Friday, June 29, 2012

A look at 90 years of Greek history via Victoria Hislop's The Thread

In late 2010 I reviewed Victoria Hislop's The Island for the A-Z in Historical Fiction challenge. It twined through the history of Spinalonga, an isle off the Cretan coast which was kept as a leper colony, but the overall message was more uplifting than tragic.  When I learned that Hislop was returning to Greece with her newest book, The Thread, I awaited it with anticipation.  And then it was sent to me for review... a nice surprise!

Although I haven't read her middle book yet (The Return, about the Spanish Civil War) I agree with reviewers who speak of the great improvement in her writing style over time. The Thread unites her already firm storytelling skills and historical sensibility with nuanced characterizations.  It's an epic story that never drags, one full of devastation and hope - and yes, it would make a good book club choice.  Don't let this description scare you off, though.  I dislike sappy novels, and fortunately The Thread isn't one of them.

Combining a keen eye for detail with her usual fluid writing style, Hislop presents an engrossing excursion to Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest metropolis, a relatively unexplored setting for fiction. By the novel’s end, however, readers will be intimately acquainted with its troubled politics and rich cultural heritage.

The Thread begins in 1917 and spans 90 years, tracing the lives of Dimitri, son of a wealthy, coldhearted cloth merchant, and Katerina, who arrives as a child refugee from Smyrna after the Greco-Turkish War and becomes a skilled embroiderer in a Jewish family’s workshop. Circumstances place them in the same neighborhood on Irini Street, whose kindly residents make up for its lack of affluence.

Childhood friends, Dimitri and Katerina eventually fall in love and marry, an event foreshadowed by the novel’s modern frame. Their interwoven stories skillfully incorporate Greece’s Nazi occupation and civil war, in which Dimitri takes a risky antigovernment stance.

This fast-moving, touching saga about tragedy, recovery, and the real meaning of family is full of dramatic incidents demonstrating the city’s transformation and resilience.

The Thread is published in July by Harper in trade pb at $14.99 (400pp). In the UK, the publisher is Headline Review, from whom it appeared in hardcover last October; the trade pb appeared in May at £7.99. Around the same time, the author wrote an article for The Telegraph about her passion for Greece (where her books are huge bestsellers, and where The Island was adapted into a miniseries) and her sad observations on the financial crisis plaguing the country.

Portions of this post were previously published in the May 15th issue of Booklist.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Book review: The Woman at the Light, by Joanna Brady

Joanna Brady’s good-natured and satisfying first novel is set in and around Key West during its first years under American control – nearly a century before Hemingway and other literati made the sleepy little city their own.

In 1839, Emily Lowry’s husband is the caretaker of the lighthouse on Wreckers' Cay, a remote neighbor isle in southwestern Florida. When Martin fails to return from a boating trip, she and her three (soon to be four) children are left to fend for themselves.  A light-skinned black man who appears on their island months later, after escaping a Caribbean-bound slave ship, turns out to be the answer to their prayers: Andrew is polite, strong, and handy with tools.  He's not bad looking, either.

With her pregnancy far advanced, Emily shows Andrew how to tend the light that alerts ships away from the shallow waters and coral reefs.  Far from the rigid society of her New Orleans birthplace, Emily lets her guard down and allows herself to fall in love with this charismatic man while hiding him from occasional visitors and persistent would-be suitors.

Keeping to antebellum-era realities, Brady knows their peaceful idyll can’t last and throws many obstacles their way, even more than the ones you’d expect.  Some of the plot turns are fanciful, and I found myself wanting to reach back 170 years to remind idealistic Emily to be more cautious. Her openness and spunk give her an appealing personality, though, and she deserves some happiness in her life. Her narrative also reveals the full history of her marriage to Martin, which isn’t the great love match she hoped for.

Her entertaining story is filled with mystery (What really happened to Martin?  Will Andrew be discovered?  How did he make it off the ship while still in shackles?) as well as romance, episodes of tragedy, and bursts of clever humor.  Emily's children play active roles, too.  The historical details are sufficient without being overwhelming, and the novel provides an enjoyable glimpse of the 19th-century Florida Keys, with its bustling mélange of American, Bahamian, and Cuban influences. Emily sails to and tours around Cuba – how times have changed! – and its importance to Spanish industry is highlighted.

Keeping a lighthouse in top shape was a strenuous, important task, and in explaining all the work involved – climbing the many stairs, trimming the wick daily, polishing the glass, and more – Brady also honors the real-life female lightkeepers on whom Emily is modeled.

