Tuesday, December 8, 2020

#AuthorInterview: Historical Fiction Interview with Sean Poage, author of The Retreat to Avalon

Genre
Historical Retelling
Mythology

Series
 The Arthurian Age #1

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Welcome to Historical Fiction Reader, Sean. It’s a pleasure to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us a bit about The Retreat to Avalon.
Thank you so much for inviting me. The Retreat to Avalon is the first novel in a historical fiction trilogy about the actual people and events behind the legends of King Arthur. Rather than the well-known stories of Arthur, Lancelot, and so on, which are all from French novelists in the middle ages, I use the older Welsh legends, actual history, and a lot of research to show who a real King Arthur may have been. Instead of a dry history book, though, it’s written as a novel, so the reader can immerse in the adventure in this Dark Ages era.

As a storyteller, what attracted you to the Arthurian legends? 
I’ve always been fascinated by the stories that make up history. They’re really about people. Even more so, I’m drawn to the more obscure eras, and the British “dark ages” are pretty obscure. 

The Arthurian legends have a foundation in history, but there is a lot of disagreement in what makes up those foundations. I was intrigued by the theory of historian Geoffrey Ashe, and the book began as a way to imagine how it might have worked out within the historical context as we know it.

How did you find balance between folklore and history in your adaptation of the material? 
People thought The Illiad was only folklore until the discovery of Troy. I believe much of what is considered legend or folklore today has some seed of truth lost in time. Unfortunately, much of the historical record of Britain in the Arthurian era is lost, but there are clues. Some come from continental sources, others come from snippets of Old Welsh poems and records. I was surprised how many seemingly unrelated pieces actually began to fit together as the story wrote itself.

What historical and archaeological resources helped you bring Arthur’s world to life on the page?
There are so many! I probably won’t make back the money I’ve spent on research books and such. I give a shortlist of some of the most important ones in the acknowledgments at the end of the book, and a more comprehensive list on my website. I also learned so much from historians, archeologists, linguists, and others through groups on social media. So many have been very helpful.

Do you have a favorite scene in The Retreat to Avalon? 
That would be hard to pick out. Perhaps some of the humorous scenes, but I’d hate to give spoilers. Well, one image comes to mind, and anyone who has read the book will recognize it, so I’ll keep it vague, but it’s the scene leading up to and through where Arthur and his men are sitting on their horses in the shadows beyond the light of the watch-fires.

Did any scene in The Retreat to Avalon challenge you as a writer? 
Probably the most challenging scenes to write were the battle scenes. Making sure the reader gets a sense of the ebb and flow of the overall conflict without getting lost in details; all while letting the reader be immersed in the character’s place in that battle. 

But, really, the biggest challenge, and also the most fun, was taking these ancient legends and seeing how they could fit within the boundaries of known history. It was like detective work, because I refuse to “tweak” history to fit the story. I need a plausible reason for everything I write.

Authors are often forced to make sacrifices when composing their stories and I always wonder what ended up on the cutting room floor. Is there a character, scene, or concept you wish you could have spent more time on while writing The Retreat to Avalon?
Because this book started out as a way to show how Geoffrey Ashe’s theory could have played out, I started sort of at the midpoint in the overall story of Arthur: the buildup to, through and the aftermath of a historical event. Because of that, this book focuses heavily on this one year, and an army on the move. I wasn’t able to delve as deeply as I wanted to into some of the great female characters and how they impacted things. Luckily, they become much more prominent in books two and three. And I have been writing some short stories that fill in some background details that I offer free to anyone who asks.

If you could pick a fantasy cast – anyone at all, living or dead, at any point in their careers- to play your characters in a big-screen adaptation of The Retreat to Avalon, who would you cast?
Oh, that is tough. I am not great at naming actors and actresses. There are others who I am sure could do much better, but I’ll give it a shot. These would require the actors to be at the right age point, of course…

Arthur, perhaps Joe Manganiello 
Gwenhwyfar might be Rosamund Pike
Eric Bana as Gawain
Rhian, perhaps Rose Leslie
Benedict Cumberbatch for Myrddin (Merlin)
Karl Urban for Bedwyr
Liam Neeson for Cai, if he’d agree to dye his hair red.
Cate Blanchett for Morgen
Ryan Reynolds for Gareth
Dominic Monaghan for Peredur
Modred could be Colin Farrell

Eric Bana, Benedict Cumberbatch, Karl Urban, Liam Neeson, Dominic Monaghan. You and I have similar tastes in movies. 

What do you hope readers take from their experience of The Retreat to Avalon?
I hope, first, that they enjoy it and feel immersed in this world that is so far removed from our own. I also hope that it feels real and sparks an interest in the legends and history of the time.

What’s next for you? Any new writing projects in the wings?  
I’m nearly done with the second book in the series, called The Strife of Camlann. It follows on and shows the consequences of what happens in the first book. Then I’ll begin the third book in the series, The Three Terrible Revelations. This book is sort of a prequel, going back to before Arthur and showing his rise to power leading up to the events of The Retreat to Avalon. It’s out of order, but there are some surprises that would have spoiled books 2 and 3 if I just went chronologically. 
About Sean Poage: 
A little about me? Well, my life has been anything but boring.  I grew up moving around a lot and joined the Army after high school because I had no clue about what to do with my life, and I didn’t want to end up living in a van down by the river. (Anyone else chuckle at that reference?)

I was a Military Policeman in the Army, with a tour in Germany and Ft. Bragg, working in law enforcement, field training, and even a stint in Germany as an undercover drug investigator.  Little side “trips” included Honduras, Saudi Arabia and Iraq for Desert Storm, Cuba back during the Haitian Refugee Crisis, and a few others.  After my tour, I left the Army and became a police officer in Florida, where I was a patrolman, a gang investigator and a SWAT officer.  It was fun for a while, but I needed a change, and so I left the force, got a Bachelor of Science in Computer Networking and started a new career as a computer geek.  Better pay, better hours, and I haven’t been to the Emergency Room once.

I ended up getting back into the Army, in the Reserves, and had a couple more trips to Iraq.  The second time as an investigator, and the last time as a specialist in Improvised Explosive Device (IED) investigations.  My job was to write and teach a course on bomb scene investigations for the Iraqi Police, Federal Police and Army.  It was the most fulfilling job the Army ever gave me.

