Monday, August 2, 2010

Grand Re-Opening!

This is the first issue of Estella's Revenge to appear in over a year, and we hope it's one of many to come. Heather, Melissa, and Andi all missed bringing you content, so we couldn't stay away any longer. Admittedly, this first issue is a little slim, but there's more to come in November. Andi is planning a column on e-books, we'll continue to spotlight independent and small presses, and we already have some reviews and other goodies in the works.

For now, please enjoy the fantastic contributions including the inside story of a small press as its created, an interview with historical fiction author, Elizabeth Chadwick, and some great reviews of books you may not have encountered in your bloggy travels.

Thanks for stopping by, and we'll see you again in November!

Note: To keep things looking clean and tidy, we have this post on the front page, and you can navigate through the other content by using "Table of Contents" labeled August 2010 on the right-hand side of your screen.

Review: The Waiter Rant

The Waiter Rant
Written by Steve Dublancia
Ecco, imprint of Harper Collins
302 pages (with three Appendices)
Reviewed by Melissa

The restaurant industry is an interesting business. It's providing us food -- something we need to survive -- but it's also a luxury. Going out to eat is something that, for the most part, is really only available to those of us middle class and above. And yet, we rarely give a thought to the people who work in the industry: those who are making, and serving, the food that we are paying for and eating.

If Anthony Bourdain gave us an insight to the restaurant kitchen with Kitchen Confidential, then Steve Dublancia has done the same for the waitstaff in this book: a long-time professional waiter at an upscale restaurant in Manhattan, Dublancia wrote a blog for years under the pseudonym "The Waiter", eventually turning it into this book.

It's a brutally honest one, too. Dublancia not only doesn't mince words about bad owners, crappy working conditions, and -- most of all -- the customers. He's full of stories from the working conditions of his first place -- the owner was an overbearing jerk, the manager was corrupt, the working conditions horrid -- to the stories of customers from The Bistro, the place where Dublancia was headwaiter for six years. These are the most entertaining stories: from the sweet, to the famous (the ones about Russell Crowe are priceless), to the inane, to the outright obscene, Dublancia doesn't spare anything or anyone. Perhaps I'm just sheltered (or perhaps Dublancia's exaggerating), but it's amazing what goes on at, and what people really expect from, restaurants.

As an aside, Dublancia doesn't have much respect for people who watch Food Network and assume they know everything:

Gone are the days when patrons blindly ordered off the menu and took the chef's word as gospel. Things like free-range chicken, organic fish, and the stuff hemp-sandaled hippies ate was unheard of. Kobe steak? A sybaritic rarity. Nowadays customers armed with information gleaned from the Internet and television shows fancy themselves as apprentice chefs. Just because they read chef biographies and watch Bobby Flay, they think they know everything there is to know about restaurants and cooking. Trust me, they don't. In my seven years as a waiter I haven't learned a tenth of what there is to know. Do you watch Grey's Anatomy and think you can perform surgery? I hope not. Customers often think they're entitled to second-guess a chef's judgment.

It's not just the dish on the crazy bad lifestyle of a waiter or the weird and cheap and rude customers, though: it's also a reflective piece about a man who, while he is good at what he does, is coming to terms with the fact that being a waiter is not the world's best long-term career. These sections felt more forced, and were ultimately less interesting; perhaps our expectations when reading books like these are only for the dirt, so we can feel superior and anything else is a let-down. Then again, Dublanica did get his degree in psychology, so maybe a large helping of self-reflection was inevitable, even if it didn't quite fit in with the snarkiness of the rest of the book. The other quibble -- something else that didn't quite fit -- was his use of language: every once in a while he'd throw in a word -- like sybaritic in the above quote -- that just made me do a double take. They felt out of place, almost as if he was trying to make the book more upscale, and it just didn't work.

Even with the defects, though, the book is quite an enjoyable read. And, I promise, it'll make you rethink the way you treat your waitstaff.

Why Would Adults Read YA?

