Valhalla Revealed wins prestigious award!

I am pleased to announce that Valhalla Revealed was the Grand Prize Winner of  the prestigious Chaucer Award for Historical Fiction as the Best Book for 2015. This award was conferred by Chanticleer Reviews in an April 29, 2016 award banquet in Bellingham, Washington. Valhalla Revealed had plenty of competition so I am extremely gratified that the judges saw fit to make this award. It's time for me to move forward with the final installment in the "Valhalla Trilogy." Stay tuned for further details! 

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Valhalla Revealed published!

I'm pleased to announce that Valhalla Revealed was published on April 29,2014. This sequel to Beyond Ultra takes the Hoffman and Ortega families from 1946 to 1979. Paul Hoffman is determined to find his missing brother Hans, but he must first confront the aftermath of the secret Nazi Operation Valhalla. The Cold War also looms large as Paul and his best friend Jack Kurtz are caught up in its first battles. The end of the colonial era in Africa and the Franco era in Spain serve as fitting and interesting backdrops in this continuing family saga. Please go to the order page if you would like either the paperback or Kindle version.

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What else did the Nazis hide?

Yet again, a treasure trove hidden by the Nazis during World War II has been unearthed. In this case it was a massive collection of art: 1,500 pieces including Picassos, Matisses, and more.

According to the Telegraph, “At least 200 pieces are thought to be on lists of missing treasures.”

Of course, we can only assume that Nazis hid a lot more that just art. A central plot of the Valhalla Trilogy—starting in Beyond Ultra that will continue through the next two books—is of a Nazi cache of much more dangerous goods than lost pieces of art. How it affects the Ortega and Hoffman families (and the rest of the world) is one of the great joys of the books.

It’s fascinating to read articles like this one that show just how much the stories of the past are relevant to the world today.

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The Amazing Maria Jose Lopez de Heredia

DATELINE: Rioja, Spain

My delve into the history and culture of Spain continued with our trip to Rioja Alta, one of Spain’s great wine making region. It was a personal joy to see the land, because Rioja Alta is the home of my fictional Ortega family whose story intertwines with the Hoffmans throughout Beyond Ultra and the rest of the Valhalla Trilogy.

Rioja is a dynamic mixture of old and new. In antiquity, the region has been occupied by Celts, Romans, Visigoths, and Moors, before the Reconquista finally expelled the Moors in 1492, the year Columbus landed in the New World. Each of these cultures, except the Moors, cultivated grapes and made wine in the territory now known as Rioja.

I have several research goals on this trip and they require me to look back in the viticultural history of Rioja. I want to place the Ortega family, especially Anita, in the reality of Spanish winemaking through the twentieth century. For a model of a multi-generation winemaking family in Rioja, I could hardly do better than the Lopez de Heredia family of Haro. Their legendary bodegas and vineyards, such as Viña Tondonia, are known by wine aficionados as exemplary representations of traditional Rioja wine and viticultural processes.

It is here that I was honored to meet Maria Jose Lopez de Heredia, the famous female leader of this enterprise. Maria Jose represents the fourth generation of this famous family and she helped answer my questions about how the fictional Anita Ortega can rise to fame. She is energetic and animated, as you can see in this photo.

Maria Jose invited Marcia and me to join a small exclusive group in the food and wine trade who were visiting Viña Tondonia. She personally lead the tour and we spent what turned out to be a full day with this charismatic woman.

The tour would be a worthy subject in its own right, but a few snippets may suffice to describe our experience. The cellars at Viña Tondonia are impressive and are loaded with older vintages, such as this 1904 tempranillo.

Most of these wines are still not only drinkable, but provide a unique tasting experience. Unlike the fruity flavors of many modern wines, Viña Tondonia and the wines of Maria’s other bodegas offer more subtle and nuanced flavors, especially as they age. These include vanilla, soft tannins, a variety of floral notes, as well as occasional tobacco and leather elements. There are other Rioja producers who make wine in this traditional style, but Maria Jose is considered the leading spokesperson maintaining the tradition.

As the tour progresses, Maria Jose provides me with invaluable background not only on her wine and winemaking, but on the cultural and social history of Rioja. Maria Jose answered my many questions and also provided copies of some rare and valuable books for my research.

