Thursday, June 19, 2014

Gladiators, Forbidden Love, & Pompeii... Curses & Smoke by Vicky Alvear Shecter




My Review:  
Curses and Smoke is a book I would have loved to read in junior high or high school, but that didn't stop me from devouring it even as an adult. The story of Tag and Lucia's romance really heats up (sorry, couldn't resist!) even as the signs of Vesuvius' imminent eruption make themselves plain. The action never stops and by the end I was tearing through pages, desperate to find out what would happen to the characters. Vicky Alvear Shecter paints with vivid detail life in the weeks before Vesuvius' eruption, from the countryside surrounding Pompeii to the sometimes painful details of living in ancient Rome.

This is an excellent YA read for anyone intrigued by Pompeii's tragic story. (And honestly, who isn't fascinated by Pompeii?)


Synopsis:
When your world blows apart, what will you hold onto?

TAG is a medical slave, doomed to spend his life healing his master's injured gladiators. But his warrior's heart yearns to fight in the gladiator ring himself and earn enough money to win his freedom.

LUCIA is the daughter of Tag's owner, doomed by her father's greed to marry a much older Roman man. But she loves studying the natural world around her home in Pompeii, and lately she's been noticing some odd occurrences in the landscape: small lakes disappearing; a sulfurous smell in the air. 


When the two childhood friends reconnect, each with their own longings, they fall passionately in love. But as they plot their escape from the city, a patrician fighter reveals his own plans for them -- to Lucia's father, who imprisons Tag as punishment. Then an earthquake shakes Pompeii, in the first sign of the chaos to come. Will they be able to find each other again before the volcano destroys their whole world?


About the Author:  
Vicky Alvear Shecter wishes she had a time machine to go back to the glory days of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. Until she can find one, she writes about the famous and fabulous lives of the ancients and their gods instead. She is also a docent at the Michael C. Carlos Museum of Antiquities at Emory University.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Tarot Cards, Guillotines, & Napoleon: Becoming Josephine by Heather Webb


My review: In Becoming Josephine, Heather Webb's marvelous debut has spun the tangled web of a lively and intriguing Josephine, carrying the reader through her early life in Martinique to her near-death escapes during the French Revolution's Terror, and finally to her tumultuous years married to the mercurial Napoleon Bonaparte. (A man I never in a million years would have wanted to be married to.) This is a fast-paced read that immerses readers in the decadent smells of the Caribbean's sugar plantations, the dank prisons of Paris, and the Enlightenment salons replete with philosophes debating the ideas of the fledgling republic. Throughout it all, Josephine learns what it is to trust her own daring and stand on her own two feet.


Synopsis: Rose Tascher sails from her Martinique plantation to Paris to trade her Creole black magic culture for love and adventure. She arrives exultant to follow her dreams of attending Court with Alexandre, her elegant aristocrat and soldier husband. But Alexandre dashes her hopes and abandons her amid the tumult of the French Revolution.

Through her savoir faire, Rose secures her footing in high society, reveling in handsome men and glitzy balls—until the heads of her friends begin to roll.

After narrowly escaping death in the blood-drenched cells of Les Carmes prison, she reinvents herself as Josephine, a socialite of status and power. Yet her youth is fading, and Josephine must choose between a precarious independence and the love of an awkward suitor. Little does she know, he would become the most powerful man of his century- Napoleon Bonaparte.

BECOMING JOSEPHINE is a novel of one woman’s journey to find eternal love and stability, and ultimately to find herself. 


About the Author: Heather Webb grew up a military brat and naturally became obsessed with travel, culture, and languages. She put her degrees to good use teaching high school French for nearly a decade before turning to full time novel writing and freelance editing. Her debut, BECOMING JOSEPHINE, released January 2014 from Plume/Penguin. Her forthcoming novel, RODIN'S LOVER, will release in winter of 2015.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Guest Post by Gary Corby: The Egyptian Inspiration


I'm beyond excited to have Gary Corby, the guru of all that is Greek and mysterious (because he writes mysteries set in ancient Greece), here today. His latest caper, The Marathon Conspiracy, about Nicolaos, the gumshoe older brother of Socrates, just released last month. Take it away, Gary!


Here’s a trick question.  What country does this statue come from?

