Sunday, April 30, 2006

Bibliographies for novels

Miss Snark has suggested that bibliographies within novels are "last century." She's already stated that she doesn't deal with historical fiction, so this may explain her remarks. (And, as mentioned previously, Da Vinci Code and novels of its ilk are not historical fiction regardless of what the newspapers think, even though I'd like to see bibliographies for those types of novels, too... for the same reasons as given below.)

In a way, she's right. Bibliographies for novels are very last century - as well as 9th century, 16th century, 18th century, and so forth. They're very common in historical novels, and calling them either outdated or undesired ignores the need that many readers have to learn more about the novels' historical subjects, right then and there. Who better to lead readers in this direction than the author? And on the chance that a reader feels an author messed up in his/her research, or if an author provides a non-traditional interpretation of a historical character's actions, a bibliography compiled by said author can be helpful in another way as well.

Miss Snark suggests that bibliographies be placed on author websites rather than in the novels themselves. Many historical novelists do this, and it is a good way of drawing in new readers. However, this doesn't do current or prospective readers much good unless they're told that such a bibliography exists, and is on the author's website.... or if readers generally go immediately to an author's website upon reading a novel. (I wouldn't assume that all readers will do so.)

I also don't know how such a bibliography would become outdated, because normally bibliographies contain only those books used by the author in the course of his/her research for a given novel. As such, those lists aren't likely to change, unless the author suddenly realizes that a major source was omitted (oops).

If the author's already going to be providing an author's note, historical epilogue, etc. - which are incredibly helpful to readers, and which I personally appreciate - why not make things easier for readers and list some sources right there? Bibliographies aren't written for marketing one's novel to people who haven't read it, although they certainly can be used as such. They're meant to guide existing readers of a novel in learning more about a subject, and in providing insight into the author's research methods. And if so, where better to put such a list of resources than the end of the book. If an author has a website, sure, put it there too. We aren't talking dissertation-length bibliographies here, so the publisher can relax. A page or two of major research sources (or less) is all that most novels provide. Anything longer can go online.

A trawl through my personal library quickly reveals a number of historical novels containing bibliographies or narrative lists of research sources at the end. I submit the following list:

Tracy Chevalier, The Lady and the Unicorn
Bernard Cornwell, The Pale Horseman
Emma Donoghue, Life Mask
Clare Dudman, 98 Reasons for Being
Sarah Dunant, The Birth of Venus
Mary Sharratt, The Vanishing Point
Beverly Swerling, Shadowbrook
Barry Unsworth, The Songs of the Kings

All very 21st century novels, indeed. What do you think - are these authors out of the loop? Should unpublished novelists who "play with history," or who "base their novels on solid fact and research," follow their example, or ignore it?

Friday, April 28, 2006

It's all about meme

Lady Tess tagged me to answer this meme, so here goes.

Six minutes to yourself - how would you spend them:
Probably sleeping!

Six bucks to spend right now - how would you spend it:
I'd get a paperback at Borders, if I was allowed a little extra to cover the tax. Picking just one is too hard, though.

Six items you'd leave behind if your house were on fire:
(1) Old musty books I know I'll never read; (2) overstuffed blue recliner that's covered in cat hair; (3) my turntable and LP collection; (4) all the empty boxes in the closet under the staircase; (5) boxes of old library science magazines; (6) the little wads of paper that my cats love to bat around

Six items you'd grab if your house were on fire:
(1) My husband (2) my cats (3) my computer (4) my book collection (5) cabinet with my genealogy files (6) dolls I inherited from my grandmother. This is cheating, but it's all in good fun :)

Six words you love:
Let's go to Indy this weekend.
(home of a major shopping mall, two Trader Joe's, a Wild Oats, the Cheesecake Factory, and not one but two Half Price Books outlets)

Six things you want to accomplish before you leave the earthly plane: (1) Read all of the books that I own; (2) travel more - especially to Europe, Australia, and New Zealand; (3) write another historical fiction reference book; (4) live long enough to retire and move back to New England; (5) go back to New York City and have another great meal at Mitali East, followed by a trip to The Strand; (6) finish the cross-stitch tapestry I've been working on for eons.

Anyone else want to play?

In other news, I added my books to Librarything last night, uploading them all from Readerware. The upload ran all night, and I woke up to find I'm #4 in the system (even after removing 500 dupes because the system hiccupped on a bunch of titles). Looks like about 10% of my books don't have ISBNs, so they're not reflected in my public catalog.

