Monday, December 31, 2007

A failed challenge

One of the few things worse than getting stuck at the airport for hours on end is getting stuck there with an unenjoyable book, and no other way to pass the time.

By the time our plane finally left for Orlando, a week ago, I'd already finished the copy of Rhett Butler's People that I'd brought along. As it was 500 pages long, I hadn't thought to bring another novel with me... meaning I was looking at another five days of vacation with nothing else to read. So, at 5:45pm on Christmas Eve, I made a last-minute rush through an Orlando Borders, since the store was closing in 15 minutes and I needed to find something. I ended up with Kathleen Winsor's Forever Amber, figuring it was thick enough to keep me occupied until I got home, at least. I knew it was a classic, but I'd never read it before, and I was amused at the thought of reading three 950-page books in the same year (Gone with the Wind and Pillars of the Earth being the other two).

Unfortunately, while GWTW proved fascinating and compelling - one of my favorite reads for the year, actually - and POTE kept my attention throughout (despite inaccuracies, modern attitudes, and some other annoyances), Forever Amber was an extreme disappointment. I made it to p.200 before setting aside my bookmark. I found the characters flat and unsympathetic; I've read that Amber St. Clare was based on Scarlett O'Hara, but although she's as self-centered and upwardly mobile as Mitchell's heroine, Amber had no depth and was uninteresting to read about. The novel does contain, as promised, vivid descriptions of Restoration-era clothing, food, living conditions, and vice (and lots of the latter), but for me, this wasn't enough to carry the story. I found myself wanting to see more of Barbara Palmer and Charles II, who are viewpoint characters in several scenes, rather than the protagonist.

I understand Forever Amber does an excellent job making readers feel like they're there during the Great Plague and the Fire of London, but alas, I never got that far. If you've read it all the way through, does it get better? Does Amber become less of a TSTL heroine, and did you care what happened to her? It's a shame I couldn't finish it, since I spent close to $20 for the book. It does have a pretty cover, though.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Florida in pictures

Looking at some of these shots makes me forget, almost, about the 1-day layover in Chicago on the trip out, not to mention the 3rd cancelled flight and unplanned side-trip through Dallas/Fort Worth on the way home last night (without our bags, again; we pick them up tonight in Champaign).

There is some historical content within the photos. We spent Thursday morning walking around the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, an masonry fort constructed in 1672 to defend Spanish claims in the New World. And the B&B where we stayed in St. Augustine dates from 1791.

Click on the tiki bar below to begin the slideshow. Photos by Mark, with our new digital camera. The gorgeous beach photos are toward the end.

This blog's regular subject matter will resume tomorrow, most likely.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Season's greetings from Orlando

It's 75 degrees and sunny down in Florida today. Don't be jealous of our trip, though... it took three days to get here!

Happy holidays!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

My favorite 10 historical novels of 2007

First, the obligatory disclaimer: I can only choose favorites from those I read in the first place, which is about 75 novels total. Still, despite the inherent arbitrariness, I wanted to showcase ten novels that I enjoyed reading, talk about why they appealed so much, and, hopefully, persuade other readers to pick them up too (this is my evil plan). Each is a work of historical fiction published during 2007. They appear in alphabetical order by author. It's a diverse list that reflects my eclectic (or wide-ranging, take your pick) reading tastes.

Four of the ten were sent to me for review. If you want to know why I continue to review new books, with my TBR pile the size it is, this is the reason. Five are first novels. Nine are by authors I'd never read before.

This is a meme, by the way. Whether you write long descriptions or simply name a list of ten titles, whether you list only 2007 publications or older ones too, feel free to join in! If you do, please leave the URL in the comments.

Jonis Agee, The River Wife. (Random House, 2007. 416pp. Hardbound, 9781400065967)

When pregnant Hedie Rails moves to Jacques Landing, Missouri, in 1930 to become Clement Ducharme's bride, she doesn't know she's also marrying into his disturbing family legacy. As Hedie reads the diaries of Annie Lark, crippled in the 1811 New Madrid earthquake and rescued from Mississippi River flooding by French fur trapper Jacques Ducharme, she begins noticing eerie parallels between Annie's life and hers. Annie is only the first of several "river wives," women associated with Jacques over the next 120 years. The others include Omah, a freed slave who joins him as a river pirate; Laura, his fortune-hunting second wife; and her daughter, Little Maddie, who becomes Clement's mother. More than simply a work of fiction, The River Wife is an all-consuming experience, and the frontier setting of the Missouri Bootheel region comes sharply alive. Haunting but not melodramatic, tragic without being depressing, this mesmerizing saga is classic Southern gothic.

Ellis Avery, The Teahouse Fire. (Riverhead, 2007. 391pp. Hardbound, 1594489300)

This literary family saga, spanning thirty years of the early Meiji period, realistically conveys, in lush and intimate detail, the gradual process of cultural change sweeping through late 19th-century Japan. Nine-year-old orphan Aurelia Bernard arrives in Kyoto in 1866 with her uncle, a priest, on an unofficial Christian mission to the country. Fleeing when he becomes abusive, she takes refuge in the Baishian teahouse, and the tea master’s adolescent daughter, Yukako, unofficially adopts her. Given a new name, Urako, and obliged to learn a new language, Aurelia observes how the traditional Japanese tea ceremony – with Yukako’s help – must adapt to the ways of a newly modernized Japan. Avery adroitly captures the viewpoint of Aurelia, a young American woman who comes to love her adopted country, yet can never truly belong. A novel to lose yourself in.

Vanora Bennett, Portrait of an Unknown Woman. (Morrow, 2007. 417pp. Hardbound, 9780061256516)

Award-winning British journalist Bennett's first novel vividly evokes the changes wrought by the Protestant Reformation both in England and in the family of Sir Thomas More, Henry VIII's pro-Catholic chancellor: a dangerous role to have when the king was contemplating divorce. Meg Giggs, More's intelligent adopted daughter, recounts her courtship with secretive John Clement, her family's former tutor; her dismay at More's role in rooting out heretics; and her changing relationship with Hans Holbein, the German painter hired to depict her family - and, later, the Tudors - on canvas. Two paintings done by Holbein of the More household, one in 1527 and the other seven years later, craftily reflect how King Henry's changing moods affected them all. A page-turning read about England at a time of great religious change. All of the major characters are historical figures.

David Blixt, The Master of Verona. (St. Martin’s Press, 2007. 569pp. Hardbound, 9780312361440)

In 1314, Pietro Alagheiri arrives in Verona, Italy, with his younger brother and father, the brilliant poet Dante, still in exile from Florence. At the court of Francesco “Cangrande” della Scala, Verona’s charismatic ruler, Pietro forms a strong bond of friendship with two young men, Mariotto Montecchi and Antonio Capecelatro. They remain inseparable until Mariotto falls in love with Antonio’s fiancée, the beautiful Gianozza. Meanwhile, Cangrande causes a scandal by bringing an infant boy to court, a child who may be his illegitimate son. This swashbuckling tale, complete with cinematic action scenes, creatively imagines the origins of the Montague-Capulet feud from Romeo and Juliet. It all plays out against a vivid, large-scale backdrop of early fourteenth-century Verona. Even if you know nothing about Shakespeare or Dante, The Master of Verona will make you want to find out.

Ariana Franklin, Mistress of the Art of Death. (Putnam, 2007. 384pp. Hardbound, 9780399154140)

The Mistress of the Art of Death is Adelia Aguilar, a physician from Salerno, Italy, whose specialty is forensic investigations. In the late 12th century, Adelia arrives in Cambridge, England, to solve the murders of four children of the city. The Jews of Cambridge are being blamed, because they’re widely known to be child-murderers, but King Henry II believes in their innocence… or perhaps he just wants their tax revenues. Accompanying her are two assistants, a Jewish man with skills in detection and a Muslim whose assistant Adelia pretends to be. If it were known that a woman was the brains behind the operation, she’d be suspected of witchcraft. The author who writes as Ariana Franklin had to use a pseudonym to finally get the recognition she’s long deserved. Diana Norman's specialty is the medieval period, and she’s in fine form with this chilling psychological thriller, which has been described as CSI meets the Canterbury Tales.

Carla Kelly, Beau Crusoe. (Harlequin Historicals, 2007. 298pp. Paper, 9780373294398)

Susannah Park, a beautiful widow shunned by society after her scandalous elopement, lost her husband to a cholera epidemic in India seven years earlier. James Trevenen, a lifelong sailor, has just returned to London after spending five years stranded on a deserted tropical island. When Susannah’s godfather invites James for a visit to discuss their mutual interest in South Seas exploration and marine life, he hopes to make a match between him and Susannah. James, however, hides a secret that makes him unsuitable for marriage. Beau Crusoe isn't just the best romance I've read all year, but one of the most impressive historical romances I've ever read. Kelly never flinches from portraying the realities of post-traumatic stress disorder, and the gradual revelations of James's South Sea experiences make this Regency romance far darker than most. Yet both James and Susannah are truly likeable people, with wit and intelligence to spare, and their growing relationship is touching and delightful to read about.