These days I work at my job in the tech world, write when I can, and spend the rest of the time with my family, which usually means chores and home improvement projects.  Every now and then we get out for a motorcycle ride, or a hike in the beautiful Maine outdoors.  Travel is our passion, and we’ve seen some pretty cool places, but many more are on the bucket list.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

#AuthorInterview: Historical Fiction Interview with Elizabeth Bell, author of the Lazare Family Saga

Genre
Family Saga

Welcome to Historical Fiction Reader Elizabeth. It’s a pleasure to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us a bit about the Lazare Family Saga.
It’s a pleasure to be here! I’ve been following your reviews for years. 

My series is about a multiracial family discovering where they belong in the young United States, from antebellum Charleston to the Wild West. Book One, Necessary Sins, focuses on a Catholic priest who grapples with doubt, his family’s secret African ancestry, and his love for a slave owner’s wife. 

Joseph Lazare and his two sisters grow up believing their black hair and olive skin come from a Spanish grandmother—until the summer they learn she was an African slave. While his sisters make very different choices, Joseph struggles to transcend the flesh by becoming a celibate priest.

Then young Father Joseph meets Tessa Conley, a devout Irish immigrant who shares his passions for music and botany. Joseph must conceal his true feelings as Tessa marries another man—a plantation owner who treats her like property. Acting on their love for each other will ruin Joseph and Tessa in this world and damn them in the next. Or will it?

Where did the idea for this story originate?  
This saga grew out of its settings. When I was eight years old, I first visited Charleston, South Carolina. I fell in love with the architecture, the gardens, and wildlife. When I was twelve, my family moved to the Front Range of Colorado. I fell in love with the mountains and the prairies. I wanted to inhabit both places before the encroachment of modernity. Historically too, beauty and ugliness existed side by side in these settings, in the enslavement of African-Americans and the destruction of the Native American way of life. I read Colleen McCullough’s Thorn Birds, John Jakes’s North and South, and Alex Haley’s Roots, which gave me a wide enough canvas to unite these places I loved, by creating my own multi-generational family saga. By making the central family multiracial, I am able to dig deep into the conflicts and injustices at the heart of the American Dream.

What historical resources helped you bring the Lazare Family’s world to life on the page?
I’ve spent almost three decades researching this saga. I’ve consulted hundreds of sources, which I list on my website. I mention the most important sources in my Author’s Notes at the end of each novel. My second home has always been a library, and I’ve worked in one since graduate school. Beyond books, visiting the same places as my characters helped me bring them to life, from a beach in South Carolina to a fort along the Overland Trail in what is now Wyoming. Paintings from the 19th century are a great resource. Surviving material culture like clothing, furniture, and horse-drawn vehicles has also been tremendously helpful. I read as many primary sources as I could, the writings of people who lived during the time period of my novels. 

Which character in the Lazare Family Saga do you feel you have the most in common with?  
There are aspects of me in several of my characters. To quote Walt Whitman, “I contain multitudes.” I feel closest to the patriarch of the Lazare family, René Lazare. He has my sense of humor and my skepticism. He’s the most progressive of the characters, so he feels the most contemporary. I think that’s why I didn’t want scenes from his point-of-view; I’m proud that most of my characters have authentic 19th-century psyches. But René is the voice of reason and stands in for me in many ways. After my editor suggested I write an Epilogue from his point-of-view, René gave it to me in first person, whereas the rest of the saga is in limited third-person point-of-view.

Which character do you feel you have the least in common with? 
Byron Cromwell because he’s very devious. He thinks his intelligence entitles him to power. He’s determined to get ahead in life no matter the collateral damage. He’s good at reading other people and exploiting their weaknesses. He’d run right over an introvert like me!

Did any scene in the Lazare Family Saga challenge you as a writer? 
Almost every scene! So much is beyond my personal experience as a middle-class, 21st-century white woman and required massive amounts of research. That’s why this saga has taken me so long to write. Any scene from a male point-of-view. Any scene from the point-of-view of a person of color. Any scene from the point-of-view of a person of faith, from Joseph’s Catholicism to Náhgo’s native spirituality. I had to immerse myself in these experiences till I felt like they were part of me.

Authors are often forced to make sacrifices when composing their stories and I always wonder what ended up on the cutting room floor. Is there a character, scene, or concept you wish you could have spent more time on while writing the Lazare Family Saga?
I quite liked one of the alternate openings to the saga, but it set the wrong tone and couldn’t exist alongside my current opening. I have thousands of pages of previous drafts, and I’ve trimmed many parts of the final draft. Some of that was painful to lose, but the revisions made the story stronger and I don’t regret them. The beauty of being an independent author is that I’m not forced to cut anything. I carefully consider the advice of my critique partners, beta readers, and editor, but the final decisions are up to me—so if I really liked a scene or turn of phrase and it fit into the whole, it got to stay.

If you could pick a fantasy cast – anyone at all, living or dead, at any point in their careers- to play your lead characters in a big-screen adaptation of the Lazare Family Saga, who would you cast?
I have whole Pinterest boards devoted to fantasy cast members! I’ll confine myself to Book One of my series, Necessary Sins. I’d want actors with African ancestry to portray my characters with African ancestry: Brian Stokes Mitchell as René Lazare, Wentworth Miller as his son Joseph, Jennifer Beals, and Zendaya as his daughters Catherine and Hélène respectively. Keira Knightley would join them as Joseph’s soul mate, Tessa Conley. I know Keira can rock a 19th-century gown! Since this is a fantasy, the Lazare Family Saga would be adapted not for the big screen but into a long-running streaming series like Outlander.

What do you hope readers take from their experience of the Lazare Family Saga?
I want to transport my readers to the 18th century Caribbean, to antebellum Charleston, and to a Cheyenne village. I want to make my readers laugh and cry. I want them to rejoice and grieve with my characters. I hope I draw readers out of their comfort zones. I hope they see American history in a vivid new way and not just through rose-colored glasses. I hope that my readers will walk away with a little more empathy for their fellow humans.

