Monday, July 27, 2009

A visual preview of the fall season, part three

I'm late in getting this final group of covers posted. The good news about my tardiness, though, is that many of these titles will be available in the very near future. See parts one and two here and here. Part one of my spring 2010 preview coming soon!

In 1815 Paris, a medical student from Edinburgh gets drawn into an underworld of outlaws and émigrés after a beautiful woman steals his coral specimens. Spiegel & Grau, September; also Weidenfeld & Nicolson (UK), Jan 2010.

Edghill (Queenmaker, Wisdom's Daughter) reinterprets another biblical tale from the feminine perspective. I was fortunate to read an early copy of Delilah and think it's her best yet. St. Martin's, November.

The conclusion of the authors' Colette trilogy, a family saga set in the West Indies during the early 19th century. This series is addictive, and I'll be indulging myself as soon as my copy arrives. Avon A, November.

Catalan novelist Rosales's fourth novel, set in the contemporary art world and at the royal court of 18th-century Barcelona, centers on a manuscript telling of a lost masterpiece by the Venetian painter Tiepolo. Carlos Ruiz Zafón gave it a great blurb. Alma Books, October.

takes place in northern Maryland just after the Civil War, and looks deeply into the reasons behind the inexplicable killing of a Union hero by his fiancée. Based on a true story from the author's family history. Counterpoint, October.

A multigenerational epic of Canada, done up in the style of Michener and Rutherfurd, and inspired by the life of David Thompson, an early 19th-century Welsh immigrant who became Canada's greatest cartographer. I love the cover. Viking Canada, November.

Third in Gedge's King's Man trilogy, which follows the life of the renowned seer, Huy, in the last years of ancient Egypt's Eighteenth Dynasty. This volume begins as Huy becomes scribe and counselor to the young pharaoh, Amunhotep III. Penguin Canada, forthcoming [publication delayed, per publisher]

In the Aizu mountains of Japan in the late 19th century, a young peasant girl falls desperately in love with a samurai warrior, only to learn that the world she inhabits has no place for love. Alma, October, and available in the UK now.

An author known for her historical mysteries set in ancient Rome turns to the English Civil War and Commonwealth, a setting she calls her first love in historical fiction. Century, September.

Canadian novelist Holeman has written three historical novels for adults, all part of her Indian trilogy set in 19th-century India and Afghanistan. Her latest, about a woman in search of her missing fiancé, takes place in 1930s Marrakech. McArthur & Co (Canada) and Headline Review (UK), October.

A debut novel about a mysterious young woman named Rachel and the passion she and Vincent van Gogh shared. If you're not already a regular to Sheramy's blog, give it a visit for insights into the writing process as well as Van Gogh's life and art. Avon A, October.

In the third in her Languedoc trilogy, a man and woman haunted by loss in the Great War meet in the Pyrenees in 1928 and begin unraveling a tragic mystery extending back centuries. Orion, October.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Interesting cover...

After finishing up The Taste of Sorrow, I pulled my old copy of Wuthering Heights off the shelf (it has my former name and homeroom penciled in on the inside cover) and noticed the heroine on the cover looked familiar. What do you think — Catherine Earnshaw as a more demure version of Madame X?

Friday, July 24, 2009

Forthcoming titles, and an old book gets a makeover

I've finished compiling an update to the forthcoming books list on the Historical Novel Society website. It's only July, but a few publishers have their Winter 2010 catalogs out already. The main page lists titles through December, while those for January and forward appear on a separate page. Info on titles from US publishers was provided by me; Sarah Cuthbertson compiles the UK listings.

One of the new books on Sarah C's list, Mary Jane Staples's The Summer's Day is Done, caught my attention because the title seemed so familiar. A little googling revealed it was a reissue of a novel from 1976, one that I happen to own. The new and the old:

Mary Jane Staples and Robert Tyler Stevens were both pseudonyms used by Reginald Thomas Staples. He's best known for the Adams Family series of cockney wartime sagas written as Mary Jane Staples. Although he died in 2005, some of his older, non-series books are being reissued under the more familiar Mary Jane Staples name, which has been confusing some readers.

The novel's about a secret (fictional) love affair between Grand Duchess Olga and British agent John Kirby, who meets her at the Tsar's ball in 1911. The original edition was also published in the US, in paperback. Has anyone read it? Kind of a similar plotline to Catherine Gavin's The Snow Mountain, which a while back I mentioned as a favorite of mine.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Book review: Jude Morgan's The Taste of Sorrow

In historical fiction circles, the Brontës look set to become this year’s Tudors, prompting questions on whether the world needs yet another novel on 19th-century England’s most famous literary family. In this case, the answer is definitely yes. Jude Morgan has traced the dark paths to artistic genius before (his Passion is an absorbing look at Byron, Shelley, Keats, and the women in their lives). In his latest effort, he sweeps the aura of romantic legend away from Charlotte, Emily, and Anne and examines who they were as writers and as people, working separately and together. The Taste of Sorrow is a masterful work, written with admiration, deep understanding, and imaginative skill while remaining faithful to the historical record. It’s totally engrossing as well, the only downside being that it may spoil the enjoyment of other fictional accounts.

