Saturday, August 29, 2009

"None such in the land"

Susan's recent post on The White Queen got me to thinking about Nonsuch, the royal palace built by Henry VIII, and a novel I once read about its history. In the 1530s, the king chose a site on the Surrey plain for the location of a magnificent hunting lodge. The lands were already owned by the Cuddington family, and had been for hundreds of years, but no matter -- King Henry annexed the entire village, along with a manor house, church, and priory, and had all the structures torn down to construct a Renaissance palace "as there would be none such in the land." The Cuddingtons were properly compensated for their troubles and given lands in Sussex in exchange. No doubt they were less than thrilled by this demonstration of the king's munificence!

Nonsuch Palace, which never merited more than a few visits by Henry VIII, proved more popular with his daughter, Elizabeth I. It remained standing until 1682. By this time it had fallen into the hands of Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland, the notorious mistress of Charles II. Her gambling habits left her short of cash, so she had it demolished, the building materials sold to pay her debts.

Mary M. Luke's The Nonsuch Lure focuses not on the Tudors themselves, but on the Cuddingtons, the family dispossessed by the king's decision. It's a time-slip novel about star-crossed lovers, a beautiful 16th-century woman thought to be tainted by witchcraft, a curse that lasts over generations, and a mysterious lost treasure known only as the Lure. An irresistible combination for an escapist historical read.

The novel begins in the 1970s, as Andrew Moffatt, a wealthy American architect who spends his time jet-setting around the globe, comes across an old journal in a Virginia bookstore. Andrew gets caught up in reading the diary entries of Julian Cushing, a young teacher from colonial Williamsburg, who became so enraptured by a painting that it drew him across the Atlantic and to the ruins of Nonsuch Palace. Curious, Andrew travels to England to visit the Nonsuch excavation site, and finds that his life and Julian's are running in parallel. He begins seeing ghosts from the Tudor era, and there's an evil presence at Nonsuch that seems to have lingered...

I first read The Nonsuch Palace about twenty years ago, and after a quick reread, I found the storyline just as captivating now as it was to me then. Parts are dated, like the 1970s-era slang, and then there's Andrew's occasional cigarette-smoking (in a historic building, too, for shame!). But it's still a wonderful book, and you won't soon forget the history of Nonsuch Palace after reading it. My copy's a 1977 paperback, and it's long out of print, but you can find copies on ABE and, among others (kind of pricey, though), as well as at many public libraries.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Good stuff this week

1 - The new bookshelves have arrived. I don't know why it is, but I can always think more clearly when my house isn't a mess. I've had some books sitting in piles on the floor for over a year.

2 - An ARC of DeVa Gantt's Forever Waiting is on its way to me. This will be one of these drop-everything-and-read-it books, so I won't be beginning any lengthy novels for a little while.

3 - Entries have started to come in for the historical novel title game. This is exciting - I really had no idea if anyone would take me up on the challenge!

4 - There is talk of a book blogger convention which would tag along after (or before) BEA in 2010. It sounds like great fun, and if it happens, I plan to be there.

5 - An article that I've been struggling to write for the past couple of days is starting to take shape.

6 - There have been many new historical novel deals in Publishers Marketplace. Judging by past practice, the titles on some of these will be changing before publication, but here are some of them:

CEZANNE'S QUARRY author Barbara Corrado Pope's THE BLOOD OF LORRAINE, at the height of the Dreyfus Affair, the town magistrate must prove that a mutilated baby is not a case of "ritual sacrifice" in order to quell the anti-Semitic hysteria threatening to engulf the town, to Jessica Case at Pegasus, by Mollie Glick at Foundry Literary + Media (World). [speaker at the Historical Novel Society conference in Schaumburg; her first novel was an HNS editors' choice title]

Dori Jones Yang's DAUGHTER OF XANADU, about a spirited young Mongolian princess who must decide between her growing attraction towards a young foreigner, Marco Polo, and proving to the Khan, and to herself, that she can be a bold warrior, to Michelle Poploff at Delacorte, by Michael Bourret at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management (NA). [this is a YA novel]

Suzanne Desrochers's BRIDE OF NEW FRANCE, pitched as pioneering meets Philippa Gregory, based on the riveting true story of the Filles du roi, the unlucky girls sent from the poor houses of Paris to the wilderness of New France to populate its new colony for King Louis XIV, to Adrienne Kerr at Penguin Canada, for publication in November 2010, by Samantha Haywood of the Transatlantic Literary Agency. [if it's a novel about historical women, the comparison to Gregory is almost a given. It's the subject that makes me want to read it, though]