By Tamela McCann

Why would an adult spend time reading books meant for teenagers? What is it about young adult literature that makes otherwise reasonably well read, mostly mature people put aside the books written specifically for them and gobble up stories featuring characters much younger doing things only teenagers can? Is it the storylines? Is it the characterizations, the sense that you somehow *know* these people? Is it the sense of looking back to vanished youth, wishing you were still there but grateful that you aren’t? Or is it the fact that books for young adults are simply well-written, identifiable tales, no matter what your age?

Yep. That’s pretty much covers it.

I’ve always read children’s literature and young adult books, even in that long ago time when I had no children of my own and my “excuse” was that I was a middle school teacher who needed to be in touch with what was out there. The fact is, young adult literature still speaks to me, even though I left my own young adult years a while ago. Whenever I find myself in a reading funk, I can pretty much rely on a YA book to pull me out. No matter the genre, it’s the characterizations that drive young adult lit, and it’s that force that sucks me in. Even in the wildest of settings, there’s a sense of been there, felt that, that comes through; the knowledge that someone else understands your particular pain or situation climbs right out of those pages and grabs hold. There’s a sense of shared experience with young adult books that transcends the book itself as well. I remember surreptitiously passing Judy Blume’s Forever back and forth in junior high; not one of us even had a boyfriend, let alone were considering sex, but it was the idea that someday we might actually do the deed that kept us passing that book so that we all might know what was ahead.

So here I am, some (cough) years past the time I was age appropriate for reading YA books, still reading and loving everything about them. It’s one of the first areas I prowl when I go into a bookstore, and walking into our middle school library still makes my heart race with possibilities. The sight of a school book fair has been known to make me drool like Pavlov’s dog. I could go all scientific and try to analyze just why I find the young adult genre so engrossing but honestly, I don’t care. I just love young adult literature, and I know that nine times out of ten, I’m going to become totally engrossed in the story, whether it’s realistic, fantasy, or historical.

One of my reasons for writing this column is to share some of my favorite YA books and to hopefully hear from you guys what yours are. This month I’m psyched beyond all reason for the third book in The Hunger Games trilogy, Mockingjay, which comes out August 24 (and which I pre-ordered months ago). The Hunger Games is the story of Katniss Everdeen (love the name!), a teen who lives in Panem, the nation that grew out of what was once North America. In order to remind the nation of the Hunger, a desperate time when
there was no food, the Capitol has established The Hunger Games; each of the twelve Districts send a boy and a girl to the Games to fight to the death until only one survives. When Katniss’s younger sister is chosen, Katniss substitutes herself but she is far from resigned to her fate. Realizing that it’s as much about entertainment for the masses as it is about history, Katniss and her partner Peeta learn to play the Game and work to circumvent everything the Capitol throws at them. The Hunger Games kept me on the edge of my seat; Katniss is a strong protagonist whose quick mind and startling skills makes this book so much more than just a fantasy. It’s survival of the fittest but only one can win.

I was lucky enough to have to wait only have a couple of months after finishing The Hunger Games for the sequel Catching Fire to arrive. The nature of Catching Fire taking place at hinges on the ending of The Hunger Games so I won’t spend time recounting the plot. I did read some reviews that suggested that Catching Fire wasn’t quite as exciting as The Hunger Games, but I found it just as enthralling because though there are similarities, there is also character and plot development that set us up for the third installment. Suffice it to say that there is a return to the arena where things go horribly awry once again. Ending on a huge cliffhanger, Catching Fire did just that for me; I swear I felt feverish in my excitement and desire to know how it’s all going to end. August 24, come on! Don’t you publishers understand I *need* this book right now?

If you haven’t picked up a YA book in a while, do yourself a favor and grab The Hunger Games to see what you’re missing. YA isn’t just teenage angst; it’s about the world(s) and our place(s) among the rest of humanity. I guarantee that you’re going to identify with that no matter what your age.