Last but not least, a little BSP: as of fall 2006 I'll be a tenured Associate Professor of Library Services at EIU. My tenure and promotion applications were approved on Monday. Yay!

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Another major HF deal

From today's Publishers Marketplace. Royalty novels are in vogue, but this should come as no surprise. BTW, "significant deal" = somewhere between a quarter/half million $.

Carolly Erickson's BIRD OF PARADISE: A NOVEL OF THE EMPRESS JOSEPHINE, about the Caribbean seductress whose sexually adventurous life and bold personality led her to the heights as Napoleon's wife and ultimately to the depths of imprisonment, to Charles Spicer at St. Martin's, in a significant deal, in a two-book deal, by Russell Galen at Scovil Chichak Galen Literary Agency (world English).

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Stolen from Publishers Marketplace

Wow, this is some deal:

Ariana Franklin's THE MISTRESS OF THE ART OF DEATH and THE SERPENT IN THE GARDEN, billed as "Kathy Reichs in the 12th Century," to Rachel Kahan at Putnam, in a major deal, for seven figures, by Helen Heller at Helen Heller Agency (US).

It's a wonderful thing to see an excellent historical novelist finally get the attention she deserves (not to mention the dough...) even if she had to use a pseudonym to do it. And she's returning to the 12th century, too, after a brief sojourn during the pre-WWII era. Hurrah.

Forthcoming historical novels

At long last, I've updated the Historical Novel Society's forthcoming books page, at least for American titles. From what I understand, British publishers' catalogs don't appear as frequently as those for American publishers, so the UK listings are pending.

I've already realized one I've missed - Michael Cox's The Meaning of Night (WW Norton, Sept) and probably others, but after days of searching through catalogs, Amazon, Publishers Weekly, etc., my mouse hand's pretty sore, so I'll stop for now. If there's anything obvious I'm missing, please leave details in the comments, and I'll add them shortly.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Bits and pieces

Little things I've picked up here and there.

Alison Weir's next historical biography will be on Katherine Swynford, the heroine of Anya Seton's classic novel Katherine. I've heard rumors that Weir's novel about Lady Jane Grey, Innocent Traitor, will be out in the US next spring, but no official word from the publisher yet. I'm impatient and ordered a copy from a British bookseller last weekend.

An interview with Malaysian novelist Vyvyane Loh about her novel Breaking the Tongue. What do you think of this technique of hers?
As Breaking the Tongue comes to its end, there is a section where the text is suddenly written in Chinese characters. The author excluded an English translation, deliberately shutting out English-only readers, leaving them to grope their way through via context and insinuation, only half-joking when she says she wanted her readers to “work a little”.

More on Geraldine Brooks and her Pulitzer. Her next novel sounds most intriguing:
...She is now working on another piece of historical fiction, tracing the history of a real-life Jewish manuscript from the 14th century.

Oh, and the Gallery of Reusable Cover Art has been updated.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Seek and ye shall find this blog

There's a saying in the library community that only librarians like to search; everyone else likes to find.

Because I'm a librarian-type and part of my job involves teaching undergraduates how to search databases properly, it has been very interesting for me to go through my SiteMeter stats and see how people are finding this blog. Slightly less than half of the visitors come across the site via Google, Dogpile, or some other search engine, rather than by referral from other blogs (or directly).

Among the most common search terms used:

"jed rubenfeld cover image" (sorry, don't have one)
"the interpretation of murder" (title of novel by Mr. Rubenfeld; mentioned in one of the Galleys to Grab posts)
"silent in the grave" or "deanna raybourn" (about 10 of these per day; buzz is building early for this January 2007 release)
"rosalind laker books"
various other book and author titles, including some for "eve trevaskis" (perhaps there is more of a market for her books than I thought)

However, the people who searched on these terms no doubt expected something different than what they got.

"reading the past series" (a series of British nonfiction books that sounds interesting but I have nothing to do with)
"headless women" (at least five occurrences; I'm not sure I want to know)
"past life reading" (potentially intriguing, but you won't find that here)
"read last boleyn free online" (sorry, no free full text of this copyrighted work available here, or anywhere; it isn't that expensive, really)
"big heavy chains" (no clue)

In the librarian world, we call these "false drops" or "false hits." But if you came here accidentally and like what you see, please visit again soon.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Galleys to Grab at BEA, Part Three

These titles come from the official galleys-to-grab list appearing in Publishers Weekly's current issue. I don't know if non-subscribers can view the link, but the full article is here. A couple of these are repeats from my previous posts.

