Sunday, June 27, 2010

A week in Cyprus

The week in question begins on July 20, 1974, with the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. The main narrative of Christy Lefteri's A Watermelon, A Fish, and a Bible takes place within this timeframe, with flashbacks to scenes from the previous three decades. This was an impulse buy at Book Depository, recommended probably because I'd bought another book set in the 20th-century Mediterranean world. It deals with an event about which I knew next to nothing, but in her moving debut, Lefteri has made it one I'm unlikely to forget.

The protagonist is Koki, a young Greek Cypriot woman who has met with prejudice all her life because of her flame-red hair, a reminder of the island's legacy of British colonial rule. Many conquerors have left deep footprints on Cyprus over the past two millennia — Turkey is just the latest — and its people have long memories. Between Koki's appearance and her position as the single mother of a half-Turkish son, the people of Kyrenia have double the reason to ostracize her. When the Turks invade, killing Kyrenia's men and forcing the women and children into camps, Koki is forced to keep company with women who've always despised her. During these days of heightened emotion and fear, Koki confronts them and reveals the tale of her unlikely romance.

Several other tales unfold simultaneously, and Lefteri structures the past-present narratives well. Adem, the Turkish shoemaker who fell in love with Koki twelve years earlier, has just arrived in Kyrenia as part of the invasion force and secretly searches for her everywhere he goes. And in a bedsit (studio apartment) in London, an aging British pilot reminisces about his own love affair on Cyprus back in the late '40s, and the daughter he could never acknowledge.

Without gratuitous description, the brutality endured by the villagers is made plain. The colorful title comes from the three possessions one older couple carries out of their home as they flee for their lives. The atmosphere in the house where the women are held prisoner is tense and sorrowful. Where there used to be lively chatter while they prepared their daily meals, now silence prevails; where there was once silence in the peaceful countryside, they now hear aircraft and the sounds of rifle fire.

Yet despite the damage inflicted by the invaders, Cyprus comes alive as a place of immense beauty, and the descriptions of its rich cultural traditions provide a timeless feel. It's a sobering novel with many dark moments, but it's not a depressing one. The overall message is one of survival and hope, and of how love can bridge otherwise impassable boundaries. Some awkwardness arises when lengthy reminiscences are recorded as dialogue, since the style in these sections is too literary to resemble spontaneous conversation, but I went along with it as part of the story.

The quote from a Telegraph review printed on the cover implies it's a romantic beach read, and I can't say that really fits, but it was an involving novel that piqued my interest in the history of Cyprus, which remains a divided country today. Well worth reading.

A Watermelon, a Fish, and a Bible was published in June by Quercus at £10.99.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The ghost girl returns

She hasn't made an appearance in a few years, but now she's back, wandering through 1907 Dublin. I was in Book Depository looking up O'Connor's latest novel when I caught a glimpse of this familiar figure. She must have quite a backstory, floating between different countries and eras, convincing many art departments that she deserves the spotlight.

Here we see her on the sidewalks of New York in 1841. Hmm, if this is her earliest appearance, her ghostly wanderings may have begun after her sad demise in this historical mystery. (Her body was dumped into the Hudson River. Not a pleasant end.)

She reappears during South Africa's Boer War, circa 1899, definitely no place for a lady:

Then on to the Canadian prairie in the early 20th century, where she gained quite an infamous reputation.

She spent some time delivering babies in early 20th-century West Virginia, then moved on to parts unknown.

And that's not all. At She Reads and Reads, Avis has spotted her at sites outside of North America, and she's been known to make appearances in fantasy fiction. Have you seen her? She's not all that elusive, so if you come across another sighting, please let me know.

Edited to add: I've found the original photo (which is black and white) at Getty Images. It's titled "Woman in Lane Holds Birdcage," and the photographer is Lorraine Molina. Keywords include Nostalgia, Spooky, Women, Time, Outdoors.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Book review: The Devil Amongst the Lawyers, by Sharyn McCrumb

Sharyn McCrumb returns to the setting she’s made her own, the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains, in her long-awaited new Ballad novel, a Depression-era tale of murder, the media, and the dangers of regional stereotyping. Neither a traditional mystery nor a tense courtroom drama, as one might expect from the bare-bones storyline, it fits best as a finely wrought character study with an impeccable sense of place.

In November of 1935, journalists from across the eastern seaboard converge on the small coal town of Wise in southwestern Virginia to report on what could be the crime of the century. A beautiful schoolteacher named Erma Morton, accused of killing her father, awaits trial in the county jail. The evidence is circumstantial, and the motive (an argument about a missed curfew) seems unlikely, yet she hasn’t kept her story straight.

Jaded New York journalists, skilled at transforming tragedies into dishy fodder for the masses, know the approach they’ll take before their train even arrives. Veteran reporter Henry Jernigan, who suffers from PTSD after horrors he experienced as a young man in Japan, seeks a way to depict Erma, his ideal of an innocent victim, as a classic literary heroine. While he and Rose Hanelon, a writer of “sob sister” pieces, churn out the lurid stories their readers demand, tubercular photographer Shade Baker charms the locals and searches for the perfect scenic backdrop for a tale of ignorant hill folk and backwoods justice gone wrong.

