Sunday, October 29, 2006

Two out of three ain't bad

It was a two-book, one-movie weekend here. Too bad I didn't save the best for last...

I have nothing but positive things to say about Beverly Swerling's City of Glory and Ariana Franklin's Mistress of the Art of Death, especially the latter - I'm glad Diana Norman's returned to the 12th century. They're both out in early 2007 (sorry). The endnotes in the Franklin ARC says that the sequel, The Serpent in the Garden, will have the protagonist investigating the death of Rosamund Clifford, but that's well over a year away. I will be patient.

Sofia Coppola's film Marie Antoinette, on the other hand, was ridiculous. Shall I count the ways? It was visually appealing, yes, but not believable at all. Then we have the characters not visibly aging over 20-odd years, the near absence of a plot (the gorgeous costumes have a way of distracting one from this, though), the repetitive scenes, and the fact that it was at least 45 minutes too long. The anachronisms and the rock music, surprisingly, were easier to ignore than the other problems. I developed a horrible headache partway through (bad movie posture), which didn't help, and thought about leaving early. It was the first movie I've seen in a theatre in about two years, and we had to travel 45 minutes north to Savoy to see this one. Not an encouraging sign.

Friday, October 27, 2006

A very sinful Friday

Susan recently made note of a surprisingly large number of bastards appearing in historical novels. Here's something along this "similar title" theme. While typing the details for Frederick Turner's Redemption into my HNR review book spreadsheet (it won't be on the distribution list; one of the editors is stealing it), Excel remembered I'd typed in this title before. And so I had. Three other examples, all from 2006:

Redemption, Carolyn Davidson
The Redemption, M.E. Tyndall
Song of Redemption, Lynn Austin

Why this big need for redemption? Maybe these novels help explain it:

Lady of Sin, Madeline Hunter
Gracie's Sin, Freda Lightfoot
The Seeds of Sin, Anne Herries
An Invitation to Sin, Suzanne Enoch
The Sinner's Tale, Will Davenport
Mortal Sins and Wages of Sin, Penelope Williamson

This phenomenon may or may not be related to the "bastard" theme.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Those wild and crazy Tudors

Suzannah Dunn's The Sixth Wife (HarperPress UK, Jan 2007) will be the second novel about Katherine Parr to be published within a short time, though Carolly Erickson's The Last Wife of Henry VIII appeared only in the US (and, for now at least, it seems that the Dunn is UK only). From the press release, which shows a new take on Henry VIII's last spouse:
Catherine, Duchess of Suffolk, is Kate Parr’s best friend. An unwilling witness to the dowager queen’s late-blossoming love, she harbours nagging suspicions of Kate’s handsome, ambitious new husband. But as Cathy is drawn deeper into the web of politics ensnaring her oldest friend, it gradually becomes clear she has her own dark tale to tell. For if Thomas might betray his wife for power, then sharp, canny Cathy might betray her for passion.

I am very amused. A few months ago, on Susan's blog, the title of Jean Plaidy's 1971 novel Gay Lord Robert was discussed. We debated possible title changes if it were reissued. A search through Amazon UK reveals that it will be reissued next June, by Arrow. The new title is simply Lord Robert. Kind of a cop-out considering the alternatives, but understandable.

Lastly, this blog received its 10,000th visitor yesterday. I should have promised a contest or free book giveaway or something, but since I neglected to do that, I'll simply say thanks for stopping by, everyone.

Monday, October 23, 2006

A couple brief announcements, and a short trip to Versailles

Took the afternoon off to work on my Janette Oke read-alike article for NoveList and, I'm pleased to report, it's finally done. Three months after it was first assigned (sigh). The goal for these is to analyze the appeal of an author's writing, then provide a list of five authors who write in a similar style - and explain why their novels would appeal to the first author's fans. Now I sit and await suggestions for revisions.

I also got the reviews for November's HNS editors' choice books online, now that the issue's at the printer. Of this list, I've read the Frazier and the Koen; the latter, I finished over the weekend and enjoyed, though I wouldn't say it was one of my favorites of the year. But it did interest me in the court of Louis XIV, and specifically to pick up - on impulse - another novel of the period that I've had sitting on my bookshelf far too long. And which, as it turns out, I enjoyed even more.