Other recommended books for this month: Evernight by Claudia Gray, Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater, Wolf by the Ears by Ann Rinaldi, Looking for Alaska by John Green, The Face on the Milk Carton by Caroline B. Cooney.

Rozlyn Press: Part 1 (The Birth)

Written by Alayne Fiore

Close your eyes and think back on the worst rejection letter you’ve ever received. Remember that hot sting of embarrassment prickling your cheeks? The burn of your eyes filling with tears? Recall the stomach-churning disappointment mixed with the heart-sinking sense of failure? Can you hear that voice? The one saying you aren’t good enough because the letter says there were lots of “overqualified candidates this year” which obviously means you weren’t “overqualified,” let alone “qualified-enough” to begin with.

We all know that feeling; we’ve all gotten one of those letters. The last time I got one was April 14, 2010. It rejected me from the Graduate program for Creative Writing and Publishing which my heart had been set on. Before you think I’m some woe-is-me sap who gets all neurotic over one rejection, let me tell you the rest of the story.

First of all, this was the second rejection letter I had gotten in as many years from the same program. Secondly, this program is at the college I went to as an undergrad. If they say I’m not smart enough to get in, they really only have themselves to blame. And thirdly, the program at this college which is my alma-mater also happens to be the college that I currently work for, that I have worked for full-time with rock-star performance for over five years. Maybe it was the free-tuition I’d be getting. Or maybe they just really, really don’t like me. Thanks boss.

Rejection leaves you one of two ways: sad and depressed (that was me circa-April 2009, the first time I got rejected), or snarky and over-it (this is me now). I started a book blog, The Crowded Leaf, after the first time I was rejected. The second time made me a monster; a veritable beast turning lemons into lemonade.

Rejection Number Two had a Plan B attached (I was well-prepared): a Certificate Program in Literary Publishing that anyone could enroll in, thus requiring no rejection letters and only a modest chunk of my savings account. I didn’t quite know what to expect from the class, which ran for one week this past June, but I hoped to come out of it with a better knowledge of publishing, a fancy one-liner on my resume, and a vague idea of where I should go next.

The class blew my mind, folks. A five-day intensive which covered nearly everything I would need to know in order to open my own small book press. The light bulb flashed over my head. There were church bells and chimes in the air. There was me as I ran up seventy-two stone steps in a grey sweat-suit and jogged in place victoriously while a crescendo of music soared and one-hundred of my closest friends cheered me on. That explosion you heard? It was my brain.

The seed was planted and out of it grew Rozlyn Press: a small book press for female fiction novelists focusing on the contemporary, magical realism, and suspense genres. Founded, funded, and freakishly run by none other than yours truly. I have a timeline and semi-formed plans. I have a website and a Facebook and a Twitter. I have a formal business plan and an Employer Identification Number (oh snap, IRS!). I have a name and a list of things to do before that name means anything to anyone. I have a long way to go, but I have passion, and a natural talent and knowledge of what is good about a book, and the burn of rejection to spur me onward. The first step is learning how to design books; the next is my call for submissions. Sometime, book-gods willing, maybe a little over a year from now, I’ll hold in my very hands the first book ever published by Rozlyn Press. And then I’ll mail it out for reviews. Stay tuned for updates on this crazy journey.

Review: Inés of My Soul

Inés of My Soul
Written by Isabel Allende
Harper Perennial
352 pages
Reviewed by April D. Boland

Women in history are so often forgotten. Do we really know all there is to know about the parts women played in historical turning points such as the settlement of the Americas? Isabel Allende believes that we do not. For this reason, she wrote Inés of My Soul, to retell the story of one woman who played an enormous role in conquering what is now Chile.

Allende is well known for her works of magical realism, focusing on Chile and its people. Having been born in Peru but raised in Chile, many of Allende’s works, including The House of the Spirits and Eva Luna, are largely based on the author’s own life. With Inés of My Soul, however, she takes an entirely different direction, highlighting the achievements of one woman without whom the settlement of Chile might have failed.