As the title suggests, a sense of melancholy pervades the Brontës’ lives. As Morgan details their personal histories, he makes it easy to understand why. But despite the suffering and tragedies they each experience, we’re also left with vivid impressions of the intellectual spark that helped them triumph over what could have been a wholly bleak existence.

The most harrowing moments occur toward the beginning and end. In 1824, Reverend Patrick Brontë, the strong-willed parson of Haworth parish in windswept, remote Yorkshire, helps his dowerless daughters plan for a lifetime of duty by sending the four eldest away to boarding school. The abominable conditions and abusive treatment leave them malnourished and despondent, yet they’re too proud to complain. Maria and Elizabeth, the oldest girls, eventually sicken and die of consumption, events recited as living examples of the dreadful “children’s stories” read by the school’s proprietor.

Charlotte’s childhood experience at the Cowan School clearly shapes her character (and writings, as we know from Jane Eyre). After their sisters’ deaths, she and her remaining siblings, including brother Branwell – gifted, unhappy, self-destructive Branwell – band together in a fertile literary synergy, creating imaginary worlds which to them are very real. The lands of Angria and Gondal become physical places where they spend time (and sometimes get lost), so strong is their pull. Literary genius, given life on the page.

Although Charlotte emerges as the main protagonist, Morgan ensures no one receives short shrift. We see how Anne, quietly independent, uses her frustrations with governessing as fodder for Agnes Grey, but Emily needs no outside inspiration. She finds all the knowledge she needs of passion, torment, and the complexity of human nature within herself; she is a wonderfully realized character. Though fiercely solitary, Emily's advice following Charlotte’s romantic rejection by her married mentor from Brussels shows perceptive insight. Even Maria and Elizabeth, the young leaders of their family group, have more than walk-on roles, and their absence leaves Charlotte, the original middle child, feeling vulnerable and exposed.

Not only does Morgan have a sure touch with character, but his wording is spot on. His phrasing is precisely crafted and setting-appropriate. When Anne notes that the unpleasantness she encounters as governess at Thorp Green Hall “rubbed like a nutmeg-grater at the quick of her self,” we know her meaning exactly. However, while the language reflects its time, the novel’s style is actually quite contemporary, and what’s remarkable is how well it works. Without excess drama or irrelevant scenes, it presents the Brontës in tune with what’s known of them, offering impressionistic fragments when full sentences won’t do. The narrative slips back and forth between their actions and thoughts; one scene told in a tangle of four contrasting inner voices is especially effective. Every word contributes to the whole, and the result reads seamlessly.

One result of this understated approach is that the sisters are allowed some of their intensely guarded privacy. For example, with a few exceptions, we don’t get to scrutinize the thought processes that went into the creation of their masterworks; those novels stand on their own, as they should. Other scenes fade out at a point when less practiced writers might have been tempted to continue. Knowing when to hone in versus step back is a powerful skill, and here, the silences speak as loudly as words. This restraint makes the emotional content all the more poignant, and the conclusion all the more heartbreaking.


The Taste of Sorrow was published in hardcover this May by Headline Review (£12.99, 384pp, 9780755338894 ). Those outside the UK can order it, as I did, from Book Depository.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Win a copy of Julian Stockwin's upcoming Kydd novel, Invasion

Thanks to McBooks Press, I have five ARCs of Invasion, the 10th novel in Julian Stockwin's Kydd series, to offer to Reading the Past visitors. The series, based on real events from history, is the story of Thomas Paine Kydd's journey from pressed man to Admiral in the Great Age of Fighting Sail.

Readers new to the series will find that each volume stands on its own merits, while those familiar with Kydd should enjoy reading about his new adventures. A plot synopsis follows:

In the tenth book of the popular series, rumors fly of Napoleon's planned invasion of England, and British naval commander Thomas Kydd is sent to liaise with American inventor, Robert Fulton. The American has created "infernal machines" that can kill from a distance. Fulton believes that his inventions--the submarine and torpedo--will win the day for the power that possesses them, and Kydd must help him develop the devices. Despite his own scruples, believing that standing man-to-man is the only honorable way to fight, Kydd agrees to take part in the crucial testing of these weapons of mass destruction. In the end, their fire power just may decide the fate of England.

These five copies are galleys... not in the nautical sense, mind you, but pre-publication Advanced Reading Copies (paperbacks). Invasion will be published in October 2009, so this is your chance to read it early. The McBooks site as a whole, I might add, is worth checking out if you're into historical fiction at all, especially thrillers and multi-volume historical adventures.

To enter the drawing for Invasion, all you need to do is leave a comment on this blog post, briefly mentioning why you'd like to receive a copy. Deadline is Saturday, August 1st, and the five winners will be selected randomly (and announced) the following day. Good luck to all the entrants!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Book review: Susan Holloway Scott's The French Mistress

(This is the first of three reviews of novels by authors consistently given Editor's Choice status by the Historical Novels Review. I take no credit for this, as the editors simply choose the novels that the reviewers recommend most highly. This also marks a stop on Susan Holloway Scott's online book tour; for more details, read to the bottom of the review.)

