Thursday, January 31, 2008

Facebook, HNS, and me

Because I really don't have enough to keep myself busy these days, tonight I created a Facebook group for members and fans of the Historical Novel Society... it's open to everyone, so if you're on Facebook too, feel free to join in. It has the approval of Richard Lee, HNS founder, and we plan on posting updates on HNS publications and events.

I was wary of Facebook initially, but a half-dozen librarians at EIU decided to sign up last fall, as one of us had been reading about the possibilities for promoting library services and events there... "Go where your patrons are" is a guiding principle in libraries these days. I've poked around in the system, joining a few historical fiction-related groups (which don't seem to get much traffic), friending people I knew, and, of course, checking our library apps to make sure they continue to work. I regularly update what books I'm currently reading, change my status line to something pithy, and see what all everyone else is doing - nothing too complicated.

I'm still not sure how people spend hours and hours there, but I'm pretty impressed with it as a social networking tool. It lets you learn more about people you interact with mostly online, and I've used it to stay in touch with friends I haven't seen in person since high school and college.

My Facebook profile is here, and if you're a regular reader of this blog, feel free to friend me. There's a group just for Sarah Johnsons, which freaks me out, considering it has over 300 members. Some of them even have my middle name.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Of interest to historical mystery enthusiasts

Seen on CrimeThruTime and DOROTHY-L yesterday, for any historical mystery writers or readers who wish to contribute...


The Mystery Readers Journal is devoting two of its themed issues (Volume 23:4 and Volume 24:1) to History Mysteries.

If you have a mystery set in an historical period, consider writing an Author! Author! essay for the second issue. Deadline is February 15. 500-2500 words, first person, upclose and personal about yourself, your mysteries and the historical connection. Think of it as chatting with friends, readers and other writers. Be sure and add a 2-3 sentence bio/tagline. Query letter always appreciated.

We're also looking for articles and reviews. Articles 750-2500 words; reviews up to 500 words.


Janet Rudolph, Editor, Mystery Readers Journal

Monday, January 21, 2008

Books I'm watching for in 2008

As is usual with this blog, this will be my rather eclectic take on upcoming historical novels... these are some of the 2008 books I'm personally interested in getting my hands on. I've been meaning to post on this topic for a while now, but things like, well, work and HNR proofreading, not to mention this stupid never-ending cold, got in the way.

There have been a few 2008 publications I've already read and can easily recommend. Check out Jeffrey Hantover's The Jewel Trader of Pegu (Jan.), a lyrically written story of love and self-discovery in a distant, exotic land (the Burmese kingdom of Pegu, circa 1598) if you'd like a change of pace from the usual historical novel fare. My review appeared in Booklist's 1/15 issue and is available in full at the website of Hantover's literary agency. I was also fortunate enough to receive an ARC, courtesy of a Random House giveaway, of Mary Doria Russell's Dreamers of the Day (March). If you can suspend your disbelief long enough to imagine that a spinster schoolteacher from Ohio would be temporarily allowed into the inner circle of Lawrence of Arabia, the Churchills, and Gertrude Bell, among others, you'll enjoy having a ringside seat at events surrounding the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference, where plans for the modern Middle East were set in motion. The tone does get didactic in places, and I thought the last chapter was more "out there" than the final chapter of Geraldine Brooks's Year of Wonders, but overall it was a sheer pleasure to read. And speaking of Brooks, her brand new novel People of the Book (Jan.) is well deserving of the accolades it's been receiving. I read this on a friend's strong recommendation and was blown away by the power of her storytelling and her ability to make five distinct historical periods come alive equally well.

I read Patricia O'Brien's Harriet and Isabella (Jan.) from an ARC I got at last June's BEA - some advanced copies are arriving extremely early - and can thoroughly recommend it. I'll be conducting an interview with O'Brien shortly, so more information will be forthcoming, but it's a novelization of the rift that developed when half-sisters Harriet Beecher Stowe and Isabella Beecher Hooker took opposing sides during their brother's adultery trial. Forensic thriller Lawrence Goldstone's The Anatomy of Deception (Feb) takes you to the hospitals, graveyards, and grimy waterfront bars of 1889 Philadelphia, and Amanda Elyot's All for Love (Feb.) will introduce you to a royal mistress, Mary Robinson, who deserves to be known for far more than that. My review will be out shortly in February's HNR.

Now on to some books I haven't read yet, but plan to soon. Next on my TBR pile are a trio of novels: Jo Graham's Black Ships (March), an epic fantasy adventure set in ancient Greece; Sally Gunning's Bound (Apr.), a sequel of sorts to one of my best reads of 2006, The Widow's War, also set on colonial Cape Cod; and Pinkerton's Secret by Eric Lerner, who'll be stopping by to do a guest blog entry in early March. For a preview, visit the author's website.