Lee Smith, On Agate Hill, Algonquin (Oct). "A Reconstruction-era epic that follows a woman's life from orphanhood to widowhood."

Jed Rubenfeld, The Interpretation of Murder, Holt (Sept). "Reimagines Sigmund Freud as a literary crime-solver in New York City, while on his 1909 visit to America with protégé and rival Carl Jung." Judging by my SiteMeter stats, lots of his fans are googling this title.

Kathleen McGowan, The Expected One, Touchstone (Aug). "Tale of a descendant of Mary Magdalene based on 20 years of research."

Doug Marlette, Magic Time, FSG (Sept). "Tale of a New York City newspaper columnist who returns to Mississippi to face his repressed past, just as an unsolved civil rights case opens."

Seems like a shorter list than usual for PW, but I'm sure there'll be plenty more - including the ones I posted about already. PW has a separate list for children's and young adult titles here.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Thoughts on a quiet Saturday afternoon

Having just finished a 1500-word article on one historical novelist's works - particularly challenging because said works are outside of my normal reading tastes - I can now happily commence to guilt-free reading once more. Guilt-free, because I won't feel like I really ought to be working on something else instead. (This doesn't happen very often.)

In browsing through articles retrieved via Google News here at the reference desk, I found one interesting piece on matters historical. Britain's Financial Times published an article two weeks ago called "Rewriting History." From this, we learn that Henry James thought the historical novel was "condemned to a total cheapness" because "no author can truly imagine him or herself into a past consciousness." The second clause of this is perhaps true to some degree, but does that mean one shouldn't try?

What makes the introduction so delightfully ironic is that it makes you wonder how well Colm Toibin (The Master) and David Lodge (Author, Author) portrayed James himself in their own novels. What gall! Fortunately, author Angel Gurria-Quintana doesn't agree with James's premise. Overall, I found the article to be an excellent overview of what historical fiction is, and has the potential to be.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Misleading cover photo?

This example of the "headless woman" style cover (okay, she's not gowned...) intrigues me, but not in a good way. Unlike most other books with this type of cover, John MacLachlan Gray's The Fiend in Human does not feature a strong female protagonist. Rather, it's a Victorian-era thriller about a tabloid reporter determined to unmask a serial killer... who has been going around strangling prostitutes with a white silk scarf. Hence the cover photo.

What I ask is: does this cover play fair? Do you think it's horribly inappropriate, or do you find it diabolically clever?

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Advice to a historical romance writer

In today's blog, Miss Snark gives advice to an aspiring historical romance writer who was told that her writing was "flat and unevocative" and often sounded contemporary.

While I was writing this post, I read the comments and saw that the first respondent directed the author to the HNS. There are some other helpful responses here - only five so far, but I'm sure more will appear as the day progresses. A round of applause for the agent who provided constructive criticism to the author, and to the author herself, who was brave enough to come forward, and whose experience inspired some interesting and very useful remarks.

Monday, April 17, 2006

March beats The March for Pulitzer

Of two books named March and set during the Civil War, Geraldine Brooks's version won. A good showing for historical fiction all around. Read the latest from CNN.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Where have I seen this before?

Here's the Australian edition of Kent Haruf's Eventide, from Pan Macmillan Australia, which I saw while browsing through their online catalog. I know I've seen this cover image before, on some book (maybe historical, maybe not) from an American publisher. Unfortunately, I can't quite place it yet. The US edition of Haruf's novel looks nothing like it, so that's not it.

Update: here it is, on the cover of the paperback edition of Lorna Landvik's Oh My Stars, which is, in fact, historical.

I don't know why, but I have a pretty good memory for this sort of thing.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Those confusing title changes

I can often see why publishers decide to change a book's title upon re-release or when publishing it in a different territory (UK to US, or vice versa). Sometimes older titles are dated, or newer ones simply describe the book better. Sometimes a title that works with British readers may be misunderstood by Americans. But I also understand why readers really, really hate title changes; who wants to be deceived into unknowingly buying the same book twice? And as a reviews editor who works with her UK counterparts to eliminate duplicate reviews as much as possible, I can say that title changes can be very confusing, and oftentimes they're impossible to track down in advance. Hence, unintentional duplicate reviews.

