Monday, December 31, 2012

2012: Reflections on a year of reading

So here we are on the last day of 2012.  Unlike other bloggers, I won't be posting a Top 10 list for the year; I tried coming up with one, but I was unable to narrow it down past 16 or 17 titles, which all stood out for different reasons, and many of which were previously reviewed on this site.

I've been tracking my books on Goodreads (please follow or friend me there if you'd like!) and had set myself a goal of 85 books for 2012.  Until this recent holiday break, I wasn't sure if I'd make it, but a last-minute reading sprint put me over the top at 89.  With the library closed over most of the last two weeks, I haven't done much aside from read, proofread (the Historical Novels Review's Feb reviews are due soon), eat, sleep, and write.  With some shopping and one very slow day at the reference desk mixed in.  I wrote up four reviews for HNR, mostly of UK titles I'd bought and which the publishers didn't send, and will be reprinting them here after they're published in February.  It's been nice... I don't usually have this much time available at a single stretch.

During the last year, I completed the Chunkster Challenge with many titles to spare - at least a dozen in all. Although I don't plan to sign up again next year (I want to give myself a break!) I thoroughly enjoyed participating and am pretty amazed I managed to get so many 450-plus page books read.

I've also gone back and forth about activating/deactivating the captcha for blog comments.  Personally I think it's a pain, but I turned it off for a time and was getting dozens of spam comments a day.  It was too much, so I added it back (sorry; I hope people will still comment anyway).

Instead of publishing a Top 10 (or Top 17 or whatever) list, I thought I'd mention some novels I read in 2012 and didn't end up reviewing here, but which I'd highly recommend:

Enid Shomer, The Twelve Rooms of the Nile.  I reviewed this for Booklist; it's an exquisitely written intellectual adventure about Florence Nightingale, Gustave Flaubert, and what might have happened had they met while journeying down the Nile separately in 1850.

Amanda Coplin, The Orchardist. Set at the turn of the 20th century on a large orchard in central Washington State, "Coplin’s mesmerizing debut stands out with its depictions of uniquely Western personalities and a stark, gorgeously realized landscape that will settle deeply into readers’ bones" (quoting from my Booklist review).

Selden Edwards' The Lost Prince, which I also covered for Booklist. The entire review isn't online, but it's a very worthy sequel to his excellent, time-bending The Little Book. From my review:  "Moving from America’s Gilded Age through WWI’s aftermath in Europe, Edwards’ delightfully imaginative second novel follows a courageous woman’s singular accomplishments and their far-reaching effects on history."

James Long, The Lives She Left Behind.  If you read and loved Ferney but haven't picked up the sequel yet, what are you waiting for?  It continues the story of Gally, Ferney, and Mike some 16 years later, answering the question posed by the final, devastating line of the first book (the title is apropos).  I won't say more than that, other than I felt badly for Mike, finding himself enmeshed once again in the same painful triangle, but it's a very satisfying read. 

Christopher Tilghman's The Right-Hand Shore. In 1920, a prospective heir to Mason's Retreat, a once-prosperous Maryland estate, learns about his distant relatives, the Masons and Baylys, and their complex relationship with the land and the black families who lived and worked alongside them over the previous 60 years.  Beautiful and elegiac, it addresses the perennial topic of race relations in American history but is not your typical plantation novel.  You don't need to have read Mason's Retreat first (this is a prequel)I hadn'tbut it's on my list now.

What's up for next year?  Well, I've nearly made it through the to-be-reviewed pile, at last, but plan to approach the next year somewhat differently... reviewing more of my own books and making requests from publishers myself.  I also hope to diversify my selections, featuring more books set outside Europe and America, and from non-Western writers.  I have the 12 titles from the TBR Challenge to look forward to, and I'm also debating doing something for Small Press Month in March, maybe focusing on reviews of small press titles.

What books are you looking forward to the most in 2013?  If you need ideas, check out the Historical Novel Society's forthcoming books list, newly updated through next fall (compiled by me and Sarah Cuthbertson).

Thanks for following this blog and reading along with me over the last year!  I wish you the very best for 2013, with lots of good reading ahead.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Book review: May the Road Rise Up to Meet You, by Peter Troy

A stirring chronicle of the historical American quest for freedom, Peter Troy’s May the Road Rise Up to Meet You – taking its name from the Irish blessing – stitches together the experiences of four individuals from dissimilar backgrounds whose paths cross, and whose futures are determined, during the U.S. Civil War.

