Friday, December 29, 2006
I probably won't be blogging again until after New Year's, as I'll be compiling and editing reviews for next week's deadline, processing the conference registrations that arrived while I was gone, and attempting to make the switch to the new Blogger without losing anything. In the meanwhile, if you haven't seen it for a time, I've updated the HNS forthcoming books page with titles through next August, in particular new historical fiction from Penguin, Houghton Mifflin, and Simon & Schuster.
In early January, I'll be posting an interview with Deanna Raybourn, whose debut historical Silent in the Grave is newly out in bookstores - and which I mentioned as a "galley to grab" at last year's BEA. Time permitting, I hope to interview other historical novelists for the blog in the future.
Hope you all have a great new year, and here's to more good reading for 2007!
Saturday, December 23, 2006
The Book Barn also boasts the floppiest and laziest bookstore cats I've ever seen. They're so tame and used to being petted by customers that they don't even wake up. If you're not into cats, you can head outside (follow the bleating and baaing) to the small fenced-in area and visit with the friendly goats.
I bought two books - Manda Scott's latest Boudica novel (not having read the first two in the series didn't stop me, although maybe it should have) and Wayne Karlin's The Wished-For Country, set in colonial Maryland. Fortunately, Librarything tells me that I don't already own either one. It's an occasional problem.
Wednesday, December 20, 2006
Karen Maitland's A COMPANY OF LIARS, set in England in 1348, as the plague is spreading and a band of misfits are trying to outrun it, including a scar-faced trader in holy relics, a minstrel from Venice, an itinerant painter of church frescoes, a deformed storyteller wanted by the law, a strange albino child, a healer, and a bad-tempered magician traveling with an embalmed mermaid, and THE OWL KILLERS, also set in the middle ages, to Kate Miciak for Dial and Bantam, in a major deal, by Kathleen Anderson at Anderson Literary Management, on behalf of Victoria Hobbs at A.M. Heath (NA).
I said earlier I'd do an end-of-the-year Top 10 list, but there are so many historical novels from 2006 I haven't read that it's almost silly. But disclaimers aside, here they are, in alphabetical order by author:
Gretchen Craig, Always and Forever (Louisiana, 1823-37)
Margaret Ball, Duchess of Aquitaine (Aquitaine and Paris, France, 1137-49)
Charles Frazier, Thirteen Moons (Great Smoky Mountains, North Carolina, 1830s)
Margaret George, Helen of Troy (ancient Greece)
Sally Gunning, The Widow's War (Cape Cod, Massachusetts, 1761)
Jane Harris, The Observations (Scotland, 1863)
Amy Hassinger, The Priest's Madonna (Rennes-le-Château, France, 1890s)
Jaime Manriquez, Our Lives Are the Rivers (Ecuador and Peru, 1820s)
James Morrow, The Last Witchfinder (England, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, 1688)
Mary Sharratt, The Vanishing Point (Maryland, 1689)
Where reviews that I've written exist on the free web, I've linked them. For the Amazon reviews, look for the Booklist mentions.
As for what I'm reading now, I'm nearly done with Ann Waldron's The Princeton Imposter, part of the "Death is Academic" murder mystery series set on the Princeton campus. It showed up in yesterday's UPS mail, and I got sucked in after reading the first couple pages.
Monday, December 18, 2006
I don't know if I've been lucky, whether I can pick them, or what.
Then this evening, while browsing the HarperCollins rights guide (this is what I do in my spare time, see), I read that Patricia Clapp's Jane-Emily is going to be reprinted next July by Harper Paperbacks. This is very exciting news. Jane-Emily was one of my two favorite novels as a child, the other being Janet Lunn's Twin Spell. With no idea of where my original copy disappeared to, I considered getting a copy off ABE a few months ago, but didn't feel like paying very much for a paperback in ratty condition. Now I won't have to.
In case you don't know it, Jane-Emily is a classic novel of the supernatural set in Lynn, Massachusetts, in 1912. Jane, a nine-year-old orphan spending the summer at her grandmother's stately home with her eighteen-year-old Aunt Louisa (who narrates) , makes contact with the spirit of another young girl, Emily, who died on the grounds of the same house twelve years earlier. Every time I see a glass reflecting ball in someone's yard, it reminds me of Jane-Emily, for in the novel, it glows whenever Emily's ghost is nearby. It's haunting, romantic, and terrifying, and with Jane and Louisa as the two protagonists, it can be read and enjoyed by people of any age.
Not to mention that the cover was seriously cool. Picture a New England-style house in the deep blue of late evening, with a reflecting ball mysteriously aglow in the foreground. This is what I remember, 20 or so years after I last read the novel, though I can't find a photo online.
While typing this, I visited the Amazon page for Jane-Emily and read comments by both the publisher and Patricia Clapp's granddaughter, who posted there.
Has anyone else read it? Do you know of any novels that are currently unavailable that you'd like to see published?
Saturday, December 16, 2006
It's written from a UK viewpoint, which may (?) explain the comment "It is still a form that is dominated by women, and it is hard not to wonder if that is the reason for the industry's ambivalent attitude to one of its biggest success stories." Is this true in the UK? I hardly think the US publishing world is ambivalent to women's historical fiction; quite the opposite.
The article's lengthy and quite detailed, and definitely worth reading for an overview of the genre - though they oversimplify the HNS definition of historical fiction, and don't make much of a case for their argument. I'm also confused by Philippa Gregory's comments - Anya Seton (which the paper spells as "Seaton") wrote about Katherine of Aragon? Did she mean Norah Lofts, I wonder?
Things may be quiet around here for a while, as all the book reviews for Feb 2007' s HNR are arriving, and I'm in the midst of reading a decent but slow-moving review book. But for now, here are some deals from Publishers Lunch on Friday.
Gerri Brightwell's THE DARK LANTERN, about the secrets in a Victorian London household and how they affect the master's experiments in establishing identity through body measurements, to Allison McCabe at Crown, for six figures, in a pre-empt, for publication in spring 2008, by Zoe Fishman at Lowenstein-Yost (world). (The author's website includes the opening pages)
C.J. Sansom's WINTER IN MADRID, a spy thriller set in 1940s Spain, again to Kathryn Court at Viking, for publication in winter 2008, by Jean Naggar of the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency, for Antony Topping of Greene & Heaton (US).
(Glad to see this one is being published in the US, finally)
National commentator and columnist Robin Gerber's ELEANOR VERSUS IKE, a fictional reimagining (inspired by actual events) of what would have happened if Eleanor Roosevelt ran for president against Eisenhower in 1952, to be published just in time for the historic 2008 presidential primaries, to Sarah Durand at William Morrow, by Stephanie Tade at the Stephanie Tade Agency.
Lastly, there are a couple editorial positions open at the HNS Newsletter. The newspapers described have online book review sections, so geography isn't a factor (you don't need to be British to cover British papers). For details, contact Sarah Cuthbertson at the email at the end of this announcement:
***WANTED: Editors!!***Lucienne and Sarah will both be leaving the HNS Newsletter at the end of January 2007. Ideally, from 1 February 2007 we'd like at least one new editor to cover one or more British newspapers. Obviously, the more editors the merrier as it would spread the load. The job means scanning newspaper book review pages for reviews of historical fiction and non-fiction and pasting the details (book title and author, name of newspaper, review date, name of reviewer, review URL) into a newsletter template under the relevant headings. For historical fiction add a taster quote from the review; for non-fiction only add a quote or description if the topic isn't obvious from the title. It takes about 30-45 minutes per newspaper per week. The links are then sent to the co-ordinating editor who compiles each issue and posts it to the members once a fortnight via Yahoo Groups. At present the editors take turns as co-ordinator for 2 months each. For more details, if needed, contact email@example.com
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
- biographical novel of a female ruler, or female member of a royal family
- biographical novel of the wife/consort/mistress of some famous man (including biblical figures)
- novel of a fictional woman's daily life in a given time period
What I'm not seeing are many new deals for this type of novel in Publishers Marketplace, though there have been a few. It makes me wonder whether this theme - along with the corresponding headless bodice covers - will have played itself out in the next year or two.