What’s next for you? Any new writing projects in the wings?  
I’m hard at work revising the fourth and final book in the Lazare Family Saga, Sweet Medicine, which will release in Spring 2021. After that, I’m determined to find the perfect narrator for the audiobooks, so I’ll get to do a casting call after all. I wonder if Brian Stokes Mitchell is available… 
About Elizabeth Bell: 
Elizabeth Bell has been writing stories since the second grade. At the age of fourteen, she chose a pen name and vowed to become a published author. That same year, she began the Lazare Family Saga. It took her a couple decades to get it right. New generations kept demanding attention, and the saga became four epic historical novels.

After earning her MFA in Creative Writing at George Mason University, Elizabeth realized she would have to return her two hundred library books. Instead, she cleverly found a job in the university library. She works there to this day.

Elizabeth is an active member of the Historical Novel Society, and she loves chatting with fellow readers, writers, and history buffs. Visit her at elizabethbellauthor.com

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

#AuthorInterview: Historical Fiction Interview with Sanjida O'Connell, author of The Priest and the Lily

Welcome to Historical Fiction Reader Sanjida. It’s a pleasure to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us a bit about The Priest and the Lily.
Thank you so much for having me, Erin! I love historical fiction too; an early inspiration for me, was Andrew Miller’s Ingenious Pain. The Priest and the Lily is the story of a young Jesuit priest, Joseph Jacobs, who sets out on a dangerous journey through Outer Mongolia, a land virtually unknown to the Western world. It’s 1865 and Charles Darwin’s radical theory of evolution has just been published. Joseph is driven by his passion for science and his love of God. As he crosses the Mongolian Steppes with a Buddhist monk and a local horseman, he hears rumours of a rare and beautiful white lily. He believes that if he finds this flower, his fame and fortune will be assured. But then Joseph meets Namuunaa, a shaman and the chief of her tribe, and she’ll test Joseph’s beliefs and values to the limit. 

Where did the idea for this story originate?  
I used to be a TV producer/director and I had an idea for a series about plant hunters. These were (almost exclusively) men who travelled the world in search of rare plants, and had incredible and risky adventures. I couldn’t persuade the BBC to make the series, but I ended up using my research as the inspiration for The Priest and the Lily.

On a more personal note, my step-father, James O’Connell, was a priest, and he left the priesthood to marry my mother when I was a small child. The idea of a priest leaving his profession (if not his faith) and suddenly being immersed in family life has always intrigued me.

What historical resources helped you bring Joseph and Namuunaa’s world to life on the page?
Joseph’s character and his journey is informed by two Jesuit priests, who luckily for me, left diaries! Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a French Jesuit, palaeontologist, biologist and geologist, who struggled to integrate his religious beliefs with his knowledge of biology and, in particular, evolutionary theory. He travelled to China several times, as well as visiting Mongolia, to carry out geological excavations. He discovered ‘Peking Man’, a relative of Pithecanthropus. Père Armand David was a French Lazarist Missionary, a zoologist and a botanist. He brought back the handkerchief tree, a clematis, and Père David’s deer, as well as numerous other plants that grace our gardens today.

Tribal people leave far less evidence of their thoughts and deeds, but there are still shamans, and tribes who hunt with wolves and eagles in Mongolia today - and when I travelled to the country, I visited one such tribe. 

Which character in The Priest and the Lily do you feel you have the most in common with?  
That’s a tricky one! I’m not like Joseph, but I share his passionate love of biology. I studied zoology, went on to do a PhD on chimpanzees, and spent much of my adult life writing about nature and producing and presenting wildlife documentaries. I love flowers!

Which character do you feel you have the least in common which? 
Probably Tsem, the Mongolia horseman that Joseph travels across Mongolia with! He’s pretty happy-go-lucky, and I definitely am not! They’re accompanied by a Buddhist monk, Mendo, and I wish I were more like him. I’m doing my best to channel mindfulness at the moment. And who wouldn’t want to be as beautiful as Namuunaa and ride across the mountains with a wolf and an eagle?!

Did any scene in The Priest and the Lily challenge you as a writer? 
Okay, spoiler alert, look away now! I found the sex scenes challenging because I wanted to get across the other-worldly nature of what was happening (I’ll let you read them to work out why!), as well as the feelings of transgression, and still keep them beautiful and engaging.

Authors are often forced to make sacrifices when composing their stories and I always wonder what ended up on the cutting room floor. Is there a character, scene, or concept you wish you could have spent more time on while writing The Priest and the Lily?
Originally the novel started with Joseph travelling from Bristol to Outer Mongolia by ship, and then struggling to get his small expedition together. Now we begin at the Great Wall of China with a savage incident where soldiers threaten to attack Joseph. It’s much faster and more immersive, but one of the scenes I lost, which I pine for, is where Joseph is in a small canoe, floating down a river lined with boats full of orchids that are for sale.

If you could pick a fantasy cast – anyone at all, living or dead, at any point in their careers- to play your characters in a big-screen adaptation of The Priest and the Lily, who would you cast?
I’m not sure who would play them now, as the actors are too old for the characters’ ages, but I imagine Joseph like Jean-Marc Barr in The Big Blue; Ziyi Zhang, in House of Flying Daggers, playing Namuunaa; Chow Yun-Fat in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon as Mendo.

What do you hope readers take from their experience of The Priest and the Lily?
I would love The Priest and the Lily to be an immersive experience, transporting readers to a distant land and culture, and taking their minds off their current troubles, if only for a short time. 
I think the novel, whilst hopefully a good read, will also throw up some questions about cultural appropriation.

What’s next for you? Any new writing projects in the wings?  
My exciting news is that The Priest and the Lily will shortly be released as an audiobook, narrated by Mike Jaimes. I’m hoping to re-release another historical novel, Sugar Island, which is set on a slave plantation in America and based on the real life story of actress, Fanny Kemble. I also write thrillers, as Sanjida Kay, and I’m working on my fifth. It’s called Labyrinth, and is about a young cop with vertigo. It’s set in Hackney, a world away from Outer Mongolia!
About Sanjida O'Connell: 
I've had twelve books published, four novels (The Priest and the Lily, Sugar Island, Angel Bird and Theory of Mind) and four works of non-fiction (Mindreading: How we Learn to Love and Lie, Sugar: The Grass the Changed the World, Nature's Calendar, Chimpanzee: The Making of the Film) as well as contributing to the encyclopaedia, Animal Life. 