Of course, the acid test of a good wine is how well it tastes and pairs with food. In the afternoon, Maria Jose took us to lunch at an exclusive restaurant in a nearby village.

It would take too long to describe the details of the seven course lunch at La Vieja Bodega restaurant, which included seven of Maria Jose’s wines from excellent vintages.

In that time, we gained a further understanding of the progression and development of the winemaking community in Rioja that will be of immense value in completing the Valhalla Trilogy.

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Visiting Madrid: the Espionage Capital of World War II

Much of the action in the Valhalla Trilogy takes place in Spanish Guinea (now known as Equatorial Guinea) during and up to the end of the colonial era. Indeed, the opening scenes of Beyond Ultra and some of the most dramatic scenes in the next book take place in Spanish Guinea.

By the 20th century, Spain’s remaining colonial empire was confined to Africa, including Spanish Morocco, Ifni (a little enclave surrounded by French Morocco), Spanish Sahara, and Spanish Guinea. These colonies were administered from this non-descript building in Madrid.

This building is now part of the Interior Ministry and must still be sensitive since the Guardia Civil police didn’t like me taking pictures and only allowed this one shot.

There are other venues in Madrid that are famous, or infamous, for their role in espionage during World War II and the Cold War.

One of these was the Embassy Tea Room, which Antonio described as a “nest of spies” during and following World War II. This bar and restaurant has hosted Madrid’s elite for decades, and it was a thrill to have lunch there on our trip.

The Embassy, as it’s called locally, was a real-world espionage setting and there were undoubtedly many more in Madrid, a neutral country in World War II along with its Iberian neighbor capital in Lisbon, Portugal, which I visited in 2011.

In my novels, the Palace Hotel, further down Paseo de Castellana, is a frequent meeting place for my protagonists, as well.

The Palace, built in 1912, is a Madrid institution, along with its neighbor, the Ritz, across the Paseo. In the hotel, the most intimate meeting place would be the Copper Bar, located off the lobby.

Of course, there are many other interesting places in Madrid where my novels’ heroes and villains would meet. The Spanish culture, especially in Madrid, is a very social one. People meet at bars and the many outdoor plazas, which are packed on most summer evenings. Our favorite is the Plaza Santa Ana, in the city center.

One of the most famous bars on Plaza Santa Ana is the Cerveceria Alemana. Hemingway used to drink here (among many other places in Madrid and elsewhere).

We have enjoyed our time in Madrid as we meticulously conduct the final research needed to complete the last two books of the Valhalla Trilogy.

After a week in Spain’s capital city, we headed out to the wine country in the Ribero del Duero and Rioja in northern Spain. But that will be a later post!

It’s a thrill to be researching these locations all over Spain that are so important to Spain’s history and to the Ortega and Hoffman families in the Valhalla Trilogy.

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A trip to the Spanish Airforce Museum with a former Spanish Ambassador

Last month I took a research trip to Spain for the sequel to Beyond Ultra, and a potential sequel after that, forming what I’m calling (tentatively) the Valhalla Trilogy.

Our host in Madrid was Antonio de Oyarzabal, the Spanish Ambassador to the United States from 1996-2000, and his charming wife Beatrice.

Ambassador Oyarzabal began his diplomatic career in the early 1960’s and one of his first assignments was to help write a constitution for Spanish Guinea, which was about to become the newly independent nation of Equatorial Guinea. Both Guineas, the colony and the country, figure prominently in my Trilogy. Beatrice was born in America and is the former Beatrice Lodge, daughter of Ambassador John Lodge and niece of Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.

What a privilege to get to see a country through their eyes and hear their experiences!

Knowing my love of aviation, and how it features in the books, Antonio personally escorted us to the Spanish Air Force museum … in his 1983 Rolls Royce!

The Air Force museum was interesting since it included many displays of aircraft from the 1930’s and 1940’s, when Spain was dependent first on Nazi Germany for its military aircraft. After World War II, Spain produced license-built copies of German aircraft models that the Spanish Air Force used well into the 1970’s. After World War II, Spain could not initially obtain foreign-built aircraft since the Franco regime was ostracized by the international community for its support of Germany during the war. The Germans had assisted Franco and his Nationalist regime during the Spanish Civil War from 1936-1939 and had sent soldiers and airman, known as the Condor Legion, to assist Franco.