Many people would say Egypt.  It certainly looks Egyptian, doesn’t it, with the arms by the sides, the left leg forward and the perfectly symmetrical body.

It is in fact Greek.  The statue is a kouros, a grave monument to a young man.  This one is in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, but there are loads of these kouros statues dotted around the world’s museums, and every one of them looks just like this one.  The pose is always exactly the same Egyptian stance. 

Archaic Greek statues look Egyptian because the Greeks thought their culture came from ancient Egypt.  It was like a little boy copying his big brother.  Many people don’t realize the ancient Greeks also had sphinx statues, and the sphinx is about as Egyptian as you can get. 

When an ancient Greek wanted to go on a study tour to a place of higher learning, he hopped on the next boat going south to Egypt.  Solon the Wise did exactly that (and came back with an unfortunate tale about some place called Atlantis).  Egypt is the only place we know for sure that Herodotus visited.  Alexander the Great visited Egypt, bringing a few friends with him.   

Another odd circumstance is that a lot of the graffiti to be found on Egyptian monuments is written in ancient Greek.  Greeks liked to hire out as mercenaries, you see.  Many of them found work in Egypt, where like soldiers everywhere they wrote the ancient Greek equivalent of “Kilroy was here.”

So just as we look back on Greece as the source of our civilization, the Greeks themselves revered Egypt as the source of theirs. 

Gary Corby writes murder mysteries set in classical Greece.  You can typically find him at garycorby.com.

http://www.amazon.com/The-Marathon-Conspiracy-Gary-Corby/dp/161695387X

 Synopsis: Nicolaos, Classical Athens's favorite sleuth, and his partner in investigation, the clever ex-priestess Diotima, have taken time out of their assignments to come home to get married. But if Nico was hoping they'd be able to get hitched without a hitch, he was overly optimistic. When they arrive in Athens, there's a problem waiting for them.

The Sanctuary of Artemis is the ancient world's most famous school for girls. When one of the children is killed, apparently by a bear, and another girl disappears in the night, Diotima's childhood teacher asks her former pupil to help them. Diotima is honor-bound to help her old school.

Meanwhile a skull discovered in a cave not far from the sanctuary has proven to be the remains of the last tyrant to rule Athens. The Athenians fought the Battle Marathon to keep this man out of power. He was supposed to have died thirty years ago, in faraway Persia. What are his remains doing outside the city walls?

Nico's boss, the great Athenian statesman Pericles, wants answers, and he wants Nico to find them.

What makes it all so ominous is that the skull was discovered by the two students of the Sanctuary of Artemis who are dead and missing.

What does a decades-dead tyrant have to do with two young girls?  Where is the missing child?  Is a killer bear really lurking beyond the walls of Athens? And who is the mysterious stranger who's trying to kill Nico and Diotima? Can the sleuths solve the interlocked crimes and save a child before their wedding?
 

Monday, May 26, 2014

A Tale of Alchemy & Murder: The Red Lily Crown


My Review: Everyone knows about Cosimo and Lorenzo de Medici, and Florence's place center-stage during the Renaissance, but in The Red Lily Crown, Elizabeth Loupas brings to life the complicated character of Francesco de Medici and a little known facet of Renaissance life: alchemy.

I dearly love reading about the lesser-explored aspects of history and I thoroughly enjoyed experiencing the life of a female alchemist through the eyes of Chiara Nerini, a bookseller's daughter who is swept into the torrid events of the Medici court. This novel is definitely not your run-of-the-mill historical fiction, but a decadent and dark feast for the imagination.


Synopsis:
April, 1574, Florence, Italy. Grand Duke Cosimo de’ Medici lies dying. The city is paralyzed with dread, for the next man to wear the red lily crown will be Prince Francesco: despotic, dangerous, and obsessed with alchemy.

Chiara Nerini, the troubled daughter of an anti-Medici bookseller, sets out to save her starving family by selling her dead father’s rare alchemical equipment to the prince. Instead she is trapped in his household—imprisoned and forcibly initiated as a virgin acolyte in Francesco’s quest for power and immortality. Undaunted, she seizes her chance to pursue undreamed-of power of her own.