I haven't yet started analyzing literary historical novels for the same time period, though I know there are many more of them.
Sunday, December 10, 2006
I spent Friday afternoon at the University of Illinois undergraduate library seeing a demo of library services within Second Life, a 3-D virtual world where people can interact with one another and the world around them by creating "avatars" that represent themselves. About 25 other librarians from central Illinois attended, and the organizers told us to bring our avatars if we had them (seriously)... and a few did.
Now I'm not a gamer, and the last time I used software to enter a "virtual world" of any kind (other than the Internet itself), it was probably 1985, and everything was text-based. At the risk of sounding like a dork, I'll admit this Second Life thing totally amazed me. I had no idea that people could create a 3-D virtual world that looked so realistic (well, in an anime-like, computer-generated kind of fashion). There are buildings, landscapes, and waterways, and people have re-created a number of real-life contemporary and historical properties "in-world" (the lingo for describing something within that environment). You can see some screenshots of the Second Life environment here, including an image of Caledon, a 19th century library where avatars are required to be dressed in Victorian attire in order to enter.
A number of librarians worldwide have gotten together to provide library services within Second Life, figuring that if they are to remain relevant and up-to-date in the 21st century, they (we) should go to places where patrons are spending their time. And as they have found, if you do enter Second Life identified as a librarian, people will ask you questions, just like they do in real life (aka "first life"). Staff at the Alliance Library System in Peoria schedule regular book discussion groups in this virtual environment. Basically, people can bring their avatars over to a common locale at a certain time and chat with one another online about that week's book. The blog at InfoIsland.org summarizes current and upcoming library events, such as an immersive exhibit and re-enactment of "Marie Antoinette, the Teen Queen," which has been rescheduled for sometime after Christmas.
And if you attend Bradley University, you can take a continuing education course completely within the Second Life environment.
What do you think of this concept - is this what people will have to do to reach readers in the future? Does anyone reading this regularly visit Second Life? If you're an author, can you visualize yourself giving a presentation or reading here? It was hard to get my mind around the whole concept, and I don't have the free time that it seems to demand, but I found it fascinating in a strange sort of way.
Monday, December 04, 2006
The endorsements on the back cover intrigue me, for Robert Jordan, Jean Auel, Mary Jo Putney, Harry Turtledove, Jo Beverley, and Dennis L. McKiernan all contributed glowing commentary. Prominent names in a few different fields. Which goes to show the publisher's expectations for the novel's success, as well as its cross-genre appeal.
Meanwhile, my editor's asked me and a bunch of other authors to select our favorite 2006 novel for the year-end update of Reader's Advisor Online (a database containing the electronic versions of my book and others in the same series). I haven't yet decided what I'll pick. There are so many titles I haven't read that picking a favorite is somewhat arbitrary. But I'll come up with one or two, I'm sure, and will try to post a Top 10 (or more) list here sometime before the end of the year. There are still 27 more days left of December, after all...
Saturday, December 02, 2006
If you know Tennant mainly as the author of Jane Austen pastiches, you're in for a surprise and treat with this volume. Pamela was a young woman of mysterious origin. Raised as the daughter of an Dorset washerwoman until the age of six, she was fetched one day by messenger and brought to the estate of the Duc de Chartres (later the Duc d'Orléans), where she resided until the French Revolution. At the French court, she was believed to be the illegitimate daughter of the Duc - who took the name Philippe Égalité during the Revolution - and Madame de Genlis, the tutor of his children. It was Madame de Genlis, an admirer of Samuel Richardson's work, who changed the young girl's name from Anne or Nancy to Pamela. Tennant recounts her story in the form of a fictional memoir, related both by Pamela and her daughter, called Little Pam, in alternating chapters.
By all accounts, Pamela led an extraordinary life, both in France and in Ireland, as the wife of revolutionary Lord Edward Fitzgerald. But Tennant takes a low-key approach, recounting the major events of Pamela's life using understated prose that's quite poetic at times. It works. The sections narrated by Pamela and her daughter overlap and flow into one another. While Pamela tells her story to Little Pam, the younger woman takes down her mother's words and, later, relays them to her own family - an oral history that was passed down to Tennant. While there are dramatic moments, there are no great revelations. The true parentage of La Belle Pamela remains even more of a mystery, for both of her potential mothers deny giving birth to her.
A lovely little book about the private life of an enigmatic 18th century woman who rose from obscurity to lead a very public existence. Its front and back covers display scenes from a painting by Jean-Antoine-Théodore Giroust. Pamela holds the sheet music for Adélaide, daughter of the Duc d'Orléans (possibly her half-sister?), who learns to play the harp while her tutor Madame de Genlis, a celebrated educator and harpist herself, looks on. Click on the link above for the image, as well as additional details about the lives of all three women.
Full citation: Tennant, Emma. The Harp Lesson. London: Maia, 2005. 159pp. ISBN 1-904559-16-6.
Thursday, November 30, 2006
Five novels I didn't expect to like but did:
(1) Isabel Allende, Daughter of Fortune.
For years, I mistakenly had the impression that Allende's works were obscure and inaccessible. Silly me. This was a rollicking good story about Chilean and Chinese immigrants during the California Gold Rush; the sequel, Portrait in Sepia, was equally well done.
(2) John Ensor Harr, Dark Eagle.
Biographical novel about a man whose name is synonymous with "traitor" - it promised lots of battles, names, and dates. Sounded dry. But the story behind Benedict Arnold's treason wasn't as simple as it appeared. Great characterizations here, especially Arnold, his much younger wife Peggy Shippen, and Major John Andre.
(3) John Lanchester, Fragrant Harbor.
What I thought would be a typical coming-of-age story about an naive young Englishman in pre-WWII Hong Kong was a poignant, engrossing novel about love and corruption in a brilliantly realized locale, depicted vividly and with a certain irony ("Hong Kong" translates as "fragrant harbor").
(4) Beverly Swerling, City of Glory.
I didn't care for Shadowbrook as much as I'd hoped - loved the unusual French and Indian War setting, but didn't sympathize with the characters, and felt the plot dragged throughout - but was pleasantly surprised by City of Glory. A very entertaining saga set amid the War of 1812 in Manhattan. Review forthcoming.
(5) Rennie Airth, River of Darkness.
A serial killer stalks the Surrey countryside in the post-WWI years. Blood, guts, and forensics, with lots of gross bits. Ugh. But the intense psychological drama and gripping storyline won me over. I'd gladly read the next in the series, although so far I haven't.
Five novels I expected to like but didn't:
(1) Nicole Galland, The Fool's Tale.
This one had great potential. A love triangle between a king, queen, and the king's fool in 12th century Wales. The author did some research on medieval Welsh law, and the romantic subplot was compelling, but I found the fool's antics (not to mention his very existence) ridiculous and totally out of keeping for the period.
(2) Judith Koll Healey, The Canterbury Papers (UK title The Lost Letters of Aquitaine).
A classic example of good story and bad history. I have a thing for novels about obscure royal women, so this historical adventure about Princess Alais of France, who became Henry II's mistress while betrothed to his son, appealed to me. But there are many chronological impossibilities, especially regarding historical figures, and the characters' actions were more modern than medieval.
(3) Audrey Howard, As the Night Ends.
Generally I enjoy Audrey Howard's regional sagas, despite the melodramatic tone that's crept into the last few. But this one had an annoying heroine - it's hard to root for a romance when you feel sorry for the hero - and it covered too much historical ground. Nearly every major event in early 20th century British history was crammed into an already overstuffed storyline.
(4) Catherine Jinks, The Gentleman's Garden.
All the novels by Jinks that I've read take a slightly different tone. The Inquisitor was a dark and serious medieval thriller; The Notary was a bawdy medieval romp. This literary romantic novel of 1814 Australia was written in the style of Austen and Eliot (per press materials), but I never warmed to the standoffish female lead, and the pace was incredibly slow.