The Woman at the Light will be published by St. Martin's Press on July 3rd at $14.99/$16.99 CAN in trade paperback (322pp).  I snagged this one from LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program after reading the description and the many glowing Amazon reviews of the previous self-published edition.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Guest post from David Blixt: My Queen

Four years ago, I conducted an interview with David Blixt about his debut novel, The Master of Verona, a standout historical epic that interweaves the origins of the Capulet-Montague feud from Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet with the life of poet Dante Aligheiri in 14th-century Italy.  I published it on two separate days (see part 1 & part 2) because it was so informative and entertaining I hated to leave anything out.

As part of the interview, I asked David about Dorothy Dunnett and her influence on his work.  In his reply, he stated: "Dunnett is, to me, the pinnacle of the genre. I have never felt an emotional punch the like of hers."  In the following guest post, he expands upon that statement.

"My Queen"
by David Blixt

The Star-Cross’d series (The Master of Verona, Voice of the Falconer, and Fortune's Fool) is set in early Renaissance Italy - the world of Dante and Giotto, of Popes and Emperors, of the highest hopes for chivalry and knights, combining Shakespeare’s Italian characters with the real people of Italy. This series owes a huge debt to my wife, Jan. Not only for all her support and eagle-eyed advice. She also was the one who introduced me to the works of Dorothy Dunnett.

To me, Dunnett is the pinnacle of our genre. She touches every base, and does so with unforgettable characters, romantic settings, and history so vast and deep that one could easily drown, were her stories not so amazingly good. Jan loves to tell the story of me reading the third novel in the Lymond series, seeing what was about to happen to one of my favorite characters, and throwing the book down. For two years. I refused to let that character die. It was only my need to finish the series that brought me back again – and again. I truly adore Dunnett’s writing, her stories, her mind.

While I’ve not attempted to emulate her (a pointlessly futile effort), Dunnett is in my head whenever I have a choice to make about the action. She plays a long game, and she’s brave in what she does to her characters, the same way that George R.R. Martin is brave – no one is safe. But there’s more hope in Dunnett than in Martin, and the threads are even tighter.

Dunnett also knew what I have to constantly remind myself – research is the key. She would let herself steep in research, allowing all the elements to merge and meet, then pour them into a single chapter. I’m continually astonished when the answer to a writing problem is answered by some obscure bit of historical trivia – death doors? Saddle tricks? Deadlines? A quirk of falconry? These things have not only saved me, they’ve become lynchpins for my stories.

It was my realization that my hero was too much an Italian Francis Crawford that led to the huge reveal at the end of The Master of Verona, which was as much a surprise to me when I wrote it as it was to the many readers who’ve contacted me in a rage. Since then I’ve tried not to be so obviously influenced by her. Yet her storytelling is in my bones, the same way the stories of Colleen McCullough, Bernard Cornwell, and Rafael Sabatini are in me.

I’m drawn to grand stories, vast and world-exploring stories, tales of brilliant people in dark times. Dogged heroes struggling to maintain their integrity. Clever villains who think they’re the heroes. Intrepid soldiers and statesmen, clever and dangerous women, and a complex world where nothing is what it seems. These are the stories that I love to read, so these are the stories I try in my own humble way to write.

I hope they’re stories you’ll love to read.


The Master of Verona and its long-awaited sequels, Voice of the Falconer and Fortune's Fool, were published via Amazon Kindle in May at $2.99 apiece.  (Yes, you should read them in order, and yes, there will be more to come in the Star Cross'd series.)  Visit David Blixt's website for more on these and his other newly released novels, including Colossus: Stone and Steel, first in a new series set in Judea of 66 AD, and Her Majesty's Will, a zany Elizabethan romp which a reviewer called "Shakespeare's summer page-turner."  Looks like fun plane reading for my trip to ALA.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Bits and pieces

I'm back from BEA.  I won't be making a lengthy report, although I will say that historical fiction was out in full force, and I mailed home a large box.  It was great to meet up with many book friends and publicists, and the shelves where I keep to-be-reviewed books are full and have moved on to an overflow area.

Historical fiction shelf extravaganza!  Click to enlarge.
The books in the photo are a mix of ARCs for the Historical Novels Review (to be assigned and mailed in early July), personal review copies for the blog, recent purchases/trades, and more.  I honestly can't recall ever being so overwhelmed with literary goodness, and I haven't even shown you a photo of my desk, which has books piled 2' high around my monitor and 3' high on the floor on either side.