Peg Kingman, Not Yet Drown'd. (Norton, 2007. 428pp. Hardbound, 9780393065466)

When Catherine MacDonald, a young Scottish widow, receives a mysterious parcel one afternoon in 1822, it sends her on an irresistible quest to the far side of the world. Sandy, her twin brother, was reportedly killed a year earlier in a monsoon flood, but a sheaf of traditional bagpipe music sent to Catherine, curiously retitled "Not Yet Drown'd," appears to be in his own handwriting. Accompanied by her older brother Hector, her stepdaughter Grace, a runaway American slave, and an enigmatic Hindu maid, Catherine leaves Edinburgh aboard a ship transporting Hector's revolutionary new steamship engine to India. Along the way, she learns much about the East India Company's very profitable tea trade, the company she keeps, and the brother she hopes to find again at journey's end. With a lilting touch, Kingman combines dry humor with breathtaking descriptions of tea plantations and the countryside alongside India's interior waterways. It's a joy to experience Catherine's voyage of discovery firsthand and see how the world opens up before her.

Deanna Raybourn, Silent in the Grave. (Mira, 2007. 509pp. Hardbound, 9780778324102)

It is 1886, and Sir Edward Grey has just collapsed and died during a dinner party at his London townhouse. The family doctor blames Edward's heart condition, and his wife, Julia, believes him - despite suggestions by Edward's debonair private enquiry agent, Nicholas Brisbane, that it was murder. Over a year later, Julia comes across compelling evidence that proves Brisbane was right. As the pair follows a trail that should have gone cold long ago, Julia uncovers unpleasant facts about her late husband's behavior, as well as surprising truths about herself. This gripping, fast-paced mystery balances its darker aspects with deft humor (in the form of Lady Julia's eccentric Victorian family) and more than a little romance. Great fun, and despite its length, you'll want to read it in one sitting. I look forward to spending more time with these quirky and fascinating people.

Mark Slouka, The Visible World. (Houghton Mifflin, 2007. 242pp. Hardbound, 0618756434)

An unnamed American man of Czech parentage grows up hearing only snippets of stories about his parents’ lives during World War II, and his mother’s possible love affair with a member of the Resistance – a man whose memory continues to haunt her. As an adult, the narrator travels through their homeland in search of answers to his mother's despondency, and his parents' secret past. Unable to discover the truth, he creates his own version about what may have happened. In a novel-within-a-novel, he pictures his mother as a young woman in love with a Czech soldier involved in the plot to assassinate SS leader Reinhard Heydrich. This is a poignant work about how we reinvent our past in order to survive, and how we use the power of stories to explain both the unknown and the unthinkable. The narrator's fact and fiction blur together well - probably a little too well - but it's a testament to the author's skill that I still remember individual lines from the novel, a year after reading it.

Tim Willocks, The Religion. (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2007. 618pp. Hardbound, 9780374248659)

I normally detest gory novels, and the blood runs thick and heavy here - there's no avoiding it - but I absolutely loved The Religion. Among panoramic epics about a major military siege, few can rival its scope, grandeur, and sheer storytelling power. Readers will also discover a touching, surprising romance in its pages, along with thoughtful meditations on history, war, and religious belief. In 1565, Ottoman emperor Suleiman the Magnificent calls for jihad against the Knights of St. John, the rulers of Malta, a small island that’s the last Christian stronghold in the Mediterranean. The Knights, who call themselves “the Religion,” prepare to defend Malta to the death. Carla la Penautier, a noblewoman exiled to Italy twelve years earlier for bearing an illegitimate child, asks German soldier-of-fortune Mattias Tannhauser to accompany her home to Malta to find her son. Meanwhile, the Knights plan to use Tannhauser’s presence there to lure him to their cause. Jacqueline Carey, quoted on the dust jacket, has it right: by the end, you will feel like you've lived through the Siege of Malta.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Eau de bibliothèque

A special gift for the rare book maven in your life, or those who want to attract them. Walk around exuding the scent of Russian & Moroccan leather bindings, worn cloth and a hint of wood polish. Check it out here.

Friday, December 14, 2007

A delinquent blogger returns

I just spent two hours writing a single book review (for my own magazine, sigh) and my brain hurts. At the same time, I'm relieved that I managed to make my own deadline; I would have felt guilty if I hadn't. For those of you who review, especially short pieces like this one (300 words or less), how long does it take you to write the things? I'm trying to figure out why I can dash off readers' advisory pieces for my NoveList column relatively quickly, while "formal" reviews take an hour or more. I may need to work on my mindset.

The past two weeks have been crazy, what with finals week at the library, various other work-related things, editing reviews as they arrive, and my need to finish up my Historical Adventure chapter. It's done now, finally, and I've laid the framework for the next one, Historical Fantasy.

I promised to mention that Kelly Hewitt at Loaded Questions will be giving away five signed copies of Yannick Murphy's Signed, Mata Hari, so visit her site to sign up for the drawing and read an interview with the author.

Next week, I hope to post my (highly personal and extremely idiosyncratic) top 10 historical novel reads from 2007. It won't be anything like the New York Times top 10 best books list, I can promise you that.

I also need to get some review books mailed out soon, but that may not happen until Monday because we may be snowed in tomorrow.

Finally, for your amusement I'll post some search terms that people have used to find this blog recently:

rett butler the new book
50 page long novels
the unusual information on the medieval castle
jane rochford photo
should juliet have gotten married so young
eric bana was the best

Now I'm going to find a new book to read.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Reissues revisited

In making the usual rounds up in Champaign yesterday, I stopped at the Barnes & Noble (where I was approached by an author while browsing the aisles and persuaded to attend a book-signing, but that's another story). In the Literature & Fiction section, I spotted two newish reissues, one of which I bought; I didn't buy the other, but I was sorely tempted because of the cover...

I already own Rosalind Laker's The Golden Tulip in hardcover, but isn't the new artwork gorgeous? Out now, in trade pb, from Three Rivers Press.

Last December, a bunch of us were discussing classic historical novels that deserve republication. Patricia Clapp's Jane-Emily was one I mentioned as a favorite. I'd reread it last year via a beat-up interlibrary loan copy - which the U of I only let me keep for five days, grr - so was glad to finally see it reissued. It's been packaged together with another of Clapp's historical novels, Witches' Children, a novel of the Salem witch trials. I was pleasantly surprised to see that B&N had it shelved with the adult fiction (I didn't check if there were other copies in the kids' section). Of course I grabbed it. If you haven't read Jane-Emily before, you're in for a treat. Here's the Amazon link. And in the comment trail for my December post, you'll find a note from Patricia Clapp's granddaughter.

The November issue of Solander (not online, but I'll update the website tonight to show the new cover and ToC) has a piece by historical novelist Susanne Dunlap on the classic historical novels being reissued by Chicago Review Press. Anya Seton's My Theodosia and Pauline Gedge's The Eagle and the Raven are the latest 2007 releases, and Seton's The Hearth and Eagle will appear next April if Amazon is to be believed. Amazon is also showing a May release date for Rosemary Sutcliff's Sword at Sunset, which several people here said they wanted to see in a new edition.

Check out the links to see the attractive new covers for both. The Seton boasts another George Romney portrait of Emma Hamilton, but it's not the same one we've seen on other books.

Sourcebooks has also been reissuing some classics, most notably Georgette Heyer's An Infamous Army and other titles. Per Amazon, again, they'll be reissuing Margaret Campbell Barnes's Brief Gaudy Hour next March. (No cover image yet.) If you haven't yet gotten your Anne Boleyn fix, this classic novel is a good choice.

So, now that it's December again, what other classics do you want to see back in print? You never know, your wish may be granted eventually.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Authors and the library

So, this is an issue I've been pondering this weekend. Last week, I was reading a blog written by a historical novelist whose work I admire. The author's writing group had come up with a list of a dozen things writers never wanted to hear. One of them was "I've got your book on request at the library."

It was an innocuous-seeming mention, with no major library-bashing going on, but it still caught the attention of this librarian. I understand that authors depend on sales for their livelihood, and that they don't get royalties or any remuneration when a library copy gets borrowed, at least not in this country. There are financial issues involved here.

Yet I can't help but wonder about the alternatives. Should libraries not buy their books? Or, if libraries do buy the books, would authors prefer that nobody borrow and read them? More and more publishers are setting up library marketing departments these days (and if you were a librarian at BEA in NYC this year, and stayed at the official librarians' hotel, you'd know the trouble they're taking to woo us. I've been attending BEAs for the past 6 years, and things have really changed in this regard. For the better, imho). I'm getting the impression, anyway, that library sales are becoming more important to publishers.

Libraries not only purchase historical fiction titles regularly, and lots of them, but they actually prefer to buy a given novel in hardcover if there's a choice... which means higher royalties for the author. And, if the waiting list for a book is really long, libraries will often buy multiple copies to satisfy demand. Of course, this isn't the same, sales and royalty-wise, as having each patron on that list buy his or her own copy, but I'm not sure how realistic that is.

