Thursday, December 31, 2009

Last post of 2009!

We'll return to our regular historical fiction coverage shortly, but these guys wanted their moment in the spotlight.

In the meanwhile, if you're curious about my top 5 picks for 2009, you can find them at The Readers' Advisor Online. We plan to spend tonight going out for Thai, relaxing by the fire, and watching Memoirs of a Geisha from Netflix.

From our house to yours (and from our cats old and new), here's hoping 2010 brings you plenty of great reading!

Abby, new kitten #1, aka "little gray"

Callie, the heat-seeker, in one of the few moments she's not on my husband's lap

Max and Tortie, the original brother and sister, in their favorite spot. Poor Max is still recovering from knee surgery.

"Mad" Mary, former stray, mother of the two little ones. Great expression of boredom/disgust. The neighbors named her.

Meanie, resident porch cat, who has that name for a reason

Oliver, new kitten #2, aka "little yellow"

Monday, December 21, 2009

C is for Catherine

This is my third entry for the Alphabet in Historical Fiction Challenge sponsored by Historical Tapestry. My general theme for this challenge is "backlist books you haven't read, but should!"

Catherine Cookson's own life has fascinated readers nearly as much as her novels do. She grew up in poverty in Jarrow, an industrial mining town in the North-East of England, the illegitimate child of an alcoholic mother. In fact, because illegitimacy was so frowned upon in her overwhelmingly Catholic neighborhood in Tyneside, Cookson's grandmother raised her, and until she was a teenager she believed her mother, Kate Fawcett, was her older sister. Through determination, hard work, and education, she overcame her deprived background to become one of the most prolific and successful British novelists of the 20th century. By popular demand, Cookson wrote her autobiography, Our Kate, in 1969, and like her other works it became a bestseller.

In many ways, Cookson's journey fits the pattern of one of the regional sagas she is so famous for. Janet MacLeod Trotter, a saga writer from Newcastle, has successfully taken up the challenge to turn Cookson's own story into a biographical novel. It's an absorbing, smoothly written work that will leave you with admiration of how Catherine overcame a life of intense hardship to achieve her dreams.

Return to Jarrow begins in 1923, as 17-year-old Catherine "Kitty" McMullan despairs at her mother Kate's plan to marry an alcoholic sailor simply out of desire for respectability. Over the next decade and more, as she struggles to better herself, Kitty survives a number of demeaning jobs, taunts from other girls about her shameful birth, romances with the wrong men, her mother's incessant drinking, and a horrible rare blood disease, though never gives up hope that one day she'll leave the streets of Jarrow behind. Through her aunt, she discovers the identity of her birth father and takes pride in knowing he was a wealthy aristocrat. Readers of Cookson's autobiography will be familiar with this material, though Trotter also includes details that were deliberately left out, such as how the jealousy of a dangerously overprotective Irishwoman, a former close friend of hers, nearly prevented her marriage with schoolteacher Tom Cookson. And in true saga fashion, the novel ends on an optimistic note.

Return to Jarrow is third in a trilogy. The first two volumes, The Jarrow Lass and A Child of Jarrow, cover the lives of Cookson's grandmother and mother. Each can stand alone, and all are well worth reading for their eye-opening look at real working-class women's struggles in industrial England in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I've read several of Trotter's regional sagas and thorougly enjoyed them all. Her stories are compelling and heartwarming page turners, and despite the harrowing circumstances she depicts, she doesn't overdramatize. The settings feel wholly authentic, and her characters are vivid and real, with speech patterns that reflect their origins. This is a must-read for Cookson fans as well as anyone interested a well-told and compulsively readable story.

Return to Jarrow was published in 2004 by Headline at £6.99 (502pp, paperback, 0-7553-0849-2).

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Review: The Night's Dark Shade, by Elena Maria Vidal

In her third work of fiction, both a richly detailed historical novel and a dark morality tale, Elena Maria Vidal takes readers deep into the heart of the 13th-century French Pyrenees – a war-torn land whose verdant mountains conceal adherents of the mysterious Cathar religion.

