Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Interview with Stephen E. Yoch, author of Becoming George Washington.

Author interviews are one of my favorite things to post which is why I am super excited to welcome author Stephen E. Yoch to Flashlight Commentary to discuss Becoming George Washington.

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Welcome to Flashlight Commentary Stephen.  It’s great to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us a bit about Becoming George Washington.
This is the story of the least known part of Washington’s life, and in many ways the most interesting.  It reveals the progression from an insecure, and fatherless boy to becoming an action hero at the center of the French & Indian War.  By the time the book ends, 20 years before the American Revolution, Washington has all the tools to be our indispensible founding father.

As a novelist, what drew you to George Washington?
I’ve always been fascinated by Washington.  He is unique in history in his ability to lead a revolution and then repeatedly give up power.  I wanted to understand that decision, and that drove me into his youth, where I found an amazing story that almost no one knows.  Once I found it, I was “hooked” and felt compelled to write the book.

Most people know Washington’s historical significance as a founding father and first US President, but is there anything in your novel that you feel will surprise your audience?
His early life was incredibly difficult.  The “cutting down the cherry tree” story is misleading, not only because it’s a complete fabrication, but also creates the false impression of an idyllic early life with a loving father.  In fact, George’s dad died when he was only eleven, and Washington always had a very strained relationship with his mother.  His formal education ended at approximately age 13 and he had little resources.  Despite all these challenges, Washington, through grit, persistence, and some luck, grew to become one of the most known and respected men in the country before age 30.

Sally Fairfax is a well-known name to those of us who’ve studied Washington. Why do you think Washington was attracted to her?
Virtually all historians agree that George loved Sally and most agree that she loved him.  The reason for the attraction starts with the fact that she was widely described and beautiful and the only painting that exists depicts her as a beauty.  But more importantly, she was everything that George wasn’t and aspired to be.  Classically educated, she grew up in a wealthy home, spoke French, and was known to be witty and vivacious.  Quite simply, it was “love at first sight.”

What sort of research went into Becoming George Washington?  What sources did you find most valuable? 
My book is a little different than many historical fiction books, in that I have a detailed bibliography and extended author’s notes in the back of the book allowing the reader to the position of non-fiction authors on the major events described in the story.  I relied heavily on the leading non-fiction scholars, including Chernow, Ellis, Ferling, Flexner, and others, but my best resource was the multi-volume The Papers of George Washington compiled by the University of Virginia.  This contains all of the available letters which were sent and received by Washington, as well as extensive scholarly annotations.  These letters were often used in the book and cited directly, or the language informed my dialogue.

You probably have many, but is there a scene you particularly enjoyed writing?
The Battle of the Monongahela.

What scene posed the greatest challenge for you as an author?  Why was it troublesome and how did you work through it? 
Washington’s trip to Barbados with his brother Lawrence was the most difficult part of the book for me.  There is a tremendous amount of written material, including Washington’s own journals, which discuss this trip.  It’s very important because it shows Washington’s intensely personal relationship with his brother Lawrence, as well as the brush he had with death when he contracted smallpox.  However, I did not want to spend too much time on this trip, and worked hard to make the section relevant and engaging.

Sometimes fiction takes on a life of its own and forces the author to make sacrifices for the sake of the story.  Is there a character or concept you wish you could have spent more time on? 
The short answer is no and yes.  No, I don’t believe I sacrificed any character.  But yes, I adored Christopher Gist.  He was Washington’s right-hand man throughout the story, was a tremendously interesting person and his “back story” has been written extensively, but I wished there had been time in the book to tell more about him.    
Historical novelists frequently have to adjust facts to make their stories work.  Did you have to invent or change anything while writing Becoming George Washington and if so, what did you alter? 
Again, this is where my book is different from many historical fiction novels.  It is a “novel” because you get to hear what George thought, and the conversations he had with people around him.  However, to the maximum extent possible, I tried to keep my story close to the historical record.  In those instances where there is controversy, my extended author’s notes allow the reader to understand the line between “fiction” and “non-fiction.”

If you could sit down and talk with any one of your characters, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, who would you choose and why? 
The obvious answer would be George Washington himself.  However, Washington was not a very welcoming conversationalist with strangers, and abhorred the concept of personal biography, so a “sit down” with His Excellency General George Washington would likely be disappointing.  Thus, it is Christopher Gist, his fascinating companion throughout the story that I think could give me the best insight to the matriculation of the remarkable young Washington.

Just because I’m curious, if you could pick a fantasy cast to play the leads in a screen adaption of Becoming George Washington, who would you hire? 
Ugh – this is a topic of much discussion and argument among my family, and I struggle with a good answer of who could play our young George.  Liam Hemsworth might fit the bill (although keep in mind he is “only” 6’ 3” which was Washington’s height at the time – George would be the equivalent of 6’ 9” today – I don’t have an actor of that height that I think would be the right fit).  Natalie Portman would be a great Sally Fairfax (she looks like the only painting that exists of Sally) although my family prefers Emma Watson and Anne Hathaway.

