Saturday, January 29, 2011

Sad news: Diana Norman and Leisha Kelly

Sadly, the historical fiction world has lost two well-known authors during the last week.

Diana Norman, who also wrote historical thrillers as Ariana Franklin, passed away on Thursday after a lengthy illness.  I'm a major fan of her work, particularly the medieval fiction she wrote under her own name.  Fitzempress' Law and King of the Last Days (covered in my Reviews of Obscure Books series) demonstrated her admiration for the legal reforms of Henry II and her excellent dry wit.  My personal favorite is Shores of Darkness, a twisty 18th-century mystery-adventure about royal intrigue, female pirates, and a young man's quest to solve his aunt's murder.  Her Mistress of the Art of Death series brought her back to the early Plantagenet era in the company of Adelia Aguilar, a Salerno-trained physician and forensic specialist (for the 12th c).

I'm by no means through reading her novels though am saddened there won't be more.  A stand-alone medieval novel of hers sold to Putnam for publication next year, though this may be the reissue of her first novel The Morning Gift.  The headline from the BBC News article doesn't give her first name ("Barry Norman's novelist wife dies age 77"), which is unfortunate.

I also learned via Twitter that Leisha Kelly, a bestselling writer of inspirational historical novels, died in a three-car crash in western Illinois on Tuesday, along with her 16-year-old son.  In her Wortham Family Chronicles, Kelly writes movingly of how two Midwestern families struggled to stay afloat during the Great Depression, telling her story from the viewpoint of many different characters. With The House on Malcolm Street, she'd just begun a new series set in 1920.  Her website has more details on her books.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Book review: When We Were Strangers, by Pamela Schoenewaldt

Just before she dies, Irma Vitale’s mother warns her, “Don’t die with strangers.” Pamela Schoenewaldt’s debut novel imagines a rich yet traumatic journey for her heroine, a young woman possessed of a quiet inner strength as she steps out alone into a wide, unknown world. In the 1880s, life in the Italian mountain village of Opi is slender and brittle. Her ancestors found only misfortune after leaving their home, but with a plain face and too small of a dowry, twenty-year-old Irma sees no other choice.

In crystal clear language and with a keen eye for detail, the author conveys Irma’s apprehension and innocence with touching empathy. Equipped with her few belongings, considerable skill in needlework, and money saved by her beloved Zia Carmela, she heads out on foot towards Naples in search of a ship to America and the older brother who had left several years earlier.  From the Servia’s smoky steerage quarters to a workhouse in Cleveland to a shop in Chicago, she holds on to her dream of sewing dresses for fine ladies. She runs up against many obstacles – her poverty, looks, and lack of English skills, to name just a few. Bright and eager to learn, she overcomes most of these setbacks but risks getting defeated by others.

Wherever Irma goes, she meets people at different stages of integration into the American way of life. Everyone’s a stranger at first, but although they may speak different languages, they find comfort in being strangers together. Molly, an ambitious Irishwoman, becomes her closest friend. Madame Hélène, a seamstress from Alsace, becomes her employer and mentor; a Polish ragman and his family support her when she needs it most; and Sofia, a midwife and healer from her home country, influences her life in surprising ways. Irma passes her time sewing gorgeous embroidery depicting flowers and places she left behind, and filters her view of this new land through Italian eyes. On a train through Pennsylvania, she glimpses a “rosary of towns clutching the tracks.” When she tastes a banana for the first time, her delight comes through on the page.

As she grows and changes, establishing strong friendships and ties to her surroundings, so do her goals, and the discovery of her true calling proves that opportunities can arise from painful circumstances. This sensitively written tale of a singular woman is a poignant tribute to the millions of immigrants woven into the fabric of late 19th-century America. Each of them, the novel implies, has a story worth hearing.

When We Were Strangers is published today by Harper in trade paperback at $14.99 (328pp).  There's an informative "history behind the story" section at the end.  I think this would make an excellent women's book club choice.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Bits and pieces

I've been neglectful in announcing the winners of the two latest contests, so I drew the numbers this evening with the help of

The copy of India Black will go to: Leya of Wandeca Reads
The copy of The Crimson Rooms will go to: Connie Jensen of Get It Written [updated, as the original winner snagged her own copy]

Please email me at sarah(at) with your mailing addresses, and the books will be heading your way.  Congratulations and enjoy!

