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17th-century

REVIEW:  The Midwife’s Tale by Sam Thomas

REVIEW: The Midwife’s Tale by Sam Thomas

the-midwifes-tale

“It is 1644, and Parliament’s armies have risen against the King and laid siege to the city of York. Even as the city suffers at the rebels’ hands, midwife Bridget Hodgson becomes embroiled in a different sort of rebellion. One of Bridget’s friends, Esther Cooper, has been convicted of murdering her husband and sentenced to be burnt alive. Convinced that her friend is innocent, Bridget sets out to find the real killer.

Bridget joins forces with Martha Hawkins, a servant who’s far more skilled with a knife than any respectable woman ought to be. To save Esther from the stake, they must dodge rebel artillery, confront a murderous figure from Martha’s past, and capture a brutal killer who will stop at nothing to cover his tracks. The investigation takes Bridget and Martha from the homes of the city’s most powerful families to the alleyways of its poorest neighborhoods. As they delve into the life of Esther’s murdered husband, they discover that his ostentatious Puritanism hid a deeply sinister secret life, and that far too often tyranny and treason go hand in hand.”

Dear Mr. Thomas,

While it’s lovely to see the 17th century utilized as a setting and I learned a lot about York and midwifery (is that the correct term?), I can’t say that this book got me much more than lukewarm as far as a mystery. I just couldn’t get caught up in the anger, tension and fear that I should have felt. Something about the relationship of the two main characters didn’t feel right to me either.

Other things in the book felt off to me as well.”Filled me in?” Is this period as it sounds far too modern a term especially when juxtaposed after a paragraph with the word “cozen” in it. Perhaps the intention was to make the book feel more accessible to a 21st century reader but at times the seeming difference in wording was jarring. I have a hard time believing that a relatively new servant to the household would so easily question her mistress about personal matters. A long time family retainer? – sure, such a relationship would lead itself to the servant bossing a family member about but even the event which “bonds” these two women doesn’t seem as if it would allow for this. Since care is taken to spell out the social differences between gentlefolk and their lessors and Bridget often uses this to gain an advantage while seeking the truth, it just seems odd for it to be almost discarded at times in her relationship with Martha.

I did learn a great deal about common feelings and beliefs of the times such as the importance of the “natural order” of King, lord, husband/master and then the lowly women and servants. Also of how important religion still was and not merely for the Parliamentarians. It’s not just the Roundheads doing the psalm singing. Unfortunately this interesting stuff is dragged down by

lots of pedantic “telling” and un-useful information – neat little facts but hardly relevant. For instance, did we need to know how many churches were in York or be given so many detailed directions through the city for the characters to take? If I wanted a history of the city, this would have been great but here it just made the narrative crawl. The political intrigue was just so much “blah, blah, blah.” This is one of the more pivotal eras in English history and I didn’t learn a thing. When I’m more interested in the midwife aspect than the murder or the potential reasons behind it, it’s a bad thing. Personally, I dislike the use of “later I would discover that” or “soon I would learn of” as a way to convey information in a first person book. It’s used a lot, I know, and getting this info across in other ways might not work as well or be as easy to write but I still dislike it.

Throughout the book, almost every case or event delved into by Bridget – either as a midwife or investigator – has to do with sex. Usually it’s masters raping their maidservants but one in particular made me sigh. One character is already established as a villain before it’s revealed that he’s also homosexual. I thought we were past using this as shorthand for an even more vile villain.

What I loved are the sections spent on Bridget as a midwife. I had no idea about their duties – both to their clients and to maintain public morality – or how formal a position it was then. The jealousy and determination with which the midwives guarded their knowledge and prerogatives was amazing and not a thing for the men to mess with. The idea of a bunch of gossips (friends) gathering to help with a birth, chat amongst themselves and get rip roaring drunk at a new father’s expense is hilarious but also touching. Fewer mothers and babies die with today’s modern medicine but I think we might have lost something along the way.

I finished the book feeling disappointed. Often the description of the action felt dry and distancing. It’s like the writing kept me at arms length and I was not engaged enough to wish to continue with the series. After the murder was solved, there was too much trying up of loose ends that felt anti-climactic. I appreciate the historical period you used and the fact that the main character is based on such an interesting historical person but this one gets a C from me.