Finally, what’s next for you?  Do you have a new project in the works?
I’m working on Becoming Benedict Arnold.  It is a first person account of how one of the most respected and leading patriots, and most able generals, became our greatest traitor.

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PRAISE FOR BECOMING WASHINGTON

"All of the how’s and whys of George Washington’s relationships with family members, political adversaries and the women in his life as well as his military accomplishments and defeats are explored and Stephen Yoch has done more than just his homework. He has managed to delve into Washington’s psyche and put a very human face on the man who became the first President of the United States." - Red Rock Bookworm, Top Amazon Reviewer

"I was won over in the first pages. The book is an engaging read, and George Washington we come to care about in this book is a most interesting man of many facets. The book is weighted on the historical side of historical fiction, and that makes me think we need to revamp a lot of text books to give George Washington the vigor and life he deserves." - Amazon Review

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Steve doesn’t golf or fish and is a below average hunter, but his love of history and writing compelled him to pick up his pen and tell the little-known stories behind the men that made American history. After years of extensive research, Steve wrote his first book on young George Washington.

Steve lives in a suburb north of St. Paul, Minnesota with his supportive wife and two fantastic teenage sons. He graduated with honors from Boston College and the University of Minnesota Law School. He has enjoyed over two decades of practicing law in the Twin Cities, helping individuals and businesses solve complex problems.



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Monday, December 21, 2015

Interview with Eileen Stephenson, author of Tales of Byzantium: A Selection of Short Stories

Author interviews are one of my favorite things to post which is why I am super excited to welcome author Eileen Stephenson to Flashlight Commentary to discuss Tales of Byzantium: A Selection of Short Stories.

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Please tell us a bit about Tales of Byzantium.
This book is a collection of three longish short stories taking place in medieval Byzantium. They are my imaginings of how certain events came to pass – the events did occur, but my retelling is from the point of view of the main characters rather than just a clinical description of the event as you might read in a history book.

As a novelist, what drew you to this particular period?
I had always had it in the back of my mind to be a writer, but never found anything interesting enough that hadn’t already been written to death about. When I first started reading about the Byzantines, and realized the dearth of literature about them, I knew I’d found the subject I had been looking for. The particular era in Byzantine history I write about – the middle Byzantine period – I found most engaging because of the dynamism of the age, the many women who were important during it, and the strong characters who led the empire during its turning points in this period.

What sort of research went into Tales of Byzantium? What sources did you find most valuable?
The Byzantines of this era were highly literate – literacy reached down into the middle classes and included women. The Byzantines also loved to write and there are a number of histories (now translated) available to use as primary sources – Michael Psellus, Michael Attaleiates, John Skylitzes, and Anna Comnena who is the subject of the last of my short stories and is probably the earliest female historian.

You probably have many, but is there a scene you particularly enjoyed writing?
I don’t really consider myself to be much of a romantic, or a reader of romances, but the first of the three stories is a romance between a young emperor and his wife. It was fun writing the scene where they have their first tryst. I guess I must have a romantic streak down deep!

What scene posed the greatest challenge for you as an author? Why was it troublesome and how did you work through it?
The second of the three stories is about a young general, Manuel Comnenus, and his successful efforts to delay a rebel army and free a city. I thought the way he did it was clever and funny, which is why I decided to write about it. However, never having been a soldier, it was challenging to get into that mindset. I worked through it by reading a few other soldier stories from that period, and just trying to stretch my imagination. It wasn’t easy, but I’ve gotten compliments on it, so it must have worked.

Sometimes fiction takes on a life of its own and forces the author to make sacrifices for the sake of the story. Is there a character or concept you wish you could have spent more time on?
Definitely. I’ve spent so much time over the past few years immersing myself in Byzantine history that I realize the way I am writing about events is a much-simplified version of it. This turbulent Byzantine period, just like today, has many different elements contributing to it. If I were to include everything, my short story would run well over 100 pages!

Historical novelists frequently have to adjust facts to make their stories work. Did you have to invent or change anything while writing Tales of Byzantium, and if so, what did you alter?
I am of the school that tries to be as historically accurate as possible. That being said, sometimes the history makes no sense, especially when it comes to birthdates. One character, supposedly in his early 20s, has a teenage daughter who is married and has a child. I also have seen a woman given a birthdate that would mean she was still having children in her fifties – not too likely 1000 years ago! 

And as I mentioned earlier, sometimes I have to cut events from the story, just to make the story move forward. We can’t get too bogged down in medieval politics!

If you could sit down and talk with one of your characters, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, who would you choose and why?
It would have to be Anna Comnena, the subject of the last story. As I mentioned, she was a princess, was highly educated and is the earliest female historian in Europe. Her voice comes through so clearly in her book, The Alexiad, that it almost sounds modern. She was a mix of devoted daughter and a woman ambitious in her own right, who turned defeat into a lasting legacy.

