Natalie Meg Evans: The Wardrobe Mistress

Natalie Meg Evans’ latest novel is The Wardrobe Mistress, set in London shortly after the end of World War II. Vanessa Kingcourt, lately released from wartime service in the WAAF, her art college studies long ago disrupted by the war, returns to London for the funeral of the father she hasn’t seen since she was a small child. From that afternoon in the cemetery she finds her life intersecting with that of Commander Alastair Redenhall, a Naval officer married to Vanessa’s childhood friend, and a mysterious woman who was an associate of Vanessa’s father.

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The Wardrobe MistressRedenhall has inherited the theater where Vanessa’s father was working when he died, and hopes to reopen the damaged building and restore it to a working stage. Vanessa, driven by family mysteries and a hopeless attraction to the Commander, manages to land a job as the theater’s wardrobe mistress, a job she’s not at all qualified for.

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Vanessa is a determined protagonist, drawn into the world of the theater by curiosity about her father, a small-time actor who abandoned her and her mother for life on the stage, held there by her growing love of both the theater and Redenhall. People from her past and from the theater company, all of whom knew her father in one way or another, contribute clues in her search for the truth about her family.

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The shadow of war and constant danger hung over Evans’ previous novels, The Dress Thief and The Milliner’s Secret, set in Paris just before and during World War II. Without that element, The Wardrobe Mistress moves at a slower and somewhat less compelling pace. But it evokes the fascinating world of the theater (probably even more so for those more familiar with the works of Oscar Wilde than I am), and of a time when divorce was scandalous and very difficult, when homosexuality was a crime, and when nearly everything was rationed.

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Natalie Meg Evans’ novels, from the British publisher Quercus, are available as ebooks from Amazon, and on paper from the Book Depository in the UK (good prices and free shipping anywhere).

 

Natalie Meg Evans: A Gown of Thorns

Natalie Meg Evans’ short novel, A Gown of Thorns, begins in contemporary (2003) France, as Shauna Vincent arrives in the French wine country. Passed over for the research job she was expecting at home in Britain, she has taken a summer au pair post with a distant relative on her mother’s side of the family, a woman she has never met, Isabelle Duval. Hoping merely to survive until fall and get back to something worthy of her academic degree, Shauna has no idea what to expect at the Chateau de Chemignac.

A Gown of ThornsThe contemporary inhabitants of the chateau are a varied lot. Isabelle is warm and welcoming. Her uncle Albert is not (he hates redheads, particularly English redheads like Shauna). Neither is Rachel Moorcroft, the manipulative young English woman caring for the horses and the tourist trade. The children, Olive and Nico, are exhausting but charming. The most fascinating to Shauna is Laurent de Chemignac, Isabelle’s nephew and the master of the Chemignac winery.

There is another story at Chemignac, the tale of the English spy known as Yvonne Rosel and Henri de Chemignac, Laurent’s grandfather, and a few dangerous days in 1943. Albert has one version of that story, an amateur historian in the nearby town of Garzenac another, and Shauna soon finds herself drawn into Yvonne’s story in the most inexplicable ways.

Is the chateau haunted? Shauna is a scientist and certainly doesn’t believe in such things, even after she tries on the forbidden gown of thorns hidden away in the wardrobe of the strangely unsettling tower room. The sound of geese where there are none, the glimpse of a silhouette through a long walled up window, and the discovery of a cave that vanishes have Shauna questioning her own sanity.

Family connections known and unknown help to peel away the fate of Yvonne, a mystery that Shauna and Laurent must solve before they can find their own destinies.

Evans’ previous novels, The Dress Thief and The Milliner’s Secret (both of which I loved), are set in Paris before and during World War II. This shorter novel moves to the contemporary wine country, blending skillfully with the wartime countryside. Paranormal or psychological, A Gown of Thorns blends mystery, romance, and wine in a thoroughly satisfying vintage.

Writer Wednesday: Favorite Holiday Books

Our Writer Wednesday assignment for November is “Tell us your favorite holiday books.” That’s a WW Novemberno-brainer for me: In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. What, that doesn’t sound like the holidays to you? Well, four of the five stories that Jean Shepherd turned into my favorite holiday movie, A Christmas Story, came from that collection. (The fifth came from Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories and other disasters.)