Allende begins her tale of the life of Inés Suarez in the protagonist’s homeland, Spain, where she marries her lover, Juan de Málaga, only to be abandoned by him when he decides to go off to explore the “New World.” A woman of intense intelligence, courage and vigor, Inés is not satisfied to sit back and live the life of a traditional Spanish lady. She decides that though she is no longer in love with her husband, she will use the excuse of searching for him to get her to the New World for her own adventure.

Inés travels to the Americas with her niece, Constanza, a soon-to-be-nun who runs off to marry a handsome sailor. Inés, left alone, is constantly plagued by would-be rapists who threaten her very survival. Upon arrival, she learns that her husband, Juan, died in battle in Peru while fighting for the brother of Francisco Pizarro, the famous conquistador.

Inés soon meets Pedro de Valdivia, an accomplished soldier who is also from the same region of Spain as she. He has left behind a timid, prudish wife to find adventure and glory in the New World. His dream is to conquer Chile, and as he and Inés become lovers, they take on this adventure together. The hardships are unimaginable – these two, along with a band of Spanish soldiers and Yanacona Indians – travel south from Peru and battle hunger, thirst and the constant threat of attacks from the natives.

The small settlement of Santiago, Chile is nearly rubbed off the map countless times, often being saved by the quick thinking and intuition of Inés. Readers are introduced not only to this band of enterprising Spaniards, but to the various tribes of people they are attempting to subdue. From the Yanaconas who fight with them to the Mapuche who will battle them to the death to maintain control over their land, these people have their own cultures and way of life that are forever threatened. Reading the story today in 2010 adds to the tragedy. We know what will happen to the indigenous peoples in the end.

The story of Inés is the story of a woman who rose up with courage to succeed where many men failed, yet at the same time, she is not an uncomplicated heroine. Despite her sympathy for tortured Indians and her conviction that she and other Spanish would do the same to defend their land if threatened, she is part of a movement of brutality and theft. Readers can sympathize with her struggles yet cannot embrace her completely. The novel raises intense questions about gender, race, colonialism, courage, and the simple distinction between right and wrong, which is often blurred. With some unexpected twists and incredibly complex characters, Inés of My Soul is a masterpiece you will not be able to put down.

The Waste Land by Simon Acland

The Waste Land: An Entertainment
Written by Simon Acland
Charlwood Books
384 pages
Reviewed by Elaine Simpson-Long

Underneath the title of this book on its front cover are the words An Entertainment. The reader is therefore given a clear message that this book is meant to be just that, perhaps not to be taken too seriously and to be read with enjoyment and pleasure. As this reader did.

The author used to be a venture capitalist. His company was sold in 2007 and he took the opportunity to turn to writing. As you do. Apparently Simon Acland studied thirteenth French Grail romances at University from whence stems his interest in the myths and legends surrounding the Holy Grail. For this I am most grateful and also grateful to the capital ventures as I am making the assumption that they have enabled him to write this terrific book for our delight.

The Waste Land opens in St Lazarus College where the Master is waiting the arrival of the Best Selling Author (always referred to in this way and with capital letters too), an erstwhile member of the university who has written several successful books. As the BSA (which is how I will refer to him from now on), was not a brilliant student or academically gifted it rather sticks in the craw that he is being welcomed in this way, but times is hard and money is needed and the Master is rather hoping the BSA will gift a donation to prop up the college. Hence the invitation and the dinner.

It soon becomes clear that this is a misplaced hope as the BSA does not appear to have any money to spare at all and also admits "I seem to have run out of ideas. I can't get any good plots going". And then up pipes the disfigured and insignificant Research Assistant who reveals that he has made an extraordinary discovery in the library.

"I found a parchment manuscript, written partially in old Greek, insterspered with medieval was stuck in the middle of an unintersting seems to be the journal of some Crusader monk who claims to have discovered the truth of the Holy Grail. It is an extraordinary story, as gripping as anything that our honoured guest has ever devised"

The Master seizes on this as an answer to their problem "the manuscript, college property of course, could provide our friend here with his new plot. He will write it in his inimitable style and share the royalties with the college...."