Just because I’m curious, if you could pick a fantasy cast to play the leads in a screen adaptation of Tales of Byzantium, who would you hire?
Good question. I guess for the first story, “Ceremony of the Emperor”, maybe Jennifer Lawrence and a young Colin Firth. For the second story, “The Red Fox”, I think Bradley Cooper would be a good fit. As for “Alexiad”, I have always pictured Meryl Streep as Anna Comnena. 

Finally, what’s next for you? Do you have a new project in the works?
I am working on the first of two novels about a woman named Anna Dalassena who was Anna Comnena’s grandmother. There is a fair amount in the historical record about her since she was instrumental in getting her son onto the throne. When I read about her, though, I was intrigued by one comment that was always made about her – how she absolutely hated one particular man, who did end up as emperor himself for a number of years. A thousand years later and this was the comment about her? It took a little digging through family trees to finally find something that was a plausible reason for her hatred of him, but once I did I knew I had some good material.

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PRAISE FOR TALES OF BYZANTIUM

"Through elegantly described details, sharply observed characters, and especially crisp, modern-sounding dialogue, Stephenson takes these vignettes from the thousand years of Byzantine history, mixes them liberally with such excellent modern narrative histories as John Julius Norwich's A Short History of Byzantium, and manages to create three very intriguing windows into a part of history largely unknown to many readers." - Anne McNulty, Historical Novel Society Indie Reviews

"full of interesting detail about a time and place very unlike our own, and yet feeling any of us could identify with, which is the hallmark of a good historical story...charming and deeply felt" - Anne Perry, mystery novelist and author of The Sheen on the Silk, the William Monk series, and many others

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Eileen Stephenson was born in Fort Worth, Texas but spent most of her life in the Washington, DC area. She has degrees from both Georgetown University and George Washington University (neither involving the Byzantines) and is married with three daughters. Her interest in Byzantine history all started one fateful day when every other book in the library looked boring except for John Julius Norwich’s A Short History of Byzantium.

Website ❧  Blog ❧  Facebook ❧  Goodreads


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Thursday, December 17, 2015

Interview with Stephanie Thornton, author of The Conqueror's Wife

Author interviews are one of my favorite things to post which is why I am super excited to welcome author Stephanie Thornton back to Flashlight Commentary to discuss The Conqueror's Wife.

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Welcome to Flashlight Commentary Stephanie. It’s great to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us a bit about The Conqueror’s Wife. 
Thanks so much for having me back at Flashlight Commentary! My latest novel, The Conqueror’s Wife, is the story of the women behind Alexander the Great, his conniving wife Roxana, younger sister-turned-warrior Thessalonike, and Drypetis, the daughter of the vanquished king of Persia. I didn’t plan it when I started writing, but the book also ended up including Hephaestion, Alexander’s boyhood companion and soul mate. In fact, I think Hephaestion kind of ended up stealing the show. 

As a novelist, what drew you to Alexander the Great?
Coming fresh on the heels of The Tiger Queens, I think Alexander was a natural subject for my next novel. My editor suggested I look into writing about a Persian queen and I happened to stumble upon Roxana. One thing led to another and soon was I having to weed out which of Alexander’s I really wanted to write about. He was surrounded by a whole cadre of incredibly powerful women! 

When I hosted you during the promotion of The Tiger Queens, we talked about your penchant for writing about strong and oft overlooked women. The Conqueror’s Wife continues this trend. Who are these women, what are their strengths, and what do they represent for Alexander? 
Thessalonike is Alexander’s kid sister who wants to wield a sword and travel the world. I think of her as a female version of Alex, but without his penchant for wanton destruction. Roxana is the daughter of a minor (and not very nice) Persian noble and she becomes Alexander’s first wife. She’s pretty scrappy, but has a hard time finding the line between what’s morally right and what’s very, very wrong. And then there’s Drypetis, the overlooked daughter of Persia’s king, who is taken captive by Alexander and plans to give him a run for his money! 

The Conqueror’s Wife marks new territory for you as one of your narrators is male. Was writing Hephaestion a challenge in any way? Or was it freeing? 
Hephaestion is indeed the first male point of view I’ve ever written that has been published, but I originally wrote Daughter of the Gods as a dual narrative between Hatshepsut and her love interest, Senenmut. I was worried that my editor wouldn’t approve of including Hephaestion’s POV, but I really think he stole the limelight from Alexander and seems to have won over most readers too. His scenes were the easiest and most fun to write and I have plans to include more male POV’s in future novels! 

Alexander the Great
What sort of research went into The Conqueror’s Wife? What sources did find most valuable? How did you sort through the wealth of material? 
I started my research with Robin Lane Fox’s biography on Alexander and then moved onto the various ancient Roman sources on Alex’s life. (Alexander had his court historian killed, which is one reason why we don’t have any histories about him from his contemporaries.) Then I got to delve into the fun stuff, which for me means perusing ancient cookbooks and finding out the nitty gritty details about daily life in ancient Greece and Persia. 

