Saturday, April 30, 2011

A look at Priya Parmar's Exit the Actress

Like its vivacious heroine, Priya Parmar’s Exit the Actress arrives with none of the trappings normally associated with royal mistresses. The title and cover suggest a career woman most at home at the theatre, a description that suits Ellen Gwyn very well.

Twelve years old in 1662, Ellen grows up with an alcoholic mother in Coal Yard Alley on London’s Drury Lane, and narrowly avoids sinking into prostitution like her older sister, Rose. First an oyster girl and then an orange seller at the Theatre Royal, Ellen’s liveliness and skill in dancing are noted by members of the company, who devote time to nurturing her gifts.

Through their tutelage, Ellen develops from an uncultured girl into a talented actress. Her unfashionable red hair and bubbly outlook give her the common touch that audiences adore, especially when she’s given roles that fit her personality. Her inner circle includes the famous names of the day – John Dryden, the Earl of Rochester, Peg Hughes – and she has liaisons with two suitors. However, no man seems worthy of her until she attracts the notice of Charles II. Like Ellen, he keeps his most private self offstage.

Interspersed with Ellen’s diary entries are short sections that replicate primary sources of the day: personal notes, recipes, broadsheet columns, memoranda, and other announcements. Taken together they form a sweeping portrait of the Restoration era, from the playhouses to the intrigue-filled royal court, and from the Second Anglo-Dutch War through the Great Fire and after. Through Ellen’s eyes, we get her gossipy impressions of Barbara Castlemaine, the king’s grasping longtime mistress, and of his barren Portuguese queen, who she comes to admire rather than pity.

Ellen’s early life couldn’t be more distant from that of Queen Henrietta Maria, writing advice-filled letters to her son and daughter, but her world and the royal family’s world gradually intersect. Parmar lets us observe Ellen’s transformation through her narration, which adjusts as she grows in sophistication and confidence. Her famous wit may seem lacking early on, but it emerges later in the story.

Some of the middle sections move more slowly than the rest, and some of the fonts used in the book are too small or ornate to invite close reading, but all in all it’s a most enjoyable novel. Whether or not you believe the real Nell Gwyn would have been a devoted journal writer, it’s an imaginative re-creation, an engaging portrait of a vibrant young woman and the age in which she lived.

Exit the Actress was published by Touchstone/Simon & Schuster in February at $16.00 ($18.99 in Canada).  Trade pb, 446pp.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Daughters of Summer

Or, a visual preview of the spring/summer season, part one...

This debut romantic novel set in Restoration London, a glorious city about to be invaded by the plague, stars Susannah Leyton, daughter of a Fleet Street apothecary. A surprising marriage proposal rescues her from an unpleasant family situation but causes other problems.  Piatkus (UK), August.

Does 1968 count as historical for you?  I wasn't around then, so it does for me.  This debut novel by a prizewinning short story writer takes place at a New England prep school which, through a clerical mistake, enrolls its first female student - a brilliant black teenager. Knopf, June.

The title of Dennis's 18th-century romantic adventure derives from Alfred Noyes's poem "The Highwayman," and the plot retells the story in epic fashion.  The heroine, Elizabeth "Bess" Wyndham, is a writer of Gothic novels who meets a man remarkably like one of her books' characters.  First pb release of a novel previously published for the library market. Sourcebooks, August.

This debut novel by a Midwestern academic takes me back to my old stomping grounds of southern New England.  In Warwick, Rhode Island, in the summer of 1934, Anne Dodge comes face to face with her Portuguese heritage and the truth about her parents' marriage.  Overlook, July.

This lengthy saga is the product of AmazonEncore, a bookseller imprint specializing in identifying highly-rated self-published works and reissuing them for a wider market.  It spans four generations of Vietnamese women - a royal concubine and her descendants - throughout the 20th century.  A copy arrived in my mail last week. AmazonEncore, April.

Fiorato writes lyrical historical fiction about strong women from Italian history.  Her latest takes place (per the title) in Siena in the early 18th century, at the time of the Palio - the city's famous horse race.  Can I just say I want this gown for myself (the color is perfect) and the book itself is gorgeous - it's on my pile to review. St. Martin's Griffin, May.

