Category: books

After Ellis…

The galleys for A FALL OF MARIGOLDS arrived yesterday, which means I have one last look at the pages before the book is sent to the printer. But while I am putting the last touches on this manuscript before it is published in February – just four months away! – I am already much involved with the next project.

After spending the last year in 1911 and one the bit of land that is Ellis Island, I am now moving forward a few years to World War II, the London Blitz, and the evacuation of a million of its children to the countryside.  I’ve just returned from a research trip to the UK with my mom, where I had the opportunity to interview eight people who were children and teenagers during the war and who remember well the influx of young Londoners into their villages, or taking the train out of the city to live with people whom they’d never met, or running for cover from the Luftwaffe bombers and Doodlebugs and rockets. Their stories amazed me and I can’t wait to incorporate these details into the book, which is tentatively titled, THE BRIDE’S BOX. For now, here is a mini photo gallery of this incredible trip. These scenes will take place early in the book… Thoughts so far?

The pastoral Cotswolds in Gloucestershire, the place where my 15-year-old heroine and her seven-year-old will be evacuated to out of London...

The pastoral Cotswolds in Gloucestershire, the place where my 15-year-old heroine and her seven-year-old sister will be evacuated to out of London…

The town I will evacuate her and her little sister to, a real and lovely place called Stow-on-the-Wold...

The town I will evacuate her and her sister to, a real and lovely place called Stow-on-the-Wold…

The bench just outside the Methodist church where she will make the plans that will change everything...

The bench just outside the Methodist church where she will make the plans that will change everything…

The cottage where she and her sister will be sent which I will call Thistle House...

The cottage where she and her sister will be sent which I will call Thistle House…

The path she will take in the middle of the night to steal away back to London...

The path she will take in the middle of the night to steal away back to London…

The station where she will wait in the dark until dawn and the first train back to the city...

The station where she will wait in the dark until dawn and the first train back to the city…

And the Story Echoed

AndtheWhen I first began to read And the Mountains Echoed, I had to remind myself that the author had told me —  as I sat among other eager devotees of his stories —  that this book was not like the other two I’d read and devoured. (The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns). He told us it wasn’t a linear creation with page 1 being the beginning and Page 400 being the end of one person’s story. I should not have been surprised by the episodic feel of this book about a brother and his sister, separated by circumstances that cut to the heart.

I wasn’t surprised exactly, but I was a bit disappointed in how dependent I’d let myself become on traditional storytelling. I had to work a little harder to keep the story alive in my head and heart when I wasn’t reading it. I believe that’s my fault, not the author’s, because true to his other two books,  Khaled Hosseini is a master of prose.

I should also not have been comparing this book to The Kite Runner, for example, measuring this story’s delivery to that one. If I let myself do that, which I refuse!, I might think this is only a 4-star book. Again, I think that’s more my lazy feed-me-the-story attitude. On its own, comparing it to nothing else, it’s a fabulous book. The ending is nothing short of perfect. I really did love it. Don’t ask me if I liked it as much as Kite Runner and Suns. I liked it as much, only different.

If you’ve not read the premise of Mountains, here’s the gist, from the Goodreads website: “The #1 New York Times–bestselling author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, has written a new novel about how we love, how we take care of one another, and how the choices we make resonate through generations.

“In this tale revolving around not just parents and children but brothers and sisters, cousins and caretakers, Hosseini explores the many ways in which families nurture, wound, betray, honor, and sacrifice for one another; and how often we are surprised by the actions of those closest to us, at the times that matter most.

“Following its characters and the ramifications of their lives and choices and loves around the globe—from Kabul to Paris to San Francisco to the Greek island of Tinos—the story expands gradually outward, becoming more emotionally complex and powerful with each turning page.”

That’s actually a really great way to describe this book – the story expands gradually outward. So don’t plant your feet, or snuggle down into a slumber-like pose. Read and reach outward, friends.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes from this stellar book:

“It’s a funny thing… but people mostly have it backward. They think they live by what they want. But really, what guides them is what they’re afraid of. What they don’t want.”