I've been shortlisted for the BBC Asia Awards, was one of the winners of the Betty Trask Award for Romantic Fiction, shortlisted for the Daily Telegraph Science writer's award, and highly commended for BBC Wildlife magazine's award for nature writing.

I wrote features and columns for national newspapers and magazines about science and the environment, directed science documentaries and presented wildlife programmes for the BBC.

I've also had four psychological thrillers published by Corvus Books under my pen name of Sanjida Kay: Bone by Bone, The Stolen Child, My Mother's Secret and One Year Later.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

#AuthorInterview: Historical Fiction Interview with Sarah Penner, author of The Lost Apothecary

Welcome to Historical Fiction Reader Sarah. It’s a pleasure to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us a bit about The Lost Apothecary. 
Thank you so much for having me, Erin! I’ve been an avid fan of the Historical Fiction Reader for quite some time, and it’s such an honor to do this interview. 

The Lost Apothecary is my debut novel, and it centers around a female apothecary in 18th century London who sells well-disguised poisons to women seeking vengeance against the men who have wronged them. Centuries later, in present-day London, a woman travels to London and finds an apothecary vial while mudlarking on the River Thames. She soon suspects she’s found the culprit in the never-solved “apothecary murders” that haunted London two hundred years earlier. 

The novel is dual-timeline, and the stories of the two women intertwine in a stunning twist of fate, one in which not everyone will survive… 

Where did the idea for this story originate?  
I first learned about mudlarking years ago, while reading London in Fragments: A Mudlark’s Treasures by Ted Sandling. In the book, he shares striking images of interesting things he’s found near the River Thames in London. It is here that I first spotted a fragment of a mid-seventeenth century delftware apothecary jar, and the inspiration for The Lost Apothecary was born. I knew instantly the story would begin with a woman in present-day who finds an apothecary vial while mudlarking.

I didn’t actually have the chance to go mudlarking myself until the summer of 2019 after I was already agented and we were working on revisions to the manuscript. Over the course of several days, I went down to the river three separate times, finding an assortment of pottery, clay pipes, metal pins, even animal bones. 

I clung to the idea of an apothecary from the get-go. The word apothecary is evocative, drawing forth visions of a candlelit storefront with sash windows, its walls lined with mortar bowls and pestles, and countless glass bottles. There is something beguiling, even enchanting, about what might lie within those bottles: potions that bewitch us, cure us, kill us. When describing the apothecary’s hidden shop, I did my best to capture this allure. 

What historical resources helped you bring the Georgian world to life on the page?
I’ve spent years researching Georgian London. I much prefer it over the Victorian, Tudor, and Edwardian eras. Georgian London teemed with gin, brothels, eccentric intellectuals…it was such a scandalous time period! It was also before the advent of modern toxicology, which was necessary for my story: The Lost Apothecary is about disguised poisons, and if I’d set the story even fifty years later, some of the apothecary’s poisons would have been detectable via autopsy. 

Researching the many herbal and homespun remedies for this story was a time-consuming, albeit entertaining, task. I spent time in the British Library, reviewing old manuscripts and druggist diaries; I reviewed digitized pharmacopeias; and I studied extensively some well-known poisoning cases in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I was surprised by the number of plants and herbs that are highly toxic, and I was fascinated while reading about the clever, if ineffective, remedies used by the predecessors of modern-day pharmacists.

Which character in The Lost Apothecary do you feel you have the most in common with?  
Definitely the present-day character, Caroline. In fact, she and I are very similar, in that we both have a keen interest in digging into old documents and mysteries of the past. 

Which character do you feel you have the least in common which? 
I haven’t yet mentioned a third character in the story: Eliza, a twelve-year-old girl who helps the apothecary (a sort of apprentice, if you will.) I have the least in common with Eliza, given not only her age but her beliefs about magic and ghosts. 

Did any scene in The Lost Apothecary challenge you as a writer? 
On a macro level, the structure of the novel as a whole was challenging. As I mentioned, the story is dual-timeline, and I structured the information reveal very carefully as the story went on. Especially at the end, when the present and historical narratives collide, I had to “drip-feed” the suspense to ensure I didn’t ruin a surprise too soon. 

On a micro level, there were a number of scenes that challenged me. I naturally prefer writing scenes that move quickly—think cliffhangers, twists, and big reveals. I find it more challenging to layer in characterization: motivation, backstory, and fundamental beliefs that make a person do what they do. But all of it is necessary in commercial fiction, and I’m thankful for an agent and editor who have both been immensely helpful in challenging me to dig deeper into my characters.  

Authors are often forced to make sacrifices when composing their stories and I always wonder what ended up on the cutting room floor. Is there a character, scene, or concept you wish you could have spent more time on while writing The Lost Apothecary?
Yes! In an earlier draft of the book, my present-day character goes on a quirky tour of London in which the tour guide explains old mysteries and rumors about the city. During this tour, the guide also mentions the rumored apothecary murders from two hundred years ago, and this information allows my present-day character to continue her search of the apothecary. 

Alas…both my agent and editor felt the information revealed during the tour scene was too coincidental, and no matter how much I dug in my heels, they advised we needed to pull the tour scene and re-strategize. I’m still a bit bummed about it, as I’ve been on such tours myself in London and have fond memories! Perhaps it’s a scene for another story, someday…

If you could pick a fantasy cast – anyone at all, living or dead, at any point in their careers- to play your characters in a big-screen adaptation of The Lost Apothecary, who would you cast?
The 18th C apothecary, Nella – Kathy Bates
The twelve-year old girl, Eliza – Emma Watson  
Present-day character, Caroline – Rachel McAdams

What do you hope readers take from their experience of The Lost Apothecary?
The Lost Apothecary is very much a story about women controlling their own destinies. There are dark aspects to the story—like the burden of secrets and the destructive pursuit of vengeance—but it is also a story of hope and the way women can protect, honor, and free one another, even when separated by the barrier of time. I hope that when turning the final page, readers will feel connected to this sense of loyalty and better appreciate how we can honor our own loved ones.