The year is 1227. After her father and brother are killed fighting alongside the French king against the Cathars, seventeen-year-old heiress Raphaëlle de Miramande realizes she needs a male protector. As appropriate for a woman in her position, she arranges for her betrothal to the son of her uncle, the Baron de Marcadeau. With her small party and an accompanying group of pilgrims, she makes her way from her home in Auvergne to her uncle’s chateau, taking a treacherous mountain route overrun by dispossessed Cathar noblemen turned brigands. Upon arrival, she receives a peculiar welcome, and discrepancies in the family’s behavior put her on guard. Curiously, she finds no outward trappings of Catholicism, the family doesn’t celebrate mass, and her uncle’s wife, Lady Esclarmonde, declares Raphaëlle’s brightly colored clothing too ornate to be proper.

Raphaëlle soon comes to realize that the castle is full of Cathar sympathizers, and that Esclarmonde is a Cathar Perfecta, a member of their spiritual elite. An ascetic and vegetarian who believes too many children are born in the world, Esclarmonde tells Raphaëlle to expect a celibate marriage. Seeking escape from her betrothal to a heretic, Raphaëlle writes in desperation to Sir Jacques d’Orly, an officer of the king’s seneschal who later seeks to marry Raphaëlle himself. However, Raphaëlle’s uncle and cousin refuse to give up her dowry. Raphaëlle also finds her heart torn between her loyalty to Jacques and her overwhelming love for Martin, the flirtatious Knight Hospitaller and troubadour who had brought her safely to her uncle’s chateau. Jacques offers her stability, but Martin presents a romantic image that’s difficult for her to resist.

Denounced as a heresy by the Roman church, which saw it as a major threat, Catharism was a dualistic sect believing in the purity of the spirit and the sinfulness of the material world. Raphaëlle’s travels back and forth through the Pyrenees showcase the interplay of light and shadow against the beauty of the mountains, a symbol of the theological troubles raging in the land. These lyrically written passages, a highlight of the book, will likely inspire thoughts of travel to southern France. Raphaëlle, a fervent Catholic, can’t understand how the Cathars would disdain these beautiful sights because of their earthly origins, but even she is initially taken in by the sincerity of their beliefs and their surface similarity to her own.

As Vidal notes in her introduction, in medieval times people's faith ran strong; religion wasn’t a subject of indifference. This is something that many novels about the period downplay or omit. The Night’s Dark Shade, told as it is from a devout young Catholic’s viewpoint, depicts the Cathar faith as Catholics of the time would have seen it. Several Cathar characters cross the line into madness; Esclarmonde in particular embodies everything malevolent that was believed about them. Other members of Raphaëlle’s circle make sudden emotional about-faces toward the end. More nuanced characterizations in these cases would have strengthened the storyline, but Raphaëlle’s struggles for clarity with her own faith and love life are realistically depicted and heartfelt.

Julianne Douglas has also posted a review at Writing the Renaissance.

The Night’s Dark Shade was published in November 2009 by Mayapple Press ($22.50, trade paperback, 978-0-557-15924-6). Elena Maria Vidal blogs at

Monday, December 14, 2009

Weekend books and cats

Things have been a little quiet around here as reviews for Feb's Historical Novels Review begin to arrive. Plus I've been occupied with these little critters:

They and their mama showed up on our front doorstep on Thursday at lunchtime, when it was 20 degrees out and windy. They were shivering. I brought them all inside and put them in our spare room along with a litter box, food, and water, and they're still there. We decided we'll keep them. On the same day, a friend rescued a longhaired orange kitty and took him in, which makes four kitties saved from the cold last week. We're turning into crazy cat people, all right.

I'll have some more reviews to post soon, though this past weekend I deliberately took a break from the immediate TBR pile. We recently started a subscription to Netflix, and Memoirs of a Geisha came up as a DVD I might enjoy watching. I put it in my queue but figured I ought to read the book first. Especially considering I'd bought it from Book of the Month Club when it came out (1997) but had yet to read it. (Other books in my collection have gone unread for longer than that. I try not to think about it too much.)