Back in September I mentioned a survey of historical fiction readers undertaken by Jerome de Groot's third-year English students at the University of Manchester.  I filled out their form, and some of you may have also.  The students' essays are in and have been posted online.  There were 116 responses, which covered demographic data, the reasons why people read historical novels, and whether historical accuracy was necessary.  Some students also interviewed readers and authors to see whether they agreed with the majority opinions.  Check out their reports for insight into historical fiction fans' reading habits.  Most of the respondents were "middle-aged women," that is, women over 40.  I confess I never thought of myself as fitting this label until now, so pardon me while I go crawl under a rock.

This next bit is apropos of nothing, other than I thought it was pretty cool.  I spent the better part of today on reference desk duty at the library, though because I had an enormous headache, few of the projects I'd planned got done.  Having gone through my Google Reader feeds, I started catching up with my genealogy research, combing through relevant documents on Rootsweb and Google to see if anything new came up.

Was I ever surprised to discover that one of my female ancestors, ten generations back, kept a diary.  Her name was Zerviah (Sanger) Chapman, born in Woodstock, Connecticut in 1718.  She gave birth to 21 children, nearly half of whom died young, and lived to be 93.  A random Google search for her name revealed that she wrote short daily entries in a book between 1775 and 1784, when she was in her fifties and sixties.  She recorded household matters (the time she spent weaving, the meals she prepared, whether she attended meeting), the births of grandchildren and neighbors, and news about the Revolutionary War.  One accompanying letter she wrote warns the recipient about one family who was apparently to blame for falsely accusing her husband Stephen of forgery in Newport, Nova Scotia, a planters' colony established by Rhode Islanders after the Acadians were forced to leave.  Stephen died in Nova Scotia, and afterwards, Zerviah moved back to Warwick, RI, to live with her daughter's family.

The diary and letters now belong to the Rhode Island Historical Society in Providence; it's the earliest woman's diary in their manuscript collections.  For me, it's history made personal.  Next time I'm out East I plan to pay them a visit and read a part of my family's own past for myself.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Book review: A Lonely Death, by Charles Todd

A confession, to start off this review of a new historical mystery: This is my first time reading a Charles Todd novel, but it won’t be the last.

A Lonely Death takes place in July of 1920. Three men from the quiet village of Eastfield in Sussex are found dead, garroted, three days apart. It’s an unusual way to die, and all of them were killed while alone at night, not far from home. Even stranger is that military ID discs belonging to different men had been left in their mouths.

The three were childhood acquaintances who made it through the war alive, so their violent deaths are an especially cruel blow to their families. Mr. Pierce, a powerful businessman and father of the last victim, calls in Scotland Yard.  They assign Inspector Ian Rutledge to the case.

Rutledge, a Great War veteran himself, keeps his suffering private. The voice of a soldier whose death he ordered still torments him constantly, but sometimes it also gives him helpful advice. At first Rutledge is as baffled by the murders as the local constable. The dead men didn’t share the same social background and didn’t serve together at the Somme, either.

Suspense builds as the mystery grows more intricate, and Rutledge unwinds it piece by piece. As he proceeds in methodical fashion, interviewing everyone from relatives and friends to the village schoolmistress, he contends with the unwilling cooperation of the police in nearby Hastings and internal politics at the Yard back in London. Rutledge senses the answer lies amidst a tangle of secrets in Eastfield’s past, but time is running short. If the pattern holds true, he’ll have three days before the next body turns up.

Todd (a mother-son writing team) excels at evoking atmosphere. The setting has a crisp sort of solemnity, the freshness of the coastal sea air contrasting with the grim reality of life after years of war. The authors create a dramatic panorama of the countryside and its residents. Some struggle to start their lives over again, while others are deciding if they even wish to. The strong plotting is full of psychological complexity, and the characters are memorable and subtly delineated. I got the impression that they had a past and future that existed outside of the novel’s confines. The combination makes for a superb historical mystery and a very satisfying novel.

Thirteenth in the Ian Rutledge series, A Lonely Death doesn’t require prior knowledge of the others; it gets new readers up to speed quickly. I hope Rutledge succeeds in keeping his demons at bay, as I intend to spend more time in his company. Fortunately for me, there are twelve previous books to look forward to.

A Lonely Death is published this month by William Morrow/HarperCollins at $24.99 (hb, 352pp).

