Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A special Downton-themed giveaway for US readers

I'm running a special giveaway for blog readers.  Up for grabs is a brand new hardcover of Judith Lennox's latest novel One Last Dance (Headline, 2014), open to those in the US.  Please fill out the form below for a chance to win.

This is an unusual circumstance because I haven't read the novel myself (yet), but it's described as "for fans of Downton Abbey and My Last Duchess."  It tells the story of Esme Reddaway, whose life spans most of the 20th century, as she tries to uncover secrets dating from the WWI years.  The plot deals with sibling rivalry, revenge, a failed love affair, and a neglected English house called Rosindell.  Some of you may recognize the cover, too.  More on Goodreads here.

Obviously, this is all very trendy, but Judith Lennox has been writing this type of multi-generational English saga for decades, long before the Crawleys were even a whisper of an idea.

Here's the story:  I've been reading and enjoying her novels for a long time, so when I learned she had a new one out, I pounced right on Amazon and ordered a copy from a UK bookseller.  Three weeks and $18 or so later, a brand spanking new trade paperback arrived in the mail. 

Then, two days after that, I was out in Columbus, Ohio, for the semiannual meeting of the Great Lakes Historical Novel Society chapter and stopped by a Half Price Books store.  And, wouldn't you know it, sitting in the clearance section was a spotless hardcover copy of the same book, priced at $2.  It appears to be unread.  What were the chances?  Anyway, this is the copy I'm giving away.  I bought it because it was a rare find in these parts, and because I knew one of you would be able to give it a good home.

Since it's not available for sale in the US and it's a large and heavy book (and with apologies to everyone else), I'm limiting this giveaway to readers in the United States. One entry per person, please.  The deadline will be Friday, May 9th.  Good luck!


5/10/14:  This giveaway is over. Congratulations to Lauralee of History from a Woman's Perspective. Thanks for your interest!

Monday, April 28, 2014

An interview with Phyllis T. Smith, author of I Am Livia

I'm excited to bring you this interview with Phyllis T. Smith, whose debut novel releases this Thursday, May 1st.  I Am Livia is a smoothly engaging account of Livia Drusilla, who became the renowned and reviled first empress of Rome as the wife of Caesar Augustus. Speaking in a clear, honest voice, she sets the record straight by revealing her story: her early life as the daughter of the Roman aristocracy, her arranged first marriage to Tiberius Nero, her unexpected attraction to Rome's ambitious young emperor, and much more.  No previous knowledge of the personalities and complex politics of the era is needed, since all of the details are well explained.  Readers who seek out fiction about intelligent, powerful women of the past will find a great deal to enjoy here I definitely did!

What draws you to ancient Rome as a setting? 

I remember as a child loving Rosemary Sutcliff’s novels set in Roman Britain. Later, I enjoyed I Claudius (both the book and the TV miniseries), which introduced me to Livia as a fictional villain. In college, I took a wonderful classical civilization course that exposed me to Plutarch’s Lives. The high drama of Roman history just spoke to me. Then, too, I’m struck by how in the later years of the Republic the Romans were dealing with problems that might have some parallels today. Reading Cicero’s correspondence, I feel much closer to him than I do to medieval kings when I read primary source material about them. From his letters, he could almost be a modern politician. But of course he wasn’t that. The Romans lived in a world which was similar to ours in some ways, but also profoundly different, which is what makes them so fascinating.

In your author's note, you mention that Livia is thought to be the most powerful woman in the history of ancient Rome. How much did this play into your decision to choose her as a subject?

It was a big part of my decision because I’m interested in women in politics. For most of recorded history, women have been limited to exerting influence through their relationships with powerful men. Now in many places they’re coming into their own and are increasingly holding high public office. I’m gripped by the question of what that means for the world; I certainly hope it means something good. There is evidence that Livia used her influence to make Caesar Octavianus’s rule more benign. She ultimately paid a price, in being defamed by some Roman historians who didn’t like the idea of a powerful woman.

It’s surprising how much Livia acted like a modern first lady, with her charitable activities and her going to comfort disaster victims. She had to project an image of ideal Roman domesticity, while helping to run an empire. The concern with a family-oriented image seems very modern. So in the book I was able to play with this question: What is different now and what is the same?

You present Caesar Octavianus from a viewpoint that readers don't normally see. What more did you discover about him as a character when envisioning him through Livia's eyes?

Caesar Octavianus knew how to be ruthless in public life. But there is no way to make his behavior with Livia psychologically comprehensible unless you assume he was capable of deep human emotions, including love. Looking at him through Livia’s eyes, I could see him as someone plunged as a teenager into a viper’s nest—Roman politics at that time. Not that he deserves a moral pass, but he lived in a harsh world. In the book, Livia sees all the ways in which he is vulnerable, including the fact that when he goes out to fight a battle there’s no guarantee that he’ll win or even survive.

