Monday, December 31, 2012

2012: Reflections on a year of reading

So here we are on the last day of 2012.  Unlike other bloggers, I won't be posting a Top 10 list for the year; I tried coming up with one, but I was unable to narrow it down past 16 or 17 titles, which all stood out for different reasons, and many of which were previously reviewed on this site.

I've been tracking my books on Goodreads (please follow or friend me there if you'd like!) and had set myself a goal of 85 books for 2012.  Until this recent holiday break, I wasn't sure if I'd make it, but a last-minute reading sprint put me over the top at 89.  With the library closed over most of the last two weeks, I haven't done much aside from read, proofread (the Historical Novels Review's Feb reviews are due soon), eat, sleep, and write.  With some shopping and one very slow day at the reference desk mixed in.  I wrote up four reviews for HNR, mostly of UK titles I'd bought and which the publishers didn't send, and will be reprinting them here after they're published in February.  It's been nice... I don't usually have this much time available at a single stretch.

During the last year, I completed the Chunkster Challenge with many titles to spare - at least a dozen in all. Although I don't plan to sign up again next year (I want to give myself a break!) I thoroughly enjoyed participating and am pretty amazed I managed to get so many 450-plus page books read.

I've also gone back and forth about activating/deactivating the captcha for blog comments.  Personally I think it's a pain, but I turned it off for a time and was getting dozens of spam comments a day.  It was too much, so I added it back (sorry; I hope people will still comment anyway).

Instead of publishing a Top 10 (or Top 17 or whatever) list, I thought I'd mention some novels I read in 2012 and didn't end up reviewing here, but which I'd highly recommend:

Enid Shomer, The Twelve Rooms of the Nile.  I reviewed this for Booklist; it's an exquisitely written intellectual adventure about Florence Nightingale, Gustave Flaubert, and what might have happened had they met while journeying down the Nile separately in 1850.

Amanda Coplin, The Orchardist. Set at the turn of the 20th century on a large orchard in central Washington State, "Coplin’s mesmerizing debut stands out with its depictions of uniquely Western personalities and a stark, gorgeously realized landscape that will settle deeply into readers’ bones" (quoting from my Booklist review).

Selden Edwards' The Lost Prince, which I also covered for Booklist. The entire review isn't online, but it's a very worthy sequel to his excellent, time-bending The Little Book. From my review:  "Moving from America’s Gilded Age through WWI’s aftermath in Europe, Edwards’ delightfully imaginative second novel follows a courageous woman’s singular accomplishments and their far-reaching effects on history."

James Long, The Lives She Left Behind.  If you read and loved Ferney but haven't picked up the sequel yet, what are you waiting for?  It continues the story of Gally, Ferney, and Mike some 16 years later, answering the question posed by the final, devastating line of the first book (the title is apropos).  I won't say more than that, other than I felt badly for Mike, finding himself enmeshed once again in the same painful triangle, but it's a very satisfying read. 

Christopher Tilghman's The Right-Hand Shore. In 1920, a prospective heir to Mason's Retreat, a once-prosperous Maryland estate, learns about his distant relatives, the Masons and Baylys, and their complex relationship with the land and the black families who lived and worked alongside them over the previous 60 years.  Beautiful and elegiac, it addresses the perennial topic of race relations in American history but is not your typical plantation novel.  You don't need to have read Mason's Retreat first (this is a prequel)I hadn'tbut it's on my list now.

What's up for next year?  Well, I've nearly made it through the to-be-reviewed pile, at last, but plan to approach the next year somewhat differently... reviewing more of my own books and making requests from publishers myself.  I also hope to diversify my selections, featuring more books set outside Europe and America, and from non-Western writers.  I have the 12 titles from the TBR Challenge to look forward to, and I'm also debating doing something for Small Press Month in March, maybe focusing on reviews of small press titles.

What books are you looking forward to the most in 2013?  If you need ideas, check out the Historical Novel Society's forthcoming books list, newly updated through next fall (compiled by me and Sarah Cuthbertson).

Thanks for following this blog and reading along with me over the last year!  I wish you the very best for 2013, with lots of good reading ahead.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Book review: May the Road Rise Up to Meet You, by Peter Troy

A stirring chronicle of the historical American quest for freedom, Peter Troy’s May the Road Rise Up to Meet You – taking its name from the Irish blessing – stitches together the experiences of four individuals from dissimilar backgrounds whose paths cross, and whose futures are determined, during the U.S. Civil War.

Part One opens with 12-year-old Ethan McOwen, whose Mam and Aunt Em send him to join his Da and brother Seanny in New York after the death of his older, beloved sister Aislinn in Ireland's County Fermanagh during the famine year of 1847. His traveling alone overseas under harrowing conditions earns him instant sympathy and admiration, and his clear love for books should endear him to readers even more. A decade and more after his arrival, having survived lower Manhattan's rough Five Points neighborhood, he joins his friends as a proud member of the Union’s Irish Brigade and achieves recognition as a war photographer.

Micah learns about life’s unfairness as a young man as well. Sold away from his family and shipped off to Charlottesville, his purported inheritance forgotten, he chafes under a cruel master who works him like a mule, as he says. His carpentry skills gain him local renown but are constantly exploited.

Mary Wilkens, a former runaway slave from North Carolina, is grateful to be bought by a prominent family from Richmond, where she becomes an expert seamstress and companion to their spoiled but sweet daughter. Mary's talent and elegance make her an ornament of the Kittredges’ shop, but, in keeping with the times, she knows when to adapt a field hand’s vernacular when necessary.

Marcella Arroyo joins the picture over 100 pages into the book but makes a strong impression with a suitably grand entrance. A society girl from Madrid whose family is tarnished by scandal, she is a clever card sharp who spends her winnings on the abolitionist movement, and who addresses her innermost thoughts to her late Abuela in a private notebook.

Each protagonist is distinct and, more importantly, has an interesting personality. These are people you’ll want to get to know. Their separate stories, which gradually intertwine, combine the liveliness of traditional Irish storytelling with the forthright authenticity of the slave narrative. What’s more, the text reflects the patterns of each character’s speech. It feels somewhat forced in the earliest pages, when Ethan is still a boy:

For several days in a row now, they put what remained of their hope into the soil, plantin’ the few sprouts they had, touchin’ them with the beads while reciting a rosary and askin’ the Blessed Virgin to protect this year’s crop.

After a time, however, it comes to feel natural and actually becomes more so the more pronounced it is – as is the case in the sections on Micah and Mary, with their African-American Southern dialects.

The plot rumbles along smoothly, the scope is vast – spanning 20 years from beginning to end – and the history feels vivid and clear. What’s particularly impressive, though, is how Peter Troy draws readers into his story through a masterful use of perspective. The viewpoints wrap around you and turn themselves inside out, so that without your knowing exactly how it happened, you find yourself inhabiting each character’s skin: marching with the Grand Army and firing a musket at an enemy Reb, assisting with an amputation as a battlefield nurse, and hiding your true feelings from the Kittredges while planning to run away with the handsome carpenter you love.

As you might expect, the four gradually form two couples. The novel follows them on each step of their poignant journeys toward love; after they’ve finally found some measure of liberty, it takes courage to place their future happiness in the hands of someone else.

Although filled with depictions of oppression and intense hardship and set partly during wartime, the overarching tone is persistently hopeful; the protagonists are good, honest people who are always striving for something more. Their personal stories are spread out against a wide canvas showcasing mid-19th century society and politics. Inspirational fiction in the best sense of the term, this fulfilling saga that celebrates the bonds between diverse people is an excellent choice for fans of classic American stories.

May the Road Rise Up to Meet You was published in trade paperback by Anchor in November 2012 ($15.95/C$18.95, 512pp).  The hardcover is also available (Doubleday, $26.95/C$32.00, 386pp).