Only Carl Jennings, a cub reporter from Tennessee on his first big assignment, steers a neutral course, and he does so despite his suspicions. Because they're long on fact and short on spin, his boss isn't happy with his efforts. Seeking clarity, Carl finds a way to invite his young cousin Nora Bonesteel to Wise. Although she can’t control what she sees or when, twelve-year-old Nora has the “Sight,” and her skills could come in handy in his attempts to capture the truth.

In her fictional recounting of the trial of Edith Maxwell, the real-life woman upon whom Erma Morton is based, McCrumb has an agenda as well – a valid one, to be sure, but maybe one too important to risk in a subtler approach. In the prologue, Carl first learns about the techniques used by the media to manipulate the results they want, and this theme echoes repeatedly through the pages. Since things are laid out so clearly from the beginning, readers are denied the chance to gain this insight on their own.

In its other aspects and themes, however, the novel shines. While most of the other titles in her Ballad series depict Appalachian mountain life from the inside, The Devil Amongst the Lawyers shows an outlander’s perspective on its landmarks and people, and McCrumb cleverly reveals how the reality contrasts with the stereotype. Decrepit shacks and uneducated yokums are no more common here than they are anywhere else. Although the residents speak with country accents and keep pretty much to themselves, the truth is that, as prairie native Shade Baker puts it, “everybody lives in a little place,” and there’s less difference between city and country folk than city folk want to believe.

As always, the beautiful mountain setting – the dark hills standing bleak and barren on these cold November days – takes center stage. The Depression-era details feel real, and even the minor characters have interesting back stories that define them and set them apart from one another. It’s a pleasure seeing Nora, the wise woman who’s become a beloved series character, as a young girl discovering the advantages and limitations of her gift. Best of all, McCrumb tells a wonderful story. The pacing never flags over its 300-plus pages, and her narrative voice rings clear, strong, and true.

The Devil Amongst the Lawyers was published by St. Martin's Press in June at $24.99 / $29.99 Canada (320pp, 978-0-312-55816-1). In a moment of weakness, despite an ever-increasing TBR, I requested it from LibraryThing's early reviewers program. I'm glad I did.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall wins the first Walter Scott Prize

It was the favorite going in, and Wolf Hall has ultimately prevailed as the first-ever winner of the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction (worth £25,000). Hilary Mantel has already won the 2009 Booker Prize and the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award for her historical novel about Thomas Cromwell and his times; she now has another major award to add to her accolades. The announcement was made earlier today at the Borders Book Festival at Sir Walter Scott's home in Abbotsford. More from the BBC News report, which has quotes from both the judges and Mantel.

And in a related piece in the Scotsman, written before the prize was announced, academic Jerome de Groot (The Historical Novel) explains historical fiction's current popularity and relevance. This is one of the best essays of its type that I've seen, and I say this not just because I'm in agreement with its sentiments and have written similar things myself.

Historical novelists like Catherine Cookson, Jean Plaidy, and Georgette Heyer have become regular targets in the press, especially by writers who otherwise praise the genre. Plaidy et al are blamed for pushing historical fiction back into the Dark Ages, meaning the creators of the new breed of historical novel -- those written with a more literary flair -- had to overcome a decades-old stigma in order to gain critical acceptance. However, as de Groot points out, this wasn't so much a problem with the works themselves, which are quite good, as with their downtrodden status as "genre fiction" and their immense popularity. To quote: "Historical fiction became the preserve of the popular novelist, and those who were good at it – Bernard Cornwell, Philippa Gregory – were ignored or patronised despite their massive popularity and at times compelling narratives." How refreshing to see these and other writers given their proper due alongside their more literary counterparts.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Historical fiction meets reality TV

This afternoon, UPS brought me an ARC for a historical novel based on the life of this woman.

The novel, Prince Lorenzo Borghese's The Princess of Nowhere, comes out in December from Avon. Pauline Bonaparte has been described as Napoleon I's favorite sister, and she seems to have been quite a fun-loving character. Just over two years ago, I posted the following info and comments on the original deal for the novel, which someone struggled (not very successfully) to fit into one sentence:

Lorenzo Borghese's THE PRINCESS OF NOWHERE: Antonio Canova's masterpiece sculpture of Pauline Bonaparte lies in the crux of this historical novel which centers on the romance and relationship of Camillo Borghese and Pauline Bonaparte in early 19th century Rome; the statue, presently at Galleria Borghese, depicts the extremely complicated and passionate woman that Canova, who was hired by Camillo, witnessed, to Lucia Macro at Avon, by Ian Kleinert at Objective Entertainment.