The scene in which Tiberius Nero and his pregnant wife Livia invite Caesar to a dinner party at their home was one of my favorites, not just because it brings so many strong personalities together for a social event but also because it reveals new sides to everyone's character. Was it as enjoyable to write as it was to read?

I love hearing that you liked that scene! It was very enjoyable to write. In particular, I got a kick out of weaving in mythology. I knew that Caesar in later years tried to write a tragic play about Ajax, the warrior in the Iliad. (He decided he had no talent and threw the play away.) I wondered why he picked Ajax of all people as his tragic hero. No biography I read explained that. But in the Iliad I came across Ajax’s prayer for light on the field of battle. This fit in well with Caesar’s recorded reverence for Apollo, god of light and knowledge. In the dinner party scene, Caesar talks about Ajax, and people speak revealingly about their favorite deities. Meanwhile, the attraction between Caesar and Livia begins to sizzle, and that was fun to show.

author Phyllis T. Smith
I thought you did an excellent job bringing a human dimension to many iconic figures from the period. Were any of them more of a challenge to relate to, or to re-create on the page, than others?

Mark Antony was hard to relate to. I just didn’t like him much! Not because his love affair with Cleopatra made his wife Octavia’s life unpleasant, though it certainly did. But because he was gratuitously brutal and did things like ordering Cicero’s head and hands cut off in revenge for his oratory. I found Antony’s indifference to his supporters during the Perusian War repellent, too. His brother, wife, and two small sons (not to mention Livia) were in a besieged city and he did nothing to help them. But I tried hard to look at things from Antony’s viewpoint and also to imagine why Octavia stayed loyal to him, what she found appealing. I didn’t want him to come off as a cartoon villain.

Livia's sister Secunda, who marries a merchant rather than a politician, prefers to avoid the spotlight; she serves as Livia's foil and gives her insight into what the Roman people really think about her. Is Secunda a historical character, and if so, how much is known about her?

Roman historians recorded quite a bit about Livia’s father, but I found only scraps of information about other members of the family she grew up in. We know she did not have a biological brother because her father adopted an adult male relative with the goal of carrying on the family name. Livia may or may not have had a sister or sisters. If she did have one, that person apparently stayed completely out of view.

Roman women in Livia’s time were given the feminine form of the family name. So any sisters she had also would have been called Livia—confusing in a novel! Secunda was a nickname for a second daughter. I gave Livia a younger sister because she seemed like the big sister type to me. It’s not improbable that as a young woman she had some surviving relative around who could link her to her childhood, but we really don’t know if she did. I wanted Secunda to be a reminder of Livia’s past.

It was great to see that I Am Livia had made it as a finalist in the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award competition. Can you talk a little bit about what this American Idol-style writing contest was like for you as an author?

The ABNA contest is great for aspiring novelists because breaking in is so challenging and this is a way to get your writing noticed. After the initial pitch stage (entries first compete on the basis of a 300-word book pitch), there are three points at which you receive reviews of your work and may or may not progress in the competition. I think most people feel a certain amount of angst anticipating the reviews. I certainly did—it was a lot like waiting for Simon Cowell’s take on my singing. But the feedback can be valuable and the contest is a learning experience. A community has developed on the contest discussion boards where contestants share information about writing and critique each other’s work. The mutual support and camaraderie are amazing.

I had a fantastic time at the award ceremony in Seattle. The highpoint for me was giving a reading from I Am Livia at the Amazon campus. Being showered with gifts—books and more books, plus a Kindle—was nice, too. The people at Amazon, both those associated with the competition and those at Amazon Publishing—my editor Terry Goodman above all—have been enormously supportive of me as an author, and I’m very grateful.


Phyllis T. Smith's I Am Livia will be published on May 1st by Lake Union, an imprint of Amazon Publishing ($8.97 trade paperback, $4.99 ebook, 394pp).

Friday, April 25, 2014

Brendan Malone: The Darker Side of Paternal Love, a guest essay by Marina Julia Neary

I'm pleased to welcome Marina Julia Neary to the blog today.  Marina is a multi-published novelist specializing in Irish history, and in the following essay, she looks beyond traditional motifs from Irish popular culture to reveal a more sobering view of the country's historically patriarchal society.  I was also fascinated to see how she worked with her publisher to present her novel's characters and themes within the cover photo.  Her most recent books center on the Easter Rising of 1916:  Brendan Malone: The Last Fenian; Martyrs & Traitors: A Novel of 1916; and Never Be At Peace, the latter published by Fireship Press in March.