Alice Acland's The Secret Wife (St. Martin's, 1975) is a deceptively short biographical novel about Françoise d'Aubigné, Marquise de Maintenon, who becomes the morganatic wife of Louis XIV when they're both middle-aged. Told in the form of a fictional memoir, it begins in Françoise's poverty-ridden youth, when she abandons her family's Huguenot beliefs for Catholicism out of political necessity. Her uneasy relationship with Madame de Montespan, the king's official mistress, occupies a fair amount of the plot. Drawn against her will to the king's inner circle, Françoise becomes the guardian of her patroness's bastard children by the king, and later - to everyone's surprise, hers most of all - she manages to attract and hold the attention of the king himself. She becomes his secret wife, but despite this close relationship, she's never treated as his equal. Nor does she expect to be.

All of the characters are well-drawn, from major ones like Mme de Montespan and Louis XIV down to the king's coarse-mouthed but colorful German sister-in-law, called simply Madame. Because Acland stays entirely within her protagonist's head, one never gets to see how Françoise's sobering influence affects the ribald royal court, for instance, yet she's a sympathetic and compelling narrator of her own life story. There are a few small liberties taken with chronology (Acland includes an author's note), and all but one of the characters appears in the historical record. This is an excellent example of biographical fiction, and a painless way of learning more about French history. I finished it in less than 24 hours, which for me lately is some sort of record.

Now on to the first of my two 600-pp review books. With this one and the Donati under my belt, I should be quite the expert on the War of 1812 soon.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

An interesting birthday celebration

... Dress up like a 1950s-era librarian and march with a bunch of your similarly-dressed co-workers in the campus homecoming parade. The theme of our float (such as it was) was "Happy Days." Two student employees dressed as the Fonz and his girlfriend rode in a convertible and tossed candy to the crowd, while the Dean and Head of Reference marched ahead of them with a banner. The rest of us walked behind the car, carrying themed signs promoting the library. Over a two-mile route, from the campus to the courthouse downtown and back.

Does this count as historical?

Friday, October 20, 2006

The uncertainty principle

I've been eager to read this article from Monday's Wall Street Journal ever since Publishers Lunch mentioned it in their daily update. (I hope this publicly available version stays public, but I make no guarantees.) Incredible marketing support from publishers doesn't always lead to blockbuster sales, and the gamble that Henry Holt took on Jed Rubenfeld's The Interpretation of Murder -- which was imagined to be the next Da Vinci Code -- didn't pay off.

Also on the subject of uncertainty in publishing, I was puzzled by this quote from the same WSJ piece:
Historical thrillers in particular are hot. One theory says readers are seeking a certainty in these books that since the end of the Cold War they're having trouble finding elsewhere.

"We're seeing a return to the past because everything was in its place, and people were recognizably polarized in a way that gives us comfort," says literary agent Richard Curtis. "In the post 9/11 world, we aren't clear about our enemies. Is the military officer in an Iraqi uniform a friend, or is he a terrorist posing as one? We need to know who to root for, and historical fiction provides us with that."
I wonder about this theory for the current popularity of historical fiction, and not just because I'm weary of 9/11 being cited as the cause for every societal shift you can name. I'm more with Allan Massie here. (See yesterday's blog entry.) Historical fiction can usefully remind us that the outcomes of past events -- things that to us, looking back from today's vantage point, may seem inevitable -- were far from certain for people living in those times.

Not exactly a comforting feeling, is it?

Thursday, October 19, 2006

A few Roman and medieval novels

Not much new of late, because I haven't been reading much lately - walking two miles every evening, followed by HNR proofing and bad reality TV (sorry, I know it's responsible for the decline of western civilization), has been taking up too much of my reading time. But I am about 3/4 way through Karleen Koen's Dark Angels and enjoying it.

Return of the Roman: Prospect Magazine (UK) has a nice, lengthy essay by Allan Massie, detailing why novelists are attracted to the ancient world - and explaining why historical novels interest readers in general:
"... The novelist does something that academic historians rarely succeed in doing. He reminds us, as Carlyle said of Walter Scott, that people now long dead were not abstractions, but living beings made of flesh and blood. The novelist may perform another service to historical understanding. By its nature the historical novel teaches, or reminds, the reader that events now in the past were once in the future."
Also of interest to me, the deal highlighted on Publishers Marketplace's home page yesterday was Anne Perry's latest:

Victorian mystery writer Anne Perry's THE SHEEN ON THE SILK, her first stand-alone historical epic, set in the late days of the Byzantine empire, telling the story of a woman masquerading as a eunuch physician who is searching for the truth about her condemned brother -- and the path to heaven, to Susanna Porter for Ballantine, in a major deal, by Donald Maass of the Donald Maass Literary Agency (NA).
A departure not only in terms of time period, but also that this is the first of hers in a while (besides her fantasies Tathea and Come Armageddon) not to form part of a lengthy series. (I hope to talk more about the "series" bit later.) The "woman disguised as a eunuch physician" plotline has been done before - by Gillian Bradshaw in The Beacon at Alexandria, set in the 4th century Roman Empire, and probably by others as well - but the later Byzantine Empire is one not often explored in fiction. And I love the title of this one. It's on my wish list.