Whoever said the French Revolution wasn't hot? I've heard positive things about Catherine Delors' Mistress of the Revolution (March), and have enjoyed reading about the author's publishing experience on her website (the query she wrote to find her agent is online). It's been wonderful to see two novels originally published in Spanish come to English-language markets in translation. This morning I received an ARC of Ildefonso Falcones' Cathedral of the Sea (Apr), and haven't decided if I want to review it myself or send it away. The back cover describes it as "an unforgettable fresco of a golden age in 14th century Barcelona" that was #1 on Spain's bestseller list for a full year. Decisions, decisions. Emilio Calderón's The Creator's Map, the deal for which appeared on PM in August 2006 (see old blog entry), will be out in July from Penguin Press (US) and in April from John Murray (UK). Also in April will be Ursula K. Le Guin's Lavinia, in which (per the publisher, Harcourt) "Aeneas’s wife Lavinia tells her side of the story in a novel that upends Vergil's Aeneid and breathes life into a woman’s version of the ancient world."

Robert Alexander's The Romanov Bride (May) will be the final installment of the author's loose trilogy about the Romanovs; this time his protagonist is the beautiful Grand Duchess Elizabeth (Ella), sister of Tsarina Alexandra, who met with a similarly tragic fate. The cover art for Pamela Billings Ewen's The Moon in the Mango Tree (May) caught my eye immediately, as did the unusual setting: 1920s Thailand (or, rather, Siam). It's based on the true story of the author's grandmother, a woman who abandoned a promising opera career to follow her missionary husband abroad. Karen Essex's long-awaited new novel Stealing Athena will appear this June; this time her dual subjects are Mary Nisbet, wife of the Earl of Elgin, and Aspasia, the mistress of Greek statesman Pericles. A last example of biographical fiction I'm looking forward to is Sandra Gulland's Mistress of the Sun (June in the US, Feb in Canada) about the life of Louise de la Vallière, an early mistress of Louis XIV, the Sun King.

That takes us halfway through the year, so I'll stop, but the HNS forthcoming books page lists plenty more titles, if none of these strikes your fancy. Historical fiction is clearly alive and well in 2008, and my job will be, among other things, to include as many such titles as possible in my manuscript-in-progress. I think I have my work cut out for me.

Can we retire this stock photo, please?

Yesterday, I made up for lost time and posted a number of new titles to the HNS forthcoming books page, in particular a couple dozen entries from the various Random House summer catalogs, which arrived last Friday. Lots of great books coming out - please take a look.

I'm also pleased to note that the cover for the reissue of Robert Goddard's Past Caring, if I'm to believe the Random House website, no longer features the same ghostly woman as currently appears on Joel Rose's The Blackest Bird, John Crowley's Little, Big, and two other historical novels not published in the USA - see towards the bottom of the reusable cover art page. The website presents a different photo than the one in the Bantam Dell catalog.

Right below that set in the gallery, however, we see another set of covers using the same stock art you'll find gracing the forthcoming historical novel on the left (a love story set in Europe during World War II; out from Crown in May). It previously appeared on historical novels by Marie Bostwick and Lorna Landvik during 2006, in addition to two other novels (one non-US historical, and a novel of mainstream women's fiction).

Nice enough cover art, but I'm hoping this will be the last we see of it (perhaps we should be grateful that we're not seeing Emma Hamilton again?). I'm looking forward to the novel, yet can't help but wish it had a more unique cover.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Salman Rushdie's new historical novel

This has been reported in various publishing news sources, but for the record:

The Enchantress of Florence (release date June 3rd, 2008, $27.00) is a historical novel based on seven years of research set in Renaissance Florence and the court of the Mughal Empire. Random House says the book mixes political intrigue and high drama, romance and magic and reflects on the dangers of intertwined fantasy and reality.

The full story from Publishers Weekly is here. Per the Sydney Morning Herald (it will appear from Random House Australia in April), the novel "begins on a farm outside Florence where the ageing Niccolo Machiavelli receives the personal emissary of the first Mughal Emperor of India."

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

A number of new deals

These publishing deals appeared in Publishers Marketplace over the past week and more.

I'm hoping to post my thoughts on titles to watch for 2008, once my schedule lets up and this obnoxious cold goes away. Happens nearly every time I get on a plane!