Part One opens with 12-year-old Ethan McOwen, whose Mam and Aunt Em send him to join his Da and brother Seanny in New York after the death of his older, beloved sister Aislinn in Ireland's County Fermanagh during the famine year of 1847. His traveling alone overseas under harrowing conditions earns him instant sympathy and admiration, and his clear love for books should endear him to readers even more. A decade and more after his arrival, having survived lower Manhattan's rough Five Points neighborhood, he joins his friends as a proud member of the Union’s Irish Brigade and achieves recognition as a war photographer.

Micah learns about life’s unfairness as a young man as well. Sold away from his family and shipped off to Charlottesville, his purported inheritance forgotten, he chafes under a cruel master who works him like a mule, as he says. His carpentry skills gain him local renown but are constantly exploited.

Mary Wilkens, a former runaway slave from North Carolina, is grateful to be bought by a prominent family from Richmond, where she becomes an expert seamstress and companion to their spoiled but sweet daughter. Mary's talent and elegance make her an ornament of the Kittredges’ shop, but, in keeping with the times, she knows when to adapt a field hand’s vernacular when necessary.

Marcella Arroyo joins the picture over 100 pages into the book but makes a strong impression with a suitably grand entrance. A society girl from Madrid whose family is tarnished by scandal, she is a clever card sharp who spends her winnings on the abolitionist movement, and who addresses her innermost thoughts to her late Abuela in a private notebook.

Each protagonist is distinct and, more importantly, has an interesting personality. These are people you’ll want to get to know. Their separate stories, which gradually intertwine, combine the liveliness of traditional Irish storytelling with the forthright authenticity of the slave narrative. What’s more, the text reflects the patterns of each character’s speech. It feels somewhat forced in the earliest pages, when Ethan is still a boy:

For several days in a row now, they put what remained of their hope into the soil, plantin’ the few sprouts they had, touchin’ them with the beads while reciting a rosary and askin’ the Blessed Virgin to protect this year’s crop.

After a time, however, it comes to feel natural and actually becomes more so the more pronounced it is – as is the case in the sections on Micah and Mary, with their African-American Southern dialects.

The plot rumbles along smoothly, the scope is vast – spanning 20 years from beginning to end – and the history feels vivid and clear. What’s particularly impressive, though, is how Peter Troy draws readers into his story through a masterful use of perspective. The viewpoints wrap around you and turn themselves inside out, so that without your knowing exactly how it happened, you find yourself inhabiting each character’s skin: marching with the Grand Army and firing a musket at an enemy Reb, assisting with an amputation as a battlefield nurse, and hiding your true feelings from the Kittredges while planning to run away with the handsome carpenter you love.

As you might expect, the four gradually form two couples. The novel follows them on each step of their poignant journeys toward love; after they’ve finally found some measure of liberty, it takes courage to place their future happiness in the hands of someone else.

Although filled with depictions of oppression and intense hardship and set partly during wartime, the overarching tone is persistently hopeful; the protagonists are good, honest people who are always striving for something more. Their personal stories are spread out against a wide canvas showcasing mid-19th century society and politics. Inspirational fiction in the best sense of the term, this fulfilling saga that celebrates the bonds between diverse people is an excellent choice for fans of classic American stories.

May the Road Rise Up to Meet You was published in trade paperback by Anchor in November 2012 ($15.95/C$18.95, 512pp).  The hardcover is also available (Doubleday, $26.95/C$32.00, 386pp).

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Guest post from Susan Sherman: Grandma Was a War Hero

Please help me welcome Susan Sherman to the blog.  Her debut novel, The Little Russian, published in paperback by Counterpoint this month ($15.95, 352pp), is based on her grandmother's life.  She has contributed a wonderful essay about how she uncovered details through personal research and family stories and transformed them into compelling fiction.

A genealogy buff myself, I'm always interested in hearing about novels based on family history, and I'd be putting The Little Russian on the TBR even if I didn't count early 20th-century Ukrainian Jews among my ancestors. Like many others, I know little about what their lives were like in the old country.  As Susan writes below, "We are a nation of immigrants," which is very true.  Novels such as this can help us get a better picture of what they achieved.

I hope you'll enjoy her post.  Visit her website at for more information.


