Thursday, October 15, 2020

Interview With Judith Starkston

Judith Starkston writes fantasy imbued with the richness of ancient worlds, diving into the lore of the Greeks and Hittites. I first met Judith at the Historical Novel Society Conference in St. Petersburg, Florida, in 2013 and found a kindred spirit. I've enjoyed reading her novels as well as her fascinating nonfiction posts.

October 15th is the release date for her novel Of Kings and Griffins, inspired by the
 historical Hittite empire and its most extraordinary queen. Here's a description:

For Tesha, priestess and queen, happiness is a world she can control, made up of her family and the fractious kingdom she and her husband rule within the Great King’s empire. But now the Great King   is dead, and his untried son plots against them. Tesha fights back with forbidden sorcery and savvy. In  yet another blow, the griffin king lures Daniti, Tesha’s magical blind sister, into a deadly crisis that  Daniti alone can avert.


As danger ensnares everyone Tesha loves, her goddess offers a way out. But can Tesha trust this offer 
of divine assistance or is it a trap—one that would lead to an unstoppable bloodbath?

                            To order this novel, go here.
 


And now I'd like to share my interview with Judith:


Were you drawn to this period and place first and then came up with your main character, or did you want to specifically write a main character who is like Tesha and then found the best place for her?



Judith Starkston: My main character is based closely on a Hittite queen who was all but forgotten by history. When the historian-me discovered her, the fiction-writer-me fell in love. She ruled for decades over one of the most powerful empires of the Bronze Age (stretching over modern Turkey, Syria, Israel), a successful woman leader within a patriarchal culture. Her smarts and the kinds of conflicts she overcame drew me, as well as the daily life and customs of the time.


What did you base your descriptions on of daily life for your characters?



Judith Starkston: Fortunately, archaeology has brought much of the culture of the Hittites to light, uncovering details such as their foods and spices, clothing, and their homes, temples and palaces. I have traveled extensively in Turkey to study museum collections and site excavations. Of equal importance to depicting daily life are the archives of clay tablets that have been uncovered and translated. The historical woman, whom I call Tesha in my fiction (her real name was Puduhepa), was both a queen and a priestess. The tablets describe rites she performed—rituals we call magic. We don’t think of magic as
an integral part of our daily life, but it was for her. Without those records, I could never
have brought to life this psychologically fascinating aspect.



How would you describe the violence in war during this time compared to that of the
Trojan War period you wrote about in an earlier book?



Judith Starkston:
The Trojan war (whatever form it may have had historically) took place on the  western edge of the Hittite empire roughly in the same century as the reign of the queen I write about—so they aren’t really two separate periods.


Violence in war is woven tightly into Tesha’s world, as it was for Troy. She’s famous for
corralling her empire’s greatest rival, Ramses II, the pharaoh in the Biblical story of
Moses, into a peace treaty that suited her needs far more than his—and it lasted. But
that happened later in her life.



In my books so far, I’ve focused on the early part of her story as she meets the great
love of her life and follows a very bumpy road to power. In Of Kings and Griffins, one of
those “bumps” is an ongoing war with tribes who lived in the northern part of Anatolia
and viewed that land as their homeland even though the Hittites also claimed it, a
classic intractable conflict not unlike several in the world today. Each side gave the
other reasons to hate. I depict those realistically—raids, kidnappings, blinding of
prisoners, for example—while also showing my characters trying to find long term
solutions to that conflict, such as shared settlements and basic respect that sees past
old hatreds.



The combination of moral principles and pragmatism that this queen’s letters and other
records reveal is a big part of what drew me to her, although I enjoyed in this latest book
showing her struggling to find the balance between what’s “right” and what will actually
work—and not always succeeding. Knowing how to trust others and letting them do
things their way is part of her growth as a leader—even when those “others” include
griffins!


What was it like to be a royal woman in this time compared to the Greek world and
later Roman world?



Judith Starkston: Hittite women, royal and not, had a surprising array of rights that Greek and Roman women, for the most part, did not have, such as owning property and keeping custody of children in divorce. We think of history as progressing, but with women’s rights, the process goes in cycles that may need our repeated attention. Familiarity with the Hittites
is fruitful for that ongoing process.



