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Leah “Lee” Westfall has a secret: she can sense the presence of gold. Whether it’s a few flakes of gold dust in a riverbed or a nugget hidden under a floorboard, the metal calls to Lee, tugging at her fingers and tingling in her throat.

Since her father fell ill, Lee’s gold sense (as well as her skill with a gun) has allowed her to help provide for her family. But when her beloved parents are both murdered, Lee runs away from her greedy uncle – the only other person who knows her secret. Disguising herself as a boy, Lee joins a wagon train headed for California, where the promise of gold beckons to settlers and opportunists longing to build a new life.

I’ve read and loved my fair share of fantasy novels peopled by witches, wizards, demigods and other magical creatures: books by J.K. Rowling, Terry Pratchett, Rick Riordan. But I also love this kind of fantasy: the kind that weaves a glittering thread of magic into a story set in our own world.

In Walk on Earth a Stranger, Rae Carson brings the historical detail of the California Gold Rush to vivid life, tracing Lee’s journey from rural Georgia to Independence, Missouri, and then across the largely uncharted territory of the American West.

It’s my turn to share a recommendation at Great New Books today, and I’m talking about how much I loved Walk on Earth a Stranger. Please join me over there to read the rest of my review.

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after the war is over book coverOver a year ago, I read and reviewed Somewhere in France, Jennifer Robson’s debut novel, for Shelf Awareness. This fall, I did the same for her wonderful second novel, After the War is Over.

The book follows Oxford graduate Charlotte Brown as she resumes her career after World War I, working at a relief agency in Liverpool.

Struggling to find justice for those she helps, Charlotte begins writing impassioned letters to the local newspaper and lands a columnist gig. Meanwhile, she must face her own complicated feelings about the man she has loved for years.

Jen graciously agreed to answer a few questions about the book – and about Oxford, where she and I have both spent time. (The city appears briefly in After the War is Over.) And she’s giving away a signed copy of the book to one lucky reader.

Leave a comment below to enter, and I’ll pick a winner at random later this week.

Can you talk about the genesis of After the War is Over? (Readers of Somewhere in France will recognize Charlotte as a dear friend of Lilly, the main character of that book.)

When I first wrote Somewhere in France, I thought of it as a stand-alone book, but as I worked on later drafts, and the character of Charlotte became clearer, I knew she deserved a book of her own. I included a few details of her backstory, such as her childhood in Somerset and her studies at Oxford, but left myself enough room that I wouldn’t feel too hampered later on when it came time to write her book.

How did you decide what work Charlotte would be doing – i.e. helping the poor and those devastated by the war?

It’s only a small detail in Somewhere in France, but at one point Edward and Lilly talk about Charlotte and what she did after leaving work as Lilly’s governess. I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to send her to Liverpool and put her to work for Eleanor Rathbone, an actual Liverpool politician and social activist. I’m so glad I did, for Miss Rathbone is a personal hero of mine for her pioneering work as a feminist and social activist. As well, Charlotte’s devotion to her, and determination to live up to her mentor’s high standards, became one of the central themes of After the War is Over.

Have you been to the places described in the book – Liverpool, the seaside at Blackpool, etc.? (The chapter on Charlotte’s day out in Blackpool with her girlfriends is particularly vivid.)

I have, although admittedly it has been a few years since my most recent visit. I hope I’ve given my readers a sense of Liverpool and what a fascinating city it is. I did my best to inject points of local color so that people who have visited will recognize a few of the landmarks – I have fond memories of visiting the Phil (the ornate pub where Charlotte and John Ellis have dinner) more than twenty years ago, and was happy to discover, while researching its history, that it has scarcely changed in the past hundred years!

Blackpool is an especially interesting place. Of course its heyday was the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but it’s still a very popular destination in spite of competition from overseas holidays and other British resorts. I wasn’t brave enough to swim in the ocean when I visited – even in the summer the water is pretty cold – but I did walk along the seaside and eat some of their local “Blackpool rock” candy. I wasn’t able to overcome my fear of heights, unlike Charlotte, and so didn’t go to the top of the Tower!

I know you’ve spent some time in Oxford – can you talk a bit about your time there?

