Thursday, July 20, 2017

The power of a legend: James Wilde's Pendragon

The women laughed among themselves, a musical sound that seemed to tinkle on too long. ‘Words change the world,’ the mother said when they were done. ‘Tell a man he will be a king, and a king he may well be.’

James Wilde’s latest novel is billed on the cover as an “epic new historical adventure." Although it has the requisite elements of the genre (gritty action, intense physical danger, and an honorable hero you’ll be rooting for), it’s also a remarkably thoughtful example of its kind. Drawing on Roman, Celtic, Christian, and even older belief systems, Pendragon speaks to the ways religions supplant one another, and the motifs they all share. It explores how people create and communicate myths, and how these myths, in turn, can spur people into action.

Looking at the title, you’ll guess (rightly) that it’s has Arthurian themes, but you won’t see most of the usual suspects in these pages. There’s no Lancelot, no Guinevere, no Uther, no Igraine. Arthur himself, the “bear king” who’ll supposedly unite Britain’s people at the time of greatest need, is the subject of a prophecy that may come to fruition, several generations down the road, but only if forces align to make it happen.

Pendragon takes place mostly in Britannia in the mid-4th century, an era that very few authors are writing about. At the far reaches of the empire, soldiers of the fort of Vercovicium along Hadrian’s Wall have gotten used to slow communication with Rome, whose leaders are preoccupied with attacks by Germanic tribes and political infighting. Lucanus, one of a group of five scouts patrolling the northern wilderness occupied by barbarians, comes across the bodies of some compatriots who died in a particularly savage manner. So he’s less than eager to return there, but after the eight-year-old son of the woman he loves disappears, and a witness says the boy was taken into barbarian territory, Lucanus has no choice but to search for him, even at terrible risk to himself.

Deadly culture clashes and earthy mysticism (complete with witchcraft and visions fueled by magic mushrooms) combine in this exciting saga about a dark time in European history. The plot doesn’t go where you’d expect, and there are more than a few fierce, stereotype-defying women characters.

However, it wasn’t a perfect read for me. One character makes a dumb decision purely to generate drama (or so it seems), and Wilde draws back from showing readers two key scenes. Also, a parallel storyline set in Gaul and Rome felt fragmented in comparison, although I did like the way the two threads were slowly brought together – their connection wasn’t obvious.

Overall, recommended for anyone interested in the Roman Empire or who’s entranced by the power the Arthurian legend exerts.

Pendragon was published by Bantam in the UK on July 13; thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Love in the time of peril, a guest post by Anne Cleeland, author of The Barbary Mark

Today novelist Anne Cleeland is contributing an essay about the type of historical novel she enjoys writing.  Read more below...


Love in the Time of Peril 
Anne Cleeland

I love writing historical fiction, because history is a great plot-generator. Pick any era where the world is in turmoil, and you’ll find larger-than-life people, having larger-than-life adventures.

For example, I write a series of historicals that are set in 1814—a year that’s so rich with potential story plots that it’s hard to decide which way to go. After eight miserable years of war, Napoleon’s in exile on Elba—but he’s about to escape, get the old gang back together, and march on Paris to stage the Hundred Days’ War. Meanwhile, Europe’s in disarray, the old orders are crumbling, and everyone’s broke from Napoleon’s last attempt at world conquest.

So, my heroines are swept up in these unlikely events—some willingly, and some not-so-willingly—but always because there’s a treasure at stake, and the forces of good are battling the forces of evil in order to get to it first.

Meanwhile, some man is driving her to distraction, and her budding romance fuels the plot as much as the historical events. I always write couples, because it makes the heroine’s adventure both epic and personal at the same time, which—when you think about it—is true for real-life historical figures, too. You can’t write about Henry VIII without a heavy dose of Anne Boleyn. Or Napoleon without his Josephine. Or Cleopatra without her Marc Antony. Why? Because although these people were larger-than-life in terms of history, they were also human beings who fell in love—often with someone completely unsuitable. (I’m looking at you, Admiral Lord Nelson.)