Witness to sensuous intrigues and brutal murder plots, Chiara seeks a safe path through the labyrinth of Medici tyranny and deception. Beside her walks the prince’s mysterious English alchemist Ruanno, her friend and teacher, driven by his own dark goals. Can Chiara trust him to keep her secrets, …even to love her… ,or will he prove to be her most treacherous enemy of all?


 About the Author: Elizabeth Loupas lives near the Elm Fork of the Trinity River, halfway between Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas.
 

She hates housework, cold weather, and wearing shoes. She loves animals, gardens, and popcorn. Not surprisingly she lives in a state of happy barefoot chaos with her delightful and faintly bemused husband (the Broadcasting Legend™), her herb garden, her popcorn popper, and two beagles.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The True (And Sometimes Painful) Story of Publishing Daughter of the Gods

Huzzah! Daughter of the Gods will finally hit the shelves this Tuesday, providing an ecstatic ending for what might have been the tear-filled, depressing conclusion of my dream of getting Hatshepsut's story published. 

The early version of Daughter of the Gods was titled Hatshepsut: Queen and Pharaoh (terrible, I know) and came within a breath of dying a lonely death on my desktop. It took me two painful years to write the first draft of the darn thing, but during all that time I couldn't get Hatshepsut to stop whispering in my ear. (Mostly kind words like, "You left me in the Hall of Women with Thutmosis, you wench... Get me out of there!") Then there was another long year of revising before I felt the book was ready to send off to agents. I knew the query trenches were going to be a soul-sucking abyss of pain and suffering, but I was ready. 

Or at least I thought I was. 

Do you know how many queries I sent out over the course of the following year? 

219.

(I know this because I checked my Querytracker account today. I had previously succeeded in blocking this number from my memory.)

At first there were nibbles, but the agents all said the same thing: The story didn't grab them. I shed many a tear, and finally a wonderful author-friend offered to take a look at the pages, either out of the kindness of his heart or because he could hear me sobbing all the way from Alaska. Both he and his agent ripped the story to shreds, told me it had potential, and to revise again. 

I did. And then I send it out again. 

I had 12 total requests and one offer of representation, but the offering agent's philosophy was the polar opposite of mine, so after receiving some excellent (albeit painful) advice from the same wonderful author-friend above, I declined. 

(And then I proceeded to eat more red velvet Costco cake than any normal human should ever ingest, salted with my tears.)

People told me that Hatshepsut's story would be my "drawer novel," the one that disappeared to gather dust and never see the light of day. I couldn't do that to Hatshepsut, but after four years, I couldn't very well keep doing what I'd been doing.

So, after shedding a small lake of tears, I set Hatshepsut aside to write The Secret History. I knew I could do justice to Theodora's story, but I also knew I could never leave Hatshepsut alone. It took me a full year to write and revise The Secret History before I felt confident enough to send Theodora out into the world. 

In less than a month, I had an offer of representation from Marlene Stringer. I screamed and wailed, and of course, said yes. 

But my yes came with a caveat. I told Marlene that I had this other manuscript about Hatshepsut, Egypt's first successful female pharaoh, and I hoped she'd be interested in representing that story as well. Thankfully, she was, and the pieces were in place. 

But I still had to rewrite Hatshepsut, including giving it a new title. And this was no small revision; I ripped my baby to shreds and painstakingly stitched it back together again, all while The Secret History was on submission. 

And then came Marlene's email, telling me that there were offers on the table for The Secret History, and that she needed the manuscript for Daughter of the Gods ASAP because we might be able to sell that too. Oh, and by the way, did I also have a proposal for that book about Genghis Khan's women that I'd once mentioned? 

(No, I didn't have a proposal, but I learned that I can write one in record time if given enough ice cream and wine.)   

As it turned out, NAL/Penguin wanted all three of my novels, meaning that I'd finally found a home for Theodora, Genghis Khan's gaggle of women, and most importantly, Hatshepsut. 

(This, of course, necessitated more cake and wine, but this time neither were salted with my tears.)

So, the moral of this particular story is that you must obey to Winston Churchill's excellent advice. 

Never, never, never give up.

Every writer's publishing journey is different, and some are more rocky that others. (Some require hiking up Mount Everest without oxygen... On your hands.) But if you truly believe in your story and are willing to put in the blood, sweat, and tears, then wonderful, wonderful things can happen.     

