rolled into one.
6. Speaking of living by night, try “The Quick” by Lauren Owen. This is Bram Stoker-style Victorian gothic at its best; buttoned-up London suits and properly closed doors, and the horrors that sometimes live behind them. A shy young poet comes to London and is introduced to a secret society of London’s most lethal men–a society that will have to be fought with blood when the poet disappears, and his determined sister comes to town looking for answers. A brave heroine, a band of eccentric vigilantes, and a villain named Doctor Knife–this will have you reading far into the night, and falling asleep with all your lights on.
Buy for: your gay bestie, because there is a tender and wonderful m/m romance tucked into all the supernatural tension.
7. “The Tiger Queens: The Women of Genghis Khan” by Stephanie Thornton. Four narrators handing the torch to each other in turn: the Khan’s seeress first wife, his brash tomboy daughter, a Persian captive turned councillor, and finally a watchful daughter-in-law who will seize the reins when the great Khan’s empire begins to fracture. Other women have roles to play as well: a tough-as-nails adopted daughter; a rape-ravaged princess whose madness will have unspeakable consequences for one of the four narrators. These women are fascinating, and there isn’t a weakling among them.
Buy for: your sister, so you can speculate how the two of you would have fared managing a ger and drinking fermented mare’s milk.
8. “Joyland” by Stephen King. No one can write a coming-of-age story like (ironically) the master of horror. This beauty has it all, a bittersweet and moving tale of a college boy whose summer stint at an old-fashioned carnival turns out to have a lot of firsts: first love, first heartbreak, first real job, first sex partner–and since there is both a ghost and a serial killer on the loose in the carnival, first brush with death and the supernatural.
Buy for: your nephew going off to college for his own coming-of-age story. Write your phone number on the inside: If a girl dumps you and you get as depressed as the hero in this book, don’t sit there listening to the Doors and thinking about suicide the way he does. CALL ME.
9. “The Magicians Trilogy” by Lev Grossman. This is the book for you if you ever wished you could go to Narnia or Hogwarts. Quentin is a brilliant student with a fanboy crush on a series of books clearly based on CS Lewis’s Narnia; the kid who never got over the fact that he didn’t open a wardrobe and find a fantasy paradise. But he does get his Hogwarts letter, finding himself accepted to a college called Brakebills which trains the gifted few in the arts of magic. Quentin is a bit of a prat through the first two books, but the world-building is wonderful: Brakebills is like Harry Potter with drinking, screwing, and swearing.
Buy for: your older brother, so you can reminisce back to the days when he played Peter, you played Lucy, and you both just knew you were going to open a door to Narnia someday and become High King and Queen of Narnia.
10. “The Complete Unwind Dystology” by Neal Shusterman. YA dystopia stories are a dime a dozen these days, but this quartet is a cut above the rest, envisioning a world where the abortion debate and most of the world’s diseases have been solved in the most horrific way possible: abortion is illegal, but from the ages of 13 to 18, parents can elect to have their problem teens Unwound, their bodies harvested as replacement organs and parts for the nation’s diseased and wounded (it doesn’t count as murder, the argument goes, because all the dead teen’s parts are still alive, just in separate bodies!) The book starts with three teens on the run from this grim fate, but spans out to encompass many more characters. A horrifying, thought-provoking, unflinching read through four unputdownable books.
Buy for: your bookworm grandma who thinks YA has turned into nothing but sparkly vampires and love triangles. Be prepared for a long thoughtful discussion on the social ramifications of organ harvesting.
And for a final bonus book . . .
11. “A Day of Fire: a novel of Pompeii” by Stephanie Dray, Ben Kane, E. Knight, Sophie Perinot, Vicky Alvear Shecter and, yes, me. Normally I wouldn’t list one of my own titles on any best-of list, but I only wrote 1/6 of this collection–I had no idea what my collaborators were going to come up with, and I was as agog and delighted as any strange reader when I got to read the whole collection A-Z. Vicky’s heart-breaking boy on the cusp of manhood; Sophie’s quiet engineer hero; Ben’s disreputable ex-soldier with his dogged loyalty; Eliza’s young mother-to-be and Stephanie’s pair of lion-brave whores–these characters didn’t come from my brain, and they combined into a wonderful whole to tell the story of Pompeii’s last fatal day, so I feel justified in pimping my fellow authors. Buy for: everybody you know. Absolutely everybody. Because I want to see this book on the NYT list, don’t you? Let’s make it happen.