And there’s nothing like the conflict that arises when our doughty heroine has to choose between the fate of the world and her fondness for this fine man, who may or may not be what he seems. Can she trust him? Would it matter, even if she couldn’t?

In my mind, if you mix a tumultuous time in history with classic themes of love and betrayal, then I think you have the makings of a riveting story—which is why we can never seem to get enough of the Tudors, the gift that keeps on giving.

So please join my heroines as they try to navigate a dangerous world whilst fighting their attraction to dangerous men—I promise you won’t be disappointed.

About The Barbary Mark: After a shipwreck, Nonie Rafferty washes up on the shore of Algiers, where the slave traders look to sell the pretty Irishwoman—or worse. She must come up with a tale to save herself—and fast—before anyone discovers the true reason she sailed to this misbegotten corner of the world, or the true reason she was wearing a priceless strand of pearls, when she was rescued. Fortunately, the Dey’s mysterious necromancer appears willing to come to her aid, and what follows is a cat-and-mouse game of deception, attraction, and above all, redemption.  Visit the author's website at

Thursday, July 13, 2017

After Anatevka by Alexandra Silber, a stand-alone sequel to Fiddler on the Roof

Grammy-nominated singer and actress Silber’s fiction debut is a sequel to Fiddler on the Roof, a show whose characters she has interpreted on the international stage. Notably, it’s a fully realized, thoughtful literary novel that can also stand alone.

The story follows Hodel, a young woman imprisoned in Omsk while attempting to reunite with her fiancĂ©, Perchik, a Socialist activist who was taken to a Siberian labor camp. Each of the book’s three parts contains a well-developed character arc, and, like Fiddler itself, it contrasts the warmth of Old World traditions with the harsh treatment endured by the Jewish people.

The settings have a you-are-there feel, from Hodel’s memories of sisterhood and braiding challah back home in Anatevka; to salt-encrusted, remote Siberia, which has its own stark beauty; to the brutality of prison life as the couple’s world grows increasingly dark. The strength of their deep romantic bond is emphasized throughout.

Fans of the musical and anyone interested in the plight of the Jews in czarist Russia will appreciate this multitalented author’s work.

After Anatevka was published last Tuesday by Pegasus (336pp).  This review first appeared in the June issue of Booklist.  It's in the review, but it's worth restating: you don't have to be familiar with Fiddler on the Roof to appreciate this novel, as sufficient back-story for the characters is provided.

Read more about the novel's own back-story in the New York Times, which discusses the author's reasons for writing the novel and some of her research.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

On researching The Velveteen Daughter, a guest post by Laurel Davis Huber

Following my review of The Velveteen Daughter from last week, I'm happy to welcome Laurel Davis Huber to the blog today -- her publication day -- with an essay about her research into primary sources from the lives of her two heroines: writer Margery Williams Bianco and her artist daughter, Pamela Bianco.


On Researching The Velveteen Daughter
Laurel Davis Huber

Researching The Velveteen Daughter was, I admit, an obsession. I imagine this must be true of any writer of historical fiction. Still, each author’s journey is unique.

Here are just a few of the stops I made along the way: The archives of the Museum of Modern Art in Queens and the Smithsonian in Washington, both of which held many of Pamela Bianco’s forgotten paintings; the Tate Library and Archive in London (via the postal service only, alas), which provided a poignant letter written by Margery Bianco expressing concern over her daughter finding fame so early in life; Vassar College, where I unearthed Bianco family letters and hand-drawn Christmas cards; and the Lilly Library in Indiana, home to boxes and boxes of letters and photographs from Wales and England and New York in the Richard Hughes collection.

Every discovery was fascinating. However, three stand out as my “Indiana Jones” moments: treasures unburied, the Holy Grail found!