As the most honored mistress of Charles II of England and a spy for Louis XIV of France, Louise de Keroualle was in a unique position to nurture an alliance between their two countries. That she carried out her mission while remaining high in the favor of both men testifies to her cleverness, ambition, and unwavering devotion to her royal lover. It’s no surprise that Louise’s story is a compelling one, and Scott’s fictionalized memoir of this fascinating woman brims with color and vitality.

In the prologue, set in London in 1685, Louise looks back on her life to that point, acknowledging her bad reputation among the English while remaining proud of her accomplishments. We follow her journey beginning in 1668, when as a shy eighteen-year-old she joins the household of the English-born Henriette-Anne, Duchesse d’Orleans, as a maid of honor. Louise soon becomes the confidante of “Madame,” witnessing her abusive marriage and her close relationship with her royal brother, Charles, with whom she frequently corresponds.

After Madame’s tragic (and suspicious) early death, Louise obeys the Sun King’s request that she travel to England to seduce Charles and ensure his sympathy to French interests. It’s a dangerous game, for her nationality and Catholicism make her an easy target in that overly Protestant country, but Louise’s beauty, elegance, and kindness capture Charles’s attention. Surrounded by flatterers and enemies, Louise learns that the king is the only person she can trust in England, but she finds that sufficient.

Scott has the gift of creating appealing characters while simultaneously allowing us to observe their flaws. Louise retains her charm, even when we’re presented with hints that Englishmen had good reason to note her appetite for jewels and other royal gifts. Similarly, although Charles is hardly faithful, because we understand the values they share, we also share her assurance that Charles will always return to her. We don’t get the chance to fully indulge in the bawdiness of the Restoration court – though Louise observes it on occasion, she’s an unwilling participant – but this fits in with her narrative. The technique used for her dialogue, which omits French vocabulary save for titles and honorifics, feels quite natural to read.

The French Mistress presents a study in contrasts. Louis XIV rules by divine right; despite his magnificent public persona, he keeps his innermost feelings private, so much so that the only evidence his courtiers have of his ongoing relations with his mistress is her appearance on his daily schedule. On the other hand, Charles II’s open, outgoing nature shows in his attendance at Drury Lane theatres and the considerably more relaxed atmosphere at the English court. We also view his ongoing frustration with Parliament, particularly in his efforts to show tolerance to Catholics in his realm.

Through Louise’s jealous eyes we also glimpse her fellow mistresses: notorious Barbara Villiers, saucy Nell Gwyn, and bold, brazen Hortense Mancini, who briefly replaces her in the king’s bed. This provides an even fuller picture of Charles II and his age. And although Louise herself may be sorry to hear this, her narrative served to whet my appetite for two of her competitors’ stories, as recounted in The Royal Harlot and The King’s Favorite.

The French Mistress was published in July by NAL/Penguin ($15.00/C$18.50, 477pp including author's note + discussion questions, pb, 978-0-751-22694-1). To visit the other stops on Susan Holloway Scott's tour-du-blog, visit her News page.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

What's next on the blog

This is really just a placeholder until I have more time for a proper post. Deadlines always have a way of creeping up, but during the past month, several have sneaked up behind me and smacked me in the back of the head.

I leave Friday for the ALA conference in Chicago. Saturday afternoon I'm speaking on "sharpening your resume for a tough job market" as part of the New Members Round Table (NMRT) President's Program, 1:30-3:30pm in the Hyatt Regency Chicago's Grand D North. I'm at the conference till Tuesday, after which I plan to come home, lie down on the couch, and not leave it for the next week.

The blog will likely be minimally attended until I get back, but I do have some plans for future posts. I'll be participating in Susan Holloway Scott's recent tour-du-blog, with a review of her latest, The French Mistress. As you may be aware, Susan is one of a select group of authors whose latest novels have all been named Editors' Choice selections in the Historical Novels Review. At the same time, I'll be covering newish releases by Jude Morgan and Cora Harrison, the two other historical novelists who fit this category... I'm eager to see for myself why HNR reviewers have been so enthusiastic about their works. (HNR hasn't yet reviewed Morgan's latest, The Taste of Sorrow, so we'll have to see if this streak continues.)

I still intend to post Part 3 of the Visual Preview for Fall. I'm not sure why I feel delinquent about this, since it's only the beginning of July, but some spring covers have already been spotted on Amazon. Meanwhile, the TBR pile next to my desk is starting to resemble Chenonceau, minus the river, so I need to get cracking on reading more of them... and I'll post reviews on as many as I'm able.

Hope to see some of you in Chicago this coming weekend!

Friday, July 03, 2009

And the books go to...

Copies of The Personal History of Rachel DuPree will shortly be making their way around the globe. The three winners of last Saturday's contest are: Michelle from Australia, Susan from the West Coast U.S., and Teddy Rose from Vancouver, BC. Please email me at sljohnson2 @ with your full name and mailing address, and your books will be on their way. Hope you enjoy the novel as much as I did!