When we're talking about historical fiction in series, the circulation of the first volume, and positive word-of-mouth from patrons who've read it, can convince librarians that it's important for them to buy future volumes as well. The same goes for patrons' buying habits. As an example, I read Rett MacPherson's first novel from a library copy. (She writes cozy genealogy mysteries, if you're curious. They're lots of fun and totally addictive... I've covered them for NoveList several times now.) Now I order the hardcovers from Amazon as soon as they're published. I don't want to wait for interlibrary loan... I want those books in my hands as soon as possible.

Libraries also take requests. We have a purchase suggestion form on my library's website. If we get a request from someone who's part of our community, chances are good we'll buy the book. That's one more sale... a good thing for everyone involved.

Yes, I am probably taking the results of a tongue-in-cheek exercise out of proportion (I'm just another of those humorless librarians, yanno). But I think it's an issue worth considering, as we're all on the same side. And I'd like to think that libraries who buy novels, and people who read those copies, are not really such a horrible thing for an author to hear about.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Reay Tannahill, encore

Her obituary (many people have been googling for it) appeared in The Independent yesterday. It's very long, focusing on her classic nonfiction study Food in History (1973), but it also lists her published novels.

Her final novel, Having the Decorators In, was published the day before she died. I have a copy on hand, ordered from Book Depository, and hope to review it here eventually.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The post-Thanksgiving vacation update

I'll be back at work precisely ten hours from now, not that I'm counting, after six days off. Here are some deals and news from Publishers Marketplace and elsewhere.

Joyce Lebra's THE SCENT OF SAKE, about a 19th century Japanese woman who overcomes tremendous obstacles to build a sake empire and a family dynasty at a time when women were forbidden to do business, to Carrie Feron at William Morrow, at auction, by Natasha Kern at Natasha Kern Literary Agency (World).

Bestselling UK nonfiction author Titania Hardie's debut novel THE ROSE LABYRINTH, which centers on a mystery that begins in 17th century England with Elizabeth I's royal astrologer and unravels to present-day London, where a beautiful, brilliant young woman, still recovering from a heart transplant, embarks on a dangerous adventure in search of the secrets behind the Rose Labyrinth, to Judith Curr at Atria, with Sarah Branham editing, in a significant deal, by Robin Straus at Robin Straus Agency, on behalf of Quadrille Publishing and Andrew Nurnberg Associates (NA).

Read more about Michelle Moran's deal with Crown's Allison McCabe for her upcoming novel Cleopatra's Daughter on her website. (Congrats!)

The subject of Katie Hickman's The Aviary Gate (Bloomsbury USA, May 2008) sounds fascinating - take a look at the catalog description - but here we have Sir Frank Dicksee's Leila gracing the cover, again. You can find an image on the Scandalous Women blog. Gorgeous painting, yes, but we've already seen it on three other novels about women in the harem. Here's a reminder in case you don't remember which ones.

The Salt Lake Tribune reviews Ken Follett's World Without End. I spent part of the holiday weekend reading The Pillars of the Earth, mainly because I felt I ought to, and this seemed like a good time. I don't intend to watch Oprah talk about it, though.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Case study: Valerie Anand's The House of Lanyon

When I read this summer that Valerie Anand would have a new book out soon, a regional saga set on Exmoor in England's West Country in the mid-15th century, I immediately knew two things: (1) I had get my hands on a copy as soon as possible, and (2) many members of the American reading public wouldn't know what to do with it. Excitement and disappointment, simultaneously; I worried that such a novel wouldn't find its proper audience.

I read and reviewed The House of Lanyon for November's Historical Novels Review, and now that the issue is appearing in subscribers' mailboxes, I'm republishing the review at the end of this post. The House of Lanyon is much in the same vein as the earlier novels in Anand's Bridges over Time series, although (as far as I know) it's complete in a single volume. It's the story of several families, their relationships with the land and their neighbors, and their day-to-day lives on Exmoor beginning in the year 1458. The Lanyons rear sheep, grow corn, and sell wool; the Weavers, as one can guess, weave wool into cloth; and the Sweetwaters, the Lanyons' landlords, are minor gentry on social terms with Thomas Courtenay, Earl of Devon.

The House of Lanyon is, as far as I'm able to tell, historically accurate. The characters' names, realistic and frequently utilitarian, reflect the time. Readers will learn much about the operations of a medieval dyeworks, marriage customs in a rural village, and the construction of a proper manor house. These descriptive sections are the parts I enjoyed most. The novel's three families have lived on the same plots of land for generations. The Lanyons rarely venture beyond the nearest village, Clicket. They have no need to. They discuss political matters among themselves, but events in faraway London don't affect their daily lives, at least not until much later in the book. (I don't want to give too much away.)

In this lies the issue some readers may have (and are having) with this novel. It has no "marquee names" or "marquee events," not for a good long while. All of the major characters are fictional, and their lifestyles aren't glamorous. Regional British sagas are rarely published in the States anymore - I buy them from the UK - as they're not very popular here, aside from in the library market. I'm willing to bet that most of today's readers (the distinguished company reading this blog excepted, of course) haven't even heard of Bridges over Time. The second-to-last volume was published in the US in 1996, and the final volume never appeared here at all. If you haven't read it, you're missing out. Her Wikipedia entry lists the titles in order.

Do readers need historical figures, names of battles, and/or major historical events inserted into a novel in order to enjoy it as historical fiction? That's what worried me about the concept behind The House of Lanyon. And so when I read the Publishers Weekly review ("There's not enough historical detail to place the Lanyons in their time and place") and an Amazon review with similar sentiments ("What I was reading could, by changing a few sentences, have been [set] anywhere from, say 500AD to 2007, and the location almost anywhere in England, Canada, the U.S., etc") I both shook my head in amazement and nodded sadly. There's plenty of historical detail in the novel, but it's not of the right type, it seems - either that, or it's too subtle to be appreciated by these readers.

All reviewers are entitled to their opinions, of course. Here's mine, below. If you've read the novel, I'd be curious to hear what you think - on the content itself, its marketability, and/or its audience. I'm also going to be watching the UK reaction to this novel, when it's published there by MIRA next April.

Valerie Anand, MIRA, 2007, $24.95/C$29.95, hb, 586pp, 9780778325024

In her afterword, Valerie Anand mentions it was her dream to pen a novel set on Exmoor, the rolling countryside and woodlands around Somerset. She combines a wonderful sense of place with an engrossing family saga set between 1458 and 1504, with the Wars of the Roses as a mostly distant backdrop.

The Lanyons are tenant farmers on land belonging to the Sweetwaters, minor gentry living on Exmoor. Relations between them have always been frosty, but true enmity sparks when two Sweetwater sons disrupt the funeral procession of family patriarch George Lanyon. Richard, George’s middle-aged son, swears to improve his family’s station in life henceforth. He begins by arranging his son Peter’s marriage to Liza Weaver, the well-dowered daughter of a neighboring family in the wool trade. After much heartache, both Peter and Liza abandon hopes of marrying their lovers and agree to wed one another. And Richard, for all his pride and bluster, closely guards a secret from his own past that could destroy everything he’s built.

Liza and Peter develop a strong marital bond, raising a family and suffering Richard’s ambition to rebuild Allerbrook Farm as a manor house that will put the Sweetwater residence to shame. They deal with business disputes, family squabbles, and personal losses as best they can, with outside events rarely intruding until Lancaster and York force everyone to take sides.

With its descriptions of local trades, customs, and family life, The House of Lanyon is a fascinating social history of the medieval West Country as seen through the eyes of sympathetic characters. Though nearly the entire book takes place on a small plot of land, I was never bored. The sort of novel you can comfortably wallow in for days, it’s a gift to readers who, like me, loved Anand’s Bridges over Time series and wanted more.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

What's new and forthcoming

I spent most of the day (a cold, dismal, rainy Sunday) updating the HNS forthcoming books page, so now you can see what historical novels will be appearing through next August. Please take a look, so that I can feel the time spent was worthwhile!

It used to be that someone with a Livejournal site would pull a month's worth of listings from that page, repost them on her blog, and add snarky comments about my descriptions. Most of which come direct from publishers' blurbs, but some I make up. I thought it was hilarious, but do you think I can find that site now? no.

Other than that, I went out shopping to a couple places this afternoon, and we went to two open houses at the high-end neighborhood near us, just because we were curious (nosy). The houses are 2-3 years old and cost about twice as much as what we paid for ours, and they're gorgeous inside. I saw one big problem, though: the "open floor plan" style that's so popular around here doesn't leave much wall space for bookshelves.


Added later: I found the Livejournal site, which as it turns out isn't Livejournal at all but something similar. Scroll down. Thank you, Technorati.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Short and late post

I meant to post earlier, but things like work and writing got in the way. We were interviewing for a new cataloging librarian last week (which involved daily presentations) , plus I needed to get a first draft of my Christian fiction chapter finished. Aside from assigning keywords and annotating 2008 titles I don't know about yet, it's done. And long. 22,000+ words long. Pruning will be necessary.

Among other news:

I just posted November's issue of Historical Novels Review Online. The print issue should be out soon. Anyone seen it yet? It has a purty purple cover, and a feature article on historical graphic novels.