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Guest post from Julie K. Rose: A Sense of Place

Today Julie Rose, a regular blog visitor, is dropping by with a guest post about the power of place in historical fiction.  Her debut novel The Pilgrim Glass, a finalist in the 2005 Faulkner-Wisdom creative writing competition and semi-finalist in the 2009 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards, slips back and forth between present-day and 12th-century Burgundy.  Jonas Flycatcher, an artisan hired to restore a stained glass window for the cathedral of Mary Magdalene in Vézelay, France, meets and falls in love with a woman who seems to be channeling a medieval pilgrim. 

Also, over the next couple of months on her blog, Julie will be offering a series of posts on historical fiction beyond the Tudor trend.  Welcome, Julie!


One of the great joys of reading historical fiction, for me, is not only the sense of another time that an outstanding writer can foster, but also a sense of place. It's a chance to be an armchair traveler – and like Doctor Who, good historical fiction helps you travel both in time and space.

For me, authors like Patrick O'Brian, Connie Willis, and Heather Domin do just that – you feel the oppressive openness of the ocean in O'Brian (how's that for unintended alliteration?), the wintery isolation of Willis' mediaeval Oxfordshire, the sun-baked Roman courtyard in Domin's novel. As an author, it's a unique challenge. It's difficult enough to capture the feeling, the soul, of a place in modern times, never mind imagining what it would have been like 200, 600, 1,000 years ago.

Capturing a sense of the great basilica at Vézelay – both past and present - was the genesis of my novel The Pilgrim Glass. My husband and I visited France in November 2002, traveling to Burgundy and Paris. He was a budding oenophile, and I had always had an affinity for France (I suppose seven years of school French will do that to you). We'd had a lovely time in Beaune and the Côte d'Or and, on our rainy drive back to Paris, decided to stop off in Vézelay on a whim.

It was bitterly cold that day – well, bitterly cold to a couple of Californians. The town was mostly empty, and we drove our rental car up the narrow, winding street and parked right under the shadow of the massive Romanesque basilica. We were the only people there, and the silvery light from the clear windows made it feel both more lonely and more awesome (in both the old and new senses of the word). We explored the crypt below the altar, and the cloisters, and the park. We read the stories of the capitals and the tympanum, and admired the last of the roses clinging to the garden wall.

I wanted to know all about this place, the starting point for so many mediaeval pilgrimages to Compostela. What did it feel like to stand, alone, in that great echoing space hundreds of years before? What was buried under rubble and centuries? Who else stood in that spot, what did they think, did they see the same things I did, feel the same things? What was it like when the light was golden, and not silvery? What was it like to know only how to read the capitals in the church, and not words on a page?

Historical fiction allows us to suggest answers to these questions, to travel both in time and space. I hope the novel conveys a sense of this lyrical village on a hill, both in the present and in the past. I hope, through Jonas, I've conveyed the awe and wonder I felt in the great cathedral that cold morning in early November.


Julie K. Rose is a regular reviewer for the Historical Novels Review and has published short stories in a variety of speculative fiction publications. She is also an art history buff, mandolin mangler, mystic poetry lover, terrible singer, history lover, and wanderlust-addled bleeding heart liberal. The Pilgrim Glass, her first novel, is available now at Amazon (trade pb or Kindle) and at B&N.  For more details, see Julie's web site.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Winner of 2010 Langum Prize in American Historical Fiction announced

The Langum Charitable Trust has just announced the winner and other highly commended novels for the 2010 Langum Prize in American Historical Fiction.

Ann Weisgarber's The Personal History of Rachel DuPree (Viking), a story about a black pioneer family eking out a difficult living in the South Dakota Badlands in 1917, is this year's winner.  The prize is awarded annually to the "best book in American historical fiction that is both excellent fiction and excellent history."

I talked to Ann about her novel in 2009, before it was picked up by an American publisher, and am so pleased to see the accolades it's been receiving.

Robin Oliveira's My Name Is Mary Sutter (also Viking), another standout debut novel, was named an Honorable Mention.  Oliveira's work examines the life of a determined midwife from Albany, New York, who heads south to Washington, DC, during the Civil War to pursue her dreams of becoming a surgeon.  [My review, from Booklist, at her literary agency's website]

Director's Mentions went to Kelli Carmean for Creekside: An Archeological Novel (University of Alabama Press), a multi-period tale set on a family farm in eastern Kentucky, and Jackson Taylor for The Blue Orchard (Simon & Schuster), about a woman living through tremendous social changes in Depression-era Pennsylvania.