And off we go. The story of Hugh de Verdon, monk turned knight, during the historical events of the First Crusade is totally fascinating and gripping. The Crusades, supposedly a Holy War (where have we heard that before) was bloody and brutal and the narrative is in the first person so we have Hugh's thoughts and feelings on his adventures. As a young boy he had been placed in a monastery by his mother who had been widowed and suffered the death of her other two sons in battle and wishes Hugh to avoid such a fate. He is here for several years but as he reaches maturity he yearns to leave and go to battle, to fall in love, to experience real life and eventually gets his wish when he joins the company of Godfrey de Bouillon, Duke of Lower Lorraine and finds himself, initially employed as a secretary cum scribe to his master and then, later, a fighting knight with his own horse, suit of armour and privileges.

Then the story really takes off and we follow Hugh on his journey to the Holy Land, his love for Blanche (yes there is a beautiful heroine as well), his involvement in the political machinations between Godfrey and his brothers, his daring escapades and then the eerie experience of falling into the hands of "Hasan i Sabbah, Grand Master of the Nizaris, Lord of the Assassins known by some as the Old Man of the Mountains"
"His white robes hung down behind like the wings of some vast snowy owl. A cruel hooked nose beaked from his face between two hooded black eyes...........the black centre of each eye was ringed by a bizarre yellow circle inside the iris, accentuating the whole impression of some great bird of prey".

Hasan spends his life in his library, reading and learning, sending his Assassins out to do his bidding and he has decided after reading Ovid - Metamorphoses that it contains the recipe used by Medea to give Jason's father new life and vigour. "Allah has sent me the perfect subject on which to test this experiment. Tomorrow we shall try Medea's medicine out on you".

Right, I am going to stop here else I will be setting out the entire plot and story and this post will be very long indeed. You need to get a copy and read it yourself. I loved this book. I will be honest and say I wasn't totally sure when it dropped through my letter box, but if there is one thing I have learned over four years of Random Jottings, it is that I should not make hasty judgments. Pretty sure I have discarded some books that were worth my attention in the past so I am more careful these days and so I gave the Waste Land my total concentration and was well rewarded.

It is exciting and thrilling and Simon Acland is steeped in this period of history and really knows his stuff. The Crusades and Crusaders are a fascinating subject and have this romantic aura about them which we know is misplaced, but this lingers on. I think we have been rather blinkered as to their brutal reality by the capture of King Richard, the minstrel Blondel, Robin Hood etc etc so that the Crusades have this air of glamour and derring do attached when, in reality, it was all pretty vile and self seeking as most wars, holy or otherwise, turn out to be.

And yet, despite my knowing all this, I simply reveled in this book and enjoyed every page and what made it even more enjoyable was the juxtaposition of the narrative of Hugh de Verdon and the internal squabbling and jealousies of the Fellows of St Lazarus. The research assistant soon rues the day he mentioned his discovery and watches while his find and hopes of academic glory are taken away and sacrificed to the financial needs of the college. Events in the story begin to mirror events in the university, the near death of the BSA in an accident, another fellow being burned to death in his bed, another with mysterious stomach pains which turn out to be poison - who is behind it all? The police are called in and as I have been recently reading the crime novels of Edmund Crispin set in Oxford with the professor and sleuth, Gervase Finn, this added to the pleasure of my reading of this book.

The story of Hugh could have stood well on its own as a straightforward historical novel but the author has added an extra dimension to the Waste Land by this device. It is also witty and funny and comes as a refreshment to the reader who has become totally immersed in the dreadful brutality of the war and Hugh's own sufferings. The ending leaves the door open for the Best Selling Author to write a sequel to the successful outcome of this plan by the Master of the College and I am delighted to see that this will be forthcoming, The Flowers of Evil. I await my review copy in due course.........