Trust me. I know.   

Friday, May 2, 2014

5 Star Review: The Lion & the Rose


My Review: I'm not sure how it's possible, but I enjoyed Kate Quinn's The Lion and the Rose even more than the prequel, The Serpent and the Pearl. It's often all too easy to guess the twists and turns of a story: how a novel is going to finish and which characters will saunter off together, but this is not that book! Part of the genius of Quinn's novel is its amazing cast of characters; feisty nun-turned-cook Carmelina (who keeps a mummified saint's hand in her skirt), sarcastic Leonello (the dwarf bodyguard with a pocket full of knives), or the deceptive Bride of Christ Giulia Farnese (who plays the whore, but has a heart of gold and a quick mind hidden under all her blond hair). Just when you think you know each of them, each is plunged into further Borgia drama and left to scrabble on their own to survive. And, as always, Quinn delivers a stunning backdrop to the reader, eliciting the heavenly smells of a Renaissance kitchen all the way to the foul stench of the meanest alleyways in Rome.

This is the Renaissance at its best (and really, the Borgias at their worst), but be warned: The Lion and the Rose will keep you flipping pages long into the night!



Synopsis: From the national bestselling author of The Serpent and the Pearl comes the continuing saga of the ruthless family that holds all of Rome in its grasp, and the three outsiders thrust into their twisted web of blood and deceit . . .

As the cherished concubine of the Borgia Pope Alexander VI, Giulia Farnese has Rome at her feet. But after narrowly escaping a sinister captor, she realizes that the danger she faces is far from over—and now, it threatens from within. The Holy City of Rome is still under Alexander’s thrall, but enemies of the Borgias are starting to circle. In need of trusted allies, Giulia turns to her sharp-tongued bodyguard, Leonello, and her fiery cook and confidante, Carmelina.

Caught in the deadly world of the Renaissance’s most notorious family, Giulia, Leonello, and Carmelina must decide if they will flee the dangerous dream of power. But as the shadows of murder and corruption rise through the Vatican, they must learn who to trust when every face wears a mask . . .


 About the Author: Kate Quinn is a native of southern California. She attended Boston University, where she earned a Bachelor's and Master's degree in Classical Voice. A lifelong history buff, she has written three novels set in ancient Rome: "Mistress of Rome," "Daughters of Rome," and "Empress of the Seven Hills," all of which have been translated into multiple languages.

Kate made the jump from ancient Rome to Renaissance Italy for her fourth and fifth novels, "The Serpent and the Pearl" and "The Lion and the Rose," detailing the early years of the Borgia clan. She also has succumbed to the blogging bug, and keeps a blog filled with trivia, pet peeves, and interesting facts about historical fiction. She and her husband now live in Maryland with a small black dog named Caesar, and her interests include opera, action movies, cooking, and the Boston Red Sox.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

A Secret About Running & Writing



That meme up there is absolutely true, and the same goes for a writer... The most difficult word a writer writes is often the first. 

Butt in the chair, right?

But there's something more. Nobody tells you when you're first starting to run that it takes a few miles before you warm up and hit your stride. For years, I hated running and never went further than two miles. Because they sucked.

Well, guess what?

The first two miles still suck. But I put my head down and soldier on, one step at a time. And amazingly, around Mile 3 or 4, almost without fail, it suddenly becomes easier. 

(Side note: That easy bit crashes and burns around Mile 8, but ignore that for the sake of the awesome analogy I'm building.)

Yesterday, I stared in agony at my blank page in Word for half an hour (while writing a battle scene, no less, which should have been easy). I desperately wanted to quit, to throw in the towel with an epic daily word count of... 26. 

But I didn't.

And slowly but surely, the words started to come. It took another half hour to get the four pages I told myself I had to type before I could watch an episode of Doctor Who, but it didn't matter, because those four pages had suddenly gotten easy.

So, yeah, running is hard. And writing is hard. Sometimes they both downright suck. But often, if you just keep at it, you'll hit your stride. And although I'm not promising the miles or the words will ever come easy, sometimes they just might.  

And regardless, when you've finished that long slog of a run or the chapter that almost killed you, you feel really, really damn good. 

And then you can eat ice cream cake and watch Doctor Who.