Congratulations to the authors and their publishers.  Also of note: one of the Director's Mentions for 2009, Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman's self-published In the Lion's Den, has been picked up by Ballantine for release this April.  The new title will be Broken Promises.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Book review/giveaway: India Black: A Madam of Espionage Mystery, by Carol K. Carr

If you’re wary of reading yet another mystery that leads you through the gas-lit lanes of Victorian England on the trail of a nasty criminal, take heart. India Black’s jaded, sarcastic attitude just might cure you of your own.

The magnificent preface, narrated by the lady herself, should make you snap to attention, for India isn’t a lady at all – quite the contrary. “My name is India Black. I am a whore,” she begins, without apology. As she states, her account is neither a memoir of a young girl’s loss of innocence nor a titillating exposé of her bedroom encounters. It’s not really a mystery either, despite the subtitle. As an espionage caper winding through the grimy back alleys and political centers of London, though, it’s a very entertaining one, and the protagonist’s brassy voice carries it off with style. Culminating with a heart-pounding chase scene (on a sleigh, even!) across the snowy countryside, Carol K. Carr’s debut India Black is a thrillingly escapist read.

The atrocities committed by Turks against Christians in distant Bulgaria serve as the catalyst for the action, but if you haven’t heard anything about them, don’t worry – India hasn’t either. During the winter of 1876, she’s content to stick to what she knows: managing Lotus House, an exclusive brothel catering to London’s gentlemen. When the client she’s nicknamed “Bowser” kicks it during a visit to one of her girls, India sees trouble ahead. With the help of an enterprising street urchin, she carts his overlarge body towards the docks, “trussed like a birthday present,” where he’ll be found and identified the next day – and so his wife will be notified of his death. India’s not completely heartless, after all.

Unluckily, Bowser’s real name was Sir Archibald Latham, late of Her Majesty’s War Office. After the debonair spy named Mr. French catches them disposing of the corpse, he blackmails India into helping him find Latham’s portfolio, which contains documents the British need to keep out of Russian hands. India isn’t about to take things lying down. To save her livelihood, and to prevent an international incident, she agrees to help the Prime Minister, aka Dizzy, get the papers back.

Her pursuit of the thieves takes her from a formal dance ball at the Russian Embassy to the inner chambers of the British government, and wherever she goes, French isn’t far behind. The pair’s adventures are over-the-top – she rescues him as often as he rescues her – and with a reluctant attraction simmering between them, neither dares show any gratitude. India’s profession sometimes gets her in a bind, so to speak.  Her innuendo-filled intro to one scene made me wonder, with curious amusement, if the author really intended to go there. She does, and the result is hilarious.

Some thrillers pack on atmosphere like London’s streets pack on fog, and the ambiance has the required Dickensian feel when it needs to, but the highlight here is India’s sardonic sense of humor. A woman who displays her ample wit along with her décolletage, India has seen difficult times, and she’s a heroine you can’t help but root for. She can size up a man’s worth in seconds but lacks familiarity with the complicated tangle of international politics, not that that stops her. She also spouts an impressively vulgar vocabulary, though she's very well-read, and there are hints of other secrets lingering in her past. Her intriguing back story is one I’m sure will be worth uncovering in future volumes.

India Black is published this month by Berkley Prime Crime at $14.00 ($17.50 in Canada).  Thanks to the publisher, I have one copy on hand to give away to blog readers. Leave a comment on this post for your chance to win; deadline Friday, January 21st.  International entrants welcome.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Award-winning historical novels at ALA Midwinter

A number of literary awards were announced at the American Library Association's Midwinter meeting in San Diego this past weekend.  Those of special interest to historical fiction readers include:

The 2011 Reading List Awards, which recognize the best books in eight genres.

- For Historical Fiction:  Julie Orringer's The Invisible Bridge, about a Hungarian Jewish family in WWII Europe.
- On the Historical Fiction shortlist:  S. Thomas Russell's A Battle Won, Lauren Belfer's A Fierce Radiance, Annabel Lyon's The Golden Mean, and Sally Gunning's The Rebellion of Jane Clarke [read my review]
- For Fantasy:  Guy Gavriel Kay's Under Heaven, set in an alternate 8th-century Tang Dynasty China.  [read my interview]
- For Romance:  Mary Balogh's A Matter of Class, a witty Regency romance.

The 2011 Newbery Medal and Honor books, for distinguished contributions to American children's literature.

- The Newbery Medal winner: Clare Vanderpool's Moon Over Manifest, set in Depression-era Kansas.
- The Newbery Honor books included three historicals:  Jennifer L. Holm's Turtle in Paradise, Margi Preus's Heart of a Samurai, and Rita Williams-Garcia's One Crazy Summer.