As for royal women, Hittite queens came to power in conjunction with their husbands,
but if their husbands died, they continued to rule. Legally they were equals to their
husbands, although most of the queens did not exercise that power, so there must have
been a lot of pressure from customs that viewed women as inferior. In contrast, “my”
queen did act as an equal, famously so within her time period. She was much admired
for her independence and strength.



On the downside, Hittite kings had multiple concubines in addition to their “primary
wife.” From the children of those concubines, the kings staffed the equivalent of the
State Department and the highest echelons of the military. There’s a cultural difference
for you! Tricky as it is, I enjoy incorporating those hidden women in my plots and
confronting the issue of concubines. Tesha and her husband are said to have had a
very happy marriage, but that doesn’t mean it was without its troubles.



How do you work in the supernatural element in your novel?

Judith Starkston: Of Kings and Griffins combines history and fantasy. The part-lion, part-eagle mythical griffins are depicted pervasively in Hittite artwork. Giving griffins an
active role in my plot was so much fun. Despite the widespread visual portrayals, there
are almost no myths about them, so I had a blast creating their world and personalities.
I can assure you they are way more fun than dragons. Magnificent, invincible, with a
serious load of attitude, griffins bring a level of danger and high stakes into the world I
write that is reminiscent of what nuclear weapons brought to the twentieth century
world. They can change everything if you’re not careful—very careful. For a character
like Tesha who has to fight against her ingrained desire to control others, they pose a
major temptation—and she has the magic to interact with them.


I gave free rein to Tesha’s magic, which arose out of the historical details of the period.
The kind of magic she performs is always founded in Hittite or Egyptian procedures, but
with a scale and supernatural results outside the bounds of what we view as history, of
course. For example, there is a rite she uses regarding the griffins. I based it directly on
an Egyptian method of magically restraining the state’s enemies by performing some
dramatic activities on figurines who represent those foes. Ancient archaeology supplies
way better material than my imagination could come up with. I write historical fantasy,
not historical fiction, but you’ll get to know the Hittites very well from my fiction and have
a lot of fun in the process.



How do you take characters and plot threads from earlier books in this series and
bring them into Of Kings and Griffins?



Judith Starkston: Each of the books in this series—Of Kings and Griffins is the third—can easily be read on their own as a standalone. Readers can jump in with this latest one. However, I am following the same characters in a roughly chronological progression from one book to the next, drawing on historical events blended with the fantasy elements. If a reader loved a secondary character in an earlier book—Tesha’s blind sister Daniti often steals readers’ allegiances—rest assured, you’ll have a chance to see more of that character
in other books.



Are griffins a force as of now in historical fantasy? They seem very original to me!



Griffins are significantly outnumbered by dragons in historical fantasy, but they are
enjoying a rise in popularity. I noticed this when my cover artist was working on creating
the griffin for this book’s front—no small feat since she uses photographs and mythical
creatures are camera shy. She mentioned a 3D artist who served the growing market in
griffin artwork by developing premade griffins. Those griffins, however, were the
medieval ones of heraldry—with eagle talons and scrawny bodies. My ancient-style
griffins have four lion paws and powerful chests along with huge wings and lethal eagle
head, and they are a rare literary beast.



For a reader who knows nothing about the Hittites, how would you entice them to try
this time in their fiction?



Judith Starkston: The sophisticated and cosmopolitan world of the Hittites combines an exotic, long- ago experience for a great escape with some engaging, familiar-feeling concerns such as arrogant leadership, corruption, women in power, international intrigue,  romantic conflicts, and family.


Who are your favorite writers of ancient world fiction?

Judith Starkston: That’s like choosing a favorite child, but here are some excellent ones off the top of  my head: Geraldine Brooks, Libbie Hawker, Madeline Miller, Stephanie Dray, Kate Quinn, Emily Hauser, Lindsey Davis, Ruth Downie, Elisabeth Storrs, Margaret George.


What's next for this series?


Judith Starkston: Tesha will return, along with her allies and enemies. I’ll just say that despite Of  Kings and Griffins’ hard-won resolution, the crises across the empire are about to escalate in some unpredictable but entertaining ways.

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Judith has one of my favorite author newsletters, packed with interesting info, and a sensational website. To learn more, go here.  


Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Discount: 'The Blue' Costs 99 Cents for Ebook in US

 


My novel THE BLUE, set in the 18th century and following a Huguenot painter's secret mission to discover the formula for the most beautiful shade of blue ever created, is discounted to .99 for the ebook in the United States.




I was fortunate enough to win endorsements for THE BLUE from some wonderful authors:


‘...transports the reader into the heart of the 18th century porcelain trade—where the price of beauty was death.’ - E.M. Powell, author of the Stanton & Barling medieval mystery series.

'Bilyeau is an impressive talent who brings to life a heart-stopping story of adventure, art and espionage.' - Stephanie Dray, bestselling author of My Dear Hamilton.

'With rich writing, surprising twists, and a riveting sense of 'you are there,' The Blue is spine-tingling entertainment.' – Gayle Lynds, New York Times bestselling author of The Assassins

For the U.S. ebook, click here.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Cover Reveal for Debut Novel 'Hide in Place'


I'm excited to share with you the cover of a debut novel written by the talented New York author Emilya Naymark. 


Hide in Place is a domestic thriller about a woman who left the NYPD in the firestorm of a high profile case gone horribly wrong. She moves with her son to a small town in upstate New York. But three years late, the ghosts of her past roar back to terrifying life.




Don't you love this cover?

I'm privileged to be a friend and critique partner of Emilya's and so I know about her writing talent firsthand. This is a story you won't want to miss...

Hide in Place will be published on February 9, 2021, by Crooked Lane Books. The Amazon page is here.

Monday, June 15, 2020

A Discount for 'Dreamland'

My historical novel Dreamland has a price drop: Just 99 cents for the ebook in the United States and Canada for the month of October.

Here's what two of my favorite authors said about Dreamland:

"I could practically taste the salt-water taffy and smell the ocean air as I read Bilyeau’s latest, set in 1911 Coney Island. Beautifully written and impeccably researched, Dreamland is a rollicking ride."
--Fiona Davis, national bestselling author of The Dollhouse and The Chelsea Girls



“Set in the posh hotels and alluring amusement parks of turn-of-the century Coney Island, Dreamland is a vibrant maze of desires, scandal, and mystery that pulls you in and doesn’t let go. A marvelous book!"  —Ellen Marie Wiseman, bestselling author of The Orphan Collector and What She Left Behind

If you'd like to order the book in the U.S., click here. To order it in Canada, click here.




Thank you!

Thursday, May 28, 2020

"The Beach Scene": Women of Coney Island in Art

Some authors use music, others gather photographs, and still others turn to paintings for inspiration for their novels. I soak up ideas and images from all of the above. When it came to my latest novel Dreamland, I studied not only the turn-of-the-century photographs of Coney Island and Manhattan but also some intriguing--and somewhat disturbing--paintings and illustrations.

"Beach Scene" by Samuel Carr

In Dreamland I write about the two worlds in Coney Island, the raucous one of roller coasters, hotels in the shape of an elephant, circuses, and other attractions ... and then there's the second one: the privileged elite who gathered at such luxury hotels as Manhattan Beach, Brighton Beach, and the Oriental. These guests rarely strayed to the amusement parks less than a mile away; the hotels' perimeters were patrolled by Pinkerton guards.

A painting by Samuel Carr captured the upper class that was drawn to Coney Island. "Beach Scene" is one of his best-known artworks. The Manhattan Beach Hotel, frequented by not just bankers and landowners but presidents, inventors, and European aristocracy, opened in 1877. The people in the painting, circa 1879, could have been based on that hotel's guests.

While researching my novel at the Brooklyn Historical Society, I read about this artist. Carr, originally from England and trained at the Royal School of Design, settled in Brooklyn in 1863 and focused on scenes of the borough, on the beach or at the park. His paintings were sold alongside those of Rockwell and Wyeth.

What first strikes you when looking at the painting "Beach Scene" is how, on a summer day, everyone is completely covered by clothing, the women wearing long sleeves and skirts that reach the sand. This is not at all shocking--this was still the time of Victorian behavior on both sides of the Atlantic--but it looks uncomfortable to our modern eyes.

Everyone is grouped in the painting, pursuing wholesome activities: children digging in the sand, a multi-generational group posing for a photograph, others taking a ride on a donkey, or watching a Punch and Judy Show.