~Jayne

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RITA Best First Book 2012 Interviews: Historical

RITA Best First Book 2012 Interviews: Historical

Welcome to part two of the 2012 RITA Best First Book interview series. Up today are the rakes and scoundrels, strumpets and spies, ladies and lords. Luscious historical tidbits follow, so let us know in the comments what struck your fancy and if you’d like to win this set of books.

About the nominated books…

The Darling Strumpet, by Gillian Bagwell: Nell Gwynn, one of history’s most famous courtesans, is the inspiration for this novel, set in 17th century London.

The Darling Strumpet by Gillian BagwellOpening lines: The sun shone hot and bright in the glorious May sky, and the streets of London were rivers of joyous activity.

Nell Gwynn’s six word memoir: From nothing to the king’s bed!

She is… one of the first actresses in England! Nell got her start in the theatre selling oranges, but it wasn’t long before her saucy wit and likeable sex appeal got her noticed. She rapidly became a beloved comic actress, and she and her lover and mentor Charles Hart, one of the leading actors of the King’s Company, inspired a wave of romantic comedies and became the William Powell and Myrna Loy of the 1660s!

What readers will love about the hero: He’s Charles II, King of England, one of the most charismatic men in history! But he understands Nell and can identify surprisingly well with her impoverished childhood and desperate need for security.

The first kiss happens… in the king’s privy chamber, after a private supper engineered by the Duke of Buckingham, who was raised with Charles II and was like a brother to him. Nell knows what she’s getting into—Buckingham has made it clear he wants to put a mistress in the king’s bed who will be friendly to him and influence the king for him.

A scene I vividly remember writing: There’s a scene when [Nell] and Charles Hart walk out to observe the devastation in the aftermath of [the Great Fire of London in 1666]. St. Paul’s Cathedral has fallen and the streets around it are unrecognizable jumbles of ruin. I wrote that scene as an exercise when I was taking Kerry Madden’s class—the direction was to have the character start in stillness and then move faster and faster and finally come to rest. I had Nell have a panic attack as she is overwhelmed by a sense of loss, devastation, and disorientation, which worked well in the context of the story. I know that area of London very well and could imagine how it might have looked in those awful days after the fire. And fortunately the diarist Samuel Pepys left a very vivid description of touring the fire area and what he saw.

An unexpected research detour: One of the books I read while writing researching The Darling Strumpet was Derek Wilson’s All the King’s Women, about the various women in Charles II’s life. Wilson wrote about Charles’s desperate flight after the Battle of Worcester in 1651, and how a young woman named Jane Lane helped him by disguising him as her servant and riding with him to Bristol…. The Royal Miracle, as the whole odyssey came to be called, was a very formative episode in Charles’s life—after he was restored to the throne he told the tale over and over…. When my agent asked what I was going to write next, I suggested Jane Lane and her adventures with Charles, and was delighted to find that no one had written a novel about her yet!

What readers seem to love about The Darling Strumpet: Nell Gwynn’s life really was a Cinderella story—a rags-to-riches, local-girl-makes-good rise from obscurity and hardship of the kind readers love. She was born into poverty, with an abusive drunk for a mother and no father. According to legend, when she was a small child she actually gathered cinders and the leavings of fires and sold them to soap makers, and later she sold oysters on the street. But she rose to become a beloved comic actress and the life-long mistress of King Charles II.

The Devil in Disguise, by Stefanie Sloane: The title character is also known as “Iron Will,” a spy charged with the duty of protecting a lady who doesn’t approve of him at all.

The Devil in Disguise, by Stefanie SloaneOpening lines: Lady Lucinda Grey had not precisely decided what she would do if the overly eager Matthew Redding, Lord Cuthbert, compared her eyes to the Aegean Sea.

The protagonist’s six-word memoir: William Randall, the Duke of Clairemont, is a sexy spy for God’s sake. He doesn’t have the time to write a memoir.

The heroine is… part-owner in a horse breeding business. But it is a Regency historical, so officially she’s a tea-drinking, gown-wearing, waltz-dancing, pianoforte-playing lady of the ton.

What readers will love about the hero: See answer to question #1.

What readers seem to love about The Devil in Disguise: It’s witty, adventurous, and fun. Their words, not mine.

How to Marry a Duke, by Vicky Dreiling: In the midst of a mad matrimonial contest, a matchmaker falls in love with her client. Dreiling’s books are also nominated in two other categories.

How to Marry a Duke by Vicky DreilingOpening lines: The belles of the Beau Monde had resorted to clumsiness in an effort to snag a ducal husband.

