Thursday, March 26, 2015

Review: The Counterfeit Heiress

Tasha Alexander

The Counterfeit Heiress

By Tasha Alexander
Minotaur Books, October 2014

About the Book

In Tasha Alexander’s novel The Counterfeit Heiress, after an odd encounter at a grand masquerade ball, Lady Emily becomes embroiled in the murder investigation of one of the guests, a sometime actress trying to pass herself off as the mysterious heiress and world traveler Estella Lamar. Each small discovery, however, leads to more questions. Was the intended victim Miss Lamar or the imposter? And who would want either of them dead?

As Emily and Colin try to make sense of all this, a larger puzzle begins to emerge: No one has actually seen Estella Lamar in years, since her only contact has been through letters and the occasional blurry news photograph. Is she even alive? Emily and Colin’s investigation of this double mystery takes them from London to Paris, where, along with their friend Cécile, they must scour the darkest corners of the city in search of the truth.

My Review

Lady Emily and her husband Colin return in this ninth installment of the Lady Emily mystery series. At the Devonshires’ 1897 costume ball, Lady Emily is mistaken for someone else in an Artemis costume, a woman who is posing as the elusive heiress Estella Lamar. (Real photographs from this historic event were taken and examples of the guests and their elaborate costumes can be found here.) When the pretender ends up murdered, Emily, Colin, and their friends Jeremy and Cecile work to track down the murderer, but why was this woman pretending to be Ms. Lamar and, more importantly, where is the real Ms. Lamar now? The world-traveling heiress owns three houses, all fully staffed, that she never visits. Pictures of her on her various jaunts across the globe appear in the newspapers, but no one can reliably contact her. The search takes the group to Paris where they track down an heiress who clearly does not want to be found.

As I read this book, Estella Lamar and her collection of fully-staffed but long empty mansions instantly brought to mind the real-life heiress Huguette Clark of Empty Mansions fame. Like Ms. Clark, the fictional Ms. Lamar is an elusive, mentally imbalanced woman of excessive means, someone poorly suited to life outside her protected, pampered walls. Ms. Alexander mentions the similarity between the fictional and the factual in her author’s note, and the overlaps are fascinating.

As I mentioned in my review of Behind the Shattered Glass, Ms. Alexander excels at vivid description, whether the setting is a London residence such as Devonshire House, a drawing room in Derbyshire, or the famous Parisian cemetery Pere Lachaise. Diving into one of her books is like time traveling to Victorian England—a simply delightful escape with characters who are so witty, charming, and engaging that you don’t want to miss a minute in their company. This series is a joy to read.

Rebecca Henderson Palmer 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Our second day with author Becky Lower

Welcome back for our second day with author Becky Lower!

Becky, you’ve written both contemporary and historical fiction. What challenges do you see in writing for both time periods?

Much to my surprise, there’s not a lot of crossover readership between the two. I have groups of people who think of me as a historical writer and completely forget I do have a couple contemporaries out there, and vice versa.

Historical fiction requires a lot of research – which you’re certainly no stranger to. What are a couple of interesting (or unusual, or funny) things you’ve done in the name of research for a book?
Expressly Yours, Samantha was the most research-intensive one to date, since when I decided to place Valerian in the Pony Express, I only had a vague knowledge of it, and had no idea how it was laid out and how it worked. I took a cross-country trip along the route the Pony Express followed and stopped every time I saw a sign for a Pony Express historic site. I loaded up my car with books on the subject, and when I got home, I sat down and read them all before I put one word on the page. One of my stops was in a saloon that looked like it was right out of the 1800s. There was a group of cowboys playing cards in one corner and it was such an iconic image, I had to ask if I could take a picture of them. They were my inspiration for the times when the Pony Express riders got a card game going in the book.

Can you share a favorite story or two of fans that you’ve met?

At last year’s RWA conference, I had a true fan moment, when someone rushed up to me and told me she loved my work. It turned out she is a much more successful writer than I am, so I was very flattered.

What led you to begin writing? What keeps you writing novels today?

I constantly was writing when I was a child and a teenager, then drifted away from it when I became an adult. A lucky set of circumstances happened in 2006, when I lost my job and found a writing course at the local community college on how to write a romance novel. I now had the time to learn the trade, and I jumped in with both feet. I now have so many ideas for stories, some from my family history, some from my mind that keeps working after I go to bed at night that I won’t run out of story ideas for a long time.