    The Black Caucus of the ALA Literary Awards:

    - Literary Award in Fiction: Bernice L. McFadden's Glorious, about a woman from Georgia who becomes a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance.  [Started this last night!]
    - Literary Award, First Novelist:  Dolen Perkins-Valdez's Wench, about four slave women and their white masters at a resort in 1850s Ohio.

      ALA Notable Books, important titles of literary merit for the adult reader.

      - Among the 25 winners named:  Rick Bass's Nashville Chrome; Karl Marlantes' Matterhorn; David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet; Tatjana Soli's The Lotus Eaters.

        Sunday, January 09, 2011

        Bits and pieces

        Hope you've been enjoying a relaxing Sunday.  It's been a quiet weekend - the cats are all sleeping, and I've been getting lots of reading done.  I've just finished my 3rd chunkster in a two-week period, James McGee's 530-page Rebellion, and I'll have a review up around the publication date in February.  In fact, I have three completed reviews in the pipeline (I say proudly) which makes me feel very productive.  I can't say that the TBR is dwindling, though, as Jan and Feb seem to be especially good months for historical novels.

        A few news bits for the week.  I'm far from the first to announce this, but Historical Tapestry is now sponsoring the 2011 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.  I've signed up, though anyone who reads this site knows that this won't be a challenge for me... it's the blog's focus, after all.  But it looks like a fun group to be part of, and I'm impressed by the large number of participants.

        As far as the challenge goes, the Severe Bookaholism level sounds appropriate, which means reading/reviewing 20 books in the upcoming year.  As I type this, I have more than 20 historical novels sitting on my very messy desk.

        Piles everywhere - good thing I don't use the scanner very often.

        It's hard for me to believe I haven't posted about the upcoming Historical Novel Society conference yet.  Our 4th event will take place at the Holiday Inn on the Bay in San Diego on June 17-19, 2011.  Guests of honor are Cecelia Holland and Harry Turtledove, with special guest Susan Vreeland.  Registration opened in late November, and we already have 120 people signed up.

        I learned WordPress in order to set up the conference website.  It came out pretty snazzy, if I do say so myself!  If you read or write historical fiction and want to spend a weekend listening to speakers and mingling with others who share your obsession, the HNS conference is the place to be.  Registration, which includes all meals, will be open through May 22nd, or when the limit of 300 attendees is reached.  There'll be a good number of bloggers there in addition to many authors, publishers, agents, librarians, and other readers... I've been keeping the list of attendees up to date if you want to see who else has signed up.

        I'll wrap up by posting several new deals from Publishers Marketplace.  You can expect to see these novels on bookstore shelves within the next year and more.

        A Rose for the Crown author Anne Easter Smith's untitled fifth novel, about Jane Shore's rise and fall as the beloved mistress of England's King Edward IV, to Trish Todd at Touchstone, in a very nice deal, by Jennifer Weltz at the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency (US). [Hasn't been a new novel about Jane Shore in some time, I don't think.]

        Jack Whyte's The Forest Laird, an epic historical about William Wallace, to Claire Eddy at Forge, in a nice deal, for publication in 2012, by Russell Galen at Scovil Galen Ghosh Literary Agency (US). [The Forest Laird was recently published in Canada and the UK; see a related piece from the Vancouver Sun this week.] 

        Mistress of the Art of Death series author Ariana Franklin's stand-alone medieval novel set during the chaotic and horrifying years of the war between Stephen and Matilda for the governance of England, to Rachel Kahan at Putnam, for publication in 2012, by Helen Heller at Helen Heller Agency (US). Canadian rights to Adrienne Kerr at Penguin Canada. [We've been discussing this at Historical Fiction Online, wondering if this is a reissue of The Morning Gift.  The description fits...]

        The Jewel of Medina author Sherry Jones's Four Sisters, All Queens, about the four beautiful, accomplished daughters of countess of Provence who each become queens -- Marguerite, queen of France; Eleanor, queen of England; Sanchia, queen of Germany; and Beatrice, queen of Sicily - and worked not only to expand their husbands' empires and broker peace, but also to bring the House of Savoy to greater power and influence in a tale of greed, lust, ambition, and sibling rivalry on a royal scale in the thirteenth century, to Kathy Sagan at Gallery, by Natasha Kern at Natasha Kern Literary Agency (World English). [Nancy Goldstone's Four Queens: The Provencal Sisters Who Ruled Europe was a recent nonfiction account of these prominent medieval sisters.]