(5) Prince Michael of Greece, The White Night of St. Petersburg.
A star-crossed romance of a Russian grand duke, the mistress he couldn't give up, and the financial havoc they caused. Terrific potential. But it's hard to feel sympathy for a protagonist with so little common sense, and the author's dry and plodding style didn't help things.
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
Katherine Neville's sequel to her debut novel, The Eight, ranging from the dawn of the war of Greek Independence in 1822 to the outbreak of the Iraq War in 2003, this novel begins when the heroine of The Eight mysteriously vanishes, and her daughter must follow a set of cryptic clues on a dangerous quest to discover who murdered her father, to Mark Tavani at Ballantine, for publication in fall 2008, along with an audio version of The Eight for the first time, by Simon Lipskar at Writers House (NA).
Christy Award-nominated author of Chateau of Echoes Siri L. Mitchell's WHITE ILLUSIONS, a Cinderella story in reverse, as a beautiful woman uses poisonous lead-based paint to turn herself into an ugly duckling in order to further her husband's position in the court of a vain Queen Elizabeth, to David Long at Bethany House, by Beth Jusino at Alive Communications (world).
Tamera Alexander's untitled Colorado series, the first title about a former Confederate Lieutenant who moves west, but instead of riches discovers a life of welcomed solitude from his dark past - until a "lady Yank journalist" arrives in town dredging up old memories forcing him to re-evaluate his perceptions on hope, again to Charlene Patterson at Bethany House, in a good deal, in a three-book deal, by Deidre Knight of The Knight Agency (World).
Jana G. Oliver's VIRTUAL EVIL and MADMAN'S DANCE, the second and third novels in the Time Rovers Series, in which a time traveler from 2057 is sent on a mission to Victorian England during the Ripper murders and encounters a secret society of shape-shifters bent on changing history, to Gwen Gades at Dragon Moon Press, in a two-book deal.
Monday, November 27, 2006
- It's been reviewed in the latest issue (v.30 no.3) of Collection Management. We don't subscribe, and I'm assuming the publicity dept. hasn't seen it (or they'd have sent it to me) so I requested a copy over interlibrary loan. Collection Management is a peer-reviewed academic journal, which explains the year-and-a-half delay. I'm used to this; I edit for another library journal from the same publisher.
- It's listed on a bunch of library websites and newsletters. Always good to see.
- Someone had positive (and mostly correct) things to say about it on the Romantic Times boards.
- I found another review from the Australian Library Journal, dating from this August. Positive comments overall, though parts are snarky. I always find it interesting what reviewers outside North America have to say about titles geared for an American audience. I got similar comments on my first book when British and Australian reviewers took it on, even after being very clear about the expected readership in the intro. I like very much that readers outside the US will be reading it, and using it for book recommendations, but the selection of novels is based on the American market, which is what I know best. Alas, very few historical novels set in Australia have been published in the US in the last ten years. That must be the "eclectic" part. I wish it weren't so.
- Three people have it on their wishlist in Paperbackswap. I suspect they'll be waiting a long time, because nobody in their right mind's going to input a 4-pound hardcover into a system meant for trading 8-oz paperbacks. The postage is a killer.
Anyway, I'm generally pleased, as WorldCat lists about 700 holding libraries/library systems for it currently.
For those of you following the never-ending book saga ("never-ending" modifies both words here) - I've finished the novel and have drafted the review, though I'm still fiddling with the last two sentences. Having only 175 words to work with was a challenge, but I consider it an art form if I can pull it off with none to spare.
My guilt assuaged, now I'm going to read something fun.
Friday, November 24, 2006
On a Highland Shore came highly recommended by friends, and Givens has a reputation for historical accuracy. In terms of historical detail - events, places, and so forth - this seems to be true. But... the heroine's best friend, a secondary character who plays a big role in the first 50 pages, is named Fiona. The novel's set in Scotland in 1263. This is a problem, because the name Fiona - very popular in Scotland nowadays - was a 19th century, or maybe 18th century, invention. Some background: it was popularized by Scots novelist/poet William Sharp, who chose "Fiona MacLeod" as his pseudonym beginning in 1893, and likely first used by James McPherson, supposed "translator" of the Ossian Cycle, in his poem "Fingal" circa 1762.
More details on the origins of "Fiona" here. The literature seems clear that it's not a medieval name; it's never been documented as such.
Am I being pedantic? You tell me, but I'd be lying if I denied that every time I saw the name, it pulled me out of the story. I would have quibbled just as much if a medieval English heroine was named Pamela. The story itself was engaging, and the heroine appealing (if a bit too modern in her actions), but I'm also not a fan of accents written out phonetically in dialogue. I understand that we're in Scotland, but don't need to be hit over the head with it every time someone speaks. (Diana Gabaldon, however, does this well.)
Chacun à son goût and all that, but for me, the novel's been reshelved - maybe to be picked up at another time.
This got me thinking about first names invented by authors. Surely all names were used first by someone, but not all can be documented. Sir Philip Sidney not only invented "Pamela" for his 1590 poem "Arcadia," but also - if you believe this page (whose data comes from a variety of name dictionaries) - the name "Stella." Samuel Richardson named the heroine of his novel Pamela after Sidney's character, and the name grew in popularity after that. Not surprisingly, Shakespeare is credited with inventing many female names: Jessica, Olivia, Viola, Miranda, Cordelia.
These days, of course, anything goes. Apple, Sailor, Moon Unit, anyone? I was also greatly amused by last night's episode of Ugly Betty, in which our intrepid heroine plans for a photo shoot for the celebrity infant known as "baby Chutney."
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
I'm over halfway through my review book, and in the holiday spirit, I am giving thanks that nothing quite so odious has happened in Part 2. Yet. But because I'm also thankful that most other authors have a greater sense of decency - as well as a less, um, overstuffed writing style - I'll be putting this novel down for the interim and finding something more to my taste. I've picked out Kathleen Givens' On a Highland Shore, which a couple friends have recommended, and we'll see how that goes.
For the moment, though, we're settling in to see The Da Vinci Code on DVD. I still haven't read the book.
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
Cambridge University historian and author of BLOOD & ROSES Dr. Helen Castor's SHE-WOLVES, a portrait of seven pre-Tudor queens, ranging from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Margaret of Anjou, who had to find ways to pretend that they weren't actually running the country, to Walter Donohue at Faber & Faber, by Patrick Walsh at Conville & Walsh.
Ildefonso Falcones' Spanish bestseller THE CATHEDRAL OF THE SEA, to Julie Doughty at Dutton, publication in for spring 2008, by Sandra Dijkstra at Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency (NA). (First announcement for US publication; UK details are here.)
And a film deal: Sarah Dunant's novel about a courtesan and her companion dwarf in sixteenth century Renaissance Italy, optioned for feature film to producers Donna Gigliotti (Emma and Shakespeare in Love) and Barry Weissler (Chicago), by Lesley Thorne at Gillon Aitken Associates, on behalf of colleague Clare Alexander .
Sunday, November 19, 2006
I'm sure that was the author's intent, to develop a character so repulsive that the reader feels it, but it sure doesn't make me want to read further. As this is a review book, I won't go into the details now, other than to say you'd probably be sorry you asked.
I don't usually get squeamish about scenes in novels like I do about films at times - over the last few books, I've read about graphic autopsies, murders, hangings (you name it, really, historical fiction can be very realistic) - but there are some mental images I would prefer not to have.
However, Saturday night wasn't a total loss, since a few hours earlier we were up in Champaign at the Borders, where I noted the titles/ISBNs of a good number of books to order for the library's math collection on Monday. Not very exciting, but necessary - I have a bunch of funds I need to spend in the next few weeks.