What do you hope readers will gain from reading your books?

If American history classes were more about how life had been like rather than a memorization of dates and battles, it would have been much more fun. That’s what I hope to accomplish with my historicals. I insert actual events into my books and build the stories around them. If readers get hooked on the developing romance, there’s a good chance they’ll learn some American history, too. For my contemporary audience, I’d like to show that it’s never too late to take a chance on love. I always try to infuse my contemporaries with some nuggets of history as well. My most recent book involves two people who are renovating a house, and find a newel post that’s hollowed out. I was able to give a bit of background about what they used to be filled with.

And, for those would-be authors who are reading, what’s your top advice for someone hoping to become published?

Read a lot of books on craft, find a good critique partner, enter contests and learn how to take criticism of your work without being defensive.

Thanks again to Becky for being our spotlight author at PASTimes this week! And, visitors, don’t forget that you can enter for a chance to win a copy of her new e-book, Expressly Yours, Samantha.

Click on the Rafflecopter button below and follow the instructions, or leave a comment here at NovelPastimes with your answer to this question from Becky:

Would you have liked to be a rider on the Pony Express? Why or why not?

Good luck! And, if you'd like to learn more about Becky and her books, you can connect with her online: 

  • Twitter handle: @BeckyLower1

~ Leigh

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Spotlight on author Becky Lower

We’re happy to have Becky Lower as our spotlight author this week. She’s an Amazon best-selling author who has traveled the country looking for great settings for her novels. She loves to write about two people finding each other and falling in love, amid the backdrop of a great setting, be it on a covered wagon headed west or in present day small town America.  Historical and contemporary romances are her specialty. Becky is a PAN member of RWA and is a member of the Historic and Contemporary RWA chapters. She has a degree in English and Journalism from Bowling Green State University, and lives in an eclectic college town in Ohio with her puppy-mill rescue dog, Mary.

Becky is currently celebrating the release of her latest novel, Expressly Yours, Samantha. Welcome, Becky, and please tell us a little bit about the storyline and characters for Expressly Yours, Samantha.

Thank you, PASTimes, for this opportunity. I’m so pleased to be here today. Expressly Yours, Samantha takes my series far from the lavish ballrooms of New York City to the gritty trails of the frontier. The youngest Fitzpatrick son, Valerian, has always had a love affair with horses, and, after spending some time in St. Louis, he decides being a rider on the new Pony Express is perfect for him. There he meets Sam Hughes, who is really Samantha Hughes, on the run from a truly evil uncle.

Expressly Yours, Samantha is the seventh book in your Cotillion Ball series. When and how did the idea for the series begin?

I loved Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series, and always thought I’d like to do something similar. But I wanted to base my stories in the United States, and after doing some research on when the Cotillion tradition was introduced into America, I had my timeline established.

The Cotillion Ball series focuses on members of the Fitzpatrick family from 1855 in The Reluctant Debutante (book one) to the Pony Express days in Expressly Yours, Samantha (book seven). How do you keep the stories fresh and interesting when you write that many books in a series?

I’m fortunate that events in the young country that was the United States were such great backdrops for the series. I’ve been able to weave real events such as the railroad expansion, wagon trains, the suffragette movement, and now the Pony Express into my stories. The last two books in the series will take place during the Civil War, and while I don’t want to go into detail on the battles, I do want to show how the war affected every person who was living in this country during those difficult years. I’ve also been able to focus on a different sibling in each book, so I think that helps in keeping the series fresh. They are all such different personalities., and each sibling tends to hijack their story and tells me what’s important to them. It may not be the way the synopsis was written, but it’s the right way for that character.

You’ve written both contemporary and historical romance. What do you like most about writing each genre? And are there certain themes that you find repeating themselves in your novels?

I am very comfortable writing historical romances, but they are so research-intense, I like to intersperse a contemporary between them. Without all the research, they tend to get written faster. My publisher told me my female characters all tend to be feminists, which I hadn’t realized until she identified it for me. I do like to write about women who find they’re stronger than they ever thought they could be.

Along those same lines, what challenges do you see in writing for both time periods?

Visitors, come back tomorrow for Becky’s answer to this and other questions. Plus, be sure to enter for your chance to win an e-book version of Expressly Yours, Samantha! Click on the Rafflecopter button below and follow the instructions, or leave a comment here at Novel PASTimes with your answer to this question from Becky:

Would you have liked to be a rider on the Pony Express? Why or why not?