Hugely enjoyable, engrossing and engaging from start to finish I loved this book and it will be going on my list of Best Reads of 2010. I like the conceit behind it all and the slight tongue in cheek style in the depiction of the squabbles and pettiness of the Dons, each certain in his own intelligence and superiority to his Fellows. Last year I dined in Hall at St John's in Cambridge and, while I found all the Fellows I met there to be delightful and charming, I could not help but think about them when reading the Waste Land.

Wonderful stuff and do check out this link below - the author talking about his book. Fun and he is dressed as a Crusader as well.....

Perfection: A Memoir of Betrayal and Renewal

Perfection: A Memoir of Betrayal and Renewal
Written by Julie Metz
Reviewed by Melissa A. Palmer

Julie and Harry have been married for twelve years when he dies unexpectedly, leaving her a young widow with a young daughter, Liza. Julie struggles to put her grief aside so she can function, at some level, for her daughter. As a few months pass, she begins to become a more functional human being in society. Then, as if life had not been hard enough, seven months after Harry’s death, Julie discovers that Harry had repeated affairs throughout their marriage. Julie is hit with a wave of emotions—anger, disbelief, confusion, sadness etc. She begins to go through Harry’s emails and address book and begins contacting the other women in Harry’s life. Julie realizes that to put the past behind her in order to move into her future, she must find out the truth about Harry’s affairs and the extent of his relationship with all of these women. Doing so provides some sort of closure for Julie. She begins to date again, and the book chronicles the first few ventures into dating and figuring out what type of man she now wants to be with, and by doing so, figuring out the woman she has now become.

This book is well written and readers will experience the emotions along with Julie because they will care about her and her daughter Liza. I could put myself in Julie’s shoes and picture experiencing her emotions and reactions and I think that is a testament to her writing. Readers will want Julie to have a nice life after all this heartache. I think anyone who has ever been in a relationship could feel empathy for Julie. This woman thought she was happily married and then had to deal with her husband unexpectedly dying. If that was not enough, she then finds out that her life was a total farce because her husband was cheating on her for years. It was as if someone had pulled the rug out from underneath her. That hopeless feeling is one that no reader would ever want to experience or if the reader has, he/she would feel a kinship in pain.

This book, while non-fiction, reads as a piece of realistic fiction. The writing style makes it feel like a novel; there is a nice flow to it and readers will not be jarred by the use of the word I or by reminders about reading about what really happened in someone’s life. Again, I feel that is a testament to her writing. I enjoy the escapism of good fiction and this had it in the fact that I was sucked into this book. I sometimes had to remind myself that all these horrible things really happened to someone. I am not a big reader of non-fiction but I enjoyed this book.

The Guilty American

Written by Nikki DeMarco

We Americans put too much pressure on ourselves. That’s one thing I’ve learned since living in Italy the past 4 years. Italians are whatever they say they are. They don’t question themselves or feel the need to justify or prove whatever it is they claim. They believe it about themselves so it is. I have a European friend that identifies herself as a skydiver. She told me she skydives once, maybe twice, a year. Would she make the cut of American skydivers who devote a weekend once a month or more? Or simply be labeled as a recreational skydiver, not the real thing?

I’m guilty of our heavy American thinking. I just started running/walking outside. I’m now just barely getting enough guts to start telling my closest friends that I might be a runner. I’ve been running on the treadmill for the past 2 months but that didn’t make my mental cut. Even now I describe myself as a “runner/walker”. I literally say in conversation, “I’m a runner slash walker.”

I do the same thing when it comes to reading. I love the written word and am constantly on the lookout for great new books, articles and blogs to read. Every morning when I wake up, my Google Reader has over 40 new items just waiting for me. I spend the whole of my day trying to sneak in a quick blog read here and there at work. In the evening I get a calm joy once that Reader number is set to zero. But I read less than 25 books a year. The book bloggers I follow online read that amount in a month. Because of the low number of books I have trouble identifying myself as a reader. I probably read the equivalent of a novella everyday online. Is that enough for the proper classification?