Friday, November 17, 2006
However, I also managed to update the HNS forthcoming books page with historical novels through next August, believe it or not, since Penguin and Random House have released info on their upcoming titles. Several historical novels from the '80s are being reprinted in trade paperback, such as Rosalind Laker's To Dance with Kings and Margaret Forster's Lady's Maid, both from Random House imprints. Also, Overlook is reprinting a couple of Joan Grant's older historicals (which are supposedly based on her past lives...)
My picks for books I most want to read: Kate Furnivall's The Russian Concubine and Anita Amirrezvani's The Blood of Flowers. Mainly because they're set in locales you don't often read about.
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
I have been a bad blogger, not posting in over a week, but I have been reading, and writing, and - mostly - conferencing, plus tonight I packed up 25 more review books for mailing, the last batch for next February's HNR. After spending all day Saturday in Springfield, then all day Sunday at work, my schedule's all messed up.
Then as I emerged from my week-long state of mental disorganization, I learned there's a new 1085-page historical novel out that everyone's talking about (except me, obviously, besides now) and that I'd never even heard of. Emails to Penguin Press will be sent tomorrow morning. The Amazon subject headings say it's literary fiction, not historical fiction, and I don't remember it from the catalog. My feeble excuses.
I'm glad I have most of next week off, so I can tackle my one remaining doorstop of a review book.
Monday, November 06, 2006
Novels pass into obscurity for a variety of reasons - poor writing, low reader interest, small print runs, old age. But the reason, I suspect, that Fitzempress' Law is so hard to find has more to do with the author's excellent reputation as a medieval novelist. Aside from library editions, most copies reside in the hands of readers who won't give them up. This novel, Norman's first, has three major themes in common with her latest (Mistress of the Art of Death, 2007, written as Ariana Franklin), published 27 years later. Namely: rural life in 12th century England, as seen from the inside out; the plight of the Jews of Cambridge; and the judicial reforms of Henry II and their relevance to the modern world. I had no idea of the similarity of setting and subject when I decided to read the novels one after the other, but they make for a nicely matched pair. Their plotlines, however, are quite different.
In the present day, three 18-year-old hoodlums get thrown back in time after committing a crime against an eccentric old woman. She invokes a curse on the trio that the only way to save their souls will be through law. Now, in Henry II's England, each must find a way of using early medieval law to solve a major personal crisis. Len awakes in the body of Aluric of Tatchwerte, a village in the Hundred of Broadwater in Hertfordshire. Aluric is a swineherd who had been mute for many years, ever since the mysterious stabbing death of his older sister. He's charged with proving he was born a free man, which will allow him to fulfill his mother's dream of becoming a monk. Pete, who in his previous existence was a shy, unassertive type, enjoys his newfound status as Sir Roger of Mardleybury, a knight in service with Henry II's forces in France. Unfairly disseised of his hereditary lands, Pete must find a way of proving his right to his late father's manor. And Sal finds herself occupying the body of Hawise, a young gentlewoman whose betrothal was unfairly broken and who was forced into a nunnery against her will.
This isn't a typical time-travel novel, in that the characters spend remarkably little time exploring the differences between "then" and "now"; they're fully absorbed into the 12th century almost immediately. In fact, they find that their new circumstances, difficult and uncomfortable as they are, offer them much that their previous existence did not. Len, formerly an orphan, now has a mother and a home of his own, though Edeva practices "tough love" on her son, and their residence is a peasant's hut. As a leader of men, Pete develops self-confidence and a new sense of authority, and Sal, to her great surprise, finds serenity in the contemplative life of the cloister. If not for the fact that she must use the law to validate her betrothal, in order to break the curse, Sal as Hawise might well have taken her religious vows.
Norman's descriptions of medieval English life are breathtaking; there are so many distinctive, memorable scenes that bring the 12th century to vivid, sparkling life. One gets to experience the back-breaking but necessary task of farming the land, day in and day out, despite uncooperative soil and tired oxen. Besieging a French castle by gradually starving its residents into surrender. Surviving the harsh winters of rural Hertfordshire with only a meager fire and minimal food and shelter. Protecting the Jews of Cambridge in an era when Jewish moneylenders are despised for their wealth and their supposed uncleanness. And overshadowing everything is Fitzempress's fatal quarrel with Becket, an act for which the English can never forgive him - despite his numerous judicial reforms (which resulted in the modern jury system), his keen intelligence, and his wise counselors' general belief that Becket got what he had coming to him.
Norman presents the religious zeitgeist among the populace with delicious irony. Christianity exists side-by-side with an earthy paganism that refuses to die out completely. When another young girl is found stabbed in the forest, Tatchwerte's peasants blame the Wild Hunt, despite their knowledge that not naming a human murderer will result in their village being fined. The local cleric, Father Herve, is fortunately more forward-thinking:
Len said, "It's nonsense, this Wild Hunt business. A real person killed her. I've seen that knife before, I know I have. Where the hell was it?"Fitzempress' Law is full of these exchanges, conversations between characters that reveal who they are, what they believe, what they stand for. The initial time-travel plot device really isn't the point. Instead, I spent much of the time hoping that the trio would decide not to return to the 20th century, so much did I enjoy their experiences in their new lives - as much as I believe they themselves did. This is one of the best examples of medieval fiction I've come across. It deserves to be more widely available, but even if that won't happen, it deserves to be more widely read.
The priest just watched him.
"You don't believe it was the Wild Hunt, do you?"
"No," said Father Herve, "that's just heathenish superstition."
"Who do you think it was then?"
"The devil." (p.120)
For other reviews in the Obscure Books series, see here and here.
Sunday, November 05, 2006
Registration is limited to 300 people, and I expect it to sell out (as it did in 2005) - so if you plan on attending, please don't wait until the last minute to sign up. If you're curious to learn what these conferences are like, read the write-ups from our 2005 event in Salt Lake City.
Hope to see many of you there!
Friday, November 03, 2006
For a refresher course on these and other overused phrasings, this 2004 article from the Telegraph is here to offer assistance.
But perhaps the book reviewer's most tempting adversary is the recipe format. As in, "take The Da Vinci Code, throw in some Name of the Rose, top it off with a dash of Left Behind - and you'll have something resembling Lisa Bergren's The Begotten."
Okay, I just made that one up, after examining one of the novels in my TBR pile (and I don't think it's half bad), but you get the idea. In keeping with last Friday's theme of sins and redemption, I have a confession to make - sometimes I find these recipes very funny. I nearly burst out laughing when I read Elizabeth Hawksley's review of Deryn Lake's The King's Women, about to be published in November's HNR, in which she described it as "Dan Brown meets Angelique." And plainly written on the ARC of Ariana Franklin's Mistress of the Art of Death is a quote from Kirkus describing it as "CSI meets The Canterbury Tales." It fits, it really does.
I'd like to propose a challenge of sorts, without knowing whether anyone will take me up on this or not. For the novel you're currently reading (or any other you feel like), what recipe would you use to describe it? Be as creative as you wish. Alternatively, use the recipe format to propose a fictitious novel that you think would be an interesting read.
I'll be curious to see what types of literary stews people manage to cook up. Hopefully they will be edible (or readable, as the case may be).
Thursday, November 02, 2006
Elissa Elliot's EVE, retelling the life of the world's first woman in the vein of "The Red Tent," to Tracy Devine at Bantam Dell, by Daniel Lazar at Writers House (NA).This one isn't historical, but it sounds hysterical (sorry...)
Alan Gratz's SOMETHING ROTTEN, Hamlet rewritten as a contemporary murder mystery set in fictional Denmark, Tennessee, with the character of Horatio recast as a wry, Philip Marlowe-esque seventeen-year-old detective, to Liz Waniewski at Dial, in a nice deal.
From the "prequels and sequels" department:
Budge Wilson's authorized prequel to Anne of Green Gables, BEFORE GREEN GABLES, the story of Anne's early life in foster homes and an orphanage in Nova Scotia, to Helen Reeves at Penguin Canada, for publication in 2008.From the "this is all over the web but here it is anyway" department:
Barnes and Noble Discover Award winner Lenore Hart's BECKY, which imagines the "true" story of Becky Thatcher, Tom Sawyer's sweetheart and companion, past her days of adventure with Huck and Tom, into her years as a young mother on the frontier and beyond, to Hilary Rubin at St. Martin's, by Christine Earle at ICM (World).