Here are examples of one title change that worked for me, and two that didn't.

Karen Harper, Passion's Reign (1983) vs. The Last Boleyn (2006)

Harper's novel about Mary Boleyn, written and published well over a decade before Philippa Gregory's take on the subject, appeared in 1983 as a paperback romance. It was re-released last month as a mainstream historical by Three Rivers Press in trade paperback, because of Harper's popularity with historical fans (due to her Queen Elizabeth I series) and the literary craze with all things Tudor. The publisher acknowledges the title change on the cover, which helps, and it's fair to say that mainstream historical fiction fans would have a low tolerance for the earlier title, regardless of the novel's quality. Wish I could find my copy to scan in the earlier cover, because it's very typical for a 1980s historical romance. To give you some indication, the cover of her 1984 novel Sweet Passion's Pain has her heroine Joan of Kent wearing dark blue eyeliner, bright pink lip gloss, and magenta nail polish. Anyway, in my book this title change is a plus, though I haven't read the novel in a while, and don't know how well the prose has held up over time.

Melvyn Bragg, Credo (UK) vs. The Sword and the Miracle (US)

I read this based on the British edition, and I loved it - I also knew, based on the cover and the title, exactly what I would be getting. No doubt many of you have already read this epic biographical novel of St. Bega and the struggle between Celtic and Roman Christianity in early medieval Britain. I can imagine the American publisher thought that keeping the title as Credo in the States would either result in readers asking "huh, what's a credo?" (which may not be too far off) or bookstores mistakenly stocking it in Religion. But the title of The Sword and the Miracle, while evocative in its own pseudo-Arthurian way, is just plain deceptive. It implies people will be getting a historical fantasy that may have something to do with the Holy Grail. And then there's the dust jacket. One Amazon reviewer called it right: "Fabulous [book] - but what's Fabio doing on the cover?"

Anne Perry, Slaves and Obsession (UK) vs. Slaves of Obsession (US)

This is the novel in the Monk series that's set partly during the US Civil War, and partly in Victorian London. Funny how changing one little word can change the meaning of the title completely. To the American audience, the title has nothing to do with slavery and everything to do with obsession. This makes it sound more like a Judith Krantz novel or the 1860s version of some glitzy family saga. Maybe the publisher felt that mentioning (or implying) anything about slavery in an Anne Perry title would turn off American readers, especially since her Monk series is more popular in the US than abroad. If nothing else, the two titles are similar enough that readers won't be confused - apart from wondering why it was changed in the first place.

More examples to come.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Galleys to Grab at BEA, Part Two

I seem to have had a flurry of visitors over the past couple days. I'm keeping track of signings partly for my own reference, but is anyone else interested in this sort of thing? I'm aware that I need to update the list of forthcoming books on the HNS website sometime soon, because fall catalogs are starting to arrive. Maybe this weekend.

Following is a list of authors signing their upcoming/newly published historical novels at their publishers' booths at BEA. The master link to the schedule is here.

Maggie Anton, Rashi's Daughters (Banot Press) - I have this one, and it's getting rave reviews everywhere - about Jewish women in medieval France.
Thomas Mullen, The Last Town on Earth (Sep 06) - Random House. "A small mill town votes to quarantine itself during the 1918 flu epidemic." Sounds like a 20th century version of Year of Wonders.
Rick Spier, O'Sullivan's Odyssey (Apr 06) - not sure of the publisher. About the Irish potato famine and the US Civil War.
Leslie Epstein, The Eighth Wonder of the World (Oct 06) - Other Press. "Strikingly reimagines Fascist Italy."
Paul Malmont, The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril (Jun 06) - Simon & Schuster. Novel of the late 1930s, set in the world of pulp fiction writers.

And I forgot one from the previous list:

Gioconda Belli, The Scroll of Seduction (no date given) - HarperCollins. "Story of the Spanish queen Juana the Mad, and a modern-day scholar obsessed with her legacy." Here's a press release of this novel from its Spanish edition, of which I can read approximately every third word.