The first was the discovery that just before I began my research, an art historian in London had happened upon a Pamela Bianco drawing and, like me, was immediately entranced. Her interest had led to writing the catalogue essay for a retrospective exhibition in 2004. This essay provided a chronology of Pamela’s life and art. Voila! My guessing about the sequence of events was over. Not only that, but information in the catalogue also led me to a woman in Brooklyn who had known Pamela—a delightful lunch conversation provided personal details I could never have found elsewhere.

The author's research bookshelf.
The second was finding, online, a reference to New Yorker memos about Pamela. But I had to request copies before I could read them. One day a plain brown envelope arrived. The return address: Room 222, The New York Public Library. Instantly I envisioned a mysterious room at the end of a long dark hall, full of wonderful secrets. When I tore open the envelope, I was not disappointed. Inside were memos dated 1935-36 describing interviews with Pamela when she was no longer famous. She was struggling to “to get on her feet again.” These memos became a critical piece of the novel.

The third was perhaps the most thrilling. The character of Robert Schlick (Pamela’s first husband) was difficult to write, as very little is known about him. One day I found online an entry from a rare book dealer in California, a book of poems by Robert published in 1930. At the end of the scholarly description were these enticing words: “Tipped into the back of the book is a pocket with a label reading 'Letters.'”

The book dealer kindly sent me copies of these papers, which turned out to be vivid descriptions of Pamela’s wedding in Harlem. The music, the attendees, the clothes, the conversation! The result, I’m happy to report, is that the wedding scene in The Velveteen Daughter is quite authentic.

And now I can’t wait to lose myself researching my next book (which may or may not take place in New York City in the 1830s)…


Laurel Davis Huber grew up in Rhode Island and Oklahoma. She is a graduate of Smith College. She has worked as a corporate newsletter editor, communications director for a botanical garden, high school English teacher, and senior development officer for both New Canaan Country School and Amherst College. She has studied with the novelist and short-story writer Leslie Pietrzyk (the 2015 Drue Heinz Literature Prize winner for This Angel on My Chest) and has participated in several writing residencies at the Vermont Studio Center. She and her husband split their time between New Jersey and Maine.  Visit the author's website at

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Laurel Davis Huber's The Velveteen Daughter, a mother-daughter story about art, family, and fame

Debut novelist Huber brings psychological acuity and tender empathy to her portraits of Margery Williams, the English-American author of the children’s literature classic The Velveteen Rabbit, and her artist daughter, Pamela Bianco. Huber knits their viewpoints together in short alternating chapters, a perfect structure for characters whose lives are so intertwined that it would be difficult to tell their stories separately.

Growing up in early twentieth-century Turin, Pamela displays such uncanny artistic talent that her Italian-born father puts her under the spotlight, arranging exhibitions that gain her international attention. This childhood fame has dire repercussions.  As a young woman in New York’s art scene, Pamela endures melancholic episodes and suffers intense, unrequited love for a family friend, while lively, warmhearted Margery constantly worries about her fragile daughter’s stability.

Huber excels in depicting these complex family dynamics, and her subject is strikingly original. Combining the elegance of literary fiction with realistic period atmosphere and an emotional openness reminiscent of personal memoirs, the prose is entirely immersive. A compelling read for art- and women’s-history enthusiasts as well as historical fiction fans.

Laurel Davis Huber's The Velveteen Daughter will be published by She Writes Press on July 11th ($16.95 pb/$9.95 ebook).  This review first appeared in the 5/15 issue of Booklist.  Once you read this novel, you'll wonder why the story had been hidden from history for so long.

On release day next Tuesday, I'll be publishing a guest post by the author in which she discusses her research discoveries.

Monday, July 03, 2017

From #HNS2017: the Book Reviewers Tell All panel, with details on the Historical Novels Review

Last Saturday, June 24th, I participated in a panel entitled Book Reviewers Tell All: Advice for Authors and Readers at the Historical Novel Society conference in Portland, Oregon. My fellow panelists were book bloggers extraordinaire Jenny Quinlan of Let Them Read Books and Historical Editorial and Meg Wessell from A Bookish Affair. We had a standing room only crowd of nearly 100 people – a nice surprise!