David Fuller's SWEETSMOKE, a historical novel about a slave on a tobacco plantation in Virginia, whose quest for retribution for the murder of a free black woman leads him to Antietam, on the eve of the greatest, bloodiest battle of the Civil War, based on eight years of research, to Leslie Wells at Hyperion, in a major deal, in a pre-empt, by Deborah Schneider at Gelfman Schneider (NA).

Judith K. Healey's THE REBEL PRINCESS, the story of Princess Alais Capet, sister to King Philippe Auguste of France, who battles corrupt court officials, religious fanatics and her beloved Lord William as she engages a band of underground Cathar noblewomen to assist her in the rescue of her illegitimate son Francis, a young knight whose very existence could unsettle the thrones of England and France, to Carolyn Marino of William Morrow by Marly Rusoff of Marly Rusoff Literary Agency in a very nice deal (World English).

[Sounds like a sequel to The Canterbury Papers (Lost Letters of Aquitaine in the UK)]

RITA winner Tamera Alexander's THE INHERITANCE, in which a woman arrives in Colorado to find her relatives have died of cholera leaving her to raise their five-year old daughter and her younger brother alone with help only from the local sheriff as she discovers "an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade," to Natalie Hanemann at Thomas Nelson's Women of Faith, by Natasha Kern at Natasha Kern Literary Agency (World).

Former agent Carol McCleary's NO JOB FOR A LADY, in which the 19th century journalist Nellie Bly lands in Paris during the World's Fair in search of a serial killer, pairing her with the likes of Jules Verne, Louis Pasteur, and Oscar Wilde as they hunt down the mysterious killer who's bent on releasing a deadly microbe on the unsuspecting Parisians, to Bob Gleason at Tor, for publication in 2009, by Harvey Klinger at Harvey Klinger (NA).

Eva Stachniak's two untitled novels about Catherine the Great, to Maya Mavjee at Doubleday Canada, for publication in 2010, by Helen Heller at Helen Heller Agency.

BACK BAY and THE LOST CONSTITUTION author William Martin's next two books featuring his franchise character Peter Fallon, to Bob Gleason at Forge, by Robert Gottlieb at Trident Media Group (NA).

MASTER OF THE HIGHLANDS and SWORD OF THE HIGHLANDS author Veronica Wolff's WARRIOR OF THE HIGHLANDS, again based on real-life historical heroes, to Cindy Hwang at Berkley, by Stephanie Kip Rostan at Levine Greenberg Literary Agency (World).

Jill Eileen Smith's MICHAL: Daughter of the King, the first book in Smith's debut biblical fiction series featuring the wives of King David, ABIGAIL, and BATHSHEBA, to Lonnie Hull Dupont at Revell, in a nice deal, by Wendy Lawton at Books & Such Literary Agency.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Three novels by Catherine Jinks

The first two reviews were published previously, in very slightly different form, in the Historical Novels Review, in 2000 and 2001 respectively. The last one is brand new, and original.

Since the review for The Inquisitor was published, the novel appeared in an American edition (which was, unfortunately, released to little fanfare). It's out of print now, but you can find it on Should you wish to order any of them from Australia, I recommend the Australian Online Bookshop.

Catherine Jinks, Pan Macmillan Australia, 2000, AU$22.95 , 393pp, pb, 0-330-36194-5 / St. Martin's Minotaur, 2002, 393pp, hb, 0-312-30815-9, out of print

Brother Bernard Peyre of Prouille, of the city of Lazet in the French Pyrenees, is surprisingly tolerant for a member of his profession. An inquisitor of heretical depravity in the year 1318, he is one of the few who does not believe that the sins of the fathers -- heretical belief in the Cathar faith, in other words -- are necessarily visited upon the sons. When fifty-year-old registers go missing, and his superior, Father Augustin Duese (a voracious persecutor of potential Cathars and agnostics), is murdered in unusual fashion, under instant suspicion are descendants of heretics accused and convicted years before. Other potential murderers are a group of seemingly questionable women living in a nearby mountain village. Brother Bernard attempts to look past superstition in order to ferret out the truth. But in attempting to protect the innocence of others, his very actions become a source of contention amongst his fellow members of the Holy Office. He soon finds that he, once the accuser, is now the accused who must defend himself against heretical charges.

Half historical mystery and half thriller with unexpected elements of romance, The Inquisitor quickly immerses us in a world of mistrust, fear, and suspicion. Few explanatory details are provided, and readers unused to medieval locales may feel a bit unsettled. Yet those who wish to feel the cold stone monastery walls, smell the blood and corruption, or simply visit a unique setting not often seen in historical fiction, there will be much here worth discovering. The mystery, as well, is wonderfully articulated, and the perpetrator (or is it perpetrators?) of the gruesome deeds are well hidden until the very end.

