Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace


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Monday, April 25, 2016

Friday, April 22, 2016

Review & Giveaway: The Dark Lady's Mask

02_The Dark Lady's Mask

The Dark Lady's Mask: A Novel of Shakespeare's Muse by Mary Sharratt

Publication Date: April 19, 2016
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Hardcover, eBook, Audio Book; 416 Pages
Genre: Historical Fiction


Shakespeare in Love meets Shakespeare’s Sister in this novel of England’s first professional woman poet and her collaboration and love affair with William Shakespeare.

London, 1593. Aemilia Bassano Lanier is beautiful and accomplished, but her societal conformity ends there. She frequently cross-dresses to escape her loveless marriage and to gain freedoms only men enjoy, but a chance encounter with a ragged, little-known poet named Shakespeare changes everything.

Aemilia grabs at the chance to pursue her long-held dream of writing and the two outsiders strike up a literary bargain. They leave plague-ridden London for Italy, where they begin secretly writing comedies together and where Will falls in love with the beautiful country — and with Aemilia, his Dark Lady. Their Italian idyll, though, cannot last and their collaborative affair comes to a devastating end. Will gains fame and fortune for their plays back in London and years later publishes the sonnets mocking his former muse. Not one to stand by in humiliation, Aemilia takes up her own pen in her defense and in defense of all women. 

The Dark Lady’s Mask gives voice to a real Renaissance woman in every sense of the word.


This was a first of Mary Sharratt's books that I've read, and I can say quite enthusiastically that I am now a fan. The narrative language in the book was beautiful and poetic -- not to mention that there are actual poem's throughout. The banter witty, the storyline entertaining. There was a good mix of emotions throughout. Sadness, anger, laughter, love, and Ms. Sharratt did an excellent job of eliciting those emotions from me.

We first meet Aemilia as a young girl, trying to figure out where she belongs in her world (an ironic that later on she finds the place she thought she belonged the most is actually the place she feels most out of place). Her relationship with her father is loving and warm, as it appears at first to be with her mother and sister. When her sister marries, and the events that follow, sets a precedent for Aemilia on what a relationship should and shouldn't be, and it has a profound impact on many of the decisions that she makes. If not for her cousin Jasper sneaking her out of the house, dressed as a boy, to see her father perform in a play, and her father introducing her to the famous female poet at court, I don't think Aemilia would have felt empowered enough to go about her journey and reach for her dreams. She was hiding behind a mask long before she ever met Shakespeare. She's a woman not only trying to live in a man's world, but trying to break into a man's profession. It is not enough to be a famous poet, she wants to be a playwright, and luckily, her friendship with Shakespeare, initially, helps get her what she want, even if it is a veiled execution. (And I have to add, but the way, that I thought it quite hilarious Shakepeare's border in the beginning calls him Master Shakestaff. If that isn't an insult! There are so many little funny quips in this book!). But not all good things last... Fortunately for us, Aemilia is a driven, determined and risk taking woman. She was a feminist before her time--although I can't say she's the first, as for the years of her formative life she was exposed to one of the most powerful feminists of all time--Elizabeth I.

I was impressed with how smoothly and seamlessly Ms. Sharratt brought all the players into each other's world. About 1/3 of the way into the book, I was skipping to the back to read the author's note, because I was convinced that this was a true story, and I so very much wanted it to be. Her grasp of language, scenery, history, was amazing. I can't say enough good things about this book. 

I highly recommend you add it to your TO BE READ list, because it was fantastic. It was a fast-paced read that I couldn't put down.

**Leave a comment for your chance to win a paperback copy of this book! Open to US residents only.**
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Advance Praise
“An exquisite portrait of a Renaissance woman pursuing her artistic destiny in England and Italy, who may — or may not — be Shakespeare’s Dark Lady.”   MARGARET GEORGE, internationally bestselling author of Elizabeth I

“Perfectly chosen details and masterful characterization bring to life this swiftly moving, elegant story. As atmospheric and compelling as it is wise, The Dark Lady’s Mask is a gem not to be missed.”   LYNN CULLEN, bestselling author of Mrs. Poe and Twain’s End

“Mary Sharratt’s enchanting new novel, The Dark Lady’s Mask, is a richly imagined, intensely romantic and meticulously researched homage to lauded poet, Aemilia Bassano Lanyer, an accomplished woman of letters who many believe to be Shakespeare’s Eternal Muse. Sharratt unfolds a captivating tale, a compelling ‘what if ’ scenario, of a secret union that fed the creative fires of England’s greatest poet and playwright.”   KATHLEEN KENT, bestselling author of The Heretic’s Daughter