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Guest post from Susan Sherman: Grandma Was a War Hero

Please help me welcome Susan Sherman to the blog.  Her debut novel, The Little Russian, published in paperback by Counterpoint this month ($15.95, 352pp), is based on her grandmother's life.  She has contributed a wonderful essay about how she uncovered details through personal research and family stories and transformed them into compelling fiction.

A genealogy buff myself, I'm always interested in hearing about novels based on family history, and I'd be putting The Little Russian on the TBR even if I didn't count early 20th-century Ukrainian Jews among my ancestors. Like many others, I know little about what their lives were like in the old country.  As Susan writes below, "We are a nation of immigrants," which is very true.  Novels such as this can help us get a better picture of what they achieved.

I hope you'll enjoy her post.  Visit her website at for more information.


Grandma Was a War Hero
Susan Sherman

For years I wanted to write my grandmother’s story. It was a natural for a novel: a young Jewish woman and her two children caught in Ukraine at the beginning of World War I, her desperate struggle to stay alive through the Russian Revolution and the civil war that followed, and her eventual escape across Ukraine to Poland. Yes, it was daunting to write about Russia; to become intimate with Ukraine during that period; to know what if felt like to live through those seminal events, especially as a Jew living in the Pale. I thought that if I were ever going to write this story, I’d better get on with it. My father and his one remaining brother were getting on. Time was running out. Since my grandmother didn’t leave a diary or letters or any other record, only they had the story or so I thought.

Like families everywhere, mine has certain traditions that are faithfully followed. They aren’t religious or philosophical in nature, but are small events, designed to bring people together. For example, every spring we meet at my house for a family reunion. Over Jewish comfort food, we get caught up, share photos and argue about politics. About eight years ago, at one of these reunions, I asked for details about grandma’s story. What I got was a barrage of conflicting accounts. Everyone had their own version, and everyone thought their version was the real one. My father believed that my grandmother went to live with distant relatives in Moscow at an early age. They were wealthy industrialists, who raised her as one of their own, educated her and taught her to be a lady. In my uncle’s version, she went to work in one of their factories, never received an education, and ended up barely able to read and write.

I decided to use my father’s version, mainly because I thought it would make a better story, and because it’s the version my grandmother would have chosen. My grandmother, like my protagonist Berta Alshonsky, was concerned with appearances. She would’ve been disappointed if I had portrayed her as an illiterate factory worker in a sugar refinery. According to her, she was educated. She read Goethe, Turgenev and Tolstoy. She could speak French, although I never heard her speak a word of it. The truth was my grandmother was a storyteller herself. She never let the truth get in the way of a good story, which is probably why there are so many versions of her life floating around my family today.

My main concern in writing the novel was telling a good story, not worrying about facts. In that way I guess I’m like my grandmother. I spent the next three years researching life in Russia and Ukraine. Eventually, I got to a place where I felt more at home in 19th century Cherkast then in Los Angeles. It was true that some of the elements of my story came directly from my research, but mostly my reading only served to confirm my grandmother’s story. There actually were thousands of Jewish peddlers on the road during the Russian Civil War. War communism was real. When she feared for her life because she was a peddler, engaged in private enterprise, and could be shot for it--well, all that happened. There were so many details of my grandmother’s life that I thought were exaggerated or invented, so many elements that seemed exotic or unreal, that when I did the research and found out they were true, it was a real awakening.

What I came away with, after all my research, was that my grandmother was an amazing woman. She had to have been in order to survive those times. I only knew her as the carefully coiffed blue hair bobbeh wearing her mink stole even on the hottest days. She was grandma, cooking all day for Passover dinners, dispensing hard candies to her grandchildren and admonishing us we went out without a sweater. I never knew she spent years scrambling for food and medicine, roaming the Ukrainian countryside trading beads for pig bristles and flax, so she could trade them in town for food. Each day she went out on the road despite the various factions who threatened the Jews: the Green Army of the Ukrainian nationalists, the Black Army of the Anarchists and the various hetman and their bands. She protected her children against the White Army and the Reds, while somehow managing to keep them alive despite the hunger, cold, and pogroms. In other words, my bobbeh was a war hero.

Traveling here and there to literary festivals, libraries, bookstores and book groups, I meet people all the time with family histories of their own. From every generation, from all over the globe come stories of men and women struggling to make a better life for succeeding generations. We are a nation of immigrants. We all come from somewhere else…and we all have heroes in our family.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

An interview with Alana White, author of The Sign of the Weeping Virgin

Today I'm pleased to bring you an interview with my friend Alana White, whose debut historical mystery The Sign of the Weeping Virgin (Five Star, Dec. 2012) has been meeting with critical acclaim.  Publishers Weekly noted her "sure-handed storytelling and scrupulous research into the period," while Kirkus, in a starred review, wrote that "One hopes that White's clever tale, meticulously researched and pleasingly written, is the first in a series that will bring Florence and its many famous denizens to life."

Set in the dazzling cultural mecca of Florence, Italy, in the late 15th century, it introduces an intriguing protagonist, Guid'Antonio Vespucci, who is charged with solving two mysterious happenings in his city: the kidnapping of a young woman, and the reasons why a painting of the Virgin Mary in his family church has been seen shedding real tears.  It's a troubled time for Guid'Antonio's beloved Florence, with its predominant statesman, Lorenzo de' Medici, at war with Pope Sixtus and its citizens blaming Lorenzo for their excommunication.

Alana will be touring with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours in February, so follow along with the participating blogs to learn more.  I hope you'll enjoy this interview. 

Guid’Antonio Vespucci played a major role in the political life of Renaissance Florence, but he isn’t as well-known as his explorer nephew, Amerigo, or Florence’s unelected but de facto leader, Lorenzo de’Medici. What convinced you to make him your main character?

Several things. Most importantly, I knew I wanted to write a character-driven story. While Guid'Antonio was an outstanding personality in Renaissance Florence, both as a lawyer and government leader and as Lorenzo de' Medici's ally and friend, he has remained a step back in the shadows, a pace behind the famous painters, philosophers, and poets of late fifteenth-century Florence. Thus, I felt I had space to create a story with him at its heart, filling in the unknown places, and giving him a private life, while drawing upon the facts surrounding his documented power and prestige. I felt I had the freedom to create a good, but haunted, inner man, one whose driving passion is to protect his family and Florence from their enemies at all costs.

I was equally drawn to the fact he was a lawyer. He is not an amateur or armchair detective. He is given court cases and represents clients, but he also investigates matters of a private nature. In Weeping Virgin, accompanied by Amerigo, Guid'Antonio walks down dark alleys where other men won't go.

Guid'Antonio Vespucci, detail from
Ghirlandaio's Calling of the Apostles
It appealed to me, too, that the "real" Guid'Antonio was a complex and good man; people respected and feared him (he was a powerful opponent of Savonarola, for example, and did everything in his power to rid Florence of that fiery preacher). Thanks to a bit of magic that happened when I discovered Ghirlandaio's image of Guid'Antonio painted on the Sistine Chapel wall, he is completely real to me. There he stands: silver-haired, wearing his flowing, crimson cloak. He is so handsome! And he is about forty-four, just the right age for my proper, but passionate, protagonist.

Your passion for the Italian Renaissance, in Florence especially, comes through loud and clear. What draws you to this setting?

Years ago, when I first read of the attempt in 1476 to assassinate Lorenzo and Giuliano de' Medici in Florence Cathedral during Easter Sunday Mass, I was intrigued. I read all the books I could find on the event. The more I read about the Medici family and their circle of friends, the more my fascination with them grew.

Here were the lives of the rich and famous: Leonardo da Vinci, Toscanelli, and Sandro Botticelli, with Sandro's paintings of breathtakingly beautiful young women and men. They all knew one another, loved and lost one another. Fought one another. They are all forever linked, and many of them are portrayed in the artwork of the day, making them real to us, almost six centuries later. That is what first drew me to this setting: the people, and here I remain, among them and their amazing individual stories.

