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BOOK REVIEW: The Tudor Vendetta by Christopher Gortner

Wednesday, November 19, 2014



Title:
THE TUDOR VENDETTA
Author: Christopher Gortner 
Publisher: St Martins Press
Age Group & Genre: Adult Historical
Reviewer: Kate Forsyth


The Blurb:
Winter, 1558: Elizabeth I has ascended the throne but the first days of her reign are already fraught with turmoil, the kingdom weakened by strife and her ability to rule uncertain.
Summoned from exile abroad at the new queen’s behest, Brendan Prescott arrives in London to face his shattered past. He soon finds himself pitted in deadly rivalry with his life-long foe, Robert Dudley, but when a poison attempt overshadows the queen’s coronation, Elizabeth privately dispatches Brendan on a far more dangerous assignation: to find her favored lady-in-waiting, Lady Parry, who has vanished in Yorkshire.

Upon his arrival at the crumbling sea-side manor that may hold the key to Lady Parry’s disappearance, he encounters a strange, impoverished family beset by grief, as well as mounting evidence that they hide a secret from him. The mystery surrounding Lady Parry deepens as Brendan begins to realize there is far more going on at the manor than meets the eye, but the closer he gets to the heart of the mystery, the more he becomes the quarry of an elusive stranger with a vendetta— one that could expose both his own buried identity and a long-hidden revelation that will bring about Elizabeth’s doom.

From the intrigue-laden passages of Whitehall to a foreboding Catholic manor and the prisons of the Tower, Brendan must risk everything to unravel a vendetta that strikes at the very core of his world, including his loyalty to his queen.

The Tudor Vendetta is the third book in Gortner’s Elizabeth I Spymaster Trilogy.


What I Thought: 
I’ve enjoyed this book hugely, as I’ve enjoyed every book in Christopher Gortner’s Spymaster series. He has a beautiful, easy writing style and each book is a fast-paced, action-packed, rollercoaster ride that still manages to bring the world of Elizabethan London roaring to life. 

The characters are absolutely spot-on, and the historical background is leavened into the dough of the story with a light, sure touch. The young Queen Elizabeth is made human in these books – an intelligent yet vulnerable woman who must fight to survive and rule. I also love the characterisation of the story’s protagonist, the illegitimate Brendan Prescott who is torn between love and duty in a way that rings very true. 

I’m hoping that Christopher will write many more books in this series – as long as he writes them, I will buy them. 

I interviewed Christopher a couple of years ago - you can read it here or read my reviews of his other books here. Or check him out on the web: 

Christopher's website 


PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT – I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK



BOOK LIST: Best books of 2013

Saturday, January 04, 2014

I have read so many brilliant books this year that I had great trouble narrowing it down to only a few. However, at last I have managed it – here are the best books I read in 2013, divided by genre. 

Because I love historical fiction, and stories that move between a historical and a contemporary setting, most of my favourite books are in these genres. However, there are a few utterly brilliant contemporary novels and fantasy novels as well. As always, my list is entirely and unashamedly subjective – many of these writers are my friends and colleagues, and one is my sister! 

However, all I can say is I am incredibly lucky to know so many über-talented writers. 

Best Historical Novel for Adults



Chasing the Light – Jesse Blackadder
A beautiful, haunting novel about the first women in Antarctica.


The Crimson Ribbon – Katherine Clements
Set in England in 1646, in the midst of the English Civil War, this is a utterly riveting tale of passion, intrigue, witchcraft, and treason. 


Longbourne – Jo Baker
A beautiful, intense, heart-wrenching tale about the lives of the servants at Longbourne, the home of the Bennets from Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. 


A Spear of Summer Grass – Deanna Raybourn
Set during the Roaring 20s, this is the story of debutante Delilah Drummond who has caused one scandal too many and so is banished to Kenya .. where she finds intrigue, murder and romance. 