Jonathan Littell's LES BIENVEILLANTES, aka THE KINDLY ONES, to Jonathan Burnham at Harper, in a major deal, for $1 million, and to Alison Samuel at Chatto & Windus (which says it was not the highest bidder) in the UK, for publication in spring 2008, by Andrew Nurnberg at Andrew Nurnberg Associates. Canadian rights to Ellen Seligman at McClelland & Stewart. Related New York Times article here.
Sunday, October 29, 2006
I have nothing but positive things to say about Beverly Swerling's City of Glory and Ariana Franklin's Mistress of the Art of Death, especially the latter - I'm glad Diana Norman's returned to the 12th century. They're both out in early 2007 (sorry). The endnotes in the Franklin ARC says that the sequel, The Serpent in the Garden, will have the protagonist investigating the death of Rosamund Clifford, but that's well over a year away. I will be patient.
Sofia Coppola's film Marie Antoinette, on the other hand, was ridiculous. Shall I count the ways? It was visually appealing, yes, but not believable at all. Then we have the characters not visibly aging over 20-odd years, the near absence of a plot (the gorgeous costumes have a way of distracting one from this, though), the repetitive scenes, and the fact that it was at least 45 minutes too long. The anachronisms and the rock music, surprisingly, were easier to ignore than the other problems. I developed a horrible headache partway through (bad movie posture), which didn't help, and thought about leaving early. It was the first movie I've seen in a theatre in about two years, and we had to travel 45 minutes north to Savoy to see this one. Not an encouraging sign.
Friday, October 27, 2006
Redemption, Carolyn Davidson
The Redemption, M.E. Tyndall
Song of Redemption, Lynn Austin
Why this big need for redemption? Maybe these novels help explain it:
Lady of Sin, Madeline Hunter
Gracie's Sin, Freda Lightfoot
The Seeds of Sin, Anne Herries
An Invitation to Sin, Suzanne Enoch
The Sinner's Tale, Will Davenport
Mortal Sins and Wages of Sin, Penelope Williamson
This phenomenon may or may not be related to the "bastard" theme.
Wednesday, October 25, 2006
Catherine, Duchess of Suffolk, is Kate Parr’s best friend. An unwilling witness to the dowager queen’s late-blossoming love, she harbours nagging suspicions of Kate’s handsome, ambitious new husband. But as Cathy is drawn deeper into the web of politics ensnaring her oldest friend, it gradually becomes clear she has her own dark tale to tell. For if Thomas might betray his wife for power, then sharp, canny Cathy might betray her for passion.
I am very amused. A few months ago, on Susan's blog, the title of Jean Plaidy's 1971 novel Gay Lord Robert was discussed. We debated possible title changes if it were reissued. A search through Amazon UK reveals that it will be reissued next June, by Arrow. The new title is simply Lord Robert. Kind of a cop-out considering the alternatives, but understandable.
Lastly, this blog received its 10,000th visitor yesterday. I should have promised a contest or free book giveaway or something, but since I neglected to do that, I'll simply say thanks for stopping by, everyone.
Monday, October 23, 2006
I also got the reviews for November's HNS editors' choice books online, now that the issue's at the printer. Of this list, I've read the Frazier and the Koen; the latter, I finished over the weekend and enjoyed, though I wouldn't say it was one of my favorites of the year. But it did interest me in the court of Louis XIV, and specifically to pick up - on impulse - another novel of the period that I've had sitting on my bookshelf far too long. And which, as it turns out, I enjoyed even more.
Alice Acland's The Secret Wife (St. Martin's, 1975) is a deceptively short biographical novel about Françoise d'Aubigné, Marquise de Maintenon, who becomes the morganatic wife of Louis XIV when they're both middle-aged. Told in the form of a fictional memoir, it begins in Françoise's poverty-ridden youth, when she abandons her family's Huguenot beliefs for Catholicism out of political necessity. Her uneasy relationship with Madame de Montespan, the king's official mistress, occupies a fair amount of the plot. Drawn against her will to the king's inner circle, Françoise becomes the guardian of her patroness's bastard children by the king, and later - to everyone's surprise, hers most of all - she manages to attract and hold the attention of the king himself. She becomes his secret wife, but despite this close relationship, she's never treated as his equal. Nor does she expect to be.
All of the characters are well-drawn, from major ones like Mme de Montespan and Louis XIV down to the king's coarse-mouthed but colorful German sister-in-law, called simply Madame. Because Acland stays entirely within her protagonist's head, one never gets to see how Françoise's sobering influence affects the ribald royal court, for instance, yet she's a sympathetic and compelling narrator of her own life story. There are a few small liberties taken with chronology (Acland includes an author's note), and all but one of the characters appears in the historical record. This is an excellent example of biographical fiction, and a painless way of learning more about French history. I finished it in less than 24 hours, which for me lately is some sort of record.
Now on to the first of my two 600-pp review books. With this one and the Donati under my belt, I should be quite the expert on the War of 1812 soon.
Saturday, October 21, 2006
Does this count as historical?
Friday, October 20, 2006
Also on the subject of uncertainty in publishing, I was puzzled by this quote from the same WSJ piece:
Historical thrillers in particular are hot. One theory says readers are seeking a certainty in these books that since the end of the Cold War they're having trouble finding elsewhere.I wonder about this theory for the current popularity of historical fiction, and not just because I'm weary of 9/11 being cited as the cause for every societal shift you can name. I'm more with Allan Massie here. (See yesterday's blog entry.) Historical fiction can usefully remind us that the outcomes of past events -- things that to us, looking back from today's vantage point, may seem inevitable -- were far from certain for people living in those times.
"We're seeing a return to the past because everything was in its place, and people were recognizably polarized in a way that gives us comfort," says literary agent Richard Curtis. "In the post 9/11 world, we aren't clear about our enemies. Is the military officer in an Iraqi uniform a friend, or is he a terrorist posing as one? We need to know who to root for, and historical fiction provides us with that."
Not exactly a comforting feeling, is it?
Thursday, October 19, 2006
Return of the Roman: Prospect Magazine (UK) has a nice, lengthy essay by Allan Massie, detailing why novelists are attracted to the ancient world - and explaining why historical novels interest readers in general:
"... The novelist does something that academic historians rarely succeed in doing. He reminds us, as Carlyle said of Walter Scott, that people now long dead were not abstractions, but living beings made of flesh and blood. The novelist may perform another service to historical understanding. By its nature the historical novel teaches, or reminds, the reader that events now in the past were once in the future."Also of interest to me, the deal highlighted on Publishers Marketplace's home page yesterday was Anne Perry's latest:
Victorian mystery writer Anne Perry's THE SHEEN ON THE SILK, her first stand-alone historical epic, set in the late days of the Byzantine empire, telling the story of a woman masquerading as a eunuch physician who is searching for the truth about her condemned brother -- and the path to heaven, to Susanna Porter for Ballantine, in a major deal, by Donald Maass of the Donald Maass Literary Agency (NA).A departure not only in terms of time period, but also that this is the first of hers in a while (besides her fantasies Tathea and Come Armageddon) not to form part of a lengthy series. (I hope to talk more about the "series" bit later.) The "woman disguised as a eunuch physician" plotline has been done before - by Gillian Bradshaw in The Beacon at Alexandria, set in the 4th century Roman Empire, and probably by others as well - but the later Byzantine Empire is one not often explored in fiction. And I love the title of this one. It's on my wish list.
Also announced in Publishers Marketplace yesterday, deals for Anne Easter Smith's next two historical novels, both set during the Wars of the Roses. I understand the first should be out in 2007, with Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy (sister of Edward IV) as its subject.