See you again tomorrow!
~ Leigh 

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Monday, March 23, 2015

Four Reasons Why Reading Historical Fiction is Good for Kids

by Michelle Ule

Many children are first introduced to historical fiction in elementary school as a springboard into history. While not being the actual history they may need to master, reading fiction can help children process and understand events in a healthy way.

Here are four reasons why reading historical fiction is good for kids.

1.     History is best told in story.

You’ve heard the saying, “those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it.” That may seem far-fetched to your children, but reading historical fiction introduces them to events and places in a dynamic way.

By reading about historical events wrapped into a story, readers get a sense of what happened without having to read boring facts.

 Esther Forbes’ Newbery Award-winning Johnny Tremain provides readers with insight into what Boston was like in the months leading up to the Boston Tea Party, while providing a young person’s impetuous interpretation. 

Johnny Tremain allows us to glimpse famous men like Paul Revere and John Hancock in their setting and makes them more familiar and understandable. Forbes also presents the humanity of some of the British soldiers, which provides a different point of view of a famous story.

2.     A personal connection heightens interest

    When you read about an historic figure, you get a deeper sense of who they are—what motivated them, how and why they made their decisions. That person becomes a “marker” for your interest and while a character may be fictional, a good writer puts within them traits which help explain events.

    One of the first historical novels I read as a child was Elizabeth of the Mayflower by Myrtle Trachsel. It’s a now out-of-print fictionalized tale of a real person—Elizabeth Tilley—who sailed to North America with the original 1620 Pilgrims. Through Elizabeth’s eyes, I learned of the religious persecution that sent the families to the New World, along with a great appreciation for the risk they took on the voyage.

    When my family moved to New England years later, one of the first places I wanted to visit was the recreated Plimouth Plantation and I was thrilled to stand in Elizabeth Tilley Howland’s cottage. I knew more than the docent did because of that book loved so very long ago!

From Elizabeth, I moved on as an adult to Nathaniel Philbrick's terrific Mayflower--for the real and fuller story!

3.     Historical fiction reminds us people’s dreams and motivations are the same.

    It doesn’t matter what year you live, people are motivated by the same yearnings: love, family, security.

    Whether you’re reading about a little girl captured by Native Americans in Lois Lenski’s Indian Captive, or a young woman washed up on a Southern California island without family as in Scott O’Dell’s Island of the BlueDolphins, novels allow you to experience unusual historic settings with knowable problems.

    Living within the mind of someone long ago opens our eyes to things we take for granted with empathy. Both Indian Captive and Island of the Blue Dolphins allowed me to connect with Native American problems in a way I hadn’t considered before. Literature will do that for any reader if it’s taken seriously.

4.    Historical fiction encourages us to read the fuller story and learn more about both the history, the world and ourselves.

    “They” say if you want to learn about political history, read a text book. If you want to know about social history, read an historical novel.

      Obviously, once a child becomes interested in a time and place because of an historical novel, they can go back (and often will) to read the history behind the novel.

      My reading of Dr. Zhivago as a teenager propelled me into a life-long fascination with Russian history—a period as far removed from my Southern California childhood as you can get.

      Out of that fascination came a desire to explore, to better understand the culture of what-was-then America’s number one enemy. As I read the history and discovered the poignancy of Russian history, I understood better some of the uncomfortable wariness my nation had with the Soviet Union. I wasn’t in a place to influence policy, of course, but your child someday could be.

      You never know.

    Historical fiction provides a personal connection with historic events. It’s important, of course, to read good history and avoid obvious exaggerations. But from reading historical fiction, we all gain insight and interest into times and places that helps us look at our present life from a different angle.

    Kids and adults, all, can benefit from reading historical fiction.

What young people’s historical fiction has helped you understand history and world events differently?

(Michelle is in Rome today and may not be able to respond to comments.)


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Empathy, understanding and exposure: 4 reasons to read historical fiction. Click to Tweet

Michelle Ule is the author of a Navy SEAL novel and five historical novellas. For more
information about her and her writing, visit her website:  And follower her on Twitter @michelleule

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Review: Four Sisters, All Queens

Sherry Jones

Four Sisters, All Queens 

By Sherry Jones
Gallery Books, May 2012.