I'm looking for a few HNS members interested in joining the Historical Novels Review's North American review team. You should be able to write clearly and concisely and keep to deadlines. More specifically, I'd like to find reviewers able to cover novels set in a wide variety of historical periods/places (not just, for example, medieval England or ancient Rome, as we'll have little to offer you). Particularly needed are readers of historical romances, historical Westerns, and/or novels set in the 20th century, as many of our specialists in these areas have dropped out.

HNS members only, please, from either the US or Canada. (If you live in the UK or elsewhere, I'll pass your note of interest along to the British editors.) Email me for the guidelines.

Oprah's newest book club pick is Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth. Which I haven't yet read. You may not realize it's also an award-winning board game [per Library Journal].

On Loaded Questions, Kelly Hewitt is giving away an ARC of Lauren Willig's The Seduction of the Crimson Rose. She's hoping to run more giveaways in the future, so watch her blog for details. You may recognize George Romney's Study of Emma Hart as Circe gracing the cover.

Literary agent Dan Lazar of Writers House is actively interested in acquiring historical fiction.

I'm drowning in piles of recent acquisitions, but what else is new. When people give me birthday money to spend, you can probably guess what I go out and buy.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Friday news and deals

Sad news: Susan Hicks (aka Elizabeth Chadwick) posted on the HNS e-list this morning that prolific Scottish historical novelist Reay Tannahill, who had been in ill health for several years, has died. I haven't seen obituaries yet, but will post links once I have them.

Pauline Gedge recently did an interview for the CBC's Words at Large. Her latest novel of ancient Egypt, The Twice Born, was published in September by Penguin Canada.

Geoffrey Edwards talked to the Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL) about winning an online contest that resulted in publication of his novel Fire Bell in the Night. You can find the HNS review of Fire Bell here.

A lengthy profile of Deborah Challinor, who chronicles New Zealand's history in fiction, that also discusses that country's burgeoning interest in historical novels.

From Publishers Marketplace:

Romanian rights to Kathleen O'Neal and Michael Gear's TO CAST A PEARL, portraying Jesus Christ as a real, historical figure and the monks who struggle to preserve this truth in the face of the Church's violent opposition, to Rao, by Teri Tobias with Andrew Nurnberg Associates, on behalf of Matt Bialer at Sanford J. Greenburger Associates. [The Gears' website has more, including details on US (June 2008) and German publication.]

W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O'Neal Gear's PEOPLE OF THE CLIFFS and PEOPLE OF THE DAWNLAND, a continuation of the PEOPLE series, to Bob Gleason at Tor, in a significant deal, by Matt Bialer at Sanford J. Greenburger Associates (world English).

THE ILLUMINATOR author Brenda Rickman Vantrease's NO SEASON FOR GRACE, exploring a young woman's attempts to smuggle English Bibles into Henry VIII's England under the vengeful eye of Sir Thomas More whose ties to the Pope make such actions completely heretical; as the king's interest in Anne Boleyn accelerates, his distaste for More's faithful ties to the Vatican will lead them onto a collision course towards death and redemption, again to Hope Dellon at St. Martin's, in a six-figure deal, for publication in fall 2009, to Harvey Klinger (World).

Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley's CLEOPATRA: LAST QUEEN OF EGYPT, to Lara Heimert at Basic, in a very nice deal, in a pre-empt, for publication in Fall 2008, by George Lucas at Inkwell Management, on behalf of Profile Books (NA). [this is nonfiction]

And more Egypt:

Esther Friesner's untitled about Nefertiti, to Mallory Loehr at Random House Children's, in a good deal, in a two-book deal, for publication in Spring 2010 and Spring 2011, by Russell Galen at Scovil Chichak Galen Literary Agency (World).

Charles Coleman Finlay's THE MINUTEMAN'S WITCH trilogy, a supernatural account of the Revolutionary War, in which there are bigger things at stake than American independence, to Chris Schluep at Ballantine, in a nice deal, for three books, by Matt Bialer at Sanford J. Greenburger Associates (World).

Tallgrass author Sandra Dallas's PRAYERS FOR SALE, about the unlikely friendship that develops - much of it over a quilt frame - between an octogenarian Civil War widow facing her final days living in the Colorado mountains and a fresh, young bride just arrived in town, to Jennifer Enderlin at St. Martin's, in a very nice deal, by Danielle Egan-Miller of Browne & Miller Literary Associates (NA).

Sunday, November 04, 2007

The ever-changing bookshelf

The bookcase by my computer desk has a new look this afternoon, thanks to some Amazon certificates, Borders purchases, and publisher freebies.

And after reading several historical novels in quick succession (three in a week is a record for me lately) I've picked up Susan Fraser King's Lady Macbeth, which arrived as an ARC last week. I wasn't sure I'd get one, as the HNS reviewer got her own copy. I'm pleased.

One of my recent purchases, 2nd shelf far left, is the omnibus edition of Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter, which was translated recently by Tiina Nunnally (whose name I've seen on many translations from Scandinavian languages). You can read more about Ms. Nunnally and her literary efforts in an article from the Seattle Times. I already own Kristin Lavransdatter, in three Bantam paperbacks dating from the 1980s, but never managed to get through it. The article explains why others had the same difficulty: the original translation used a clunky, faux-medieval prose style. My recent reading (and enjoyment) of GWTW inspired me to try again with this one, as this is a historical novel/trilogy I feel I should read.

We were in Chicago briefly this weekend, and I have to say that the Borders at Water Tower Place has a better selection than any bookstore I've been in for a while. I bought two paperbacks I'd never seen anywhere else: Brian John's House of Angels (3rd shelf from bottom, far left, blue headless woman cover which I really like), 2nd in a family saga set in 18th century Wales, and Christine Lemmon's Portion of the Sea (same shelf, far right), a contemporary/historical family saga about several generations of women on Sanibel Island.

The gallery of reusable cover art has been updated with a few new entries.

It's 5pm here, and nearly dark. Welcome to the end of Daylight Savings Time.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Various HNS things

This may be old news if you're on the HNS e-list, but the editors' choice selections from the upcoming November Historical Novels Review are online now.

The HNS Conference board of directors is looking for a new publicity coordinator for the 2009 North American conference. Details here.

Mark and I each brought a mail bin full of review books to the PO today (me to Charleston, him to Savoy, where they tried to make him say there were "personal notes" in the packages - there aren't). So if you got assigned a review book from me, they're en route. I think this is the fastest I've ever gotten them out.

Some links of interest:

Via Marg at Historical Tapestry, Rosina Lippi (aka Sara Donati) interviews Diana Norman (aka Ariana Franklin) on her blog. My review of Fitzempress' Law from this time last year is in the blog archives.

The 2nd authorized sequel to Gone with the Wind, Rhett Butler's People, comes out November 6th. I loved GWTW, and am curious about the new book, if only to see whether it reads anything like the original... I suspect not, as Donald McCaig has a much more literary style (I reviewed Canaan earlier this year). The novel has an official website.

News on Ken Follett's upcoming epic trilogy, and it's not medieval.

A long-lost love story written by James Michener, now in possession of one of his (many) ghostwriters, and available now (Amazon link) from the University Press of Florida.

Australia's The Age doesn't like Colleen McCullough's Antony and Cleopatra, because of prudish and unnatural dialogue and odd sentence constructions. There are no comments on the book's Australian cover, which is different from both the US and cartoony UK versions. I think it makes Cleo look like a perfume ad model, but maybe that's just me.

Non-historical fiction reference. Before we moved out to Illinois, we bought many pieces of furniture from Jordan's in Avon, Massachusetts. This includes our blue livingroom sofa, a couple of chairs, and the bed that's in our guest room. Too bad we weren't back there last spring to go shopping, or we could have gotten all of those items free. I'm glad the Red Sox swept the series, for obvious reasons, but also because I'm tired of staying up till midnight.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Pretty cool video on women in Western art

One of my coworkers at Reference found this video online... how many of the portraits do you recognize, either from the original paintings or from historical novel covers?

It gets bizarre and a little creepy toward the end, when the more modern pieces (Dali, Magritte, Picasso) start to appear.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A sneak preview

The following titles will be appearing on the next HNS review book list, which I'll be emailing out tomorrow evening. (Among others - there are three other editors with books to offer, but the majority this time are mine.)

This means another painful trip or two to the post office next weekend. Unfortunately I don't get to keep any of these, but I will have a bunch of books arriving in my mailbox very soon, thanks to some earned Amazon gift certificates and a couple birthday gifts from nice people (the big day was Sunday).

Lately I've been working on my Christian fiction chapter, which means I've been learning all about things like Preterism and the Gerasene demoniac in order to provide sufficient historical and biblical detail for the annotations. Normally when I write these up, I have the book in hand if at all possible; if I haven't read it yet, I'll read the jacket copy and skim the first chapter to get a feel for writing style. I'll also go online and read as many reviews as I can.

