Santa Montefiore: On Reading and Research

Hello, everyone.

I have Ms. Santa Montefiore on the blog today for my Timeless Tour stop. I never know what questions to ask whenever I do these kind of things. And sometimes, I ask too many questions that the blog post becomes a novel. 🙂 So today, I limited my questions to three and I made sure they count.

Thank you for taking the time, Ms. Santafiore. I loved your book and I’m looking forward to finding out more about the Devirells.

I noticed that Songs of Love and War was not the original title of the novel. Was there a specific reason for this? 

That’s a good question. I think the American’s felt the title was too grand and remote for their readership. They called it The Girl in the Castle and later changed it to The Irish Girl. To be honest it’s very unsatisfactory and causes all sorts of problems because people buy the book thinking it’s new and then get furious with me when they realise they’ve already read it under a different title. All the bad reviews on Amazon were about that, not about the book, which was really depressing for me. I prefer my foreign publishers to keep the same title to avoid that confusion!


I can only imagine! I must say that these titles and covers still look gorgeous and very much appropriate. 

Songs of Love and War is such an epic saga spanning years and generations of history. I can only imagine the amount of work it took you to write it. What was the most interesting fact that you’ve discovered during your research of this book?

I knew very little about the Irish War of Independence and the Civil War that followed. While researching the books I learned a great deal about the Irish struggle for independence. It was fascinating and enlightening, and I really sympathised with their cause.  I was lucky enough to meet a man on the internet, who was a fan of my work, who was Irish, born in Co Cork, and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of his country’s history. He was full of amazing stories. I had no idea that poor children did not wear shoes, even in midwinter in the snow! Right up until the second world war! That’s extraordinary. The poverty was terrible. I immersed myself in the history by reading wonderful novels as well as watching movies, and became totally obsessed with that era. I adore Ireland, but my love of that beautiful, gothic, mystical island has definitely deepened through my learning about it.

Based on what I’ve read, the Irish people were sure made from some tough stuff!


I read some wonderful book, here they are: Daphne du Maurier’s Hungry Hill;  Walled Garden by Annabel Goff; Trinity by Leon Uris; A Long Long Way, by Sebastian Barry; Troubles by JG Farrell; Voices from the Great Houses, Cork and Kerry by Jane O’Hea O’Keefe; Picnic in a Foreign Land by Ann Morrow; The Children of Castletown House by Sarah Conolly-Carew; Experiences of an Irish R.M.  Somerville & Ross. I also watched movies like Michael Collins and The Wind that Shakes the Barley.




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The Wolves of Winter by Tyrell Johnson

The Wolves of Winter by Tyrell Johnson: The Inspiration

This is a question writers get asked all the time. And some writers have really great, specific answers. Like: I was sitting on a bus and I saw a dog with a wooden leg and decided to write about wooden-legged, bus-riding dogs: their history and culture. But for a lot of writers, myself included, the inspiration for a novel, or indeed the inspiration to write in general, is a much more airy-fairy, metaphysical thing that’s hard to pin down.

My own novel, The Wolves of Winter, had a lot of different inspirations. I had the setting in mind: I wanted a snowy, post-apocalyptic Yukon. I wanted a father/daughter relationship that was prevalent (due to having a young daughter myself). And I wanted it to be part survival story, part coming of age story, part literary tale, part epic post-apocalyptic madness.

So why did I write what I did? Is it my passion for the outdoors? Is it the fact that I grew up on fantasy novels and love the blend of literary/fantasy or literary/science fiction? Is it my own family dynamics? Yes. Of course. The problem is, it’s all of those things. It’s everything that makes me who I am. From my memories to my passions, from the books I read to the movies I watch, from the myriad of people in my life to the myriad of personalities in my head. It’s everything.

So when an author tells you about that moment on the bus with the wooden-legged dog, I think she really is telling you the truth. BUT, I very much doubt it’s the whole truth. Maybe the dog was the spark that lit the fire, but the fire doesn’t burn without a giant pile of wood that’s already there. Books are like people, they’re messy things. They’re a bringing together of ideas and passions and wishes and fears. It’s why writing is so interesting. It’s why reading is so interesting. You never know what your readers are going to get out of your novel; you might not even know what you’re going to get out of it. While you thought you were writing a book about crippled dogs, in the end, you realize what actually inspired you to write was your deep-seeded fear of public transportation.