Brendan Malone: The Darker Side of Paternal Love
Marina Julia Neary

I wrote the first draft of Brendan Malone: The Last Fenian (All Things That Matter Press, 2011) as a sophomore in college. At the time I was working as a research assistant for an Irish history professor, at the height of Celtic Revival. Remember the Riverdance craze of the late 1990s, when it became glamorous to have Irish roots? Riverdance is just a highly stylicized and distilled expression of Celtic pride. The overall tone is celebratory. Even the segments that reference mass emigration are veiled in heroism and optimism. The tragedy, the negativity, the darkness have been removed, to make the show more marketable.

I understand that the producers did not want to have an Irish equivalent of Schindler's List on stage. Needless to say, Riverdance is not a comprehensive guide to Irish culture. I recall my professor, an incurable purist, being rather annoyed by the explosion of Riverdance. In his opinion, this show was distorting and oversimplifying the conflicted and turbulent heritage of his people. His mission was to educate his students about the painful, tragic, shameful elements of Irish culture. Forget the lame drunk jokes that permeate popular culture. The most horrid things do not happen in a pub. They happen in the privacy of a home. Everyone talks about how abominably the Irish had been treated by the English. Not many are willing to talk about how horrible the Irish can be to each other, the violence and abuse that happened behind the closed doors of seemingly respectable households. And I, with my penchant for morbidity, became his most hungry pupil. My ears tend to perk up at the sound of subdued wailing.

One day my professor shared a blood-chilling story about a landlord in Roscommon who, in a fit of rage, killed his youngest son during a routine hunting expedition and then made his oldest son cover up for him. Apparently, severe physical punishment was used extensively by Irish fathers, even on adult children, and there were several cases of filicide veiled as accidents. That story, told in a most casual tone, made such a profound impact on me that I developed it into a novel by adding a few twists to the plot and a back story. I worked in the myth of Cuchulainn, the mythological Irish hero from the Ulster cycle with whom the title character of Brendan Malone identifies.

In literature there are many stories featuring a conservative, traditional parent, and a rebellious child. In my novel the roles are reversed. You have a revolutionary-minded father and a counter-revolutionary son. Paradoxically, rebels, who allegedly worship freedom, can be rather oppressive towards those in their immediate surrounding, especially their family members who are somewhat in a dependent position. Brendan Malone is both a dreamer and a tyrant. To liberate his country, he is willing to enslave his family. Having established physical dominance over his timid wife and two young sons, he strives to establish ideological dominance as well and convert them to what he perceives to be his Noble Cause, that very thing that gives his life meaning. The protagonist is delusional in a sense that he believes that that a country can run on faith, camaraderie and folklore alone. His oldest son Dylan, a handsome, sturdy, obedient simpleton, echoes the same slogans, but his youngest son, Hugh, sickly and withdraw bookworm, holds a more cynical view of Ireland's prospects of gaining independence. In Hugh's mind, England is a necessary evil, and the only way an ambitious, intellectual young Irishman can succeed in life is by siding with the enemy and embracing the English ethos. Hugh does not vocalize his beliefs around his father, because he knows too well that he won't live to hear the end of the conversation.

Throughout the novel it is implied that Brendan had used violence extensively, especially on his oldest son. Most people have heard of the Stockholm Syndrome. One of my psychologist acquaintances told me that when violence from an authority figure is alternated with praise, it can become an extremely powerful attachment tool. Eventually the battered child can start perceiving physical pain as a rite of initiation into some grandiose cause. He starts believing that Daddy is beating him to make him into an epic warrior. Disturbingly, Daddy believes the same thing, which creates this beautiful tight-knit co-dependence. For this father-son pair, violence is therapeutic and redemptive. In order to maintain a healthy relationship, they must engage in periodic fist fights.

Since my goal was to write a novel that was authentic both historically and psychologically, I consulted as many mental health professionals as I did historians. Within the context of patriarchal culture of rural Ireland, Brendan's behavior is consistent with the norm of the day: beat your sons in public but terrorize your wife behind the closed doors. It's all for the benefit of the country, isn't it? Problem arises when Brendan's youngest son removes himself from the equation. He refuses to participate in these father-son bonding rituals or join the Irish Republican Brotherhood. In fact, Hugh feels rather at home in the scrawny arms of a haughty neurotic Englishwoman.

I remember daydreaming about the characters, envisioning their faces, replaying their dialogues in my head. After a thirteen-year hiatus, I finally mustered the courage to present the manuscript to a few publishers. To my pleasant surprise, I got an offer from a small press in Maine that specialized in transformative fiction with a strong philosophical and political slant. One of the benefits of working with a small publisher is the amount of artistic input the author has over the cover. So when the editor-in-chief gave me the green light to proceed, I was rubbing my hands with excitement. So when the time came to design the cover, I made it my goal to recreate the dysfunctional family in the throes of an ideological rift. Since there were no suitable photographs in the public domain, we decided to artificially create one with some costumes and Photoshop. The poses and the facial expressions of the characters would convey the nature of the conflict.