However, some titles I'm attempting to summarize are proving problematic. Many appear not to have been reviewed by reliable publications, and I don't like using Amazon reviews as a primary source. In some cases, doing so would be impossible. Hank Hanegraaff and Sigmund Brouwer's The Last Disciple, for instance, has 75 "reviews" on Amazon, but apart from the PW one (which is vague), you have to wade through over half of them before you find one that gives the protagonist's name correctly or provides anything resembling a plot. Most of them consist of short, poorly worded theological arguments, but this single-line "review" tops everything:

"It was so bad I did not want to spill a lot of ink talking about it. "

My only consolation is that only 7 out of 42 people rated it "helpful."

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Trouble in paradise?

In surveying Steeple Hill's website (Harlequin's Christian fiction imprint) for relevant books for my current chapter-in-progress, I noticed that one book cover image looked remarkably like something I saw in a women's magazine at home earlier today.

The 1st image isn't for a historical novel, though it looks it, and the author has written other titles in the genre. The 2nd image was taken from an ad for a prescription medication used to treat bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Different skirt, slightly different pose. Same photo shoot, and the remaining differences due to Photoshop?

Making up for lost time

My literary historical chapter is finished (pending 2008 publications), and my latest reviews (for Booklist and Choice) have been turned in, so it was time to get back to reading once again. Normally I do read fiction alongside the writing, but with my schedule so busy, it was pretty much impossible to find the time.

But last week I picked up the newly republished trade pb edition of Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, which, I'm ashamed to say, I'd never read before. I also own a mass market pb from the 1970s, but the binding is so tight, and the paper so thin and transparent, that it was a deterrent. A 1000-page novel practically begs to be read in hardcover or trade - and the latter may be preferable, if the binding holds up, simply because of the weight. The 2007 Scribner edition is kind of floppy, but it's not hard to hold onto when reading. This is important.

I'd made a New Year's resolution to read at least one classic in 2007, and I suppose GWTW qualifies? (If not, then The Sylph definitely does. Review isn't on Amazon yet.) I must be the last person I know to read it, as even friends who don't read historical fiction have done so. Not sure why I'm surprised, given its popularity, but it's an engrossing novel that, apart from the derogatory references to African Americans (which reflect attitudes of the time), doesn't feel as if it was written 70+ years ago. It may be superficial of me, but the newly designed cover and new typesetting help modernize the reading experience. It's also interesting to read firsthand about characters who have become American icons.

I already know the basic storyline, but not all the details - and as I've never seen the movie either, no spoilers please!

Monday, October 08, 2007

A new (sort of) Hella Haasse novel

I so enjoyed reading Haasse's In a Dark Wood Wandering, a biographical novel of Charles d'Orléans, that I thought this deserved its own heading...

Hidden within the deals on Publishers Marketplace last Friday:

89-year-old Dutch author Hella Haasse's THE TEA LORDS, translated by Ina Rilke, set in the Dutch East Indies, amongst the merchant class, to Philip Gwyn Jones at Portobello Books, for publication in 2010 by Annette Portegeis and Lucienne van der Leije at Querido (world English).
This makes, I believe, four novels of Haasse's to be translated from Dutch to English, the remaining two being Threshold of Fire (conflict between pagans and Christians in 5th century Rome) and The Scarlet City (Giovanni Borgia, the "child of Rome," as he tries to discover his true parentage in the 16th century).

Per a brief mention in the magazine World Literature Today, The Tea Lords (Dutch title Heren van de Thee):

...traces the life and colonial career of Rudolf Kerkhoven: from his student days in Delft in 1869 and his departure to West Java in the East Indies in 1871 (where his relatives had been growing tea since 1845); via his successes and failures on Gamboeng, the plantation where he grows coffee, tea, and quinine; his marriage to Jenny Roosegaarde Bisschop and the birth of their children; [and] his conflicts with his relatives who live on the neighboring plantations; to his final days in 1918.
All of the characters are reportedly based on historical figures. Patience, though, if this has your curiosity up - the deal did give the publication year as 2010.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Cartoony covers from the UK

We all know by now that the "headless bodice" look really took off with the UK edition of Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl, right? Perhaps this is another soon-to-be-trend: cartoon-style covers for historical fiction. All of the images below are taken from the British editions. Of them, the Julia Quinn is the only historical romance; the others are mainstream historicals.

Some of these novels won't be out for a while, so click on the images for the descriptions from Amazon UK.

Do any of you like these covers more than I do? Apart from the one for the Tannahill, which I know will be fairly lighthearted, I really don't care for them much.

Friday, September 28, 2007

From Publishers Marketplace today

If you guessed that I mainly post deals when I don't have time to post much else, you're probably right. It's been a decent writing week, meaning I'm about 2/3 done with the literary fiction chapter. Christian fiction, I think, will be next, with Westerns, historical adventure, and a few others still to go.

In the meanwhile, here are some recent publishing deals to ponder.

Ariana Franklin's GRAVE GOODS, a third novel in the Adelia Aguilar series about a female medical examiner in 12th century England, to Rachel Kahan at Putnam, for publication in 2009, by Helen Heller at Helen Heller Agency (US).

Golden Keyes Parsons's historical series about a Huguenot family who face devastating persecution for their faith in Louis XV's France, to Natalie Hanemann at Thomas Nelson, in a four-book deal, by Mary Beth Chappell at Zachary Shuster Harmsworth Literary Agency (World).

Professor of history at Brandeis Jane Kamensky and professor of history at Harvard University Jill Lepore's BLINDSPOT, an erotic romp about a fallen woman who disguises herself as a boy to serve as the apprentice to a portrait painter in Boston as the American Revolution is waged, to Cindy Spiegel at Spiegel & Grau, at auction, by Tina Bennett at Janklow & Nesbit (NA).

Rebecca Cantrell's EVEN SMOKE LEAVES A TRACE, about an undercover crime reporter in Berlin in 1931 who discovers her brother's murder and resolves to find the killer, sparking a series of discoveries that lead her from the city's dark underbelly to the upper ranks of the rising Nazi party, to Kristin Sevick at Tor/Forge, in a nice deal, plus a sequel, for publication in July 2009, by Elizabeth Evans at Reece Halsey North (NA).

Vienna historian J. Sydney Jones's THE EMPTY MIRROR, the first in series of historical thrillers in which the painter Gustav Klimt is fingered as the murderer of five young Viennese girls, but attorney Werthen and criminologist Gross soon discover that the trail actually leads directly to the gates of the Hofberg itself, to Thomas Dunne at Thomas Dunne Books, for publication in Fall 2008, in a two-book deal, by Alexandra Machinist at the Linda Chester Literary Agency (world).

Trade paperback rights for Margaret Cezair-Thompson's number one Book Sense Pick for October, THE PIRATE'S DAUGHTER, to Jane von Mehren at Random House, in a significant deal, by Unbridled Books. [Review will be out in November's HNR; it's set in late 1940s Jamaica]

Shona MacLean's THE REDEMPTION OF ALEXANDER SEATON, a historical crime novel about faith, betrayal, witchcraft, friendship and forgiveness set in 17th century Scotland, to Jane Wood at Quercus, for publication in July 2008, by Judith Murray at Greene & Heaton.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Queen Jane Sans-Tête

This ARC for a forthcoming historical biography just arrived chez moi. Recognize the cover image?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Off-topic, but too funny not to share

For all of you historical fiction fans who sometimes read fantasy (not sure how many are out there, besides me), please visit this gallery of LOL fantasy cover art.

And if you're not sure what the whole LOL business is all about:

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

It's déjà vu all over again

It's interesting to note the serendipity that sometimes happens in the genre. Two or more authors, working independently, choose the same subject for their historical novels, and all are published not too far apart from one another. I'm not talking about an "Anne Boleyn" type phenomenon, where authors pick a marquee name well known to everyone, either.

While working on my literary historicals chapter last night, I noted four historicals set during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918: Reina James's This Time of Dying (UK 2006, US 2007), Thomas Mullen's The Last Town on Earth (2006), Myla Goldberg's Wickett's Remedy (2005), and Kaye Gibbons' Divining Women (2004). Same topic, but very different in focus and locale (London, Washington State, Massachusetts, North Carolina).

The year 2004 also saw the publication of the acclaimed nonfiction study The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague In History, by John M. Barry. Perhaps it, and/or the SARS crisis of 2003 (or the bird flu scare, or even AIDS for that matter), inspired one or more of these novelists?

Publishers Marketplace mentions two upcoming novels about Muhammad's wife:

Sleeper Cell and The Bionic Woman screenwriter and debut novelist Kamran Pasha's SHADOW OF THE SWORDS, a love story set amidst the showdown between Saladin and Richard the Lionheart during the Crusades, and MOTHER OF THE BELIEVERS, the birth of Islam from the eyes of Muhammad's wife Aisha, a politician and warrior, to Suzanne O'Neill at Atria, in a good deal, by Rebecca Oliver at Endeavor (World English). [deal reported yesterday]

Journalist Sherry Jones's debut historical novel A'ISHA, BELOVED OF MUHAMMAD, set in seventh-century Arabia, the story of the favorite wife of the Prophet Muhammad, recreating her marriage at the age of nine, her struggle for personal freedom in a society where women had few rights, and her dedication to The Prophet's vision of a true faith, to Judy Sternlight for Ballantine, in a pre-empt, for two books, by Natasha Kern of the Natasha Kern Literary Agency (world). [deal reported April '07]
In my previous Historical Fiction volume, we had two novels about Eliza Lynch, the Irish-born mistress of Francisco Solano López, president of Paraguay in the mid-19th century: Anne Enright's The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch (2004) and Lily Tuck's The Road from Paraguay (2003). Also in 2003 we had the nonfiction biographies The Shadows of Eliza Lynch by Sian Rees and The Empress of South America by Nigel Cawthorne.