You probably have many, but is there a scene you particularly enjoyed writing?
There’s a scene between Hephaestion and Drypetis in the Tower of Silence about midway through that had me cackling with glee. I won’t give any spoilers, but let’s just say that it was fun to write, especially after burning several cities and killing off thousands of Alexander’s enemies!

What scene posed the greatest challenge for you as an author? Why was it troublesome and how did you work through it?  
I actually brainstormed about ten different ways to get Thessalonike to Persia, including having her as a stowaway locked in a giant crate. (Or for a while I think it was a barrel.) The problem was in how to get a gently-raised Macedonian girl halfway around the known world to rendezvous with her brother, given that Greek girls pretty much only left their father’s house to move to their husband’s house. Then I remember that Olympias, Alexander’s ruthless and unconventional mother, raised Thessalonike. If Olympias wanted Thessalonike to go to halfway around the world, then that’s what was going to happen, conventions be damned! 

Sometimes fiction takes on a life of its own and forces the author to make sacrifices for the sake of the story. Is there a character or concept you wish you could have spent more time on?
I’d have loved to make Cynnane, Alexander’s half-sister who history records as a battle-hardened warrior, into a point of view character. However, given her real-life story and the fact that I already had four necessary characters, Cynanne ended up sharing many of her traits with Thessalonike, whose early life remains shrouded in historical murkiness. However, I hope I still managed to do Cynnane’s story justice—she was one tough woman!

Historical novelists frequently have to adjust facts to make their stories work. Did you have to invent or change anything while writing The Conqueror’s Wife and if so, what did you alter? 
I had to change or embellish a few minor things, such as Thessalonike’s role as a warrior and moving Hephaestion to witness a battle at Alexander’s side. However, I did my best to tell a story that could have happened, even if there are a few things that likely didn’t unfold precisely as I imagined them. 

If you could sit down and talk with one of the characters in The Conqueror’s Wife, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, who would you choose and why? I’d personally be torn between Hephaestion or Roxana, but that’s just me. 
Hephaestion, a million times Hephaestion! I’d want to see what exactly it was about him that drew Alexander to him, and whether he was at all how I wrote him. I don’t know if I’d claim to have a writing muse, but every single one of Hephaestion’s scenes just seemed to flow as I was writing The Conqueror’s Wife, so much so that I could hardly write the scenes fast enough for fear of losing some of his dialogue. I guess that’s definitely worth my buying him a nice glass of Greek wine!

Just because I’m curious, if you could pick a fantasy cast to play the leads in a screen adaptation of The Conqueror’s Wife, who would you hire? 
Sam Claflin has the perfect hair to play Alexander the Great and he’s already got experience playing a an arrogant warrior as Finnick Odair of The Hunger Games. As I was writing the novel I pictured Gwendoline Christie (Brienne of Tarth of Game of Thrones fame) as Alexander's kid sister Thessalonike. (However, Christie would need a long blond braid to complete the ensemble.) Penelope Cruz would make a lovely Roxana, but she'd have to perfect an evil scowl and the accompanying diabolical laugh. A Gladiator-era Russell Crowe would round off the cast as Alexander's boyhood companion, Hephaestion. 

Finally, what's next for you? Do you have a new project in the works? 
I’m continuing the trend of writing history’s forgotten women, but have made the jump to more recent history, as in 20th century America. I’ve taught American History on and off for eleven years and there’s one woman from a presidential family who has always intrigued me. Once I started doing some serious research I realized there was definitely a novel waiting to be written! 

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PRAISE FOR THE CONQUEROR'S WIFE

“Through the eyes of the fascinating and fierce women in Alexander's life, Thornton enchants the reader with a fresh new look at an ancient hero. Her accessible and energetic writing brings the ancient world to life while giving voice to the voiceless in this vivid tale of the women in the shadow of Alexander's glory. What a talent!”—Stephanie Dray, bestselling author of Lily on the Nile

"Stephanie Thornton boldly goes where other historical novelists might fear to tread. In her recounting of Alexander the Great's epic quest of conquest, as told through the eyes of the shrewd, ambitious and dangerous women surrounding him, she brings to life the treachery, glory, and intrigue of a fascinating ancient world."—C.W. Gortner, bestselling author of Mademoiselle Chanel

“A conqueror slices through the ancient world on pages that writhe with ambition and danger, yet the reader is swept in by unexpected heroines. This gritty epic is voiced by the tenacious women who surrounded Alexander the Great, proving he would’ve been nothing of the sort without them.”—Marci Jefferson, author of Girl on the Golden Coin

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Stephanie Thornton is a writer and history teacher who has been obsessed with infamous women from ancient history since she was twelve. She lives with her husband and daughter in Alaska, where she is at work on her next novel.

