Book Review: Doctor Kinney’s Housekeeper by Sara Dahmen

dr-kinneyFull disclosure: I met the author at the Chanticleer Author’s Conference last year and we’ve become online friends. That doesn’t influence my review, however. This is my honest opinion.

Our modern world makes complexity out to be the be-all-and-end-all, and as a result life seems to get more and more complex by the day. Because of this, sometimes simplicity is refreshing, and that is one of many reasons why I truly cherished my time reading Doctor Kinney’s Housekeeper by Sara Dahmen.

I mean no insult by calling the book simple. Rather, that is a compliment of highest regard. It’s easy to write flowery prose; spare language in which every word pulls its weight is much harder. More difficult still is using such prose to paint a picture of rough-and-tumble frontier life while avoiding cliché and giving the reader a viable sense of a bygone era in which life was slower-paced and values meant something. Ms. Dahmen does all this in spades and it’s easy to see why this book won the Grand Prize in the Laramie Awards for Western Fiction (sponsored by Chanticleer Reviews).

Doctor Kinney’s Housekeeper is the story of Jane, a widowed, childless woman seeking a life away from her home and family after her husband’s death. In answering an ad for a housekeeper in the Dakota Territories, she sets her life on an unexpected course in which she encounters love, friendship, grief, prejudice and joy in the company of wonderfully drawn characters that range from a dusty cowboy to a wise Sioux widow. The plot is quietly powerful, as are the characters, all of whom evoke a strong sense of personhood and strength, remaining with you long after you’ve read the closing words of the book.

This is one of those sleeper books that has much more to it than one might think at first glance. More than just another work of historical fiction, more than a love story, more than a western – though it is all of these things – Doctor Kinney’s Housekeeper is a story of patience and triumph over adversity through faith and steely determination, of allowing our lives to change and mould us into better human beings through trials and sorrow, and of treasuring the simple joys in life. This is a book not to be missed, one that will haunt you for weeks to come as you ponder the curious depth of plot and the bravery of its characters.

Sara Dahmen is a writer of true talent and rare gifts. I look forward to reading more from her.

Book Review and Giveaway: In Another Life by Julie Christine Johnson

513b1uxrXNL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_I was lucky to review this book for the Historical Novel Society a few months ago and I LOVED it. Then I recently unwittingly entered a contest to win a copy (which I already have because I reviewed the book), so I decided to give away my extra copy to one of you. If you want to enter for a chance to win, please let me know in the comments below. I will choose a winner at random on July 15.

Here is my review of the book.

This dual time period story parallels the modern-day life of Lia, a historian writing her dissertation on the beliefs of the early 13th-century Cathars, and a conspiracy-style tale behind the 1208 historical murder of papal legate Pierre de Castlenau, an act of violence which sparked the religious crusade against the Cathars. Having moved to France to grieve the untimely death of her husband, Lia quickly learns that past and present aren’t as far removed as they may seem, and not all souls rest peacefully after death. The deeper she gets involved, the more Lia realizes history may not tell the truth of what happened to Castlenau and the Cathars; the real story may be far more dangerous, with the possibility of changing not only her own life, but also the history of the Church.

In Another Life grabs you from page one and doesn’t let go. The prose is rich and evocative, transporting the reader to rural France with an ease unusual for a debut author. The story is intriguing, weaving past and present in an ever-tightening braid that eventually dissolves the separation altogether, adeptly illustrating how the Cathars’ belief in reincarnation might play out in the real world. Lia is especially well-portrayed as the unwitting catalyst uniting two deaths, three men, and 800 years of history, while the male characters are slowly revealed as we learn their unlikely pasts and how they affect the present. Very highly recommended.

Leave a comment for a chance to win this book!

Daughter of Destiny Takes Home Book of the Year!

Book of Year RibbonI was hoping to write this post a bit sooner than a week after the fact, but with traveling, the day job and other book-related events, I just haven’t had time. (What a wonderful problem to have!)

For those who haven’t heard on social media, my books took home four awards at the Chanticleer Author’s Conference in Bellingham, Washington, last weekend. I knew going in that Daughter of Destiny and Madame Presidentess were both going to get first in category awards, for romance/women’s fiction and historical fiction, respectively.