Letters from Skye – Jessica Brockmole 
This charming epistolary novel moves between the First World War and the Second World War, and tells the story of the blossoming romance between a young Scottish poet and an American university student. 


Best Historical Mystery


The Affair of the Bloodstained Egg Cosy - James Anderson
As one can probably tell from the title, this book is a gentle spoof of the Golden Age type of mysteries written by authors such as Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh – utterly clever and charming!


Bellfield Hall, or The Deductions of Miss Dido Kent – Anna Dean
Imagine a novel where Miss Marple meets Jane Austen, and you will begin to have a sense of this delightful Regency murder mystery. Miss Dido Kent, the heroine and amateur sleuth, is clever, witty, and astute … and finds a touch of romance in her search to uncover the murderer. 


Best Historical Thrillers



The Falcons of Fire & Ice - Karen Maitland
An utterly compelling historical novel which moves between Portugal and Iceland as a young woman searches for two rare white falcons in a desperate attempt to save her father's life. Her journey is fraught with danger, betrayal, murder and horror, with the strangest set of seers ever to appear in fiction.


The Tudor Conspiracy – C.W. Gortner
A fast-paced, action-packed historical thriller, filled with suspense and switchback reversals, that also manages to bring the corrupt and claustrophobic atmosphere of the Tudor court thrillingly to life.


Ratcatcher – James McGee
A ratcatcher is a Bow Street Runner, an early policeman in Regency times. A great historical adventure book, filled with spies, and intrigue, and romance, and murder. 


Best Historical Romance



The Autumn Bride - Anne Gracie
Anne Gracie never disappoints. This is beautiful, old-fashioned romance, driven by character and situation and dialogue, and, as always, is filled with wit and charm and pathos. 


A Tryst with Trouble – Alyssa Everett
Lady Barbara Jeffords is certain her little sister didn't murder the footman, no matter how it looks … and no matter what the Marquess of Beningbrough might say ... A fresh, funny and delightful Regency romance. 


I bought this book solely on the cover – a Regency romance set in Venice? Sounds right up my alley … I mean, canal … It proved to be a very enjoyable romantic romp, with musical interludes. 


Best Fantasy/Fairy Tale Retellings for Adults



The Year of Ancient Ghosts – Kim Wilkins
'The Year of Ancient Ghosts' is a collection of novellas and short stories - brave, surprising, beautiful, frightening and tragic all at once


Beauty’s Sister – James Bradley
Beauty’s Sister is an exquisite retelling of the Rapunzel fairy tale, reimagined from the point of view of Rapunzel’s darker, wilder sister. 


Best Parallel Contemporary/Historical



Ember Island – Kimberley Freeman
A real page-turning delight, with a delicious mix of mystery, romance, history and family drama. One of my all-time favourite authors, Kimberley Freeman can be counted on to deliver an utterly compelling story. 


Secrets of the Sea House - Elisabeth Gifford
An intriguing and atmospheric novel set in the Hebrides Islands of Scotland, its narrative moves between the contemporary story of troubled Ruth and her husband Michael, and the islands in the 1860s when crofters are being forced to emigrate and science and religion are in conflict.


The Shadow Year – Hannah Richell
A perfectly structured and beautifully written novel which uses parallel narratives to stunning effect. A compelling and suspenseful novel about family, love, and loss.


The Perfume Garden - Kate Lord Brown
A young woman inherits an old house in Spain, discovers clues to buried family secrets, meets a gorgeous Spaniard, and finds her true path in life ... interposed with flashbacks to her grandmother's experiences during the bloody and turbulent Spanish Civil War  ... 


The Ashford Affair – Lauren Willlig
I absolutely loved this book which moves between contemporary New York, and 1920s England and Africa. It's a historical mystery, a family drama, and a romance, all stirred together to create a compulsively readable novel.



Best Contemporary Novel



The Midnight Dress – Karen Foxlee
A beautiful, haunting, tragic tale of love and loss and yearning. 