One of the recent stars of ABC's The Bachelor has the same name as the author above. I'm assuming they're different people (though likely related to one another) unless someone tells me otherwise.
Well, I've been told otherwise. According to the publicity sheet, the novel's author and the former Bachelor star are one and the same, though his Wikipedia entry hasn't yet been updated to include the novel. This is where I reveal my secret vice. I've been watching The Bachelor and The Bachelorette since the first season, when I cringed in horror that Alex dumped Trista for Amanda (ugh). It's all very hokey, and the show becomes more scripted each time, yet I continued watching since it was entertaining. At least until this summer's season of The Bachelorette, which I decided was just too idiotic... I do have standards. Anyway, I never thought my worlds of historical fiction and silly reality TV would ever cross, but it seems they have.

According to a family tree within the ARC, the author is a direct descendant not of Pauline herself, but of her husband's brother, Francesco Borghese. I won't be reviewing it here (this copy's destined for another reviewer) and while it's a far cry from literary fiction, the writing seems competent enough.

Anyone planning to read it? Perhaps someone could even review The Princess of Nowhere alongside Kate Pullinger's The Mistress of Nothing (out from Touchstone in January).

Monday, June 14, 2010

Short review: Rebecca Jenkins, The Duke's Agent

Readers who believe Regency England has little to offer besides witty ballroom banter and deadly duels at dawn should consider Rebecca Jenkins' well-crafted debut novel, a historical mystery set at a fair distance from proper London.

After a decade's service in the 16th Light Dragoons, during which he received a leg injury in the Peninsular War, Raif Jarrett travels to Woolbridge in the dales of County Durham in 1811 to take up a post as agent to his relative, the Duke of Penrith. His audit following the sudden death of His Grace's steward, Mr. Crotter, uncovers a trail of corruption that touches many residents of the densely populated mill town.

Two more deaths follow, and before he has a chance to blink, the normally unflappable Raif stands accused of killing a laundry maid, the gorgeous town flirt. While some locals are horrified to see a gentleman thrown into gaol, many more are pleased to see a nosy stranger get his comeuppance. Raif finds himself forced to depend on the few friends he's managed to make, including a poacher, a loyal innkeeper and his family, and Miss Henrietta Lonsdale, an attractive young woman who has carved her own place in society.

The novel abounds with historic and geographic detail, with scenes swiftly moving from the elegant confines of Oakdene Hall to tanning yards and grungy alehouses along the river. Though lacking somewhat in suspense early on - it may be cruel to say the story picks up after the young maid's demise, but 'tis so - the narrative more than makes up for it with its full-blooded Georgian atmosphere, well-drawn personalities, complex plotline, and linguistic virtuosity. In his first outing in a projected series, Raif proves to be a shrewd detective, a man wise enough to know whom to trust and when to keep his secrets to himself.

The Duke's Agent was published by Quercus in 2009 at £6.99 in paperback (previously published by Richard Cohen Books, 1997). I preordered it from Book Depository based on a recommendation on the CrimeThruTime e-mail list, and having read it, I'm passing the recommendation on in turn.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Bits and pieces

In the Times, Sarah Dunant writes an excellent essay on why historical fiction is the genre of the moment. In addition to celebrating historical novels and demonstrating how they reflect the times in which they're written, her piece serves as a preview for the first Walter Scott Prize. Dunant is one of the nominees, and the winner will be announced on Saturday, June 19th. Given that Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall didn't take home the Orange Prize this year (it went instead to another historical novel, Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna), could we have a surprise here as well? I hope to be tuning in on Twitter when the winner is made known. Being online when Wolf Hall was announced as the Booker Prize winner last fall, seeing everyone's excited reactions instantaneously, was a memorable experience.

Novelist Stella Duffy has a post in the Guardian about why she decided to fictionalize the life of Theodora, 6th-century Empress of Byzantium, in her new novel. In the comment trail, a number of readers are having a lively (read: kind of cranky, but there are some good points made) discussion about the use of historical characters in fiction and the importance of historical accuracy vs. artistic merit.

Registration for the Historical Novel Society's 7th UK conference is open. It will take place at the Mechanics' Institute in Manchester on October 17th, 2010 -- an all-day event, with many authors and literary agents on the program. Fees are £65, or £55 for HNS members who register early. The Manchester Lit Festival is having a historical fiction-related program at the same site the day before. Details at the link above.

Historical novelist Mary Sharratt is looking for help from authors and readers. She writes:

"I will be writing a feature article for Historical Novels Review about the whole trend of HF authors who feel pressured to write about 'marquee names.'
What do you think of this advice? Is it positive or negative for the genre?
Authors who write about 'big names'--do you do it because you want to or do you feel pressure?
I would love to hear from authors who've bucked this trend and successfully published fiction about more obscure historical figures or wholly invented characters. I'd also love to hear from HF readers and what they think of all this? Do you prefer reading about someone famous and well known or do you prefer discovering lesser known figures? You can email me at contact at marysharratt dot com."

This is a topic of interest in the HF blogosphere, and you may remember Writing the Renaissance's poll last year about reader preferences. If you have something to say on this important topic, please email Mary directly with your thoughts!

Novelist Lauren Butler is hosting a Summer Reading Giveaway and has five promotional copies of Relief, her historical novel set in early 20th-c Venice, to give away. Interested parties should send an email to with their name and mailing address. Five winners will be chosen at random after June 30.