Sunday, October 15, 2006
Did you know Cher was posing for book jackets back in 1975?
This is Costain's novel about Attila the Hun. Three questions come to mind:
(1) Is the horse on steroids?
(2) How is she managing to stay on?
(3) What's up with the purple leather boots?
The jacket includes a positive blurb from Rosemary Sutcliff, so this may be a case of don't-judge-the-book... etc. But aside from the interesting title, who knew that disco was so popular in 1850s Sussex? (Mark thinks the hero resembles Derek Sanderson from the Boston Bruins.)
We should be thanking our lucky stars for the headless woman trend.
Friday, October 13, 2006
This topic also called to mind a recent post on the Historical Novel Society email list (I think; can't find the reference) in which someone stated that she refused to read anything fictional about the Tudors because she was an ardent Ricardian. People are entitled to their own opinions on what to read, though that seemed extreme to me - just as the multiplicity of critical reviews of Abundance did.
Anyway. Here's some information on new and upcoming historicals I want to read. If you read these before I do (very likely), please report back.
Vanora Bennett's Portrait of an Unknown Woman, out now from HarperCollins UK, next February from William Morrow. Description on the author's website here.
Reay Tannahill's latest is Having the Builders In, a novel of "medieval rivalry, chivalry, and masonry," out next month from Headline Review.
Ellis Avery's The Teahouse Fire, a novel of late 19th century Japan as seen through the eyes of an American woman, will be out this December from Riverhead. The first chapter is online at the author's website.
Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin (aka Diana Norman), described as "Kathy Reichs in the 12th century," out next February from Putnam (US), and in May from Bantam (UK), got a starred review in Kirkus this week. It's listed on Amazon, but the cover is dark and murky, and all I can tell is that it depicts a skull and some hands.
Sidenote: on October 13, 1307 - 699 years ago - Philip IV of France ordered the arrest of every Templar in the country, including their last grand master, Jacques de Molay - who was burned at the stake as a relapsed heretic in 1314. It's an urban legend, though, that the ill omen of Friday the 13th originated with this event.
Monday, October 09, 2006
Over the weekend I finished reading Sampson's latest novel, about the coming of Christianity to England in the late 6th century. It's seen from the viewpoint of two of the religion's greatest proponents in that mostly pagan land: Bertha, daughter of Charibert, the Christian king of Paris, who makes a political marriage with Aethelbert, the heathen King of Kent; and the future St. Augustine, a Roman monk persuaded to lead a mission to Britain by his friend, Pope Gregory the Great.
For a 224-page book (most Robert Hale novels adhere to this length) the novel is surprisingly dense, more so than Sampson's previous works. The print is fairly small. Yet despite the amount of historical detail, for the most part, the novel wears its learning lightly. Her prose is smooth and natural, and aside from a few exceptions early on, I never felt like I was being lectured to; also, despite the heavy emphasis on religion, the tone never feels preachy. I suspect readers of Christian fiction will find much to enjoy here, and it makes me wonder why no other authors (am I missing anything?) have chosen to fictionalize this critical time in history before.
Sampson portrays Bertha as a strong-willed Christian princess, convinced of her right to worship as she chooses despite being a foreigner in a pagan land. In doing so, she earns her new husband's respect, though he remains unconvinced of Christianity's relevance to the realm until the arrival of Augustine, some twenty years later. As for Augustine, he very reluctantly agrees to travel overland (and across the Channel) to England after it becomes clear that Pope Gregory means to extend the Church's influence in the British Isles. Not surprisingly given the title, Sampson relates the legend about Gregory's first encounter with English people; "Not Angles," he declares of the blond slave boys he sees in the Roman marketplace, "but angels." Though obedient to his superior's will, Augustine very clearly lacks Gregory's charm, humility, and self-confidence, which doesn't win him many friends. However, he gradually earns his flock's admiration and loyalty through sheer determination; this only increases when miracles begin to happen.
Because The Land of Angels is seen only from the Christian viewpoint, one never gets a chance to learn more about the beliefs of Aethelbert and his people. Indeed, their rituals seem not only confusing to the reader, but also bizarre and repulsive; Bertha is outraged that her marriage ceremony involves jumping over a fire and bloody animal sacrifice. I did wonder that after 20 years of relatively happy marriage, she seems to understand her husband's beliefs not at all, but it's also made clear that Aethelbert finds the Christian way of worship equally outlandish - at least until Augustine arrives in 597 AD, and Aethelbert finds in this new religion a way of consolidating his power across the island. Also, in the novel's last half, Bertha's story becomes a sidenote, with the plot following Augustine and his monks - and their futile efforts to bring their Welsh counterparts in line with Rome - almost exclusively.
Yet these are very minor complaints in what is a well-told, entertaining, and, from what I can tell, historically sensitive novel. While the tone lacks the mystical qualities and lavish descriptions found in Melvyn Bragg's Credo (The Sword and the Miracle), for example, the historical atmosphere is well described. The novel ends with many plot points unresolved, for the Synod of Whitby is half a century away, and Bertha's eldest son refuses to cut ties with the priests of Woden. While Christianity has gained a firm foothold on the island, its future is still uncertain. The door's left wide open for a sequel, and I hope there is one.
Saturday, October 07, 2006
I own copies of both, but haven't read either, and find it odd that a novel published in 2000 by a small Catholic press should begin receiving multiple 5-star reviews only this summer.
It's not only Abundance that these folks are trashing, either - other novels about Marie Antoinette and Versailles have received the same treatment.
One of the downsides of the Amazon "review" process...
Thursday, October 05, 2006
(Guess the number 13 may not be that unlucky after all?)
Before and after BEA this June, also, I blogged about the novels at the show that were supposed to be fall's big hits. Hype, by definition, is pretty hard to ignore (not even I am immune?). But I like to believe that people enjoy hearing about upcoming publications, nonetheless. That's the positive nature of hype - rising expectations, intense discussions, eager anticipation. You hope that all the great things you've heard will be true.
Not all of these big deal novels succeed, of course. The test comes when reviews begin to appear, the novels go on sale, and the public determines whether the novels are worth all the fuss. However, there's a cloud of suspicion that accompanies hype; no doubt you've sensed it. If readers feel like publishers - and the media - are pushing books too heavily, the hype can backfire. They don't want to be told what to read, they say; they can make decisions for themselves, thank you very much. Not everyone reads/believes the recommendations in reviews (that's a whole 'nother thread), but anything smacking of advertising gets many readers, and bloggers, suspicious. See this post from Bookninja about Simon & Schuster's attempt (mostly successful, from what I gather) to convince bloggers to promote The Thirteenth Tale.
For example, it also appears that the loud media buzz about Kathleen McGowan's The Expected One, a Mary Magdalene novel with a controversial backstory - the author calls the material autobiographical - resulted in some more-negative-than-usual reviews on Amazon. The title of one is "Hype is as hype does." I've read the novel, and would call the writing amateurish in places, though it's an entertaining story. Was it picked up by a major publisher only because it fits the trendy Da Vinci Code theme? You decide.
Not surprising that some people are wary of hype, in other words. It can raise expectations so high that readers are extra disappointed if they read the book and dislike it.
On a personal level, I admit that intense discussion about a novel has occasionally persuaded me to pick it up sooner than I would have - if I was interested in reading it in the first place, that is. However, I've still not read many of past seasons' big-deal books: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, The Birth of Venus, Cold Mountain. But when I have read novels like these, I don't believe the hype has affected my opinion one way or the other. After all, novels that are heavily promoted today will be replaced by other, sometimes even more heavily hyped, novels a couple months down the road. It's impossible to keep up. After a while you start to see a pattern to these things.
That may be a cynical attitude in itself. (But it's true.)
Your thoughts - has hype affected your reading at all? Do you care about reading the latest novels, or do you ignore media buzz altogether? Are you suspicious of novels that receive heavy promotion? And whose recommendations do you believe?