Green's Daughters of War is first in a new trilogy about nurses during WWI; in the Balkans, two young women render aid on the battlefield and discover unexpected romance.  Severn House, August.

From the title, you'll have guessed this YA historical novel centers around witches. In 16th-century Somerset, a servant girl at Montacute House is accused of witchcraft following the disappearance of several boys from her village.  Hyperion, April.

The story of Abigail Lovell, a young woman in Revolutionary-era Boston, who goes to great lengths (even defying her Loyalist father) to aid the American rebellion.  The blurb compares it to Sally Gunning's Bound, which is enough to get me to pay attention.  Pegasus, September.

The girl in the green dress is Bertha, orphaned daughter of Emma Bovary, who leaves her grandmother's farm in the French countryside to make a new life for herself in high-society Paris, as the apprentice to fashion designer Charles Frederick Worth.  Bantam, August.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Book review: The Bride's House, by Sandra Dallas

Sandra Dallas is a bestselling novelist whose works, puzzlingly, always seemed to have greater appeal to mainstream readers than to fans of her chosen genre of historical fiction. When I saw her latest novel come up for review on LibraryThing, I figured it was time I picked up one of her books and learned what I’d been missing.

A sweeping novel of family ties, long-held secrets, and the continuing search for love, The Bride’s House tells of three women linked by blood, circumstance, and the large white Victorian house in Georgetown, Colorado, that becomes home for each in turn. Though very different personality-wise, all are plain-spoken, tenacious, and eager to please, and all struggle to find happiness.

For Nealie Bent, a 17-year-old runaway whose striking looks and vibrant personality attract the eye of local miners, the newly built residence symbolizes her desire to rise above her status as a hired girl at a Georgetown boardinghouse in 1880. She has her choice of men, preferring sophisticated engineer Will Spaulding over uncouth yet reliable Charlie Dumas (and who wouldn’t, at seventeen?). Her choice, combined with Will’s subsequent betrayal of her, is the novel’s most predictable aspect.

Pearl, a shy and plain spinster of 30 in the year 1912, is adored by her wealthy father, who relies on her so heavily that he chases away potential suitors. Her decision to pursue a romance with a handsome businessman sets father and daughter against one another and transforms her life – not necessarily for the better.

And for 18-year-old Susan, an heiress growing up in 1950s-era Chicago, the Bride’s House brings back memories of childhood summers in the mountains, a time of intense peer pressure and her growing love for a neighborhood boy with big dreams. Outside politics don't play a strong role except in this section, which is set against the backdrop of the Korean War.

While the characters are recognizable types, and sometimes behave in frustrating ways – the devoted family housekeeper despairs of Pearl’s excessive timidity, too – they still have many surprises in store. The flowing style drew me in, and the emotional shifts in the plot had a way of raising my spirits then filling them with sorrow moments later.

The women’s choices are driven not just by their temperament but also by their social and financial situations and the prevailing mores of the time. “Georgetown doesn’t seem like a place where conventions matter much,” Will tells Nealie early on, but that’s never exactly true. Over the next 70 years, as rough-and-tumble shacks give way to elegant homes, the demand for silver rises and falls, and mining towns become ghost towns and then tourist attractions, attitudes loosen in some ways but not others.

As Dallas reveals in the acknowledgments, the novel’s centerpiece is based on a house that the she and her husband bought as a derelict and restored to its former glory. Her affection for it and for the region as a whole is ever-present; Georgetown, with its distinctive mountain charm, is not just a haven for fortune-seekers but also for dreamers and anyone looking to start anew.

With all three strands woven together, The Bride’s House became a more complex story than I expected from such a straightforward telling. A comfortable novel about women’s lives, it will resonate strongly with female readers, who will take away from it the pervading theme of how we’re all shaped by our circumstances but shouldn’t be defined by them.

The Bride's House will be published by St. Martin's Press on April 26th (this coming Tuesday) in hardcover at $24.99/$28.99 in Canada (352pp).