But there's one person who is not part of a group and she is the one I was drawn to and who inspired me in my writing. Just to the left of the center of the painting stands a woman alone, wearing a light brown dress, looking out to the water, turned away from the artist. She's young, slender, very well dressed, seemingly with everything in her favor in the year 1879, yet there's an aura of apartness to her. I drew on that aura when creating my main character, heiress Peggy Batternberg.

Carr executed quite a few other paintings, and I enjoyed studying them. But I wondered about his life--he never married but lived with his sister and her husband and was a dedicated Mason--and why he was so drawn to happy families at the ocean.





These wealthy wives and daughters of the East Coast were not the only females on the beach at Coney Island.

As the amusement parks boomed in popularity beginning in the 1880s, working-class women came to Coney Island by the thousands. Some were accompanied by boyfriends, husbands, or fathers, but others were exuberantly single and independent, arriving with other women and taking full advantage of the free-spirited vibe of "America's Playground."

This is one of my favorite photos, taken in 1899, not too long after Samuel Carr set up his easel down the beach:

Women on Coney Island, circa 1899
But as much as I'd like to celebrate their freedom, there is another layer to the reality of women's lives at Coney Island at the turn of the century.

I found some truly disturbing illustrations in contemporary books in the collection at the Brooklyn Historical Society. They underscored the predatory atmosphere of the beaches, from the elites of the Oriental Hotel to the day-trippers of Dreamland, Juno, and Steeplechase.

I'll share two of them:


"Bathing at the West End"



"Waiting for a Swell"

"Bathing at the West End" shows a couple that looks to me as anything but harmonious. The man is holding her from behind, gripping her arm, as she half bends over, perhaps even in an attempted escape, pushing her derriere at him.

The other illustration, "Waiting for a Swell," may seem less menacing, as it is of a young woman alone. But in the vernacular then popular, "swell" does not mean a wave, it means "A man dressed in the height of fashion of high social position," according to Webster's. She's looking to hook a successful man, is the intent of the illustrator. And it's upsetting to see another young woman bent over, flirtatiously offering her derriere as her most important asset.

These are not the only such visual depictions of women's status at the turn of the century on Coney Island. As much as I don't enjoy thinking of young women fighting their way through these leering, predatory settings, it was necessary to my creation of a realistic world for my novel, set in 1911.

There's a reason they called it the "Gilded Age." Taken from a title of a Mark Twain book, it means that beneath the surface glamour and beauty there was rot underneath. And the truth of Coney Island during its heyday at the turn of the century was complex. There was fun to be had, certainly. But in contemporary writing I found writers warning of crime--day-trippers were occasionally robbed and eager investors often fleeced--and also a distinctly dark side to the place for both men and women.

In the August 1899 issue of "Munsey's Magazine," someone named Walter Creedmore writes in an article titled "The Real Coney Island" that "every one capable of furnishing a sensational newspaper story" is drawn there along with "eloping couples" and "those whose lives have been spent in dishonest or disreputable pursuit."

He goes so far as to write:

"There is a serious side to Coney Island. Upon its wave washed shores the flotsam and jetsam of the great city at whose outer gate it lies is tossed with every tide, and many is the choice bit of wreckage that rewards the vigilance of the early morning beach comber. Hman bodies are cast up there, the remains of unfortunates who have sought release from suffering in the dark waters of the East River, or of the victims of man's rage or cupidity that have been made away with and dropped off the end of a pier. In the same way the island has become a haven for living human wreckage, to whom its glare and bustle and noise offer an irresistible attraction."

"Living human wreckage." Is this a realistic description? Or do the happy shouts of the uninhibited sound like the cries of the damned to this writer, someone who is definitely not greeting the 20th century with open arms...? It's impossible to tell from this distance. But the warning is worth reading.

Coney Island, 1918


Dreamworld features women and men leaving the Gilded Age and the Long Edwardian Afternoon for the run-up to World War One and, beyond it, the Roaring Twenties. I wrote about different nationalities, religions, and classes in a time when that meant different expectations--and dangers.

 And it's studying the paintings, photos, and illustrations as well as of the writing of this other time and place that helped me get there.