Tuesday, October 03, 2006
Now that the embargo of Charles Frazier's Thirteen Moons has elapsed (as of today) you'll be seeing reviews everywhere. Including the New York Times (Michiko Kakutani), Christian Science Monitor (Erik Spanberg), USA Today (Jocelyn McClurg). I won't be doing a full review here, but it brought me out of a 2-month reading slump, and I honestly thought it was brilliant. We've discussed the power of humor in historical fiction here before, and the narrator, Will Cooper, utters a line around p.50-something that made me laugh out loud. I highly recommend it, despite the fact that the love story, imho, isn't as poignant as it could have been. Oh, and avoid the Entertainment Weekly review at all costs if you plan to read the book, as it contains a horrible spoiler.
A Q&A with Emma Darwin, author of The Mathematics of Love, which is out in the UK now; it'll be published next January in the US. From an Australian TV news show.
From the Yorkshire Post: Barbara Taylor Bradford relocates the usual Wars of the Roses suspects to Edwardian times in the first novel in her Ravenscar Dynasty saga. Anyone read this, or plan to?
Finally, a lengthy interview with Barry Unsworth on The Ruby in Her Navel, from Scotland on Sunday.
I did finish the historical fantasy novel I mentioned on the 27th, by the way, and the review's been written. Now I'm reading Fay Sampson's The Land of Angels. Hope to post a review sometime later this week, assuming I finish it quickly.
Sunday, October 01, 2006
Here are some examples of lettering I think is especially eye-catching.
Beverly Swerling's Shadowbrook (set during the French and Indian War):
Mary Lee Settle's I, Roger Williams (17th c England and colonial Rhode Island). Plain cover, but I like how the font's used to capture the look of the protagonist's signature.
Sile Rice's The Saxon Tapestry (about Hereward the Wake). More illuminated lettering than a font per se, but isn't it gorgeous?
John Ensor Harr's Dark Eagle (novel about Benedict Arnold and the American Revolution). A distant cousin of mine, as it happens. Black sheep of the family? Note the semi-headless look, too, and this cover from 1999.
Diana Paxson's The Serpent's Tooth (historical fantasy going back to the Celtic origins of King Lear). Besides the fact that I'll likely buy anything that Thomas Canty illustrates...
On the other hand, the lettering on Ann Lawrence's Do You Believe?, a paranormal romance/gothic, convinced me to pick it up. I'd guessed it was set during the Salem Witch trials, but it's not - it's contemporary. But it worked. I read and enjoyed it quite a bit.
What are some of your favorite examples?
Friday, September 29, 2006
One of the more memorable items I've received was a small clay oil lamp, which accompanied a review copy of one of Bodie & Brock Thoene's biblical novels from Tyndale House. Pens are fairly common. My favorite is one I still have - a ballpoint pen that commemorated the publication of Lewis & Clark's journals, from University of Nebraska Press. The body was filled with some clear liquid (same one found in snow globes, no doubt) in which a tiny ship sailed back and forth on the Mississippi.
One publisher regularly sends history page-a-day calendars in December. We've used them at the reference desk for the past few years. During 2006 we've been looking at Famous Facts about the Founding Fathers. Last year, it was Day By Day in the American Revolution.
More recently, Avon sent a large box of chocolates along with the galley of Stephanie Laurens' 20th historical romance. It was very impressive: the outer box was also made of solid chocolate. I don't deal with Avon - they meant it for one of my co-editors, but listed my address on the package by mistake - so I felt I had to apologize for not sending it on to her. It was summer, and I was worried it would melt in the mail en route to Baltimore, see. (Truth be told, I'm not into chocolates, but my fellow librarians are.)
The promotional goodies do work in that I generally remember the books they accompany. They don't affect the reviews in any way, though. I wish I could say the HNR review of the Laurens novel turned out well, but from what my coworkers tell me, the chocolates were excellent.
Wednesday, September 27, 2006
For example, I was favorably impressed by the Eve Trevaskis novel on Piers Gaveston I reviewed earlier this year, and should try another one of hers sometime. Last time I read one of Alison Farely's, it was quite good as well. But I was less than enthused about Beatrice May's Sister to Jane, a novel about Lady Katherine Grey. This week I attempted another novel about her, Jean Evans' An Heir for the Tudor, and put it down after 50 pages. She portrays Katherine as a naive and not-too-bright young woman who's not shy about telling friends and acquaintances that she deserves to be queen instead of Princess Elizabeth. Obviously she hadn't learned anything by her late sister's example. And if you were to believe the plot, you'd think Elizabeth had nothing more to worry about during her reign than make sure her troublemaker cousin never married. Ugh. I own a number of Jean Evans' novels - many are hard to find - but am not sure I'll rush to pick up another.
No point collecting books you don't want to read. We do have limited space around the house...
I'm curious, though - are there any good novels about this tragic historical figure? (I own a couple more, but haven't read them.) She deserves better than the treatment these two authors have given her.
After that failed evening's reading, I've moved on to a historical fantasy novel I'm determined to squeeze into HNR's November issue. (Yes, the official deadline was 9/15, but I'll still be editing over the next week.) Why? Because I requested it via email on a Friday, and the publicist decided to send it via overnight FedEx, so it got here last Saturday. (This is very rare, and expensive, I suspect.) I felt guilty hanging onto it until February when I knew I'd be reviewing it myself, and I hadn't taken anything else for review this quarter. Fortunately, it's a fast and excellent read, so I'm zooming through it, and should have it read - and reviewed - well before my own deadline. And my saying so here will make it so, right?
Sunday, September 24, 2006
Then I got a silly idea. What if I used LibraryThing as a tool to gauge the popularity of individual historical novels?
(Add disclaimers about the likelihood of LibraryThing users' reading preferences being similar to those of the entire reading population, etc. I never claimed this was scientific, so just look at this little study for what it is. However, the Historical Fiction group on LT has 230 members, so it is a popular subject there...)
I looked at all historical novels published in the USA between January and June 2006, according to the HNS forthcoming books page (which I compiled; it's essentially comprehensive as far as US trade publishers go). There were 200-odd in total. Then I looked them up in LibraryThing and saw how many people owned them. I've arranged them in descending order by number of copies, so the most popular historical novels are first. Only novels with 10 or more owners in LT are given. If anyone wants the complete list (in Excel) to satisfy your curiosity, email me. Direct all complaints about my faulty methodology to /dev/null. (And no, this didn't take anywhere near as long to compile as you'd think.)
The results surprised me. Do they surprise you?