“For courage, there must be something at stake. I come here with nothing to lose.”

“It was the kind of love that, sooner or later, cornered you into a choice: either you tore free or you stayed and withstood its rigor even as it squeezed you into something smaller than yourself.”

The Book Thief steals again

bookthiefFor quite awhile I’d been hearing buzz about Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief and how amazingly good it was, and that I should move it to the top of my TBR pillar-to-the-sky. Since I’ve been reading a lot these days about World War 2 for the novel I’m writing, I figured I had two reasons to move it up the pillar, one being the acclaim I kept hearing, and the second being I could classify it as research.

I hadn’t read the back cover copy or any reviews. I didn’t know who would be telling the story nor even who the stealer of books was, so I was unprepared for the first few pages. Lost, even. I hesitate to even tell you why I was lost lest I tell you too much and you miss out on the extraordinary experience of learning for yourself who the narrator is. In fact, if you haven’t yet read any reviews of the book, DON’T. Stop with this one.  I will barely tell you anything other than you will be moved to your core.

Perhaps this will be enough to whet your appetite to read it. Goodreads says The Book Thief is the unforgettable story “about the ability of books to feed the soul.”

The short premise is this: “Liesel Meminger is a foster girl living outside of Munich, who scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist – books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement.”

The story takes place in the years of the second World War, on the streets of a little German village populated by ordinary people who love their children and their homes and meals around the table and birthdays and music and literature.

It is shelved as YA lit, meaning it was written for young adults, but the themes and the prose inside the pages are timeless enough for an adult of any age.

It’s a book about love and family and sacrifice.

It’s a book about books.

It didn’t really happen, but it could have.

It will steal a piece of your heart forever.

There. Is that enough for you?

And because this beautifully crafted trailer will not spoil anything for you, do enjoy. The movie comes out in November, but do read the book first. Put it at the top of your pillar, readers. I think you will be glad you did.

And if you’ve read it, I would sure love to hear what you think if you can tell me without sharing any spoilers…

Try, try again

lifeafterlifeYou know those moments when you say to yourself – or maybe even out loud – “If I could do that over again, I’d____” and then you fill in the blank with how you would relive that moment, do it better, gain a more advantageous outcome?

Imagine for a moment what it might be like, however, to have no say in the matter at all. Imagine that you are going back and back and back to relive your life, and you are barely aware of it? You don’t have Hermione Granger’s time-turner where you’ve absolute control over how far back you go. And you don’t have it to come back to where you are now after you’ve made your changes.

Imagine that your stillborn birth is changed on the second-go-around so that you now survive. A drowning when you are a little girl  is reversed so that this time the artist on the beach sees you going under and dashes in to save you. A chance encounter with the Spanish flu which killed you before is held at bay because for some reason you know you must stop the maid from meeting up with her beau who is already infected with the virus and doesn’t know it.  Imagine you know that somehow the new chancellor of Germany with the postage stamp mustache will inflict such horrors on his fellow man that the world will be forever changed because of him. Imagine you know you will see him in a cafe before he ever has a chance to do anything truly terrible.timeturner

Kate Atkinson’s brilliantly conceived Life After Life is the imagined life of Ursula Todd. She’s a girl who keeps reliving her life, almost as if she is being handed by Providence chance after chance after chance  to alter the course of human history.  Only the reader truly knows the full breadth of Ursula’s multi-layered existence.  Because, of course, she can’t know everything, can she? Doc Brown in Back to the Future told us why. Remember this line, when Marty wants to tell Doc on the night he travels back in time that Doc is shot by the Libyans he stole from?

docbrown“No! Marty! We’ve already agreed that having information about the future can be extremely dangerous. Even if your intentions are good, it can backfire drastically!”