Thanks to everyone who attended. It was great to see so much interest in reviewing historical fiction.

Here’s a narrative version of my part of our presentation, for those who weren’t able to attend (or for those that did but would like a recap). My part dealt with my role as book review editor for the Historical Novels Review.

Please stop by and read Meg's and Jenny's parts of the presentation as well!  Meg spoke first, discussing what authors should know about book blogs, and then Jenny spoke about reviewing: how to write reviews, reviewing ethics, approaches to negative reviews, and more.

Background on the Historical Novels Review

This year, the HNS turns twenty, and May’s HNR is the 20th anniversary issue. A quarterly magazine published in print since 1997, it contains reviews of historical fiction from the US and UK, with additional content from Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. It offers a wide variety of historical fiction, from all subgenres (including historical romance, mystery, and fantasy) and from all types of publishers, from the Big 5 to small and university presses to indie books. It’s the only print magazine for historical fiction, with over 300 reviews published each quarter; most appear in print, but due to space limitations (HNR is 64pp long), some reviews appear a “online exclusives.”

The HNS website has a large database with over 16,000 reviews, all searchable by keyword as well as time period and subgenre. In the past, the HNR aimed for comprehensive review coverage, but that’s no longer possible, since so many historical novels are being published. Rather, HNR is selective, and the overall acceptance rate is about 50%, a greater ratio than many other review magazines have.

What do the reviews editors do?

I work with a great team of 11 reviews editors based in the US and UK. Each of us has publisher liaison assignments. This system is a little unusual for a review publication, but we’ve set things up this way because we have to make many requests for review copies from publishers ourselves. Some books arrive without our having to ask for them, but it’s not the majority. Publishers don’t tend to have mailing lists of historical fiction reviewers like they do for genres like romance or mystery. So: each of the reviews editors makes requests for review copies, decides on reviewer assignments (in the US, this job is rotated among all of us), mails the books out, edits the completed reviews, and emails review links to the publishers or authors who sent us the books in the first place. For example, I work with Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Bethany House, and some university presses.

a pile of books waiting to be assigned to reviewers

The books solicited by the reviews editors include historical novels with settings in the 1960s and earlier, as well as multi-period books with significant historical content. We make a point of seeking out review copies from publishers who may not have heard of the magazine, and we also handle incoming queries that arrive via email or the HNS website. Indie editor Richard Lee (HNS’s founder/publisher) and his team respond to incoming queries for indie-published historical novels.

Why review for the Historical Novels Review?

The HNR relies on the contributions of over 150 reviewers, each with different areas of specialty or interest – from ancient Egypt to Regency romances, the US Civil War, and WWII military history. Not everyone has a specialty, which is fine. Reviewers regularly receive long lists of books to select from over email and send in their choices for books they’d like to review – those that they’re personally interested in. Because reviewers are volunteers (as are the editors), we felt this was important. In the US, the editors collate who wants what. We create an enormous spreadsheet with people’s choices, making assignments based on that and the genre/time period preferences that reviewers had given to us initially.

Reviewers aren’t sent books unsolicited, although we sometimes ask for people able to review “orphans” (those that go unclaimed in the first round of selections). The fact that a book is an “orphan” doesn’t say anything about a book’s quality, but some books are harder to place for various reasons. Many reviewers look forward to getting the lists and use them to add books to their TBRs. Reviewers get to keep the books they review and have the opportunity to share their thoughts with readers of an international magazine.

May's Historical Novels Review, the 20th anniversary issue!