I won't be doing a formal writeup here, the book's too well known for that, but I did enjoy it a lot. However, I can't say I was swept away by it. It painted a very detailed picture of life as a geisha in Kyoto's entertainment district both before and after WWII. Sayuri's first-person narrative was involving and convincing, with an appropriate amount of emotional reserve. I would have liked more detail on her life as a witty, accomplished entertainer/artist as opposed to her mizuage (sexual initiation signifying her transformation from apprentice to full-fledged geisha). I had read Liza Dalby's Geisha in my intro to cultural anthropology class in undergrad and was fascinated by her depiction of the geisha world, which few Westerners get to glimpse; Golden's novel held the same fascination for me.

The second book I finished this weekend was a surprise. Sometimes I receive books for HNR that are outside the magazine's parameters, so I can't send them out to reviewers. Usually these are contemporary novels about the past rather than full-fledged historicals. On Friday afternoon, I opened up a mailing from Random House and found a copy of Michael Thomas Ford's Jane Bites Back, which has the cover tagline "It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen is still alive today... as a vampire." Oh, yes. It was one of them. I'd read last year about the four-way auction for this book, which Ballantine won, and tucked that information away in the part of my brain I reserve for publishing trivia. I don't normally read vampire novels. Blood doesn't excite me. I'm not really a Janeite, either. But for some reason, I picked this novel off the coffee table while lazing around on the couch on Sunday morning and got hooked. Before I knew it, it was 4pm and the 300-page book was finished.

The main character, Jane "Fairfax" nee Austen, is a bookstore owner after my own heart. After the 200-odd years since her supposed death, the Austen industry has exploded. Not surprisingly, Jane is fed up with authors motivated not by the love of her work but by the desire to make a fast buck. After succeeding in a last-ditch attempt to find a publisher for her manuscript, written just before she was "turned," she simultaneously contends with a jealous Bronte scholar, a new boyfriend who may not understand her secret, the unpleasant return of an undead former suitor, and keeping her true identity hidden in the face of newfound fame. Her carefully concealed sharp fangs really aren't the point (pun intended), though she does need to feed now and then. Instead, it's a very funny spoof of the trend-hungry publishing industry, Austenmania, and vampire novels, and it doesn't make the mistake of taking itself too seriously. On the other hand, the author clearly knows his way around early 19th-century literature. The result is a vampire novel that even doubters of the concept could be caught dead reading. The official pub date is December 29th.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

B is for Boundless

I thoroughly enjoyed this paranormal time-slip novel when I read it last year, though it doesn't seem to have gotten much attention from the historical fiction community. When it came time to post about a book corresponding to the letter "B" for Historical Tapestry's Alphabet in Historical Fiction challenge, I knew this was going to be my pick.

Graduate student Liza Donovan has been experiencing unsettling dreams of 19th-century Nantucket, so she jumps at the chance to spend summer break there with her roommate and best friend, Jane. Jane's aunt Kitty happens to live in one of the island's most prominent and famous homes. The stories Kitty recounts about ship’s captain Obadiah Young, who owned her house back in the 1840s, startle Liza, because she recognizes him as the man from her visions ... which are becoming progressively more intrusive, and also more erotic.

In the course of her search, Liza grows close to Adam Gallagher, a gorgeous curator at the Nantucket Whaling Museum. Together they learn more about Obadiah’s relationship with his beautiful, frail socialite wife, Lucy, and her mysterious death. Long-ago rumor holds that Obadiah murdered Lucy, pushing her down a flight of stairs before heading out to sea on what was to be his final voyage.

Liza's uncanny ability to identify scenes and whaling paraphernalia dating from the early 19th century puzzles everyone, Liza included, until she comes to accept that her visions must relate to a past life. Kitty's godson, Lucian, is skeptical of anything remotely New Agey, but Liza feels strangely attracted to him even despite his doubts and snarky remarks. The most confusing thing of all is the content of the dreams themselves. In them, Liza seems to be viewing the past through the alternating viewpoints of both Obadiah and Lucy. If Liza is truly experiencing dreams from an earlier lifetime, who was she back then?