Grandma Was a War Hero
Susan Sherman

For years I wanted to write my grandmother’s story. It was a natural for a novel: a young Jewish woman and her two children caught in Ukraine at the beginning of World War I, her desperate struggle to stay alive through the Russian Revolution and the civil war that followed, and her eventual escape across Ukraine to Poland. Yes, it was daunting to write about Russia; to become intimate with Ukraine during that period; to know what if felt like to live through those seminal events, especially as a Jew living in the Pale. I thought that if I were ever going to write this story, I’d better get on with it. My father and his one remaining brother were getting on. Time was running out. Since my grandmother didn’t leave a diary or letters or any other record, only they had the story or so I thought.

Like families everywhere, mine has certain traditions that are faithfully followed. They aren’t religious or philosophical in nature, but are small events, designed to bring people together. For example, every spring we meet at my house for a family reunion. Over Jewish comfort food, we get caught up, share photos and argue about politics. About eight years ago, at one of these reunions, I asked for details about grandma’s story. What I got was a barrage of conflicting accounts. Everyone had their own version, and everyone thought their version was the real one. My father believed that my grandmother went to live with distant relatives in Moscow at an early age. They were wealthy industrialists, who raised her as one of their own, educated her and taught her to be a lady. In my uncle’s version, she went to work in one of their factories, never received an education, and ended up barely able to read and write.

I decided to use my father’s version, mainly because I thought it would make a better story, and because it’s the version my grandmother would have chosen. My grandmother, like my protagonist Berta Alshonsky, was concerned with appearances. She would’ve been disappointed if I had portrayed her as an illiterate factory worker in a sugar refinery. According to her, she was educated. She read Goethe, Turgenev and Tolstoy. She could speak French, although I never heard her speak a word of it. The truth was my grandmother was a storyteller herself. She never let the truth get in the way of a good story, which is probably why there are so many versions of her life floating around my family today.

My main concern in writing the novel was telling a good story, not worrying about facts. In that way I guess I’m like my grandmother. I spent the next three years researching life in Russia and Ukraine. Eventually, I got to a place where I felt more at home in 19th century Cherkast then in Los Angeles. It was true that some of the elements of my story came directly from my research, but mostly my reading only served to confirm my grandmother’s story. There actually were thousands of Jewish peddlers on the road during the Russian Civil War. War communism was real. When she feared for her life because she was a peddler, engaged in private enterprise, and could be shot for it--well, all that happened. There were so many details of my grandmother’s life that I thought were exaggerated or invented, so many elements that seemed exotic or unreal, that when I did the research and found out they were true, it was a real awakening.

What I came away with, after all my research, was that my grandmother was an amazing woman. She had to have been in order to survive those times. I only knew her as the carefully coiffed blue hair bobbeh wearing her mink stole even on the hottest days. She was grandma, cooking all day for Passover dinners, dispensing hard candies to her grandchildren and admonishing us we went out without a sweater. I never knew she spent years scrambling for food and medicine, roaming the Ukrainian countryside trading beads for pig bristles and flax, so she could trade them in town for food. Each day she went out on the road despite the various factions who threatened the Jews: the Green Army of the Ukrainian nationalists, the Black Army of the Anarchists and the various hetman and their bands. She protected her children against the White Army and the Reds, while somehow managing to keep them alive despite the hunger, cold, and pogroms. In other words, my bobbeh was a war hero.

Traveling here and there to literary festivals, libraries, bookstores and book groups, I meet people all the time with family histories of their own. From every generation, from all over the globe come stories of men and women struggling to make a better life for succeeding generations. We are a nation of immigrants. We all come from somewhere else…and we all have heroes in our family.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

An interview with Alana White, author of The Sign of the Weeping Virgin

Today I'm pleased to bring you an interview with my friend Alana White, whose debut historical mystery The Sign of the Weeping Virgin (Five Star, Dec. 2012) has been meeting with critical acclaim.  Publishers Weekly noted her "sure-handed storytelling and scrupulous research into the period," while Kirkus, in a starred review, wrote that "One hopes that White's clever tale, meticulously researched and pleasingly written, is the first in a series that will bring Florence and its many famous denizens to life."