“The Secret History: A Novel of Empress Theodora,” “Daughter of the Gods: A Novel of Ancient Egypt,” and “The Tiger Queens: The Women of Genghis Khan” are available now. “The Conqueror’s Wife: A Novel of Alexander the Great” will hit the shelves in December 2015.

Website ❧  Facebook ❧  Twitter ❧  Goodreads


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Format: Print & eBook
Publication Date: December 1, 2015
Released by: NAL
ISBN-13: 978-0451472007
Length: 512 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction

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Check Out All the Stops on The Conqueror's Wife Blog Tour Schedule

Monday, November 23
Review & Giveaway at Peeking Between the Pages
Spotlight & Giveaway at Passages to the Past
Tuesday, November 24
Review at Layered Pages
Interview & Giveaway at A Bookish Affair
Spotlight & Excerpt at What Is That Book About
Wednesday, November 25
Review at A Bookish Affair
Thursday, November 26
Friday, November 27
Spotlight & Giveaway at Teddy Rose Book Reviews Plus More
Monday, November 30
Review & Giveaway at 100 Pages a Day
Tuesday, December 1
Review & Giveaway at Broken Teepee
Wednesday, December 2
Review & Giveaway at A Literary Vacation
Thursday, December 3
Review, Excerpt, & Giveaway at Just One More Chapter
Review, Excerpt, & Giveaway at Unshelfish
Excerpt at A Literary Vacation
Spotlight at The Reading Queen
Friday, December 4
Review & Giveaway at The True Book Addict
Guest Post at Book Lovers Paradise
Monday, December 7
Review at leeanna.me
Tuesday, December 8
Review at Reading the Past
Wednesday, December 9
Thursday, December 10
Review at The Lit Bitch
Interview & Giveaway at Reading Lark
Friday, December 11
Saturday, December 12
Review & Giveaway at Genre Queen
Monday, December 14
Review at Book Babe
Reivew, Excerpt, & Giveaway at Unabridged Chick
Tuesday, December 15
Review at Bookramblings
Wednesday, December 16
Review at Book Nerd
Thursday, December 17
Friday, December 18
Interview at Flashlight Commentary


Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Conqueror's Wife: A Novel of Alexander the Great by Stephanie Thornton

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Read: December 11, 2015

330s, B.C.E., Greece: Alexander, a handsome young warrior of Macedon, begins his quest to conquer the ancient world. But he cannot ascend to power, and keep it, without the women who help to shape his destiny. His spirited younger half-sister, Thessalonike, yearns to join her brother and see the world. Instead, it is Alexander's boyhood companion who rides with him into war while Thessalonike remains behind. Far away, crafty princess Drypetis will not stand idly by as Alexander topples her father from Persia's throne. And after Alexander conquers her tiny kingdom, Roxana, the beautiful and cunning daughter of a minor noble, wins Alexander’s heart…and will commit any crime to secure her place at his side. Within a few short years, Alexander controls an empire more vast than the civilized world has ever known. But his victories are tarnished by losses on the battlefield and treachery among his inner circle. And long after Alexander is gone, the women who are his champions, wives, and enemies will fight to claim his legacy… 

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Stephanie Thornton’s The Conqueror's Wife: A Novel of Alexander the Great represents a significant challenge for me as a reviewer. I don’t want to gush and say it’s amazing because no one believes commentary that is one hundred percent positive, but I can’t identify a single aspect of the book that I disliked. My coffee deprived brain has also rendered me temporarily inarticulate so I apologize in advance for what is sure to be overt admiration relayed in language that is far too elementary to do justice to the novel in question.  

I imagine writing multiple narrators is maddening, but I love the tones Thornton is able to strike in approaching this story from multiple points of view and how the chorus of voices contrast one another as Alexander’s story unfolds. Despite constantly shifting perspectives, Thornton manages to keep each voice unique and I thought that lent a genuinely authentic quality to each characterization. It’s clear that each narrator has a story and Thornton’s effort to illustrate each individual as a distinct and separate entity creates a narrative that is deliciously addictive. On a similar note, I also love that Thornton chose not to write from Alexander's point of view. The decision emphasizes the idea that Alexander did not make himself. His legend has eclipsed the contributions of those who helped him achieve greatness, but Thornton’s thesis is that this was not a solo journey and I think choosing to write about his interactions and relationships went a long way in driving that idea home. 

Thornton’s fierce devotion to historical accuracy is another reason I love her books and The Conqueror's Wife is no exception. I can’t imagine the effort that goes into recreating an ancient time and place, but Thornton’s richly drawn descriptions immerse her audience in Alexander’s world and allows them a comprehensive understanding the culture and landscape of his kingdom. As an author, I’m half convinced Thornton beats herself to a pulp working out the details, but as I reader I find the depth and dimension of her books creative and enthralling. 