Melissa Hardy's BROKEN ROAD, following several generations of one Cherokee family in their various quests for wealth, love, power and dignity, drawing upon the roots of their native mythology and sacred history to create a moving account of the intense love-hate relationship between two peoples that would ultimately end in the destruction of the Cherokee way of life, to Michael Callaghan of Exile Editions, for publication in Fall 2009, by Bill Hanna of Acacia House. [another great-sounding novel from Canada]

RITA-nominated author Susanna Kearsley's THE WINTER SEA, the story of a modern novelist who slowly comes to realize that her book about a little-known Jacobite rebellion and the people taking part in it might be more fact than fiction, to Deb Werksman at Sourcebooks, in a nice deal, for publication in Fall 2010, by Shawna McCarthy at The McCarthy Agency (US). [so glad this one will finally be available in American bookstores!]

Monday, August 24, 2009

BBAW, and recent purchases

First, thank you to whoever nominated Reading the Past for Best History/Historical Fiction blog for Book Blogger Appreciation Week! It's an honor to be in such great company (I know many of my fellow HF bloggers were also nominated) and also really nice to see that our little corner of the blogosphere has an award to call our own.

I've made a couple semi-large purchases this week and thought I'd spread the word, especially since the sales won't last long. The first is that there's a really good deal on stackable folding bookshelves going on this week at Staples, the US-based office supply store. They're $29.99 apiece in stores, which means you can get a floor-to-ceiling pair of them for $60. I own a couple dozen of these shelves, and this is the cheapest I've ever seen them, so yesterday we went out and ordered four more with free delivery since our local store was out of stock. This means the mini-chateau of books next to my desk will soon be gone (to my cats' dismay).

This is what eight of them look like, stacked and placed side by side. And yes, there is another row of them around the corner to the left...

The second thing is that, for those of you who haven't heard, Book Depository's US site,, is now in business and has enormous discounts (up to 54% off) on some brand new titles and preorders, but you have to be fast and catch them before they disappear. Last week, I found Lindsey Davis's Rebels and Traitors, to be published in two weeks, on sale for $9ish plus free shipping. Of course I put it in my cart. That particular discount doesn't seem to be available any more, but there are others just as good on different books.

I purchased, erm, seven or eight other historical novels at similar prices and will have to wait a few weeks to a few months until some of them come in, but that's OK with me. Browse through their historical novel section and see what else you can find. Some books are as low as $5.24 US. How are they making money on this, especially with the free shipping? I've no idea. They're also selling Gregory's The White Queen for 1/2 off, should you be leaning in that direction. (My book is even on sale with a small discount, with free shipping worldwide. Normally, for some countries, airmail shipping would be more than the book itself costs.)

Anyway, I have no association with either company, but maybe some other book collector will find this info useful.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Historical Novel Title Game

Okay, I have a lot of duplicate historical novels on hand and no room on my shelves. They need to find good homes, so I thought I'd share the wealth.

To do this, I've come up with a little game that will not only test your historical fiction knowledge but hopefully be fun to participate in, too.

This is the grid you'll have to work with:
Your mission is to find as many historical novel titles as you can.

The rules:

(1) The words have to be used in the order given (left to right).

(2) You don't have to use something from every column, as long as the words are in the correct order. For example, if there were historical novels called The Italian Bastard or The Shoe Garden (as far as I know, neither exists), they would count.

(3) Forthcoming titles count. Out-of-print titles count. As long as it's a historical novel that will be or has been published, it counts.

(4) You need to provide both the titles and the authors. (Hint: there are some titles that work for more than one author.)

(5) If you're an author who discovers title possibilities within the grid, you're more than welcome to use them for your next book!

The prizes:

There are 20 books in the pile above. All are unread and in pristine shape, a mix of new books, ARCs, and older titles I've had sitting around for a while. Most were published in summer 2009.

The person who sends the longest list of titles, per the rules above, will win 6 books or his/her choice from the pile. The second-place winner will get to choose 5 books from what remains, the third-place winner will get 4 books... after that, randomly selected entrants will get to choose two apiece from the remaining books until they're all gone.

How to enter:

Email your completed lists to me at with the subject "Title Game." The deadline is Friday, September 4th. One entry per person. International entrants welcome. Please don't leave your contest entries in the comments; if you do, your fellow readers will see your answers and will have every right to use them :)

I'll post the top 3 winners' names and their lists on Saturday, September 5th, and I'll be in touch about the prizes shortly thereafter.