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Dreamland is available as a paperback, ebook or audiobook in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia. To order, go here.




Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Interview With Mystery Author Mariah Fredericks


Death of an American Beauty is the third in Mariah Fredericks' excellent series featuring ladies' maid Jane Prescott, set in New York in the 1910s.


The novel is winning glowing reviews, including from the Wall Street Journal, which said, "Ms. Fredericks’s tour of old New York—from a seedy Bowery dive to the gilded palace of a department store—is eye-opening, and her mystery well-spun. But what makes this book a stand-out is its affecting depictions of interactions that transcend race, creed, gender and generations.."


I was fortunate enough to get an interview with Mariah on her new novel and her thoughts on late Gilded Age New York and the craft of writing a historical mystery.





Did you come up with time and place for your series first--New York City in the 1910s--or did the idea of your character, ladies maid Jane Prescott, come first?

Jane came first. One day, the first few lines of A Death of No Importance, “I will tell it. I will tell it badly” came into my head and with them, the teller of the tale, Jane Prescott. The fact that she apologized told me this wasn’t someone used to being heard. I had the idea that this was someone no one noticed who somehow knew the truth about a famous crime, which brought me to the idea of a servant. Her tone was a little formal, indicating the past. I needed an era when servants were common, but not so distant that she would have no freedom of movement. I live in the city, our time has a lot in common with the Gilded Age, and that’s how we got to New York in the 1910s.


The family that Jane works for is nouveau riche New York. What appealed to you in focusing on this particular family and are they based on anyone?

I wanted Jane, who has worked in a great house for a number of years, to know things her employers didn’t. It explains their trust in her when it comes to solving little problems like murder. It’s the old Jeeves and Wooster, smart servant, dim master dynamic. The younger daughter Charlotte shakes things up when she pursues the scion of an old family; the tension comes from the fact that she is an outsider. So does her drive and ambition. The Benchleys’ aspirations sometimes make them ridiculous, but also sympathetic. You see why Jane would go out of her way to help them. Most of us can relate to being an outsider. Certainly they’re inspired by Edith Wharton’s comedy, but no, they’re not based directly on anyone.

What buildings and attractions in New York City remain from this time period and how does it feel seeing them more than 100 years later?

There’s more and less than you would think! The Theodore Roosevelt home on 20th Street is a complete recreation. But Sagamore Hill still stands. Obviously, you have the Frick, the Morgan library—which you wrote about so beautifully—the Tenement Museum. But you can stumble over Gilded Age luxury any number of places. The National Museum of the American Indian is in the Alexander Hamilton Customs House, built from 1902 to 1907. There are rooms in there that will blow your mind.

If I really want to go back into Jane’s world, I head downtown to the tip of Manhattan. The strange twisty streets of the Wall Street area, the old ferry terminal, built in 1903. You can look out at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, be reminded of people’s journey to this country and just feel transported.

The New York Herald building, where a key character works


In this book you split the narrative between the privileged world of Jane's employer and a refuge for "fallen women," or former prostitutes, that her uncle operates. Was it difficult to switch back and forth?


In a word, yes. Originally the book was more weighted toward the refuge and Lower East Side, but my editor felt—rightly—we shouldn’t neglect Louise Tyler and her society lady circle. They’re engaged in putting on a pageant at one of the city’s most lavish department stores. The two storylines do converge, both in plot and theme. But the pageant storyline is more comic, and sometimes it was a struggle to keep the tone consistent.

The number of prostitutes in New York City at the turn of the century was enormous. What did you learn about their lives in researching this novel?

One thing that struck me is the range of women who engaged in sex work. You think of it as the last resort of the poor, desperate, dysfunctional, and that’s not untrue. But the fact that women were barred from so many professions meant that even women who were at one point secure in life could engage in sex work if there was a downturn. 

Another angle I found intriguing was the adverse impact of the reform movement. By shutting down brothels, they shifted the profession from the control of madams who ran brothels to men who “provided protection” for women when they were forced on to the streets. This made sex work far more dangerous. I have a terrific book, City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, that I use as a bible on this subject, in addition to my ultimate bible, Greater Gotham by Mike Wallace.