“Duel in the Snow, or Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid” gave the movie its core, driven by Ralphie’s passionate desire for a “Red Ryder BB gun with a special Red Ryder sight and a compass in the stock with a sundial.” We hear about the Old Man’s battle with the furnace, Ralphie’s lofty expectations for his “What I Want For Christmas” theme, his visit to Santa Claus, Aunt Clara’s abominable bunny costume, and his broken glasses. I never lusted after an air rifle, but I sure can identify with the theme writing and the broken glasses.

The episode of the Little Orphan Annie decoder ring, with its high anticipation and deep betrayal as Ralphie discovers the true meaning of the secret message, comes from “The Counterfeit Secret Circle Member Gets the Message, or the Asp Strikes Again.” The arrival and demise of the notorious leg lamp is described in “My Old Man and the Lascivious Special Award that Heralded the Birth of Pop Art.” Ralphie’s epic battle with the neighborhood bully plays out in “Grover Dill and the Tasmanian Devil.” (Fun fact for fans of the film: Scut Farkas character was added for the movie, with Grover Dill demoted to toady. Scut did appear in another story, “Scut Farkas and the Murderous Mariah” in the
Wanda Hickey collection.) The destruction of the Christmas turkey is adapted from “The Grandstand Passion Play of Delbert and the Bumpus Hounds,” also in Wanda Hickey, in which the neighbors’ dogs destroyed the Parkers’ Easter ham.

All of Jean Shepherd’s writing was sharp and hilarious. My copies are old paperbacks, with small print and brittle yellow pages, that once belonged to my mother, who introduced me to Shepherd. I remember reading the Bumpus hounds’ story aloud to my late husband when he was ill, interrupted by frequent laughter. (The two of us also watched the movie every year, a habit I have continued.)

Writing this piece has made me think about the complexities of weaving several stories together into A Christmas Storya film that has become a Christmas classic. The five stories have been reprinted in one volume, A Christmas Story: The Book that Inspired the Hilarious Classic Film. I want to reread them (and admire Shepherd’s skill in adapting them) without struggling with those old paperbacks (I actually have new glasses on order; they might handle the small print, but they won’t do much for the brittle yellow pages or cracked binding), so I’m downloading the Christmas Story edition to my Kindle to reread during the holidays.


Do you have a holiday book you love and reread? Visit some other Wednesday Writers, Tamra Baumann, Lauren Christopher, Natalie Meg Evans, Jean Willett, and Sharon Wray,
and discover their holiday favorites.

Writer Wednesday: Naming Names

Our Writer Wednesday topic this month is “tell us you favorite character name,” but I couldn’t think of one, WW Octobereither as a reader or as a writer. But names are important, and for a writer they require quite a bit of thought, and sometimes just as much planning.

Many of my favorite keeper books are science fiction, because I enjoy the world building. And names are often part of that world building. Character names in books like Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern, or Marion Zimmer Bradley’s tales of Darkover often tell the reader quite a bit about family, social position, or occupation.

I find I can’t write about a character until I know his or her “true name.” From time to time I have realized that I simply can’t remember a supporting character’s name, a sure sign that whatever name I stuck the poor soul with is the wrong one. I like to play with names, and sometimes they take on an extra layer of meaning. In one of my manuscripts, the heroine is called Liz, short for Elizabeth, and the fact that the Spanish version of her name is Isabel becomes an important plot point. In another story, the heroine calls herself Charlie, but the hero, a European with a formal streak, always addresses her by her proper name, Charlotte.

Sometimes a character’s true name never shows up, suggesting that there’s something else about the Columbo & Dogcharacter that isn’t working. That thought reminded me of Lieutenant Columbo, who never had a first name, and his dog, who never had a name at all. Columbo tried out several names for the dog during the series, but none of them seemed to work, and the dog remained Dog. Come to think of it, Mrs. Columbo didn’t have a first name, either.

On the other hand, I’ve recently been reading a series of old-fashioned Regency romances, originally published in the 1990s, in which nearly all the male characters have at least three names, first, last, and title(s). How other people address these men speaks to relationships and social position. People in contemporary stories are generally casual about names, but in historical tales, arriving at a first name relationship may be a major romantic milestone.

Do you have a favorite character name? Or are there names that push your buttons and make you put a book down? For more thoughts on names, visit Wednesday Writers Sharon Wray, Lauren Christopher, Natalie Meg Evans, and Wendy La Capra (and be sure to check out Wendy’s upcoming release, Duchess Decadence).