The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion
A feel-good romantic comedy, with wit and charm. 



Best Contemporary Suspense Novels


Sister – Rosamund Lupton
Utterly compulsive, suspenseful, clever, surprising, this is one of the best murder mysteries I have ever read. 


Shatter – Michael Robotham
Chilling, powerful and superbly written. Highly recommended for the brave.   


Best YA Fantasy/Fairytale Retellings



Thornspell – Helen Lowe
Helen Lowe reimagines the Sleeping Beauty story from the point of view of the prince in this beautiful, romantic fantasy for young adults. 


Raven Flight – Juliet Marillier
A classic old-fashioned high fantasy with a quest at its heart. The writing is beautiful and limpid, the setting is an otherworldy Scotland, and the story mixes danger, magic and romance - sigh! I loved it. This is YA fantasy at its absolute best.  


Pureheart – Cassandra Golds
Pureheart is the darkest of all fairy tales, it is the oldest of all quest tales, it is an eerie and enchanting story about the power of love and forgiveness. It is, quite simply, extraordinary. 


Scarlet in the Snow – Sophie Masson 
I just loved this retelling of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale, told with flair, dash, and panache, by one of my favourite Australian women writers. This is YA fantasy at its best - filled with magic, adventure and just a touch of romance. Loved it!




Best Historical Novel for Young Adults



The River Charm – Belinda Murrell
This beautiful, heart-wrenching novel is inspired by the true life story of the famous Atkinsons of Oldbury, earlier settlers in colonial Australia. It moves between the life of modern-day Millie, and her ancestor Charlotte Atkinson, the daughter of the woman who wrote the first children’s book published in Australia (who was, by the way, my great-great-great-great-grandmother. So, yes, that means Belinda is my sister.) 


Code Name Verity – Elizabeth Wein
One of the best YA historical novels I have ever read, it is set in France and England during the Second World war and is the confession of a captured English spy. 


Witch Child – Celia Rees
Set in 1659, during the tumultuous months after Cromwell’s death and before the return of Charles II, this is a simple yet powerful tale that explores the nature of magic and superstition, faith and cruelty.


Act of Faith - Kelly Gardiner
A heart-breaking and thought-provoking historical novel for young adults, set during the rule of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. 


Best Children’s Books



A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness
What can I say? It's brilliant, surprising, harrowing, humbling. I found it hard to breathe after I finished reading it – such an emotional wallop!


Fire Spell – Laura Amy Schiltz
I absolutely adored this book! Laura Amy Schlitz reminds me of one of my all-time favourite authors, Joan Aiken, which is very high praise indeed. This is a rather creepy story about children and witches and a puppet-master in London a century or so ago. Brilliant. 


Wonderstruck – Brian Selznick
A perfect title for a book that is, indeed, struck with wonder. 


Best Non-Fiction




Hanns & Rudolf: The True Story of the German Jew Who Tracked Down and Caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz – Thomas Harding
The author of this utterly riveting and chilling book found out, at his great-uncle’s funeral, that the mild-mannered old man he had known had once been a Nazi hunter. And not just any Nazi. His Great Uncle Hanns had been the man who had hunted down and caught Rudolf Hoss, the Kommandant of Auschwitz. 



84 Charing Cross Road – Helen Hanff
84 Charing Cross Road is not a novel, but rather a collection of letters between an American writer and an English bookseller over the course of many years. That description does not really give any indication of just how funny, heart-wrenching and beautiful this book is – you really do have to read it yourself.


The Bolter: The Story of Idina Sackville – Frances Osborne
The Bolter is the non-fiction account of the life of Idina Sackville, the author's great-grandmother, who had inspired the key character in Nancy Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate. She married and divorced numerous times, and was part of a very fast set in 1930s Kenya that led to scandal and murder - I loved it. 

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT - I LOVE TO KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!

