Monday, December 31, 2007

A failed challenge

One of the few things worse than getting stuck at the airport for hours on end is getting stuck there with an unenjoyable book, and no other way to pass the time.

By the time our plane finally left for Orlando, a week ago, I'd already finished the copy of Rhett Butler's People that I'd brought along. As it was 500 pages long, I hadn't thought to bring another novel with me... meaning I was looking at another five days of vacation with nothing else to read. So, at 5:45pm on Christmas Eve, I made a last-minute rush through an Orlando Borders, since the store was closing in 15 minutes and I needed to find something. I ended up with Kathleen Winsor's Forever Amber, figuring it was thick enough to keep me occupied until I got home, at least. I knew it was a classic, but I'd never read it before, and I was amused at the thought of reading three 950-page books in the same year (Gone with the Wind and Pillars of the Earth being the other two).

Unfortunately, while GWTW proved fascinating and compelling - one of my favorite reads for the year, actually - and POTE kept my attention throughout (despite inaccuracies, modern attitudes, and some other annoyances), Forever Amber was an extreme disappointment. I made it to p.200 before setting aside my bookmark. I found the characters flat and unsympathetic; I've read that Amber St. Clare was based on Scarlett O'Hara, but although she's as self-centered and upwardly mobile as Mitchell's heroine, Amber had no depth and was uninteresting to read about. The novel does contain, as promised, vivid descriptions of Restoration-era clothing, food, living conditions, and vice (and lots of the latter), but for me, this wasn't enough to carry the story. I found myself wanting to see more of Barbara Palmer and Charles II, who are viewpoint characters in several scenes, rather than the protagonist.

I understand Forever Amber does an excellent job making readers feel like they're there during the Great Plague and the Fire of London, but alas, I never got that far. If you've read it all the way through, does it get better? Does Amber become less of a TSTL heroine, and did you care what happened to her? It's a shame I couldn't finish it, since I spent close to $20 for the book. It does have a pretty cover, though.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Florida in pictures

Looking at some of these shots makes me forget, almost, about the 1-day layover in Chicago on the trip out, not to mention the 3rd cancelled flight and unplanned side-trip through Dallas/Fort Worth on the way home last night (without our bags, again; we pick them up tonight in Champaign).

There is some historical content within the photos. We spent Thursday morning walking around the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, an masonry fort constructed in 1672 to defend Spanish claims in the New World. And the B&B where we stayed in St. Augustine dates from 1791.

Click on the tiki bar below to begin the slideshow. Photos by Mark, with our new digital camera. The gorgeous beach photos are toward the end.

This blog's regular subject matter will resume tomorrow, most likely.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Season's greetings from Orlando

It's 75 degrees and sunny down in Florida today. Don't be jealous of our trip, though... it took three days to get here!

Happy holidays!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

My favorite 10 historical novels of 2007

First, the obligatory disclaimer: I can only choose favorites from those I read in the first place, which is about 75 novels total. Still, despite the inherent arbitrariness, I wanted to showcase ten novels that I enjoyed reading, talk about why they appealed so much, and, hopefully, persuade other readers to pick them up too (this is my evil plan). Each is a work of historical fiction published during 2007. They appear in alphabetical order by author. It's a diverse list that reflects my eclectic (or wide-ranging, take your pick) reading tastes.

Four of the ten were sent to me for review. If you want to know why I continue to review new books, with my TBR pile the size it is, this is the reason. Five are first novels. Nine are by authors I'd never read before.

This is a meme, by the way. Whether you write long descriptions or simply name a list of ten titles, whether you list only 2007 publications or older ones too, feel free to join in! If you do, please leave the URL in the comments.

Jonis Agee, The River Wife. (Random House, 2007. 416pp. Hardbound, 9781400065967)

When pregnant Hedie Rails moves to Jacques Landing, Missouri, in 1930 to become Clement Ducharme's bride, she doesn't know she's also marrying into his disturbing family legacy. As Hedie reads the diaries of Annie Lark, crippled in the 1811 New Madrid earthquake and rescued from Mississippi River flooding by French fur trapper Jacques Ducharme, she begins noticing eerie parallels between Annie's life and hers. Annie is only the first of several "river wives," women associated with Jacques over the next 120 years. The others include Omah, a freed slave who joins him as a river pirate; Laura, his fortune-hunting second wife; and her daughter, Little Maddie, who becomes Clement's mother. More than simply a work of fiction, The River Wife is an all-consuming experience, and the frontier setting of the Missouri Bootheel region comes sharply alive. Haunting but not melodramatic, tragic without being depressing, this mesmerizing saga is classic Southern gothic.