Chatelaine AwardI had no idea that Daughter of Destiny was going to continue on to take home overall category Grand Prize in the Chatelaine (romance/women’s fiction) Awards. They asked me to speak (which I wasn’t expecting) and I told a short version of how I got here (two years to find an agent, two years with an agent, getting close to traditional publications so many times, then leaving my agent, unsuccessfully trying to get another and finally going indie) with the theme of never giving up, which I almost did many times.

Imagine my shock when it was proclaimed Book of the Year! I will never watch awards shows the same way again. Those reactions you see? They are genuine. I leaned forward, covered my face with my hands and uttered some sort of guttural cry. I think at a time like that, it’s all you can can do. When they asked me to speak again, I felt like the Oscar winner who didn’t prepare an acceptance speech. People told me the next day I was very eloquent, though I have little memory of what I said. I know I thanked my mom, who is always my first reader, and who was there in the room with me. I talked about other things, but I can’t recall them.

Two first place ribbonsLater, when i was trying to hold up all four ribbons at once, i felt like the multi-Grammy winner who can barely hold all her awards. It is so overwhelming and humbling all at once. On top of that, you are in a state of shock.

I can’t even put into words what that night meant to me. I am so thankful to everyone who listened to me complain and be scared and frustrated and reassured me that I would figure it out. All of you who have been with me on this journey (whether from the beginning or just recently) are the reasons why I can now say I have written the Book of the Year.

I still can’t believe it a week later. All I can say is believe with everything in you, put in the hard work and it will happen. Manifestation, or as some of us know it, the Red Feather process, is a real thing and it does work, but you have to put in the work as well.

Thanks to everyone who has read my books or supported me in any way, shape or form.

Book Reviews: In the Shadow of the Storm by Anna Belfrage & The Rumor by Elin Hilderbrand

It’s been a long time since I’ve talked about books here that weren’t my own, so today I thought I’d share my thoughts on two wonderful, very different books that I’ve just finished over the weekend.

Shadow of the StormIn the Shadow of the Storm by Anna Belfrage – ****
If the author’s name sounds familiar, it may be because she kindly read my first two Guinevere novels and gave a blurb for each. Or maybe because she was the winner of the 2015 Historical Novel Society Indie Award. Either way, she’s a fabulous writer.

In the Shadow of the Storm is set in 13th century England, a time of great political unrest, due in part to a weak king who is enthralled by one of this favorites, Hugh Despenser, an evil man bent on violence and revenge, who exacts a strong toll on the hero and heroine of this book, making it one part dark history. The other part is a solid love story. The main protagonists, Kit and Adam, are forced together into a marriage based on deception, one he soon learns of, but they both keep it up to save their lives and their marriage. When Adam’s lord rises against the king, Adam has no choice but to follow, even though the act is treason. His unwavering loyalty leads to many trials for the newlyweds, and for me, this was when the book became a page-tuner, racing toward an end that was satisfying in many respects but left the path wide open for the rest of this new series.

This is very much a character-driven book, as a lot of it sets up the rest of the series, so the plot is really showing the reader the relationships between the characters and the political realities of the time. I have to admit to being captivated by the love story in this book. Kit and Adam were worthy protagonists, believable in their actions and reactions as they grew to get to know and love one another. We all know I love strong female characters, and Kit delivers in spades, so much so that a few points, I wanted the male characters to grow a pair and stand up to her! Hugh Despenser is the the most scum-sucking low-life villain since…well, Father Marius in my own books. I think that’s why I hated him, but also secretly couldn’t wait to see what depravity he would stoop to next.

Anna has a talent for really taking you back in time, evoking sights, sounds and sometimes unpleasant scents you may not otherwise have associated with the period. As a reader, I felt like I was there amid the dirt and grime, the stinking river water and unwashed bodies. That’s one of the marks of great historical fiction for me. All in all, I highly enjoyed this book and am interested to see where this series goes, especially since I’m not familiar with the history of the time period.

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

The rumorThe Rumor by Elin Hilderbrand – *****

If you’re looking for a fun beach read that will transport you to the shores of Nantucket where the filthy rich live lives you can’t even begin to imagine, The Rumor is the right indulgence for you.