Of course, I also hope the book is a form of escapism. It’s a historical mystery, and I hope that anyone who loves sleuthing or uncovering old documents will find themselves lost in the pages! 

1What’s next for you? Any new writing projects in the wings?  
Stay tuned—I’ll tell you when I know, hah! But in all seriousness: I’m very much drawn to historical mysteries/thrillers, and I enjoy writing clever, twisty plots. I also love crafting stories about brave, badly-behaved women. So, I suspect I’ll stay in this vein, at least for the next book or two.
About Sarah Penner: 
I was born and raised in northeast Kansas, growing up in a small log cabin nestled deep in the woods. This picturesque retreat, where I lived until early adulthood, frames most of my early memories. 

I began writing seriously in 2015, after attending a moving lecture given by Elizabeth Gilbert. She was on tour for Big Magic, a game-changing book for creatives. Soon after her talk, I enrolled in my first online creative writing class. I haven't looked back since.

I'm an avid traveler, though my heart is stuck in London. Other favorite destinations include Thailand, Ireland, Germany, Belize, and Grand Cayman.

I graduated from the University of Kansas with a degree in finance, and I've spent the last decade in various corporate finance functions. I love my day-job: numbers and spreadsheets appeal to my analytical side.

When I'm not writing, you'll likely find me in the kitchen, the yoga studio, or running outdoors in the Florida heat. 

I'm married to my best friend, Marc. We're proud residents of the Sunshine State, where we live with our "silky hair" miniature dachshund, Zoe. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

#AuthorInterview: Historical Fiction Interview with Kate Quinn, author of The Rose Code

Genre 
War Era Historical

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Welcome back to Historical Fiction Reader Kate. It’s a pleasure to have you with us again. To start things off, please tell us a bit about The Rose Code.
It's the story of three very different women recruited to work at the mysterious Bletchley Park during World War II, where they join the fight to break the unbreakable Axis military codes, and deal along the way with loss, love, friendship, betrayal, and the shadowy presence of a traitor in their midst. I like to think of it as “The Imitation Game meets The Crown”!

Where did the idea for this story originate and what about Bletchley Park appealed to you as a writer?
Bletchley Park's history has fascinated me since reading Robert Harris's wonderful novel Enigma, which first introduced me to the pressure-cooker world of the WWII codebreakers. These men and women—recruited from all walks of life to a remote country estate in Buckinghamshire—labored under incredible stress and secrecy to crack the supposedly uncrackable ciphers used by Germany and Italy, and they succeeded so well that some historians estimate they shortened the war by as much as two years (and millions of lives). Yet their heroic work was unknown for decades thanks to being classified; everyone who had worked at BP was simply asked to go home after the war, and never talk about what they had done. Which they all did, keeping their huge secret with the kind of success that is boggling to our minds today in a world now dominated by social media and the 24-hour news cycle. I was fascinated by the idea of a war story where the fight was all mental and intellectual, rather than physical.

In terms of research, which resources proved the most useful to you in writing The Rose Code? 
There are hundreds of excellent non-fiction books about Bletchley Park, and I swear I tried to read them all! “The Secret Lives of Codebreakers” by Sinclair McKay is an entertaining, comprehensive book for anyone looking to get an overview of BP and how it functioned, and there are many memoirs written by codebreaker veterans once the secrecy ban lifted—“Enigma Variations” by Irene Young, “Secret Days” by Asa Briggs, and “Dilly: The Man Who Broke Enigma” by Mavis Batey were three standouts. 

The book centers on three female Bletchley Park code breakers. Without giving too much away, what can you tell us about Osla, Mab, and Beth?
I chose three narrators for this book because I wanted to show as much of the codebreaking process as possible, and having only one woman's eyes would limit us to only what she saw, since secrecy was so tight—even inside Bletchley Park, you weren't supposed to tell your co-workers what you were working on. I also wanted to show a variety of social classes and education levels in my heroines, because BP truly was a melting pot where a secretarial school graduate might find herself working beside a duke's daughter! Therefore I have shy middle-class spinster Beth, very much the beaten-down daughter-at-home under a domineering mother—sharp East-Ender Mab who is keen to improve her lot in life via education, hard work, and a gentlemanly husband—and beautiful, effervescent debutante Osla who wants to prove that a rich girl can work hard and do her part for the war just as well as anyone else. These three wouldn't ever have crossed paths in the normal scope of things, but working at Bletchley Park throws them together, with results that will echo throughout the war into the years afterward.

I’m a huge fan of historical cameos. Are there any notable cameos in The Rose Code and if so, why did you choose to include them in the story?
Ha, yes—lots of historical cameos in THE ROSE CODE! Most of them I didn't have to make up, either, because many many important historical figures had ties to Bletchley Park. Alan Turing, computer-science genius of the 20th century, worked at BP and is shown as a colleague of one of my fictionalized heroes. Winston Churchill paid the codebreakers a historic visit, so I had a chance to show the occasion where he famously thanked them for their secrecy as well as their work, calling them “the geese who laid the golden eggs, but never cackled.” Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, worked in naval intelligence and liaised with BP; he gets a mention. Valerie Glassborow, codebreaker at Hut 16, is shown in her youthful days long before she became the grandmother of Kate Middleton. And speaking of the Duchess of Cambridge, I have a slew of royals appearing in THE ROSE CODE: Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret get cameos, and so does the handsome Prince Philip of Greece. In those days, before he married Princess Elizabeth and became the Duke of Edinburgh, he was just a young British naval lieutenant...who just happened to date an ex-debutante turned codebreaker named Osla!

Female friendships are not always easy, and I loved how this story allowed you to explore and showcase the complexities of those dynamics. Was this something you intended this story to illustrate and if so, why did you feel it important?   
From the beginning, I envisioned this story as one of a broken friendship. The first page starts post-war, with two women getting a coded letter from a friend they haven't heard from in years, begging for help—this forces them to get in touch with each other despite great unspoken animosity, and embark on a mission that reopens many old wounds. The central question of this book is about how these women became friends, and what destroyed that friendship, and can they salvage it when a mystery from their Bletchley Park years reaches out and makes them join forces whether they like it or not. I'm not a fan of the stereotype where female friends are always cat-fighting, but friendship can be hard—especially when it's complicated, as it is for my three women, by things like national oaths of secrecy and all-important war-work. It's not men or romance that come between my heroines; it's the question “How do you protect your friends while at the same time keeping your oaths?” And all three of my women make mistakes in trying to keep faith with that question; they stumble and fall, but in the end they must rely on each other. I hope readers will enjoy their complicated bond.