        R. L. LaFevers's Dark Mercy, pitched as La Femme Nikita meets A Great and Terrible Beauty, from a trio of romantic historical fantasies focusing on teen girl assassins in 15th century France, Dark Justice and Dark Hope, each focusing on a different assassin trained at a convent serving the god of death himself, to Kate O'Sullivan at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children's, in a pre-empt, in a good deal, for publication starting in spring 2012, by Erin Murphy of Erin Murphy Literary Agency (NA).

        Ben Kane's Spartacus, the epic, inspirational story of Spartacus and the mass slave rebellion that he inspired against the might of Rome, to Rosie de Courcy at Preface, in a good deal, for publication in 2012, by Charlie Viney at The Viney Agency.

        Friday, January 07, 2011

        Z is for Zana

        And with this post we come to the end of Historical Tapestry's Alphabet in Historical Fiction challenge.  It's been fun choosing and reviewing these 26 books over the past year and more.  Thanks to my fellow participants and also all of the readers and commenters for keeping me company along the way.

        I'm choosing Zana Bell's Forbidden Frontier as my final selection, not only because it fits the pattern but also because it leads nicely into the Nautical Fiction challenge I'll be taking on in 2011.  This one doesn't count for the latter because it's a book I'd read a while ago and had reviewed elsewhere, but it's worth highlighting, and revisiting it may help me find my sea legs a little faster!

        Charlotte Badger is a heroine of a type I’d not encountered before. A strapping, self-reliant, and clever woman, Charlotte’s not above a little thievery or whoring if it’ll get her a few more drams of rum. She narrates her story beginning with her transportation from London to Port Jackson in faraway New South Wales in the year 1800. Sharing the harrowing voyage with Charlotte and her fellow convicts are Nathan Wesley, an idealistic missionary, and his distant wife, Elizabeth, whose viewpoints appear in alternating sections. Their paths come together when Charlotte convinces Nathan to make her their house servant.

        To their dismay, the Wesleys discover their new home consists of little more than ramshackle huts with earthen floors, muddy roads, and a lumpy, deserted landscape. The social strata amongst the settlers mimic that of their English homeland, with rich landowners at the top of the scale and convict labor and the despised Irish at the very bottom. Charlotte finds a sort of freedom in her life outside prison, while Nathan follows his adventurous spirit to extremes, and Elizabeth hides her feelings under a mask of decorum to preserve her marriage. It’s only later, as each forms new relationships and undergoes difficult trials, that they make peace with their true selves.

        The historical record provides the bare bones of Charlotte’s tale: the first recorded white woman in New Zealand, she arrived there in 1806 after staging a mutiny. This leaves plenty of room for speculation on her background and motivations. Bell ably captures the difficulties of eking out an existence on a new frontier, Sydney’s gradual development into a full-fledged town, and the way disillusionment can transform into opportunity, and vice versa, at a moment’s notice. Charlotte’s irreverent, good-humored voice and her ability to seize the best out of every meager prospect kept me reading. I enjoyed this novel immensely.

        Forbidden Frontier was published by Mira Australia in 2008 in trade paper at $32.95 Aus. ($37.00 NZ).

        Thursday, January 06, 2011

        Essay by Katharine McMahon: "Those Haunting Places"

        Please help me welcome Katharine McMahon to Reading the Past today.  She has contributed a wonderful, thought-provoking essay on the power of place in her novels.  I think the last paragraph will speak to many of us, whether we're writers or readers of historical fiction (or both).


        I have a friend called Charonne who has become my official companion on expeditions into the past. Picture us, half a decade ago, in the Ukraine - the Crimean Peninsula to be precise which is on the opposite side of the Black Sea to Turkey - on the site of the infamous battle of Balaklava (Charge of the Light Brigade fame), so cold we could hardly stand up, listening to the guide telling us that all would have been much better for the Russian army if their general had possessed a ‘mep’ (map) of the terrain. This was research for The Rose of Sebastopol, a novel set during the Crimean War of 1854, which follows the fictional adventures of one of Florence Nightingale’s would-be nurses.

        The point is, I can’t write about a place unless I’ve been there. There are few things in life more exciting than visiting a place that has become part of my fictional landscape. By the time I visited Balaklava, I’d half written the book. If anything, the Crimea was even more evocative and haunting than I’d imagined. Since the Crimean War, other armies had trampled through, not least the Nazis, and Balaklava Harbour had been the secret hiding place for the Cold War Russian submarine fleet. Standing in that icy wind, understanding the lie of the land, and the sheer horror of camping out on such exposed plains - with inadequate equipment and all the great coats drowned in the harbour - added a deal of poignancy to that novel.