About the Book

Amid the lush valleys and fragrant wildflowers of Provence, Marguerite, Eléonore, Sanchia, and Beatrice have learned to charm, hunt, dance, and debate under the careful tutelage of their ambitious mother—and to abide by the countess’s motto: “Family comes first.”

With Provence under constant attack, their legacy and safety depend upon powerful alliances. Marguerite’s illustrious match with the young King Louis IX makes her Queen of France. Soon Eléonore—independent and daring—is betrothed to Henry III of England. In turn, shy, devout Sanchia and tempestuous Beatrice wed noblemen who will also make them queens.

Yet a crown is no guarantee of protection. Enemies are everywhere, from Marguerite’s duplicitous mother-in-law to vengeful lovers and land-hungry barons. Then there are the dangers that come from within, as loyalty succumbs to bitter sibling rivalry, and sister is pitted against sister for the prize each believes is rightfully hers—Provence itself.

From the treacherous courts of France and England, to the bloody tumult of the Crusades, Sherry Jones traces the extraordinary true story of four fascinating sisters whose passions, conquests, and progeny shaped the course of history.

My Review

This story was intriguing and somewhat tragic toward the end. What the four young women’s mother intended for good—to have each of the sisters marry well and hopefully bring about peace between warring countries—didn’t necessarily turn out that way. All were ambitious in their own way. All were also very powerless because they didn’t have a choice regarding their husbands. They reigned in the shadow of their spouses and often weren’t taken seriously by the men in their lives even though these women had wisdom to offer. I found Sanchia’s tale to be particularly tragic. She just wanted to be a nun and was forced to marry so she spent her whole life feeling like she had betrayed Christ, whom she’d married in her heart.

The story of Marguerite was tragic as well. The White Queen, her mother-in-law, had her son under her thumb for years, and Marguerite was scorned in many ways. She had eleven children and outlived most of them. All she wanted was the inheritance that she was promised when she married, yet all she got was grief when she tried to obtain it.

Beatrice was the most misunderstood of them all. In the end they realized she had a good heart and they hadn’t appreciated her when she was around. They saw her as manipulative, ambitious, and selfish. The end of the story had a shocking revelation about Sanchia, her sister, and what she’d done to protect her. Eleanore, the queen of England and mother of King Edward I, had her own tragic tale as well.

Michelle Szymanoski
Michelle Sutton author—Healing Hearts

Monday, March 16, 2015

6 Things You May Not Know About St. Patrick

1. St. Patrick Was Not Irish

The patron saint of Ireland was not Irish. He came to Ireland as a youth after being snatched off the shore of Britain (no one knows where exactly, Northern England, Scotland, Wales?) and brought to Ireland as a slave. He tended animals on a lonely hillside and it was there he had his life-changing encounter with God. He prayed, according to his Confession, day and night. Then one day he heard a voice telling him a ship was waiting for his escape. It wasn't that easy, however. He had to walk hundreds of miles and when he got there, the crew was not willing to let him board for nothing. However, God changed their hearts and they did allow Patrick to accompany them.

The short story is that after Patrick matured and gained religious training, he heard a voice, then many voices--the Voice of the Irish--calling to him to return to Ireland. He did, the place where he had been enslaved, where he feared it could happen again. Despite that, he witnessed and preached to the pagan population.

2. St. Patrick Was Not the First Bishop Sent to Ireland

It seems like he was, since Ireland was a pagan country when Patrick arrived. However, there were pockets of Christianity living on the island before Patrick. History records that Pope Celestine sent a bishop named Palladius to Ireland before Patrick came. His mission was to minister to existing Christians, and he founded just three small churches. Patrick's mission, whether or not it was ordained by the church, was to convert.

3. Patrick Did Not Drive the Snakes Out of Ireland

Not literally. There were no snakes in Ireland. There still aren't. I, for one, cannot figure out why Irish Tourism does not use this fact on their promotional materials. Wouldn't more people come for that reason alone? But seriously, the snakes that Patrick drove out were figurative, representing the pagan religion. Sure, there were unbelievers after Patrick, but generally speaking, he was the reason the country became Christian in a relatively (historically speaking) short period of time.