Tessa Mansfield’s six-word memoir: Everything happens for a reason.

She is a … matchmaker.

What readers will love about the hero: Tristan’s wit and his sense of honor.

The first kiss happens… in a library.

I vividly remember writing… The proposal scene. I knew from the beginning that I wanted a Cinderella twist of an ending.

This book taught me… to expect the unexpected. The surprises are the best part of writing.

An unexpected research detour: I took a boat tour of the Thames that gave me the idea for the ill-fated barge scene in How to Marry a Duke.

What readers seem to love about How to Marry a Duke: The night before the RWA nominations, I told a friend I was managing my expectations–below sea level. Imagine my shock when I got the call and learned that I’d finaled three times. I have no idea how I got so lucky. ;-)

About the authors…

Number of books I wrote before this one sold:

VICKY DREILING: One.

GILLIAN BAGWELL: Zero; this was the first.

How I found my agent:

STEFANIE SLOANE: Random House party, RWA 2000-something. Jenn told the best beaver story ever and I was smitten. No, not that kind of beaver.

VICKY DREILING: By accident – twice. You can read the crazy story here: http://tinyurl.com/4o7qlwe

GILLIAN BAGWELL: I attended a writers’ conference and paid extra to get critiques of my first 20 pages from two different agents. The first one I met with said she loved it and wanted to see the first 100 pages. She loved that and passed it on to her colleague, Kevan Lyon, who told me she was very interested and was willing to work with me as I finished the book—I didn’t even have a complete first draft yet. It took almost two years, with her reading my work and giving me feedback, before I finally finished the book. Kevan called me when she was halfway through reading it and said she wanted to sign me. And then she sold it—and a second book, as yet unwritten—within a few weeks.

Someone who helped me along the way:

STEFANIE SLOANE: Jennifer McCord, publishing professional. Jenn’s an absolute font of knowledge and a total mensch to boot.

VICKY DREILING: There are so many, but to keep this brief, I must mention my mentor Gerry Bartlett. She’s given me great advice and lots of encouragement.

GILLIAN BAGWELL: Besides Kevan, who I can’t thank enough, I received a lot of encouragement, support, and good writing advice from Kerry Madden, an author whose classes I took at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, California when I came back from London in 2006.

One piece of wisdom I’ve gained:

VICKY DREILING: Trust my writing process.

GILLIAN BAGWELL: Just write the book. When I’m having a hard time I tell myself it doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be done. I can revise it later and make it better. For me rewriting it much easier than getting than cranking out that first draft. And believe in yourself!

Acceptance speech—wing it, prepare it, or something in-between?

STEFANIE SLOANE: Totally prepared and ends with a Susan Sarandon moment where I demand world peace and encourage everyone to support their local animal shelter.

GILLIAN BAGWELL: If I’m fortunate enough to win, I would thank the RITA voters, my agent, and my editor. I think I can manage that without notes!

What’s coming up next?

STEFANIE SLOANE: The Scoundrel Takes a Bride will be published December 26th, 2012. Here’s the skinny: A notorious scoundrel, the right Honorable Nicholas Bourne has spent years in the East Indies amassing a fortune through questionable means. Still, his loyalty to his older brother, Langdon, and his childhood friends remains true and trusted. But when Lady Sophia Southwell, the woman promised to Nicholas’s brother, seeks his help on a dangerous mission, he is troubled—and torn. Unable to dissuade her from her quest to find a killer, he vows to keep her safe. This makes his mission the hardest test of his wits, honor, and skill. For Sophia is the secret love of his life. For years, Sophia has planned her daring act of revenge against her mother’s killer. She has painstakingly prepared herself by studying the criminal mind. Now she knows that the moment is right and that Nicholas is the man to help her. But she doesn’t count on the reckless temptation of his rugged sensuality or the captivating intensity in his deep eyes. When desire and emotion intoxicate her as they venture together into the darkest corners of London’s underbelly, Sophia must contend with a yearning even more powerful than the quest for vengeance: the call of love.

VICKY DREILING: A novella starring a minor character from How to Ravish a Rake and three additional full-length Regency historical romances.

GILLIAN BAGWELL: I’m just finishing my third novel, Venus in Winter, based on the first 40 years of the life of Bess of Hardwick, the formidable four-times widowed Tudor dynast who began life in genteel poverty and ended as the richest and most powerful woman in England after Queen Elizabeth; built Chatsworth House and Hardwick Hall; and is the forebear of numerous noble lines including the Dukedoms of Devonshire, Norfolk, Somerset, and Newcastle, the Earls of Lincoln, Portsmouth, Kellie, and Pembroke, the Baron Waterpark, and the current royal family of Britain.