I lived in Oxford from 1992-95, when I was working on my doctorate in history. I was a student of Saint Antony’s College, which didn’t actually exist when Charlotte was there – it was founded in the 1950s – but my thesis supervisor was at Merton College, and I walked past Somerville every time I went to the Bodleian Library. In fact, Charlotte’s walk through town, when she leaves a note for Edward at Merton, is the exact same route I would take when I went to see my supervisor. I should add that the porters at Merton are perfectly friendly and helpful, despite my portrayal of their very grumpy forebear in my book!

How did you decide to weave Oxford into this book?

When I set out to write After the War is Over, I desperately wanted to begin the book in Oxford in 1907, when Charlotte and Edward are both students there. My editor convinced me, however, that the narrative had to begin no earlier than 1919, which is the point at which Somewhere in France ends. Of course she was right – she’s always right! – but I got around that stricture by weaving a few flashbacks into the action. Naturally one of them had to be set in Oxford, since I’d already done the research for that portion of the book!

Charlotte faces many struggles, personal and professional, in After the War is Over – what would you say is her central or most important challenge?

I think the central struggle for Charlotte is her need to believe that she is worthy. If you’ve already read the book, you’ll know why – I don’t want to give anything away – so I’ll simply say that she feels compelled to be the best possible person she can be and to spend her life in the pursuit of goodness, and while these are laudable aims, they do have the effect of making her quite miserable and lonely at times. Compounding all of this is the very real poverty, privation and misery that surround her at work, and you can see how her search for happiness is a very difficult one at times.

And finally – any plans for your next book that you can share?

I can – happily! Book Three (we’re still trying to decide on a title) is set mainly in Paris in 1924 and early 1925. Its heroine is Lady Helena, Edward’s former fiancée, who has come to France for a year to study art. While she is there she moves on the fringe of the circle we know of now as the Lost Generation – the great writers, poets, musicians, artists and dancers who flocked to Paris after the war – and she becomes friends with many of them. As for a romantic interest? You’ll be happy to know he’s an American, a newspaperman, and (like Helena) a bit of a lost soul. Assuming I manage to turn in my first draft on time, it will be hitting the shelves in early January 2016.

Thanks, Jen!

Leave a comment below (with your email address) to enter the giveaway. I’ll pick a winner later this week.

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movement-of-stars-coverToday I’m excited to make my official debut as a member of the Great New Books review team.

Jennifer King invited me to join the team a few months ago. It’s a group of smart, lovely women who talk about books they love over at the Great New Books website. My first post, on Amy Brill’s The Movement of Stars, is up today.

Here’s an excerpt:

I’ve always been fascinated by the stars. Although I can’t name nearly all the constellations, I love to pick out the ones I do know: the Big Dipper, Orion, Cassiopeia, the Little Dipper pivoting around its anchor point, the North Star.

I love to watch the constellations shift their positions in the sky as the seasons change. This rhythm – seemingly steady, yet always surprising – is captured in both the title and the storyline of Amy Brill’s gorgeous debut novel, The Movement of Stars.

Please click over to the GNB website to read the rest of my review. I’ll see you there!

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cover-somewhere-in-franceBack in November, I read and reviewed Somewhere in France, Jennifer Robson’s debut novel, for Shelf Awareness.

As a fan of historical fiction with an interest in World War I stories, I was captivated by the story of Lady Elizabeth Neville-Ashford, who longs to make a difference in the world, but is constrained by her place in British society.

When war breaks out in Europe, Lilly defies her parents and joins the ranks of WAAC drivers, eventually getting posted to France where her sweetheart, a Scottish surgeon, is working at a field hospital. Their love story twists and turns along with the war, and Lilly does a lot of growing up out there on the front lines.

Jennifer graciously agreed to do a Q&A for my readers, and with the return of Downton Abbey here in the States, the timing is perfect.

My questions and Jen’s responses are below. Enjoy!

Can you talk a bit about the inspiration for Somewhere in France?

When I was a teenager, my mother gave me a copy of Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain’s classic memoir of the Great War. At the beginning of the book, Vera isn’t much older than I was then, yet she was thrust into a world of war, death and paralyzing loss when she was still so young.

I remember thinking that I would love to read the story of other women like Vera. They didn’t fight in the front lines, but they made tremendous sacrifices all the same, and their work was absolutely vital to the war effort.

How did you become interested in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and the experience of women ambulance drivers?

It began when I was researching the book. I had decided that I didn’t want Lilly to become a nurse—I couldn’t conceive of a believable way for her to acquire the necessary education and training—so I started looking at the other women’s services, and the WAAC, with its wide range of occupations for members, as well as a predominantly working- and middle-class membership, was ideal.