Catherine Jinks, Pan Macmillan Australia, 2001, AU$19.95, 561pp, pb, 0-330-36253-4

Raymond Maillot's passable skills as a notary have always taken second place to the pleasures of the flesh. However, when the sober Dominican monk called Father Amiel asks for his assistance with a high-level investigation into sorcery and murder, Raymond can hardly refuse. As the pair's scrutiny into this case continues, it's hard to say what challenges Raymond the most: finding a motive for a ghastly murder in which the victim's private parts were severed; his unforeseen desire to improve his carefree life by joining the church; or the agreement he makes with Father Amiel to stay celibate until their work is finished.

Fourteenth-century Avignon comes alive in full color under Jinks's pen. No stone is left unturned in her very human portrayal of Raymond, trying so hard to be worthy of Father Amiel's regard but barely able to keep his lustful nature under control. His adventures, as written, are at once lewd, literate, and laugh-out-loud funny. As with The Inquisitor, the author's previous medieval thriller, this novel assures a thumping good read. The murder mystery within the book is absorbing in itself, but the real crime here is that Jinks's novels are not published outside Australia.

THE SECRET FAMILIAR: Confessions of an Inquisitor's Spy
Catherine Jinks, Allen & Unwin, 2006, AU$29.95, pb, 308pp, 1-74175-050-4

It is 1321 in southwestern France, and for the past few years Helié Bernier has worked as a parchment-maker in Narbonne, living quietly under an alias. He had hoped to forget his past life as a spy for his former master, famous inquisitor Bernard Gui, but a chance meeting and false accusation brings him to the Holy Office's attention once more. Displeased to have lost track of his "secret familiar," Father Bernard orders him to infiltrate the Beguin sect, a heretical group of spiritual Franciscans who observe strict poverty and disdain the worldly "Carnal Church." Helié's mission: to discover what happened to Jacques Bonet, a previous spy who disappeared after being assigned a similar task. Tracing Bonet's path to a Beguin household yet unable to learn his whereabouts, Helié attempts to ferret out the truth: did Jacques successfully manage to elude his master, as Helié once did? Did he, as a former heretic, return to his old ways? Or was he murdered by the Beguins after his cover was blown? Either way, Helié faces the same danger as his predecessor, especially as he tries to keep borrowed heretical texts -- necessary for research purposes -- secret from his loyal, curious young apprentice.

In terms of tone, The Secret Familiar feels like an amalgam of the two previous novels: The Inquisitor was suspenseful and sobering, while The Notary lent a light, bawdy touch to an atmosphere of medieval depravity. This volume reads deceptively quickly, despite the grim subject; that and the dashes of humor give the initial impression of an easy, undemanding read. Don't be fooled, for Jinks drops clues in very subtly, and those who choose to skim will overlook them completely. She never hand-holds readers through medieval history, which may make readers scurry to an encyclopedia, and I suspect a second, closer reading would uncover additional details.

In his investigation, Helié encounters or hears mention of many heretics, some of whom appear only briefly or not at all on the page, which makes following the chain of possible betrayers a challenge. Yet Jinks is clearly at home in this dark, uncertain world of religious persecution -- the atmosphere certainly feels authentic -- and the novel works well as a fast-paced historical thriller. It also poses difficult questions on morality: What does it mean to be a good person? In deciding between two different evils, which one should you betray? And does the end justify the means? To see how Helié ultimately answers these questions, you'll have to read the book.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Looking back on 2007...

Happy New Year!

I made a bunch of reading resolutions on January 1, 2007, and thought this would be a good time to revisit them.

(1) was to read more books. According to my ongoing list, in the left-hand sidebar, I read 78 books during 2007, including the one I just finished today (Mary Doria Russell's Dreamers of the Day, which was very good). That's a new book every 4.7 days, which isn't too shabby, despite my feeling that I'm reading more slowly. Whether this is more books than I read during 2006, I've no idea.

(2) was to buy fewer books that I wasn't able to get to right away. Well, this went out the window fast. Between free review copies, Amazon gift certificates, and other related types of book greed, I managed to acquire far more than I was ever able to read.

(3) was to write reviews quickly after finishing the book, rather than waiting and forgetting little details that matter for the review. For the most part, I've kept this.

(4) was to read at least one classic novel. Turns out I read two - The Sylph and Gone with the Wind. I'm not sure if Forever Amber counts (see previous post).

(5) was to keep an ongoing reading list, and this is done - and it's something I'll keep doing.

I'm going to try to stick to the same resolutions for 2008. A year from now, we'll see how well I did.