When I read novels with parallel timelines, the present-day scenarios often prove to be annoying distractions from the more interesting historical segments. This isn't the case here. The modern-day characters are so open and genuine that they're impossible not to like. Their snappy dialogue and the many contemporary references contrast well with the serious tone of the earlier setting: a 19th-century Quaker whaling village, a place where social proprieties matter and death at sea is a tragic fact of life. When the two timelines overlap in Liza's dreams, it has a haunting effect, and the intensity increases as the novel approaches its conclusion.

There are some explicit sex scenes you'd never have found in a Mary Stewart or Anya Seton novel of this type, but they're integral for character development, and the storyline as a whole is engrossing. This was one of my most entertaining reads of 2008. Plus, it has an awesome cover.

The Boundless Deep was published in 2008 by Forge at $14.95 (432pp, paperback, 978-0-7653-1972-2).

Friday, December 04, 2009

Review of The Heartbreaker, by Elisabeth McNeill

If you prefer your heroes romanticized and untarnished, you may not want to read this novel. Elisabeth McNeill's The Heartbreaker takes an unflinching look at Prince Charles Edward Stuart -- Bonnie Prince Charlie -- and the woman who saved him from the English, Flora Macdonald, following how their lives diverged after the Battle of Culloden.

Both of their lives were dramatically changed after she spirited him away to the Isle of Skye, him disguised as her Irish serving maid, after the Jacobite army's devastating defeat in 1746. McNeill's story picks up five years later. Flora, who aided her prince on her stepfather's orders, was never really a fervent supporter; she helped him evade the English redcoats because he was in desperate straits. She gains many admirers, and her status attracts a handsome, well-placed husband, but not everyone wants to associate with a Jacobite heroine. Her happy marriage brings her contentment and many children, though money troubles force their family to abandon Scotland for the Carolinas -- right before the American Revolution begins.

Charles, formerly the charismatic figurehead for the Jacobite cause, traipses across Europe in a drunken, spendthrift haze, uncaring that many Highlanders gave their lives for him. A self-absorbed wastrel who ignores his ailing father and beats his devoted mistress, Clementine Walkinshaw, he grows more pathetic every year. The Pope doesn't take him seriously, and not even his faithful followers believe he could successfully invade Britain, though Charles persists in his delusion. It's a harsh portrait, and McNeill spares him not an ounce of sympathy. (While this interpretation is based on fact, the negativity does go over the top in places.)

Disowned by her family for her loose behavior, Clementine raises her illegitimate daughter Charlotte alone, refusing to condemn her former lover but aware of his many faults. Her good sense and circumspectness impress Charles's father and brother, who agree to fund their upkeep.

Rather than write a lengthy epic, McNeill opts for a streamlined fictional history that emphasizes action, fact, and character. She covers nearly forty-five years of history in less than 200 pages, so don't expect lavish detail, but it touches on the major events in Charles's and Flora's later lives. The ending chapters move briskly, reading almost like nonfiction with conversations added in.

The novel paints insightful portraits not only of Charles and Flora but also of Clementine, Charlotte, Charles's brother Henry (a Roman Catholic Cardinal) and Charles's late-in-life spouse, Louise of Stolberg. In this version Henry is a homosexual with a longtime lover in the church, which may or may not be true, but otherwise sticks closely to common interpretations. Clementine did leave Charles because she feared for her life, and left a note saying so. The novel also follows the latest revelations on the Stuarts' genealogy, mentioning Charlotte's son and two daughters -- a closely held secret -- and the latter's marriages with Polish noblemen.*

McNeill has a gift for personalizing tragic moments in Scots history, while looking beyond the myths and examining their long-term effects. While hers is a lively, gripping tale, it's also one of sorrow and deep regret. The women's resilience through troubled times is admirable, and it contrasts with the dissolute tragedy of the man they once looked up to. Here Charles Edward Stuart is a heartbreaker indeed, a man who symbolized Scots nationalism but who failed his supporters in more ways than one.

The Heartbreaker: A Novel of Bonnie Prince Charlie is officially published in January 2010 by Severn House at $27.95/£18.99 (185pp, hardbound, 978-0-7278-6837-4). The US release date is March 2010. I preordered it from Book Depository and received it in early November, and it seems to be available now.