So our heroine, sometimes young, sometimes a teenager, sometimes an adult, keeps taking one step forward and five steps back, with strange inklings of things yet to come, inner nudges to avoid this, go after that, and all against the backdrop of the years leading up to and including World War II and the bombing of London.

Because I was on vacation and in a car for long periods, I “read” Life After Life via audio, something I rarely do. The recorded version, read by Finella Woolgar, is stunningly impacting. Ms. Woolgar aptly reads as narrator and dozens of other voices. You can see it all, every relived moment. If you’ve ever wanted to give audio books a try, I’d recommend this one.

Like all books that deal with World War II, the content can be be heavy. There are plenty of sad moments, but there are just as many subtly triumphant ones, especially when you, the reader, know — for example — that Ursula has just reinvented her life by a chance decision to rescue a dog during a London Blitz air raid.

I am always in awe of a writer who can invent a new way of telling a story. The premise of this one is so unique, and the writing is beautiful, even the most tragic parts.

And of course any book that makes you stop and deeply ponder, “What if that could really happen, and what if happened to me?” is a keeper. If language offends you, know that there are a few f-words here and there.

Here is the link to an excerpt on Goodreads.

And a few of my favorite quotes:

“There was always a second before the siren started when she was aware of a sound as yet unheard. It was like an echo, or rather the opposite of an echo. An echo came afterwards, but was there a word for what came before?”

“No point in thinking, you just have to get on with life. We only have one after all, we should try and do our best. We can never get it right, but we must try.”

“Dr. Kellet himself wore a three-piece Harris tweed suit strung with a large gold fob watch. He smelled of cloves and pipe tobacco and had a twinkly look about him as if he were going to toast muffins or read a particularly good story to her, but instead he beamed at Ursula and said, “So, I hear you tried to kill your maid?” (Oh, that’s why I’m here, Ursula thought.)”

Next week, my review of The Book Thief, which I am nearly finished with and loving to the point of dreading the finishing…

 

 

The place where two rivers meet

BurningSkyYou probably know by now I am a fierce devotee to historical fiction – it’s the perfect backdrop to explore timeless themes. So I am happy to welcome Lori Benton to the blog today to talk about her debut BURNING SKY, a novel of the American frontier. The best part is, I have a copy of her book to give away, so do please read to the end so that you can get in on that.

Before we start, here’s just a little teaser to get you primed for Lori’s wonderfully woven story:

“I remember the borders of our land, though I have been gone from them nearly half the moons of my life. But who there will remember me? What I have seen, what I have done, it has changed me.

I am the place where two rivers meet, silted with upheaval and loss.

Yet memory of our land is a clear stream. I shall know it as a mother knows the faces of her children. It may be I will find me there.”

Abducted by Mohawk Indians at fourteen and renamed Burning Sky, Willa Obenchain is driven to return to her family’s New York frontier homestead after many years building a life with the People. At the boundary of her father’s property, Willa discovers a wounded Scotsman lying in her path. Feeling obliged to nurse his injuries, the two quickly find much has changed during her twelve-year absence—her childhood home is in disrepair, her missing parents are rumored to be Tories, and the young Richard Waring she once admired is now grown into a man twisted by the horrors of war and claiming ownership of the Obenchain land.

When her Mohawk brother arrives and questions her place in the white world, the cultural divide blurs Willa’s vision. Can she follow Tames-His-Horse back to the People now that she is no longer Burning Sky? And what about Neil MacGregor, the kind and loyal botanist who does not fit into in her plan for a solitary life, yet is now helping her revive her farm? In the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, strong feelings against “savages” abound in the nearby village of Shiloh, leaving Willa’s safety unsure.

Willa is a woman caught between two worlds. As tensions rise, challenging her shielded heart, the woman called Burning Sky must find a new courage–the courage to again risk embracing the blessings the Almighty wants to bestow. Is she brave enough to love again?

SUSAN: I always ask my writer friends where the idea for their novel originated because I know sometimes the seed of a story can come from an unlikely place.  From where did the idea for Burning Sky spring?