While reading, I got an excellent sense of the layout of 15th-century Florence – the churches, City Hall, the Vespucci Palace and tradesmen’s workshops on Borg’Ognissanti, the Prato Gate, and even nearby villages. I got the feeling you must have meandered down the city’s streets numerous times yourself. What are your favorite places to visit there?

Ah, there's a lovely question! Guid'Antonio and Amerigo's family church, Ognissanti (All Saints) crowns the top of my list. I feel close to them there; the church is quiet, with relatively few tourists. As in Weeping Virgin, Botticelli's Saint Augustine is on the south wall, opposite Ghirlandaio's Saint Jerome—when these two frescoes are not traveling to art museums around the world. On the same street, Borg'Ognissanti, are the former Vespucci hospital (still a hospital today) and palace (which is not open).

Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence
I also like the Medici Chapel in Palazzo Medici Riccardi, where Benozzo Gozzoli's frescoes light the walls. A key scene unfolds there between Guid'Antonio and Lorenzo de' Medici's mother, Lucrezia Tornabuoni, who was in her day a well-known poet. In the Tuscan town of Impruneta, the painting of the Virgin Mary that plays a vital role in the book remains on display. I had a lovely "chat" with the priest there one day, in passionate, if broken, English and Italian! Impruneta is outside Florence; to go there and see the Virgin Mary of S. Maria Impruneta requires transportation—and she (the painting!) is not always on display. I don't want to omit the town of Vinci, Leonardo's birthplace. It is one of the most beautiful places in the world. As Amerigo says to Guid'Antonio: "No wonder Leonardo could paint!"

The Sign of the Weeping Virgin doesn’t begin as a typical historical mystery, since Guid’Antonio is charged with investigating the truth behind a weeping painting and a young woman's abduction rather than solving a murder. It made for a refreshing change. Did you set out to take a nontraditional approach to the genre?

Oh, my, no. After all the research and planning, it just played out that way. As I say, I knew I wanted the story to be character-driven. Really, I just felt my way. Finally, I decided someone had to die! I think I chose the right person. I'm writing the next book in the series now, a prequel. I want to include a glimpse of my victim, very much alive and going about his business. I always enjoy that when it happens in a book. I love thinking, "Aha! I know her/him!"

I enjoyed seeing the ongoing development of the relationship between Guid’Antonio and his wife, Maria del Vigna; they have a deep sensual bond, but their marriage is definitely volatile. How much does history tell us about them, and how much did you have to imagine?

Of all the major-minor characters in the book, Maria is the one I know least about in the real world. I feel fortunate to have her true name, her age, and the names of her parents. This much I discovered in another magical research moment. There is a biography of Guid'Antonio in Spanish, which as a true bibliophile, I own, even though I don't speak that language. In the opening pages, the author mentions Guid'Antonio's first wife, who died in 1469, adding that Guid'Antonio married the sixteen-year-old daughter of Alessandro del Vigna the following year. And there at the bottom of the page in a footnote, the author gives her name: "Maria." What a gem to find buried in those pages. I'm so glad I looked down.

Angelo Poliziano and Giuliano
de' Medici, by Domenico Ghirlandaio
From time to time, you include chapters that depart from Guid’Antonio’s perspective to examine other characters’ viewpoints, and I appreciated getting a broader look at the era this way. Were these scenes part of the novel from the beginning?

No. But eventually I reached the point where I wanted to take people beyond the confines of the walled city of Florence. I like Angelo Poliziano, the poet, and while I did originally include him even more, eventually I omitted those pages to maintain focus on the mystery and Guid'Antonio. Still, I felt the need to "swing out" a bit, and, since Angelo was in something of a self-imposed exile in Mantua and on the outs with Lorenzo at the time, I hoped including Angelo's thoughts about what was happening in his hometown underscored by a bit about his own personal history would expand the narrative, while trying not shoehorn too much material into the tale. I also added that very short piece in Lucrezia Tornabuoni's viewpoint as she mourns her son's death. To me, it helped keep those larger-than-life people real. The truth is—at times I felt sorry for most of them, imagining how they truly must have felt in their particular circumstances.

Let’s talk about one of my favorite aspects – the mouthwatering descriptions of Tuscan food! I especially enjoyed attending the meal Guid’Antonio shared with his kinsmen, from the fried ravioli, herbed meat, and bread in olive oil (yum) to seeing the silver cutlery with Vespucci-themed finials. Was the research for this as much fun as it appeared?

Fried ravioli—who knew? I have a lovely book, The Tuscan Year, by Elizabeth Romer. That is my main resource for seasonal foods and harvests as Guid'Antonio's cook bustles about the fragrant Vespucci Palace kitchen. I adore roast pork stuffed with garlic and rubbed with herbs. And so that was fairly easy to write about! I also rely on Waverly Root's The Food of Italy. Originally in Weeping Virgin, Amerigo was lusting after a Sicilian pastry known as the "Nipples of the Virgin." He must have some of those next time around. (And by the way, they originated in a monastery.)


The Sign of the Weeping Virgin is published this month by Five Star in hardcover ($25.95, 384pp).  Visit Alana White's website at

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Winners of the Historical Holiday Blog Hop giveaway

Thank you to everyone who entered my blog hop giveaway this past week.  The response was tremendous.  Although I didn't announce this at the time, I'd told myself that if the contest got more than 100 entries I'd double everyone's chances by giving away two copies rather than one.  Well, I'm happy to say we beat that number.

So copies of Historical Fiction II: A Guide to the Genre will be going out to these blog visitors:

Margaret from Just One More Chapter
Jennifer from Losing the Shadow

I'll be in touch to get your addresses.  Congrats, and I hope you'll both enjoy the book!

Monday, December 17, 2012

My master list for the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge

After reading about the TBR Pile Challenge on several different blogs, I knew this was one I had to join. As in previous years, Roof Beam Reader is the sponsor, and there will be many other participating bloggers around to cheer us on.  The rules are simple:  Create a master list of 12 novels that have been sitting on your TBR for at least 12 months, and read and review them over the next year.  I read on average 85 books/year, so this shouldn't be tough, right?  Especially since my TBR isn't really a pile but fills several rooms...

It may be a sad statement that I need a challenge like this to force me to read books that enticed me into buying them years ago, but the call of newly published titles often proves too strong... which means my older historical novels lie ignored for years if not decades.  I had such a fun time participating in Historical Tapestry's Alphabet in Historical Fiction challenge two years ago, since it gave me a good reason to return to authors' backlists.  The TBR Pile Challenge should do the same, and I'm looking forward to it.

Here's my list of 12 titles and 2 alternates, in no real order.  I've also posted it on Goodreads.  I spent way too much time going through my shelves at home and choosing these books.

1.  Rose Tremain, Music and Silence (2000) - royal scandal in 17th-century Denmark.  I've owned this for about a dozen years, and after just finishing her new novel Merivel: A Man of His Time, I'm eager to read more of her work.

2.  Paullina Simons, The Bronze Horseman (2001) - romantic epic centered on the Siege of Leningrad, 1941.  So many bloggers seem to love this one, and the prequel, Children of Liberty, will be out next spring.

3.  Liz Curtis Higgs, Here Burns My Candle (2010) - love and betrayal in the 18th-century Scottish Lowlands.  Her trilogy beginning with Thorn in My Heart, in which the biblical Jacob-Leah-Rachel triangle is transported to the same setting, is a favorite.  Why haven't I read this one yet?

4.  Rosemary Sutcliff, Rider on a White Horse (1959) - the story of Anne Fairfax and her husband Thomas, during the English Civil War.  Because it's a Sutcliff I haven't read before.

5.  Dorothy Dunnett, Niccolò Rising (1986) - the first book in her House of Niccolò series set in the Low Countries in the 15th century.  I have the entire 8-book set, all shiny 1st edition hardcovers with gorgeous jackets.  I picked up the first one many years ago, read 25 pages, was utterly confused as to what was going on, and put it back down (please don't hate me).  Meanwhile I've gotten older and have developed a taste for literary fiction.  This is a good time to try again.