B  O  O  K    R  E  V  I  E  W  – 4 out of 5 Stars

The Wolves of Winter is a surprisingly fast read. I say that because, for all intents and purposes, it’s a book set in the post-apocalyptic Arctic where the environment enhances the feel of the desolation of the times. Whereas with other books in this genre tend to build a largesse narrative explaining the genesis of the world that they come to know, the bones of The Wolves of Winter is highly tangible; easily imaginable. I feel like we’re living in it now. The delicate global politics that only become even more so with the new American administration, it is indeed even more plausible now.

With the majority of the US population wiped out by a strain of Asian Flu, the McBrides fled to the remote Alaskan wilderness at first. But when the disease extended its reaches, they had very little choice but to flee even further up North. For years, it had only been Gwendolyn and what’s left of her family. They’d survived by hunting, foraging, and preserving their food for the bitter winter. Life was a cycle of monotonous humdrum until a fugitive named, Jax appeared in their midst. Suddenly, the quiet life of the town of McBrides – population 5 – had become far from boring.

Tyrell Johnson’s debut novel is a page-turner. There wasn’t a second when you’d lose interest in the goings on of Gwendolyn’s life. While she spent a lot of time immersed in her own self (for lack of company), her quiet introspective about the world and how it came to be pulled me that much deeper into the story.

There are a few aspects of the story that I wish was explored further, however. Ramsey, for one, had me speculating about his sexuality and his debilitating shyness when confronted with sex. Because he’s the only person not related to the McBride’s that’s close to Lynn’s age, it was only fitting that they’d be paired in all sense of the word. But any attempts at anything sexual with Lynn only led to tears and mortification. And yet, as soon as Jax entered the scene, Ramsey exuded attitudes attributable to jealousy.

There was also the appearance of white animals (foxes…crows) that I thought should’ve been better explained other than an adaptation to the new global climate of sorts. It felt like an afterthought that had no significance to the story at all. I also needed to read more about Jax’s abilities. I felt that it was one of this book’s strong points.

Regardless, I enjoyed this novel immensely. I’ve always loved reading post-apocalyptic novels, and Johnson’s debut hits all the right spots. It’s a page-flipper, a little desperate and sweet at times, but also violent. I especially loved Gwendolyn’s relationship with her father. They were close and was each other’s best friend. Lynn for her part is a strong character; stubborn and determined. Protective of those she loves. She is fearless and fierce and does what she can to adapt to a world that left her very little choice but to survive.

Overall, this was an outstanding debut. Vivid and bleak; exciting and tender at times.

Publication Date: January 2nd, 2018 | Simon & Schuster Canada | Amazon | Chapters Indigo | Book Depository |

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The Curious Mind of a Scientist: Melodie Winawer

P.S.A I know it’s been a while, folks. But bear with me for just a few more days. Today, Melodie Winawer shares her inspiration for her debut novel, The Scribe of Siena. I absolutely loved this novel and reading about what inspired her to write this book only takes it a bit further. You can read my 5-star review here. 

My ideas for writing creep up on me—sometimes I wonder whether they come from me at all. When I started Scribe I hadn’t even been planning to write a novel. That isn’t entirely true—I’d been thinking about writing a novel for more than thirty years. What made me decide to write this novel at that particular moment? We’d just sold our house and bought a new house but it needed renovations so we moved into my mom’s apartment with our three kids. I was between books—not reading anything, and missing the feeling of being in an absorbing story, at the same time as being in a limbo of life stages too, between homes. During those few strange months where I was longing to be absorbed in a deep, compelling imaginary world, it came to me that I wanted to MAKE my own story, not READ one. So that’s what I did.

There were actually two inspirations at the heart of The Scribe of Siena. One was the history—or mystery— of Siena’s exceptional devastation and failure to recover from the Plague of 1348. The other beginning was more personal.