LoriBentonLORI: Sometimes, this far removed from that moment, the original kernel or idea that inspired a story is buried under too many layers of plotting and research and day to day writing, but with Burning Sky I do retain the memory. There were two images that intruded upon me, rather out of the blue, that I consider catalysts for Willa Obenchain’s story. The first was of an old woman living in a ramshackle cabin in a clearing bounded by ridges, alone and isolated. I wondered who she was and why she seemed so sad. I knew her name was Willa.

The second image was of a young woman, taller than most women of her time and strong, striding across a mountain with a heavy basket on her back and a heavier burden in her soul. I sensed she was coming home after a long time away. I also knew these were the same woman and that the first image would be Willa’s fate… unless someone intervened. From that point the story grew as I began to ask the dozens of what ifs that come with story-weaving, and did my research into the time and place, once I’d decided exactly when that was.

SUSAN: I can tell from reading this book that your research was extensive. How did you approach the research component? Did you learn anything that surprised you?

LORI: Because I live on the west coast, I approach my initial research via books and websites, and friends and acquaintances I have who live back east. But I also have memories to tap. I spent the first half of my life on the east coast and have visited states from New York to Florida. I’m familiar with the eastern woodlands from the coast to the mountains, and still remember what a humid summer day feels like, or a dark rolling thunderstorm, or a twilight dancing with lightning bugs, though I don’t get to experience those things where I live now (thunderstorms are rare and always make me nostalgic). And there’s always Youtube and Google Earth, to help with visuals of a specific place.

The more I’ve learned about the 18th century New York frontier, before and after the Revolutionary War, the more intrigued I’ve become. I’d say my biggest surprise (confining such to the research that directly impacted the writing of Burning Sky) was how devastating the War was on the land and people of the Mohawk Valley and New York frontier, how far back east that frontier was pushed due to raids from the British and pro-British Indians, and how long it took for the largely abandoned farms and communities to recover. The landscape Willa Obenchain and Neil MacGregor enter at the start of the book was one of burned homesteads and straggling-back refugees, some of them as scarred by violence as their farms had been. It would be some years before the Mohawk Valley became again the thriving bread basket of the region that it formerly had been.

SUSAN: You describe a shade of blue in one of your descriptive sentences as the shade of ”trade beads,” which I thought was delicious! Do you spend a great deal of time looking for just the right way to describe something or does that come pretty easy to you?

LORI: When I write description, the most important thing to me is to take into account whose point of view I’m writing from. If Neil had been describing that shade of blue, instead of Willa, he would likely have picked a vivid flower to compare it to. But Willa is coming from a place where trade beads were common things. She no doubt sewed them onto clothing and other articles. It’s a description she wouldn’t have to reach far for. Knowing this required extensive research into her culture and setting, so that had to come first (though I continue researching right up through the editing phase of a manuscript). I strive to give each point-of-view character a distinctive narrative voice. Description (what each character uniquely notices and the language they use to describe it) is a huge part of that. The better I know my characters in the first draft, the easier those character-specific descriptions come, but often it’s in one of dozens of later passes over a scene that I finally hit upon the right phrase.

SUSAN: When you are asked to share what Burning Sky is about in a nutshell, how do you answer?

BSRTblurbLORI: Never the same way twice, it seems. But in a nutshell, Burning Sky is about finding the courage to trust in the goodness and sovereignty of God after experiencing devastating loss—enough to risk living and loving again.

SUSAN: What do you want readers to take away from this book when they are finished?

LORI: I want readers to hold these characters in their hearts for a very long time to come, because I love them so myself. I also hope with all my heart that readers feel strengthened in their faith in a God who has a plan for their eternal good, who entered this fallen world with all its grief and trouble to carry out that plan, in the form of His Son Jesus. Through Him we inherit blessings now, and even more eternally.

SUSAN: What did you take away from the writing of it?

LORI: A passion for telling more stories set on the 18th century New York frontier. I feel I’ve only touched the tip of this iceberg.