BOOK LIST - Books Read in August 2013

Wednesday, October 02, 2013


August is Book Week in Australia, and that means lots of authors, including myself, have been on the road, talking about our books at schools, libraries and literary festivals. With so much travelling and talking, there’s not much time for reading and so this month I managed only eight books – however, I discovered a couple of wonderful new authors and read the new work of a few old favourites and so it was a happy reading month for me. 



1. The Tudor Conspiracy – C.W. Gortner
The Tudor period was a time of turmoil, danger, and intrigue … and this means spies. Brendan Prescott works in the shadows on behalf of a young Princess Elizabeth, risking his life to save her from a dark conspiracy that could make her queen … or send her to her death. Not knowing who to trust, surrounded by peril on all sides, Brendan must race against time to retrieve treasonous letters before Queen Mary’s suspicions of her half-sister harden into murderous intent.    

The Tudor Conspiracy is a fast-paced, action-packed historical thriller, filled with suspense and switchback reversals, that also manages to bring the corrupt and claustrophobic atmosphere of the Tudor court thrillingly to life. It follows on from C.W. Gortner’s earlier novel, The Tudor Secret, but can be read on its own (though I really recommend reading Book 1 first – it was great too). 


2. Pureheart – Cassandra Golds
Cassandra Golds is one of the most extraordinary writers in the world. Her work is very hard to define, because there is no-one else writing quite like she does. Her books are beautiful, haunting, strange, and heart-rending. They are old-fashioned in the very best sense of the word, in that they seem both timeless and out-of-time. They are fables, or fairy tales, filled with truth and wisdom and a perilous kind of beauty. They remind me of writers I adored as a child – George Macdonald Fraser, Nicholas Stuart Gray, Elizabeth Goudge, or Eleanor Farjeon at her most serious and poetic. 

I have read and loved all of Cassandra’s work but Pureheart took my breath away. Literally. It was like being punched in the solar plexus. I could not breathe for the lead weight of emotion on my heart. I haven’t read a book that packs such an emotional wallop since Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls. This is a story about a bullied and emotionally abused child and those scenes are almost unbearable to read. It is much more than that, however. 

Pureheart is the darkest of all fairy tales, it is the oldest of all quest tales, it is an eerie and enchanting story about the power of love and forgiveness. It is, quite simply, extraordinary. 


3. Park Lane – Frances Osborne
Park Lane is the first novel by Frances Osborne, but she has written two earlier non-fiction books which I really enjoyed. The first, called Lilla’s Feast, told the story of her paternal great-grandmother, Lilla Eckford, who wrote a cookbook while being held prisoner in a Japanese internment camp during World war II. The second, called The Bolter, was written about Frances Osborne’s maternal great-grandmother, the notorious Lady Idina Sackville. Married five times, with many other lovers, Idina was part of the scandalous Happy Valley set in Kenya which led to adultery, drug addiction, and murder. Both are absolutely riveting reads, and so I had high hopes of Park Lane, particularly after I read a review in The Guardian which said ‘Frances Osborne will be in the vanguard of what is surely an emergent genre: books that appeal to Downton Abbey fans.’ Well, that’s me! I should have been a very happy reader. 

I have to admit, however, that the book did not live up to my expectations. This was partly because it is written entirely in present tense, a literary tic which I hate, and partly because of the style, which felt heavy and awkward. 

The sections told from the point of view of the aristocratic Beatrice are the most readable, perhaps because this is a world that Frances Osborne knows well (she is the daughter of the Conservative minister David Howell, Baron Howell of Guildford, and wife of George Osborne, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, which means she lives next door to the Prime Minister on Downing Street in London.) However, the sections told from the point of view of her servant, Grace, are less successful, and her voice did not ring true for me. Also, I was just getting interested in her story when she disappears from the page, popping up again at the end. 

The sections I enjoyed the most were those detailing the suffragettes’ struggle for the vote. These scenes were full of action and drama, and draw upon Frances Osborne’s own family history, with her great-great-grandmother having made many sacrifices for the women’s cause. I’d have liked to have known much more about their struggle and the hardships they faced (maybe I’ll need to write my own suffragette novel one day). 