Earlier this week, NPR announced their historical novels of choice for the ultimate summer getaway.

Lastly, Aik from The Bookaholics is holding two giveaways for signed copies of Susanna Kearsley's Sophia's Secret, so you have two chances if you'd like to win. Enter here and here. Deadline is June 18th, open worldwide.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Book review: The Rebellion of Jane Clarke, by Sally Gunning

In her third historical to feature a strong, independent woman of colonial Massachusetts, Sally Gunning moves from the quiet Cape Cod village of Satucket to the bustling city of Boston, a tinderbox of political dissent its citizens are itching to set alight.

In 1769, Jane Clarke, a sheltered young woman of twenty-two, is sent away to Boston after defying her father's wish to marry the man of his choosing. Taking up the role of caretaker for her elderly Aunt Gill at her home near the Custom House, Jane has difficulty adjusting to her abrupt change of surroundings: the unceasing clamor of the streets, the British soldiers quartered among the populace, and the odd behavior of her aunt's house servants. She also ponders her father's legal troubles, the result of a longstanding feud with his neighbors over millstream privileges. Noted lawyer John Adams, for whom Jane's brother Nate works as a clerk, represents her father in his suit, but does he think him innocent? And was Mr. Clarke really vicious enough to cut off the ears of his rival's horse? Jane doesn't know what or whom to believe.

When Aunt Gill makes it clear she’s not a loyalist like Jane’s father, Jane awakens to the revolutionary fervor around her and begins forming her own opinions. Tempers run high; native Bostonians upset over unfair taxes antagonize the Redcoats, and newspapers turn harmless incidents into patriotic propaganda. Working through her feelings for two different suitors, and weighing family loyalties against her own observations, Jane's rebellion soon becomes as much political as personal. Her closest allies prove to be a couple well versed in challenging society's expectations: her grandmother (stepmother's mother), Lyddie Freeman, and her lawyer/legislator husband, Eben.

Gunning describes daily life in pre-Revolutionary Boston with conviction and ease, interspersing historical characters with her fictional ones and including rich details that enhance the larger picture. Readers will find their modern surroundings falling away, to be replaced by scenes of an 18th-century city where people travel briskly on foot and by carriage, dine on plain pudding and greens, and read Richardson's Clarissa by candlelight. Though she writes with understated elegance, her story has a strong inner core. As the narrative sheds fresh light on the struggles of the little-known men and women who took part in America's founding, it paints period atmosphere in multiple shades of gray and exposes the realities behind the popular mythology of the American Revolution.

In this well-rendered portrait of a woman's coming of age amid turbulent times, Jane explores the real meaning of truth and home and comes to realize that family is defined by more than blood relationships. A historical novel of integrity and substance, The Rebellion of Jane Clarke is a fitting showcase for a heroine of similar mettle.


Sally Gunning's The Rebellion of Jane Clarke was published June 1st by William Morrow (HarperCollins) at $24.99. It can be read either as a standalone novel or as the latest entry in a series following The Widow's War and Bound. The links lead to my earlier reviews of both books.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

BEA 2010: The Book Blogger Convention

Now on to the final day of my BEA trip, an event I was especially looking forward to: the first Book Blogger Convention. As soon as the con was announced, I knew I wanted to attend, for many reasons: to discuss good practices in the blogging community, to be introduced to new authors and publishers, and most of all to meet and network with other bloggers. The conference accomplished all of these in spades. I've attended many cons (and organized a few myself) and know how much work goes into their setup and production, and this event was professionally run from start to finish. I didn't spot any glitches, all of the panels started and ended on time, and members of the organizing committee were right there with a microphone whenever any audience member had a question or comment.

The mood was upbeat and enthusiastic, and everyone's shared love for the written word couldn't have been more apparent. Even in cases where panelists disagreed with one another (not often), they listened respectfully to others' opinions. I expect that more controversial matters and positions will be taken up as the blogging community becomes more established as a group, though I hope the civilized tone remains.

The speakers, like the audience as a whole, were a combination of book bloggers, authors, and members of the publishing industry. All of the author speakers were new to me (I don't read much YA fiction, and that's what most of them seemed to write) but even though I wished for a little more diversity, it was good for me to break out of my genre boundaries and learn about popular reading interests. Refreshingly, all of the authors were bloggers themselves, and even if they don't operate their sites in the same way as book bloggers do, with formal reviews and such, they had firsthand experience with the medium, and the purpose of their talks wasn't self-promotional. Rather, everyone was there to share their viewpoints and explain their roles in the online community of readers.

Arriving on site, each registrant was presented with an oversize swag bag filled with books, postcards, notebooks, and other promo material supplied by publishers and authors.

It was a nice surprise to receive so many other books after three days of galley grabbing at BEA proper, and there were many genres represented among them, including two historical novels (Jill Dawson's The Great Lover, about poet Rupert Brooke, and Jeanine Cummins' The Outside Boy, set in 1959 Ireland). Yes, there is a diet book at the bottom of the pile, which I've been eyeing ruefully, especially after four days of dining in many of NYC's excellent restaurants. Among the handouts, HarperCollins came up with a book blogger contact list for review copy requests, organized by imprint, and I wanted to highlight it because I wish other large publishers would follow suit. It's so simple yet very helpful.