I'm glad that we just bought another set of folding bookshelves.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Galleys to Grab at BEA

Every year I try to get to BookExpo America (except when it's in LA; I just have no desire to go there, really) to see the latest that the publishing industry has to offer. And every year, just before the show, Publishers Weekly has a lengthy preview article that lists, among other things, "galleys to grab." So the title of my post isn't just me being greedy, rude, or facetious. Although sometimes the rush to grab copies of extremely popular or well-publicized upcoming books can resemble a feeding frenzy...

Fortunately, some of the galley-grabbing is done in a more civilized manner - by having attendees wait in line. BEA posted their autographing schedule this week. This is the part of the program in which authors get the chance to buzz their current or upcoming books by signing copies and giving them away to attendees. (Everything is free, though for these special autographing sessions, BEA asks for a $1 donation that goes to a literary charity.) Here are some historical titles that I plan to pick up copies of at the show.

On the traditional autographing schedule:

Helen Rosburg, The Dream Thief (Dec 05) - Medallion Press. A paranormal historical thriller, from what I've read.
Hope Tarr, Vanquished (Jul 06) - also Medallion. The schedule doesn't give a description, but here's a summary. Quite the provocative cover.
Tom Franklin, Smonk (Aug 06) - Morrow. "A Quentin Tarantino-esque novel set in 1900s Alabama." Curious title.
Victoria Lustbader, Hidden (Jun 06) - Tor/Forge. Described as "an epic family saga of power and passion!" Why the exclamation point, I don't know. It would have been more helpful if they described it more like this, unless they're trying to promote it like a Dynasty of the 1920s.
Eleanor Herman, Sex with the Queen (Jun 06) - Morrow. Nonfiction title about royal sex scandals and habits. This was the most popular title on the latest HNR review book availability list.
Karleen Koen, Dark Angels (Sep 06) - Crown. Prequel to Through a Glass Darkly; a sweeping epic set in Restoration England.
Deanna Raybourn, Silent in the Grave (Jan 07) - Harlequin. "A wholly original mystery set in Victorian England."
David L. Robbins, The Assassins' Gallery (Aug 06) - Bantam. "Tale of suspense during WWII."
Jed Rubenfeld, The Interpretation of Murder (Sep 06) - Henry Holt. "Historical debut thriller featuring two murdered heiresses, Freud, and NYC in 1909."
Kathleen McGowan, The Expected One (Aug 06) - Touchstone. "Heroine searches for gospel written by her ancestor, Mary Magdalene."
Sena Jeter Naslund, Abundance (Oct 06) - Morrow. Novel of Marie Antoinette.
Laura Malone Elliott, Give Me Liberty (Sep 06) - HarperCollins. "Gripping historical about a young indentured servant in colonial Virginia."
Laura Esquivel, Malinche (May 06) - Atria. Cortes and Malinalli in 16th century Mexico.
Judith Geary, Getorix: The Eagle and the Bull (June 06) - Claystone. Judy had some very early galleys available of this at the HNS conference last April. Celtic adventure in ancient Rome.

Autographing at publishers' booths is listed separately, but this is plenty of typing for now.

p.s. As for LA - expensive and long flights from middle-of-nowhere central Illinois, plus I generally avoid flying anywhere south of here past May. But have a conference there in mid-winter, and I'll consider it.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Book buzz: Rosalind Laker

This from last Thursday's Publishers Marketplace:

Rosalind Laker's three historical novels, to Allison McCabe at Three Rivers Press, by Juliet Burton (NA).
Three Rivers is a trade paperback imprint of Crown. If they're re-releases, I wonder which three were chosen, because Laker's published several dozen historicals over the years. If they're new, I want to hear more. Her latest novels have been with Severn House, who publishes mostly hardcovers for the library market (like this one), and I bet many of her fans don't know that she's still writing (if she still is, and these aren't reprints). Laker's last novel was published October 2005, and were it not for this blurb, which prompted me to look in Amazon, I would have had no idea it was available.

Something for your amusement

I've been in meetings and product demonstrations all day, and my brain is fried. This is the result.

Perhaps you'd like to create your own?

Monday, April 10, 2006

Reviews of Obscure Books:
Eve Trevaskis, The Lord of Misrule

Trevaskis, Eve. The Lord of Misrule. London: Robert Hale, 1972. 223pp, hardbound. 0-7091-2444-9.