Also announced in Publishers Marketplace yesterday, deals for Anne Easter Smith's next two historical novels, both set during the Wars of the Roses. I understand the first should be out in 2007, with Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy (sister of Edward IV) as its subject.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

For your amusement

In making room on the bookshelf by my computer desk for new purchases, I came across some older hardcovers - shortly to be relocated downstairs - with covers that were too irresistible not to mention. (So I didn't - resist, that is.) Here they are.

Did you know Cher was posing for book jackets back in 1975?

This is Costain's novel about Attila the Hun. Three questions come to mind:

(1) Is the horse on steroids?
(2) How is she managing to stay on?
(3) What's up with the purple leather boots?

The jacket includes a positive blurb from Rosemary Sutcliff, so this may be a case of don't-judge-the-book... etc. But aside from the interesting title, who knew that disco was so popular in 1850s Sussex? (Mark thinks the hero resembles Derek Sanderson from the Boston Bruins.)

We should be thanking our lucky stars for the headless woman trend.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Taking sides, and yet more upcoming historicals

Before getting to my usual light-and-entertaining Friday blog entry, I wanted to point out Elena Maria Vidal's comment on my post of October 7th. I agree with Susan that it's counterproductive for fans to act in such a way; it's also unfortunate for the authors who are caught in the middle. It did surprise me that Marie Antoinette was such a polarizing figure, but given the recent attention paid to Abundance and Sofia Coppola's film, it shouldn't have. Emotions do seem to be running high on the issue.

This topic also called to mind a recent post on the Historical Novel Society email list (I think; can't find the reference) in which someone stated that she refused to read anything fictional about the Tudors because she was an ardent Ricardian. People are entitled to their own opinions on what to read, though that seemed extreme to me - just as the multiplicity of critical reviews of Abundance did.

Anyway. Here's some information on new and upcoming historicals I want to read. If you read these before I do (very likely), please report back.

Vanora Bennett's Portrait of an Unknown Woman, out now from HarperCollins UK, next February from William Morrow. Description on the author's website here.

Reay Tannahill's latest is Having the Builders In, a novel of "medieval rivalry, chivalry, and masonry," out next month from Headline Review.

Ellis Avery's The Teahouse Fire, a novel of late 19th century Japan as seen through the eyes of an American woman, will be out this December from Riverhead. The first chapter is online at the author's website.

Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin (aka Diana Norman), described as "Kathy Reichs in the 12th century," out next February from Putnam (US), and in May from Bantam (UK), got a starred review in Kirkus this week. It's listed on Amazon, but the cover is dark and murky, and all I can tell is that it depicts a skull and some hands.

Sidenote: on October 13, 1307 - 699 years ago - Philip IV of France ordered the arrest of every Templar in the country, including their last grand master, Jacques de Molay - who was burned at the stake as a relapsed heretic in 1314. It's an urban legend, though, that the ill omen of Friday the 13th originated with this event.

Monday, October 09, 2006

A novel of the early British church

Sampson, Fay. The Land of Angels. Robert Hale, 2006. £18.99. ISBN 0709080972.

Over the weekend I finished reading Sampson's latest novel, about the coming of Christianity to England in the late 6th century. It's seen from the viewpoint of two of the religion's greatest proponents in that mostly pagan land: Bertha, daughter of Charibert, the Christian king of Paris, who makes a political marriage with Aethelbert, the heathen King of Kent; and the future St. Augustine, a Roman monk persuaded to lead a mission to Britain by his friend, Pope Gregory the Great.

For a 224-page book (most Robert Hale novels adhere to this length) the novel is surprisingly dense, more so than Sampson's previous works. The print is fairly small. Yet despite the amount of historical detail, for the most part, the novel wears its learning lightly. Her prose is smooth and natural, and aside from a few exceptions early on, I never felt like I was being lectured to; also, despite the heavy emphasis on religion, the tone never feels preachy. I suspect readers of Christian fiction will find much to enjoy here, and it makes me wonder why no other authors (am I missing anything?) have chosen to fictionalize this critical time in history before.