I did find it quite difficult to unearth information on the corps and its members, however, as most official papers relating to the WAAC were destroyed in the Blitz. If anyone out there is looking for a suitable topic for a doctoral thesis on the history of the Great War, a general history of the WAAC is badly needed!

I was particularly fascinated by the ambulance drivers in the WAAC; their work was difficult, dirty and frequently dangerous, often in terrible conditions, and the suffering of their passengers must have been very distressing to witness. I suppose I could have been kinder to Lilly, and let her work as a clerk well behind the lines, but that wouldn’t have been nearly as fun to write about!

Do you have a favorite period detail or incident you’ve come across in your research?

I think it was the original forms that applicants to the WAAC filled out when applying to the corps. Those few that survive are preserved at the National Archives in the UK (here’s an example that can be viewed online).

When I looked at those forms, filled out by each applicant in her own handwriting, I felt the hundred years between us slip away: here were young women, most of whom had never been away from home, and they were volunteering to leave everything and everyone they knew in order to do their duty. I was, and continue to be, deeply humbled by their courage.

What do you find most fascinating about the World War I era?

I think it’s the way it straddles a period that feels distant yet also very familiar. The people who fought and lived through the war were Victorian by birth and by outlook, with attitudes and beliefs that can often appear somewhat foreign to modern sensibilities.

Yet until quite recently Great War veterans were alive and among us and able to share their memories. I had the honor of meeting a number of them over the years, and when I spoke to them the war didn’t seem remote at all—it might as well have happened yesterday.

Have you visited any of the places in England and France depicted in your novel?

I’ve visited all of them, with the exception of Cumberland Hall in the Lake District, as it’s entirely a product of my imagination. While I was a guide at the Canadian National War Memorial at Vimy Ridge, which is not far from the area of the Western Front depicted in Somewhere in France, I visited some of the battlefields in northern France and Belgium; most moving of all was Beaumont-Hamel, where the Newfoundland Regiment was decimated on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

I’ve also visited Paris and London many times over the years and hope to take my children for a visit there soon.

Can you tell us a bit about the follow-up novel you’re working on, about Lilly’s fearless friend Charlotte?

It begins in the spring of 1919, after Charlotte’s return to Liverpool. She resumes her position as an assistant to Eleanor Rathbone, a real-life figure who was a city councillor and one of the best-known suffragists and supporters for the working poor in Britain in that era.

We follow Charlotte as she makes new friends at the boarding house where she lives, works tirelessly to improve the lives of Liverpool’s working poor, and attempts to save an old friend from the demons that are consuming him as a result of his wartime experiences.

Jen has offered to give away a signed copy of Somewhere in France to one of my readers, so leave a comment below for a chance to win! And you can learn more about Jen and Somewhere in France at her website.

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an unmarked grave charles toddThanks (again) to Book Club Girl’s recommendation, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the Bess Crawford mystery series by mother-and-son team Charles and Caroline Todd (writing as Charles Todd). I’m pleased to be part of the TLC Book Tour for the latest in the series, An Unmarked Grave.

These books bear a few resemblances to the Maisie Dobbs series, which I also love: they share a World War I-era setting, a main character who is both battlefield nurse and sleuth, and a rich blend of history and mystery. However, Maisie’s investigative career begins in 1920s London, with her World War I experiences in flashbacks, while Bess encounters mysteries during the war, usually by accident – and sometimes even during her work as a nurse on the front lines.

An Unmarked Grave, the fourth Bess novel, is set in 1918, as the Spanish flu epidemic sweeps through the trenches. As Bess struggles to care for both the wounded and the sick, she learns of a murdered man’s body concealed among the victims waiting for burial. But before she can report the incident, she gets the flu, and by the time she recovers, the body is gone and the man who informed her is also dead.

Bess is stubborn, with a strong sense of justice – so despite her own illness, she refuses to let the incident go. She returns to England, working in a convalescent clinic while using her father’s military connections and her own contacts to glean information about the two victims and their killer. Before long, she realizes the killer is still on the loose – and that she is his next target.

While Bess pokes her nose into family secrets in every book, this was the first time I felt she was in real danger of being murdered. She is sometimes brave to the point of foolishness (walking the dark, narrow streets of occupied French cities alone, at night, is never a good idea), but I do admire her spunk. And while her vast network of connections sometimes makes the plot twists seem too convenient, I’m sure the British military was a small world back then.