After getting my degree in English I got cross-eyed. Four years of constantly being behind. Reading all day everyday. When I wasn’t reading books I was talking about books. When we weren’t talking about books we were talking about words and language and syntax.

I was burnt out. I took a break. Reasonably so. See, there goes my American need to justify something as simple as taking a break. In Italy people take a 3-hour break in the middle of every day and don’t feel like they need to justify it to anyone, especially the other European countries who tut tut them for holding on to old traditions. When I did start reading again I picked up modern love stories and mysteries. Chaucer, Austen, Hemingway and I weren’t spending as much time together as we once had.

That doesn’t mean what I was doing was any less valuable. My love of stories hasn’t decreased. We need to give ourselves more credit.

A runner runs.

A reader reads.

Author Interview: Elizabeth Chadwick

Interviewed by Tamela McCann

Welcome to my inaugural historical fiction column! I’ve always loved historical fiction and it’s my hope that with this column, I can share some of my favorites I’ve read over the years and learn of even more from you guys. Though my favorite subject is British history, I’ll pretty much read anything historical. If it happened in the past, it’s bound to pique my interest.

In this first column, it is my delightful honor to bring to you an interview with Elizaberth Chadwick, author of some of the very best historical fiction out there. I’ve been reading Ms. Chadwick’s novels for years and can tell you she’s only getting better with each novel. Any time anyone asks for a good historical fiction author, she’s my go-to gal. I even make it a practice to turn her books facing outward on bookstore shelves because I believe everyone needs to be reading her works! Her novels are generally set in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in England and most of her newest novels involve real people and situations. Beyond being a terrific writer, she’s also very warm, witty, and open.

TM: Your latest novel, To Defy a King, (available in the UK) is about Mahelt Marshal Bigod. What surprised you most about her?

EC: I wasn’t so much surprised, as very interested in the way that different family dynamics played out. At home Mahelt was the beloved firstborn daughter. A real daddy’s girl who had a fine sense of her own worth and who had been a little spoiled being for a while, the only girl among four brothers. She was about seven before her next sister was born. Even while children, especially daughters had to do their duty and marry where they were told, and even while there were boundaries, nevertheless, there was leeway within those parameters, and Mahelt had been indulged. When she married and entered a family where the world no longer revolved around her, and where rules were more rigid, she had a hard time adapting, especially as she was also at that difficult adolescent stage. So it was fascinating to see how she coped (or didn’t) with her new circumstances, and the same for the family she married into. Some of them, especially her father in law, found having her live with them, rather like having a firework exploding in a library!

TM: Your latest novels are based on real historical figures–John Marshal, William Marshal, Roger Bigod. Why did you begin to focus on actual people rather than those you created yourself?

EC: There were two reasons. One was a commercial decision. In the mid 90’s, historical fiction hit the doldrums and my sort of historical adventure fiction went through a difficult time. I was still keeping my head above water, but I saw a lot of friends sink at at that time. However, biographical fiction suddenly took off, The Other Boleyn Girl being the forerunner, and I recognized that this was the future. I had also been considering writing biographical fiction for some time of my own accord. I wanted to get my teeth into something meatier as my career progressed. It was just a matter of having the confidence to do it.

TM: Do you have a personal hero/heroine from history? And is there someone you’ve discovered that you absolutely despise? Why? And who is the strangest person you’ve encountered?

EC: This is going to sound odd, but I don’t think I actually do have a personal hero or heroine. There are people I deeply, deeply admire in history. William Marshal and his father John – I have written about both. The Empress Matilda and Adeliza of Louvain, who are my subjects at the moment. There are aspects of their stories that show me what remarkable women they were. However, there are so many stories untold or yet to be discovered and so many people, often unsung who have done the most amazing things, often filled with self-sacrifice and devotion to their fellow humans. The strangest person would probably be Ralph the Farter, a character who appears briefly in To Defy A King. His lands were held from the king for the task of coming to court every Christmas and performing ‘a leap, a whistle, and a fart’ for the king’s entertainment.