This doesn't mean I'd advise authors to set their new novels in Paraguay, however. Who would've thought it?

Saturday, September 15, 2007

How young is too young?

Every once in a while, I'll read a review of a historical novel in which the reviewer expresses discomfort about the heroine's young age. Some people prefer not to be reminded that a mere hundred years ago, while most women first married in their early twenties, it wasn't unusual for new brides to be fifteen or sixteen. Or even younger.

My favorite example comes from Romantic Times' review of Charlotte Hubbard's Journey to Love: "Even though a 16-year-old seeking marriage was common in the 1860s, it is unsettling to read about today." This novel received a whopping one star from RT, largely - it appears - because of the heroine's age, some sexual references, and the "frequent swearing," which the reviewer found offensive. (It's set in the Old West, by the way, and not from a Christian publisher.) It's a matter of taste, but such a novel wouldn't offend me. In fact, the review almost makes me want to buy it!

It's one thing to prefer to read about heroines of one's own age, because one can identify with them more. This is something different. One-star reviews are very rarely given out, and this one, IMHO, wasn't deserving.

I suspect the reviewer felt unsettled because the novel was too realistic, destroying the pleasant sense of escapism it was supposed to provide. She probably wouldn't want to know about my 2nd great-grandmother, Elizabeth Smith, married at fourteen in 1871, in rural central Michigan, to a man nine years her elder. It happened.

This sort of thing can make people squeamish, so you don't see it much, accuracy aside. I can think of two other examples, taken from history and historical fiction. First there's Meggotta de Burgh, from Edith Pargeter's The Marriage of Meggotta, married in her early teens to the young man she loves in a story one Amazon reviewer calls "deeply romantic and tragic." Also Margaret Beaufort, from Iris Davies' Bride of the Thirteenth Summer, better known as Henry VII's mother. The latter novel was retitled Destiny's Child upon its 1999 re-release, for reasons that should be obvious. Both works were published first in the 1970s. Shall we be seeing a romance about Mary de Bohun, first wife of Henry Bolingbroke, published anytime soon? Not likely.

On the other hand, the heroine of Priscilla Galloway's The Courtesan's Daughter, set in ancient Greece, is fourteen-year-old Phano. (Excellent novel, btw, selected as an ALA Best Book for Young Adults in 2002.) Interestingly, and paradoxically, sentiments of uneasiness about her age seem not to exist. Reviews simply mention that at nearly fifteen, she's of marriageable age. Is this because it's a YA novel, or because it was set so long ago that readers don't automatically compare Phano with her 21st century counterparts?

How much like 21st century people, in terms of age and marital status, should we expect our historical heroines to be? Given the choice, and to increase their chances of getting published, should authors make their heroines more like us? At a time when horror stories of 14-year-old child brides from polygamous sects are splashed all over CNN, do you find the idea of 16-year-old romantic heroines in the Old West realistic, disturbing, or both?

Friday, September 14, 2007

Now, to the book piles

This is Max, helping me summarize books for my "literary historical fiction" chapter:

And this is the latest pile of recent acquisitions, waiting to be cataloged in Librarything and Readerware:

I estimate I'm almost half done with my chapter. The month is almost half over, so this is good progress.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

This was rather scary

So tonight at around 8:55pm (30 minutes ago) I was taking a photo of my latest book pile, getting it ready to post here, when an email came through from Amazon acknowledging that I'd just changed my email to and that my password had also been changed. I rarely get spam these days, and the email looked like it had actually originated from Amazon, so I checked the header. It had. The message was real.

Then I went to Amazon itself, and discovered that my email and password indeed had been changed - and I was locked out of my account. I log onto Amazon only from my home and work PCs, and my password isn't easy to guess, so I have no idea how this could have happened. Maybe someone was using a password-generating program and managed to get in.

After spending about 15 minutes on the phone with a customer service rep from India, verifying various address/credit card details, I have my account back. I'm just fortunate I had the PC on when that password-change email came through, or else someone could've gotten in and bought whatever, using my credit card, and had it shipped to them.

Anyhow, if you get an email regarding a password change from Amazon, don't assume it's a spoof - check the message header to be sure.

Book pile photos coming up.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Deals, deals, and more deals

Apologies, I've been neglecting this blog lately -- real life has taken over, with a multitude of library workshops to teach (and many students asking for help at the reference desk). I'm also in the middle of my literary fiction chapter. It promises to be long, which is why I'm making myself write it sooner rather than later. As a result, the house has piles of books scattered everywhere.

Oh, and for the person who googled "anne boleyn bodybuilder" and found this blog - I don't think I have what you're looking for.

These were spotted on Publishers Marketplace recently:

Jeane Westin's THE VIRGIN'S DAUGHTERS, exploring the constricted heart of the most famous queen in history, Elizabeth I, again to Ellen Edwards at NAL, in a nice deal, for publication as a trade paperback original, by Danielle Egan-Miller of Browne & Miller Literary Associates (NA).
[not sure what it's about, but it seems to be general fiction, not romance...]

The Last Town on Earth author Thomas Mullen's THE MANY DEATHS OF THE FIREFLY BROTHERS, which tells the story of two brothers, bank robbers and pop culture heroes, set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, to Jennifer Hershey at Random House, by Susan Golomb of Susan Golomb Agency.

Film rights to Robert Graves' I, CLAUDIUS, to Scott Rudin, who will produce along with Alison Owen (The Other Boleyn Girl", for $2 million, at auction, by Nick Harris at RWSH, on behalf of the Graves estate.

Historical novelist C. W. Gortner's THE LAST QUEEN, the story of Juana La Loca, the last queen of Spanish blood to inherit the throne, to Suzie Doore at Hodder & Stoughton, in a two-book deal, by Rachel Kind at Ballantine (UK/Commonwealth).

Diana Birchall's MRS. DARCY'S DILEMMA, sequel to Price and Prejudice, to Deb Werksman at Sourcebooks Casablanca, in a nice deal, for publication in 2008, by Elizabeth Pomada at Larsen/Pomada Literary Agents (US).
[In case you haven't read any of the other dozen sequels, or want to read another?]

Lisa Marie Wilkinson's FIRE AT MIDNIGHT, about a French privateer/smuggler's quest for vengeance against the woman he erroneously believes betrayed him to the English customs authorities, to Helen Rosburg at Medallion Press, in a nice deal, for publication in March 2009.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Salad at a bad cafe

(sounds like my meal at the Bob Evans on the way home from Hartford)

Members of the Fiction_L listserv have been compiling a list of butchered book titles that library patrons have asked librarians about.

If that's not enough, here's more.

Beverage alert on these. Enjoy.

An old article returns

(warning, slight bragging ahead)

In fall 2005, the editor of Bookmarks Magazine asked me to write an article for them on a historical fiction-related topic. While following their usual format of short recommendations on a variety of titles, I selected 20 benchmark historical novels and described why they were important for the genre. Then I provided several "readalike" novels for the original 20. It was an excellent writing exercise, given that each book summary had to conform to a certain length (short!). When the article appeared, I was surprised and pleased to see it was published as the cover story for the Jan/Feb 2006 issue.

The article has, by far, the most gorgeous layout of anything I've ever written, though I'm afraid the link at the bottom of this post doesn't really convey this. Hard to do, in HTML format. But the cover of the issue gives some indication. I've since learned, via a letter to the editor in Bookmarks' Jul/Aug 2007 issue, that their "historical fiction" issue sold out almost immediately. I was happy to hear this, but felt bad at the same time. A woman desperately wanted to buy it but couldn't. If I'd had any spare copies left, I'd have offered to send her one.

In his response, the editor promised to put the article online as soon as possible. This afternoon, I got notified via Googlealerts that he'd done so.

Coming up with 20 books out of the thousands of historical novels ever published was great fun, and a challenge. I did my best to ensure that as many subgenres and time periods were represented as possible, to show the genre's diversity. Do you agree with my picks? What else would you have included?

Anyhow, please read on, if you so choose:
Masters of the Past: Twenty Classic Historical Novels and Their Legacy

Monday, August 27, 2007

In which I learn I'm officially OLD

The Reader's Advisor Online blog pointed me to an interesting article from Saturday's New York Times. The latest additions to American Girl's collection of historical dolls are nine-year-old Julie and her Chinese-American friend Ivy, who live in San Francisco during the tumultuous and freewheeling 1970s. The dolls accompany a new series of books from American Girl, the first of which is Megan McDonald's Meet Julie.