After a delicious breakfast spent chatting with other bloggers, novelist Maureen Johnson started off the formal part of the program with a hilarious keynote speech. She described book bloggers as "activists for books," punctuating her remarks on the Internet's growing influence on book culture with entertaining asides on her experience as a Protestant enrolled in a Catholic girls' high school. A social media aficionado, she described how an impromptu thought posted on Twitter (that she would blog every day in April) can unintentionally start a group movement that others will quickly sign on to. Less time could have been allotted for Q&A, because discussion took a while to get going, but it was an entertaining talk.

Ron Hogan of (formerly of both GalleyCat and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) was next, with a talk on professionalism and ethics. His main points: book bloggers have established themselves as a viable force in the publishing industry, as exemplified by the fact that many print news sources now have their own blogs. They shouldn't be judged by the professional standards used for print journalism, as there are many different ways of talking about books, and formal book criticism is only one of them. Also, instead of agreeing to adhere to a formal code of ethics, he suggests, bloggers should establish themselves as trustworthy by following their own moral guidelines and acting (and posting) accordingly.

My take: I agree that bloggers will develop their own standards to measure against, and their approach will come across in their blog's presentation and content. At the same time, my own sense of professionalism and ethics in writing about books developed out of my experience with print media. I've seen many questions raised, on the Book Blogs site and elsewhere, about appropriate ways for bloggers to respond in various situations. In this respect, it can benefit them to know what the guidelines used by journalists entail and why they're considered important. For newbie bloggers especially, it can be hard to internalize positions on issues when they don't yet know what the issues are. I'm speaking about things like minimizing conflicts of interest, distinguishing editorial from advertising content, even avoiding plagiarism. There's too much here for a single 60-minute talk, obviously, but even so, I came away feeling that it could have had greater focus and specificity. It gave me a lot to think about. To continue the conversation Ron Hogan started, I'd love to see a panel devoted to best practices next time, with a multiplicity of perspectives offered.

We adjourned for lunch in the next room, where more bookish conversations and business card exchanges ensued. These informal networking opportunities, both at meals and in the hallways between sessions, were actually just as valuable as the panels themselves.

I see I've already typed a lot, so I'll try to summarize the highlights of the after-lunch panels. Listening to "Writing and Building Content" left me both invigorated and tired, given the panelists' extensive efforts in keeping their blogs fresh and current. These well-read and ambitious bloggers had some creative ideas, though I admit that based on the panel's title, I had expected someone would add her thoughts about what makes for a good book review. As an information-swap session, though, it was pretty good.

"Marketing" covered not only methods to get the word out about your blog, but also social marketing tips in general and ways to find balance. I found myself writing down a few ideas. Writing a blog plus commenting on others' sites can be a time-consuming process. This session was an eye-opener in that most of the bloggers (aside from Thea of The Book Smugglers) weren't keen on blog stats. To me they form part of the picture on blog activity, along with comments, followers, and the overall sense of community created, and I have no problem disclosing numbers; I see them as akin to circulation figures for a print mag. I was also bemused by the notion that some publishers want to see e-commerce links on blogs because they have their eye on the bottom line. This is something I deliberately avoid; I figure readers are smart enough to visit their vendor of choice if they want to buy a book, I don't want to affiliate with any one bookstore, I feel uneasy about the concept anyway, and pointing just to Amazon (for example) doesn't do non-US readers any good.

The panelists on "Blogging with Social Responsibility" discussed ways they use their blogs to get the word out about a cause, one related to their blog's topic and/or one with personal meaning. It was an educational and inspiring session, not only because of the diversity of experiences on the panel, but because people were finally getting down and dirty with major issues concerning the industry: book cover whitewashing, raising the awareness of gay characters in fiction, etc. This is one of the areas where the blogosphere truly shows its power.

The final panel, "Author/Blogger Relationships," pleased me because it touched on some issues not covered in the Professionalism/Ethics discussion earlier, such as potential reviewer bias as well as when/if they might recuse themselves from a review. The speakers also discussed the perennially dicey topic of negative reviews in a professional and honest manner. My energy was fading at this point, as I was cold (major a/c blast in the Javits that day) and hungry, and I stepped out halfway through to eat a snack from my bag.

I wish I'd taken along my mini-laptop and camera, not to mention taken better notes, but this is already a super-long post, and many other attendees wrote up their own (better, more detailed) summaries. Cathy of Kittling: Books has an extensive link roundup of all things BEA/BBC related in book blogland. The schedule for BBC made for a long day, and getting a cab out of the Javits at 5pm on Friday was a challenge, but I made it back to the hotel not only with a bag full of books but with a renewed energy for book blogging, and the knowledge that I'd made many new friends. Congratulations to the organizers for a job well done, and I hope to catch many of you in NYC next year.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

BEA 2010, inside my giant box of books

After reading other people's stories on Twitter about long their BEA shipments were taking to arrive, was I ever pleased today to see the UPS guy walk up the driveway with an enormous box. Two days from NYC to here is something of a record. I'm planning one more BEA-related post dealing with the blogger convention, but for the moment, here's the rest of the historical fiction I accumulated. Click to enlarge.