In addition to being a writer, I’m a neuroscientist and neurologist. The way I do scientific research goes something like this: I come up with a question I don’t know the answer to. If I don’t find an answer in easily accessible sources, I look harder. If I still don’t know the answer, I ask colleagues with special expertise. If no one knows the answer, or even better, if I find disagreement or controversy, that’s when I know I’ve found my next research project. That happened with The Scribe of Siena. The minute I started thinking and reading about Siena, I encountered an unanswered question. I learned that Siena had fared particularly badly in the great Plague of the 1340s—worse than many other Tuscan cities, Florence in particular. And I realized that a single clear answer didn’t exist to explain Siena’s decline during and after the Plague, a decline that eventually led to Siena’s loss of independence and subservience to Florentine rule under the Medici regime decades later. To make things more interesting, Florence was Siena’s arch-enemy for centuries, and in the 1340s a plot backed by Florentine nobles to overthrow Siena’s government had been attempted but failed.   Together, these details gave me that hair-raising moment, the moment I know so well from science.   I’d found my unanswered question—and that became the heart of the story. Or at least one of the hearts.

When I was in medical school, I helped take care of a 32-year-old neurologist who came for treatment of a breast lump. Medical students usually have more time to listen to patients than full-fledged doctors, and we talked for hours. Her breast biopsy was benign, but a colonoscopy showed a mass that was likely colon cancer. She was terrified and I was terrified for her. I was scheduled to assist in the operating room the next day, but I was not ready. I was afraid I couldn’t marshal the appropriate remove to allow my hands to do what they needed to do in the O.R. I’d grown too close.

I had to figure out how to get control of this empathy, rein it in enough so I could give my patient, who had begun to feel like my friend, the support she needed, without losing myself. For my new friend, the outcome was good; the cancer was removed. But that experience left me more aware of the danger, the far edge of empathy, uncontrolled. How far could it go–the ability to feel what someone else is feeling? Could it extend to the written word, or even to words written hundreds of years ago? Or blur the boundaries not only between self and other but between two times?

My experience of a physician’s empathy and its dangers led me to create my protagonist Beatrice. For Beatrice, a neurosurgeon who enjoys the great privilege of working inside patients’ brains with her hands, empathy—and its consequences—come unbidden, and unravel her orderly life. I set the book in Siena because I love the city and its history, and could imagine spending years thinking and writing about it. Siena is simultaneously modern and medieval, a city where the past and present coexist. So it became the perfect place for me to set this story of a woman who, at first against her will, and then by desire, loses her place in time.

Thank you so much, Melodie. I’m especially delighted to learn about Melodie’s seemingly enhanced empathic ability and where it came from. In my experience, a genuinely sympathetic doctor is one that I’ll always come back to. And I suppose being too involved in your patient’s well-being is one of the hazards of the job. That’s one of the things I loved about Beatrice. Besides the fact that she’s eternally curious, resourceful, and tenacious. 

Your love for the city of Siena shone through with every careful description of the medieval culture, food, and the overall mise en scène captured in your novel. Definitely on the ever-growing bucket list!


Twitter | Website | Timeless Tour | Facebook

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Timeless Tour Discussion Questions

Hello. As you know, I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of Simon & Schuster Canada’s Timeless Tour endeavor. It features three books depicting stories from three time periods. As a fan of Historical Fiction, this was a great experience for me as it allowed me to see three stories from different eras. So today, I’d like to share with you what I’ve thought so far.

What was your favorite historical time period among the Timeless Tour reads? Did you know anything about this period before you began reading the book?

As a creature of comfort, it would be easy for me to dream about living in Versailles where excess was rampant and decadence was the norm. But I supposed living it up in that time period would depend on the hierarchy of my social status. There’s also that language barrier thing that limits my knowledge to French numerals and days of the week. So I don’t think living in that time period would work out so well for me. 

In Promises to Keep, I was shown the idyllic lives of the Acadian people in the East Coast during the 17th century. It offered a bountiful farmland and an abundant sea. It shows a life that left most of its inhabitant cocooned in contentful simplicity. That is until the English invaded and ruined the party. What happened next was immeasurable hardship and loss for the Acadian people. Resilient though, as they may be, I can’t say the same for myself.

Now, who wouldn’t want to live in historic Siena, Italy? The entire country is on my bucket list so it would be easy to assume that I’d pick the 15th century to time travel to, right? Besides the fact that I wouldn’t know the first thing about living life in medieval times (that creature of comfort thing is very inconvenient), this is the Black Plague period, y’all. Where people died in the thousands! So no, I wouldn’t want to go back to this era only to suffer the same fate.