Set in the dazzling cultural mecca of Florence, Italy, in the late 15th century, it introduces an intriguing protagonist, Guid'Antonio Vespucci, who is charged with solving two mysterious happenings in his city: the kidnapping of a young woman, and the reasons why a painting of the Virgin Mary in his family church has been seen shedding real tears.  It's a troubled time for Guid'Antonio's beloved Florence, with its predominant statesman, Lorenzo de' Medici, at war with Pope Sixtus and its citizens blaming Lorenzo for their excommunication.

Alana will be touring with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours in February, so follow along with the participating blogs to learn more.  I hope you'll enjoy this interview. 

Guid’Antonio Vespucci played a major role in the political life of Renaissance Florence, but he isn’t as well-known as his explorer nephew, Amerigo, or Florence’s unelected but de facto leader, Lorenzo de’Medici. What convinced you to make him your main character?

Several things. Most importantly, I knew I wanted to write a character-driven story. While Guid'Antonio was an outstanding personality in Renaissance Florence, both as a lawyer and government leader and as Lorenzo de' Medici's ally and friend, he has remained a step back in the shadows, a pace behind the famous painters, philosophers, and poets of late fifteenth-century Florence. Thus, I felt I had space to create a story with him at its heart, filling in the unknown places, and giving him a private life, while drawing upon the facts surrounding his documented power and prestige. I felt I had the freedom to create a good, but haunted, inner man, one whose driving passion is to protect his family and Florence from their enemies at all costs.

I was equally drawn to the fact he was a lawyer. He is not an amateur or armchair detective. He is given court cases and represents clients, but he also investigates matters of a private nature. In Weeping Virgin, accompanied by Amerigo, Guid'Antonio walks down dark alleys where other men won't go.

Guid'Antonio Vespucci, detail from
Ghirlandaio's Calling of the Apostles
It appealed to me, too, that the "real" Guid'Antonio was a complex and good man; people respected and feared him (he was a powerful opponent of Savonarola, for example, and did everything in his power to rid Florence of that fiery preacher). Thanks to a bit of magic that happened when I discovered Ghirlandaio's image of Guid'Antonio painted on the Sistine Chapel wall, he is completely real to me. There he stands: silver-haired, wearing his flowing, crimson cloak. He is so handsome! And he is about forty-four, just the right age for my proper, but passionate, protagonist.

Your passion for the Italian Renaissance, in Florence especially, comes through loud and clear. What draws you to this setting?

Years ago, when I first read of the attempt in 1476 to assassinate Lorenzo and Giuliano de' Medici in Florence Cathedral during Easter Sunday Mass, I was intrigued. I read all the books I could find on the event. The more I read about the Medici family and their circle of friends, the more my fascination with them grew.

Here were the lives of the rich and famous: Leonardo da Vinci, Toscanelli, and Sandro Botticelli, with Sandro's paintings of breathtakingly beautiful young women and men. They all knew one another, loved and lost one another. Fought one another. They are all forever linked, and many of them are portrayed in the artwork of the day, making them real to us, almost six centuries later. That is what first drew me to this setting: the people, and here I remain, among them and their amazing individual stories.

While reading, I got an excellent sense of the layout of 15th-century Florence – the churches, City Hall, the Vespucci Palace and tradesmen’s workshops on Borg’Ognissanti, the Prato Gate, and even nearby villages. I got the feeling you must have meandered down the city’s streets numerous times yourself. What are your favorite places to visit there?

Ah, there's a lovely question! Guid'Antonio and Amerigo's family church, Ognissanti (All Saints) crowns the top of my list. I feel close to them there; the church is quiet, with relatively few tourists. As in Weeping Virgin, Botticelli's Saint Augustine is on the south wall, opposite Ghirlandaio's Saint Jerome—when these two frescoes are not traveling to art museums around the world. On the same street, Borg'Ognissanti, are the former Vespucci hospital (still a hospital today) and palace (which is not open).

Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence
I also like the Medici Chapel in Palazzo Medici Riccardi, where Benozzo Gozzoli's frescoes light the walls. A key scene unfolds there between Guid'Antonio and Lorenzo de' Medici's mother, Lucrezia Tornabuoni, who was in her day a well-known poet. In the Tuscan town of Impruneta, the painting of the Virgin Mary that plays a vital role in the book remains on display. I had a lovely "chat" with the priest there one day, in passionate, if broken, English and Italian! Impruneta is outside Florence; to go there and see the Virgin Mary of S. Maria Impruneta requires transportation—and she (the painting!) is not always on display. I don't want to omit the town of Vinci, Leonardo's birthplace. It is one of the most beautiful places in the world. As Amerigo says to Guid'Antonio: "No wonder Leonardo could paint!"