4. The Devil’s Cave – Martin Walker
I really love this series of murder mysteries set in a small French village in the Dordogne. A lot of the pleasure of these books does not come from the solving of the actual crime – which is often easily guessed – but from the descriptions of the town, the countryside, and the food and wine (I always want to cook the recipes, many of which can be found on the author’s website). These books also really make me want to go back to France!

The hero of this series is the small-town policeman Benoît Courrèges, called Bruno by everyone. He lives in an old shepherd’s cottage, with a beagle hound, ducks, chickens, a goat and a vegetable garden. He’s far more likely to offer some homespun wisdom than arrest anyone, a trait I appreciate. There’s always a touch of romance, and a cast of eccentric minor characters who add warmth and humour.  

The first few books were lazy and charming; the tension is slowly growing in later books which I think is a good thing as the series may have grown just a little too comfortable otherwise. In this instalment – no 5 in the series – there is a dead naked woman in a boat, satanic rituals and chase scenes in an underground cave, a Resistance heroine to be rescued, a local girl led astray, and an omelette made with truffle-infused eggs and dandelion buds. A big sigh of happiness from me. 


5. Let It Be Me – Kate Noble
I bought this book solely on the cover – a Regency romance set in Venice? Sounds right up my alley … I mean, canal …

I have never read a book by Kate Noble before, but I certainly will again. Let It Be Me is clearly part of a series, as is often the case with historical romances, but I had no trouble working out who everyone is. 

The book was set in 1824, and our heroine is the red-haired Bridget Forrester. Although she is quite pretty, none of the men at the ball ask her to dance as she has a reputation for being a shrew. It seems she has been over-shadowed by her sister, the Beauty of the family. 

So Sarah is over-joyed when she receives an invitation to be taught by the Italian composer, Vincenzo Carpenini. After a series of troubles and complications, Bridget ends up going to Venice and before she know sit, finds herself part of a wager to prove that women can play the piano just as well as men. All sorts of romantic entanglements occur, with a wonderful musical leitmotif running through – a very enjoyable romantic read. 


6. The Sultan’s Eyes – Kelly Gardiner
I was on a panel with Kelly Gardiner at the Melbourne Writers Festival, and so read The Sultan’s Eyes in preparation for our talk together. Historical fiction is my favourite genre, and I particularly love books set in the mid-17th century, a time of such bloody turmoil and change. I set my six-book series of children’s historical adventure novels ‘The Chain of Charms’ during this time and so I know the period well. I absolutely loved reading The Sultan’s Eyes, which is set in Venice and Constantinople in 1648, and am now eager to read the book that came before, Act of Faith.

The heroine of the story is Isabella Hawkins, the orphaned daughter of an Oxford philosopher, and educated by him in the classics as if she had been a boy. She has taken refuge in Venice with some friends following the death of her father, after what seem like some hair-raising adventures in Book 1. An old enemy, the Inquisitor Fra Clement, arrives in Venice, however, and afraid for their lives, Isabella and her friends free to the exotic capital of the East, Constantinople, which is ruled by a boy Sultan. His mother and his grandmother are engaged in covert and murderous intrigues to control him, and it is not long before Isabella and the others are caught up in the conspiracies. I loved seeing the world of the Byzantine Empire brought so vividly to life, and loved the character of Isabella  - passionate, outspoken, intelligent and yet also vulnerable. 


7. The Wishbird – Gabrielle Wang
I love Gabrielle Wang’s work and I love listening to her speak, so I was very happy to be sharing a stage with her at the Melbourne Writers Festival.  Her new novel The Wishbird is a magical adventure for young readers, and has the added bonus of illustrations by Gabrielle as well, including the gorgeous cover. 