Friday, April 15, 2011

Book review: The Bonus, by Georgia Lowe

Georgia Lowe's debut novel The Bonus shines light on a pivotal and regrettably obscure event from the Depression era. In 1932, over 20,000 destitute and desperate WWI veterans banded together to persuade the government to pay their wartime service bonuses early. Calling themselves the Bonus Expeditionary Force, they arrived from all over the U.S. to converge on the nation’s capital and sway public opinion in their favor.

Lowe incorporates multiple viewpoints, primarily that of Will Hardy, a reporter assigned to cover the story for the Los Angeles Herald Express, and his girlfriend Bonnie, a statuesque red-headed starlet. Because the LA-based contingent to Washington is led by disabled actor Royal Robertson, Will wonders if their cause is a publicity stunt, but he’s soon persuaded of the rightness of their journey – even though going along with them as a journalist makes him uneasy. A veteran hit with occasional shell-shock, Will doesn't want any reminders of his army days. Bonnie returns to her career after Will leaves, but she misses him terribly, even though she’s confused about his feelings for her. Disillusioned with Hollywood, and eager to help her friend Myrna leave a bad situation, the women set out to find him - and find help along the way.

DC police superintendent Pelham Glassford gets his tale told, too. Based on past experience, he expects President Hoover to be sympathetic to the marchers, but he isn't. As thousands of hungry, determined, and unkempt veterans and their families settle into Washington, a “ragtag army invasion from a forgotten war,” Glassford does what he can to ensure they're given shelter and fed, though the feds aren't on his side. The Senate rejects the Bonus Bill passed by the House, rumors are spread about the veterans’ Communist beliefs (mostly untrue), and Hoover calls in the army – under General MacArthur – to clear out their makeshift campsites. It’s not a pretty scene.

Not just a vivid portrait of the unrest stirring in Washington, The Bonus also invites readers to take a firsthand look at the hopeless conditions throughout Depression-era America. Lowe re-creates the times with a sure hand: the blistering heat as the caravan of dying vehicles passes through Arizona in June, farm families evicted from their land in Dust Bowl Oklahoma, and veterans living in railway boxcars since they have nowhere else to go. The poverty hasn't affected downtown LA nearly as much, although the traffic there is horrendous.  Some things never change.

The dialogue is pulpy and casual, peppered with coarse and authentic slang. (Newspapers are “Hoover blankets,” for one, which pretty well shows what people thought of Hoover.) As the plot breezes along, readers get to absorb the plight of female vets and Americans of mixed race through the clever placement of minor characters. A sweet love story, a wrenching social drama, and a vigorous defense of First Amendment rights, The Bonus is especially good at showing the strong bonds that develop between people when their luck is down. These downtrodden citizens epitomize the spirit of America better than their elected government does.

Toward the end, the main plotline sometimes gets buried in the mechanics of the political machine Glassford has to push through.  Overall, however, Lowe successfully transforms scenes from faded black and white photographs into living, breathing color. Will and Bonnie are based on her parents, who were Bonus Marchers, and with her entertaining and enlightening novel, she has done justice to their story.

The Bonus was published by Lucky Dime Press in Oct 2010 at $18.95 (pb, 398pp).

Monday, April 11, 2011

International book pile

I'm taking a break from the controlled chaos known as National Library Week to finish writing up a post I've had in draft since mid-March (ack).

Over the last little while, I've had some book purchases arrive at my door, and I hope to showcase more of these in upcoming posts.  The historical novels in the pile below come from around the world, five of them via English translations. I didn't have to travel far to get them, though; all were bought from Amazon US with the exception of the Haasse and Falcones, which came from Book Depository.

Sally Armstrong's The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor (Vintage Canada, 2008) is historically-based fiction written by the title character's 3x-great granddaughter.  Armstrong imagines her ancestor's life, tracing her journey from 1775 England to the West Indies to northern New Brunswick, where she takes refuge with the Mi'kmaq.  The cover says "national bestseller," so Canadian readers will likely know it already, though I just discovered it recently.