Natalie Meg Evans’ The Milliner’s Secret

Natalie Meg Evans’ The Milliner’s Secret dragged me in from the opening pages and never let go. As The Milliner's Secretthe novel begins in 1937, Cora Masson works in a London hat factory while trying to avoid her abusive Belgian father. The only thing he’s given her is a working knowledge of French, which she uses to flee to Paris when a near-stranger, German art dealer Dietrich von Elbing, offers her his valet’s seat on the boat train.

That impulsive decision changes her life in ways she could never have imagined. With forged documents, she becomes Coralie de Lirac, turning her back on England and making her way in the cut-throat world of Parisian fashion as a milliner. Working her way up in the trade, Coralie never hesitates to fight for her future, for the people she loves, and, as the war sweeps through France, for survival.

Her complicated, changing relationship with Dietrich von Elbing forms the core of the story. Dietrich’s secrets are deeply buried, gradually peeling away like onion skin. An ace pilot for the Luftwaffe in World War I, the approach of another war draws him back into the military as a respected senior officer. His relationship with Coralie serves to protect her—when it’s not proving to be her greatest danger. Drawn together and driven apart, Coralie and Dietrich move through one another’s lives and through the dangers of occupied Paris.

The backdrop of war mixes with the more intimate world of high fashion and the highly competitive, and sometimes vicious, millinery trade. Even as the Nazi occupation dims the Paris lights, women want their hats, and Coralie often serves French customers in the morning and German officers’ wives in the afternoon. The Milliner’s Secret overflows with fascinating background details about fashion and hats, nightlife, feast and famine.

Evans’ previous novel, The Dress Thief, explored the world of high fashion in Paris in the 1930s, ending before the war reached Paris. Although The Milliner’s Secret is not a sequel, supporting The Dress Thiefcharacters from The Dress Thief reappear in Coralie’s life, sometimes as friends, sometimes as foes, sometimes as both, as well as new characters, some trustworthy, some not.

I don’t want to give away too many details: this is a book filled with surprises best unspoiled. The Milliner’s Secret is one of the most gripping novels I have read in a long time.

Both The Milliner’s Secret and The Dress Thief are available as ebooks from U.S etailers. Paper editions are available (fast delivery and free shipping) from the Book Depository in Great Britain.

Writer Wednesday: Natural Disasters

I have lived in hurricane country since I was ten years old, and have sat, slept, and occasionally cowered through more hurricanes and tropical storms than I can remember. The prompt for this month’s Writer Wednesday post sent me to Wikipedia, where I picked through several lists of storms (in Florida, Texas, and Louisiana) to find the ones I remember most.

WW JulyAs with many things in life, “firsts” have a special place. My first hurricane was Donna, which hit southern Florida on September 10, 1960, my birthday. (My birthday is often cited as the peak of the hurricane season in the Gulf of Mexico, although I celebrated this one in the suburbs of Miami.) My mother, used to life in Wisconsin, was terrified. My brother, who was seven, slept through it. My dad and I thought it was an adventure. When the storm passed, and the electricity did not return (I don’t remember how long it was out), my dad made a valiant attempt to bake me a birthday cake on his charcoal grill. It didn’t look much like a cake, but served with melted ice cream, it tasted just fine.

In the summer of 1969, when I was attempting to move from Tallahassee, where I had just graduated from Florida State, to New Orleans, where I would attend grad school at Tulane in the fall, the central Gulf Coast was hit by Hurricane Camille, a nasty killer that closed the coast highway for weeks, forcing us to travel inland and hope we could find gas stations with electricity often enough to make it across Mississippi. The coast road was open again in the fall, and I remember seeing huge commercial ships on the beach.

In 1974, Jack and I sat out Hurricane Carmen in our house outside New Iberia, Louisiana. Although Carmen was a serious storm along some of its path, it didn’t hit us too hard, although it made our tin roof rattle something fierce. On the other hand, I remember looking out the window and watching a cat, oblivious of the weather, wander across our lawn. Somewhere around that time, I had my closest encounter with a tornado, as we ducked behind the refrigerators in a New Iberia appliance store while a twister roared down the street out front.

We moved to Seabrook, southeast of Houston between the Space Center and Galveston Bay, in 1976. In 1979, Tropical Storm Claudette dropped 42 inches of rain on a nearby weather station and overflowed an open garbage can in my yard. No flooding in the house, but we were on an island for a day or two. Claudette was followed by Hurricane Alicia in 1983—lots of damaged vegetation, which all grew back in a couple of years, and a power outage that lasted a week or so—and Hurricane Jerry in 1989, a smallish, late season storm that went right over our house, the only time I’ve experienced the Eye of the Storm.