In brief, subjects and locales, beginning with the top row going across:

(1) William Ryan, The Holy Thief. Historical thriller of Stalinist Moscow. Minotaur, Sept, and it comes with a CD of the audiobook (may not be complete).
(2) Bo Caldwell, City of Tranquil Light. In the early 20th c, a midwestern farmer becomes a missionary on the North China Plain and marries a strong woman doing the same work; based on her grandparents' story. Henry Holt, Oct.
(3) Stacy Schiff, Cleopatra. New bio (nonfiction) about the famous Egyptian queen. Little Brown, Nov.
(4) Joseph Skibell, A Curable Romantic. An intellectual comedy about a modern Candide traveling from 1890 Vienna to the Warsaw Ghetto of 1940. The author performed a hilarious two-minute promotional song ("I Am the Very Model of A Modern Major Novelist") on a backpacking guitar as part of a library program I attended. Algonquin, Sept.
(5) Penny Vincenzi, Forbidden Places. British family drama set between 1938 and 1995. Overlook, Oct.
(6) Charles Todd, An Impartial Witness. His 2nd Bess Crawford mystery, about a battlefield nurse in 1917 England. This came courtesy of Library Journal's Day of Dialog. Morrow, Sept.
(7) Jane Gardam, Old Filth. Literary fiction about an elderly lawyer in 20th-c Dorset who slips back into his own history. Europa, earlier this year.

Second row down:

(1) Ntozake Shange and Ifa Bayeza, Some Sing, Some Cry. Literary saga following seven generations on a rice plantation just off the Carolina coast, showcasing one's family's music and path from slavery to freedom. St. Martin's, Sept.
(2 - top) Manuel de Lope, The Wrong Blood. Two women share a secret that allows them to survive the Spanish Civil War. Other Press, Sept.
(2 - bottom) John Addiego, Tears of the Mountain. America's pioneer roots, as seen through the eyes of one man from Sonoma County, California. Unbridled, Sept.
(3) Kathleen Kent, The Wolves of Andover. The prequel to The Heretic's Daughter, a love story set in the harsh wilderness of 17th-century Massachusetts. Reagan Arthur (Little, Brown), Nov.
(4 - top) Joyce Hinnefeld, Stranger Here Below. The stories that pass from mother to daughter in 20th-c Appalachia. Unbridled, Oct.
(4 - bottom) Jonathan Evinson, West of Here. Literary epic of Washington State. Algonquin, Feb. 2011.
(5) Bruce Machart, The Wake of Forgiveness. Love and frontier violence in 1910 rural Texas. Oct, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
(6) Lisa Klein, Cate of the Lost Colony. YA fiction that moves from Queen Elizabeth's court to Walter Ralegh's colony at Roanoke. Bloomsbury Children's, Oct.
(7 - top) Jessica Francis Kane, The Report. A reimagining of a WWII civilian disaster and the inquiry that surrounds it. Graywolf, Oct.
(7 - bottom) Michelle Hoover, The Quickening. Conflicts between the wives of two Midwestern farm families in the early 1900s. Other Press, June.

A thanks to all the publishers involved; I'm looking forward to reading them all.

And a special thanks to McGraw-Hill for supplying the giant red tote bag that I carted around on both days. The size of this bag was very impressive, and I'm sure it'll be making a return trip to future BEAs. In the meantime, my 7-month-old kittens have claimed it for themselves:

Ollie and Abby (brother and sister) will have to share it, but it's big enough to easily hold two.

Below are some other NYC book purchases, because even with the galleys I acquired at the show, you can never have enough books.

This quartet, clockwise from top left, moves from early 20th-c NYC to 1899 South Africa to 1940s Iraq to 1940 San Francisco. Around the world through historical fiction: the best way to travel without leaving your house.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

M is for Morgan

While I wait (and wait) for my BEA loot to show up in the mail, here's my latest entry for Historical Tapestry's alphabet challenge.

A while ago I had a request to include more Canadian content, so I thought this was the perfect opportunity. Earlier this spring, thanks to the wonders of Netflix, I rented Random Passage, an eight-hour miniseries based on Bernice Morgan's epic novels about the early settlement of Newfoundland. The scenery was breathtaking, the acting first-rate, and the situations depicted both heartwarming and brutally realistic. Most of the actors were new to me, but it was a surprise to see Colm Meaney, who I knew best as transporter chief Miles O'Brien on Star Trek: The Next Generation, cast as the male lead in the role of Thomas Hutchings, a gruff storekeeper with a secret past.