So I’m faced with a conundrum. If given the choice, which era can I truly find myself living in? Well, since all three presents different challenges, I supposed I’d pick the one where I’ll be able to control my destiny and choose Versailles. I can learn a trade and work if my social caste falls below what’s considered bourgeois. And the language barrier thing is not really all that challenging. If it can be learned, I can handle it.

How did the historical events in each book influence the character’s choices and personalities?

The one thing that the heroines in all three books have in common is resilience. It would be easy to write off Jeanne (The Enemies of Versailles) as one who’ve used the basest form of feminine power to influence her stature in life, but regardless of the method, she did what she could to change things with nary a thought to propriety. Don’t get me wrong, she realized that she was being used by the dubious and powerful Du Barry but in turn, she found a way to use this to her advantage.

Amongst the three, Amelie, perhaps was a person who characterized resilience and strength in the most obvious way possible. The incredible struggle she and her family went through during the Expulsion of the Acadians didn’t lessen her resolve to hope, to believe, and to live. And though at times she seemed like she’d reached the end of her rope, this girl just kept strengthening her resolve until she found renewed courage.

Beatrice, on the other hand, was propelled by the love of her brother who had become her father since they were orphaned when he was only 17 years old. She was also very intelligent (neurosurgeon) and very brave for continuing her brother’s quest despite having the odds stacked against her. She found a way to delay her grief if only to fulfill her brother’s legacy. Finding herself in the 13th century with no means to get back to the present didn’t faze her. She worked with what she knew and used her intelligence to survive.

If you could invite one of the Timeless Tour leading ladies (Beatrice, Jeanne, or Amelie) to dinner, who would you choose and why?

I feel like Beatrice would have a lot of stories to tell. Besides the fact that she knows a great deal about the human brain, her stint in the Middle Ages must’ve given her a different perspective about the world in general. Even though she’s a Scientist first and foremost, I can tell she’s a thinker as a whole. And the lady never stopped learning. She’s very intuitive, curious, and completely adaptable.

The Scribe of Siena starts in the present before Beatrice is transported back in time to 1347, whereas Promises to Keep and Enemies of Versailles are firmly rooted in one timeline. How did this change your reading experience?

I don’t think there’s no other way for this story to begin but at the present time. I mean, considering time travel is a key element to this novel, starting it in the past wouldn’t nearly have the same effect. I love this book. It’s perfect the way it is. 🙂

In the past, powerful women have been written out of textbooks. How do the protagonists of the Timeless Tour novels challenge the misconception that women in history were passive, submissive and dependent?

The women in the three novels were all resourceful and resilient creatures. They found ways to overcome obstacles even while restrained by the ties that bind them. Jeanne used her beauty to change her station in life; Amelie stood up to the soldiers that were holding her family hostage. With each loss she suffered, she picked herself up because she had a family who was dependent on her. Beatrice’s quest to continue her brother’s work was met with resistance from the local scholars who seemed to have their own agendas working in the background. Not to mention, her courage shown when she was transported to the Middle Ages. So time and time again, these women exuded strength, fierceness, and audacity unheard of the time period which they belong.

Thank you for joining me today and I’m sorry this took a bit long. I wanted you to see the fierceness of these women with whom I had the pleasure of reading. 

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The Birth of The Mistresses of Versailles by Sally Christie

Where do authors find their inspiration? Hemmingway said to “write drunk, edit sober”. But it often makes me wonder about how much truth are in those words. I don’t know about you but I, for one, couldn’t even write my name to save my life if I had a few glasses of wine in me. Heck, I can’t even finish one glass without face planting, to tell you the truth. So I’m in awe of anyone who can write an entire novel – sober or not. 
I’m especially amazed when an author is able to write entire series based on historical figures. Imagine the research! Imagine the painstaking work they have to do to make sure that their work is close to accurate. Louis XV is one of those prominent historical figures whose taste in women rivals that of any womanizing men of power in history. 
Today, Sally Christie, author of The Mistresses of Versailles shares with us her inspiration for her novels. 