Hurricane Andrew, in 1992, scored a catastrophic hit on the Florida Peninsula, and scared Jack so badly he insisted we evacuate inland. The storm went to Louisiana, but we did have a nice visit with Jack’s uncle in Austin. Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 was the storm that refused to go away, circling around and causing severe flooding and a number of deaths in Houston, but the worst of it missed us and we watched it on TV. That was the last storm I shared with Jack, who died the next year.

By the time Hurricane Rita reared her head in 2005, only a few weeks after Katrina devastated New Orleans, local authorities had become a lot more emphatic on the subject of evacuation, and I had no desire to stay home, so I packed up my cat and dog and we went to Houston to stay with my friend Jo Anne, the day before evacuation was made mandatory for my zip code. That was a good move, because the storm caused such panic that people who tried to flee west were stuck on the highways for hours, sometimes twenty or more, while the storm went east to the Beaumont area, and Houston seemed deserted—and perfectly safe.

In 2008 we had a visit from Ike, a massively destructive storm. This time people not in the flood prone areas were urged to stay home. My cat and I went to Jo Anne’s, where I stayed until my neighbor called to say she was home and the power was back on—twelve days later. My yard took another beating, but my house was okay.

Since then the hurricane seasons have been quiet here. Last month Tropical Storm Bill paid the area a visit, bringing more rain than we needed but not much damage. If Bill is our storm for this year, we’ll be happy.

Every storm has its own set of stories, but I still have fond memories of that first adventure in 1960, and my lop-sided, crispy-edged birthday cake served with melted ice cream by candlelight. Thanks, Dad!

For tales of more natural disasters, check out the Wednesday Writers in the sidebar to your right. Two of our merry crew have new releases this month: Carol Post’s Hidden Identity, a suspenseful tale of blackmail and murder is available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Natalie Meg Evans’ The Milliner’s Secret is available for pre-order at Amazon and Amazon UK.

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The Dress Thief, by Natalie Meg Evans

The Dress Thief, Natalie Meg Evans’ debut novel, is a perfectly delectable read, with suspense and romance set against the rising tide of approaching war in the Paris of 1937. Above all, though, Alix Gower’s story comes alive in the world of haute couture, as she uses her talent and skills to move from a The Dress Thiefstable but stifling job as a bilingual telephone operator toward her goal of opening her own salon. Along the way she becomes entangled in the dangerous pursuit of copying fashion (we first meet her slipping into a shop to memorize a newly released Hermes scarf), a path not so easy to leave when the time comes.

There is mystery in Alix’s past as well, going back to the murder of her artist grandfather in Alsace in 1903. What is the connection between the Comte de Charembourg (the Alsatian aristocrat who befriended Alix’s late English father during World War I and later paid for her eduction) and Alix’s Alsatian Jewish grandmother, who shares her small Paris apartment and rightly fears the rise of anti-Semitism? Will the truth about her grandfather’s death turn Alix’s life upside down?

The Dress Thief is broad in scope, with a variety of interesting supporting characters, including the denizens of the fashion world, from the lowly seamstresses to the designers, the wealthy American woman involved in fashion copying, and the bohemian artist Bonnet for whom Alix sometimes poses.

The men in Alix’s life are equally varied. There is Paul, the young day laborer who lives on a boat, caring for his two young sisters and making ends meet by selling Alix’s sketches; Monsieur Javier, the designer who gives Alix a job and encouragement; Verrian, the English journalist drawn deep into the Spanish Civil War; and Martel, the dangerous night club owner.

The most fascinating element in The Dress Thief is the world of Paris high fashion in the late 1930s when the coming war casts a shadow that will change everything. Natalie Meg Evans portrays this world in wonderful detail, from the seamstresses toiling in the workrooms to the society women shopping in the salons, from the small salons filled with copies to the top designers struggling to create a successful collection every season.

As Alix carves out a life for herself in this world, she makes some debatable, if understandable, decisions along the way, but she never loses sight of her goals. It’s a difficult journey, but a fascinating one, and The Dress Thief portrays it beautifully.

At this time The Dress Thief does not have an American distributor, but it can be ordered from the Book Depository (free shipping and quick delivery just about anywhere). Natalie Meg Evans’ next book, The Milliner’s Secret, will be out next spring. I’m very much looking forward to it.

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