As to a character I despise. Well, that’s a bit too harsh a word, but if there was one I’d rather not spend time with, it would be King John. I know he probably had his good points. He was a keen reader for one thing, and I’m sure I could have a lovely conversation with him about nice jewellery because he was all for gems and bling, but I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him. Other than his reputation for having murdered his nephew and having hounded and starved to death Maude de Braose when she accused him of the murder, it’s good enough for me that the great William Marshal (who’s sons John took hostage) told John’s heir, Henry III, that if he ever behaved as his father had done, he wished him a speedy death. As some readers may know, I use the Akashic Records as part of my research, My investigations into the personality of King John via this medium have corroborated William Marshal’s opinion.

TM: Your novels typically take place in the eleventh or twelfth centuries. What is it about that era that intrigues you?

EC: I became interested in the period in my teens when I fell for a knight on a TV programme and it’s a passion that has stayed with me and deepened as I’ve continued with the research. My first ever attempt at historical fiction was inspired by Keith Michelle in The Six Wives of Henry VII, and it was a Tudor story. If the knight hadn’t come along, who knows, I might have been ahead of the game in writing Tudor biographical fiction. I also considered writing Regency at the start of my career when I had a passion for the novels of Jane Aiken Hodge. I now have almost 40 years of research under my belt with reference to the 12th and 13th centuries, so to start again in another time period, I’d have to do a lot of reading to bring myself up to that standard of research. I might consider going earlier or later by a hundred years either side, as these timescales are within striking distance of the research.

TM: You say your novels have soundtracks (blog site: How does that work? Does the song or the story come first?

EC: Music has always had a strong pull for me. Right from the moment I wrote my first novel as a 15 year old, I have used songs as a way of understanding my characters and getting into and developing their emotional lives. Songs in themselves tell stories - frequently of deeply or strongly held feelings and I harness the resonances in lyrics and music as part of my creative process. I had popular music soundtracks to my novels long before film makers started using them regularly in blockbusters, on TV and to sell cars and insurance! Indeed, I was rather miffed when the Heath Ledger film A Knight's Tale came out, because it had pinched my way of marrying the medieval story with the medium of the rock song!

As to which comes first: It’s a blending of strands. So for example, I used Kiki Dee’s “Amoreuse” as the main lovesong in To Defy A King. The lyrics and the ambience exactly suit the moment. I played it over and over to fix it in my subconscious, and I took the image of some of the lyrics like a colour on an artist’s pallete, to write a scene for the couple filled with light and clarity. When all the barons were fighting for position and the country was going to hell in a handcart over the Magna Carta crisis, I happened to hear Seether’s “Fake It” (the uncensored version) and it so suited the mood of the moment that it had to go on the soundtrack.

TM: What are you reading now? Anybody you’d like to promote to historical fiction lovers?

EC: Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh and absolutely loving it. It has a flavour of M.M. Kaye’s Far Pavillions. There is a lot of slang in the dialogue, which I thought added to the texture, but some readers might find it a bit much. But with that caveat (which doesn’t bother me in the least), I think it’s wonderful. It has definitely won a place in my ‘Historical fiction hall of fame.’ I have also recently enjoyed Mudbound by Hillary Jordan, Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel, and the wonderful Sourcebooks re-issue of Cecelia Holland’s Great Maria. I really relished that one.

TM: I’m so excited that your books are now starting to become available here in the U.S.. Any news on which ones may be released here soon?

EC: For the King’s Favor is published on September 1st by Sourcebooks (it was titled The Time of Singing in the UK), and To Defy A King comes out next March. Then there’s another title, as yet undecided for the autumn. If all goes well, Sourcebooks will continue to publish more. They will also be available on Kindle as Sourcebooks publish them.

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