Among the most famous of the museum exhibits are the license-built versions of the Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighter and the Junkers JU-52 transport plane.

However, the most interesting exhibit was the DeHaviland Dragon Rapide aircraft that the Nationalists chartered in Britain and used to take Franco from his Spanish Army post in the Canary Islands to Morocco and then Spain in July 1936 so he could lead the Nationalist revolt.

Here, Antonio and I are standing next to the Rapide.

Thank you, Ambassador, for taking the time to show us around!

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World War I: Downton Abbey vs. the “other” war

For those of you following the PBS series Downton Abbey and the movie War Horse, you are seeing the conventional theaters of World War I. Downton Abbey depicts a British upper class family and their servants as the war affects them in the well known battlefields of Western Europe. War Horse is more about the horse than the war, but it too covers the war in Western Europe and explores familiar territory albeit with more sentimentality. As we approach the one hundredth anniversary of that tragic conflict in 2014, you can expect to see more conventional fictional treatments of the issues surrounding World War I.

My debut novel Beyond Ultra explores a far less known theater of war and far different themes with more unconventional characters. My protagonist Karl Hoffman is from the German aristocracy but wants a different future than that offered by the straight jacketed Prussian culture. He volunteers for duty in German Kamerun in Africa on the eve of the war in 1913. That way, he can get further away from German society. More importantly, he will be nearer his girlfriend Pilar in the adjacent neutral Spanish colony of Spanish Guinea, where she and her father Pedro Ortega are surveying their future cocoa plantation. The Hoffman and Ortega families were joined earlier by their common interest in wine making and Karl grew up side by side with Pilar during part of each year. Now he envisions a future with Pilar in Spain and exotic Africa, building their own empire away from the conflicts in Europe.

Beyond Ultra, although a novel, is thoroughly grounded around real historical events, unlike many novels that masquerade as historical fiction. The fictional Karl Hoffman distinguishes himself in battle in Kamerun as the German garrison is surrounded by Allied forces. He leads them into internment in neutral Spanish Guinea, as actually happened in 1916. Karl is sent to Spain to sit out the war, allowing him to marry Pilar, start a family, and realize his dream. During the 1920's, all starts out idyllic but fate has something else in store for Karl. He sends his two oldest sons to Germany for their education and their fate is a very different one from youngest son Paul Hoffman, who goes to America for his education. The Spanish Civil War and World War II ultimately shatter Karl's original dream and son Paul must rescue the family and its vision.

World War I was a crucial part of twentieth century history and to this day affects our politics and lives in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and even Asia. Will these connections be explored in the coming several years so that we might learn something about how current world events are connected to that distant conflict? That's unlikely since most media efforts will focus on drama and commercial aspects of film, books, and other media.

I will certainly continue to explore these themes. My sequel historical novel, Valhalla Revealed, will take up where Beyond Ultra left off. It will explore the period 1945-1975 and cover the end of the colonial era, the passing of the Franco regime in Spain, and the Cold War. The same characters, and some new ones, will reflect their times but eventually embrace some unconventional viewpoints. Along the way, they will illustrate issues such as globalism, fair trade, and other issues that affect America and the world, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worst.

I hope to publish Valhalla Revealed late in 2012 or early 2013. Please check into this web site periodically for progress reports and more coverage of related themes.

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Two Civil Wars: America and Spain contrasted

In July 2011, I returned from a four week trip to Spain and Portugal, where I was conducting research for my sequel historical novel to Beyond Ultra. I have titled the sequel Valhalla Revealed. If you have already read Beyond Ultra, you will understand the sequel title and should be tantalized by the possibilities. I will update periodically on my progress but my target publishing date is spring 2012.

Lest I get ahead of myself, I will note that Beyond Ultra was rated five stars out of five(!) by the well known ForeWord Clarion Review book review service click here to see the review. In addition, check out the fabulous promotional video for Beyond Ultra, nicely produced by CreateSpace, my publisher.

While in Spain, I was struck by the contrasts between the Spanish Civil War, which was a central event in Beyond Ultra, not to mention in Spain, and the American Civil War. In 2011, America is very visibly "celebrating" the 150th anniversary of the beginning of that conflict, complete with re-reenactments, new books, and of course revisionist history. It seems that after a century and a half, some revisionists still cling to the belief that the war was about states rights when, in fact, it was fundamentally about human rights for America's black population, enslaved in the American South.