Few authors have been able to capture political maneuvering in ways that engage me. Chadwick and Quinn jump to mind, but Thornton rounds out the group with her passionate portrayal of the power struggles that defined Alexander’s life. Please excuse my phrasing, but how an author illustrates the bureaucratic bullshit that plays out behind the scenes of any ruler can make or break a book. The author must possess a thorough understanding of the material and they must present it with enough complexity to be believable while retaining enough clarity to avoid confusion. Few can do this effectively, but I feel Thornton’s mastery of the technique clearly evidenced in her latest release.

I fell platonically in love with Hephaestion and despite all odds the wicked side of me adored Roxana. I admired Thessalonike and was charmed by Drypteis. The Conqueror's Wife was an ambitious undertaking in terms of subject, but the intrigue and drama Thornton creates within these pages is historic fiction at its absolute best. A gripping tale of war, danger, love, determination and intrigue.

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We were murders and poisoners, innocents and warrior. And without us, Alexander would have only been a man. Instead, he was a god.
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Friday, December 11, 2015

Dancing In The Athenian Rain by Katie Hamstead

Rating: ★  ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: December 7, 2015

When Donna is sent back in time to Classical Athens, she's furious at Dr. Stephens for sending her against her wishes. Then a Greek soldier purchases her to be his wife. She's forced to learn a new language and culture, and faces her fears of never returning to her own time. The society hates her, especially because they think she’s an Amazon, which forces her to confront her issues—being compared to her genius brother, borderline abusive friends, and a cheating boyfriend. But her husband, Peleus, is kind and patient. Although against her best judgment, she allows him into her heart. He counters all the negative voices from her past, but those voices drive a wedge between them. She must let go of her fears, her inhibitions, and insecurities, and admit her feelings, or she could lose him and the life they’ve built.

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I blame Achilles for my interest in Dancing in the Athenian Rain. There wasn't a direct link as he doesn't appear in the novel, but I'd spent several weeks reading about the Greek hero and was arguably predisposed to the subject matter when I stumbled over the Katie Hamstead's fiction. Unfortunately, the reality of her work didn't hold as much water as Homer's and I spent most of my reading annoyed with the author's presentation.

In terms of writing and tone, I feel Dancing in the Athenian Rain is best characterized as young adult lit. There is no depth to the narrative, the language is simple, and the vocabulary elementary. That wouldn't be a problem if the novel were marketed within the genre, but as it stands, the novel is pitched as new adult lit and I'd gone into it expecting much more mature prose, more complex characterizations, and deeper thematic material. I am part of the target age group and this held absolutely no appeal for me.

Hamstead tells more than she shows which likely factors in my struggle to appreciate her approach. There is very little atmospheric detail in Donna's story and I couldn't visualize the world as she saw it. There are plot holes left and right and I often found myself shaking my head over the ridiculous nature of the situational drama facing Hamstead's cast. 

Donna and Peleus bored me to tears, Dr. Stephens read like a poor imitation of Doc Brown, and I found the romantic story contrived and coincidental. Ultimately I feel the book wasn't worth the time I spent with it and I don't see myself recommending it forward. 

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As I reach the door, I can't contain my emotions anymore and break into sobs. Peleus grabs me and holds me against him. I cry into his chest as he strokes my back. His embrace soothes me, despite everything. His strong arms provide a sense of safety, his broad chest a comforting place to let my tears fall. I cling to him, yearning for relief from the feelings of loss, fear of never going home, of being stuck in this place where everyone wants to destroy me
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Thursday, December 10, 2015

Interview with Anna Belfrage, author of In the Shadow of the Storm

Author interviews are one of my favorite things to post which is why I am super excited to welcome author Anna Belfrage back to Flashlight Commentary to discuss In the Shadow of the Storm.

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Welcome to Flashlight Commentary Anna. It’s great to have you with us. 
And it’s great to be here, Erin! Even happier to notice there’s tea for me while you stick to your ubiquitous coffee. You do know coffee is addictive, right? 
Yes, well, whatever…

To start things off, please tell us a bit about In the Shadow of the Storm. 

This is very much the story of a man torn apart by his loyalties to his lord and his wife. Adam de Guirande sort of gets caught in the middle when Roger Mortimer sees no option but to rebel against his king, Edward II. Adam loves Lord Roger, owes him for everything he has, and so he must ride with him – to ruin and death, even – despite realizing just how badly this whole venture can backfire. Plus there is Kit, Adam’s wife, with whom he wants to spend an entire long life, not some measly months before he is brutally executed for treason. Fortunately for Adam, Kit has every intention of spending many years with him – and she is willing to do what it takes to save him. Or try to, at least…

Your first publications, books one through eight of The Graham Saga, were time slip novels. Did you have any trouble adjusting to a novel set wholly in the fourteenth century? 

Moving back to the fourteenth century in itself was a challenge, but the real headache (an enjoyable headache, I must add) was how to use the boundaries offered by the real historical events to drive the story of my invented protagonists. 