Ellis Avery, The Teahouse Fire. (Riverhead, 2007. 391pp. Hardbound, 1594489300)

This literary family saga, spanning thirty years of the early Meiji period, realistically conveys, in lush and intimate detail, the gradual process of cultural change sweeping through late 19th-century Japan. Nine-year-old orphan Aurelia Bernard arrives in Kyoto in 1866 with her uncle, a priest, on an unofficial Christian mission to the country. Fleeing when he becomes abusive, she takes refuge in the Baishian teahouse, and the tea master’s adolescent daughter, Yukako, unofficially adopts her. Given a new name, Urako, and obliged to learn a new language, Aurelia observes how the traditional Japanese tea ceremony – with Yukako’s help – must adapt to the ways of a newly modernized Japan. Avery adroitly captures the viewpoint of Aurelia, a young American woman who comes to love her adopted country, yet can never truly belong. A novel to lose yourself in.

Vanora Bennett, Portrait of an Unknown Woman. (Morrow, 2007. 417pp. Hardbound, 9780061256516)

Award-winning British journalist Bennett's first novel vividly evokes the changes wrought by the Protestant Reformation both in England and in the family of Sir Thomas More, Henry VIII's pro-Catholic chancellor: a dangerous role to have when the king was contemplating divorce. Meg Giggs, More's intelligent adopted daughter, recounts her courtship with secretive John Clement, her family's former tutor; her dismay at More's role in rooting out heretics; and her changing relationship with Hans Holbein, the German painter hired to depict her family - and, later, the Tudors - on canvas. Two paintings done by Holbein of the More household, one in 1527 and the other seven years later, craftily reflect how King Henry's changing moods affected them all. A page-turning read about England at a time of great religious change. All of the major characters are historical figures.

David Blixt, The Master of Verona. (St. Martin’s Press, 2007. 569pp. Hardbound, 9780312361440)

In 1314, Pietro Alagheiri arrives in Verona, Italy, with his younger brother and father, the brilliant poet Dante, still in exile from Florence. At the court of Francesco “Cangrande” della Scala, Verona’s charismatic ruler, Pietro forms a strong bond of friendship with two young men, Mariotto Montecchi and Antonio Capecelatro. They remain inseparable until Mariotto falls in love with Antonio’s fiancée, the beautiful Gianozza. Meanwhile, Cangrande causes a scandal by bringing an infant boy to court, a child who may be his illegitimate son. This swashbuckling tale, complete with cinematic action scenes, creatively imagines the origins of the Montague-Capulet feud from Romeo and Juliet. It all plays out against a vivid, large-scale backdrop of early fourteenth-century Verona. Even if you know nothing about Shakespeare or Dante, The Master of Verona will make you want to find out.

Ariana Franklin, Mistress of the Art of Death. (Putnam, 2007. 384pp. Hardbound, 9780399154140)

The Mistress of the Art of Death is Adelia Aguilar, a physician from Salerno, Italy, whose specialty is forensic investigations. In the late 12th century, Adelia arrives in Cambridge, England, to solve the murders of four children of the city. The Jews of Cambridge are being blamed, because they’re widely known to be child-murderers, but King Henry II believes in their innocence… or perhaps he just wants their tax revenues. Accompanying her are two assistants, a Jewish man with skills in detection and a Muslim whose assistant Adelia pretends to be. If it were known that a woman was the brains behind the operation, she’d be suspected of witchcraft. The author who writes as Ariana Franklin had to use a pseudonym to finally get the recognition she’s long deserved. Diana Norman's specialty is the medieval period, and she’s in fine form with this chilling psychological thriller, which has been described as CSI meets the Canterbury Tales.

Carla Kelly, Beau Crusoe. (Harlequin Historicals, 2007. 298pp. Paper, 9780373294398)

Susannah Park, a beautiful widow shunned by society after her scandalous elopement, lost her husband to a cholera epidemic in India seven years earlier. James Trevenen, a lifelong sailor, has just returned to London after spending five years stranded on a deserted tropical island. When Susannah’s godfather invites James for a visit to discuss their mutual interest in South Seas exploration and marine life, he hopes to make a match between him and Susannah. James, however, hides a secret that makes him unsuitable for marriage. Beau Crusoe isn't just the best romance I've read all year, but one of the most impressive historical romances I've ever read. Kelly never flinches from portraying the realities of post-traumatic stress disorder, and the gradual revelations of James's South Sea experiences make this Regency romance far darker than most. Yet both James and Susannah are truly likeable people, with wit and intelligence to spare, and their growing relationship is touching and delightful to read about.