Welcome to what may become an irregular feature of this blog. Why bother reviewing historical novels that are out of print and hard to find? Purely for discussion and entertainment purposes, and so you don't have to shell out $795 of your hard-earned cash for the privilege, of course. [Disclaimer: I did not pay anywhere near that amount for my foxed, dog-eared, ex-library copy]

The novel begins in the year 1300, as Piers Gaveston, known as Perot, manages to catch the notice of the King of England's heir, Prince Edward, while on campaign to fight those rebellious Scots. One day, Edward requests that Perot meet him in his tent much later that evening... hmm, an assignation, perhaps? But Edward wants only to talk, as he's heard that Perot has an amusing and witty way about him, and Edward is bored by pompous court behavior. The pair develop a close friendship, and since Edward needs someone he can trust in all situations, they become blood-brothers, swearing an oath "that neither the Pope nor the devil can annul" (p.24). Over the next decade and more, through thick and thin, both hold to this oath, though it earns Perot the barons' enmity, and Edward his kingdom's scorn. It all comes to a head (no pun intended) with Perot's execution by the Earl of Warwick and his allies outside of Warwick Castle in 1312.

Lord of Misrule was both more and less than I expected. Trevaskis packs quite a story into her 220-odd pages, and given my experience with older Hale novels, this one took me longer to finish than others (a couple evenings). She is best when describing physical settings:

"Outside the tents, the English camp lay like a ghost city, lit by ruddy fires and the faint luminosity of the Scottish summer night sky. There were familiar sounds all about him: the enquiring whinny of a horse, the voice of a watchman challenging, some footsteps, some murmuring voices in one of the numerous tents and, far off among the baggage wagons, a dog barking." (p.15)

She also surprised me by positing that the Gaveston-Edward II relationship was not a homosexual one, though she hints that Edward II may have had unspoken feelings in that direction. There is a very funny scene in which a young Roger Mortimer, of all people, reveals to a shocked Gaveston that Edward may very well have more than close friendship on his mind... and as such, Mortimer provides a reason why England's nobles might despise Perot for his inappropriate influence over the king. But while Gaveston is cocky and frequently rude to the barons, especially Thomas Earl of Lancaster, his motives remain pure; while he accepts the king's generous gifts to him and his family back in Gascony, he feels he merely honors a friendship that the two of them swore to uphold long ago. Furthermore, his heart belongs to his wife, red-haired Margaret de Clare, the king's niece, who grows from a shy, giggly teenager to a loving partner as the novel progresses.

On the negative side, the author's characterizations are shaky at best, especially where Edward II is concerned. Sometimes he's a coward running from the Scots, other times he joins the peasants for some nice hard work in the fields, and yet other times he comes close to being a raving lunatic:

"[The King] was snarling at [Perot] now, possessed by the Angevin devil which had driven Becket to his martyrdom. Cruel, savage, merciless rage faced [Perot] there beneath the burning nimbus of golden hair." (p.21)

That Angevin devil! Pure melodrama, in other words. Yet the King's knife attack on Perot, and his injury, leads to the pair swearing their brotherhood of blood, so I guess the scene accomplished its purpose. Isabella of France doesn't feature much in the book, other than to do stereotypical womanly things. She does figure in one bizarre scene at a "Maying" that the author says she completely made up: briefly alone, Isabella and Perot seem to feel a mutual attraction, but Perot insults her pride by not acting upon it. She hints that maybe Isabella planned this deliberately, to prove to herself that Perot's affections were already taken (by her husband). In either case, Trevaskis portrays Isabella as a spoiled child, throwing tantrums when she doesn't get her way.

The other oddity is the almost complete lack of political context, or other scenes to explain why the characters act the way they do. Edward I is off fighting the Scots at the beginning, but we see no battle scenes. Gaveston's voyage to govern Ireland for a year at Edward II's request passes by within half a sentence. England's nobles say they're angry with Gaveston, but apart from some minor insults (which are quite funny, and apparently based in historical fact) he throws their way, we don't see why, and they don't act on it until almost the very end. There are many scenes of interaction between people, yet it's all seen from Gaveston's viewpoint, and even though most readers will know the story, they may not see the bigger picture completely.

Five pages of notes at the beginning provide details on the author's sources, and they explain why she interpreted Perot's relationship with Edward the way she did. I was also impressed by her genealogical knowledge, and I had to refer to another source (no genealogy is included in the book) to see why Thomas of Lancaster called Queen Isabella his niece.

In short: a straightforwardly told, though very quirky, biographical novel of Piers Gaveston, portrayed here as a man possessed of greater loyalty than common sense.