6.  Diana Norman, Daughter of Lir (1988) - 12th-century Ireland and England.  A long out-of-print title from one of my favorite historical novelists.

7.  Donna Baker, Bid Time Return (1993) - I own many of Donna Baker's books but have yet to read one.  I also didn't know until googling her name just now that this is a pseudonym for Lilian Harry, best known for her WWII British sagas.  This is the first in her two-book Cumbrian Saga, set in and around Furness in the early 20th century.  Her website says that her novels written as Baker are being re-released as e-books.

8.  Elizabeth D'Oyley, The Mired Horse (1951) - the drama surrounding Thomas, Duke of Norfolk, and his relationship with Mary, Queen of Scots.  I had to create a new entry for it in Goodreads because it wasn't in the system... which is a very good reason to review it.  Someone ought to!  This will be one for my Obscure Books series. 

9.  Esmeralda Santiago, Conquistadora (2011) - one of my newer choices, a literary epic set in mid-19th century Puerto Rico.  I got my ARC signed at BEA last year and always meant to read it.

10.  Brian John, On Angel Mountain (2006) - first in a six-book family saga set in late 18th and early 19th-century Wales.  One of my favorite subgenres, and I love Welsh settings.
11. Elizabeth Laird, The Betrayal of Maggie Blair (2011) - YA historical about an accused witch in 17th-century Scotland... adventure, religious repression, and so forth.  I don't read much YA but should.

12. Tracy Chevalier, The Lady and the Unicorn (2003) - fictional drama surrounding the creation of the gorgeous Cluny tapestries, which I've had the fortune to see in person on two occasions.

Some old, some new, some classics, and some lesser known.  My alternates are Sena Jeter Naslund's Ahab's Wife and Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.  With luck I'll get to all fourteen within the next year, and maybe some others, too.  Hope you'll follow along with me!

(Edited later to add the novels' publication dates.)

Monday, December 10, 2012

My stop on the Historical Holiday Blog Hop

The holiday season is upon us, and like many other historical fiction bloggers, I'm participating in the 1st annual Historical Holiday Blog Hop sponsored by Passages to the Past. Nearly 40 different bloggers have signed up, and readers have a chance to win prizes at each of our blogs... so hop on by and see all of us!

In addition, Amy at Passages to the Past is hosting a large grand prize drawing over at her site (see the end of this post for what you can win there; limited to US only).

For my giveaway, I'm offering up a copy of my newest book, Historical Fiction II: A Guide the Genre (Libraries Unlimited, 2009).

This is a readers' guide to English-language historical novels for adults published between 2004 and 2008. The books are grouped into subgenres -- mystery, romantic, epics, literary, thrillers, Christian, sagas, traditional historicals, and more -- and then arranged by time period or theme.  Over 2,700 novels are included and described.  I also give detailed introductions to each subgenre, a short history of historical fiction, reading lists by plot pattern or theme, and lists of award winners.

It's 738pp long, weighs nearly 4 lbs, and retails for $70... and comes complete with its own headless cover.  International entrants are welcome, so I hope many will enter (consider it my contribution to the financially strapped US Postal Service).  Fill out the form below for a chance to win.  Deadline:  December 17, 2012.


The Grand Prize Giveaways for the Blog Hop are as follows. Amy at Passages to the Past will be creating four big prize packages out of these titles graciously donated by the authors or their publishers.  I've linked to my reviews/interviews when applicable.

Historical Holiday Blog Hop Grand Prizes (US Only)

- $25 Amazon or Barnes & Noble Gift Card
- Prize package(s) of historical novels including:

1. Oleanna by Julie Rose (pb)
2. The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn by Robin Maxwell (pb)
3. Jane: The Woman Who Loved Tarzan by Robin Maxwell (Audio Books)
4. The King's Daughter by Barbara Kyle (pb)
5. The King's Concubine by Anne O'Brien (pb)
6. Royal Romances: Titillating Tales of Passion and Power in the Palaces of Europe by Leslie Carroll (pb)
7. The Darling Strumpet by Gillian Bagwell (pb)
8. The September Queen by Gillian Bagwell (pb)
9. The Kingmaking by Helen Hollick (pb) *w/signed bookplate
10. The Forever Queen by Helen Hollick (pb) *w/signed bookplate
11. Sea Witch by Helen Hollick (pb) *w/signed bookplate
12. Claude & Camille by Stephanie Cowell (pb)
13. Marrying Mozart by Stephanie Cowell (pb)
14. The Queen's Vow by Christopher Gortner (pb, UK edition)
15. Into the Path of Gods (Book 1, Macsen's Treasure Series) by Kathleen Cunningham Guler (pb)
16. In the Shadow of Dragons (Book 2, Macsen's Treasure Series) by Kathleen Cunningham Guler (pb)
17. The Anvil Stone (Book 3, Macsen's Treasure Series) by Kathleen Cunningham Guler (hc)
18. A Land Beyond Ravens (Book 4, Macsen's Treasure Series) by Kathleen Cunningham Guler (hc)
19. Pale Rose of England by Sandra Worth (pb)
20. The Rose of York: Love & War by Sandra Worth (pb)
21. A Dance of Manners (A Regency Anthology) by Susan Flanders, Cynthia Breeding, Kristi Ahlers, Gerri Bowen and Erin Hatton (pb)
22. The Book of Lost Fragrances by MJ Rose (hc)
23. The Sumerton Women by D.L. Bogdan (pb)
24. Mistress of the Sun by Sandra Gulland (signed pb)
25. The Master of Verona by David Blixt (hc)
26. Before Versailles by Karleen Koen (pb)
27. Four Sisters, All Queens by Sherry Jones (pb)
28. At the Mercy of the Queen by Anne Barnhill (pb)
29. What You Long For by Anne Barnhill (pb)
30. Cascade by Maryanne O'Hara (signed hc)
31. The Lady's Slipper by Deborah Swift (pb, UK edition)
32. The Plum Tree by Ellen Marie Wiseman (signed pb)
33. The Secret Keeper by Sandra Byrd (pb, with Tower of London Tea Sachets)
34. The Mischief of the Mistletoe (2 copies - 1 pb, 1 hc - both signed)
35. The Sister Queens by Sophie Perinot
36. The Secret History: A Novel of Empress Theodora by Stephanie Thornton (pb w/bookmark)
37. The King's Grace by Anne Easter Smith (pb)
38. Illuminations by Mary Sharratt (hc)
39. Selene of Alexandria by Faith L. Justice (2 copies - 1 pb, 1 eBook)
40. A Thing Done by Tinney Sue Heath (2 copies, pb)
41. Rebel Puritan by Jo Ann Butler (pb)
42. The Bird Sisters by Rebecca Rasmussen (audio cd's)
43. By Fire, By Water by Mitchell James Kaplan (2 copies, pb)
44. The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan (ARC, courtesy of Penguin Publishing)
45. Above All Things by Tanis Rideout (ARC, courtesy of Penguin Publishing)
46. The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh (ARC, courtesy of Penguin Publishing)
47. Movement of Stars by Amy Brill (ARC, courtesy of Penguin Publishing)
48. Teaspoon of Earth and Sea by Dina Nayeri (ARC, courtesy of Penguin Publishing)
49. The Queen's Daughter by Susan Coventry (hc)
50. The Virgin Queen's Daughter by Ella March Chase (pb)
51. Three Maids for a Crown by Ella March Chase (pb)
52. Mistress of Rome by Kate Quinn (pb)
53. The Forgotten Queen by D.L. Bogdan (ARC)
54. The Sign of the Weeping Virgin by Alana White
55. A Place Beyond Courage by Elizabeth Chadwick (pb)
56. The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau (signed pb)
57. Second Lisa by Veronica Knox

To enter the Grand Prize Drawing, visit Passages to the Past.