Having worked in independent theater and film, I have built a network of actors of various ages. I love studying interesting faces and envisioning people in various roles. I picked a local film actor, Joel Vetsch, to portray Brendan. Tall and broad-shouldered, Joel has a terrific presence. His seemingly jovial smile has a sinister undertone. Dylan is portrayed by a traditionally handsome Alex Mair, who has a very open, innocent face. For Hugh, I deliberately picked a child who looked different, who had heavier features and a darker complexion. In the novel, Hugh is an outsider, physically and ideologically. He is standing with his back turned to his father, clutching a book. Last but not least, one of the props is a 19th-century rifle that has been in my husband's family for generations. To paraphrase Anton Chekov, "If there's a hanging rifle on the wall, it better go off at some point." Rest assured, the rifle does go off, and the first man to fall is not an English enemy.


A Chernobyl survivor adopted into the world of Anglo-Irish politics, Marina Julia Neary has dedicated her literary career to depicting military and social disasters, from the Charge of the Light Brigade to the Easter Rising in Dublin. Her mission is to tell untold stories, find hidden gems and illuminate the prematurely extinguished stars in history. She explores human suffering through the prism of dark humor, believing that tragedy and comedy go hand in hand.

Her debut novel Wynfield's Kingdom: a Tale of London Slums appeared on the cover of the First Edition Magazine in the UK and earned the praise of the Neo-Victorian Studies Journal. With the centennial of the Easter Rising approaching, she has written a series of novels exploring the hidden conflicts within the revolutionary ranks. Never Be at Peace: A Novel of Irish Rebels is a companion piece to Martyrs & Traitors: A Tale of 1916.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Book review: The Shadow Queen, by Sandra Gulland

Those following the popular trend of “royal mistress” novels will find The Shadow Queen, the newest member of this growing category, strikingly different fare.

In her previous excursions into French history, Sandra Gulland had chronicled the stories of two court outsiders – Empress Josephine and Louise de la Vallière – who never expected to capture a monarch’s heart. Her fifth book depicts an even more unlikely entrant to exalted royal circles: Claude des Oeillets, nicknamed Claudette, a tall, attractive woman with stagecraft in her blood. In rich, descriptive language, she recounts her life story from her youth as a poor traveling player, wandering the French countryside outside Poitiers with her parents and mentally disabled brother, through her unwitting involvement in the notorious Affaire des Poisons during the Sun King’s reign.

Claudette’s rise in status is tethered to that of Mademoiselle de Tonnay-Charente, an aristocratic girl whose beauty is as ethereal as the moon, and whose privileged life seems as unattainable. Their lives intersect several times during Claudette’s teen years. In 1660, the desperate quest for work draws her family to Paris, where she glimpses her dazzling counterpart as she passes by in her handsomely appointed carriage, “her golden earlocks adorned with ribbons, a single strand of pearls tied at the back of her neck… she looked like a creature from another world.”

With these incandescent words, Gulland illustrates Claudette’s growing enchantment with the young woman who calls herself Athénaïs – a name that will surely register with devotees of the period. This fervent, almost romantic desire for Athénaïs and her alluring world will cause the otherwise levelheaded Claudette to forsake her old life, and will push her onto a more glamorous and more dangerous stage than the one she knows.

Claudette’s heart – and the novel’s – lies in the bustling world of the 17th-century Parisian theatre. This atmosphere pulses with activity: the designing of sets, the players’ pre-show stresses and magnificent performances, and the fierce rivalry among playwrights Corneille and Molière and that troublesome newcomer, Racine, who has his own agenda. These vivacious characters and scenes beg the question of why more novelists haven’t made use of this fabulous material. As Claudette mends costumes and takes on minor roles, she sees her widowed mother, the fragile yet brilliant Alix, achieve renown as a tragic actress: another hidden-from-history tale which Gulland places before her audience.

There was a downside to the acting life in this time and place, though. Performers were admired while in their element, but elsewhere they were scorned by many, the church included. As such, Claudette and her associates are forbidden the Eucharist, and proper burial when the time comes, unless they renounce the stage. And so when Athénaïs – now married to the unpleasant Marquis de Montespan – has need of someone she can trust, Claudette trades her comfortable place in the theatre for a respectable position as Athénaïs’ confidential maid.

Through the story of Claudette’s role as suivante to the temperamental Athénaïs, Louis XIV’s favorite mistress, both the opulence and hypocrisy of court life are laid bare. The castle at Saint-Germain-en-Laye is furnished with every luxury, and the view from its turrets so breathtaking, with “the frozen Seine unfurled like a silver ribbon in and around the gentle hills, clouded at times by wreaths of smoke,” that readers may find themselves lingering over that scene just to spend more time there.