As with other review publications, HNR has a set of guidelines for reviewers to follow. While there isn’t a “house style,” there are some things we look for:

  • Unlike with blog reviews, HNR reviews have a set word limit. Most reviews must be 200-300 words long (there’s a shorter word count for nonfiction and some shorter genre titles). It’s a useful exercise in writing concisely and clearly. Every word counts, and you have to decide what aspects of a book are most important to describe or analyze in this relatively short space. 
  • Reviews must have a balance of plot recap and critical reaction. If a review is nearly all about the plot, with only a short sentence of opinion at the end, we’ll return the review for revision. HNR reviews are written for other readers who can use them to judge whether the book might interest them (or not). 
  • Opinions (both positive and not) should be backed up with reasons or examples to help readers. This is particularly true when reviewers find what they believe are anachronisms. 
  • Reviews should be written in an engaging style. 
  • The HNR has quarterly reviewer deadlines, and reviewers have anywhere from 30-90 days to turn in their reviews. 
  • No spoilers! Reviewers should avoid giving away major plot twists; readers should be left to discover these on their own. 
  • Readers may find the idea of reviewing historical fiction intimidating, because they feel they need to be an expert on a novel’s historical period in order to evaluate its accuracy. However, HNR isn’t an academic publication in which the historical contents of novels are analyzed in great detail. The reviews are written for general readers who are historical fiction fans. If reviewers know a historical period well and can comment on a novel’s accuracy (or not), that’s fine, but it isn’t a requirement.
There's more to reviewing than just this, but we each had only 10-15 min to get the basics in...

The reviews editors take an active role and provide feedback to help strengthen reviews when appropriate.

For anyone interested in joining the review team, please email me! Send details on your reading interests and, if I’m not familiar with your writing, I’ll request a sample review from you, or a link to one. Please don’t be offended by this; I’ll want to get an idea of your writing/reviewing style before mailing books out. If you’re new to reviewing, consider writing up a sample review of a novel you’ve recently read, and I’ll read it over and provide feedback.

What authors should know about the review process

Here are some points for authors to be aware of:

  • HNR doesn’t charge for reviews.
  • Read the submission guidelines first to learn more about HNR and the review process. This is a good idea for any review publication you want to submit to. 
  • Since HNR is a quarterly magazine, it has a lead time of 2-5 months. (The “lead time” is an estimate for how long the review process takes, from book submission to the publication of a review.) Both print copies and e-copies are accepted. 
  • Our scope is limited to books published within the last 12 months. HNR accepts historical novels and selected historical nonfiction only; modern novels about the past, such as The Da Vinci Code, aren't covered.
  • Requests are accepted from both publicists and authors. You can email the appropriate reviews editor directly; email addresses and publisher liaison assignments are listed on the magazine’s masthead. Additionally, you can fill out the HNS’s online review request form, and an editor will reply if they’d like to request a copy of your book. 
  • Although the editors request review copies from publishers, please reach out, or have your publicist reach out, if you want to be sure your book is being considered. 
  • Realize that although we appreciate the opportunity to consider all submissions, not everything submitted will be reviewed. Also, HNS reviews can’t be purchased via membership. HNS members and non-members are treated equally in the review process.

Other promotional opportunities offered in the HNR

  • Myfanwy Cook compiles a quarterly column, New Voices, which profiles four debut historical novelists in each issue. 
  • Feature articles (which include interviews, profiles, and other pieces) are published both in the HNR and on the HNS website. Lucinda Byatt is the features editor for the print magazine, while Claire Morris is the web features editor. Have an idea for a piece you want to write? Contact Lucinda and/or Claire – use the HNS’s contact form, or email me at sarah dot readingthepast dot com for their contact details. Many articles & interviews are based on queries from publicists or individual authors. 
  • Articles are more likely to be accepted if the focus is not explicitly self-promotional. 
  • Effective with the May 2017 issue, I’ve started compiling a list entitled New Books by HNS Members as part of my Market News column in the print magazine. This is for HNS members only; if you’d like to be included, send me the details! The submission deadline for August’s HNR (covering novels published Jan-Sept 2017) is the first week of July. 