Good luck to all entrants!

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Book review: Nine for the Devil, by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer

Mary Reed and Eric Mayer's solid historical mystery, 9th in a series set in 6th-century Byzantium, places their protagonist in an impossible situation.  How can one unmask a murderer when no crime was actually committed?

Crazed by grief, Emperor Justinian pressures John, his shrewd Lord Chamberlain, to find who killed his beloved wife so the perpetrator can be brought to justice.  Problem is, everyone knows Empress Theodora died of a lingering, painful wasting disease (one which we'd call cancer). All the same, if John doesn't come up with a killeror a scapegoathe and his family will pay the price. 

The unusual premise instills the narrative with a disturbing tension.  Justinian's methods are swift and brutal, and he doesn't hesitate putting people to death or through torture for minor transgressions... or even for no reason at all.  Honorable and ever practical, John takes his assignment seriously.  As John proceeds with his investigation, he interacts with characters from all walks of life, from the palace physician to reformed prostitutes to Justinian himself.  Only the emperor and a select few attendants had access to Theodora as she lay dying, making this not quite a locked-room mystery, but close.

Theodora, a bear tamer's daughter and former actress, had accumulated many enemies during her time in power, so John has a large cast of would-be suspects to sort through.  For example, her matchmaking efforts pleased her grandson and his prospective young bride but angered the young woman's parents.  Other military leaders, aristocrats, and religious figures had cause to want Theodora dead, too.  (It may take a while for series newcomers to adjust to who's who, so the list of characters at the beginning is a big help.)

Evidence for murder is lacking, but people are still behaving awfully suspiciously.  This is perhaps the novel's most clever aspect.  What seems at first to be a wrenching moral dilemma develops into a twisting puzzle with a plethora of clues and possible motives.  John may be acting on behalf of a capricious and paranoid autocrat, but it seems he's got a real mystery on his hands.  He has plenty to occupy his thoughts on the personal front as well, with his elderly servant's decline in health and the impending birth of his grandchild.

Nine for the Devil is a good example of how to set a mystery within a real-life scenarioin this case, one taken directly from the annals of the Eastern Roman Empire.  The colorful backdrop of Constantinople in 548 AD ripples with intrigue, with Pope Vigilius forced to remain in the city against his will, the thwarted ambitions of Justinian's cousin Germanus, and the scheming of Theodora's friend, Antonina, wife of General Belisarius. The result is a denouement that's both satisfying and historically plausible.

Nine for the Devil was published by Poisoned Pen Press in hardcover ($24.95) and trade paperback ($14.95) in March 2012.  304pp, including an informative and delightfully witty Afterword plus glossary.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

A look back at Sarah Jio's Blackberry Winter

It's a little embarrassing to be posting a review of Sarah Jio's Blackberry Winter this late, considering I received the ARC back in (ahem) March.  I breezed through it more quickly than I expected, turning the last page on the night before I took my flight to London in mid-September.  Then other responsibilities called, and well...

My tardiness, however, proved that Jio has a talent for crafting memorable characters and scenarios.  My recollections of her two heroines, both in 1933 and 2010, are as clear as the language used to describe their emotional stories.

Vera Ray's heartbreaking tale stands out for me the most.  A single mom struggling with poverty in Depression-era Seattle, she is forced to leave her adorable three-year-old son, Daniel, alone in her apartment while she works the night shift as a maid in an exclusive hotel.  On the morning after a freak May snowstorm, Vera returns home to find Daniel gone, and his teddy bear left abandoned in a snowdrift.  Even readers without children will be able to relate to her pain and helplessness.  In this class-conscious era, money talks; the police turn aside her pleas for help, saying Daniel must have run away.  Which is ridiculous, of course, and Vera knows it.

Vera's job puts her in the company of the city's elite, although she knows she can never join their ranks.  Flashbacks draw her back to her affair with Daniel's father, the wealthy son of a prominent Seattle family.  Her first-person voice brings her plight home in an immediate, very personal way.

A parallel strand introduces Claire Aldridge, a talented 21st-century journalist still grieving the loss of her unborn baby, an event which is tearing her marriage apart.  Claire has managed something Vera could never achieve, marrying into a powerful newspaper dynasty, but she suffers from depression and lacks purpose.  After a similar "blackberry winter" storm hits Seattle, Claire's editor asks her to come up with a story surrounding the May Day snow of 1933, which leads her to Vera and Daniel... and drives her to uncover the mystery of the boy's abduction.

And so the novel bounces lightly between big-band dance marathons and contemporary society galas, and between a dingy Depression-era tenement and a bustling modern café as two women nearly 80 years apart search for answers and try to recapture what they've lost.  There's a lot of dialogue in both sections, peppered with slang from their respective periods, which keeps things humming briskly along.

Are Claire and Vera linked in unexpected ways?  That's what the back cover blurb asks, and readers will already know the answer.  It's a credit to Jio's storytelling that the plot's uncanny coincidences (and there are a lot of them) don't lessen its poignancy, though.  Her empathy for mothers who had the misfortune to lose a child, as mentioned in her dedication, comes through on every page.

Blackberry Winter was published by Plume in September at $15.00, or $16.00 in Canada (trade pb, 290pp).

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Book review: The General's Mistress, by Jo Graham

The nondescript title of Jo Graham’s fourth novel fits her heroine, a Dutch courtesan who becomes the lover, in turn, of three generals of the French Republic. However, Elzelina Ringeling would stand out as unique and memorable whatever one chooses to call her.

After discovering her indifferent husband married her for her dowry, Elza flees Amsterdam for Paris, in disguise as her late brother Charles. She agrees to become General Victor Moreau’s mistress if he’ll serve as her protector. Although their liaison satisfies her material needs and passionate nature, the red-haired man she had once glimpsed in a tarot reading continues to occupy her thoughts.

Elza adopts the name Ida St. Elme, “for the fire that illuminates everything and yet is nothing but illusion.” Her fortunes rise and fall, but with her beauty and wit, she’s never alone for long. Her path leads her to the theatre, to the world of the occult, and into the arms of a surprisingly attractive First Consul Bonaparte before she encounters her soul mate, Michel Ney, a man who accepts her for herself – her cross-dressing habits included. The expressive rendering of their supernatural connection gives the novel a haunting flavor, although references to their past lives may confuse readers unfamiliar with Graham’s previous books.

On one level, the novel reads as an entertaining and sexy fictional biography of a real-life adventuress who reveals her love affairs, life in post-revolutionary Parisian society, and excitement in following the French army. More than that, though, it’s a thoughtful exploration of the meaning of personal freedom. The General’s Mistress presents a world sailing bravely into the modern age, with Elza/Ida as its compass. With her determination to chart her own future, one feels she could inhabit our time as readily as her own.

The General's Mistress was published this month by Gallery at $16.00, or $18.99 in Canada (trade pb, 381pp).  This review first appeared in November's Historical Novels Review.  I enjoyed the read, and it also gave me a new appearance by Mme Récamier to add to the cover art gallery.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Book review: The Gilded Lily, by Deborah Swift

Deborah Swift's second novel has a slightly different setting from her debut, The Lady's Slipper, but it's just as much of an involving page-turner. The Gilded Lily works as more of a spin-off than a direct sequel, so both can be read independently. For those who'd like to take a walk on the darker side of Restoration England in the company of well-realized female characters, these books are for you.

In The Lady's Slipper, the wild folkloric beauty of Westmorland in northern England is on full display. With The Gilded Lily, readers are taken from the countryside to the less affluent districts of a grimly evoked London in 1661, a place where, as one of the protagonists observes, “the poor were always hungry, for nothing grew here.” Corruption is rife, and truth is forced to hide beneath layers of artifice.

Ella Appleby may be the instigator of the novel’s action, but she's not really the heroine; that honor belongs to her younger, gentler sister, Sadie. After Ella discovers her married employer/lover, Thomas Ibbetson, has died unexpectedly, she takes off, but not without clearing his house of all its valuables, and convincing Sadie to help her.