I finished Oliver Pötzsch's The Hangman's Daughter (AmazonCrossing, 2010) two days ago.  Who'd have thought a 400-page historical mystery set in a small town in 17th-c Bavaria would be a bestseller in America?  It's published by AmazonCrossing, Amazon's new imprint for translated fiction, and I understand they've been advertising it to Kindle readers... so the word has spread quickly.  It's proved so popular that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has snapped up print rights to it and its three sequels, for publication beginning this August. In his tale of serial murder and supposed witchcraft in 1659 Schongau, the author keeps a steady balance between the setting's grim reality and the warm-hearted humanity of his main characters.  First published in Germany in 2008.

Margaret Sweatman's The Players (Goose Lane, 2009) is another Canadian find, "a voyage of discovery straddling libertine Restoration England and Canada's northern wilds" that follows actress Lilly Cole from the English stage across the Atlantic. The 17th-century is one of my favorite periods to read about, and this looked like a new perspective on the era.

We're moving into doorstop territory now.  Lin Zhe's Old Town (AmazonCrossing, 2010) is another book from the online bookseller's translation imprint.  To select titles for its catalog, Amazon looks at bestselling titles from its international stores and, based on their contents and ratings, decides which are likely to succeed as English translations.  Lin Zhe is described as "one of China's foremost authors," and this is her saga covering a century of change in that country over three generations.  I love long novels with family trees, and based on the two printed in the first few pages, Old Town looks to have a lot of personality.  There's an "Eldest Sister" who marries a guy named "Rotten Egg" Zhang, and under the name of "Second Son," there's a note that says "ran off with prostitute."  I look forward to reading their stories.

It's been over ten years since I've had the pleasure of reading one of Hella Haasse's novels; unfortunately I'm not fluent in Dutch.  Her In a Dark Wood Wandering, set in 15th-c France, is a favorite, though I admit I never got on well with her Threshold of Fire (5th-c Rome).  The Tea Lords (Portobello, 2010) is set amidst the Dutch colonial experience in the East Indies in the early years of the 20th century.  First published in Dutch in 1992. That's a very long time to wait for a translation, though at least we got one.

Dalene Matthee was a well-known South African writer, and her Pieternella, Daughter of Eva (Penguin  South Africa, 2008) tells the story of the first white settlement in the Cape of Good Hope.  Pieternella was a mixed-race child, the daughter of a Dutch surgeon and a woman of the Hottentot tribe, and Matthee's novel is based on a true story.  See the author's website for more. This is a translation from Afrikaans.

The nearly 900-page The Hand of Fatima (Doubleday UK, 2011) is Spanish writer Ildefonso Falcones's latest novel, following his bestseller Cathedral of the Sea.  I'm probably crazy buying a novel this long, given my growing TBR pile, but I couldn't resist a novel set in the Kingdom of Granada in 1564, about the extended conflict between the Moors and Christians.  I had this on preorder from Book Depository for nearly a year, and it finally arrived last week.

Sorry if you're seeing a duplicate post in your RSS reader.  This posted once before I was done writing!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Beloved Dead giveaway winner

I have a longer post in the works, but without further delay, it's time to announce the winner of the latest giveaway.

Congratulations to Heather, winner of Tony Hays's The Beloved Dead and the two previous books in the series.  Happy reading -- I hope you'll enjoy them!

Monday, April 04, 2011

Book review: The Confession of Katherine Howard, by Suzannah Dunn

Suzannah Dunn’s The Confession of Katherine Howard, a swift-moving story of friends-turned-frenemies in Tudor England, looks at Henry VIII’s fifth wife from the viewpoint of her companion and lady-in-waiting, Cat Tilney.

The story of Katherine’s downfall is widely known. There are a few reasons to consider reading a novel with a familiar plotline: if it offers intriguing characterizations, presents a fresh perspective, or is written in a way that strikes an authentic note. Dunn accomplishes two out of the three, resulting in a lively and rich tale that still ends up feeling hollow.

Framed by Cat’s account of how Katherine’s indiscretions are discovered, in November 1541, the bulk of the novel looks back on their shared adolescence. Fittingly for Katherine’s personality, it’s divided into three sections – each corresponding to one of her sexual conquests. These are Henry Madox, her music teacher; Francis Dereham, a family friend who becomes her first real lover; and Thomas Culpeper, a handsome, snobbish nobleman.