On a similar note, what drew you to this particular place during era? 
Oh, I’ve had a soft spot for Roger Mortimer since I was a teenager. I think this is due to a most passionate history teacher, a Mr Wilmshurst, who painted such a vivid picture of the events in the early 14th century. He was a major Mortimer fan too, and one of the first to tell me it was a “load of rubbish” that Edward II had been killed by that rather unsavoury method of inserting a red-hot poker up his backside. Seeing as Mr Wilmshurst’s other two passions were the Restoration period (think The Graham Saga) and the Maya Empire, well, you can see where I might very well end up next…

Her unfortunate resemblance to Katherine de Monmouth aside, how would you describe Kit de Courcy? What kind of woman is she and what does Adam see in her? 
Kit is a woman who is quietly self-sufficient. She has been raised in isolation – due to the circumstances of her birth she has been secreted away with her mother on this little manor – and has had to depend on mostly herself for entertainment. In an effort to keep Kit adequately occupied, Kit’s mother ensured she was taught to read and write – most unusual for the time – but it’s not as if she’s had much to read. Due to her upbringing, she is unprepared for life in the bustling Mortimer household, and a lot of stuff is very new to her. But she’s a quick learner, and then there’s Adam, this man who so obviously expected to be disappointed in her – but wasn’t – and for whom Kit very quickly develops a huge attraction, to be followed by deeper sentiments. So when it seems fate is about to snatch her man away from her before she’s even had the opportunity to really get to know him, Kit decides it is time to take what action she can. So I’d say that Kit is also courageous, determined and quite inventive. 

Erin's ubiquitous coffee cup
Speaking of Adam de Guirande, what kind of man is he?
I’d have hoped you’d have worked that out for yourself (wink, wink) Adam comes from a difficult background, and some events in his childhood have left him deeply scarred – and forever indebted to Lord Roger, who literally saved Adam’s life when he was twelve or so. His obvious skills with weapons, his loyalty and capacity to think on his feet have raised him from being a man-at-arms to being a knight – he was knighted by Lord Roger after a particularly bloody skirmish in Ireland. Adam owes Lord Roger fealty and service – but he also loves him, and is more than willing to die for him if needed. Or was willing to do so – until Kit entered his life, thereby presenting Adam with an alternative to the life he’s been leading so far. First and foremost, Adam is a man of honour. His word, once given, is never taken back. 

Thomas and Cecily de Monmouth caught my attention early on. Can you tell us a bit about this couple? 
Well, it’s not exactly a loving relationship, is it? Thomas and Cecily are make-believe characters, parents to Richard de Monmouth who is documented as being the squire that shared Mortimer’s imprisonment in the Tower. Thomas hails from Worcestershire, his family minor gentry, but his mother brokered a great marriage for him with wealthy heiress Cecily, whose mother holds substantial lands in Gascony. This is a marriage made for other reasons than pink and cuddly love: Cecily brings money and land, Thomas brings his family’s connection to the Mortimers, and the idea is that this combo will benefit their children. Lady Cecily, as I see it, is very aware of the fact that she’s no beauty – she never has been. But she’s a dutiful wife and it aggravates her no end when she realizes Thomas has a mistress – not a wench he occasionally sleeps with, but a woman he loves – which is why she is so bitter and resentful versus Kit. Also, Cecily is a borderline psychopath – wouldn’t you agree? 
That she is and no, her relationship with Thomas is not loving at all, but I think that is why it caught my eye. The complexities of their union were dramatically different than Adam and Kit's and I liked the contrast created when comparing them side by side. 

What theme from the story do you most hope strikes a chord with your readers? 

Well, I am a bit of a sucker for love, so I guess I’d like Adam’s and Kit’s relationship to resonate – but also the love between Adam and Lord Roger. These are two men bound to each other by more than vows of fealty, and ultimately this will become something of a problem for Adam. 

What sort of research went into In the Shadow of the Storm? What sources did find most valuable? 
Well, I think I’ve read three biographies over Edward II – not that he plays a major role here, but I needed to get a take on him. Then I have read and re-read Mr Ian Mortimer’s book about Roger Mortimer “The Greatest Traitor”. (And no, they’re not related) Plus I spend a lot of time reading books about food and buildings and clothes and life in general. And then I had a lot of fun re-reading my Maurice Druon books about Philippe le Bel of France and his children (which include Isabella, Edward IIs wife). 

Edward II of England receiving his crown
You probably have many, but is there a scene you particularly enjoyed writing? 
I am especially proud – and fond of – the scene in which Mortimer submits to Edward II. I could see it all before me, hear it, smell it even…

What scene posed the greatest challenge for you as an author? Why was it troublesome and how did you work through it? 
There is a scene involving feet and an iron stake that I found very difficult to write – especially as I also had one character who was experiencing some sort of sexual reaction to the inflicting of pain on someone else. I think I rewrote that scene like twenty times. An odd sentence here, another there…

Sometimes fiction takes on a life of its own and forces the author to make sacrifices for the sake of the story. Is there a character or concept you wish you could have spent more time on?

I’d have liked to develop Katherine de Monmouth, but she was weirdly uncooperative. 