The young women flee Westmorland and strike out for London, where they hope to blend into its masses of people and make a fresh start. Mr Ibbetson's identical twin, Titus, has caught their scent, though, and will stop at nothing to capture the "savage sisters" that robbed and (he believes) murdered his brother.

Having proven herself talentless at wig-making, beautiful, ambitious Ella attracts the notice of Jay Whitgift, a dashing pawnbroker's son who she hopes to entice into marrying her. He installs her as a salesgirl in his new salon, the Gilded Lily, which provides salves and ointments to London's most elegant ladies. Both Whitgift and his business have a dark and shifty side, though, and Ella finds herself caught up in both the surface glamour and his underhanded schemes.

Sadie attracts attention, too, of the unwanted kind... thanks to the large port-wine birthmark on her face. She is an admirable character, especially in the face of her sister's greed and cruelty. Ella has good reason to be bitter at rich folk, so while she may be difficult to like, her character isn’t completely unsympathetic. The desperate situation brings out realistic extremes in both sisters -- Ella's bossiness and Sadie's powerlessness -- and as their relationship turns bitter, Titus Ibbetson moves in to trap them, and danger erupts from an even more sinister venue.

There are a lot of viewpoints to follow, not just that of Sadie and Ella but also Ibbetson, one of Sadie's friends, Whitgift, and his elderly father, among others. This ensures a wide-ranging perspective on the events unfolding around them. The text has a good balance of dialog and description, which makes for a faster read than you'd expect for a chunkster-length novel. The characters’ language has an authentic period feel, and as Ella and Sadie come to discover what matters most, the plot speeds ahead toward a very satisfying conclusion.

The Gilded Lily will be published by St. Martin's Griffin on November 27th at $15.00 (trade pb, 471pp).  This review is part of the author's blog tour with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours. For more information on Deborah Swift and her novels, see her website at

Saturday, November 10, 2012

A visual preview of the winter season: Downton Abbey readalike edition

In updating the Historical Novel Society's forthcoming books list, I read through a lot of publishers' catalogs.  Certain themes quickly became apparent therein: A number of historical novels for late 2012 through early 2013 are being promoted as good choices for Downton Abbey fans.  (And I'm one of them.  No spoilers on Season Three, please!)  These dozen titles are the focus of this latest visual preview.

With Downton being so enormously popular, publishers are pouncing on literary comparisons.  This doesn't mean these books are carbon copies of one another, though, or that authors are rushing to imitate the show... but if there are any similarities in topic, theme, or setting, you can bet they'll be noted.  Some titles recommended as readalikes, like Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs mysteries, have been around considerably longer than Downton. (There'll be a new Winspear next March, Leaving Everything Most Loved, but the cover isn't available yet.)

That said, if you're an author working on an Edwardian- or WWI-set novel, this may be the year to make that sale!

Most of all, this varied list demonstrates the many different tie-ins that can be made to Downton Abbey, something that interests me as a readers' advisor.  Some of the historical novels below are set in the same pre-WWI-through-1920s timeframe; other are sagas that dramatize the interaction between aristocrats and servants on a grand English estate.  Some emphasize the changing social fabric during wartime in the early 20th century, and for one or two, the main link between them and Downton is their joint focus on strong, capable (British) women. 

All of the titles below are US editions.  Also interestingly:  I've been through some UK catalogs as well, and don't see nearly as many Downton mentions!

In Victorian England, a poverty-stricken young woman seeking personal independence and a way to overcome troublesome incidents from her past takes a job at an exclusive seaside resort.  Check out the gorgeous period artwork at the author's Pinterest page.  Gallery, January.
Fast-moving biographical fiction about adventuress May Dugas, a notorious con artist and social climber in Gilded Age and 20th century America, London, and Shanghai.  Doubleday, January.
The first two books in a trilogy about three women, two aristocratic sisters and the governess's daughter they grew up with, adjusting to society's changing rules in pre-WWI England.  Gallery, January and March.
An upstairs-downstairs friendship turns to romance at a great English country house in 1914, as political winds are shifting towards war and a glorious era comes to an end.  Isn't this a gorgeous cover?  NAL, January.
Julian Fellowes wrote a blurb for this literary romance set amid the beautiful, unforgiving landscape and cruel diamond mining operations of 1880s South Africa. A young Englishwoman travels there to establish a new life and finds herself confronting social injustice.  Amy Einhorn, April.
A backlist title from 1979 gets reissued with a fresh new look to attract Downton fans; the next two volumes in the series will follow. The Passing Bells centers on the aristocratic Greville family of Abingdon Pryory as their world of elegant garden parties and debutante balls comes crashing to a halt as war breaks out in 1914. Rock died in 2004.  December, Morrow.
This debut novel by a well-known British historian is a romp through 18th-century London through the eyes of a young woman raised alongside her aristocratic cousins but who's forced to create a new life for herself on the streets. Grand Central, January. 
The grimly evoked post-WWI period in Charles Todd's long-running Ian Rutledge mystery series has obvious links for Downton viewers (who should also check out his standalone novel The Walnut Tree, which is out now).  In Proof of Guilt, a seeming hit-and-run accident turns into a murder investigation, but the victim's identity and place of death remain unknown.  Morrow, January.
First in a new trilogy from the Upstairs, Downstairs writer, Habits of the House examines the day-to-day lives of an aristocratic English family and their servants as the financially strapped Earl of Dilberne seeks to recoup his fortunes by marrying his son off to a Chicago heiress.  St. Martin's, January.
The lives of loves of the inhabitants of an English country mansion, from the original architect to its final owners in the present day, over the span of 240 years.  Simon & Schuster, January.
Willig takes an excursion away from her Pink Carnation series with this standalone novel that promises to "bring an Out of Africa feel to a Downton Abbey cast."  A modern-day lawyer learns a century's worth of family secrets in a tale that moves from 21st-century Manhattan to WWI England to 1920s Kenya. St. Martin's, April.

Update, Jan 2013:  For more Downton Abbey readalikes, see Part 2 of this post.

Monday, November 05, 2012

In which I read Jenny Barden's Mistress of the Sea

With a blurb describing it as an “epic, romantic swash-buckling adventure,” Jenny Barden’s debut Mistress of the Sea is a novel I’ve been eager to read. Back in August, as you may recall, Jenny had contributed an informative guest post about Francis Drake's expedition to Panama in 1570-73, in which he took revenge against the Spanish for their treacherous rout of the English fleet two years prior.

The exploration of New World lands – and the profits gained thereby, especially at the expense of the Spanish – contributed to the glory of the Elizabethan Golden Age. Despite this, the novel’s subject isn’t one that most aficionados of Tudor fiction will be familiar with, and its originality is all to the good. If you’re a reader who thirsts for adventure, wouldn’t you prefer to travel somewhere you’ve never been?  

While the backdrop is historically based, the main characters of Mistress of the Sea are fictional. Their story pivots upon a “what if” premise: Suppose a young woman took part in Drake’s voyage to Panama. What would her motives have been, and what would her experience have been like? What price would she pay for her impulsive act?  

Ellyn Cooksley, daughter of a wealthy Plymouth merchant in 1570, loves her irascible father but can’t see marrying either of the boorish suitors he tries to pair her with. Master Cooksley agrees to finance Drake and his privateers, but when he insists on joining them, Ellyn worries about his poor health. To help care for him, she stows away aboard Drake's ship, the Swan, in the garb of a cabin boy.  

If you anticipated a feminist scenario in which Ellyn successfully maintains her disguise and becomes an accepted member of their daring crew, you’d be much mistaken. While the men admire her beauty and respect her as their backer’s daughter, Ellyn is clearly a liability. In particular, Will Doonan, a master caulker and her family’s handsome lodger, feels let down by her presence. Will had dreamed of making his fortune and possibly winning Ellyn when he returned from sea, but now he starts questioning her judgment.  