* For an eye-opening account of Charles Edward Stuart's Polish descendants (which has been judged as meticulously researched and likely accurate), read Peter Pininski's The Stuarts' Last Secret (Tuckwell, 2001). The author was interviewed by Burke's Peerage and Gentry, which will give you the basics of his claim; I requested the book via ILL several years ago and found it absolutely fascinating.

Guest post: "Reconstructing the American Revolution," by J.M. Hochstetler

Today inspirational historical fiction author J. M. (Joan) Hochstetler is stopping by Reading the Past to discuss her interest in American colonial and Revolutionary War history and how it relates to her fiction. Welcome, Joan!


History has been a major interest of mine since I was in high school. Coming from an Amish/Mennonite background, I was steeped in it from the beginning. Faith, family, church, and community are very important to the Amish and Mennonites, and the Hochstetler family has an especially interesting history that’s well known in the community and is regularly recounted. So that had a powerful impact on my life and interests.

In college I learned to love doing research and especially learning about the lives of people from different periods. For me, the dry facts of history have always represented the stories of real people just like me. Now as a writer, I have the privilege of bringing the past to life for others. I’ve had readers tell me that they hated studying history in school, but that in reading my novels, suddenly this period, these events, and the lives of the people of the time opened up to them and became real. That’s what keeps me writing.

I’m particularly attracted to the American colonial and Revolutionary periods because it’s the seminal story of our nation’s founding. I’ve grown very concerned that our citizens today know so little about the founding of our nation. My fear is that if we don’t learn our own history and the values that have been handed down to us, we’ll lose the precious heritage of liberty our Founders sacrificed so much to gain. I hope and pray that the blood they spilled has not been sacrificed in vain.

In the American Patriot Series my goal is to write a comprehensive fiction series on the American Revolution. I’m not aware of any others that portray all aspects of it, including the experience of colonists, African Americans, Native Americans, and women. This period is chock full of fascinating people who lived in a lively and diverse culture in many ways similar to our own. They were involved in thrilling, scary, intriguing, and crucial events that shaped our nation, events that sound surprisingly familiar because we see many similar things happening all around us today.

I construct these stories by simply dropping my fictional characters right in the middle of the critical events of our nation’s founding, where they interact with the real historical people who were involved in them. That gives me the opportunity to include many of the recorded words and actions of the real historical figures as well as details from history such as storms and other natural phenomena that affected the outcomes of battles. What results is a narrative that is as dynamic and thrilling as the real events because it’s based solidly on fact.

I believe passionately that history matters. God calls us to remember all the ways he has blessed us in the past. When we look back, we can see his hand of guidance through trials and gather hope, confidence, trust, and faith that God will continue to guide and bless us as we follow his leading. History teaches us that we are part of the stream of life, part of the legacy of faith that runs through our own families and our nation from their beginnings, part of something bigger than ourselves. It enriches our lives, gives them meaning and purpose, and equips us to be responsible citizens, parents, teachers, and disciples. I hope the American Patriot Series will provide a measure of insight and encouragement toward that end.

J. M. Hochstetler writes stories that always involve some element of the past and of finding home. Born in central Indiana, the daughter of Mennonite farmers, she graduated from Indiana University with a degree in Germanic languages. She was an editor with Abingdon Press for twelve years and has published four novels. Daughter of Liberty (2004), Native Son (2005), and Wind of the Spirit (March 2009), the first three books of the critically acclaimed American Patriot Series, are set during the American Revolution. One Holy Night, a retelling of the Christmas story set in modern times, is the 2009 Christian Small Publishers Fiction Book of the Year and a finalist for the 2009 American Christian Fiction Writers Long Contemporary Book of the Year.

Hochstetler is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Advanced Writers and Speakers Association, Christian Authors Network, Middle Tennessee Christian Writers, Nashville Christian Writers Association, and Historical Novel Society. She and her husband live near Nashville, Tennessee.

You can find Joan online at or at this book’s blog