SUSAN: What’s next on the horizon for you?

LORI: Another novel releasing from WaterBrook Press, next spring (2014). The Pursuit of Tamsen Littlejohn is set in western North Carolina (present day Tennessee) against the backdrop of that region’s bid for separate statehood in the mid-1780s. In brief: With a murdering stepfather and a spurned suitor in pursuit, Tamsen Littlejohn bargained for hardship, rough-living, even mortal danger in her Overmountain flight to freedom with young frontiersman Jesse Bird. But falling in love? That was never part of the plan.

Susan, here! Thanks for being my guest, Lori. And now for a giveaway! Just leave a comment here before Thursday, August 15 at midnight Pacific and you’re in the drawing. I will announce the winner a week from today so please stay tuned. It’s a great book, folks. (If you want to read the first two chapters, which are delicious, by the way, click right here:

New friends, new books!

KarenWhiteAfter a quick four days in Atlanta to attend the Romance Writers of America’s national convention I am now back at the writing desk trying to catch up on emails and updates and then back to writing! I am not a true romance writer, but there’s love in every one of my books – sometimes a quest for it that is decidedly romantic – so I feel at home thematically at RWA and their conferences are expertly packaged.

The best part of going to this one was getting to hang our with my editor at Penguin/NAL, the brilliant Ellen Edwards, and to meet the wonderful Penguin publicity team and NAL publisher,  Kara Walsh. What a great group of people to partner with. They are as excited as I am for A Fall of Marigolds to hit bookstore shelves. And they adore the cover, just like I do.

Untitled-1Right up there with being the best part of the trip was meeting fellow Penguin novelists and feeling very much a welcome new addition to the family. Simone St. James,  a fellow NAL gal who also has Ellen for an editor  and whom I met Friday evening, won two – count them! – two Rita Awards Saturday night for her debut novel The Haunting of Maddy Clare. She’s a gifted writer and lots of fun to chat with.  I also got to meet – finally – NY Times Bestseller Karen White, an amazing writer who graciously read and endorsed my A Sound Among the Trees a couple years ago. At the NAL signing on Saturday morning, she was giving away copies of her newest, The Time in Between, which I was thrilled to bring home. She is as lovely in person as her picture. And I love the cover of her new book.  I also met fellow Penguin writer Wendy Wax and brought home When We Were Watching Downton Abbey for my daughter. Loved getting to know fellow NAL writer Jesse Hayworth, who made me feel very much a part of the fam,  and hearing how she invented herself as a writer.

In between making new friends and catching up with old friend like Robin Lee Hatcher and Rachel Hauck, I heard two amazing keynote speeches, including Saturday lunch’s keynote by Kristan Higgins. She had us laughing one moment and crying the next.  She shared so many wonderful insights, but the one I remember most vividly is this one: “The beautiful thing about being a writer is that no one can bench you. If you want to write, you can write.”  Well said.

Now it’s time to settle in and get back to writing my current work-in-progress, a tale set during the time of the London Blitz involving two sisters who are separated. Sorry, folks. There has to be tension for there to be a story. I must separate them!

Here are a few photos from the trip to cap it off…

The view looking up from the atrium level of the Marriot Marquis.

The view looking up from the atrium level of the Marriot Marquis.

The view from room 2241!

The view from room 2241!

Ellen Edwards and I. She is so great to work with!

Ellen Edwards and I. She is so great to work with!

Rachel Hauck, a Rita finalist. and I at lunch.

Rachel Hauck, a Rita finalist. and me at lunch.

 

Cutting for Stone: Transported

cutting  I am in the stage of writing a new novel where I can think of little else. My mind is as cluttered as my desk. It’s not a good time to ask me any questions that pertain to matters of life and death or hand me a book that is 650 pages long and not related to research.