Even given the length of the miniseries (on two DVDs you have to rent separately), the storyline from the novels has been condensed to some degree. The Vincent and Andrews family trees have been simplified, and the producers must have decided that Irish firebrand Mary Bundle made for a better heroine than pensive Lavinia Andrews, who comes across in the film as a bit cold and closed-off, at least at first. The TV series is based on both Random Passage and its sequel, Waiting for Time, and I watched them over about a week. After seeing the video, I felt compelled to read the books once more.

Bernice Morgan's two novels, relating one family's struggles and triumphs in Newfoundland from the early 19th century until the present, were originally written as one book. Not surprisingly, in order to get the fullest appreciation for the characters (and because it ends with a cliffhanger), readers of Random Passage will be compelled to read the sequel.

Random Passage begins as members of the Andrews family are forced to make their way from Weymouth, England, to unknown prospects in the remote, uncivilized, God-forsaken place known as Newfound Land in the early 1800s. There, on the island of Cape Random, the Vincent family introduces them to their hardscrabble way of life. Lavinia Andrews, the pensive seventeen-year-old daughter, records their experiences in her journal.

The story of the Andrews family's settlement is gritty and utterly unromanticized. Only the strong survive, but in this story, even great strength isn't always enough. All characters have unique personalities, from the dreamy Lavinia and her fun-loving brother Ned to the lusty, determined newcomer Mary Bundle and mysterious storekeeper Thomas Hutchings. The dialogue is plain-spoken, rustic, and authentic. The storyline jars at first as Morgan attempts to tell the story from too many different viewpoints, but it soon settles into easy, fascinating reading.

Waiting for Time looks back at the same story from the viewpoint of Mary Bundle, who at seventeen has barely escaped a life of thievery by finding passage on a ship to Newfoundland. Her life spans nearly a hundred years. Events formerly seen through others' eyes in Random Passage are retold from Mary's point of view, and the difference is at times remarkable. Many events hinted at in the earlier book are finally revealed. Mary's tale is introduced through the discoveries of a modern-day Andrews descendant, but these modern bits were for me the least compelling parts of the novel.

My one complaint is that I was left wanting more. I wanted to read of Mary's great-granddaughter Rachel and of the lives of other Andrews and Vincent descendants. With its impressive characterization and unusual setting (for this American reader, anyway), this is far from your average family saga. A worthwhile read for Canadians and non-Canadians alike.

Bernice Morgan's Random Passage and Waiting for Time were originally published by Breakwater Books in Canada. doesn't show any copies in print, which is kind of hard to believe, as they're modern classics. However, the US edition of the first book, retitled Cape Random, is available from Shambhala at $16.95. Parts of this review appeared originally in a different form in the Historical Novels Review.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Guest post from Gillian Bagwell: June 1660

Gillian Bagwell is the author of the upcoming novel The Darling Strumpet (Berkley, Jan. 2011), based on the life of Nell Gwynn, who rose from the streets to become one of London’s most beloved actresses and the life-long mistress of King Charles II.

This is the second in a series of monthly articles chronicling the events from May 1660 through January 1661, in commemoration of the 350th anniversary of the Restoration of the English monarchy, the reopening of the playhouses, which had been closed for 18 years under Cromwell, and the first appearance of an actress on the English stage, in contrast to the old practice of boys playing women’s roles. Gillian's online tour stopped at Hoydens and Firebrands in early May, and the July host will be Raucous Royals.

For further information about the articles and Gillian’s books, please visit her website,

~ JUNE 1660 ~

After Charles II’s triumphant arrival to reclaim his throne on May 29, 1660, London continued in wild celebrations for three days and nights. Effigies of Cromwell burned. The Venetian ambassador provided a fountain of wine in the street before his house. There was a royal proclamation denouncing those who “spend their time in taverns, tipling-houses, and debauches, giving no other evidence of their affection to us but in drinking our health, and in inveighing against all others who are not of their own dissolute temper,” but that was probably the language of the King’s advisor Edward Hyde, soon to be the first Earl of Clarendon, as “a sop to the Presbyterians who feared that the return of monarchy would usher in an orgy of unbridled license.”

King Charles was at the center of a seething ocean of well-wishers, place-seekers, petitioners, overjoyed subjects, foreign diplomats, politicians, and hordes of others who wanted his time and attention. On June 4 diarist John Evelyn wrote that he had been unable to see the King “by reason of the infinite concourse of people … from all parts of the Nation,” and harrumphed, “It was indeed intollerable … insomuch as he had scarce leisure to Eate for some dayes,” and that the King “would have none kept out, but gave free accesse to all sorts of people.” Among these were many of the people who had helped him escape from England after the disastrous Battle of Worcester in 1651. On June 13, the King received and honored the five Penderel brothers, humble country men from Shropshire who had saved his life by hiding him on the night after the battle.

There was the business of getting the new government up and running, and throughout the month, Parliament waded through discussion and revision of the Bill of Indemnity, pardoning those who had fought against the Royalist cause, with the exception of the men directly responsible for the execution of Charles’s father, Charles I. Of course the court and government needed a lot of money, and the King authorized a tax of £70,000 per month for three months.