Your two previous books, The Alice Network and The Huntress, were geographically diverse. The Rose Code unfolds on a much smaller stage. Was it difficult to write a story so largely contained in the English countryside and if so, how did you seek to keep things interesting? 
It was tough, yes. The codebreakers operated under incredible mental and emotional strain, but physically they were very safe, as they were forbidden to take on any missions that would lead them into danger zones overseas, and since Bletchley Park was never targeted by bombers during the war. And though their work was critical, pencil-scratching away at sheets of paper inside stuffy little green huts is hard to make quite as cinematic as, say, dropping bombs from a biplane or smuggling messages in an occupied-zone spy-ring! So I tried to hone in on the mental arena where the work was done, and the grueling toll that could take which is every bit as racking as more physical danger. And I twined in my second timeline, which is where the mystery unravels, and which takes place in 1947 as London dizzies itself over the coming wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip—that gave me the opportunity to add in some post-war glamour and danger!

Authors are often forced to make sacrifices when composing their stories and I always wonder what ended up on the cutting room floor. Is there a character, scene, or concept you wish you could have spent more time on while writing The Rose Code?
This book was far, far too long in its original draft, so there was quite a lot that hit the cutting room floor. Less in the way of whole scenes, more in the way of paragraphs of description, conversations that were trimmed or combined with others, and nerdy flights of awe about the codebreaking process. As for the biggest change I made? Originally there was a whole Inception-style third timeline involved, but it made the whole book waaaaaaaaaay too confusing, and I streamlined that entire narrative into the post-war thread instead. Much better all around.

Authors sometimes stumble across unexpected details in the course of their research. Did your research for The Rose Code lead to anything that surprised you and if so, did that material find its way into the story? 
There were so many funny anecdotes about life at Bletchley Park, I wish I'd had room to include them all. I slipped in as many as I could: a codebreaker pitching his tea mug into the lake after a fit of inspiration; another codebreaker who cycled to work in a gas mask because of hay fever; BP men sunbathing nude on the lawn by the mansion; a prank where a lord's daughter rode a wheeled laundry cart down a hall right into the gentleman's loo; highland dancing and madrigal singing and chess playing taking place off-hours in the Recreation Hut...the list of hi-jinks and quirky anecdotes was literally endless!

If you could pick a fantasy cast – anyone at all, living or dead, at any point in their careers- to play your characters in a big-screen adaptation of The Rose Code, who would you cast?
Oooh, fun. Holliday Grainger would be a great Osla—as Robin in the CB Strike series and Lucrezia Borgia in “The Borgias”, she has exactly the right mix of beauty and fun, plus a lovable quality that makes you want to be her best friend. For Mab, a tall confident brunette with fierce eyebrows, I'd take Jane Russell circa “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”, or for a more modern-day actress, Cara Delevingne who does beautifully with characters who have a lot of softness under a formidable Resting B*tch Face. For withdrawn Beth who blossoms from wallflower too shy to look anyone in the eyes to star cryptanalyst utterly confident in her own abilities, I'd take the wonderful Soairse Ronan who could play that switch beautifully. As for the men, Anthony Stewart Head (Giles from the “Buffy” series) would be a natural for the absent-minded codebreaker who recruits Beth for his team; Eddie Redmayne would be a gangly ray of red-headed sunshine for the girls' irrepressible codebreaker friend Giles; Allen Leech (Branson from “Downton Abbey”) would be a swooner as the quiet war poet who sweeps one of the heroines off her feet; Mena Massoud (“Aladdin”) would be great as the cheerful Harry whose Arabic-Egyptian-Maltese descent makes him a standout at BP...and for Prince Philip, sorry, there isn't anyone but Matt Smith who played the role in Seasons 1-2 of “The Crown.”

What do you hope readers take from their experience of The Rose Code?
I hope they come away awed by the dedication and intelligence of the real Bletchley Park women, who contributed to the war effort in a way not often allowed to females of that time—and did it so spectacularly well. 

What’s next for you? Any new writing projects in the wings?  
Yes, I'm already 30,000 words into a new book. It has the working title right now of THE DIAMOND EYE, and it stars WWII-era Russian war heroine Lyudmila Pavlichenko. She was a single mother in her mid-twenties, a history student, a mild-mannered library research assistant who joined the army when her homeland was invaded by the Nazis. She became a sniper and racked up 309 kills, making her the most deadly female sniper in history—with the nickname of “Lady Death.” If that's not enough to make her a fantastic heroine for a novel, this woman was sent on a goodwill tour to the United States where she became close friends with none other than Eleanor Roosevelt. I can't wait to bring her story to the page!  
About Kate Quinn: 
Kate Quinn is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of historical fiction. A native of southern California, she attended Boston University where she earned a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Classical Voice. She has written four novels in the Empress of Rome Saga, and two books in the Italian Renaissance, before turning to the 20th century with “The Alice Network”, “The Huntress,” and “The Rose Code.” All have been translated into multiple languages. Kate and her husband now live in San Diego with three rescue dogs.

Monday, November 16, 2020

#AuthorInterview: Historical Fiction Interview with Farida Mestek, author of Margaret's Rematch

Genre 
Historical Romance

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Welcome to Historical Fiction Reader Farida. It’s a pleasure to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us a bit about Margaret's Rematch. 
Thank you very much! It’s a real pleasure to be here! Margaret’s Rematch is a slow-paced novel set against the backdrop of Regency England. Here is what it is about: After the loss of her sister, Margaret Fairfax leaves London and settles on the country estate of her brother-in-law, whose dislike of her is legendary. There she is faced with the challenge of proving to him that despite the many rumours of schemes and indiscretions that followed her all the way from London, she is worthy of his regard and trust. With time and many an exertion on her part, Margaret gradually succeeds in gaining his approbation and affection, but she fears the worst when her deceitful friend arrives in order to ruin it all.