1. Page 2: Hey, this book isn’t so bad.
2. Page 81: That’s the fourth misspelled word . . . and those are just the ones I caught. Wait, how many am I missing?!
3. Start over.
4. Send panicked email to writing buddy begging for one more reread of that problematic eighth chapter.
5. This book is terrible.
6. Realize you said the Roman eagle standard was silver, when Imperial-era eagles were gold. Make change, exhale, then grow cold. That was just the historical error you caught. HOW MANY AM I MISSING?!
7. Incorporate Chapter 8 changes from writing buddy, who read your pages at 11:30 at night on what was supposed to be a dinner break in the middle of their own deadline crisis. Hit the Vatican website and start petition to have writing buddy canonized.
8. Spend four hours untangling the timeline inconsistencies pointed out by your copyeditor, then realize it’s all because you miscalculated your hero’s age, i.e. you can’t count.
9. Get the shivers when your primary source says the Chapter 19 lightning strike happened fifteen years earlier than you placed it in your story. Ransack research materials wildly looking for that vindicating second source, which is missing. Finally found under sleeping, resentful dog who has not been walked in days.
10. Compose email offering your editor your first born child and a kidney if you can have another week to finish this. Delete email, go back to work.
11. Deadline Day. Writing buddy comes to your house, handcuffs you to the sink, and presses Send for you.
12. Thank writing buddy. Set a date next week to do the same for her when she needs to press Send.
13. Start drinking.
The reason everything is tidy is because my husband is gone.
Now, he’s not a slob–the faucets in our bathrooms are shined to pass a Navy inspection, and he actually reproaches me if I do the vacuuming without him–but clean and tidy are two very different things. The man I married leaves a swathe of discarded objects in his wake wherever he goes, and I notice it immediately now that he has been transferred overseas, has departed for pre-training, and will not returning home for more than a year.
My carpet is tidy. There is no scatter of boat-sized shoes across the living room, lying everywhere but in the actual shoe bin. It’s less of a tripping hazard–if you tossed his shoes into the sea, they’d have to be registered as shipping hazards–but this shoe-free carpet makes me sad.
My dining room table is tidy. No scatter of Dr. Pepper cans, Red Bull cans, and water bottles, all opened and drunk down to exactly the 1/3 mark.
My kitchen counters are tidy. No enthusiastic-amateur-chef’s mess of spice jars, onion peelings, Wusthof filleting knives, and garlic in every permutation in which garlic can possibly be sold (whole, cloves, peeled, diced, coarse powder, fine powder, and in a paste).
My bedroom is tidy. No clothes that have been dropped on the carpet exactly six inches from the laundry basket. No random pairs of sleeves that have been hacked off yet another t-shirt which he has decided will be more comfortable if sleeveless. No torn and paint-spattered cargo shorts hanging up next to the immaculately pressed Navy whites.
My bookshelves are tidy. There are now gaping holes where his massive and varied collection of Asimov, Heinlein, Shakespeare, and Calvin & Hobbes have been packed for the Middle East.
My driveway is tidy. No screaming-red speed-demon of a Subaru with its “Skydiving: My Drug of Choice” bumper sticker, its exhaust which can be heard from three blocks away, and its horsepower upgrades which probably only the motorheads on Top Gear would call street-legal.
My walls are tidy. One third of the weapons collection is packed into sea-bags, since it would be sheer sadism to ask my sword-mad spouse to pass a year without his replica Legolas daggers, his Japanese short sword, and his combat-grade-steel bastard-length broadsword. At the very least.
No tangle of extra car keys. No Rise Against CDs or vintage Varitek baseball jerseys or thick science textbooks bookmarked to the section on black holes. No emails with links to The Colbert Report or George Takei comics or recipes for truffled lasagna (Dinner tonight?)
I’m a tidy sort–my shoes are always in the bin, my clothes are always in the laundry basket, my eight varieties of garlic are all put away. I groan at the man I married for all the reasons above, though it’s a humorous groan. The year ahead of me is going to be very tidy. Not lonely–I have a ferociously protective and loving dog, a vast circle of friends, and more attentive neighbors than I can count, all within arm’s reach.
But it’s going to be a very tidy year.
I will welcome the mess when it comes home.