Oddest or most reliable writing ritual/habit:

STEFANIE SLOANE: I twist my hair around my finger. You know, like a mindless flirt in a really bad romantic comedy. Only I’m not flirting, I’m thinking. About the book, of course. Or what Kate Middleton might wear to the Olympics opening ceremonies. But probably the book.

VICKY DREILING: I wear Bose noise cancellation ear phones and listen to playlists I put together for each book. Readers can listen to the playlists on my website.

GILLIAN BAGWELL: I don’t really have any particular rituals or habits. I need a reasonable amount of peace and quiet; that’s about it. One of my favorite quotes by an author is something to the effect of “I write when I feel inspired. And I make sure I’m inspired every morning at 9 o’clock.”

The worst part about writing a novel:

STEFANIE SLOANE: The writing part.

VICKY DREILING: Writing The End, because I know I’ll miss the characters.

GILLIAN BAGWELL: Feeling under the gun to meet my publisher’s deadline. My books take a massive amount of research and I feel overwhelmed when I start and wonder how I can ever possibly finish. I’d love the luxury of more time— and a big enough advance so I’m not worrying about money while I’m writing!

The part I relish:

STEFANIE SLOANE: Having written.

VICKY DREILING: The first kiss.

GILLIAN BAGWELL: It’s magic when I’m able to really get into a character’s world. When I first began working on The September Queen, I went on a research trip to England and visited Boscobel and Moseley Old Hall, two of the places where Charles II hid. Looking down into the actual priest hole where he hid at Moseley gave me chills.

How I fill my creative well:

STEFANIE SLOANE: Wine.

VICKY DREILING: I read, watch movies, and go to lunch with friends.

GILLIAN BAGWELL: I find that once I start writing and am in the groove things just come. I love it when I write a scene that I didn’t know I was going to write, or when a scene comes out differently than I thought it would.

I’m an author, but I’m also…

STEFANIE SLOANE: A wife, mom, volunteer, businesswoman, chocolate cake lover, pitbull advocate, and card carrying member of The Clash fan club.

VICKY DREILING: A reader and a mom.

GILLIAN BAGWELL: I grew up around theatre, began my professional life as an actress, and then began directing and producing theatre. I founded the Pasadena Shakespeare Company and ran it for nine years, producing 37 critically acclaimed shows. My years of experience in theatre very much informed my writing about Nell’s life on stage.

Last class I took or skill I learned:

STEFANIE SLOANE: Last class I took? “Good God, get a hold of yourself because puberty is coming and you’re about to die” class with my pre-tween. Skill I learned? How to lock myself in the bathroom and avoid my “Good God, get a hold of yourself because puberty is coming and you’re about to die” pre-tween.

VICKY DREILING: A workshop with Michael Hauge.

GILLIAN BAGWELL: I recently took a class in copy editing, adding an arrow to my quiver of word-related skills that can give me freelance work while I’m writing.

A book or author I recommend again and again:

STEFANIE SLOANE: Anything by David Sedaris. He’s hysterically funny and heartbreakingly true all at the same time.

VICKY DREILING: Loretta Chase.

GILLIAN BAGWELL: Well, of course Diana Gabaldon is a big favorite of mine. I love her books and have read them several times. She was at the Historical Novel Society Conference in 2007, the first writers’ conference I went to. I was working on The Darling Strumpet at the time and was really inspired by hearing her story and how she became a writer after being well established in a much different career. Especially because she talked about starting to write Outlander and considering it to be her “practice book.” Some practice book!

My favorite book at age ten:

STEFANIE SLOANE: The Black Stallion series. Walter Farley’s horse smarts and love for his subject, combined with the fantastic adventures Alec and Black experience, made for a reading experience I’ve never forgotten.

VICKY DREILING: Little House on the Prairie.

GILLIAN BAGWELL: I grew up reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. My mother read them to us and I read them to myself over and over, and Laura and her family felt like members of my own family. She brought her experiences and the past so vividly to life. My sisters and I still refer to “Laura” and we know who we’re talking about!

Thank you, authors! The final installment in this series will appear next week, and the RITA winners will be announced at the RWA national conference on July 28.