Boy is an orphaned street urchin in the grim City of Soulless who makes a living as a pickpocket. One day he has a chance encounter with Oriole, a girl with a ‘singing tongue’ who was raised by the Wishbird in the Forest of the Birds. The Wishbird is dying, and Oriole has come to the city to try and find a way to save him. She finds herself imprisoned for her musical voice, however, and Boy must find a way to help her. What follows is a simple but beautiful fable about courage, beauty, love and trust that reminded me of old Chinese fairy tales. 



8. Elijah’s Mermaid – Essie Fox
Elijah’s Mermaid is best described as a dark Gothic Victorian melodrama about the lives of two sets of orphans. One is the beautiful and wistful Pearl, found as a baby after her mother drowned in the Thames, and raised in a brothel with the rather whimsical name of The House of Mermaids. The other two are the twins Elijah and Lily, also abandoned, but lucky enough to be adopted by their grandfather, an author named Augustus Lamb. 
The voices of Pearl and Lily alternate. At first Pearl’s voice is full of street slang and lewd words, but as she grows up many of these are discarded. For the first third of the book, the only points of contact are the children’s fascination with mermaids and water-babies (Pearl has webbed feet), but then they meet by chance at a freak show in which a fake mermaid is exhibited. After that, their lives slowly entwine.
Although the pace is leisurely, the story itself is intense and full of drama and mystery. The Victorian atmosphere is genuinely creepy. I could feel the chill swirl of the fog, and hear the clatter of the horses’ hooves on the cobblestones, and see Lily struggling to run in her corset and bustle. The story’s action takes place in freak shows, brothels, midnight alleys, underground grottos, and a madhouse, and so the dark underbelly of Victorian society is well and truly turned to the light. Yet this is a novel about love and redemption, as well as obsession and murder, and the love between the twins, and between Elijah and Pearl, is beautifully done.  


This monthly round-up of my reading was first posted for BOOKTOPIA and if you want to buy any of these books, they have all the links you need.


BOOK LIST: My Favourite Books Set in France

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

My lovely publicist Peri is setting off to France for Christmas, and knowing what a Francophile I am, asked me for a list of books she should read before she goes. 

So here it is. My favourite books set in France:

Memoir
Almost French: Love and a New Life in Paris – Sarah Turnbull
My Life in France – Julia Child
True Pleasures: A Memoir of Women In Paris – Lucinda Holdforth (a must read! I'm lending it to Peri)

Fiction by Contemporary Writers
Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks
Girl at the Lion d’Or - Sebastian Faulks
Charlotte Grey - Sebastian Faulks
Chocolat – Joanne Harris
Five Quarters of the Orange – Joanne Harris (one of my all-time favourite books)
Peaches for Monsieur l’Cure - Joanne Harris
Perfume – Patrick Suskind   
The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. - Sandra Gullard
The Lady & the Unicorn – Tracy Chevalier
The Confessions of Catherine d’Medici: A Novel  – Christopher Gortner 
Labyrinth - Kate Mosse
Sepulchre - Kate Mosse
Citadel - Kate Mosse 


Classics
The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway
These Old Shades - Georgette Heyer (I love this book so much - it was my first Georgette Heyer!)
A Tale of Two Cities - Charles Dickens 

I know I'm forgetting some fantastic books! Any recommendations?

INTERVIEW: Christopher Gortner, author of 'The Queen's Vow'

Tuesday, October 02, 2012





I first met Christopher Gortner at the Historical Novel Society conference in Chicago in 2010.  He was funny, clever, and passionate, and spoke so engagingly about his research for his novel, The Last Queen, that I bought it there and then. 
One of the questions he was asked was how he – a man – was able to get inside the heart and mind of his female protagonist, the Spanish Queen Juana, known as the Mad. 

He told a very funny story how he dressed up in a 16th century gown and went galloping about on a horse with pillows stuffed inside his corset, to research a scene when a pregnant Juana escapes captivity. After the laughter had died away, he went on to say that he felt so much sympathy with his heroine who was tormented by love, desire, fear and ambition, just like any of us, regardless of whether we are male or female. 