Women did not then have the same protections against domestic violence, and puritanical groups could be threatening toward women they disapproved of/ How did you incorporate this into the plot and make it historically accurate without stopping the plot to have to explain context?


In the book, there is a religious community group that violently objects to the presence of the refuge in their neighborhood. Once a prostitute always a prostitute is their view. The more suspicious think Jane’s uncle is running something very sketchy; one man and a group of women who once sold themselves? That sounds fishy! It creates a tension, a group of people ready to accuse the Reverend Prescott once the murder occurs. Unfortunately, I think we’re drowning in mob judgment these days, so Mrs. Pickett and her puritans will be recognizable to the reader.


But even though the “Committee for Moral Rectitude” as Jane snidely dubs them is mostly a malign force in the book, I did want the reader to have some understanding of the frustrations that would lead people to join such a cause. People who lived in poor, underserved neighborhoods could feel that the city dumped its dysfunction in their areas. Why do they have to deal with it? Put the refuge near Frick’s house, let's see how he likes it.

Your plotting and pace are very good in this book. Do you plot extensively ahead of writing?

Thank you so much. I can get lost in the history and inside Jane’s head, so I have a rule that something must happen or must be learned in every chapter. I do a chapter by chapter outline, so that keeps me honest. And I can be an impatient reader myself, so I’m sensitive to the need to keep the story moving.

Jane has a new man in her life who could be a love interest going forward. How do you balance romance with mystery?

A very smart friend once observed that all good detectives are lonely on some level. I think that’s true. I also think that mysteries are stories of peril and romance poses an emotional risk for the protagonist. It’s a different kind of investigation: who is this person? What’s their agenda? Can I trust them? The protagonist learns something about their own blind spots and strengths in the process.

I love Leo Hirschfeld. He is a musician and they have their dangers, but he has a joyous shamelessness that’s very fun to write. His entire approach to life is…let’s do it, why not? Very different from Jane.

What's next for Jane?

The next book is set in 1914 and originally, I wanted everyone in Europe for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand—arguably the most significant murder of the era. But my editor felt it would be best to stay in New York, so we are off to Broadway! Louise gets involved in a musical production, and where Louise goes, Jane follows. The vision of a young America singing and dancing while the world goes up in flames worked out very well. I’m a theater geek, so this involved all kinds of great research
.

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To order Death of an American Beauty, go to bookshop.org, where each purchase shares proceeds with a fund for the independent bookstores.

Click here to find out more.

The novel is first in the list "Glory in the Gilded Age."

Friday, March 27, 2020

'Dreamland' on Discount: 99 Cents for Ebook

I'm pleased to share news of an excellent savings--my new novel DREAMLAND is priced at 99 cents for the ebook in both the United States and the United Kingdom. The price is lowered for a Bookbub promotion, but anyone can take advantage of the 99 cents price.

To order, click here.



New York City, 1911: Rebellious young heiress Peggy Batternberg reluctantly accompanies her family for a holiday at the luxurious Oriental Hotel, on the Atlantic Ocean. But less than a mile away, Coney Island, “America’s Playground,” beckons with forbidden delight — and danger for Peggy and those she loves most.

The reviews:


“I could practically taste the salt-water taffy and smell the ocean air as I read Bilyeau’s latest, set in 1911 Coney Island. Beautifully written and impeccably researched, DREAMLAND is a rollicking ride.” — Fiona Davis, bestselling author of 'Chelsea Girls'

“DREAMLAND is like the best chocolate: rich, dark and satisfying.” — Libbie Hawker, author of The Ragged Edge of Night

"A Must-Read Book for Winter 2020" — Town & Country magazine

"A marvelous book!" 
— Ellen Marie Wiseman, author of What She Left Behind

“This fast-paced, engrossing novel from Bilyeau gives readers an up-close and personal view of New York’s Gilded Age” — Library Journal (starred review)

'Bilyeau is at the height of her talents in the immersive and gripping DREAMLAND' 
 Heather Webb, USA Today bestselling author

'Bilyeau’s thrilling novel plunges deep into Dreamland’s maze of pleasure and menace' — Marlowe Benn, bestselling author of Relative Fortunes


'An outstanding thriller...This fascinating portrait of the end of the Gilded Age deserves a wide audience.' 
— Publishers Weekly (starred review)