So when my book club chose Abraham Verghese’s bestselling book CUTTING FOR STONE for this month’s read, I had a little pity party inside complete with unblown-up balloons and sagging streamers. I had heard that it was a phenomenal book and that readers everywhere loved it. But at 658-are-you-kidding-me-pages, I knew there was no way I could find the time to read it when I’ve got ten books about London during World War II that I simply must get to or the writing machine will come to a screeching halt.  I didn’t see how I could do it.

I had the book at home already. It had been on my towering TBR pile for a year.  I decided to just give it a go. Enjoy as much as I could, skip the book club gathering for June, come back in July with the next pick, and hope it was do-able.

But I was transported on page 1 to a different place; a place where I couldn’t see not finishing it.  I was so drawn to the characters, especially the narrator, Marion Stone, that I simply had to know what became of his life.  As the research books gathered dust, I came to the heady conclusion that perhaps I was preparing to write after all, by reading this novel instead of all those history books. Verghese had done with beautiful but simple prose what I was trying do every time I sat down to write: Draw my readers into my make-believe-world and convince them it’s real enough to care about.

The story in a nutshell is this: Twin brothers, Marion and Shiva Stone, are born of a “tragic union between a beautiful Indian nun and a brash British surgeon at a mission hospital in Addis Ababa. Orphaned by their mother’s death in childbirth and their father’s disappearance, and bound together by a preternatural connection and a shared fascination with medicine, the twins come of age as Ethiopia hovers on the brink of revolution.But it’s love, not politics — their passion for the same woman — that will tear them apart and force Marion to flee his homeland and make his way to America, finding refuge in his work at an underfunded, overcrowded New York City hospital. When the past catches up to him, wreaking havoc and destruction, Marion has to entrust his life to the two men he has trusted least in the world: the surgeon father who abandoned him and the brother who betrayed him.” (from the author’s webpage).

It was an absolutely delicious book, an all-time favorite for me, so rich in sensory details that I can’t wait to head to San Diego’s Asmara Eritrean Restaurant and try all the food mentioned in the book.

And quotable lines? Lots. Here are a few faves:

“Wasn’t that the definition of home? Not where you are from, but where you are wanted”

“The world turns on our every action, and our every omission, whether we know it or not.”

“The key to your happiness is to…own who you are, own how you look, own your family, own the talents you have, and own the ones you don’t. [Otherwise] you’ll die searching, you’ll die bitter, always feeling you were promised more. Not only our actions, but also our omissions, become our destiny.”

The most amazing thing, and that which I will take away most as a writer, is the deft way Verghese fed me nearly 700 pages of story and left me feeling like I had only just begun to eat when the meal was done.

These shelves should be full of novels…

535710_406980372734016_501824011_nIs this not the most awesome library ever? Even the ceiling is pretty. And look at that tendril of a staircase, as lovely as a curling lock of hair. I just want to import the whole room into my house. (A pox on anyone who dares to say, “But where would you put it? Details, schmetails).

I have to say, though, that there is one thing about this library that makes me shake my head in frustration. In lament. In grumpyness.

It’s a law library.

Not that there’s anything wrong with books on law. They are helpful, exhausting tomes.

It just seems like there is a lot of Wow here lavished on books that aren’t novels.

This law library is in Munich if you care to know. Book Riot says it is located at “Neues Rathaus (New Town Hall), a soaring, neo-Gothic confection built at the close of the nineteenth century.” That might be the most yummy word ever to describe a beautiful room filled with books: a confection. Where’s my napkin? I am drooling.

I want to go here someday, sneak in a heady mug of Tchibo,  sit in one of those wooden chairs, soak in all the wonder and crack open the pages of a MY kind of book.

Care to join me?

To be read, carefully

emilyrapp Have you ever picked up a book that you knew was going to flatten you emotionally and yet you read it anyway? Willingly?

I know a great many people read to escape so why, therefore, would I want to read something that will have me ripping Kleenexes out the box and wishing the planet wasn’t such a broken place? I can only say sometimes I read to reflect and ponder, and that it’s good to be reminded that when love takes us to the crucible we re-learn how much love defines us not how hot the fire was.