Told from multiple viewpoints, The Rumor does exactly what the title promises by showing how a few innocent situations can get misconstrued and exaggerated to the point where they begin to wreak havoc on lives…but even they can’t compare with the dark reality hiding behind the truth. Not all is as shiny and perfect as it seems on this idyllic island, as it’s residents deal with money problems, marital issues, teenage rebellion and career-ending betrayal. But for all that, this isn’t a dark book. In fact, it’s as sunny as the beach or Grace’s garden.

Hilderbrand is a master of voice in this light women’s fiction, seamlessly switching from a teenage girl’s POV to a failing middle-aged male real estate broker and a frustrated author with writer’s block who may just stab her equally (sexually) frustrated best friend in the back with the plot for her next novel. And that’s only the beginning. The characters are well drawn for all of the seeming cliché of their situations, and Hilderbrand manages to have you both rooting for and despising each character, depending on who is doing the narrating at the time.

This book is a fun diversion from daily life and I’m glad I discovered this author. I have two more of her books on my phone (I listened to The Rumor in audio format) and I look forward to seeing if her other books live up to this one.

Have you read either of these books? If so, what did you think? Are you interested in either of them?

Daughter of Destiny Cover Reveal

I am so excited to show you the cover for Daughter of Destiny, the first book in the Guinevere’s Tale trilogy, and my debut novel, which will be published January 1, 2016.

Daughter of Destiny eBook Cover I

 

Thank you to Jenny Q. for designing such a beautiful cover. It’s nothing like I imagined it would be, but it is so gorgeous and so perfect for the book. I couldn’t be happier!

Book links:

So, what do you think of the cover? What does it say to you?

[Guest Post] Wales and the Tudors By Sarah Kennedy

51YLOAqIy0L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_I am thrilled to have with us for the second time, historical fiction author Sarah Kennedy. The third book in her The Cross and The Crown series, The King’s Sisters, is out now. Today, she’s going to give us insight into what it was like to visit Wales while researching the trilogy. Take it away, Sarah!

The principality of Wales, to the west of England, has long been a site of contention, and many Tudor enthusiasts know of it through Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, which feature the prince Owen Glendower, or through reading about the Welsh heritage of Henry VIII and his children.  The history of struggle over Wales, though, goes back much further.  The Normans occupied it, then the Anglo-Norman English, while the native princes of this beautiful and lush place tried valiantly to hold on to their power—and their homes.  A friend and I recently took a short road trip from Cardiff to Aberystwyth, wending our way north and then circling down the coast, stopping to see some of the historical sites that remain to mark the efforts of Welsh leaders to keep Wales out of the hands of their neighbors.  I’ve always been interested in the history of this small principality, and since a Welsh man plays an important role in my new and upcoming novels, The King’s Sisters and Queen of Blood, I was happy to see this beautiful place again.

The Tudor monarchs, during whose reigns my novels are set, were Welsh, but once they gained the throne of England, they, like monarchs before them, thought of Wales as part of England.  I want, in my novels, to highlight the tensions that existed between these two cultures, even during the long Tudor century.  Despite the fact that the red dragon of Wales appeared on naval emblems during Henry VIII’s reign, and Elizabeth I continued that tradition, Henry and his children are revered as English monarchs.

IMG_0807My friend and I were interested, of course, in the medieval Welsh castles that made up Edward I’s famous “ring of iron,” a series of fortifications erected by the king to subdue the Welsh and ward off invaders from the sea.  These are Anglo-Norman castles, and the Welsh princes often fought for control of them.  Among them is the great Caerphilly Castle, which was blown up from the inside during the English Civil War.  One of the great corner towers leans at a precipitous angle from the explosion.

image002We also visited Harlech Castle, which sits on the coast of the sea and provides breathtaking views.

These Norman castles are grand tourist destinations—but they’re not Welsh.  They were built by English kings to protect English interests.  We also wanted to visit some of these “more Welsh” sites, and wandered through the countryside until we came to Dolforwyn—a castle, as the small interpretive plaque informs visitors, “designed in Wales.”