[If you want to read it for yourself, interlibrary loan may work; there are three libraries in the US, one in Canada, and at least four (and likely very many more) in the UK that own it, according to WorldCat.]

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Rosemary Sutcliff in the Classroom

Here's something else I picked up at the Public Library Association meeting - a teachers' guide for Rosemary Sutcliff's novels. This is a 12-page brochure published by Farrar Straus & Giroux, Sutcliff's American publisher. I guess they decided not to put my speakers' handouts online, maybe because they were for a preconference workshop, but if anyone wants a copy, feel free to email me.

Book buzz: Upcoming royalty novels

Of potential interest:

Duchess of Aquitaine: A Novel of Eleanor by Margaret Ball (author of numerous fantasy novels), coming June 2006 from St. Martin's Press (link)
I reviewed this for Booklist's April historical fiction issue, but the review isn't online at Amazon yet. In truth, I'd been waiting at least five years for this book to be published. Amazon had it listed as "forthcoming" for about that long, but it never appeared. The author's weblog (via, though the archives aren't working now) said that she'd turned the manuscript in eight years ago and neither she nor her agent knew what was going on. I enjoyed the novel quite a bit.

Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette by Sena Jeter Naslund (author of Ahab's Wife and Four Spirits), coming October 2006 from William Morrow (link)
Lots of buzz about this fall title. I have a feeling it's going to be a fairly long and detailed book, given the author's other novels.

Queen of Shadows: A Novel of Isabella, Wife of King Edward II by Edith Felber, coming November 2006 from New American Library (link)
I know nothing about this one other than the title, but I believe the author is Edith Layton, who writes historical and Regency romance. This looks like a mainstream historical, though.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Books That Make Me Go Hmmmm...

Charles Taylor of the Newark Star-Ledger has come up with a list of books he would rather avoid. They include the following:

  • Any new autobiography by someone you assumed was dead.
  • Any collection of essays, criticism or collected journalism that follows hard on the heels of an author's large, acclaimed novel.
  • Anything described as "a novel of ideas."

I saw this courtesy of Sarah Weinman's blog, and thought I'd continue this thread as it relates to historical fiction. If a historical novel fits one of these categories, while I might still read it (because authors don't write their jacket copy, after all), it will likely cause some eye-rolling on my part.

  • Anything described as a "historical fiction novel"
  • Anything described as "written in the tradition of Cold Mountain" (this claim is so overused, it's meaningless)
  • Any work that insults its readers by describing itself as "more than just a historical novel"
  • Similarly, any historical novel in which the author proudly proclaims that s/he does not write historical fiction, s/he writes "profound meditations on the human condition" or some such
  • "Concept novels" that make you remove little notes out of envelopes and read them in order to follow the story
  • Anything describing the heroine as a "saucy wench" or one of its variations
  • Any coming-of-age story about a naive young man going off to fight in WWI or WWII
  • Anything dealing with the secret illegitimate child of any British monarch and the struggle to prove his/her so-called "inheritance"
  • Any historical novel based on the author's history PhD dissertation
  • Any novel whose cover looks like a Rorschach Test for idiots, though I may change my mind if the British cover is more attractive
  • Any novel that claims it won a literary prize that neither you nor Google has ever heard of

I am sure there are more.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

A Dubious Price, a Dubious Inheritance

Would you buy an ex-library copy of Pamela Hill's 1999 novel Countess Isabel for $175 off eBay?

I bought a copy of this one when it first came out, for around $35 (US equivalent of the list price). Robert Hale titles seem to have very small print runs, as they sell mainly to libraries, so they become collector's items fairly quickly. The heroine of Countess Isabel is Isabel de Warenne (1137-1199), a 12th century heiress who married first William of Blois, son of King Stephen, and secondly Hamelin, illegitimate son of Geoffrey Plantagenet and half-brother of Henry II. A little-known historical woman with connections to two of England's most powerful men; a perfect subject for a novel these days.

Generally I enjoy Pamela Hill's novels, and I remember enjoying this one, though I don't recall all the details of the storyline - it's been five years since I read it. But one thing I do recall is the author's seeming need to advance her theory that Isabel was a great-granddaughter of William the Conqueror through his daughter, Gundred, who married William de Warenne, Earl of Surrey. She mentioned this relationship at least a few times in the novel, and you can find it documented through many personal genealogies posted on the Internet. However, Gundred's connection to King William has been proven false. Some 19th century historians have written tracts about Gundred being the daughter of an earlier marriage of Queen Matilda's. This is equally false. I'm unsure why Hill kept insisting on this familial relationship for her heroine, Isabel; I don't recall its making any difference to her larger storyline, and her life was interesting enough in itself. Should anyone have further information about this dubious relationship, please comment.