Good luck and happy hunting!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Book review: Margaret Redfern, Flint

A well-paced, thoughtful novel of brotherly affection, self-discovery, and shifting wartime loyalties, Margaret Redfern's Flint deals not so much with the movers and shakers of history as with the moved and shaken. In the summer of 1277, Edward I of England and his men are trampling over North Wales, building castles to consolidate their domination of the land and people. Their enemy, Prince Llewelyn, remains trapped with his men in the mountains of Snowdonia, and pockets of Welsh resistance still exist.

When Edward's men arrive in the village of Boston Haven in the English fens, recruiting peasants as ditch-diggers, ten-year-old Will accompanies his sixteen-year-old brother Ned when he is conscripted into the makeshift army. Their journey over water and land, a long and exhausting march, will end at Flint, in the sandy marshes of the eastern border of Wales. Here they will do what they do best, "make land out of sea," creating banks and wide trenches to keep Edward's new fortress safe from attack.

The story is narrated by Will, both as a youth and in old age, with an occasional third-person perspective. Small icons denote the alternating sections.

Will has always watched over his older brother, whose garbled speech makes him seem simple-minded to others, although Ned has uncanny abilities to calm restless animals and communicate with music. Ned has further talents besides, some of which Will doesn't yet know. As they make their way westward with their 300-man company, Ned quietly follows his private, more complicated mission: to reunite with his former teacher and friend, the Welsh bard Ieuan ap y Gof.

The landscape along their route becomes a character in itself: the red stone and earth of Chester, the thick mud of the camp at Flint, the damp odor of the marshy riverbanks. The haunting imagery is beautifully rendered, with the sky, sea, and native birds and other animals changing constantly along the way. Redfern writes in the lilting language of myth. In this land where children believe in marsh-devils and elf-lights, and musicians whittle pipes out of the bones of swans' wings, the dark medieval atmosphere becomes infused with its own magic.

As the brothers' personal tale plays out in the wake of the English and Welsh monarchs' actions, Will gradually learns that one's path in life hinges on seemingly minor choices, and that ties of love matter more than politics. Emotionally resonant, and considerably deeper than its short length might suggest, Flint celebrates the power of song and story to help us remember people and places that might otherwise be forgotten. Highly recommended.


Flint was published this June by Honno, an independent cooperative press focused on Welsh women writers (£6.99, 195pp, 1-906-78404-3, free postage to UK addresses). It can also be ordered from Book Depository at $9.95.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

It's time for more tacky

More lusty adventures in the past! Another trawl through my basement bookshelves revealed more tacky historical novel covers -- with equally tacky blurbs.

"A picture of the wanton court of James I and of the beautiful, voluptuous Arabella Stuart, a woman who lived only to satisfy her own lusts."

"The dull pain in his heart gave way to seething anger; fury at this wench who thought Pagan de Beaugency's love was a plaything to be tossed aside at a woman's whim..."

"Romance and horror! The fabulous, magnificent story of the young Englishman, Dirk Young, and of the lovely Dutch girl who followed him across a savage land..."

(That's bad enough; the rest of the blurb goes beyond culturally insensitive.)

"Illegitimate daughter of a debauched nobleman; ragged pickpocket of the slums; wife of a titled wastrel; insatiable paramour of men of low estate and high. But finally and forever, she was a slave to the lust of Innocent Paradine, king of highwaymen."

"The spectacular story of a reckless adventurer who went where few men dared to go..."

"A mighty empire sliding into a pit of corruption, pride, and hatred."

"Bloody civil wars, tiger hunts, the passionate loves of Lalita, the sultry slave girl ... He learned all there was to know about life and death -- and desire!"

"Full of violence, lust, cruelty, and barbaric passion."

"A swashbuckling tale about the cutthroat pirate and a highborn lady... In the hot darkness, she had learned more about men than she would have guessed it possible to know."

If you missed the previous two galleries of tackiness, check them out here and here.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

And the winners of Invasion are...

In the order their numbers were drawn: Laura, Michael, Valorie, Marie B, and Lucy.

Drop me a line at sljohnson2 at with your mailing address and I'll get your ARCs out to you. Congratulations to the five winners, and thanks to everyone who entered the giveaway!

ps - For another chance to enter, C.W. Gortner is offering a similar contest on his blog and will draw the winners on August 10.