Peg Kingman, Not Yet Drown'd. (Norton, 2007. 428pp. Hardbound, 9780393065466)

When Catherine MacDonald, a young Scottish widow, receives a mysterious parcel one afternoon in 1822, it sends her on an irresistible quest to the far side of the world. Sandy, her twin brother, was reportedly killed a year earlier in a monsoon flood, but a sheaf of traditional bagpipe music sent to Catherine, curiously retitled "Not Yet Drown'd," appears to be in his own handwriting. Accompanied by her older brother Hector, her stepdaughter Grace, a runaway American slave, and an enigmatic Hindu maid, Catherine leaves Edinburgh aboard a ship transporting Hector's revolutionary new steamship engine to India. Along the way, she learns much about the East India Company's very profitable tea trade, the company she keeps, and the brother she hopes to find again at journey's end. With a lilting touch, Kingman combines dry humor with breathtaking descriptions of tea plantations and the countryside alongside India's interior waterways. It's a joy to experience Catherine's voyage of discovery firsthand and see how the world opens up before her.

Deanna Raybourn, Silent in the Grave. (Mira, 2007. 509pp. Hardbound, 9780778324102)

It is 1886, and Sir Edward Grey has just collapsed and died during a dinner party at his London townhouse. The family doctor blames Edward's heart condition, and his wife, Julia, believes him - despite suggestions by Edward's debonair private enquiry agent, Nicholas Brisbane, that it was murder. Over a year later, Julia comes across compelling evidence that proves Brisbane was right. As the pair follows a trail that should have gone cold long ago, Julia uncovers unpleasant facts about her late husband's behavior, as well as surprising truths about herself. This gripping, fast-paced mystery balances its darker aspects with deft humor (in the form of Lady Julia's eccentric Victorian family) and more than a little romance. Great fun, and despite its length, you'll want to read it in one sitting. I look forward to spending more time with these quirky and fascinating people.

Mark Slouka, The Visible World. (Houghton Mifflin, 2007. 242pp. Hardbound, 0618756434)

An unnamed American man of Czech parentage grows up hearing only snippets of stories about his parents’ lives during World War II, and his mother’s possible love affair with a member of the Resistance – a man whose memory continues to haunt her. As an adult, the narrator travels through their homeland in search of answers to his mother's despondency, and his parents' secret past. Unable to discover the truth, he creates his own version about what may have happened. In a novel-within-a-novel, he pictures his mother as a young woman in love with a Czech soldier involved in the plot to assassinate SS leader Reinhard Heydrich. This is a poignant work about how we reinvent our past in order to survive, and how we use the power of stories to explain both the unknown and the unthinkable. The narrator's fact and fiction blur together well - probably a little too well - but it's a testament to the author's skill that I still remember individual lines from the novel, a year after reading it.

Tim Willocks, The Religion. (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2007. 618pp. Hardbound, 9780374248659)

I normally detest gory novels, and the blood runs thick and heavy here - there's no avoiding it - but I absolutely loved The Religion. Among panoramic epics about a major military siege, few can rival its scope, grandeur, and sheer storytelling power. Readers will also discover a touching, surprising romance in its pages, along with thoughtful meditations on history, war, and religious belief. In 1565, Ottoman emperor Suleiman the Magnificent calls for jihad against the Knights of St. John, the rulers of Malta, a small island that’s the last Christian stronghold in the Mediterranean. The Knights, who call themselves “the Religion,” prepare to defend Malta to the death. Carla la Penautier, a noblewoman exiled to Italy twelve years earlier for bearing an illegitimate child, asks German soldier-of-fortune Mattias Tannhauser to accompany her home to Malta to find her son. Meanwhile, the Knights plan to use Tannhauser’s presence there to lure him to their cause. Jacqueline Carey, quoted on the dust jacket, has it right: by the end, you will feel like you've lived through the Siege of Malta.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Eau de bibliothèque

A special gift for the rare book maven in your life, or those who want to attract them. Walk around exuding the scent of Russian & Moroccan leather bindings, worn cloth and a hint of wood polish. Check it out here.

Friday, December 14, 2007

A delinquent blogger returns

I just spent two hours writing a single book review (for my own magazine, sigh) and my brain hurts. At the same time, I'm relieved that I managed to make my own deadline; I would have felt guilty if I hadn't. For those of you who review, especially short pieces like this one (300 words or less), how long does it take you to write the things? I'm trying to figure out why I can dash off readers' advisory pieces for my NoveList column relatively quickly, while "formal" reviews take an hour or more. I may need to work on my mindset.

The past two weeks have been crazy, what with finals week at the library, various other work-related things, editing reviews as they arrive, and my need to finish up my Historical Adventure chapter. It's done now, finally, and I've laid the framework for the next one, Historical Fantasy.

I promised to mention that Kelly Hewitt at Loaded Questions will be giving away five signed copies of Yannick Murphy's Signed, Mata Hari, so visit her site to sign up for the drawing and read an interview with the author.

Next week, I hope to post my (highly personal and extremely idiosyncratic) top 10 historical novel reads from 2007. It won't be anything like the New York Times top 10 best books list, I can promise you that.

I also need to get some review books mailed out soon, but that may not happen until Monday because we may be snowed in tomorrow.