Although he has sworn to support Drake, who is depicted as merciless in seeing their mission fulfilled, Will also has a more private reason for signing on. His brother Kit was captured by Spaniards on a previous Caribbean voyage, and Will means to avenge his loss. He has tough calls to make, since protecting Ellyn will pull him away from their plan.  

The prose has a calm confidence, balancing scenes of perilous escapades with others of thoughtful reflection while propelling readers smoothly through the exotic West Indies. The viewpoint switches from brave Ellyn, who is left behind with her ill father on a Caribbean island, to Will and Kit and then back again; this ensures a varied perspective while driving the story forward.

Will and Ellyn’s tender love story is no less passionate for its being chaste.  They also endure long periods of separation, but their growing bond is anchored in the spirit of the age. One gets a sense of the vastness of the world, as the Elizabethans would have perceived it, and the mysterious forces that nonetheless tie these lovers to one another. Their dialogue has a gentle Shakespearean lilt, and given the novel’s strong historical sense, exclamations like “What ho!” and “Go to!” and “Fie!” come out sounding natural.  

With its feminine spin, Mistress of the Sea invigorates a genre too often focused solely on brawny male exploits, but there’s plenty to satisfy fans of seafaring action, too. (And if you can’t distinguish a pinnace from a shallop, carrack, or caravel by the time you’re done, even with all the context provided, get thee to the glossary at the end of the book.) Whether you sign up for this journey in search of romance, high-stakes adventure, or just engaging entertainment, there’s something for most everyone here.  

Mistress of the Sea was published by Ebury/Random House UK in August at £14.99 (hardcover, 408pp). The author is a fellow member of the Historical Novel Society, whose recent London conference she coordinated (and ran flawlessly) – and where she gave a great presentation on how her book found a mainstream publisher. Her website is

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Bits and pieces

Happy weekend!

The winner of the giveaway for Mary Sharratt's Illuminations is Shelly W.  Thanks to everyone who entered!  I've notified Shelly, and her copy of the book is en route.

Sarah Nagle, Collections Librarian at Carver County Library in Chaska, MN, has put together a great "World War II in Fact and Fiction" handout with two of her Minnesota library colleagues; it accompanied their program at the MN Library Association conference on October 5th.  If you haven't been able to find enough wartime fiction for yourself or your library's patrons, check out their thematically-arranged list... I'm sure there will be some that are new to you.

Reviews from the Historical Novels Review's November issue are up - all 305 of them. Over 30 reviews of indie titles are online as well.  The Historical Novel Society was founded in 1997, and for the cover story, a small number of longtime members shared their perspectives on the HNS on the occasion of its 15th birthday.  It was fun compiling that piece and hearing everyone's thoughts.

The next big thing in the book blogosphere is a meme called... The Next Big Thing.  Actually, it's been spreading for the last two months or so.  Authors, including many historical novelists, have been tagging one another to describe what their work-in-progress is about.  Here's a short collection of these posts. Check them out to see what's in the works.

M.M. Bennetts
Nancy Bilyeau
Debra Brown
Sandra Byrd
Michelle Cameron 
Christina Courtenay
Stephanie Cowell 
Heather Domin
Christy English
Elizabeth Caulfield Felt
Kate Forsyth
Jean Fullerton
Sandra Gulland
Liz Harris
Tinney Heath
Susan Keogh
Victoria Lamb
Lilian Nattel
Sophie Perinot
Teralyn Pilgrim
Kim Rendfeld
Julie K. Rose
Susan Spann
Deborah Swift
Kris Waldherr 
Lisa J. Yarde

If I'm missing any posts (of the historical fiction persuasion, that is), let me know in the comments!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Book review: The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin, by Robert J. Begiebing

An unsettling literary mystery spun around the first murder in Exeter, New Hampshire, a true-life unsolved crime, The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin wastes no time settling into its historical milieu.  The language is formal yet accessible, while the tale is darkly compelling.

In 1648, a magistrate of the Pascataqua plantation writes to Englishman Richard Browne with an invitation and request. Browne seeks entry into the forest trade to recoup his family's financial losses; his would-be benefactor, Jonathan Cole, has been unable to resolve a months-old case and asks for his help.

That past spring, a young woman’s nude, strangled, “much abused” body was found in the bay. Her husband has withdrawn charges against the principal suspect, who has since disappeared – whether out of guilt or for his own reasons, nobody can guess.

Begiebing introduces the late Mistress Coffin in slow, deliberate fashion: we learn others’ reports of her, then her first name, and only later, perhaps, her own thoughts. “She left herself too undone,” testified the suspect, Jared Higgins, a man hired to row her to market on the day she died.  “There was some enchantment over her ripe and plucky beauty... something in her ways to disturb Christian men and women.”

Such un-Puritan-like behavior is just one way this novel diverges from the expected. Godly devotion and superstitious beliefs exist alongside worldly acquisitiveness of a sort that today’s business moguls would recognize.  Hallmarks of refined civilization can be found even in the pristine wilderness: wealthy men keep large libraries, quality board-cloths are laid upon tables, and pewter servingware is used at meals. The people maintain strong ties with England and closely follow its troubled politics.  Finally, as Browne learns firsthand, sometimes earthly desires trump any outside rules.

The mysteries twist and deepen the longer Browne searches for answers, and with his unspoken attraction toward Higgins’ abandoned wife, he develops his own reasons for directing the investigation as he does. Times and customs may change, but human nature remains constant. As much a revelatory character study as an absorbing crime novel, The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin offers sharp depictions of colonial life and a startling bridge between that long-ago world and now.

This classic backlist title was recently reprinted by Hardscrabble Books/Univ. Press of New England (Aug. 2012, $16.95, trade pb, 236pp), with a striking new cover, in honor of the 20th anniversary of its initial release.  It forms a loose trilogy with Begiebing's two other novels of historic New England, The Adventures of Allegra Fullerton and Rebecca Wentworth's Distraction.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

On Alan Titchmarsh's The Haunting, a saga of early 19th-century and modern Hampshire

I first spotted Alan Titchmarsh's The Haunting on a display table at the Waterstone's in central Wells, England.  It was a miserable rainy day in late September, and I didn't want to be loaded down with packages, so I made a note to order it when I got home.

Dual-period novels in which the past haunts the present always pique my interest, and it also intrigues me to see the many variations on this theme.  I love Kate Morton's novels, and from the back cover blurb I would have predicted a similar type of read:

How can the mysterious disappearance of Anne Flint and the drowning of a young girl in a chalk stream in 1816 possibly affect the life of schoolteacher Harry Flint some two centuries later?  ... A story of love and betrayal, intrigue, and murder, where people are not what they seem, and the past is no more predictable than the future...

However, The Haunting has a very different feel to anything Morton writes; its gentle, flowing style reflects the rhythms of life in rural Hampshire, and while chapters alternate between spring 1816 and spring 2010, the two eras are only loosely interwoven.  The literal "haunting" mentioned in the title is almost incidental to the plot.  This is deliberate on the author's part, and the opening quotation (see beginning of 2nd paragraph on this page) explains why.

Anne Flint is an attractive 15-year-old housemaid at a country manor.  She is ambitious and literate (she loves reading romantic adventures about highwaymen) and dreams of becoming a lady's maid at a grand estate.  One bright spring day in April 1816, she grabs her opportunity and sneaks out the wrought-iron gate for a scheduled meeting.  Before day's end, another young woman will be found dead in the mill stream, wearing Anne's clothing.  Anne is nowhere to be seen. Her journey from that point on is sometimes predictable, sometimes not.