4. Patrick's Color Was Not Green. It May Have Been Blue.

The church at Saul where St. Patrick founded one of his churches.
True, Ireland's green. All the rain makes green grass. But it's also blue, as you will especially notice if you visit the northern coast. But speaking of Patrick, he is depicted as robed in green clothing. But the traditionally color for bishops in the ancient church was blue. The use of green for St. Patrick's Day has a more modern origin, dating back to the turn of the 19th century. Here is a fascinating article about Ireland's color, which is seen on the Irish flag (pictured below), by the way.

5. St. Patrick's Day Parades Did Not Originate in Ireland

They began in the United States. Actually before the U.S. was a country, in 1762, when Irish soldiers formed the first parade in New York. Today Dublin, Ireland, hosts a fantastic St. Patrick's Day Parade, which you can watch online, but the parade tradition comes from America. (You should be able to get the live link here at 7am EDT on St. Patrick's Day.)

6. It's Paddy Not Patty

You might know this, but if not, I'll save you some embarrassment. You see this all over the place, and even Time had it wrong on their online article. But the Irish know it's Paddy, as in Pádraig, the Irish spelling of Patrick. Patty is a girl's name, so let's not insult the patron saint, okay?

My friend Jamie Chavez wrote a great blog post on this. You can read it here.

So now that we've gotten all that out of the way, are you reading any Irish-themed books for St. Paddy's Day?

Cindy Thomson’s newest novel is Annie’s Stories (Tyndale House Publishers, July 2014,) the second in her Ellis Island series. She is also the author of Brigid of Ireland, Celtic Wisdom: Treasures From Ireland, and co-author of a baseball hall of famer biography Three Finger: The Mordecai Brown Story. She has written numerous magazine articles mostly on Irish genealogy, and blogs at

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Review: The Secret Diary of Eleanor Cobham

Tony Riches

The Secret Diary of Eleanor Cobham

By Tony Riches
CreateSpace, November 2014

About the Book

England, 1441: Lady Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester, hopes to become queen of England before her interest in astrology and her husband’s ambition leads their enemies to accuse her of a plot against the king. Eleanor is found guilty of sorcery and witchcraft. Rather than have her executed, King Henry VI orders Eleanor to be imprisoned for life.

More than a century after her death, carpenters restoring one of the towers of Beaumaris Castle discover a sealed box hidden under the wooden boards. Thinking they have found treasure, they break the ancient box open, disappointed to find it only contains a book with hand-sewn pages of yellowed parchment.

Written in a code no one could understand, the mysterious book changed hands many times for more than five centuries, between antiquarian book collectors, until it came to me. After years of frustrating failure to break the code, I discover it is based on a long forgotten medieval dialect and am at last able to decipher the secret diary of Eleanor Cobham.

My Review

An encrypted diary found hundreds of years later tells the life of Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester. Mistress, and then wife of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, uncle to Henry VI and presumed heir to the unmarried monarch, Eleanor’s ambitions grow as she gets closer to the crown. But Eleanor’s husband has powerful political enemies, including Cardinal Henry Beaufort, who wish to see the Gloucesters destroyed. When those enemies catch wind of rumors that Eleanor has employed magic to have a child and gain favor with the king, Humphrey’s foes have all the ammunition they need. Forced to carry a taper barefoot through the streets of London, Eleanor endures her penance without support from anyone, including her husband. Her story was as scandalous and irresistible to those of her time as the foibles of celebrities are to us today. She is imprisoned for the next ten years in a series of remote castles, her story long forgotten, but she manages one last rebellion, secretly committing her story to paper for generations to come.

The story flashes between the past and present: Eleanor’s life as a duchess and her life as a prisoner. This is an ambitious format for an author to use as a diary lends itself to a more factual retelling of events as opposed to the narration and dialogue one normally finds in a novel. Even so, the glimpses into Eleanor’s incredible rags to riches tale keep the story moving ahead at a strong pace. The mood evoked by a woman imprisoned in a tower on a remote island, abandoned by her husband and friends, no longer remembered by society is especially poignant.

I would have loved to have seen this story told through the eyes of those who came to possess Eleanor’s diary, however, to see the story unfold as they broke the code and read her story for the first time in centuries. The story is a solid, well-researched story detailing the rise and fall of a once powerful woman, but I think discovering this tale through the eyes of an antiquarian (something like Possession perhaps) would have added a fascinating spark to the story.

I received a copy of this book from Mr. Riches in exchange for an honest review.

Rebecca Henderson Palmer