IMG_0813This castle, which is difficult to find without careful attention to tiny roadside signs, was erected during the late thirteenth century.  The surrounding hills are now sheep fields, and visitors are asked to close the gates behind them as they walk up.  It’s a grand site, with views across the fields to the east, and though ruinous, Dolforwyn still shows what a castle (rather cozy in its dimensions) built by the Welsh for a Welsh prince looked like.  It has the typical D-shaped tower (called an aspidal), living quarters, cooking and storage facilities.  A town grew up around its base, protected by (and providing support to) the castle.  The builders, however, had neglected to sink a well inside the protective walls, and when attacked, the castle was easily taken by Edward I, who gave it to his ally Roger Mortimer (that’s my friend, Terry Southerington, peering over the edge!).

Many of these “designed in Wales” castles still exist in the Welsh interior.  They are often open to the air and neglected—and few visitors ever see them.  Most tourists prefer the great Edwardian castles.

Military fortifications were not the only great structures built in Wales during the Middle Ages, however.  This country was also home to many abbeys, most of which now lie, like the later-built castles, in ruins.  Tintern Abbey, made famous by William Wordsworth, is of course a popular tourist destination, but we made for the lesser-known, smaller sites, where monks lived and worked until the Reformation under Henry VIII.

IMG_0810Talley Abbey—or what’s left of it—lies at the end of a winding narrow road.  This little abbey was the only place where Premonstratensians (or “White Canons”) lived in Wales.  There’s not much left, but what is there testifies to a brief time of peace between the Welsh and the English, which allowed it to be built.  Sadly, the Cisterians considered the Premonstratensians to be dangerous rivals, and a lawsuit broke out which prevented the abbey from ever being completed according to the original plan.

IMG_0829The Cisterians, of course, fared no better under Henry VIII than did the White Canons, and abbey of Cymer is almost as ruined as Talley.  It sits behind a holiday park, part of a farm (visitors park at the farmhouse, which is just across the driveway from the abbey), but the remaining walls suggest a site once thriving, at least for the few monks who lived there.  They were horse-breeders, providing stud-service for Llewelyn ap Iorwerth, and though they, like other abbeys, suffered economically during the thirteenth-century wars between the Welsh and the English, their downfall only occurred—yes, you guessed it—when Henry dissolved the order and confiscated the building and its contents.

IMG_0809By the time of the Tudor monarchs, the great castles were out-of-date as military fortifications, and Henry VIII centralized power when he seized the church’s property.  Much of that property was in Wales.  The small, prosperous abbeys were closed, as were the English ones, by Henry, left to be scavenged by locals for building materials.  The Welsh Tudors have, in history, become more English than the English, and, perhaps ironically, many of the old castles’ occupants stood with the English monarchy during the later Civil War. And, yet, the complex and rich history of Wales that gave rise to their power remains—in its stunningly beautiful landscapes, its living language, and its many architectural ruins, both small and large, both Welsh and English, that still dot its hills and valleys and shores.

Do you have a question or comment for Sarah? If so, please leave it below. She’ll be checking them and answering as she can. Don’t forget, you can order The King’s Sisters at all major retailers.

[Guest Post] The Long Road to a Debut Historical Novel by Jeannine Atkins

Photo1LITTLE-WOMAN-webGrowing up, I liked to read books about ordinary girls doing things like fighting with or forgiving their sisters, but set in the past. Cooking in pots over fires or slogging through snow to reach wells or cold horses seemed thrilling. I started with an orange-covered series called “Childhoods of Famous Americans,” which were then shelved with biographies, though their use of dialogue and other fictional elements have convinced some librarians to put them elsewhere. I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books about Little Houses in woods or on prairies, another series that has made a similar shift to the fiction sections. I’m happy to browse for what I want, which remains books based on real girls and women who are full of dreams.

I found such a girl in one of the first fat books I cracked open. Many years ago, Little Women’s Jo March — huddled in a chilly garret penning plays and stories — gave me my first inkling that a girl could grow up to be a writer. My curiosity about other women writers stuck and carried me through college. I was unsatisfied with most reading lists, but scanned the stacks for books by women who’d been forgotten. I wrote some papers about them, and while I kept a scholarly tone, felt as if I were playing dress-up, again immersed in history.