Where did the idea for this story originate? 
The thing about story ideas is that with the passage of time I never quite know or never actually remember where they came from or how they originated. They usually ambush me and demand to be written down and haunt me until I give in. On the other hand, the idea to write what is generally known as “regency romance” was influenced by my passion for Jane Austen’s books. I thought of it as my homage to her and initially wanted to call my novel “Imitation”. I was actually quite scared to write something like that. It was more than twelve years ago and I didn’t feel myself equal to it. However, on a lark I showed a piece of what I’d already written to a friend – another Jane Austen fan – and she loved it so much that she encouraged me to proceed.

What historical resources helped you bring Margaret’s world to life on the page? 
I meticulously studied Jane Austen’s books and spent a lot of time researching everything I could online, collecting tons of material along the way. Google Books proved to be an invaluable source of material about that period of time. I read diaries, letters, memoirs, advice columns written by people of that time, as well as different manuals on all possible subjects I could possibly need; newspapers, magazines, novels. Basically anything I could get my hands on! Nowadays I always keep a volume of Belle Assemblée and The Gentleman’s Magazine on hand. It really helps me to get into the heads of people of that time, understand their mindset and nurture and attune my language in order to make it sound more authentic.

Which character in Margaret's Rematch do you feel you have the most in common with? 
Funny you should ask that! Just the other day one of my students, who read the book, looked at me apologetically and confessed that she preferred Anne Westfield (the sister of the main character) to Margaret Fairfax. She was afraid that I would be upset, but I just laughed and told her that I knew exactly what she meant and that I felt exactly the same. I’m afraid I did it on purpose. Anne is a lot more relatable than Margaret in many ways, but, mainly, I think it is because she isn’t quite as perfect as the latter. Additionally, I made her an excellent artist, which has always been a dream of mine and I thought that she might as well make it come true. Just now I’ve been editing a piece where Anne is talking and talking and talking about her love for cakes, reminding me all over again why she is so relatable and why I like her so much!

Which character do you feel you have the least in common wi? 
Margaret Fairfax is definitely very different from me. I don’t think that we have anything in common at all. She is young, beautiful, rich, very popular with the opposite sex, and is quite opposed to reading. We have literally nothing in common! So I had lots of fun telling her story. I don’t want to give you the wrong impression about Margaret, though! While she is very beautiful and is well aware of it, she is not at all arrogant or conceited. In fact, she is very kind and sweet, but she does have a bit of a temper and her brother-in-law knows that better than anyone else! Her temper was actually the reason why they became bitter enemies in the first place and then continued to nurture their animosity towards each other for years.

Did any scene in Margaret's Rematch challenge you as a writer?
Oh, pretty much everything challenged me as a writer when working on this novel! I was basically just starting out and I was still learning and sometimes it was really hard to put into words what I wanted to say. I remember that it took me roughly a month to write each chapter and for some unfathomable reason I favoured really long chapters back then!

Authors are often forced to make sacrifices when composing their stories and I always wonder what ended up on the cutting room floor. Is there a character, scene, or concept you wish you could have spent more time on while writing Margaret's Rematch?
I hate doing that and it usually takes me a long while to come to terms with the necessity of cutting out anything, even when I know perfectly well that it has got to go. The only thing that helps in my case is the passage of time. For example, having returned to Margaret’s Rematch many years later, I had a lot less qualms about cutting out whole passages. I became quite ruthless about it. Though, I must say that I replaced them with new pieces right away! In fact, ever since I started editing the manuscript, my word count increased by 10K. In my defence, I believe I cut out irrelevant pieces and substituted them with important ones. Speaking about a specific scene… I wrote a cute little scene where Margaret was telling her nephew about how his mother and father met at a ball. I liked it very much but there was no place to fit it in and so it never ended up in a book.

If you could pick a fantasy cast – anyone at all, living or dead, at any point in their careers- to play your characters in a big-screen adaptation of Margaret's Rematch, who would you cast? 
I feel kind of silly mentioning it, but when I was writing it twelve years ago (or was it more?), I was a big fan of Smallville and my dream cast was the cast of Smallville at the time. I even saved their photos on my old computer and called them with the names of my characters. Nowadays, I’m a fan of Supernatural and at least as far as Mr James Westfield (the main hero) and Mr Clifford Stockley (Margaret’s close friend and the brother of the main villainess) are concerned, I have no trouble imagining them being played by Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles respectively. I’d love to see them in period drama costumes, talking with a British accent!

What do you hope readers take from their experience of Margaret's Rematch? 
I just want them to enjoy it and to spend a lovely time on its pages, away from the troubles and problems of the world we live in.

What’s next for you? Any new writing projects in the wings? 
Quite so many! I have two more Regencies lined up to be published as soon as I’m done editing them and then there’s a fantasy novel set in Regency England that I’m planning on self-publishing after that (unless my dream comes true and I find a literary agent before that), and then there’s the continuation of my YA fantasy novel that I’ve recently self-published and, hopefully, many more projects!
About Farida Mestek: 
Farida Mestek spends most of her time travelling between Regency England, magic forests, and different fantasy worlds that she discovers along the way, using the best means of transportation known to man: imagination. During her travels she meets a lot of interesting characters, whose stories she then narrates (with their permission) on the pages of her books. Her favourite companions are talking animals. Currently she is learning the language of the trees.

#BookReview: Gentleman Jim by Mimi Matthews

Genre
Historical Romance
Regency Romance

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DESCRIPTION: 
From USA Today bestselling author Mimi Matthews comes a swashbuckling tale of Regency era romance and revenge.

She couldn’t forget…

Wealthy squire’s daughter Margaret Honeywell was always meant to marry her neighbor, Frederick Burton-Smythe, but it’s bastard-born Nicholas Seaton who has her heart. Raised alongside her on her father’s estate, Nicholas is the rumored son of notorious highwayman Gentleman Jim. When Fred frames him for theft, Nicholas escapes into the night, vowing to find his legendary sire. But Nicholas never returns. A decade later, he’s long been presumed dead.