Um... I was nine years old in the 1970s. Can't say I wore anything like the bell-bottom denims, embroidered tunic, or knitted hat sported by these fashionable young ladies, however. I think I was a bit too young for that; they're dressed more like sophisticated versions of my teenage babysitters than like me. No doubt the styles are meant to resemble those of young adults, unless things were different in San Francisco. Instead, I'm having not-so-fond recollections of Jordache jeans, feathered hair a la Farrah Fawcett, barrettes, and turtlenecks with vests. On the other hand, the red plaid top and dark green jeans do look pretty familiar.

With regard to the NYT piece, I also remember the bicentennial, watching news about the Vietnam War on my friend's parents' TV, and Carter's election to the presidency (which we learned about during 2nd grade recess). My hair was nowhere near long enough to roll up with orange juice cans, though. That practice is actually news to me.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Deaccessioning titles

That's the fancy term for "weeding." Because my collection surpassed 9,000 books last month, I figured it was time to bite the bullet and get rid of books I know I'll never read. Unfortunately, after going through my shelves, I only came up with a few dozen worth eliminating. Most are ones I got for free from some publisher or other, so at least I won't feel too guilty about it.

The weeded titles fall into one of three categories: histories about places/periods I'm not really interested in, fantasy or science fiction that's either too science-y or part of a lengthy series I've given up on, and contemporary fiction/memoir. Plus some out of date reference books.

I've deleted them all from Librarything and Readerware, and a few people on Paperbackswap will be getting items from their wish lists soon. The library will also be getting three large bags of donations. I wish I could say the deaccessioning opened up space on my shelves, but all it did was let me move some books off the floor.

Finally, thanks to Rachel, I now realize why so many people have been googling "sarah johnson data entry" and reaching this blog. I know my name's not exactly unusual, but I hadn't realized it also belonged to a spammer running a make-money-fast scheme. (Though I'm guessing in this case, it's not associated with a real-life person.)

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Choose your format

Per Publisher's Weekly yesterday, Bantam Dell is starting a new imprint, Bantam Discovery, that will release novels in trade pb and mass-market pb simultaneously. "Whether to publish a book in mass market or trade paperback is one of the toughest decisions in the editorial boardroom, according to Bantam Dell’s senior v-p and executive director of publicity, Barb Burg," PW reports.

The new line seems geared towards women's fiction initially, but Bantam Dell publishes a fair number of historicals, so I wonder if we'll be seeing some of them here too.

Simultaneous publication in both formats is common in the UK, but not in the US.

Given the choice, and given identical content, would you purchase a $13.99(ish) trade paperback over a $7.99 mass market one? Remember, also, that Amazon discounts most trade paperbacks to $10-something, while mass markets usually get no discount at all.

I admit I'd probably pony up the extra $2ish for the trade size...

Monday, August 20, 2007

Unique ways to find this blog

Just like Susan did not long ago, I thought I'd post some of the more creative search terms people have used to find this blog in the past week or so. (The overwhelming majority of searches are on authors' or agents' names.)

I was going to comment on each of these, but on second thought, I'll just list them.

Piers Gaveston portrait

wife birthday things to do

marie antoinette from a marxist view

when did castle building stop and why

tim johnson illinois womanizer

book tour for samurai

historical novels not bloody

past tense of the word eat

nobody got sacked for buying IBM

In other news...

- I saw Becoming Jane last Friday while on a family vacation back in Connecticut. As expected, beautiful costumes and scenery, but the movie's first half was quite slow, and while the rest was entertaining, I can't say I believed it for a minute.
- The state of Illinois is on its 20th day without a budget. I supposedly will get paid in August, but after that, nobody knows.
- On the plane back, I finished reading a novel that was written in 1779, which means, just maybe, that one of my 2007 reading resolutions is fulfilled. Now I have to go and write the review, fulfilling yet another of them.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Two book piles

A couple photos, below, of recent acquisitions at the Johnson library. These books arrived courtesy of Amazon, Book Depository, Booklist, eBay, Lulu, Paperbackswap, and various publishers.

The size of my library is seriously out of control, but sometimes books just show up on the doorstep, looking for a home, and who am I to turn them down?

Things are progressing nicely with "historical thrillers," and I'm expecting that it'll be a longer chapter than in the previous edition, just like with mysteries. So many new titles have appeared in the last four years. Fortunately, other chapters should be considerably shorter than the originals. I don't expect or want another 800-page book, and I don't think my publisher does, either.

I've heard rumors that copies of HNR's 10th anniversary issue have made their way across the Atlantic to some UK subscribers. If you're one of them, please let me know what you think. US residents can expect theirs within a week or two. Because of the vagaries of the US Postal Service, airmail (or, as they say now, First Class International) takes considerably less time than Periodicals Rate.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Monday's web news

Happy Monday, everyone.

From the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles: an article on what they term "Jewish pulp fiction," aka novels about Biblical figures. It's a different angle on the topic, and the editors' comments are interesting to read. However, there are a few errors in content and spelling, plus some insulting remarks ("Jewish pulp fiction, ranging in quality from a Regency Romance to commercial literary fiction") that make me suspect the author's never read a Regency. And, ugh, Fabio.

In an interview with Dear Author, Pocket's Lauren McKenna talks mostly about their fall romance releases, but reveals that they're looking to add more historical fiction to their line:
Q: What should we be on the look out for in the future (i.e., changes in Pocket’s line, new line launches, ebook initiatives).
A: Pocket will be looking to expand our trade and hard cover lists in the areas of women’s fiction and historical fiction.

Bernard Cornwell is appearing in A Midsummer Night's Dream on Cape Cod.

Out of Oregon, an interview with Nancy Horan, author of Loving Frank, a novel about Frank Lloyd Wright and his mistress, Mamah Cheney, which is being billed as one of this fall's big books.

From the Worcester Telegram & Gazette: Jeffrey Marshall, archivist and special collections librarian at the University of Vermont, explains how he found mention of the 1830 abortion scandal that turned into his novel The Inquest.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Reviews of Obscure Books:
Maureen Peters, A Song for Marguerite

Peters, Maureen. A Song for Marguerite. London: Hale, 1984. 172pp.

Maureen Peters is an extremely prolific Welsh novelist. Under her real name, she writes mostly about royalty, though lately she's been writing Victorian gothic romances. As Catherine Darby (her best known pseudonym), she's written many gothic novels, mostly historical, from a variety of eras. I own nearly all her books though am missing a significant few. Peters is a strong storyteller, concentrating on the interpersonal relationships of royals and nobles. She can create a regal atmosphere using prose and dialogue alone, so much that you nearly forget that apart from descriptions of clothing (which I can't judge the accuracy of), there's almost no real historical detail. Her accuracy, with regard to people, locales, and events, is OK in places but far off in others, and in A Song for Marguerite, there are some genealogical mistakes - but more on that later.

When I stopped by my Robert Hale bookcase yesterday, this title popped out at me - and I couldn't resist reviewing it because I know Edward II has his online fans. It's also short; you can read it in an hour or two. Unfortunately for poor Marguerite, but fortunately for you ladies, A Song for Marguerite deals far more with the Edward II-Piers Gaveston relationship than it does with this little-known queen.

We first glimpse Marguerite as a ten-year-old princess living at the court of her brother, Philip IV of France. She knows she's plain and can never compete in the beauty department with her older sister, Blanche. When the English king's brother Edmund, called the "English duke" (what is he duke of? I believe he's the Earl of Lancaster), pays a visit to France to discuss a possible treaty, he tries to arrange Edward I's marriage to one of the royal daughters, probably Blanche, on condition that Gascony be part of her dower. Nothing happens in this regard for about five years (dates are very vague), at which point the Queen Mother decides that the bride will be Marguerite, not Blanche, who's already been promised to Austria. And a good thing for Marguerite, for she prefers an older, more stable man for a husband, even if he's over sixty, and is simply glad to marry at all. She also longs to live in England.

The basic historical story follows: Edward I and Marguerite are happy together, though he treats her more like a cosseted child than a wife. As Edward grows older, he becomes more condescending, waxing on about his adored first wife, Eleanor of Castile, and making it clear to Marguerite that she doesn't measure up in the brains department. Marguerite, though sweet and kind, remains remarkably naive throughout. To her credit, she goes out of her way to befriend her stepson, Ned, as well as his constant companion, Piers Gaveston, and defends their friendship almost to the point of absurdity; she refuses to believe anything improper about them.

Piers Gaveston is easily the most compelling character. He's very charismatic, and people are naturally drawn to him, even Edward I, who reluctantly makes him leave court when it becomes obvious he's a bad influence. Marguerite, too respectful of her much older husband to show her true self with him, can relax around Piers and open up to him about political matters and the royal court. One scene at Woodstock, where Marguerite and her children rest before she's summoned north to join the king in Scotland, is particularly revelatory. Much of an age, the two speak frankly about her marriage and laugh about Henry II and Rosamund Clifford, whose ghost was said to haunt the estate. To Marguerite, Piers jokingly reveals his cynicism about true love, using the earlier royal pair as an example: "'If Henry the Second were to haunt every chamber where he laid a woman,' says Piers, 'he'd have precious little time to spend in Heaven.'" Piers makes humorous asides such as this throughout the novel.