The challenges and triumphs of women who came before me kept me good company as I wrote some stories that were published and two novels that weren’t. After I became a mom and read to my daughter, I found myself happily back with once-cherished books and the mother of the co-president of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Fan Club. The girls made posters (“Laura rocks! Ma rules!”) and wore old dresses to bake cornbread. Reminded of how life-changing children’s books can be, I put away my novels about angsty adults to write books for the young. I published picture books about paleontologist Mary Anning and religious reformer Anne Hutchinson, and collections about women explorers and pioneers in air and space.

No one should write history who doesn’t love doing research, and some of that is rereading books you once adored. I came back to Little Women, but what got inside me most this time was the half-hidden story of the youngest sister. In the novel, Amy March gives up art when she realizes she might not become great. In real life, May Alcott stuck with her paints.

I believed this real person who tried to balance art and love deserved more attention. Children and teens are a wonderful audience, but I wanted the girl I first met in Little Women to step out as fully adult, finding her way through or around traps and temptations and reveling in romance, too. For Little Woman in Blue: A Novel of May Alcott, I circled back to writing for adults who may find May’s struggles familiar, though they took place more than 150 years ago. Could May find a true love, in a period, after the Civil War, when eligible men seemed scarce? Could she keep making art in a time when women painters were rarely taken seriously? I loved exploring those questions, and finding a way to let another woman step out from the shadows of the past.

To learn more about Jeannine Atkins’s books about girls and women in history, please visit her website at www.Jeannineatkins.com.

Do you have any questions or comments for Jeannine? She’ll be around checking out the comments.

Learning to Love History Through Historical Fiction

HistficI think Rudyard Kipling had it right: “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” When I came across this pin on Pinterest I realized it was something I wanted to explore more in-depth, because I’ll tell you one thing, I’ve learned more from the historical fiction I’ve read than I did in all my years of studying history in school.

For those prone to argue, yes, I know historical fiction is part fiction. I’m not saying we should base all of our knowledge on it, but that it can spark interest in a certain time period or person much easier than a dry history book can. For example, I just finished Labyrinth by Kate Mosse. Its backdrop of the Cathar Inquisition in thirteenth century France made me want to learn more about this little-known sect of medieval Christianity. I can promise you that if we covered that in school, I don’t remember a word of it.

Why does historical fiction stay with us? Well, for one, stories are the way the human brain processes information. We tell each other stories every day in the form of conversation without even noticing we’re doing it. Chances are good that when you’re telling your friend about that awesome party you went to, you’re going to tell her stories about the evening, not a chronological recounting of events (unless you are Sheldon Cooper, in which case you wouldn’t have gone to a party anyway). I think this is the fundamental flaw in many history textbooks; they focus on cramming as many dates and facts in as possible, and thus, lose the true story.

As author Heather Web recently said in a recent Huffington Post article, “What’s not to love about history? I think it gets a bad rap from our grade school and high school days where many teachers force-fed us timelines and names to memorize, as opposed to teaching us to explore movements and larger concepts–never mind all of those juicy stories. This is what history, and historical fiction, really is: juicy stories.”

That brings me to my second point about historical fiction. It breathes life into history in a way traditional textbooks don’t. This happens through the story and the characters, no matter if they are fictional paupers begging at the cathedral gates or real-life kings and queens. They represent the plight (or fortune) of people in a given time period, they show us history in action through a personal lens with all of its love, triumph, grief and pain. Whether we leave a historical fiction work thinking, “Oh my God am I glad I didn’t live in that time period,” or “Dude, where’s the time machine? It would have been so cool to live in that time,” we’ve personalized the story. History now matters to us.

And matter it should. Beyond the oft-repeated proverb “if we don’t remember history, we’re bound to repeat it,” history shows us what is right and wrong with humanity, emphasizes the good that we should seek to amplify and horrors that should never be permitted again. By living these things through the fictionalized lives of real or made up people, we become more compassionate and empathetic. I just finished a book called The Hammer of Witches by Begoña Echeverria, whose graphic portrayal of the Basque witch hunts made me realize what danger we place our entire community in when we fail to see the humanity of those around us and instead choose the bandwagon of bigoted hatred and fear.