“Mary Sharratt is a magician. This novel transports the reader to Elizabethan England with a tale of the bard and his love that is nothing short of amazing. Absorbing, emotional, historically fascinating. A work of marvelous ingenuity!”— M.J. ROSE, New York Times bestselling author of The Witch of Painted

“I enjoyed this exciting fantasy of Shakespeare’s ‘dark lady.’ There was adventure, betrayal, resilience, and above all, the fun notion that Shakespeare might have had far more than a muse to help him create his wonderful plays.”—KARLEEN KOEN, bestselling author of Dark Angels and Before Versailles

“Through the story of Aemilia Bassano, a talented musician and poet, Mary Sharratt deftly tackles issues of religious and gender inequality in a time of brutal conformity. The Dark Lady’s Mask beautifully depicts the exhilaration and pitfalls of subterfuge, a gifted woman’s precarious reliance on the desires of powerful men, and the toll paid by unrecognized artistic collaborators. Resonant and moving.”—MITCHELL JAMES KAPLAN, author of By Fire, By Water

“In The Dark Lady’s Mask, Mary Sharratt seduces us with a most tantalizing scenario —that the bold, cross-dressing poet and feminist writer Aemilia Bassano is Shakespeare’s mysterious muse, the Dark Lady. Romantic, heart-breaking, and rich in vivid historical detail and teeming Elizabethan life, the novel forms an elegant tapestry of the complexities, joys, and sorrows of being both a female and an artist.”—KAREN ESSEX, author of Leonardo’s Swans and Dracula in Love

“Mary Sharratt has created an enchanting Elizabethan heroine, a musician, the orphaned daughter of a Jewish Italian refugee who must hide her heritage for her safety. Taken up by powerful men for her beauty, Amelia has wit and daring and poetry inside her that will make her a match for young Will Shakespeare himself and yet she must hide behind many masks to survive in a world where women have as much talent as men but little power.”   STEPHANIE COWELL, author of Claude & Camille: A Novel of Monet

“Prepare to be swept away by Mary Sharratt’s latest foray into historical fiction. Inspired by the true story of poet, Aemilia Bassano, THE DARK LADY’S MASK explores her relationship with William Shakespeare. Richly detailed and well researched, this lush tale brings Aemilia out of the shadows of history and let’s her emerge as one of the founding mothers of literature. Drama, intrigue, and romance will have readers racing through this brilliant celebration of the muse.”— PAMELA KLINGER-HORN, Sales & Outreach Coordinator, Excelsior Bay Books

About the Author

MARY SHARRATT is an American writer who has lived in the Pendle region of Lancashire, England, for the past seven years. The author of the critically acclaimed novels Summit Avenue, The Real Minerva, and The Vanishing Point, Sharratt is also the co-editor of the subversive fiction anthology Bitch Lit, a celebration of female antiheroes, strong women who break all the rules.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads

Blog Tour Schedule

Tuesday, April 19
Review & Giveaway at Unshelfish
Review at Oh, for the Hook of a Book!

 Wednesday, April 20
Review at A Bookish Affair
Interview at Oh, for the Hook of a Book!
Excerpt & Giveaway at A Literary Vacation

Thursday, April 21
Review at A Book Drunkard
Guest Post at A Bookish Affair
Interview at Books and Benches

  Friday, April 22
Review & Giveaway at History Undressed

Monday, April 25
Review at Seize the Words: Books in Review

  Tuesday, April 26
Review at With Her Nose Stuck In A Book
Guest Post & Giveaway at Let Them Read Books

Wednesday, April 27
Review at Ageless Pages Reviews

  Thursday, April 28
Review at Just One More Chapter

Friday, April 29
Review at A Chick Who Reads

Saturday, April 30
Review at Queen of All She Reads

  Monday, May 2
Review at Flashlight Commentary
Review at Cynthia Robertson, writer