Finally, for your amusement I'll post some search terms that people have used to find this blog recently:

rett butler the new book
50 page long novels
the unusual information on the medieval castle
jane rochford photo
should juliet have gotten married so young
eric bana was the best

Now I'm going to find a new book to read.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Reissues revisited

In making the usual rounds up in Champaign yesterday, I stopped at the Barnes & Noble (where I was approached by an author while browsing the aisles and persuaded to attend a book-signing, but that's another story). In the Literature & Fiction section, I spotted two newish reissues, one of which I bought; I didn't buy the other, but I was sorely tempted because of the cover...

I already own Rosalind Laker's The Golden Tulip in hardcover, but isn't the new artwork gorgeous? Out now, in trade pb, from Three Rivers Press.

Last December, a bunch of us were discussing classic historical novels that deserve republication. Patricia Clapp's Jane-Emily was one I mentioned as a favorite. I'd reread it last year via a beat-up interlibrary loan copy - which the U of I only let me keep for five days, grr - so was glad to finally see it reissued. It's been packaged together with another of Clapp's historical novels, Witches' Children, a novel of the Salem witch trials. I was pleasantly surprised to see that B&N had it shelved with the adult fiction (I didn't check if there were other copies in the kids' section). Of course I grabbed it. If you haven't read Jane-Emily before, you're in for a treat. Here's the Amazon link. And in the comment trail for my December post, you'll find a note from Patricia Clapp's granddaughter.

The November issue of Solander (not online, but I'll update the website tonight to show the new cover and ToC) has a piece by historical novelist Susanne Dunlap on the classic historical novels being reissued by Chicago Review Press. Anya Seton's My Theodosia and Pauline Gedge's The Eagle and the Raven are the latest 2007 releases, and Seton's The Hearth and Eagle will appear next April if Amazon is to be believed. Amazon is also showing a May release date for Rosemary Sutcliff's Sword at Sunset, which several people here said they wanted to see in a new edition.

Check out the links to see the attractive new covers for both. The Seton boasts another George Romney portrait of Emma Hamilton, but it's not the same one we've seen on other books.

Sourcebooks has also been reissuing some classics, most notably Georgette Heyer's An Infamous Army and other titles. Per Amazon, again, they'll be reissuing Margaret Campbell Barnes's Brief Gaudy Hour next March. (No cover image yet.) If you haven't yet gotten your Anne Boleyn fix, this classic novel is a good choice.

So, now that it's December again, what other classics do you want to see back in print? You never know, your wish may be granted eventually.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Authors and the library

So, this is an issue I've been pondering this weekend. Last week, I was reading a blog written by a historical novelist whose work I admire. The author's writing group had come up with a list of a dozen things writers never wanted to hear. One of them was "I've got your book on request at the library."

It was an innocuous-seeming mention, with no major library-bashing going on, but it still caught the attention of this librarian. I understand that authors depend on sales for their livelihood, and that they don't get royalties or any remuneration when a library copy gets borrowed, at least not in this country. There are financial issues involved here.

Yet I can't help but wonder about the alternatives. Should libraries not buy their books? Or, if libraries do buy the books, would authors prefer that nobody borrow and read them? More and more publishers are setting up library marketing departments these days (and if you were a librarian at BEA in NYC this year, and stayed at the official librarians' hotel, you'd know the trouble they're taking to woo us. I've been attending BEAs for the past 6 years, and things have really changed in this regard. For the better, imho). I'm getting the impression, anyway, that library sales are becoming more important to publishers.

Libraries not only purchase historical fiction titles regularly, and lots of them, but they actually prefer to buy a given novel in hardcover if there's a choice... which means higher royalties for the author. And, if the waiting list for a book is really long, libraries will often buy multiple copies to satisfy demand. Of course, this isn't the same, sales and royalty-wise, as having each patron on that list buy his or her own copy, but I'm not sure how realistic that is.

When we're talking about historical fiction in series, the circulation of the first volume, and positive word-of-mouth from patrons who've read it, can convince librarians that it's important for them to buy future volumes as well. The same goes for patrons' buying habits. As an example, I read Rett MacPherson's first novel from a library copy. (She writes cozy genealogy mysteries, if you're curious. They're lots of fun and totally addictive... I've covered them for NoveList several times now.) Now I order the hardcovers from Amazon as soon as they're published. I don't want to wait for interlibrary loan... I want those books in my hands as soon as possible.

Libraries also take requests. We have a purchase suggestion form on my library's website. If we get a request from someone who's part of our community, chances are good we'll buy the book. That's one more sale... a good thing for everyone involved.

Yes, I am probably taking the results of a tongue-in-cheek exercise out of proportion (I'm just another of those humorless librarians, yanno). But I think it's an issue worth considering, as we're all on the same side. And I'd like to think that libraries who buy novels, and people who read those copies, are not really such a horrible thing for an author to hear about.