Personally, I would love if history classes in high school (or at least college) incorporated historical fiction into their curriculum, especially as way of whetting the appetite for certain time periods or topics. (Come to think of it, that’s kind of what my high school Western Civ teacher did when she had us read 1984 before studying totalitarian societies. I’ve been hooked on dystopia ever since.) For example, I personally think Susanna Kearsely’s forthcoming A Desperate Fortune has the clearest explanation of the reason for the Jacobite rebellion/exile I’ve ever read. Historical fiction can even take you places the history books rarely do. Jo Baker’s Longbourn gives a glimpse into the lives of servants and soldiers in Regency England, while most history books stick to the sterile facts of monarchy and war.

And you wouldn’t even have to use books, or at least not books alone. There are so many period films and TV shows that they could be incorporated as well. Even if they are of questionable historical accuracy (*cough* Tudors *cough*) that can be used to spark discussion. “Spot the inaccuracy” could be part of a test. It could be employed interdepartmentally as well. The Paris Wife could be an intro to Hemingway or The Secret of All Things a prelude to biology. The possibilities are endless. (Man, now I wish I had my PhD. or even a master’s in history so I could create this class.)

I just hate the idea of history meaning less and less to future generations. But if mine is any starting place (I’m at the tail end of Gen X), things aren’t looking good. A recent report by the American Historical Association (I’m a member), showed that schools issuing history degrees are showing a downward trend, which isn’t too surprising given the recent economy. The more we can use historical fiction to spark interest, the better off we will all be. The day history becomes only dead guys and boring facts is the day we lose a valuable record of our humanity.

What are your thoughts? Do you agree or disagree? What historical fiction has made you care about history? What do you wish young people had to read in school? Do you think there is danger in mixing fiction in with our history?

On a Mission from…the Muse

Source: Wikimedia Commons: "Uffizi Gallery - Daughter of Niobe bent by terror" by Petar Milošević - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Uffizi_Gallery_-_Daughter_of_Niobe_bent_by_terror.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Uffizi_Gallery_-_Daughter_of_Niobe_bent_by_terror.jpg

Source: Wikimedia Commons: “Uffizi Gallery – Daughter of Niobe bent by terror” by Petar Milošević – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

While that headline doesn’t have the same ring as a certain Blues Brothers quote, it does get the idea across that I feel like my writing comes from a higher source – and for a purpose.

Lately, I’ve realized that while I started writing books just to tell the stories that were in my head, it’s come to mean more than that. While I don’t intend to start a Hemingway- or Pound-esque writing revolution, there is a deeper reason behind my writing, one I want to make sure everyone knows.

I’ve distilled this into two mission statements, one for each genre I currently write:

Historical fiction: To rescue little-known women from being lost in the pages of history. While other writers may choose to write about the famous, I tell the stories of those who are in danger of being forgotten so that their memories may live on for at least another generation. I also tell the female point of view when it is the male who has gotten more attention in history (i.e. Guinevere to King Arthur).

Women’s fiction: To create strong female characters who are role models for women of all ages in stories that are fun and romantic. These women represent the modern independent female spirit and are meant to appeal to women who feel they are outside of the norm of society whether by age (my heroines are almost always over 30), race, sexuality, or natural inclinations (we all have things that make us feel like freaks, right?). I hope my readers can find something in my books that makes them think, “Oh, thank goodness, I’m not alone.”

If nothing else, I figure this gives people (readers, potential publishers, etc.) an idea of what to expect from my writing. It also helps keep me focused and reminds me on the bad days exactly why I thought it was a good idea to become a writer in the first place. And yes, it doesn’t hurt as part of my “brand” to know what sets me apart from other writers. (If you want a good resource on author branding, I recommend this post by author Jami Gold.) But did you notice that I listed that last? It’s because it’s not nearly as important to me as making things clear for myself and my readers.

I all of you feel like you know me just a bit better now.

What’s your personal mission statement? No matter what you do for a living, it doesn’t hurt to know why you feel like you’re here, on this planet, in this life. Give it some thought and share with me in the comments. I’d love to hear from you.