  Tuesday, May 3
Interview at Flashlight Commentary

Wednesday, May 4
Review at So Many Books, So Little Time

  Thursday, May 5
Excerpt & Giveaway at Teddy Rose Book Reviews Plus More

  Friday, May 6
Review at Book Nerd

  Monday, May 9
Review at A Dream within a Dream

  Tuesday, May 10
Character Interview at Boom Baby Reviews

Wednesday, May 11
Review at Puddletown Reviews

  Thursday, May 12
Review & Giveaway at View from the Birdhouse

  Friday, May 13
Review at First Impressions Reviews
Excerpt at Layered Pages

Monday, May 16
Review at A Book Geek

  Tuesday, May 17
Giveaway at Passages to the Past

  Wednesday, May 18
Review at History From a Woman's Perspective

Thursday, May 19
Review & Giveaway at One Book Shy of a Full Shelf

Friday, May 20
Review at Broken Teepee
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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Bold...Brilliant...Brave... Heroines Throughout History: ACTRESS LAURA KEENE by Tara Kingston

Welcome back to History Undressed our regular third Tuesday guest blogger, Tara Kingston! Today she's written another Bold, Brilliant and Brave heroine! And actress! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Heroines Throughout History

by Tara Kingston

Greetings! I’m Tara Kingston, historical romance author and lover of all things Victorian. I’m fascinated by history through the ages, especially the bold, brilliant women who helped shape our world, and I’m delighted to be a monthly contributor to History Undressed. I’ll be sharing facts about daring women through history—some famous, some not so well-known, but all remarkable with their own unique contributions. Today, I’m taking a look at actress Laura Keene, a witness to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Our American Cousin…a rather bland title for a comedic stage play that has been forever connected to one of the most infamous acts in American history, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The star of that play, Laura Keene, is perhaps best known for her performance in that play and the comfort she may have offered the stricken President after he suffered his mortal wound, but she made her mark on the theater world long before that tragic night, becoming a powerful theater manager in New York during the Victorian era.

~ Born in England on July 20, 1826, the former Mary Frances Moss was a young mother of two daughters when her husband, a former British Army officer, was convicted of a crime and reportedly sent to Australia on a convict ship. On her own and without funds, she followed the footsteps of her aunt, British actress Elizabeth Yates and embarked upon a career as an actress.

~ Changing her name to Laura Keene, she made her professional debut in London in 1851. Other rolls followed, and a year later, she traveled to America to become the leading lady of a stock company at Wallack’s Theater in New York. After little more than a year with at Wallack’s, Laura Keene left the stock company and leased a Baltimore theater for her performances, then traveled to California and Australia as a touring performer.

~ Laura Keene toured in Australia with Edwin Booth, brother of assassin John Wilkes Booth.

~Returning to New York in 1855, she leased the Metropolitan Theater, renaming it Laura Keene’s Varieties and serving as manager, director, and star, becoming the first female American theater manager. The following year, she oversaw construction of her own theater. Laura Keene’s Theater opened on November 18, 1856, and it was here that the play Our American Cousin made its debut in 1858.

~ After President Lincoln was shot by assassin John Wilkes Booth, legend has it that Laura Keene offered comfort to the wounded man, cradling his head on her lap, thereby staining her dress with his blood.


All photographs are in the public domain.

Harvard Theatre Collection Image of Laura Keene source: TS 939.5.3, Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University

About The Author:

Award-winning author Tara Kingston writes historical romance laced with intrigue, danger, and adventures of the heart. A Southern belle-out-of-water in a quaint Pennsylvania town, she lives her own love story with her real-life hero in a cozy Victorian. The mother of two sons, Tara's a former librarian whose love of books is evident in her popping-at-the-seams bookcases. It goes without saying that Tara's husband is thankful for the invention of digital books, thereby eliminating the need for yet another set of shelves. When she's not writing, reading, or burning dinner, Tara enjoys cycling, hiking, and cheering on her favorite football team. 
Connect with Tara at www.tarakingston.com and on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AuthorTaraKingston

In a world where a man’s loyalty doesn’t depend on the color of a uniform, danger, intrigue, and passion are facts of life for the men and women of Tara’s Secrets & Spies series, historical romances set against the backdrop of the Civil War. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The First Woman Hung by the US Government by Susan Higginbotham

Welcome to History Undressed, historical fiction author, Susan Higginbotham! She's written us a fabulous post on Mary Surratt, who is featured in her new novel, Hanging Mary!