With her breezy style, Dunn captures the lax atmosphere of their years spent in the household of Agnes Howard, Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, a rich distant relative of Cat’s, and the step-grandmother of Katherine (or Kate, as she’s called). Kate is a mature girl of twelve whose worldly attitude is assumed, but it makes her the unofficial leader of their little group. At Horsham in Sussex, they live in giddy isolation and ignorance, spending their days gossiping rather than in book learning, and forming liaisons with attractive men.

Eventually they’re relocated to Lambeth Palace, across the river from the king’s residence at Whitehall – the perfect launch point for the ambitious Howards, who are eager to return to power following the disgrace of their late niece, Anne Boleyn. Kate is quick to dump Francis after her family secures a place for her as one of Anne of Cleves’s ladies, whereupon Cat takes up with him herself. (Their relationship is fictional.)

Cat’s narration is casual and modern, full of would’ve and should’ve and d’you think?, much as you'd find in a contemporary YA novel. It suits these characters well. Gorgeous as they are, the lush descriptions in the first few pages – “England: firelight and fireblush; wine-dark, winking gemstones and a frost of pearls… satins glossy like a midsummer midnight or opalescent like winter sunrise” – feel out of place in contrast.

Kate, for all her claims to wisdom, is rather dim, convinced that the king’s infatuation with her will continue – even going so far as to sleep with Culpeper (with bed-thumping intensity) in her rooms at the palace. Cat, for her part, keeps insisting that “Little Kate Howard” was “just a girl” and “nobody much”… a typical nineteen-year-old who was doing a “perfect job” as queen until she was unlucky enough to get caught. The reader knows better. Kate, after all, is someone who describes the king as “good fun” after their first meeting, even knowing he had her cousin executed. And when tensions run high, Cat and Kate look to save themselves and their lovers rather than each other… such is what passes for friendship in the ruthless Tudor era, it seems.

Nobody comes out a winner here, except perhaps master manipulator Archbishop Cranmer – something everyone knows from the beginning. The problem is that the girls’ naiveté makes them more pitiable than sympathetic, and Kate’s bitchiness – which could have livened up the action – is seen only from the sidelines. It's plenty entertaining, and as a portrait of the times, it feels depressingly realistic, but don’t look for characters to admire or care about. As a result, rather than a heartrending tragedy about a wronged woman, the novel reads like a sad account of the inevitable.

The Confession of Katherine Howard is published April 5th by Harper Paperbacks at $14.99 (307pp).  It was previously published by HarperCollins UK.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Historical fiction award news

A few historical fiction award winners and nominees have been announced in recent days.

Lucia St. Clair Robson's Last Train from Cuernavaca (Forge, 2010) is the winner of the 2010 Spur Award for Best Western Long Novel.  Last Train tells the story of two women, one Mexican and one English, caught up in the Mexican Revolution of 1910-20.

For Best Western Short Novel, the winner was Richard S. Wheeler's Snowbound (Forge, 2010), biographical fiction about John Charles Frémont and his fourth expedition, when he was trapped in the Colorado mountains during the winter of 1848-49.

The Spurs are awarded for excellence in Western writing by Western Writers of America.  See their site for more information as well as the finalists.

The winner of the Bruce Alexander Memorial Historical Mystery award was announced last week at the Left Coast Crime convention.  Kudos to Jacqueline Winspear, who took home the prize with her seventh Maisie Dobbs mystery, The Mapping of Love and Death (Harper, 2010). This award is given to the best historical mystery novel (pre-1950 setting).

Finally, the shortlist for the 2nd Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction was announced yesterday:

Andrea Levy, The Long Song (Headline Review and FSG)
Tom McCarthy, C (Jonathan Cape and Knopf)
David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (Sceptre and Random House)
Joseph O'Connor, Ghost Light (Harvill Secker and FSG)
C J Sansom, Heartstone (Mantle and Viking)
Andrew Williams, To Kill a Tsar (John Murray - no US publisher).

More details at The Bookseller. The winner will be announced on June 18th, as part of the Borders Book Festival in Melrose, Scotland. (Melrose is a town in the Scottish Borders; the festival has nothing to do with the ill-fated bookseller.)