He wouldn’t forgive…

After years spent on the continent, John Beresford, Viscount St. Clare has finally come home to England. Tall, blond, and dangerous, he’s on a mission to restore his family’s honor. If he can mete out a bit of revenge along the way, so much the better. But he hasn’t reckoned for Maggie Honeywell. She’s bold and beautiful—and entirely convinced he’s someone else.

As danger closes in, St. Clare is torn between love and vengeance. Will he sacrifice one to gain the other? Or with a little luck—and a lot of daring—will he find a way to have them both?
REVIEW: 
I am not much of a regency era romance reader as my tastes generally favor heavier and more politically complicated storylines, but Mimi Matthews' Gentleman Jim held my attention just the same.

Through the reader never gets to see Gentleman Jim firsthand, I found myself intrigued by the character's exploits and the complications they created for those associated with him. His utter disinterest in proper behavior amused me to no end, but that's just me.

Margaret did not capture my attention the same way, but I found much to appreciate in Nicholas. I did not feel him developed enough to rival the Dread Pirate Roberts or Tobias March, but the foundation is there, and I found it easy to imagine him in my mind's eye. Though a supporting character, Aldrick Beresford fascinated me from the moment he appeared, and I chuckled more than once over the antics of Father Tuck, who reminded me a great deal of Addy's performance as Friar of the same name. 

The plot never struck me as wildly suspenseful, but the lighthearted narrative proved entertaining and fun. Recommended to fans of Marion Chesney and Jane Lark.  

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Personal Kindle Library
Read: November 13, 2020
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Sunday, November 15, 2020

#BookReview: Widow of Gettysburg by Jocelyn Green

Genre
Christian Historical
War Era Historical

Series
Heroines Behind the Lines #2

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DESCRIPTION: 
For all who have suffered great loss of heart, home, health or family; true home and genuine lasting love can be found.

When a horrific battle rips through Gettysburg, the farm of Union widow Liberty Holloway is disfigured into a Confederate field hospital, bringing her face to face with unspeakable suffering-and a Confederate scout who awakens her long dormant heart.

But when the scout doesn't die she discovers he isn't who he claims to be .

While Liberty's future crumbles as her home is destroyed, the past comes rushing back to Bella, a former slave and Liberty's hired help, when she finds herself surrounded by Southern soldiers, one of whom knows the secret that would place Liberty in danger if revealed.

In the wake of shattered homes and bodies, Liberty and Bella struggle to pick up the pieces the battle has left behind. Will Liberty be defined by the tragedy in her life, or will she find a way to triumph over it?

Inspired by first-person accounts from women who lived in Gettysburg during the battle and its aftermath, Widow of Gettysburg is the Book 2 in the Heroines Behind the Lines series.
REVIEW: 
Jocelyn Green's Widow of Gettysburg took me longer to get into than its predecessor, but looking back, I feel it stronger than Wedded to War. I do not mean to deride the earlier novel; I simply feel Liberty and Bella's stories pair more convincingly than Charlotte and Ruby's. These women have their own stories, but it clear from the beginning that their journeys will unfold together, and I think the tighter composition resulted in a far more satisfying read.

I loved how Green used the heroines of this story to explore the experiences of their community. I was familiar with the battle when I visited Gettysburg, but I was surprised and fascinated by the civilians who weathered the battle and carried on in its aftermath. The town's residents exhibited remarkable fortitude, and I delight in seeing that resilience reflected so clearly on the pages of this narrative.

I could have done without the romantic storyline, but I genuinely appreciated the themes of this piece. Liberty's journey illustrates what it means to love one's enemies in the most literal circumstances, and I am not ashamed to admit I lost myself the thoughts that plot point inspired. Bella's story is equally compelling for its focus on identity, family, and loyalty. That said, Bella doesn't enjoy the spotlight as often as her counterpart, and I couldn't help wishing she'd been allowed to take center stage more often. 

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Scribd
Read: November 15, 2020
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Saturday, November 14, 2020

#BookReview: Wedded to War by Jocelyn Green

Genre
Christian Historical
War Era Historical

Series
Heroines Behind the Lines #1

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DESCRIPTION: 
When war erupted, she gave up a life of privilege for a life of significance.

Tending to the army’s sick and wounded meant leading a life her mother does not understand and giving up a handsome and approved suitor. Yet Charlotte chooses a life of service over privilege, just as her childhood friend had done when he became a military doctor. She soon discovers that she’s combating more than just the rebellion by becoming a nurse.

Will the two men who love her simply stand by and watch as she fights her own battles? Or will their desire for her wage war on her desire to serve God?

Wedded to War is a work of fiction, but the story is inspired by the true life of Civil War nurse Georgeanna Woolsey. Woolsey’s letters and journals, written over 150 years ago, offer a thorough look at what pioneering nurses endured. This is the first in the series Heroines Behind the Lines: Civil War, a collection of novels that highlights the crucial contributions made by women during times of war.
REVIEW: 
Jocelyn Green's Wedded to War was not on my reading list. My eye was, in truth, drawn to book two of the Heroines Behind the Lines series, but I prefer to start series at the beginning, so I doubled down and tackled the two volumes back to back. 

For those who are wondering, the books are not related. The series is set against the American Civil War and collectively reflects the experiences of women during the conflict, but the characters are volume-specific, so it is safe to approach the novels as standalones. This reality makes my initial admission rather humorous, but I'm not ashamed and have no regrets. 

Historically speaking, Wedded to War has much to recommend it. I had not encountered the United States Sanitary Commission in fiction before and was moved at how Green worked the relief agency's story into the fabric of Charlotte's half of the narrative. Though challenging, I also appreciated Green's characterization of Dorothea Dix and her illustration of Civil War Era hospitals' brutal realities. 

That said, I cared less for Charlotte than I did Ruby. Though not mentioned in the jacket description, I found Ruby's story far more compelling. Her struggle with poverty, social bias, and ethnic discrimination pulls on the heartstrings. Charlotte's position affords her story more interest historically, but the emotional notes of Ruby's experiences are the ones that will haunt my thoughts when I look back on this book. 

The romantic elements of the story didn't appeal to me, and I felt the ending a little rushed, but on the whole, I enjoyed this piece and would have no trouble recommended to fans of My Name is Mary Sutter and Sisters of Shiloh. 

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Scribd
Read: November 14, 2020
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