Mary Surratt
On July 7, 1865, Mary Surratt achieved a dubious distinction: becoming the first woman to be hanged by the United States government.
            Nothing about Mary Surratt's past marked her as a likely candidate for the hangman. Born in 1823 to Archibald and Elizabeth Jenkins to a farming family in Prince George's County, Maryland,  Mary was sent to the Catholic-run Academy for Young Ladies across the Potomac River in Alexandria, Virginia. So impressed was young Mary by those who taught her that she converted to Catholicism, taking the name of Maria Eugenia Jenkins.
            In 1840, at age seventeen, Mary wed John Harrison Surratt, who was ten years older and had been adopted by a prosperous family. The couple had three children: Isaac, Anna, and John Jr.       
            A fire destroyed the couple's home in 1851. Instead of rebuilding, John Sr. elected  to construct a tavern in Prince George's County as a stopping place for those coming to and from nearby Washington, D.C. Not only would his decision prove disastrous to Mary in the long run, tavern-keeping was the worst possible vocation for John, an alcoholic who now could spend as much time behind his bar as he pleased.
            As John's drinking grew worse, Mary began to despair of the influence it and the atmosphere of the tavern were having on their three children. With the assistance of various priests who arranged for reduced tuition, she managed to send them to Catholic boarding schools. One of the priests whose help she enlisted was the Italian-born Rev. Joseph Maria Finotti. As priest and parishioner, he and Mary had become so close that gossip began to circulate. Father Finotti was  transferred to Massachusetts, although Mary continued to write to him occasionally, confiding in him about her husband's drunken conduct and her concern for her children.
            In 1860, the talk in John Surratt's bar would have centered around the likelihood of civil war, and the upcoming presidential election. One of the polling places in Prince George's County was the Surratt tavern. When the votes were counted on Election Day, not a single one was for Abraham Lincoln.
            When war broke out the following year, Isaac, Mary's oldest son, joined the Confederate army. He was not an anomaly: although Maryland stayed within the union, many of its citizens sided with the South, and Prince George's County and the rest of southern Maryland were particularly pro-Confederate. Soon the Surratt tavern became known as a "safe house" for those engaged in running the blockade between North and South. Because the tavern served as a post office as well--giving the small crossroads its name of Surrattsville--it could also serve as a drop for clandestine mail.
Mary's H Street Boarding House
In 1862, John Surratt suddenly died, leaving Mary Surratt heavily in debt but with two properties: the tavern and a house on H Street in Washington. When Maryland adopted a constitutional provision in 1864 freeing that state's slaves, Mary decided to lease the tavern and move into the H Street house herself. There, she would take in boarders--a respectable and common activity for those in need of extra income.
            Mary's younger children, Anna and John, went to Washington with her. The latter was not around much, for he had begun to carry clandestine mail from North to South. Soon the boarders came. Like their landlady, they were ordinary, middle-class people: a classmate of John Surratt's who worked as a clerk for the War Department, a young lady straight out of boarding school, a Catholic schoolgirl, and a married couple and their two children. Just a few months later, some of them would be in prison, and one would be the star witness at the trial of the century.
            During the rest of 1864, life went on in the boardinghouse just as it did in the many other boardinghouses that dotted wartime Washington. Then, early in 1865, John Surratt brought home a new acquaintance: the actor John Wilkes Booth, the heartthrob of his day. Soon Booth was stopping by the boardinghouse regularly. Sometimes he would sit in the parlor and converse with the ladies; other times he would confer with John Surratt privately. Often he visited even when John Surratt was away from home.
            Around the same time Booth began frequenting the boardinghouse, a stream of odd guests began to appear, staying for only a few nights at a time. One man came twice, calling himself Mr. Wood on the first occasion and Mr. Payne on the second. Another, whose German surname no one could pronounce, was scruffy and disreputable looking. A lady guest kept her face shielded by a veil. One boarder, John Surratt's school chum Louis Weichmann, began to wonder just what was going on--and he began to wonder even more when, one day in March, John Surratt, Booth, and Payne, agitated and waving weapons about, stormed into the room Weichmann shared with Surratt, then abruptly adjourned to the privacy of the attic.
            In fact, the men were plotting the kidnapping of President Lincoln. Their scheme failed, but the next month, on April 14, 1865, Booth changed history with a single derringer shot at Ford's Theater. At about the same time, just blocks away, a powerfully built man forced his way into the home of the Secretary of State, William Seward, who was recovering from a carriage accident, and attacked him in his bed.
            Within hours of the assassination and the assault on Seward (who survived), police, tipped off that Booth had spent a lot of time at H Street, turned up at Mary Surratt's boardinghouse. They searched the house but left after finding no sign of Booth or John Surratt, who was suspected of the assault on Seward. By the late evening of April 17, however, military authorities had acquired more evidence. They again came to the boardinghouse. This time, they took Mary and all those staying with her at the time into custody. As the party awaited transportation to Washington's military headquarters, a man in grubby but well-made clothes turned up at the door with the unlikely excuse that he had come to dig a ditch for Mary the following morning. Asked to identify him, Mary swore she had never seen him before. In fact, she had seen him several times: he was the Mr. Payne who had stayed at her house just a month before. He was also, Seward's servant soon confirmed, the man who had assaulted the Secretary of State.
The building in which her trial was held,
in what is now Fort McNair army base.
            By the time federal authorities caught and killed Booth in Virginia, Mary, Payne (whose actual name was Lewis Powell), and six others had been identified as his co-conspirators. While the evidence against Powell was ironclad, the cases against some of his codefendants were weaker, and it was decided to try the eight before a military commission (which did not require a unanimous verdict to convict) instead of in a civilian court.
           The trial began in May 1865. The chief witnesses against Mary were her former boarder, Lewis Weichmann, and her tenant at her Maryland tavern, John Lloyd. They testified to two particularly damning incidents: on April 11, three days before the assassination, Weichmann had driven Mary to her tavern, ostensibly for Mary to meet with a man who owed her money. On the way, they met Lloyd, to whom Mary gave a message: to have some "shooting irons" ready for a party who would soon call for them. Worse, on the day of the assassination itself, Mary had received a visit from Booth. Having heard that she was going to the tavern again, he had given her a package to hand to Lloyd, along with a message: to have the guns ready, along with some whiskey, as they would be called for that very evening. Indeed, Booth and his companion, a David Herold, did turn up at the tavern that evening and called for the guns and whiskey, as well as the package, which contained a field glass. Also weighing against Mary was her suspicious claim not to have recognized Powell, who had stayed at her own house.