I’m looking forward to the next Bess novel (whenever it comes out). If you’ve read any of Bess’ stories, what did you think of them?

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For many years, it seemed to me that my favorite literary heroines inhabited their own universes, hardly ever running into real (read: historical) people, and only touching actual events peripherally. The American Girls books were carefully set in decades that didn’t quite touch each other (I always found it amusing that they all began in years ending with “4”), and though I adored Felicity, Kirsten, Samantha, Molly and Addy, it was highly unlikely that they’d ever cross paths, or even have been alive at the same time.

Some of the heroines I loved, like Laura Ingalls Wilder and Anne Shirley, were such sacred figures to me – such larger-than-life girls who were the center of their own universes – that I could never think of them together (though Laura and Anne were born around the same time and lived through many of the same world events). They simply lived in different worlds, bounded by different families, life stories and writing styles. And some characters’ place in history is rather vague – Nancy Drew, for example, has shifted back and forth in time over the years, and the Baby-Sitters Club girls, though resolutely contemporary, seemed to live in a sort of bubble in small-town Connecticut.

More recently, I’ve tried to mentally piece together a sort of timeline of heroines’ lives – and it blows my mind, frankly. Even if the stories are similar, it’s still difficult to think of Rilla Blythe as being just seven years younger than Betsy Ray – they were both young women at the time of the First World War, though Betsy was already married and Rilla was just a teenager. And across the ocean, Maisie Dobbs was serving as a nurse in France at the same time, while the women of Downton Abbey (I’m loving season 2 so far!) were learning that the war would change their lives forever.

I’ve read rather a lot of World War II fiction, since it looms large in the American consciousness, and it’s a little easier for me to connect Annemarie of Number the Stars to Patty Bergen of Summer of My German Soldier to Frankie Bard of The Postmistress and even Juliet of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. But still it seems that they all inhabit their own universes – touched, perhaps, by the same earthshaking events (which in turn have affected my own life, decades later). But mostly they still seem to live on parallel tracks, with no knowledge of one another.

Do you ever try to piece together a timeline of heroines, or think about how some characters lived differently (or similarly!) in the same period or decade? Does your reading of a book from a certain time period inform your understanding of other books from that era? Or does this just happen to me?

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Well, here we are again, folks – delving into Part 4 of Gone with the Wind, which takes us through Scarlett’s second marriage, the beginning of her career as a businesswoman (which scandalizes Atlanta), and deep into the years of Reconstruction. As this part opens, Ashley has come back to Tara and it seems like everything will be fine – but of course, that’s not quite how it works in the postwar South. And as Part 4 unfolds, we realize that the end of the war hasn’t ended the trials of the South – in fact, the struggle has just begun.

Every chapter in this section has something in it to break my heart – the threat of high taxes on Tara, Scarlett’s attempt to wheedle money out of Rhett Butler (wearing a dress made from Ellen’s green drapes!), her second marriage to her sister Suellen’s beau, and the increasingly desperate actions she takes to make more money. Scarlett changes in this section into someone cold and hard – the total opposite of the gentle, gracious mother who raised her and whom she always idolized. Some of her actions make me furious; others make me shake my head, but it kills me when she confesses her recurring nightmare to Rhett: she’s terrified of going hungry again.

It’s also worth noting that Scarlett feels remorse – for the first time in her life – after the KKK incident in which her husband and another man are shot and killed. The remorse doesn’t last long, but it softens her for just a moment, makes her human. I wonder, if she had sat with her guilt and regret a bit longer instead of drinking it away, if it would have changed her. As it is, I think she begins her final downhill slide into a callous, lonely, alcoholic life when she lets Rhett talk her out of feeling guilty, and agrees to marry him although she (still!) doesn’t think she loves him. (Part 5 is so full of sordid tragedy that I’m rather dreading picking the book up again.)

And speaking of remorse, guilt and innocence, I love Rhett’s solution to the problem of proving where Ashley and the other KKK members were on the night in question – he swears they were all at Belle Watling’s brothel with him. Finally, he has done a gallant good deed for Atlanta society, but he’s done it on his own terms, and the Old Guard – except for Melanie – don’t appreciate it one bit. What a perfect piece of irony! (Side note: having grown up with a totally different, entirely negative perception of the KKK, Mitchell’s defense of it horrifies me.)

If you’re reading along, or if you’ve read Gone with the Wind before, what strikes you about this section?

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