However, nearly everyone in this wondrous place hides their true selves behind a mask. To her credit, Athénaïs is no snob and is generous to her maid, but her obsession with eliminating competition for the king’s favor leads them into dicey situations – and leaves Claudette to find her own way out.

Claudette is a sympathetic character over the 30-plus years that her tale extends, though her eagerness to please can be overplayed. She spices her narrative with parenthetical asides and interjections (“Ay me”) that are sometimes charming, sometimes cloying. Her servant's role doesn’t give her a front row seat at the royal court, which may dishearten fans looking for juicier intrigue, but she’s a perceptive storyteller nonetheless.

Servants are granted a uniquely close-up view of royalty, and while King Louis intimidates Claudette, through her eyes he's shown in a more human light. One episode in which she and his valet awkwardly wait outside Athénaïs’ rooms during her noisy lovemaking session with the king shows the author’s flair for comedy as well as drama. Likewise, while Claudette describes King Louis as a “handsome, well-made man,” she can’t help but observe that “His Majesty was taller than most, almost as tall as I was.” Both here and elsewhere, Gulland’s heroine proves to be a loyal, valiant woman who can hold her head up high. 


The Shadow Queen was published in April by Doubleday ($25.95, hb, 336pp).  The Canadian publisher is HarperCollins Canada.  Thanks to the author's publicist for sending me an ARC at my request.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Book review: No Great Mischief, by Alistair MacLeod

Having just gotten word about the death yesterday of acclaimed Canadian writer Alistair MacLeod, I thought I'd use this space today to celebrate his work. Although he had written many short stories, No Great Mischief was his only novel, and it was a significant one, winning the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2001. I'd highly recommend it if you haven't already read it. Below is the review I wrote back when it was first published.  For more information on MacLeod and his life, see the obituaries in CTV News and Halifax's Chronicle-Herald.

On Cape Breton Island, the Gaelic stronghold of Nova Scotia — a land of windswept crags and rocky shores — memories of years long past still reside in the hearts and minds of the people. Over two hundred years after Culloden, families of Scots descent still reminisce about the brave exploits of their handsome Bonnie Prince Charlie, and still lament the fact that the French did not come to his aid.

In 1779, Calum MacDonald — called Calum Ruadh for his red hair — left the Scottish Highlands with his family, bound for a better life in Nova Scotia. At the end of the twentieth century, his descendant Alexander MacDonald works as an orthodontist in Ontario, though his heart has never left his homeland of Cape Breton. While on a visit to his alcoholic eldest brother, living in squalor in a Toronto apartment, his thoughts turn back to his early days growing up with his grandparents and twin sister on the island. His story is told in flashbacks, including flashbacks nested within each other at multiple levels. In a lesser writer’s hands, this might cause one to lose perspective, but here the reader’s attention is held throughout.

Alexander’s tale twines through various happenings of importance: the early deaths of his parents; the unusual friendship of his two grandfathers, one relaxed and jovial, the other careful and contained; and the wild, violent summer spent with his three elder brothers as miners deep within the Canadian Shield. Wherever he or his siblings venture, they’re identified both to themselves and to outsiders as members of the clann Chalum Ruaidh, the “clan of the red Calum.” In this large extended family where relationships matter more than names, distant relatives in Scotland greet their Canadian kin with open arms, grandparents use Gaelic to recount tales of the old country, and even the family dogs are loyal unto death.

Lyrical and moving, No Great Mischief may not be historical fiction in its usual definition, but one would be hard-pressed to find a novel with a stronger sense of history. A Canadian bestseller of local interest yet truly international appeal, this novel is a highly recommended exploration of the pain of exile, the strength of family, and the inescapable nature of the past.

No Great Mischief was published by WW Norton in 2000 and has been reprinted many times since then.  The photo above comes from the 2011 edition.  This review first appeared in the Historical Novels Review in August 2000.

Friday, April 18, 2014

My summer and fall historical fiction picks, part 1

A heads-up that this will be a very self-centered post!  Here are ten books, published between now and this fall, that are on my personal wishlist.  I had a hard time limiting this down, so I'll be posting a second set of ten later on.  While nearly all of them are written by women, they offer much more diversity in terms of historical milieu.

Thanks to the generosity of the publishers and authors, copies of half of these titles are either here or on the way, meaning that reviews will be posted in due course.