Ned appears as a blond, muscular youth who, to his father's dismay, prefers to spend his time on pursuits suitable for peasants - rowing, swimming, and, yes, thatching. And young Isabella, Marguerite's niece, is described as a beautiful, charming child who turns into a gorgeous young woman. She grows up in truth once she realizes Ned's true feelings toward Gaveston. The scene where she tries to explain the reasons behind her unhappy marriage to her very naive yet older aunt is both touching and sad.

Now to the genealogical mistakes. When puzzling out relationships between characters, Peters occasionally mixes up Marguerite's sister-in-law, Jeanne of Navarre, Queen of France (called by the English equivalent Jane for some odd reason), and her mother, Marie of Brabant, the queen dowager. For example, it's not Marie's mother who married Edmund of Lancaster as his second wife, but Jeanne's mother. Peters repeats this incorrect fact several times. Gaveston also never consummates his marriage or has children; wrong. And the historical background - well, it's lightly sketched, to put it mildly. Edward I does go on campaign to Scotland, and all sorts of nasty things get done to William Wallace (off-screen), but Marguerite doesn't like politics, so we don't see much else.

This is undoubtedly more screen-time than this brief novel deserves, but as the saying goes, if I'd had more time, I'd have made it shorter. It's a smooth, easy read that gives insight into some members of Edward II's circle, and completists will probably want to read it, though be on the alert for historical errors. There are more that I haven't mentioned, and probably others still that I didn't pick up on.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat

Believe it or not, some Winter 2008 catalogs are already out, so I've updated the HNS forthcoming books page with new novels from Simon & Schuster and Penguin through next May. I also added St. Martin's Press titles through December. Note that Penguin will publish three historicals next January with the word "serpent" in the title - by Suzanne Arruda, Ariana Franklin, and Bernard du Boucheron. Are you tempted?

Useless historical fiction fact du jour: Winter Serpent is the title of two older historical novels, one from Maggie Davis (about the Vikings) and another by Aileen Armitage (about Rasputin).

Looking at my Librarything account, there are an awful lot of historical novels with "serpent" in the title. Now we'll have three more.

Moving along, a few days ago I posted the August issue of Historical Novels Review Online and the ToC for the print HNR's August issue, which should be leaving the printer any day now, if it hasn't already done so.

As of yesterday I'm done with my historical mystery chapter, aside from assigning keywords to the annotations and revising the intro. I'll probably work on historical thrillers next, but with 95-degree temps all this week, I'm finding it hard to get motivated. I'm also awaiting more review books in the mail. The new Lian Hearn, which I hope will be here tomorrow, has my name on it.

Meanwhile, an ARC of Ken Follett's World Without End showed up yesterday, all 960-odd pages of it. It weighs 3 1/4 lbs.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Interview with Jane Kirkpatrick, part 2

For Part 1 of this interview, see yesterday's post.

I wonder if you can talk about the dialogue and speech patterns you created for Emma and the other Bethelites, because they feel very natural for people of their history and background.

Thank you for that! I didn't want to use dialect as I think it can detract from the flow of the story. I decided I'd use a few German words and phrases and focus on sentence structure. Many of those phrases I heard often from my own grandmother and great aunts and uncles. (Gee, you might even be able to see it my structure here!)

I love listening to people and trying to figure out where they came from regionally, and seem to have a good ear for small nuances in speech patterns. There is often a sentence construction unique to a region such as "Throw the horses over the fence some hay." That's a phrase I heard often in my German community. Most of us would say, "Throw the hay over the fence to the horses" or "Go feed the horses," but you can see the difference in word placement. I did use one phrase for the character named Jack where he'd say "I might could do that," something tentative. It was his marker. But when I asked my German linguist friend to read the text, he said I couldn't use that phrase because a German speaker learning English in Missouri wouldn't say that. My stomach dropped! He said only people from Texas, Mississippi, or maybe Arkansas would say "might could." But he told me I could say "Maybe could" so that's what I did.

Oh, and the books are being recorded unabridged, and I was asked if I wanted the reader to use a German accent throughout. I said no, that German is a difficult accent to hear over a long period of time. Unlike French, it tends to make the character harder over time instead of soft and flowing. I didn't want Emma seen that way. What I asked for in a reader was a woman whose voice could convey many emotional states and to use the sentence structure and the few German words in the text to convey that these were German-Americans. The production company hired an actress, and we spoke for an hour or more talking about certain words, phrasing, etc. She's going to be terrific!

In the Q&A at the back of A Clearing in the Wild, you mention that Emma's parents left their own religious tradition to follow Keil, yet their family had a tradition of questioning religious authority, and one of Emma's uncles served as ambassador to France. I admit I was used to thinking (maybe wrongly!) about utopian societies as isolationist and conformist, with minimal connections to the outside world. Could you speak some more about Emma's family background, and the appeal that the Bethel colony may have had for them and others?

I'm with you in thinking these utopian societies wanted to be isolationists. But what I learned in reading the historical context is that the 1700s in Europe were times of great tumult, often related to the suppression of religious freedom and the freedom of expression in general. Religious authorities became entrenched in rules and regulation over the spirit of belief. In the 1800s, many of these people made their way to North America, where they saw the hope of being able to worship without the rigidness of religious rule and without state interference, but they didn't see themselves as being isolated from their neighbors. In fact, Emma's family embraced the communal aspect of giving to the common fund, and everyone drawing from it as needed, as being a foundation of living a Christian life. “Love your neighbor as yourself” being one of the great commands of the New Testament.

We see the Mennonites settling western Canada then, for example. And this is when the Hueterittes, Shakers, Inspirationalists and others formed in the US, the early 1830s. But these groups discovered that there is a delicate balance between isolation and engagement. Faith communities today have similar struggles, really. Most of the communities needed economic interaction with their neighbors to survive. Some of the religious groups sought new recruits from the larger society but others simply wanted to be left to live in peace and support their families.

There is some evidence that Emma's grandfather, father and uncles might have been part of a group in Bavaria who petitioned the emperor about reforms and were banished as a result of this perceived disloyalty and challenge. They didn't see themselves as disloyal people. When they came under attack by their government, they fled. But they were accustomed to being followers, so it seems likely they'd seek another strong leader to follow who kept the faith, so to speak, but who didn't get caught up in rules and regulations. They found this person in George Rapp in Pennsylvania.
But leaders sometimes get taken with themselves! When this happened, Wilhelm Keil was one of the first to resist. When he broke away from George Rapp, Emma’s grandparents followed suit. Her father remained with Keil until the 1870s, but an uncle, the ambassador, did not. Correspondence suggests that the brothers remained close despite having chosen different paths, a sign of religious tolerance and engagement in the larger world through political means. Until Keil seemed to lose some of this egalitarian focus, Emma’s family faithfully followed him.

Do you have a preference for writing about historical as opposed to fictional characters, or do you go with whatever stories inspire you?

Joyce Carol Oates in a lecture I heard said one of the things a good story should do is to be a witness to voices that would otherwise not be heard. I'm drawn to actual historical people, often those whose stories have been overlooked in my mind. Women in particular. Native women, for example. Or in this instance a woman involved in a male-dominated religious community. But certain events also capture me. I'm always wanting to answer, "How did that happen?" or "What was she trying to do that got her there?" and then finally "What does her story have to say to a woman/man/community of today?"

I always loved biographies as a young reader. But while they answered what and when, they never answered why very well for me. Probably the mental health person in me seeking information. Fiction - story - allows that speculation. And from what my readers tell me, they find inspiration and encouragement in the lives of people who actually lived or in authentic fictional characters dealing with a particular historical challenge. It's become my "brand" as they say: Real stories, real people, real hope.

What do you hope readers will take away with them after finishing your novels?

That living in communities of all kinds requires the ability to change, to know when to stand firm and when to be flexible. That life is filled with challenge and uncertainty, and it's a mark of our character how we allow others to help us find new direction in a time of trial. That all of us need to have our voices heard. That grief has many siblings, and loss must be honored and witnessed to or it will hold us hostage. That engagement with community enriches the soul and contributes to the larger world even if all desires of one's heart are never fully met. That doing the best we can for our families without losing ourselves in the process is worthy work that has been going on especially for women for generations.

I once spoke to a group of second graders asking how they'd describe the word "powerful." To me it means being able to set a goal and then gather resources in order to achieve it. I think most of my stories are about how people did that back then, how ordinary people did that and what they have to teach us about doing that today. But the kids said things like "rich" or "strong" was what powerful meant. Then this one boy sitting quietly in the front said "Oh no. Powerful is when you want to quit but you keep going." I hope my readers find within themselves that kind of power through my stories.

Thank you, Jane - this has been fascinating!

To recap, A Clearing in the Wild was published by WaterBrook Press ($13.99, 370pp, 1578567343) in 2006, and A Tendering in the Storm ($13.99, 383pp, 9781578567355) in April 2007. Visit Jane's website at and her blog,, for more information.