249 copies - Julian Barnes, Arthur and George, Knopf
174 - Sarah Waters, The Night Watch, Riverhead
160 - Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants, Algonquin
121 - Sarah Dunant, In the Company of the Courtesan, Random House
94 - Matthew Pearl, The Poe Shadow, Random House
76 - Javier Sierra, The Secret Supper, Atria
63 - James Morrow, The Last Witchfinder, William Morrow
62 - Elizabeth Peters, Tomb of the Golden Bird, William Morrow
57 - Bernard Cornwell, The Pale Horseman, HarperCollins
55 - Arturo Perez-Reverte, Purity of Blood, Putnam
48 - Debra Dean, The Madonnas of Leningrad, William Morrow
41 - Jane Harris, The Observations, Viking
40 - Boris Akunin, The Death of Achilles, Random House
37 - Louis Bayard, The Pale Blue Eye, HarperCollins
35 - Eva Rice, The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets, Dutton
35 - Stephen Wright, The Amalgamation Polka, Knopf
32 - Katharine Weber, Triangle, Farrar, Straus, & Giroux
31 - Edward Rutherfurd, The Rebels of Ireland, Doubleday
30 - Katharine McMahon, The Alchemist's Daughter, Crown
30 - Martin Davies, The Conjurer's Bird, Crown
28 - Alan Furst, The Foreign Correspondent, Random House
28 - Karen Essex, Leonardo's Swans, Doubleday
27 - Jane Urquhart, A Map of Glass, MacAdam/Cage
26 - Julia Alvarez, Saving the World, Algonquin
24 - Anne Easter Smith, A Rose for the Crown, Touchstone
24 - Carrie Tiffany, Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living, Scribner
24 - Laura Esquivel, Malinche, Atria
23 - Dominic Smith, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre, Atria
22 - Anne Perry, Dark Assassin, Ballantine
22 - Carol Goodman, The Ghost Orchid, Ballantine
21 - Emily Barton, Brookland, Farrar Straus & Giroux
21 - Ivan Doig, The Whistling Season, Harcourt
21 - Susan Carroll, The Silver Rose, Ballantine
19 - Kerry Greenwood, Cocaine Blues, Poisoned Pen Press
19 - Marie Arana, Cellophane, Dial
19 - Sara Gran, Dope, Putnam
17 - Conn Iggulden, Emperor: The Gods of War, Delacorte
17 - Judith Lindbergh, The Thrall's Tale, Viking
17 - Robert Alexander, Rasputin's Daughter, Viking
16 - Manda Scott, Boudica: Dreaming the Hound, Bantam
16 - Shan Sa, Empress, HarperCollins
15 - Jason Goodwin, The Janissary Tree, Farrar Straus & Giroux
15 - Karen Harper, The Last Boleyn, Three Rivers
14 - Elizabeth Aston, The True Darcy Spirit, Touchstone
13 - Jenny White, The Sultan's Seal, W.W. Norton
13 - Kevin Baker, Strivers Row, HarperCollins
13 - Peter Hobbs, The Short Day Dying, Harvest
13 - Susan Straight, A Million Nightingales, Pantheon
12 - Amanda Elyot, By a Lady, Three Rivers
12 - Ariana Franklin, City of Shadows, William Morrow
12 - Athol Dickson, River Rising, Bethany House
12 - Steve Hockensmith, Holmes on the Range, Minotaur
11 - Gilles Rozier, The Mercy Room, Arcade
11 - Peter C. Brown, The Fugitive Wife, W.W. Norton
11 - Posie Graeme-Evans, The Uncrowned Queen, Atria
11 - Sally Gunning, The Widow's War, William Morrow
11 - W.E.B. Griffin and W. E. Butterworth IV, The Saboteurs, Putnam
10 - Charles Todd, A Long Shadow, William Morrow
10 - Laurien Gardner, A Lady Raised High, NAL
10 - Mary Sharratt, The Vanishing Point, Mariner
Friday, September 22, 2006
I'll be one of about 20 authors appearing at the Illinois Authors' Luncheon, to be held Friday, October 6th, from 12:30-2pm at Navy Pier in Chicago (rooms 201-204). The luncheon is part of the Illinois Library Association annual conference, and is open to anyone interested in supporting Illinois libraries. The featured speaker is Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveler's Wife. Tickets for the lunch are $65 (on-site); details on the ILA conference website.
After the luncheon, I'll be chatting with attendees and selling/signing copies (at a nice discount) of Historical Fiction: A Guide to the Genre for anyone interested. I may bring some copies of my first book, too (The Information Professional's Guide to Career Development Online). Should be fun.
Tuesday, September 19, 2006
Something tells me readers of this blog will be interested in these upcoming works.
To the left:
Four Queens: The Provençal Sisters Who Ruled Europe, by Nancy Goldstone - to be published by Viking next April. A joint biography of Marguerite, Eleanor, Sanchia, and Beatrice of Provence, "four accomplished sisters who rose from near obscurity to become the most powerful women in Europe."
From Publishers Marketplace last week:
Jacqueline Kolosov's The Red Queen's Daughter, which imagines a life for Mary Seymour, the daughter of Henry VIII's last wife Katherine Parr, as she struggles to resist love and other courtly entanglements and strives to fulfill her destiny as white magician and protector of the Virgin Queen, sold to Alessandra Balzer at Hyperion, in a pre-empt, by Sara Crowe at Harvey Klinger. (No estimated pub date listed.) Her website describes it as YA historical fiction/fantasy.
Since I just mentioned my review of McKay's previous novel (also from PM):
Canadian rights to The Birth House author Ami McKay's THE VIRGIN CURE, to Diane Martin at Knopf Canada, in a significant deal, by Helen Heller at Helen Heller Agency.
And from the news desk:
Janet Maslin (New York Times) finds Michael Cox's The Meaning of Night quite convoluted and windy. I haven't read it yet. Has anyone?
Sunday, September 17, 2006
Friday afternoon when I got home, I found (amidst the piles of chick lit, paranormal romance, and other books I can't assign) an envelope from Random House with a brand-spanking-new copy of Charles Frazier's Thirteen Moons. It happens to be a duplicate, so this one's mine, all mine. Did I start reading it right away? Of course. I'm on p.80 and I must say, it's more than living up to the hype. After the past six weeks of blah reading, with a couple exceptions, I'm finally enjoying fiction again.
Friday was also the due date for November's HNR reviews, and most of them were sent between 6pm and midnight. It's amusing how predictable it is. Everything that's arrived, I've pasted into my file, but there are a few stragglers that I'll chase up tomorrow.
Enjoy what's left of the weekend, people. We're heading to Champaign for shopping and dinner.
Friday, September 15, 2006
See the post from Weinman's blog here; this game seems a lot easier with mysteries for some reason.
CLAN OF THE CARE BEAR:
In prehistoric Europe, young Ayla takes refuge with members of a peculiar species who couldn't possibly be human.
THE FATAL CROWD:
King Stephen and his cousin, Empress Maud, are trampled underfoot by rampaging peasants sick of hearing rumors about their affair.
THE QUEEN'S FOOD:
Let's chow down with Mary Tudor and her courtiers.
A multi-period epic of Salisbury Plain and its very secret and scandalous history.
TALES OF PASSION, TALES OF POE:
The many lives and secret sorrows of Edgar Allan P.
A DARK AND DISTANT WHORE:
Reay Tannahill's sweeping Victorian epic about a cold and haughty courtesan.
The Elizabethan adventurer who would have conquered feudal Japan - if he weren't so timid.
SWORE AT SUNSET:
Don't let the sun go down on King Arthur, damn it.
You can do better than this, I'm sure. Your contributions are more than welcome.
Thursday, September 14, 2006
Newsweek's 9/18 issue will have an exclusive interview with Charles Frazier about his latest, Thirteen Moons, but you can read it online now. They call it a "gorgeous book." I want to read it, although I admit I'm probably one of the three people on earth who has neither read Cold Mountain nor seen the movie... still haven't read Da Vinci Code either, for that matter. Someone take away my reviewing license now.
Historical settings, fictional characters, winning combination - so concludes USA Today in their profile of hot historical novels for the fall season.
Ted Clarke from the Weymouth (MA) News (my in-laws' hometown paper) has a piece on how to read historical fiction and why. It's a very good article, quite lengthy too. It even mentions the HNS definition of historical fiction, and provides the URL for Susan's Squidoo page at the end.
Took a glimpse at my site stats yesterday and saw that the number of visitors this blog gets per day has doubled since last week. Why? Everyone and their brother is googling "Thirteenth Tale" and, what do you know, an entry of mine from June 5 appears on the first page of search results. The novel's out now. Anyone else read it?
Wednesday, September 13, 2006
Dizziness, mental impairment, hallucinations - no comment, but it HAS been a long week, and it's only Wednesday.
Which Medieval Plague Do You Have?
Congratulations! You have St. Anthony's Fire! Today known Ergotism, this illness is caught through ingestion of a fungal infection of grain, usually rye. If you are not already, you soom are going to be suffering from dizziness, hallucinations, and a sensation of burning in the limbs, thus giving the disease its name. It could result in gangrene. The good news: there is a 60% chance you will survive it! The bad news? You will wish you had not. You will have lingering symptoms for the rest of your life, including mental impairment and being more susceptible to it in the future rather than having immunity. You probably live in a rural town undergoing a very wet winter to have caught this skin-reddening sickness.
Take this quiz!
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