A novel about a real-life woman from early American history?  I'm there.  I'm already hearing excellent things about this story recounting Mary Rowlandson's capture by Indians in 1676 Massachusetts and her subsequent difficulties returning to her old life.   NAL, July.  [see on Goodreads]

A brilliant evocation of late medieval Germany.  I was astonished to discover that this story about the creation of the Gutenberg Bible in 15th-century Mainz was based on real characters and events and wondered why it hadn't been told in fiction before.  (This is the only one of the ten I've read so far.)  Harper, September.  [see on Goodreads]

The paths of a blind French girl and a German boy collide and intertwine in occupied Paris.  I've been hearing so many superlatives about the author's compelling, generous storytelling that I have to add it to the list.  Scribner, May.  [see on Goodreads]

Because I loved the author's Flint (reviewed here in 2009), I was excited to see she had a new novel in the works. In this literary adventure, a young woman takes to the Spice Road in the 13th century to search for her storyteller grandfather.  Honno Welsh Women's Press, August.  [not on Goodreads yet]

A debut novel that follows several generations of a family living in coastal North Carolina around the time of the Revolution.  It's an unusual perspective on a familiar war, and since I already gravitate towards literary sagas, this looks right up my alley.  Harper, August.  [see on Goodreads]

Fiction about the women in Genghis Khan's life; set in late 12th-century Mongolia.  Kudos to the author and publisher for continuing to take on the stories of important women from non-Western history.  NAL, November.  [See on Goodreads]

One of the author's specialties is Anglo-Saxon England, and here she interprets the life of Acha of Deira, a young woman married off into a harsh, unfamiliar land in the early 7th century. Since I'd enjoyed her previous A Swarming of Bees, a mystery set at the time of the Synod of Whitby, The Tribute Bride was a natural choice for the TBR.  Acorn Digital Press, April.  [see on Goodreads]

The life of Dorothy Richardson, lover of H.G. Wells, and an important 20th-century British writer in her own right.  What a breathtaking cover!  Not only do I want to read more about this unconventional woman's life, I want to hang the jacket art on my wall.  Thomas Dunne, October.  [see on Goodreads]

A recent Bryn Mawr grad gets drawn into learning more about the mysterious aunt whose existence was erased from their family history.  Romance, secrets, and a setting that sweeps from WWI-era Germany to NYC in the Swinging Sixties; it looks like the perfect read for summer vacation.  Putnam, May.  [see on Goodreads]

You can always count on Barbara Wood for skillful storytelling, adventurous women, and out-of-the-ordinary settings.  Her latest takes place in Honolulu in the early 19th century and focuses on the female half of a young missionary couple.  Turner, September.  [see on Goodreads]

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Grist by Linda Little, a story of women's resilence in rural Nova Scotia

Even sensible girls can be taken in by unexpected attention. Linda Little's resilient heroine, a schoolteacher in rural Nova Scotia in 1875, discovers this to her regret when her landlord’s taciturn, socially awkward brother begins paying court to her. Describing herself up front as a “large, square-jawed girl – graceless but strong,” Penelope McCabe has a warm, honest voice that endears readers to her. How she deals with a situation that becomes progressively more unhappy gains her both sympathy and admiration.

Ewan MacLaughlin’s letters to Penelope are hardly the wooing sort – full of practicalities and odd questions, they’re the opposite of romantic.  It's apparent from the outset that something's off with him.  Maybe he's just shy?  Penelope is curious about his quirky approach, but part of her is pleased regardless. Understandably, she longs for marriage and a family, just like any other hopeful young woman of her time would.

Ewan owns and runs a mill “way up the Gunn Brook,” so he has the means to provide for a wife.  After he and Penelope wed, they board his wagon and ride three hours from town to Ewan’s newly constructed home, which she delights in exploring. Her optimism turns to puzzlement, though, once she gets a better grasp of Ewan’s true nature.

Ill-mannered and controlling, his personality grounded in a warped form of piety, Ewan makes it clear he hates conversation and resents her socializing with anyone. Mills are Ewan’s life, and he’s so talented at building and improving them that his skills are in high demand from all over the province. Forced against her will to run their mill alone, Penelope finds her happiness where she can: in the stark beauty of the landscape, which is beautifully evoked; in her friendship with neighboring farmers; and in unanticipated stolen moments. Ewan takes his revenge for her perceived weaknesses, and it's left to Penelope to protect her family from its effects.

Over the course of this multi-generational story, several chapters draw readers into Ewan’s viewpoint – told in the more distant third person, as feels appropriate – and allow insight into his mindset and why the straight, predictable art of engineering served as a peaceful escape from his rough childhood. Given how he treats Penelope, these sections can be a hard sell in eliciting significant empathy for Ewan, but they succeed in providing background for why he acts as he does. Elegantly written, with lovely descriptions of mill work and the transient joys Penelope finds in family life, Grist is a bleak and bittersweet ode to historical women’s strength and endurance.