        The Crimson Rooms was less tricky to research location-wise. I chose a little town where my family has always begun its country walks. I wanted the site of the murder (central to the plot), to be within reach of the city, but in a secluded place, and I knew just the spot. One blazing hot summer day my husband, daughter and I went on the murder walk, and paced out the logistics of the killing. And in the book you’ll find just such a baking hot day, just such potential for violence amidst a tranquil rural landscape. There are other landscapes in The Crimson Rooms straight out of my own past (though I would like to stress that the book is set in 1924 and I am not that old). The Wheelers set up their marital home in a place called Wealdstone, which is a late Victorian suburb of London, on the overground line and therefore accessible for those late nineteenth century commuters. My mother was brought up near there, and I use to live in a similar little terrace house when I was first married. And then there’s Evelyn Gifford’s much grander house in Maida Vale. Now these days, the model for that house belongs to a very dear friend of mine and it’s slap up to date. I transposed the past on it, so that Evelyn’s house is dark and run down and full of old, dusty things - and people. This is a London book, and the characters have tea in cafes and tramp the London parks. Mapping the city, following Evelyn’s footfall, was part of finding the plot. The past hovers just beyond the modern city.

        As I write, I can feel my fingers tingling. This is why I write and read historical fiction. It’s like when a modern painting has covered over an old masterpiece. Scrape away the surface, and there’s something wholly different underneath. But it was always there, so even in the modern world, the past lurks.


        The Crimson Rooms was published in trade pb by Berkley on January 4th at $15.  In the UK, it's available from Phoenix at £7.99. My review is here, if you missed it.  The Rose of Sebastopol is out in paperback from Berkley ($15.00) and Phoenix (£7.99).  At her blog, Katharine McMahon is recording the progress of her upcoming novel about the French Revolution.  Her official website is

        Monday, January 03, 2011

        Book review: The Crimson Rooms, by Katharine McMahon

        Evelyn Gifford is a trailblazer and an anomaly. In 1924, as one of the first female lawyers in England, she has finally found a position as a junior clerk, but hardly anyone takes her accomplishments seriously. A thirty-year-old spinster with few romantic prospects, she forges ahead nonetheless. Having lost her beloved brother James in the Great War, her remaining family depends on her meager income to make ends meet.

        Then Meredith Duffy, a Canadian nurse, turns up on the Giffords' London doorstep, claiming the six-year-old boy with her is James's posthumous son. She tells Evelyn that she and James met in a battlefield hospital in France shortly before he was killed. Meredith's child, Edmund, strongly resembles James, but Evelyn suspects there's more to her story. She has little time to react, however, as two new cases taken on by her firm begin heating up her professional life.

        Katharine McMahon throws numerous cards on the table at once, letting the reader feel Evelyn's adjustment to the sudden changes in her life as well as her drive to succeed in her career. An impoverished young mother is charged with abduction after reclaiming her children from their temporary home, and a middle-aged veteran, Stephen Wheeler, is accused of murdering his beautiful young wife on a weekend picnic. Evelyn believes both to be innocent, but proving neither case is easy.

        Dashing barrister Nicholas Thorne reaches out to Evelyn, offering his help, and she finds her defenses weakening. Handsome, healthy, and whole, Nicholas could have his choice of women, and Evelyn can't believe he might be interested in her. Meanwhile, bohemian and assertive Meredith - Evelyn's complete opposite - begins shaking things up at home. Her presence, along with that of her lovable son, begins lifting the Giffords out of their mourning, showing them the path back to life without their realizing it.

        Through its depiction of Evelyn and her relatives, the novel immerses the reader in the muted ambiance of postwar grief. The Giffords are one British family among many whose hopes were lost along with their young men, and they have been affected especially deeply. At the same time, McMahon thoughtfully expresses the paradoxical feelings of the nation's women, whose professional ambitions get a chance to be realized while their romantic dreams are dimmed.

        It's gratifying to observe Evelyn's growing self-confidence. She narrates the story, but through the author's careful attention to perspective, we're also privileged to see her as others do: as an attractive, vibrant, even daring woman who deserves to appreciate the power she's earned. All of the characters, even the minor ones, have hidden aspects to their personality that are just as skillfully revealed.