The Sign of the Weeping Virgin doesn’t begin as a typical historical mystery, since Guid’Antonio is charged with investigating the truth behind a weeping painting and a young woman's abduction rather than solving a murder. It made for a refreshing change. Did you set out to take a nontraditional approach to the genre?

Oh, my, no. After all the research and planning, it just played out that way. As I say, I knew I wanted the story to be character-driven. Really, I just felt my way. Finally, I decided someone had to die! I think I chose the right person. I'm writing the next book in the series now, a prequel. I want to include a glimpse of my victim, very much alive and going about his business. I always enjoy that when it happens in a book. I love thinking, "Aha! I know her/him!"

I enjoyed seeing the ongoing development of the relationship between Guid’Antonio and his wife, Maria del Vigna; they have a deep sensual bond, but their marriage is definitely volatile. How much does history tell us about them, and how much did you have to imagine?

Of all the major-minor characters in the book, Maria is the one I know least about in the real world. I feel fortunate to have her true name, her age, and the names of her parents. This much I discovered in another magical research moment. There is a biography of Guid'Antonio in Spanish, which as a true bibliophile, I own, even though I don't speak that language. In the opening pages, the author mentions Guid'Antonio's first wife, who died in 1469, adding that Guid'Antonio married the sixteen-year-old daughter of Alessandro del Vigna the following year. And there at the bottom of the page in a footnote, the author gives her name: "Maria." What a gem to find buried in those pages. I'm so glad I looked down.

Angelo Poliziano and Giuliano
de' Medici, by Domenico Ghirlandaio
From time to time, you include chapters that depart from Guid’Antonio’s perspective to examine other characters’ viewpoints, and I appreciated getting a broader look at the era this way. Were these scenes part of the novel from the beginning?

No. But eventually I reached the point where I wanted to take people beyond the confines of the walled city of Florence. I like Angelo Poliziano, the poet, and while I did originally include him even more, eventually I omitted those pages to maintain focus on the mystery and Guid'Antonio. Still, I felt the need to "swing out" a bit, and, since Angelo was in something of a self-imposed exile in Mantua and on the outs with Lorenzo at the time, I hoped including Angelo's thoughts about what was happening in his hometown underscored by a bit about his own personal history would expand the narrative, while trying not shoehorn too much material into the tale. I also added that very short piece in Lucrezia Tornabuoni's viewpoint as she mourns her son's death. To me, it helped keep those larger-than-life people real. The truth is—at times I felt sorry for most of them, imagining how they truly must have felt in their particular circumstances.

Let’s talk about one of my favorite aspects – the mouthwatering descriptions of Tuscan food! I especially enjoyed attending the meal Guid’Antonio shared with his kinsmen, from the fried ravioli, herbed meat, and bread in olive oil (yum) to seeing the silver cutlery with Vespucci-themed finials. Was the research for this as much fun as it appeared?

Fried ravioli—who knew? I have a lovely book, The Tuscan Year, by Elizabeth Romer. That is my main resource for seasonal foods and harvests as Guid'Antonio's cook bustles about the fragrant Vespucci Palace kitchen. I adore roast pork stuffed with garlic and rubbed with herbs. And so that was fairly easy to write about! I also rely on Waverly Root's The Food of Italy. Originally in Weeping Virgin, Amerigo was lusting after a Sicilian pastry known as the "Nipples of the Virgin." He must have some of those next time around. (And by the way, they originated in a monastery.)


The Sign of the Weeping Virgin is published this month by Five Star in hardcover ($25.95, 384pp).  Visit Alana White's website at

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Winners of the Historical Holiday Blog Hop giveaway

Thank you to everyone who entered my blog hop giveaway this past week.  The response was tremendous.  Although I didn't announce this at the time, I'd told myself that if the contest got more than 100 entries I'd double everyone's chances by giving away two copies rather than one.  Well, I'm happy to say we beat that number.

So copies of Historical Fiction II: A Guide to the Genre will be going out to these blog visitors:

Margaret from Just One More Chapter
Jennifer from Losing the Shadow

I'll be in touch to get your addresses.  Congrats, and I hope you'll both enjoy the book!