Sampson portrays Bertha as a strong-willed Christian princess, convinced of her right to worship as she chooses despite being a foreigner in a pagan land. In doing so, she earns her new husband's respect, though he remains unconvinced of Christianity's relevance to the realm until the arrival of Augustine, some twenty years later. As for Augustine, he very reluctantly agrees to travel overland (and across the Channel) to England after it becomes clear that Pope Gregory means to extend the Church's influence in the British Isles. Not surprisingly given the title, Sampson relates the legend about Gregory's first encounter with English people; "Not Angles," he declares of the blond slave boys he sees in the Roman marketplace, "but angels." Though obedient to his superior's will, Augustine very clearly lacks Gregory's charm, humility, and self-confidence, which doesn't win him many friends. However, he gradually earns his flock's admiration and loyalty through sheer determination; this only increases when miracles begin to happen.

Because The Land of Angels is seen only from the Christian viewpoint, one never gets a chance to learn more about the beliefs of Aethelbert and his people. Indeed, their rituals seem not only confusing to the reader, but also bizarre and repulsive; Bertha is outraged that her marriage ceremony involves jumping over a fire and bloody animal sacrifice. I did wonder that after 20 years of relatively happy marriage, she seems to understand her husband's beliefs not at all, but it's also made clear that Aethelbert finds the Christian way of worship equally outlandish - at least until Augustine arrives in 597 AD, and Aethelbert finds in this new religion a way of consolidating his power across the island. Also, in the novel's last half, Bertha's story becomes a sidenote, with the plot following Augustine and his monks - and their futile efforts to bring their Welsh counterparts in line with Rome - almost exclusively.

Yet these are very minor complaints in what is a well-told, entertaining, and, from what I can tell, historically sensitive novel. While the tone lacks the mystical qualities and lavish descriptions found in Melvyn Bragg's Credo (The Sword and the Miracle), for example, the historical atmosphere is well described. The novel ends with many plot points unresolved, for the Synod of Whitby is half a century away, and Bertha's eldest son refuses to cut ties with the priests of Woden. While Christianity has gained a firm foothold on the island, its future is still uncertain. The door's left wide open for a sequel, and I hope there is one.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Things that make you go hmm

It seems that fans of Elena Maria Vidal's Trianon, a novel about Marie Antoinette, have begun a negative campaign against Sena Jeter Naslund's Abundance. Check out the Amazon reviews of both, note the ratings and reviewer names (as well as the number of titles they've reviewed) and see what you think.

I own copies of both, but haven't read either, and find it odd that a novel published in 2000 by a small Catholic press should begin receiving multiple 5-star reviews only this summer.

It's not only Abundance that these folks are trashing, either - other novels about Marie Antoinette and Versailles have received the same treatment.

One of the downsides of the Amazon "review" process...

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Hype and hope

I'm taking a break from review editing - last night I got through 20 pages in my MS Word file for November's HNR (out of 72 - it's a long issue) and my eyes are starting to glaze over. So on to something new. The subject of advance hype for novels has come up in several recent conversations I've had, which is a sign that it's worthy of more discussion here. A few of the novels I've recommended on the blog - including The Thirteenth Tale and Thirteen Moons - have been subject to intense pre-publication hype, both from publishers (heavy bookstore promotion) and the media (reporting on the very high advances given to the authors).

(Guess the number 13 may not be that unlucky after all?)

Before and after BEA this June, also, I blogged about the novels at the show that were supposed to be fall's big hits. Hype, by definition, is pretty hard to ignore (not even I am immune?). But I like to believe that people enjoy hearing about upcoming publications, nonetheless. That's the positive nature of hype - rising expectations, intense discussions, eager anticipation. You hope that all the great things you've heard will be true.

Not all of these big deal novels succeed, of course. The test comes when reviews begin to appear, the novels go on sale, and the public determines whether the novels are worth all the fuss. However, there's a cloud of suspicion that accompanies hype; no doubt you've sensed it. If readers feel like publishers - and the media - are pushing books too heavily, the hype can backfire. They don't want to be told what to read, they say; they can make decisions for themselves, thank you very much. Not everyone reads/believes the recommendations in reviews (that's a whole 'nother thread), but anything smacking of advertising gets many readers, and bloggers, suspicious. See this post from Bookninja about Simon & Schuster's attempt (mostly successful, from what I gather) to convince bloggers to promote The Thirteenth Tale.