 We are all human, we all have the same longings and fears, and we are all constrained by society’s rules and expectations. What he tried to do was simply imagine himself in Juana’s situation and try and think what she must have felt.

I loved this comment. It is what we do as writers – we imagine ourselves into other people’s shoes (or corsets) for a while, and try to be as truthful to what they must think and feel as possible.

I also really loved The Last Queen. The story of Juana the Mad – daughter of Ferdinand of Aragorn and Isabella of Castile – has always interested me, although I knew very little about her. 



At the time, I wrote a review of the book which said: 
“The back of the book says ‘Married at sixteen. A queen at twenty-five. Declared insane and betrayed by the men she adored.’ Who wouldn’t want to read this novel? Luckily it was just as good as I hoped it would be. It really is a fascinating story about a passionate and cruelly wronged woman – God, it makes me glad I wasn’t a woman in the 16th century! I’d probably have been locked up too!”

Now Christopher has written a novel based on the life of Juana the Mad’s mother, the imperious and strong-willed Isabella of Castile. For those of you who don’t know your 15th century history, she and her husband Ferdinand united the many disparate kingdoms of Spain, conquered the Moors, instigated the Spanish Inquisition which saw the Jews banished, and funded Christopher Columbus’s expedition to discover a new way to the Indies, but finding America instead.  

To help put her reign into perspective, it helps to know she was also was the mother of Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII. 

The Queen’s Vow brings this powerful, passionate woman to life, illuminates the forces that drove her, and paints a vivid picture of late 15th century Spain, one of the most fascinating of countries.  I absolutely loved this book, and loved this place and time in history – I hope C.W. Gortner writes a lot more books, fast!


Are you a daydreamer too?
Absolutely. I imagine every writer must be. 

Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I must have, yes, only when I was younger, I didn't think that I could "be" a writer, though I'd been writing stories since childhood. I used to write them in spiral bound notebooks and create illustrations for the covers. My mom still has one of those notebooks; she says that once I was old enough to understand what books were, I was fascinated by them. I never stopped writing while growing up and experimented with lots of genres. But I didn't seriously consider publishing until I was in my early thirties, after my father read my first historical manuscript and suggested I try to publish it. I had no idea of how to go about doing that but took to the challenge; little did I know how long it would take! I persisted through tremendous obstacles because writing is something I've always done, simply because I must. I do think that retaining the joy of writing for writing's sake, rather than as a means to put food on the table, is something every published writer must strive to protect. 

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
Isabella of Castile was part of my formative years spent in Spain. A ruined castle just a short distance from where I lived had once belonged to her. Growing up, I learned about her exploits and was fascinated by this forbidding queen who ruled Castile and went to war, who united Spain and sent Columbus to America, yet also was held responsible for the establishment of the Inquisition. I visited her tomb and that of her daughter, Juana, the subject of my first novel, The Last Queen, in Granada during school trips. I also saw her crown and scepter in Granada. But I truly became entranced by Isabella while writing The Last Queen. In that book, Isabella is the triumphant, middle-aged monarch of legend; she has just conquered Granada and set the stage for Spain’s emergence as a modern Renaissance state. To depict her accurately, I researched her, but my focus was more on the woman she became after she’d won the throne and united her country. When my book was published, I got many e-mails from readers telling me they’d first learned about Isabella in school because of her connection to Columbus, just like me, and had fallen in love with her in my book. I realized that hundreds of years after her death, she still exerts a powerful influence. So, for The Queen's Vow I decided to explore the younger Isabella and how she transformed herself into the queen she became. 