So, make of this novel what you will. And if you can't afford the $175 that that seller is charging, why not buy it from him for$70 instead?

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The latest in the Cold Mountain trend?

Here's an interesting deal from this week's Publishers Marketplace:

Hunter College high school English teacher Peter Melman's LANDSMAN, about a Jewish man who joins the Confederate army, to Amy Scheibe at Counterpoint, for six figures, for publication in June 2007, by Lucy Childs at Aaron Priest Literary Agency (NA).

Publishers Weekly has a little more:

Counterpoint's Amy Scheibe has preempted North American rights to a first novel by Peter Melman titled Landsman from Lucy Childs at Aaron Priest in a six-figure deal. Set at the start of the Civil War, the novel tells the story of a young Jewish man, raised on the streets of New Orleans after losing his mother to yellow fever, who joins the Confederate army in order to escape a false murder charge. Melman currently teaches English at Hunter College High School; Counterpoint plans a June 2007 publication.

A good sign for historical fiction, no doubt - that's some deal. Hmm.

Some Colorful Local History

This week my eyes are glazing over while proofreading the 60,000-word document that will become the greater part of May's Historical Novels Review. In the meantime, I thought I'd provide some entertainment by recounting a bit of local history. Gays, Illinois, 15 miles west of Charleston, is home to the oldest two-story outhouse in America (circa 1872), or so they claim. The photo is one I took in 2002, a week after we moved out here and wondered what the heck we'd gotten ourselves into.

This handy little building used to be attached to a general store, which had apartments on the second level, but the store was torn down long ago, and the citizens of Gays decided to retain the outhouse as a historic landmark. It's an official state tourist stop and comes complete with a road sign and historic marker. Should you admit to having curiosity about this "Roadside America" attraction, you can read more here.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

In Brief: Point, Counterpoint

Erica Jong's review of Sarah Dunant's In the Company of the Courtesan, from the New York Times, March 12, 2006.

And then Sarah Dunant's response, from the March 26th issue.
Alan Gold's Warrior Queen

I have a spare ARC (advance reading copy) of this novel, published in the US in June 2005. Given all the recent reviews of historical novels on Boudica in the blogosphere lately, I was wondering if anyone would like this copy, maybe to review on your own blog? I'm curious what an expert might think of it! This ARC has obviously been read once, so it's not brand new, but otherwise it's in decent shape. If interested, just leave a comment, and you can also email me your mailing address (to if you think I don't have it already. I'll ship to anywhere. If nobody wants it, it's going to our library's giveaway pile.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Dan Brown, the Historical Novelist

I wish newspaper reporters would stop calling The Da Vinci Code historical fiction. Lately it seems like half of the Google alerts on this phrase are talking about Dan Brown's novels. Take this quote from a recent Kansas City Star article, reposted for the Philadelphia Inquirer:

As a historical novelist, it was Brown’s job to combine historical threads (even dubious ones, I guess) with original characters and a plot, and to dream up his own settings, too.

“There’s no convention that says if you are a writer of historical fiction, you must document your sources,” said Nancy Nahra, professor of humanities at Champlain College in Burlington, Vt.

The article's all about the recent copyright trial, blah blah, that I'm sure we're all tired of already. But if you want the context for the quote, you can read the whole article here.

I know there are different ways of defining historical fiction, and I've even written about this to some extent - and even adjusted my opinion over time - but I don't think I'd ever consider present-day novels about past events to fit the category (despite the fact that I tend to enjoy these novels). Would you?

As a sidenote, I'm probably one of the few people left who hasn't read Da Vinci Code, which makes me a prime candidate to purchase the newly available paperback edition. However, that won't likely happen, because my library just bought an entire case of the mass market paperbacks - 36 of them - as well as a large cardboard display. Just like those you'd find in bookstores at the end of a row of books. The novels are all tattle-taped and ready to be checked out and read by eager library patrons. (Did I mention I work in a university library? We have a decent fiction collection, which tends to surprise people.)