It has been only half as long, 75 years, since the Spanish Civil War began in 1936 and my sense is that the Spanish people are only now ready to revisit that tragedy and open up old wounds. That war was fundamentally a war about ideology, but had its origins in economic turmoil and class differences deeply rooted in Spanish society. When the Spanish monarchy fell in 1931, it was replaced by a Republic that, between 1931-1936, could not improve the economic picture. The social and political upheaval, however, was enough to trigger a devastating three year conflict that shattered an already weak economy. The victorious Nationalists, led by Francisco Franco and supported by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, have been attacked ever since, but the real story is much more complex. The opposing Republican government was supported by the communist Stalin-led Soviet Union. Both sides were guilty of many atrocities. The western democracies refused to become involved. That may be understandable for the then isolationist America, but it is harder to comprehend Great Britain's and France's apathy.

During my stay in Spain I had the privilege of meeting Antonio de Oyarzabal, Spain's ambassador to the United States during the Clinton Administration. Ambassador Oyarzabal began his diplomatic career in the 1960's and was involved in the transition to independence for Spanish Guinea in Africa. Needless to say, he has provided some important background on Spanish Guinea that will figure prominently in Valhalla Revealed.

The rest of my trip was also productive by, for example, providing important information on "spy settings" in places like little known Lisbon hotels. In future blogs, I will refer to some of this information when I describe historical events that took place in Spain and Portugal between 1940 and 1975, and how it affected my fictional Hoffman and Ortega families as they continue to confront the challenges of the mid-twentieth century. 

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1915-1945: A Defining Era

Now that my debut historical novel, Beyond Ultra, is published, I will examine various historical issues that I raise in this story. I would like to start by talking a little about the time period covered in my book.

Looking back at the Twentieth Century, it’s easy for us to recognize that this thirty year period completely shaped the century and most of the events that followed in its last half.  It really didn’t matter where you were on the planet; we were all affected by the cataclysms of that period, to this day.

We should note, however, that if you came of age during that period your perspective and fate certainly depended on where you lived.  American history for this period is well known and written about.  Americans of that period often came of age on the farm, although industrial trends were changing that; you may have been lucky enough to work in a Ford factory.  For a nation built on mobility and westward movement, this was a period when many people didn’t travel far, except for the two years of World War I and the four years of World War II.  Americans tended to be inward looking and had little knowledge of the rest of the world.

If you were a European, with family roots in Germany and Spain, your view of the world would have been far different.  During this period, one or both sides of your family would be continually suffering the effects of world war, civil war, economic turmoil, social upheaval, and/or political repression.  You would have considered yourself, or at least some loved ones, as lucky merely to have survived.

Yet, some exceptional individuals chose not to blindly accept such a fate, but instead they tried to shape events rather than be shaped by them.  As it turns out, for the fictional Hoffman and Ortega families in my historical novel, Beyond Ultra, there was no place where they could avoid being drawn into the turmoil and danger of this period.  My two protagonists, Karl Hoffman, and later his youngest son Paul, would learn to make their own breaks, as they carved out an empire in one of Spain’s few remaining colonial outposts and built a global business on four continents.

Although the Hoffman family was wealthy, and married into equal wealth with the Ortega family, they weren’t in the game just to pile up marks, pesetas, and dollars.  They also agonized over their loyalties and weren’t afraid to question the conventional wisdom.  This was a risky thing to do in Spain and Germany during most of this period, and the two families suffered as a result. Their propensity to take risks ended up embroiling them in incredible events where they helped shape history and interacted with well known and less well known historical figures of the era.

But they weren’t able to dodge every bullet aimed at them. Both tragedy and danger stalked the two families and tested their loyalties.  They faced up to questions of patriotism, blind obedience to authority, and other challenges, as they embraced globalism, intercontinental mobility, and other world changes, long before they became household words.

In future postings, over the next few months, I will tackle some other related issues, including World War I in Africa, the Spanish Civil War, air travel to Africa in the 1930’s and 1940’s, Spain’s role in World War II, some interesting facets of the espionage war in Spain, and some of the issues from World War II’s aftermath.

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