How extensively do you plan your novels? 
For all my books, I research intensively. I usually read everything I can find about my characters, the era in which they lived, and the world they knew. I also take trips to see extant sites associated with them. However, I am mindful that research can, in and of itself, become an obsession, and at some point the actual writing has to start. Usually, I write once I feel I've a strong enough sense not only of the time and events surrounding my character, but more importantly, who she was. Developing an emotional blueprint for my characters is key for me; I don't necessarily need to agree with the people I write about but I must understand them. I have to know them intimately in order to inhabit them. I also develop a brief outline of major events I want to cover, though I tend to refer to it loosely. I like to have an idea of where I want to start and where I want to end up, yet let the writing itself guide me on the journey. I'm superstitious about too much planning; I fear it will drain the joy of discovering the story, of letting it unfold in its own way. 

 Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
Yes and no. Dreams of course do inspire me, in that I find myself recreating imagery and scenery from my book and can sometimes overcome blocks I encounter while writing by, literally, "sleeping on it." But I don't keep a formal dream journal or anything like that. I think my dream life informs my waking state like a faint dye permeates cloth.

 Where do you write, and when?
I write in my study at home, usually from mid-morning to mid-afternoon. I used to be quite the night-owl, staying up till the wee hours to write, but I had a full-time day job and writing was a luxury that I was willing to forsake sleep for. I was also younger and could thrive on fewer hours of sleep. Now, I'm older and finally, after many years, writing full time, so I try to stick to a schedule. I do find that scheduling writing every day is important for me. Nowadays, writers face so many distractions, as well as obligations: engaging on social media and the Internet has become a must for marketing yet presents a challenge in terms of time management. I've discovered that I can easily spend an entire day online and not write a single word of my current work-in-progress. If I'm not disciplined, my writing suffers.

 What is your favourite part of writing?
When I reach that magical midway point in the work: my research is over for the most part; I've developed a keen understanding of who my characters are, and all of a sudden, everything aligns. It ceases to feel like writing. The story takes over. I love that apparent loss of overt control; the way time ceases to exist. It's truly a marvelous gift.

 What do you do when you get blocked? 
Get frustrated. Get anxious. Reach out to my other writer friends. Pace. Fret. No matter how often it happens, it always feels as though I may never overcome it. I also turn back to my research, re-read those books that inspired me and seek to recapture that sense of illusion and adventure I had before I hit the wall. When I get blocked, it's often a sign that I've veered away from my story, gone off on some tangent. I try use blocks creatively, but they're rarely fun. 

 How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
I read constantly. Reading always inspires me; I'm enchanted by the way other writers use words, the way they tell their particular stories. I read my own genre and outside of it, too, to mix things up. I also visit museums. I find that seeing actual paintings and objects from the eras I love always inspire me, as do film and music, to a lesser extent. I also have learned the hard way that my well must be replenished. I can't jump from one book to the next. It takes time for me to ease out of the world of the book I have just finished, to let the characters fade and re-discover that neutral space I require to start the process again.

 Do you have any rituals that help you to write? 
Lots of hot, sweet tea. My corgi in the well under my desk, with her head on my foot. And the wireless switch on my computer turned to off.

 Who are ten of your favourite writers?
I have more than ten, but here goes: Daphne Du Maurier, Nikos Kazantakis, Isabel Allende, Pauline Gedge, Robin Maxwell, Colin Falconer, Patricia Finney, Francoise Sagan, Judith Merkle Riley, and Cecelia Holland.

Daphne du Maurier

What do you consider to be good writing? 
When you cease to "see" it. Good writing disappears, so that all the reader hears is the voice of the story.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
Write every day. Be persistent. Never imitate. Accept criticism and let it teach you. Always remember that of all the art forms, writing is the most fluid. It can always be improved.

What are you working on now? 
A novel about Lucrezia Borgia, tracing her so-called Vatican years, from her youth as the illegitimate child of an ambitious Spanish churchman to her sudden thrust into notoriety as the pope’s daughter and her brutal, dangerous struggle to define herself as a woman even as she battles the lethal ambitions of her family. 

 ‘I have to know them intimately in order to inhabit them.’ Well said, I say!

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