Grist was published in 2014 (trade pb, $20.95, 234pp) by Roseway, the literary imprint of Nova Scotia-based Fernwood Publishing, which "aims to publish literary work that is rooted in and relevant to struggles for social justice."  Thanks to the author and Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for the review copy.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Book review: The Orenda, by Joseph Boyden

A noteworthy literary achievement, Boyden’s mesmerizing third novel sits at the confluence of three civilizations in 17th-century Ontario. The narration alternates among Bird, a Wendat (Huron) warrior; Snow Falls, the young Iroquois captive he adopts after killing her family to avenge his wife and daughters; and Père Christophe, a thoughtfully intelligent, multilingual Jesuit missionary. Over some years, as the growing French presence in the New World upsets a fragile balance and threats from the Iroquois become urgent, the French and Wendat move toward alliance, which, tragically, increases the latter’s susceptibility to European diseases.

In this deeply researched work, Boyden captures his characters’ disparate beliefs, remaining impartial even as they pass judgment on the customs they find simultaneously fascinating and repellent in the others. The prose conveys a raw beauty in its depictions of trade journeys, daily life within longhouses, and spirituality; the Huron Feast of the Dead, for example, is presented as a majestic symphony of reverence. The scenes of ritual torture are difficult to read, and the novel offers many intense impressions of cross-cultural conflicts and differences, yet it is most affecting when evoking its protagonists’ shared humanity and the life force—the orenda—burning brightly within each of them.

The Orenda will be published by Knopf on May 13th (hb, $26.95). It was first published by Hamish Hamilton last September in Canada, where it became a national bestseller.  Last month, it was chosen as the winner of the 2014 Canada Reads literary battle

I wrote this starred review for Booklist's March 1st issue.  The Orenda also made it to Booklist's top 10 in historical fiction for 2014 (which also includes two other picks of mine: Emma Donoghue's Frog Music and Henning Mankell's A Treacherous Paradise).

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Downton Abbey readalikes meet the university library

I recently had the opportunity to put up a display of Downton Abbey readalike books at the university library where I work.  The exhibit was timed to begin just after Season 4 wrapped up – it ran during the month of March so I figured I'd have an eager audience.  Even so, I underestimated the huge demand there was for these books, and I found myself scrambling to meet it.

Library book displays are nothing new, so it seems silly in a way to dedicate a blog post to it.  But I thought I might share my experience as a way of encouraging academic libraries in particular to try something similar.  College students are avid readers, as are faculty and staff. 

Also, I've heard from friends in the publishing industry that interest in country house sagas and the Edwardian era is starting to wane.  This is hardly a scientific experiment, but if the success of this project is any indication, this isn't true as far as readers are concerned.

Here are pics of both sides.  I started out with 16 titles purchased just for the display (ordered by my colleague Pam, who oversees our popular reading collections). They were mostly trade paperbacks, both fiction and nonfiction.  Then I supplemented them with more titles we already had in our collections, for a total of 22 in all.  I was fortunate to be given a visible spot on the library's main level, right near the circulation desk.  At the top were two signs I had fun creating:  "Looking for something to read while waiting for Season 5?" and "Reading Fit for a Dowager Countess."

The display went up on Monday, March 3rd.  By Tuesday afternoon, half of the titles had been checked out.  By the end of the week, only six titles remained, and the exhibit was looking very picked over.  So I pulled more relevant titles from our Read & Relax (paperback) and Bestsellers (hardcover) collections to fill up the display again, and anything that looked like it would remotely fit went in.  (For example, Philippa Gregory's Fallen Skies; a couple by Jacqueline Winspear.  We had many other WWI-era novels in our main stacks, but without covers, so I didn't include many of them.  Books on display without covers tend to sit there.) I replenished it twice more, and took away some unused display stands so it didn't look quite so empty.  Some returned items came back to the display.  Still, by the end of March, only three books were left.  It was impossible to keep it filled.  Almost everything added was checked out immediately.

On April 1st, I created a MS Access report to look at the circulation (i.e., number of checkouts) of all 32 items that were on the display at some point.  During the month, all but three titles had been checked out at least once, and many of them had been checked out twice.

I hope to revisit this display next winter, just before Season 5 starts... and next time, I'll be ready with even more books to include.  My next project is a display on novels set in the 1960s, both historical fiction as well as fiction that was written back then and gives a good sense of the era.  The library is organizing a large-scale exhibit and speaker series on the '60s for the fall, so this will be part of it.  I don't know if that book display will be as popular as the Downton one was, but I'll be curious to see how it turns out.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Book review: Wake, by Anna Hope

Wake is skillfully written from the outset, though the initial premise doesn’t feel especially groundbreaking: in post-WWI London, three ordinary women cope with their stagnant lives. Hettie partners single men at a Hammersmith dance hall to support her mother and shell-shocked brother, upper-class Evelyn works as a pension clerk while mourning her lover, and Ada can’t move past her soldier son’s death.