This was the 3rd year of the Book Blogger Con, now renamed the BEA Blogger Conference.  Although I attended in 2010 and 2011, I didn't attend this year, and from all I've been reading, this was a wise move.  My husband and I met up with my fellow HNR reviews editor Andrea Connell for dinner last Monday night at Rosa Mexicano near Union Square, and she told me about her experience.  Read her take on it at The Queen's Quill Review: Part 1 and Part 2: "Critical Reviews" Saved the Day.  Sigh.  If this is what we'll be seeing now that BEA has taken over the blogger con, I'm more likely to go to the blogger unconference than the sponsored event, if I attend at all.

Moving on from BEA:  ALA Annual is coming up in less than two weeks, so I have to get my mind in gear and think once again about hotels, shuttle buses, exhibits, panels, receptions, and my presentation.  I'll be speaking on the "Readers' Advisory for Town and Gown: Academic and Public Library Partnerships for RA Services" panel on Monday, June 25th, from 10:30-noon at the Anaheim Convention Center, Room 213D.  It got a nice preview in Library Journal. My contribution will cover my university library's popular reading collections, staff development programs I've run on readers' advisory tools, and what it's like to share a collection of OverDrive audiobooks and e-books with a consortium of mostly public libraries.

Also at ALA, on Saturday morning:  "Historical Fiction @ Your Library," which takes place from 10:30am-noon; speakers include Regina O'Melveny, Gail Tsukiyama, Jeri Westerson, and Jean Zimmerman, moderated by LJ's Barbara Hoffert.  This is the same time as the "Browsing for Pleasure in the Digital Age" readers' advisory forum, which I'd been planning to attend. Too much to do at once; this always happens.

On Monday, Mary Tod of A Writer of History interviewed me for her site on the subject of historical fiction reviewing, genre trends, why people blog about historical novels, advice for writers on marketing, and lots more.  I went on at great length in response to some of her questions, so jump on over to the site if you're curious!  The interview forms part of an interview series that Mary's conducting with bloggers and authors as a followup to her spring historical fiction survey, which garnered over 800 responses.

Last year, I wrote up a review of Dori Jones Yang's Daughter of Xanadu, a YA historical novel about the fictional granddaughter of Khubilai Khan and her romance with foreign explorer Marco Polo.  The sequel, Son of Venice, is out now.  My schedule prevents me from participating in the upcoming blog tour, but it should be worth checking out for those interested in out-of-the-ordinary settings or who simply want to read the second half of Emmajin's story.

RIP, Barry Unsworth (from the NY Times).  I had the pleasure of reviewing his The Ruby in the Navel and Land of Marvels for BooklistRuby was a quintessential example of why the 50-page rule doesn't always work!  It was an assignment (and by a former Booker winner, too), so I had to keep reading, but with pages and pages of semi-dense narrative, I was starting to wonder what the point to it all was... until the narrator's voice and story finally clicked around p.75. My review can be found on Amazon, in the Editorial Reviews section.

Finally, the Historical Novel Society has been publishing a series of essays on the 2012 Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction, which will be awarded this Saturday.  Here's the last of eight articles, which predicts the overall winner and links to the assessments of the six shortlisted works.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Guest post from Kristin Gleeson, author of Selkie Dreams: The Selkie Myth

For today's post, Kristin Gleeson has contributed an essay about the backdrop to her newly published novel Selkie Dreams (Knox Robinson, June), which mingles 19th-century Irish history, Celtic folklore and mythology, and the story of the Tlingit people of Alaska.  The book trailer at the end features the author playing the harp, while a friend contributed the vocals.

The Selkie. The name conjures up romantic images, even if you’re not quite sure what they are--seals that come ashore and take on human form at midsummer’s eve.  You can almost believe it when you look at their baleful eyes with their long lashes that look so human.  And their mournful cries that convey such sadness.  Is it a myth?  Some people, especially in times past, would have said, ‘not so.’ 

The myths of the selkie are usually found among people who inhabit the coastal waters of Scotland, Ireland and even far flung areas where the Saami (Laplanders) and the Inuit live.  One of the theories used to explain their existence is that selkies are the souls of dead fishermen and other people lost at sea. Another theory is that they are fallen angels, doomed to live out their days as animals until judgement comes; or that they are humans forced to take animal form for some grave misdemeanour. 

The various myths that feature selkies show them as either men or women who come ashore either Midsummer’s Eve, “every ninth night,” or “every seventh stream.”  I use both types of selkies in my novel, Selkie Dreams.  A myth of a woman selkie tells of a fisherman who spies a selkie woman on the shore and compels her to go with him after he steals and hides her seal skin.  She bears him a child, but eventually she finds her seal skin and she returns to the sea, leaving her child behind with the promise she will come when the child calls. 