            Neither Lloyd nor Weichmann was an ideal witness, however. By all accounts, Lloyd was a heavy drinker who had been drunk when Mary saw him that fatal Good Friday, though how incapacitated he had been was debatable. Weichmann, though sober and steady, was compromised himself. He had been close friends with John Surratt and had got on well with another defendant, George Atzerodt. One witness claimed that he had shared War Department records with John Surratt and his Confederate friends, and John Surratt later insisted that Weichmann had wanted to join the conspiracy but was disqualified because he could neither ride a horse nor shoot a gun. Some believed that had Weichmann not testified so freely against his landlady, he would have been on trial himself.
Mary's tombstone in 
Mt. Olivet Cemetery 
in Washington, D.C
           For all of their shortcomings, however, both witnesses were enough to convince a majority of the commissioners that Mary Surratt was guilty of conspiring to murder the President. Along with Powell, Atzerodt, and Herold, she went to the gallows on a brutally hot day in July, protesting her innocence to the end.

            John Surratt, who had been on a mission for the Confederacy at the time of the assassination and who had gone into hiding upon learning that he was a suspect, was eventually captured and tried in 1867 by a civilian  jury, which was unable to agree on a verdict. An attempt at retrying him failed for technical reasons, and John went free. Though after concluding an ill-received lecture tour, he largely kept silent on the topic of his mother, John gave vent to his feelings on one occasion. Faced with a routine question on an insurance application about how his mother died, he bitterly wrote, "She was murdered by the United States government."

            For my own thoughts on Mary Surratt's guilt or innocence, please read my new historical novel, Hanging Mary, told by Mary and by her young boarder, Nora Fitzpatrick.

Check out Ms. Higginbotham's newest novel, Hanging Mary! 

The untold story of Lincoln's Assassination

1864, Washington City. One has to be careful with talk of secession, of Confederate whispers falling on Northern ears. Better to speak only when in the company of the trustworthy. Like Mrs. Surratt.
A widow who runs a small boardinghouse on H Street, Mary Surratt isn't half as committed to the cause as her son, Johnny. If he's not delivering messages or escorting veiled spies, he's invited home men like John Wilkes Booth, the actor who is even more charming in person than he is on the stage.
But when President Lincoln is killed, the question of what Mary knew becomes more important than anything else. Was she a cold-blooded accomplice? Just how far would she go to help her son?
Based on the true case of Mary Surratt, Hanging Mary reveals the untold story of those on the other side of the assassin's gun.