Diarist Samuel Pepys was working under Sir Edward Montagu, who told him “We must have a little patience and we will rise together.” Pepys got off to a good start. On June 3 he was happy to find that he was worth £100, four times what he had been worth in late March when he set off with the party of dignitaries to bring the King back to England, and by the end of June he had secured the position of Clerk of the Acts. His patron Montagu soon became the first Earl of Sandwich. Pepys was deeply involved with the nuts and bolts of the Restoration. On June 2 he spent the morning with a naval captain computing the monthly pay of the ships that had brought the King back, as the King had promised them a month’s pay. It came to £6538. “I wish we had the money,” wrote Pepys, ever the harried administrator.

Another of the King’s duties was touching his subjects for “the King’s Evil,” or scrofula, which popular belief held could be cured by the touch of a monarch. He touched thousands of people during his first weeks in London, on one occasion touching 600 people, distributing to each of them a white ribbon with a golden angel. On June 23 Pepys noted that because it was raining so hard, the King failed to arrive to touch people who had waited for him in the rain all morning, but that later he touched them in the Banqueting House instead. The mean temperature in central England for the month was 57˚F/14˚C; London would have been a little warmer.

As busy as he was, the King found time for recreation. He rose at five and got in an hour or two of tennis, walked in St. James’s Park, and some evenings went with his brother the Duke of York as far as Battersea, Putney, or Barn Elms to swim in the Thames. On June 8 he managed a quick visit to Hampton Court. He was an excellent and enthusiastic dancer. On June 20 Pepys wrote that his boss had slept in after a late supper with the King, and on June 28 he noted that Montagu “lay a-bed till 11 o’clock, it being almost five before he went to bed, they supped so late last night with the King.”

On June 18 one of the King’s dogs was stolen from Whitehall, and a notice in the newspaper offered a reward for information or the return of “a Smooth Black Dog, less than a Grey-hound, with white under his breast.” A second notice the following week provided further description of the dog, “his taile a little bob’d,” and plaintively asked, “Will they never leave robbing his Majesty: must he not keep a Dog?” General Monck, who had been instrumental in the Restoration by giving the King the support of the army, also lost a dog. Mercurius Publicus advertised that “A White Greyhound Bitch, belonging to his Excellency, was lately lost from the Cockpit, if any one bring her thither, he shall be well rewarded for his pains.”

Although the playhouses had not yet been officially authorized, the acting companies were openly performing by June. On June 6 Pepys wrote that the Dukes of York and Gloucester went to see Ben Jonson’s “Epicoene, or The Silent Woman,” probably at the Red Bull, at the north end of St. John Street in Clerkenwell. On June 23 the Red Bull gave John Fletcher’s “The Tamer Tamed.”

Performance conditions in these early days after the Restoration were unchanged from what they had been in 1642 when Cromwell closed the theatres, and even from fifty years before that. The Red Bull had been built in about 1608 and the stage faced galleries around three sides of a yard that was open to the elements. The company was formed from many of the top actors of the old days, who would shortly become the King’s Company. These included Charles Hart, Michael Mohun, Walter Clun, Nicholas Burt, Theophilus Byrd, William Cartwright, Robert Shatterell, and William Wintershall.

John Rhodes, formerly Wardrobe Keeper to the company at Blackfriars, had a company performing at the Cockpit in Drury Lane, including Thomas Betterton and others who soon became the Duke’s Company. As in the earlier days, the women’s roles were played by young men. Edward Kynaston played the title role in “Auglara,” the Princess in “The Mad Lover,” “Ismena” in “The Maid in the Mill,” and Arthiope in “The Unfortunate Lovers.” James Nokes, Edward Angel, Mr. Floid, and Thomas Betterton’s son William also played women’s roles.

In June 1660 Christopher Beeston received a license for a company at the old theatre in Salisbury Court, but the identity of his actors and whether they performed before the fall is not known.

Since the theatre had been outlawed for eighteen years, all the plays were those from the old repertoire, the works of Ben Jonson, John Fletcher, Philip Massinger, Thomas Middleton, William Rowley, and Sir Robert Howard being especially popular. But already the writers were at work, and a fire-new piece by John Tatham called “The Rump: or, The Mirror of the late Times” was “Acted Many Times with Great Applause, At the Private House in Dorset-Court.” Theatre in England was poised for the most explosive period of development it had ever seen or would ever see again.

Sources and further reading:


The Diary of Samuel Pepys

Met Office Hadley Center Observations Datasets


1660: The Year of Restoration, Patrick Morrah (Beacon Press, 1960)

The Commonwealth and Restoration Stage, Leslie Hotson, (Cambridge Harvard University Press, 1928)

The Diary of John Evelyn, ed. Guy de la Bédoyère (Boydell Press, 1995; First Person Singular, 2004)

The London Stage, 1660-1800, A Calendar of Plays, Entertainments, and Afterpieces Together with Casts, Box-Receipts, and Contemporary Comment, Part I, 1660-1700, ed. William Van Lennep et al. (Southern Illinois University Press, 1963)

Pepys’s Diary, Volume I, selected and edited by Robert Latham (Folio Society, 1996)