Hope then proceeds to color in their personal histories, revealing the distinctiveness of each character and situation over five days, during the lead-up to the unveiling of the Unknown Warrior’s tomb in Westminster Abbey. As their circumstances change and new people enter their lives, the women are spurred to action. Likewise, as these characters’ stories and others’ are intermixed, readers will be flipping pages to discover their tragic connection.

The background details are vivid, from a crowded West End jazz club to the trenches of northern France, both in 1920 and earlier. This increasingly riveting novel about war’s futility, grief, remembrance, and renewal is a solid effort timed just right for the WWI centenary.

This review first appeared in Booklist's November 1st issue.  Wake was published in February by Random House (hardcover, $26, 284pp); Doubleday published it in the UK in January (hardcover, £12.99).

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Bestselling historical novels of 2013

For the past seven years, I've analyzed Publishers Weekly's annual Facts & Figures articles to see which historical novels sold the most over the previous year.  The data for 2013 were published in PW's 3/17 issue, which just landed on my desk. As Daisy Maryles notes in her introduction, there are many familiar names overall particularly thriller writers but authors are having shorter tenures on the weekly bestseller lists.  With respect to historical novels, we're also seeing a few authors making their first appearance here in a while.

The usual disclaimers apply.  Books with hardcover domestic sales over 100K in hardcover or paperback were included in PW's list; publishers were asked to take returns into account, but these figures weren't often available at the time.

Here are the historical novels that made it on the list.  See also my previous posts on this topic from 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008 and 2007.

Looking at hardcovers in 2013, one semi-historical novel made it into the top 15:

#5 - Nicholas Sparks, The Longest Ride, which traces an elderly couple's love story over decades, beginning in 1939.  Did you realize Sparks had written a novel set in the past?

Topping the hardcover list was Dan Brown's Inferno (no surprise) with over 1 million copies, followed closely by Stephen King and John Grisham.

Other historical novels with 100K+ hardcover copies sold, in descending order of sales:

Jodi Picoult, The Storyteller (a perennial bestseller's first work of historical fiction; while mostly present-day, several threads are set in the past)
Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things (read my review here)
Amy Tan, The Valley of Amazement
Fannie Flagg, The All-Girl Filling Station's Last Reunion
Kate Atkinson, Life After Life (which won the historical fiction category in the Goodreads Choice Awards)
Clive Cussler and Justin Scott, The Striker
Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland

Look at the wide range of settings: Nazi Germany, 1800s America, early 20th-century China, the 1940s South, 20th-century England, 1902 America, and 1960s India.  None are set in the distant past, but nonetheless, readers can travel around the world through these historical novels.

This genre doesn't exactly thrive in mass market paperback format, so let's move on to the trade paperback list.  Here we find Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins (1960s), with 300K+ copies; Christina Baker Kline's unexpected bestseller Orphan Train, which had a nice PW profile last week; M.L. Stedman's The Light Between Oceans, a bestseller in hardcover; The Paris Wife, which continues well on the book club circuit; Ken Follett's mammoth The Winter of the World; The Storyteller again, in its trade pb re-release; Kate Morton's excellent The Secret Keeper... to name many in the 150,000+ copy range.

The top seller in trade paperback overall?  F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.  And looking at e-books, the top historical fiction seller is The Storyteller again (400,000+ copies).

How many have you read?  For me, just Signature of All Things and Winter of the World, but I have several others on the TBR.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Small Press Month: Wrap-Up and Contest Winners

We've moved on to April (if not quite spring yet, here in the Midwest), so it's time to wrap up last month's focus on small press historical fiction.

Thanks to everyone for reading along and commenting, and I'd like to extend a special appreciation to the ten guest authors who took the time to contribute essays about their novels and research.  It was a busy month, but a fun one for me.

Thanks also to all of the readers who left comments as part of my 8th anniversary giveaway; it was great to hear your thoughts, and I'll do my best to continue with the features you enjoy the most.

And now for some contest winners:

Copies of Brian Walter Budzynski's The Remark will be going out to:

Gabriele G.
Cheryl O.
Susan C.

And a small press novel of her choice (anything mentioned in a post in March) will be going to:

Erin H.

I'll be in touch this morning to get your mailing addresses.  Congratulations, and hope you enjoy the books!

Back in February, I said I'd provide a Mr. Linky for other bloggers to link up their reviews of small press historical fiction, and since I neglected to do so earlier, you're welcome to include them in the form below. Links should lead directly to your review post and not to your blog's main page.

There's no time restriction for these links; if you've reviewed a historical novel from a small press at any point on your sites, it's fine to include them. This will give other readers the largest selection possible of small press reviews to browse. If nothing else, I'm including my own four March reviews here!