I am adding “The Still Point of the Turning World,” to my To Be Read stack even though I know it’s the heart-wrenching memoir of a young mother who lost her precious little boy to Tay-Sachs disease, a rare and congenital condition that is always fatal. As in, always. Children with Tay-Sachs lack an enzyme responsible for breaking down specific chemicals in the nerve cells of the brain. When these chemicals aren’t removed,”they build up, and the child loses his or her ability to function. Seizures and loss of sight and movement are all symptoms of the child’s body shutting down.”

I read this excerpt, which just about tore me in two, and that actually clinched it for me.  I have to read the rest. I have to know what it was like for this mother to walk that road and come out on the other side, even if I would approach the same quest from a different faith. I believe those I love and who love God like I do will be forever with me in heaven. Could I survive an ordeal like this one if I didn’t? I’m thinking no. . .

In this interview, author Emily Rapp says:  “One of the things about having a terminally ill child is that you start to understand and really absorb your own mortality and the mortality of every single person that you love, and that is really terrifying, but it’s the truth.” Elsewhere in the interview she shares that there is no afterlife in her worldview. How does she cope? I have to know.

Life is as fragile as it is precious. Just reminding myself of this as a I write this makes me want to toss out every little inconvenience I am currently whining about and hug my four adult children. I admit I am a little afraid of that “still point” in the turning world that is the risk of loving people. But love is still worth the risk, don’t you think?

 

What you don’t know about lace

I am an unabashed devotee of any historical event that reads like a story and so when I heard a writer whose work I already admire had a new book about forbidden lace during the reign of King Louis XIII, I knew I had to snatch it up.

This was news to me, that there was a time in French history when lace was contraband. Louis XIII actually banned it; that frilly, frothy white stuff that spills from hems and cuffs and collars. To possess it was a criminal act and to smuggle it into the country was as treasonous as a death threat to His Royal Unlaceness himself. But the French aristocracy wanted what they were forbidden to have and whenever someone with means wants something they can’t readily have, there is always someone who will get it for them for a price, regardless of the risk or who they have to abuse and use to get it.

Writing under the pseudonym Iris Anthony, the author of The Ruins of Lace, is someone whose work in historical fiction is already stellar. This one is probably her best yet but it’s hailed as her debut because as Iris Anthony, that’s what it is. Here’s the Publishers Weekly review:

“In this stunning debut from the pseudonymous Anthony, King Louis XIII’s ban on lace gives rise to a black market that weaves together the lives of four women in 17th-century France and Flanders. Katharina Martens is a Flemish lace maker who considers it her God-given duty to craft the “exquisite, beautiful” fabric, never mind that her work—often conducted without firelight or lanterns, in order to keep the lace clean of soot and ash—has left her hunched and nearly blind. As the end of her lace-making career draws nigh, to be followed by the sordid existence of former craftswomen relegated to a life of “doing… vile things,” her sister, Heilwich, struggles to save enough money to buy Katharina’s freedom from the abbey where she works. Meanwhile in France, Lissette Lefort and her cousin Alexandre must procure a length of forbidden lace to pay off the conniving count of Montreau, who threatens to reveal Lissette’s father’s role in an attempted assassination of the king. As beautifully fashioned as the sought-after lace, this story is sure to impress.”

Told in multiple view points, including that of a dog who is a smuggler’s runner, it is obvious the story is really about people – and a dog –  and what they value most in life and what they are willing to do or suffer to have it.  There is a great interview with Iris Anthony on the book’s website and a video chat about where the idea came from and how she came to choose the story’s narrators.

I was especially intrigued by the notion that what makes lace beautiful is the part that isn’t there – the air between the threads that creates the pattern – that is the part that gives lace its artistry; the invisible part. That is remarkable to me and worthy of pondering.

It’s a great read folks, not a cozy feel-good bedtime book, but a thought-provoking page-turner that you won’t want to put down.