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Join me for reviews, interesting guest posts, and quirky interviews at the following blogs (and there are giveaways!):

June 26-28 Historical Novel Society convention at Denver. See you there!

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I get pitched a lot of books. I usually accept about one a month. I like most of them and write a paragraph or two on GoodReads.com, LibraryThing.com or Amazon.com. A very few get the full blog treatment. Hand of Fire by Judith Starkston is one of those I want to enthusiastically share with my fellow readers. Her novel has all the elements I look for in historical fiction: compelling characters, engaging plot, and fascinating setting.

About the book:

Hand-of-Fire-Cover-Large-203x300The Trojan War threatens Troy’s allies and the Greek supply raids spread. A young healing priestess, designated as future queen, must defend her city against both divine anger and invading Greeks. She finds strength in visions of a handsome warrior god; will that be enough when the half-immortal Achilles attacks? Hand of Fire, a tale of resilience and hope, blends history and legend in the untold story of Achilles’s famous captive, Briseis.

I have a weakness for stories that shine a light on little known women or give silenced women a voice in the way Anita Diamant spoke for the biblical Dina (Joseph’s only sister) in her wildly popular The Red Tent. Starkston takes a similar approach through the story of Briseis. In the Iliad Briseis has only a handful of lines, yet she is a pivotal character in the narrative arc of the classic poem, sparking a rift between Achilles and Agamemnon that almost brings the Greek war against Troy to ruin. In the poem she expresses her love for Achilles in spite of the fact that he killed her brothers and husband, sacked her city, and reduced her status from princess to slave. A tall order to build a believable scenario where that could happen! Starkston does a beautiful job taking the slender clues about Briseis’ life and times and building believable characters. Briseis matures from an uncertain girl to a woman capable of determining her own destiny in this engaging story. (more…)

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Princesses Behaving Badly book coverOnce upon a time, there lived a beautiful princess who wasn’t afraid to cheat, deceive, seduce or murder anyone who got in her way.

I like these kinds of books—collections of short bios of (mostly) unknown women who are remarkable for doing daring/unusual things down through history. I have one on women at sea; several on women warriors; others on women explorers, mathematicians, and scientists. They generally follow a pattern of one to two page biographies written in a breezy, modern style emphasizing the outrageousness (for her time) of the woman’s actions.

Why do I like these kinds of books? To be honest, they’re snack food—light fluffy reads that give me a break from heavy turgid research books. They also remind me that—despite what the history books tell us—some women of every age, somewhere in the world were doing remarkable things. The majority (like today) lived ordinary lives, but a few women always stood out and lived extraordinary ones. I like learning about them and being inspired to tell their stories. This kind of book is a good starting point for any historical novelist looking for inspiration.

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Cover of Daughters of Copper WomanSometimes a book grabs me by the heart and won’t let go. Daughters of Copper Woman is one of those books. I’ve been fascinated by myths, legends and folk tales since I was small. I devoured the children’s books about Greek myths and quickly moved on to Norse legends and Grimm’s tales. For the most part I enjoyed them as adventure and hero stories filled with fantasy, but (except for fables) little in the way of morals or values. I have an informal collection of the classics, plus books from the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Knowing my passion, it’s not surprising my daughter gave me this book for Mother’s Day.

First published in 1981, Daughters of Copper Woman is a wonderful retelling of myths and history through the voices of elderly First Nations women from the American Northwest. The author Anne Cameron is of Celtic descent, but lived close to the reservation on Vancouver Island and chronicled their tales in this book and its sequel Dzelarhons: Mythology of the Northwest Coast. Copper Woman is considered an underground classic and has sold over 200,000 copies, in many languages, world-wide.

So my question: “How the hell did I miss this book for the last thirty-two years?”

From the opening story “Copper Woman”:

And then the Creator, who is neither male nor female, man nor woman, but both, and something more than either…took the shells of the sea and the minerals of the rocks and fashioned a skeleton…took the salt water of the ocean and made from it blood…took handfuls of dirt and on the skeleton fashioned a body, which was then encased in skin, made from the skin of the Creator and the same color as copper…she became First Woman, she became Copper Woman.

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Eighty Days coverI delight in spotlighting the lives and accomplishments of women in past times—particularly “ordinary” women doing extraordinary things. Eighty Days is a true adventure story about two young female journalists who traveled around the world—in opposite directions—alone, during the heart of the Victorian Age. From the back cover:

“On November 14, 1898, Nellie Bly, the crusading young female reporter for Joseph Pulitzer’s World newspaper, left new York City by steamship on a quest to break the record for the fastest trip around the world. Also departing from New York that day—and heading in the opposite direction by train—was a young journalist from The Cosmopolitan magazine, Elizabeth Bisland. Each woman was determined to outdo Jules Vern’s fictional hero Phileas Fogg and circle the globe in less than eighty days. A vivid real-life re-creation of the race and its aftermath, this is history with the heart of a great adventure novel.”

Matthew Goodman does an excellent job bringing these two women to life, filling in the background of exotic locations and Victorian attitudes as they make their remarkable journey—not just around the world, but through life. In his prologue, Goodman sets up the reader with vivid descriptions of the two journalists leaving on November 14, 1898. He then backtracks to tell each of their stories and the ambitions that led to their history-making race. In a tactic used throughout the book, this leads to exploring the history of women in journalism up to that time—a remarkable tale—introducing the reader to a raft of intrepid women who covered politics, corruption and social justice issues; as well as tea parties and fashion shows in an era hostile towards women in any public role.

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Seven Wonders cover

Gordianus the Finder is back in this prequel to Steven Saylor’s popular series of mysteries set in the Roman Republic of Cicero and Caesar. Gordianus is eighteen and embarks on the First Century BCE equivalent of a “Grand Tour” with his old tutor and famous poet Antipater of Sidon. As the Italian peninsula simmers with rebellion, the pair head east to visit the Seven Wonders of the World encountering murder, mysteries and political intrigues. Over the course of their year+ journey, Gordianus evolves into “the Finder” series readers have come to know and love.

For the record, I am not a Gordianus fan. I very much enjoyed Saylor’s multi-generational epics Roma and Empire, which I reviewed, but didn’t take to the couple of Finder novels I sampled. Not because they were bad books, but because I’m not that into historical mysteries. Every reader has her quirks. This book has a distinctly different structure from the others. Saylor uses the journey to visit the Seven Wonders as a framework for several short stories (many of which were previously published in mystery and fantasy magazines.) Each Wonder gets a story with a few interludes, such as attending the Olympic Games and visiting the ruins of Corinth, resulting in ten chapters dealing with murder, witchcraft, ghosts and gods. As their journey continues, a larger mystery entangles Gordianus and Antipater with spies and other enemies of Rome. (more…)

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Cover ImageI love a good story about women pushing the boundaries in times past, especially when they are based on real people. The Kings’ Mistresses is the true tale of two sisters: Marie Mancini and her younger sister Hortense, the nieces of one of the most powerful men in seventeenth century France, Cardinal Mazarin (a protégé of Richelieu.) Mazarin, rose from obscure roots in Rome to become Prime Minister to the Queen Regent of France, Anne of Austria and her son Louis XIV. Along the way he acquired great wealth as well as influence and enemies. He hoped to consolidate his influence by the well-known ploy of strategic marriage, so he summoned his Italian nieces and nephews to the French court. In 1653 Marie, “a dark-haired and intelligent-looking adolescent of thirteen” and Hortense, “a mere child of six, with curly black hair and striking in her delicate beauty” left their home in Rome to travel to Paris. It was the first of many journeys in their fascinating lives. (more…)

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