In 2010, at St. Jude's School in Winchester, teacher Harry Flint does his best to interest his students in history, but they're having none of it.  Still recovering from a recent divorce, he decides to make a fresh start by quitting his job and buying a small thatched cottage along the River Itchen.  His work colleague thinks he's crazy because the house is in such poor shape, but Harry thinks it's the perfect place for him to research his ancestry.  He doesn't get far.  His friendship with the young widow next door quickly turns romantic (and helps him get over his lack of confidence and innate stuffiness), but there are issues both must address before they can move forward.

Parallels between the late Georgian scenes and the modern ones are blatantly drawn at first (we really don't need the same phrases repeated in both sections).  Because of this, I expected more emphasis throughout on Harry's genealogical research and the specifics on how he and Anne were linked.  They have the same last name, after all.  Fortunately each story stands very well on its ownand that's all I'll say about what happens.  Being American, I hadn't known that Alan Titchmarsh was the well-known host of gardening programs on the BBC, but his talent for describing country landscapes is a pleasurable highlight.

The novel takes on a melancholy air as it poses thoughtful questions on the impossibility of recapturing the past and how impulse decisions and random chance can both have long-term effects... ones which extend over centuries.  Overall, though, it's not a depressing read.  It wraps up on a very satisfying note.
The Haunting was published by Hodder & Stoughton in paperback at £7.99 in August.  My copy is the large format paperback (the export edition) priced at £13.99, which has the cover art above.  Find it on Goodreads here.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

A look at Michael Ennis's The Malice of Fortune

Twenty years have passed since publication of Duchess of Milan, Michael Ennis’s spectacular Renaissance epic, so the appearance of his new novel is good cause to celebrate. The Malice of Fortune takes place in Italy in 1502, a few years after most events from the earlier book, and exhibits the same glorious ambience, deadly power politics, sharply rendered historical characters, and dark sensuality.

However, this novel is a different type of creature: a complex intellectual thriller with an even more sinister backdrop.

Damiata, a courtesan of Rome, is a heroine worth rooting for. Although she is as fierce as Isabella of Aragon and Beatrice d'Este from Duchess, she lacks their sphere of influence, status, and (yes) selfishness. Her efforts are focused wholly on her young son.

Five-year-old Giovanni is taken hostage by Pope Alexander VI, aka Rodrigo Borgia, to assure Damiata’s compliance. Borgia suspects her of inciting the murder of her former lover, the pope's son Juan – Giovanni's father – and sends her north to Imola to exonerate herself, if she can. The amulet Juan was wearing when he was killed was found in the possession of a dead woman there.

Imola is controlled by Cesare Borgia, Duke of Valentinois, Juan’s enigmatic brother, who is best known by the cool nickname "Valentino." Upon her arrival, Damiata finds a land in turmoil as Valentino and the treacherous mercenaries known as condottieri jockey for power. Even more dangerously for Damiata, a serial killer is depositing the results of his crimes in various locales around the city.

Damiata finds help from Niccolò Machiavelli, a minor Florentine diplomat and secretary to the Ten of War, and the great Leonardo da Vinci, Valentino’s chief military engineer. In this revitalized Italy struggling to break free from long-held superstitions, there are two ways by which to recognize a murderer: by his corrupt nature and by the evidence he leaves behind. “If we are to defeat Fortune, Secretary,” Valentino advises Niccolò, “we must anticipate events.” Between Niccolò’s forensic profiling (he studies ancient despots and psychopaths for clues to their character) and Leonardo’s brilliant scientific acumen and dissection experiments, they have both methods covered.

The Malice of Fortune doesn’t unfold like a typical murder mystery, with these two famous Renaissance men nosing into horrific happenings like traditional amateur detectives might. Ennis plays too close to real-life history for that.  His crafty puzzle respects his characters' personalities and is carefully slotted within actual recorded events. The body parts recovered in and around Imola appear in a pattern perfect for a mind like Leonardo’s to decipher, and which, combined with the crime’s grisliness, indicates that a truly cunning form of evil is at work. The killer not only incorporates Leonardo’s methodology but taunts them with it.

In 1502, Machiavelli’s writing of The Prince was still 11 years in his future; he appears here not as a seasoned political theorist but as a younger man still earning his clout. Niccolò picks up the narrative when Damiata’s account wraps up, giving readers an inside glimpse of his reasoning as well as events that, in this fictional version, led to the observations in his masterwork.

In the beginning, the plot feels somewhat imbalanced – gorgeous descriptions, but too little action – but over time, as the solution falls into place, the suspense grows and the pages turn more swiftly. It also has a fine sense of the dramatic that feels right for the era.  Dense, erudite, and steeped in the fraught power struggles and brainy pursuits of the Italian Renaissance, Malice doesn't respond well to a tentative approach. Fortune favors the bold, so grant it your complete attention and watch it repay you in full.

The Malice of Fortune was published by Doubleday in September at $26.95 (hb, 396pp, including a six-page author's note). The Canadian publisher is McClelland & Stewart (hb, $29.99).  Read Ennis's fascinating article in the National Post about its road to success, and the role that a good editor can play in book publishing.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Book review: Winter of the World, by Ken Follett

The second volume in Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy begins with a scene that aptly foreshadows its chilling title. The year is 1933. Hitler has just been made chancellor, and Germans are pondering how to react. Over breakfast with her family at their Berlin home, native Englishwoman Maud von Ulrich defends the outspoken stance she took in her last magazine column. "What would life be like for our children if Germany became a Fascist state?" she argues.

Her husband, Walter, a member of the Reichstag, prefers a less risky approach to the Nazi threat, while son Erik disagrees: "But the Aryan race must be superior – we rule the world!"

It’s all rather ominous – and obvious. Follett’s no-nonsense style can lack subtlety at times, but he more than makes up for it with his firm grasp of history and ability to juggle multiple story strands, each as attention-grabbing as the last. In great part, he meets the high standard set by the mega-bestselling Fall of Giants. Although its outline never hides too deeply beneath the plot, Winter of the World is another accomplished and consistently entertaining feat.

In this panoramic epic spanning 16 years, from the Depression through the Cold War, diverse characters from around the globe are caught up in major (and some minor) historical dramas. From protests in German streets to the London Blitz to the Manhattan Project’s inner workings, the five families from the first book – Welsh, English, Russian, German, and American – get even further entangled. The focus has moved ahead to a new generation. Some children pursue the same paths as their parents, and new heroes and heroines emerge.

Each fights his or her own battle where it happens, be it in the boardrooms of Washington, D.C., in the air over Midway Island or much closer to home. In keeping with reality, one rarely gets to choose. As Carla von Ulrich, daughter of Maud and Walter, does her courageous utmost to halt Nazi atrocities, Lloyd Williams, the Cambridge-educated illegitimate son of a housemaid-turned-MP, heads to Spain during its civil war to combat fascism, not expecting to fight communists too.

This is an era when a factory worker from St. Petersburg, Russia, can become an American millionaire, and his gorgeous socialite daughter can marry almost anyone she wants. Follett gives them space to grow, and through their experiences creates some very gratifying moments. Following wartime turmoil, the former Daisy Peshkov awakens from her rich, empty existence to establish a meaningful life, and although her uncouth father, Lev, never achieves likeability, the best comeback lines belong to him.

"The world of international politics and diplomacy was quite small," Lloyd Williams thinks at one point. This happens to be true. As he and other ordinary citizens turn into movers and shakers, their many coincidental meetings begin to make more sense. This mammoth saga is all about connections, and Follett also explains with clarity the links among the political and social movements during this darkest
of times.

Winter of the World includes nearly every type of Second World War story, drawing together scenes of country house drama, suspenseful front-line action, Soviet espionage, daring resistance, generational conflict and even interracial romance. Most impressively, rather than a patchwork of disparate segments, Follett has produced another seamlessly woven and enjoyably readable work, one which honours the individual acts of bravery that shifted history’s course.

Ken Follett's Winter of the World was published by Dutton in September at $36, or $38 in Canada (hb, 940pp).  In the UK, the publisher is Macmillan (£20, hb). This review originally appeared in Canada's Globe and Mail on Saturday, October 13th.