        The novel has the elegant craftsmanship of the best literary fiction and all the heart-pounding suspense of a courtroom thriller. The pacing is marvelous. It's tempting to want to read it slowly, but this becomes nearly impossible as Evelyn gets closer to uncovering a murderer. Multilayered, atmospheric, and emotionally gripping, The Crimson Rooms hits all the right notes. The ending, both bittersweet and satisfying, well suits these complex characters and the spirit of their times.

        The Crimson Rooms is published in trade pb by Berkley on January 4th at $15.  In the UK, it's available from Phoenix at £7.99. Katharine McMahon will be stopping by on Thursday with an excellent post about her on-site research; I hope you'll enjoy reading it as well.

        Contest opportunity:  I have a new paperback to give away to one blog reader.  Interested in reading it?  Leave a comment on this post by the end of the day Friday, January 14th.  International entrants welcome.

        Saturday, January 01, 2011

        Where I went on my winter vacation

        Happy New Year, everyone!  Here's to much more good reading in 2011.

        I've spent only a few days at work over the last two weeks, something I'll have to do more often.  Normally I get to read for only a couple hours each night, after spending the day in meetings and and teaching undergrads how to do database searches.  It's been nice to approach a novel from a relaxed frame of mind for a change.  Over break, I got to spend time traveling the world, from Australia to England to Thailand to Greece, all from the comfort of my cat hair-covered sofa.

        I started out in modern-day Australia and went back to early 20th-century Cornwall while solving the mystery of a young girl's abandonment on the Sydney docks Kate Morton's The Forgotten Garden is the type of book I prefer above all others: engrossing multi-generational sagas with a strong mystery component, the more complex the better.

        Afterward, I took a jaunt to 1920s Paris in the company of Eileen Gray, the Irish decorator whose chic furniture designs took the art world by storm.  As the ninety-year-old Eileen opens up about her private life to a modern-day journalist, they establish a tentative rapport, and both find themselves changed by their conversation.  Patricia O'Reilly dedicates her slim literary novel to the enigmatic Ms. Gray, "who, I suspect, would not approve."

        Then it was back across the Channel to Norfolk, England, in the present day, as world-famous concert pianist Julia Forrester gets drawn out of mourning when a mystery begins unfolding before her eyes.  As her grandmother reveals the story behind a long-hidden World War II-era diary, Julia learns about the troubled marriage of Olivia and Harry Crawford, the former owners of the nearby Wharton Park estate.  Julia's grandmother Elsie had served as Olivia's lady's maid until her retirement.  The action sweeps from the genteel English countryside to the heady, exotic atmosphere of Bangkok before the novel comes full circle.

        Like Forgotten Garden, Lucinda Riley's Hothouse Flower is another 600-pager (or close) and I was sorry to see it end.  The two are somewhat similar in terms of plot (family secrets from the past get unearthed by later generations) but I found them very different style-wise.  While the Morton had me on the edge of my seat, the Riley kept me comfortably settled within it, though I was just as glued to the pages.  The latter also has more of a romantic bent, and the mystery isn't as layered, though there were a few surprises I didn't see coming. [Note: The US title is The Orchid House, published in 2012 by Atria.]

        Having tackled two chunksters, I thought I'd give this doorstopper a try next.  I'd picked up an ARC at a long-ago BookExpo and felt guilty about neglecting it for so long.  So off to a magically-tinged pre-Regency England it was.

        After seventy pages, though, the story hadn't grabbed me, and my wrists were starting to sag under the weight.  This may be one for the Kindle, or to listen to on audio.  Oh well.  Two out of three ain't bad.

        My growing pile of review books was making me feel guilty by this point.  I jumped over a century ahead in time to 1920, as a series of brutal murders is stirring up fear amongst the residents of a village along the South coast of England.  I'll be posting a review of Charles Todd's A Lonely Death in the near future.

        Finally I landed in ancient Greece with Victoria Grossack and Alice Underwood's Children of Tantalus, first book in a trilogy about Niobe, Princess of Lydia.  I'm 100pp in, and so far it's a nice, easy-to-read mix of mythology and history.  Most of what I know about Niobe comes from a line in Shakespeare's Hamlet, so I'm curious to learn the rest of her tale.

        I bought this one on the strength of the author's previous novel, Iokaste (now retitled Jocasta), a prequel/retelling of the Oedipus myth from a female viewpoint. I misplaced my original copy of Iokaste so am glad it's available again.  Both are self-published PODs in English, though were picked up by a mainstream publisher in Greek translation.

        And there you have it.  Where did your vacation reading take you?