• Behind the Book by Sally Christie •

I’ve always been a writer in the sense that I have been writing since I was very young. I experience the world through stories and always had the urge to capture life around me in words. But it was just a hobby and I never actually finished any of my stories. After a change in circumstances a few years ago, I decided to take a year, write full-time, finish a book, and see if I could get it published.

I had a number of projects lined up (some fiction; some non-fiction; all historical) and was just about ready to go when I stumbled onto the story of the Mailly Nesle sisters and Louis XV while surfing Wikipedia one night. I was instantly hooked and amazed that I had never heard of them. The obscurity of their story (at least in the English-speaking world) was part of the appeal – I love the idea that I would be the first one to bring it to light.

I dropped all my other projects to write the book that eventually became The Sisters of Versailles. While I was writing it, I wasn’t thinking of a potential series. I knew about Louis XV’s subsequent mistresses, the much more famous Madame de Pompadour and the Comtesse du Barry, and just assumed they had been the subject of a lot of historical fiction.

When my agent asked about other books ideas around The Sisters of Versailles (sometimes it’s easier to sell a series, so a publishing house isn’t investing in an author with just one book) I looked at these other mistresses, and was amazed and excited to learn they had not been written about in English. They could be “mine”!

And so The Mistresses of Versailles trilogy was born: after Sisters, The Rivals of Versailles tells the story of Pompadour and the many minor mistresses that rivaled her for the king’s affection. Finally, The Enemies of Versailles tells the story of the lovely Comtesse du Barry and her enmity with Madame Adelaide, the king’s daughter, and follows them all the way up to the French Revolution, that ended so badly for so many of my characters.

With the publication of the third book and the end of the trilogy, I feel great gratitude that I was the one to tell the sad, funny, improbable and tragic stories of these influential women who helped to shape the 18th century.


Thank you so much, Sally. I’m looking forward to binge-reading this series. 🙂
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[563]: Who Do You Love by Jennifer Weiner


Who Do You Love / Jennifer Weiner

My first crack at Jennifer Weiner went swimmingly well. I can see why she’s got a great following. There’s just something so natural about her writing that it almost felt like the reader is an invisible witness to the characters’ story. That’s how I felt while I was reading Rachel and Andy’s story that spanned over the years. Once again, I had this overwhelming dread sitting at the pit of my stomach. Much like all the other romances that I’ve read in the past, it can’t be all rainbows, roses and unicorns. I have to admit that I skipped one portion of their lives. I just couldn’t handle seeing them with other people other than themselves. Don’t let that deter you though. Spoiler alert: the ending should be sufficient enough to erase all the twinges you felt in your chest.

How they met.

Rachel was born with a congenital heart disease. Most of her young life was spent in and out of the hospital. One restless night, while she was prowling the hospital corridors undetected, she saw a boy with a broken arm. He looked sad, visibly in pain and alone. Andy was used to being left on his own. But that night, he appreciated Rachel’s company. A gentle friendship was formed; a connection that transcended time, distance, heartbreaks and tragedies.

How they fell in love.

Andy only had a stuffed toy to remember Rachel by; and Rachel only has her memories of a sad boy sitting alone in that waiting room. They met again in their teens. Before that, they had no means of communicating. On a church mission that both their schools participated in, they reconnected. And it was as if time spent apart held no meaning for the two. Andy recognized her at once, while Rachel could hardly believe what a handsome boy Andy grew up to be.  But it was during that time that Andy will realize that distance was not the only thing that was in between them.

How it all fell apart.

Years go by. They kept a long distance relationship that worked all through high school and for the better part of university. But people change. Priorities were rearranged; and the relationship that was working all of a sudden didn’t. It was during that time that Andy fully accepted that he’ll always be the bi-racial son of a single mother who’d known what it was like to be poor and to work extra hard if he wanted to stop wearing clothes handed down from his mother’s clients. Andy saw Rachel’s privileged and at times, frivolous up bringing. For a time, he was resigned to the fact that his relationship with Rachel would always just be ‘one of those things’ that just didn’t work out.

Then 9/11 happened.

How their story ends.

Read the book.

GOODREADS SUMMARY | Atria Books | August 11th, 2015 | Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars





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