Historical novelists frequently have to adjust facts to make their stories work. Did you have to invent or change anything while writing In the Shadow of the Storm and if so, what did you alter? 

No, not really. The historical events depicted happened as described – including the escape from the Tower. Of course, including Adam is an adjustment, seeing as he didn’t exist. Unfortunately. 

If you could sit down and talk with one of your characters, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, who would you choose and why? I’d personally invite Mabel, but that’s just me. 

You would? 
I would. I have a thing about the older characters, the mentors and such. That and servants know all the best gossip.
Well, she’s probably quite fun to talk to. I spend a lot of time as it is talking to Adam and Kit, so I actually think I’d like to spend some time with Mortimer himself. He would drink tons of wine, I’d sip my tea and bombard him with questions and not-so-subtle hints about how much smarter it would be for him to NOT take over the ruling of England in the name of Edward III but rather step away from it all and retire to his lands. Oh, right: that would be manipulating history, and one is not allowed to do that…

Actor Rufus Sewell
Just because I’m curious, if you could pick a fantasy cast to play the leads in a screen adaptation of In the Shadow of the Storm, who would you hire? 
Kit: Eleanor Tomlinson 
Adam: Charlie Hunnam 
Roger Mortimer: Michael Fassbender 
Hugh Despenser: Rufus Sewell. 
Mabel: Lesley Nicol (the lady who plays the cook in Downton Abbey). 
Rufus Sewell is one of my favorite actors! And no, my appreciation has nothing to do with his portrayal of Crown Prince Leopold (a would-be Rudolf) in The Illusionist. 

Finally, what's next for you? Do you have a new project in the works?

Well, I’m presently writing the fourth book in The King’s Greatest Enemy, and then I have another trilogy ready to go – not historical fiction, so I have butterflies in my belly about it – plus I have a date with Matthew and Alex, there are matters to sort re Jacob’s little daughter in London, their straight-laced minister son Daniel, and the noose that is presently hanging over Father Carlos. Plus Samuel…no; too sad. 
Well you heard it here first folks. We have it on record! More Matthew and Alex on the horizon!

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PRAISE FOR IN THE SHADOW OF THE STORM

I enjoyed this piece a great deal. Belfrage's writing is chock full of personality and humor and I love the quality and charm her tone brought the fabric of the narrative. - Erin Davies, Flashlight Commentary

This book does a nice job of depicting the effects rebellion by a country's nobles has on their followers and the common folk and does not shy away from portraying the harshness of the times, particularly for women. I'm looking forward to going back and reading Ms. Belfrage's earlier series, The Graham Saga, and seeing what's in store for Kit and Adam as this series progresses. - Jenny Q, Let Them Read Books

Ms. Belfrage took an incredibly tumultuous period in history, mixed in a passionate romance and the result was an incredible story. - Denise, So Many Books, So Little Time

In The Shadow Of The Storm is a character drive story. The strength and focus of the story is on the two lovers, Adam and Kit, and their plight during this history in England. Their baron is Roger Mortimer, a contemptible man. I already knew the history of his relationship with Isabella, who was Edward II's queen. In The Shadow Of The Storm told me of his days as a baronial opponent. I loved this story from start to finish, and I'm looking forward to reading further books in the series about Adam and Kit. - Annette, Impressions in Ink

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Had Anna been allowed to choose, she’d have become a professional time-traveller. As such a profession does as yet not exists, she settled for second best and became a financial professional with two absorbing interests, namely history and writing. These days, Anna combines an exciting day-job with a large family and her writing endeavours.

When Anna fell in love with her future husband, she got Scotland as an extra, not because her husband is Scottish or has a predilection for kilts, but because his family fled Scotland due to religious persecution in the 17th century – and were related to the Stuarts. For a history buff like Anna, these little details made Future Husband all the more desirable, and sparked a permanent interest in the Scottish Covenanters, which is how Matthew Graham, protagonist of the acclaimed The Graham Saga, began to take shape.

Set in 17th century Scotland and Virginia/Maryland, the series tells the story of Matthew and Alex, two people who should never have met – not when she was born three hundred years after him. With this heady blend of romance, adventure, high drama and historical accuracy, Anna hopes to entertain and captivate, and is more than thrilled when readers tell her just how much they love her books and her characters.

Presently, Anna is hard at work with her next project, a series set in the 1320s featuring Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures and misfortunes in connection with Roger Mortimer’s rise to power. The King’s Greatest Enemy is a series where passion and drama play out against a complex political situation, where today’s traitor may be tomorrow’s hero, and the Wheel of Life never stops rolling.

The first installment in the Adam and Kit story, In the Shadow of the Storm, will be published in the autumn of 2015.

Website ❧  Blog ❧  Facebook ❧  Twitter ❧  Goodreads


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Format: Print & eBook
Publication Date: October 28, 2015
Released by: SilverWood Books
ISBN-13: 978-1781324332
Length: 396 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction

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