For example, it also appears that the loud media buzz about Kathleen McGowan's The Expected One, a Mary Magdalene novel with a controversial backstory - the author calls the material autobiographical - resulted in some more-negative-than-usual reviews on Amazon. The title of one is "Hype is as hype does." I've read the novel, and would call the writing amateurish in places, though it's an entertaining story. Was it picked up by a major publisher only because it fits the trendy Da Vinci Code theme? You decide.

Not surprising that some people are wary of hype, in other words. It can raise expectations so high that readers are extra disappointed if they read the book and dislike it.

On a personal level, I admit that intense discussion about a novel has occasionally persuaded me to pick it up sooner than I would have - if I was interested in reading it in the first place, that is. However, I've still not read many of past seasons' big-deal books: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, The Birth of Venus, Cold Mountain. But when I have read novels like these, I don't believe the hype has affected my opinion one way or the other. After all, novels that are heavily promoted today will be replaced by other, sometimes even more heavily hyped, novels a couple months down the road. It's impossible to keep up. After a while you start to see a pattern to these things.

That may be a cynical attitude in itself. (But it's true.)

Your thoughts - has hype affected your reading at all? Do you care about reading the latest novels, or do you ignore media buzz altogether? Are you suspicious of novels that receive heavy promotion? And whose recommendations do you believe?

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Tuesday's bits and pieces

The Austin Chronicle has a very detailed article on Anya Seton's oeuvre, particularly in reference to the Chicago Review Press reissues. Unlike the article's author, I like the covers; the pre-Raphaelite image on the cover of Avalon isn't exactly historically accurate, but it's preferable to the very plain cover on the 1960s paperback I own. Romance fans be warned, this piece isn't very complimentary of the genre.

Now that the embargo of Charles Frazier's Thirteen Moons has elapsed (as of today) you'll be seeing reviews everywhere. Including the New York Times (Michiko Kakutani), Christian Science Monitor (Erik Spanberg), USA Today (Jocelyn McClurg). I won't be doing a full review here, but it brought me out of a 2-month reading slump, and I honestly thought it was brilliant. We've discussed the power of humor in historical fiction here before, and the narrator, Will Cooper, utters a line around p.50-something that made me laugh out loud. I highly recommend it, despite the fact that the love story, imho, isn't as poignant as it could have been. Oh, and avoid the Entertainment Weekly review at all costs if you plan to read the book, as it contains a horrible spoiler.

A Q&A with Emma Darwin, author of The Mathematics of Love, which is out in the UK now; it'll be published next January in the US. From an Australian TV news show.

From the Yorkshire Post: Barbara Taylor Bradford relocates the usual Wars of the Roses suspects to Edwardian times in the first novel in her Ravenscar Dynasty saga. Anyone read this, or plan to?

Finally, a lengthy interview with Barry Unsworth on The Ruby in Her Navel, from Scotland on Sunday.

I did finish the historical fantasy novel I mentioned on the 27th, by the way, and the review's been written. Now I'm reading Fay Sampson's The Land of Angels. Hope to post a review sometime later this week, assuming I finish it quickly.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

In praise of fonts and lettering

I admit I have a thing for historical-looking fonts on dust jackets; they always attract my attention. When paired correctly with striking cover art, the lettering used for the book's title can go a long way in evoking a novel's historicity. Although I tend to read a lot of medieval-themed fiction, some of my favorite fonts evoke colonial America (another of my preferred historical eras) rather than medieval times.

Here are some examples of lettering I think is especially eye-catching.

Beverly Swerling's Shadowbrook (set during the French and Indian War):

Sheila Kay Adams' My Old True Love (set during the Civil War in the mountain South):

Mary Lee Settle's I, Roger Williams (17th c England and colonial Rhode Island). Plain cover, but I like how the font's used to capture the look of the protagonist's signature.

Sile Rice's The Saxon Tapestry (about Hereward the Wake). More illuminated lettering than a font per se, but isn't it gorgeous?

John Ensor Harr's Dark Eagle (novel about Benedict Arnold and the American Revolution). A distant cousin of mine, as it happens. Black sheep of the family? Note the semi-headless look, too, and this cover from 1999.

Diana Paxson's The Serpent's Tooth (historical fantasy going back to the Celtic origins of King Lear). Besides the fact that I'll likely buy anything that Thomas Canty illustrates...

On the other hand, the lettering on Ann Lawrence's Do You Believe?, a paranormal romance/gothic, convinced me to pick it up. I'd guessed it was set during the Salem Witch trials, but it's not - it's contemporary. But it worked. I read and enjoyed it quite a bit.

What are some of your favorite examples?