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Emilia Bassano Lanyer’s Family: Court Musicians and Secret Jews, a guest post by Charlene Ball

Today Charlene Ball, author of the debut novel Dark Lady, is stopping by with a post on the family background and heritage of her heroine, Emilia Bassano Lanyer.  Dark Lady was published on Tuesday by She Writes Press, and I'm looking forward to reading it.  Welcome, Charlene!


Emilia Bassano Lanyer’s Family: Court Musicians and Secret Jews
By Charlene Ball

Emilia Bassano Lanyer, the main character in my novel Dark Lady, was a member of the Venetian Bassano family of Court musicians and instrument makers who came to England from Venice at the invitation of King Henry VIII. They moved from the small Italian town of Bassano de Grappa to Venice, where they became musicians for the Doge.

Emilia’s father Baptista Bassano was the youngest of six brothers who emigrated from Venice (an older brother remained in Italy). The Bassanos lived at first in the Charterhouse in London (it still stands off Aldersgate Street north of the Barbican). The Charterhouse was emptied of its monks when Henry VIII took over the monasteries. Emilia’s mother was Margaret Johnson, possibly related to the Robert Johnson who composed some songs for Shakespeare’s plays. Baptista and Margaret had four children, but two boys died in childhood, and Angela, Emilia’s older sister, married Joseph Holland in her teens and disappeared from the records.

The Bassanos may have been conversos, or secret Jews, who converted to Christianity and outwardly conformed to the Church of England while observing their religion in secret. If they were secret Jews, they may have come originally from Spain or Portugal when the Jews were expelled in 1492. Officially no Jews had lived in England since they were expelled by Edward I in 1290. But there were Jewish families living in London before, during, and after the reign of Elizabeth I.

Being from a family of musicians, Emilia would have been surrounded by music from birth. She would have learned to play the lute, as many gentlewomen and ladies did, and probably also the recorder, since her family was known for the Court recorder consort (a consort is a small band made up of the same kind of instruments) and for making recorders and other wind instruments.

Emilia married her cousin, Alfonso Lanyer (alternative spelling Lanier). His mother was Emilia’s first cousin, and his father was from a French Huguenot family of musicians. The most famous member of this family is Nicholas Lanier, the 17th-century composer. Nicholas is a child in Dark Lady.

The historical Alfonso could have been either older or younger than Emilia. I have made him younger and given him the nickname of “Alfi.” Alfonso became a member of the Bassano Consort, either because his mother, Lucretia, was a Bassano or because of his marriage to Emilia.

Music, therefore, would have pervaded Emilia Bassano Lanyer’s life. And so would ties to her family. Her Jewish heritage would likely have been both a bond with her Bassano family and a source of struggle, since she was brought up a Protestant and was bound by ties of love and friendship with her Protestant mentors Suzan Bertie, Countess of Kent, and Margaret Clifford, Countess of Cumberland. Dark Lady portrays how a woman with such conflicting loyalties manages to negotiate her way among those she loves.

If you’d like to learn more, here are some resources I used:

Katz, David S. The Jews in the History of England: 1485-1850. Oxford: Clarendon: 1984.

Lasocki, David, with Roger Prior. The Bassanos: Venetian Musicians and Instrument Makers in England, 1531-1665. Aldershot, England: Scolar, 1995.

Prior, Roger. “A Second Jewish Community in Tudor London.” Jewish Historical Studies 31 (1988-90): 137-152.

Ruffatti, Alessio. “Italian Musicians at the Tudor Court – Were They Really Jews?” Jewish Historical Studies 35 (1996-1998): 1-14.


Charlene Ball holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature and has taught English and women’s studies at colleges and universities. Although she has written nonfiction, reviews, and academic articles, writing fiction has always been her first love. She has published fiction and nonfiction in The North Atlantic Review, Concho River Review, The NWSA Journal, and other journals. She is a Fellow of the Hambidge Center for the Arts and held a residency at the Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico. She retired from the Women’s Studies Institute (now the Institute for Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies) at Georgia State University in 2009. She lives in Atlanta with her wife, author and bookseller Libby Ware. Visit her online at her website or Facebook.