Yer mam left but she had no choice, so,” Cook would tell me as she watched Polly, the kitchen maid, chop the vegetables, or Annie the house maid collect the tea tray.  “She went back to the sea, back to her seal folk.  They live ashore for a brief spell, following human ways, until after a while the pull from the sea comes over them, strong and forceful like.  It’s their true folk, the selkies, who call them home, so it is.” 
Excerpt from Selkie Dreams.

A male selkie myth is also a running theme in my novel and comes from the song The Silkie of Sule Skerrie, the song that frames the novel.  It tells the story of a selkie man who comes ashore and seeks out a lonely woman.  After spending only one night together the man departs and the woman spends her days searching the shoreline awaiting his return.  Eventually, after she gives birth to a son, the man appears and gives her a gold chain for the son.  Years later, when the son is seven years old, the selkie comes again to claim him.  Though she mourns her son and lover, she marries a hunter who, not long after their marriage, shoots two seals, one with a gold chain around its neck.  

With all the many versions of the myth, each contains the unmistakable theme of transformation and the idea of humanity’s unbreakable link with the sea.  That idea underpins the novel as well as the song. 

It wasn’t just the song and the myth that influenced the novel.  Though it starts out in Ireland, in the north, the main character, Máire travels to Alaska, another place that seals inhabit, to teach the Tlingit.   I was inspired to select that area and the Tlingit to set the novel from my work with the Tlingit when I was an administrator at an historical society.   A Tlingit elder phoned me and asked for help trying to prove that Tlingits inhabited a section of land in Alaska when the U.S. government appropriated it for their own uses in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  He also wanted information about some of the land assigned to Presbyterian missions that had fallen into disuse.  It seemed incredible since the archives contained so many reports and letters from that area stating the contrary.

Author Kristin Gleeson
While I worked to assist the Tlingit elder and his clan, I learned much about the Tlingit view of the effects of settlement and missionary efforts and realized how much that view was lacking from books and official records.  I was fascinated.  Some of it was heartbreaking.  Children were often ripped from their families and sent off to boarding schools.  When the children returned to their families sometimes they couldn’t even communicate with their families because they forgot the language.  It was clear that the missionaries, though often well intentioned, were driven by the idea that they were the superior culture and race and treated the native people for the most part as barbarians in need of civilizing. I’m not saying the Tlingits were peace-loving angels, but their culture at that time period I felt need to be seen in context.  What better way than through a novel?  And like my main character, Máire, the Tlingit have myths that influenced their lives and how they saw the world, it seemed a good match. Then add American mission views and racial myths and there is much to make for an exciting story.  

Selkie Dreams was published June 7, 2012, by Knox Robinson Publishing in hardback (386pp, $23.99/£19.99) and ebook and is also available from Amazon US and Amazon UK, Book Depository and the publisher’s website.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Guest post from Kate Lord Brown: Where do stories come from?

Today Kate Lord Brown is making a return visit to the blog to talk about her newly released novel, The Perfume GardenHistorical Tapestry and A Fantastical Librarian have just weighed in with their strong recommendations on the book; my own copy is en route!


Where do stories come from? With historical fiction, perhaps it seems more obvious – an event in the past, or a remarkable real-life character is often the spark for a fictional tale. The Perfume Garden interweaves a contemporary story with the Spanish Civil War, and there are certainly plenty of real events, and battles, and incredible individuals like the war photographers Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, and writers like Hemingway and Gellhorn. The inspiration for this story lies closer to home, though.

I grew up in a remote, wild part of the UK, between Exmoor and Dartmoor in the south-west of the country. Our closest neighbours were a glamorous couple, who were renting an old farmhouse. She had been a costume designer for Fellini, and he did something vague that involved lots of phone calls to Brazil. They were flamboyant, and charming, poured lethal Gin and Tonics, and told wonderful tales about how they had met in Paris. One night I overheard my father tell my mother that the husband had fought in the Spanish Civil War – on the Nationalist side.

author Kate Lord Brown
That stayed with me – the thought that someone you knew, and had liked, could have fought for the side that overthrew a democratically elected government, confused me. Were all Nationalists fascists? Were all Republicans communists? Over the years, I started reading about the war, and when I studied photography at university, I learnt about Capa, and Taro, and their remarkable work in Spain. When my husband and I ended up living in the orange groves of Valencia for three years, I found that even the younger generation quickly changed the subject if you asked them about the war. I was curious, and ten years ago started to research and write this story of a family, of a beautiful country torn apart by conflict. I hope it’s a tribute to the remarkable sacrifices ordinary people make for freedom, and the ones they love.

The Perfume Garden by Kate Lord Brown (see on Amazon UK and Goodreads) is published by Atlantic on June 1st, 2012.  Visit the author's blog at and her website,, as well as the novel's book trailer, below.