Monday, December 17, 2012

My master list for the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge

After reading about the TBR Pile Challenge on several different blogs, I knew this was one I had to join. As in previous years, Roof Beam Reader is the sponsor, and there will be many other participating bloggers around to cheer us on.  The rules are simple:  Create a master list of 12 novels that have been sitting on your TBR for at least 12 months, and read and review them over the next year.  I read on average 85 books/year, so this shouldn't be tough, right?  Especially since my TBR isn't really a pile but fills several rooms...

It may be a sad statement that I need a challenge like this to force me to read books that enticed me into buying them years ago, but the call of newly published titles often proves too strong... which means my older historical novels lie ignored for years if not decades.  I had such a fun time participating in Historical Tapestry's Alphabet in Historical Fiction challenge two years ago, since it gave me a good reason to return to authors' backlists.  The TBR Pile Challenge should do the same, and I'm looking forward to it.

Here's my list of 12 titles and 2 alternates, in no real order.  I've also posted it on Goodreads.  I spent way too much time going through my shelves at home and choosing these books.

1.  Rose Tremain, Music and Silence (2000) - royal scandal in 17th-century Denmark.  I've owned this for about a dozen years, and after just finishing her new novel Merivel: A Man of His Time, I'm eager to read more of her work.

2.  Paullina Simons, The Bronze Horseman (2001) - romantic epic centered on the Siege of Leningrad, 1941.  So many bloggers seem to love this one, and the prequel, Children of Liberty, will be out next spring.

3.  Liz Curtis Higgs, Here Burns My Candle (2010) - love and betrayal in the 18th-century Scottish Lowlands.  Her trilogy beginning with Thorn in My Heart, in which the biblical Jacob-Leah-Rachel triangle is transported to the same setting, is a favorite.  Why haven't I read this one yet?

4.  Rosemary Sutcliff, Rider on a White Horse (1959) - the story of Anne Fairfax and her husband Thomas, during the English Civil War.  Because it's a Sutcliff I haven't read before.

5.  Dorothy Dunnett, Niccolò Rising (1986) - the first book in her House of Niccolò series set in the Low Countries in the 15th century.  I have the entire 8-book set, all shiny 1st edition hardcovers with gorgeous jackets.  I picked up the first one many years ago, read 25 pages, was utterly confused as to what was going on, and put it back down (please don't hate me).  Meanwhile I've gotten older and have developed a taste for literary fiction.  This is a good time to try again.

6.  Diana Norman, Daughter of Lir (1988) - 12th-century Ireland and England.  A long out-of-print title from one of my favorite historical novelists.

7.  Donna Baker, Bid Time Return (1993) - I own many of Donna Baker's books but have yet to read one.  I also didn't know until googling her name just now that this is a pseudonym for Lilian Harry, best known for her WWII British sagas.  This is the first in her two-book Cumbrian Saga, set in and around Furness in the early 20th century.  Her website says that her novels written as Baker are being re-released as e-books.

8.  Elizabeth D'Oyley, The Mired Horse (1951) - the drama surrounding Thomas, Duke of Norfolk, and his relationship with Mary, Queen of Scots.  I had to create a new entry for it in Goodreads because it wasn't in the system... which is a very good reason to review it.  Someone ought to!  This will be one for my Obscure Books series. 

9.  Esmeralda Santiago, Conquistadora (2011) - one of my newer choices, a literary epic set in mid-19th century Puerto Rico.  I got my ARC signed at BEA last year and always meant to read it.

10.  Brian John, On Angel Mountain (2006) - first in a six-book family saga set in late 18th and early 19th-century Wales.  One of my favorite subgenres, and I love Welsh settings.
11. Elizabeth Laird, The Betrayal of Maggie Blair (2011) - YA historical about an accused witch in 17th-century Scotland... adventure, religious repression, and so forth.  I don't read much YA but should.

12. Tracy Chevalier, The Lady and the Unicorn (2003) - fictional drama surrounding the creation of the gorgeous Cluny tapestries, which I've had the fortune to see in person on two occasions.

Some old, some new, some classics, and some lesser known.  My alternates are Sena Jeter Naslund's Ahab's Wife and Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.  With luck I'll get to all fourteen within the next year, and maybe some others, too.  Hope you'll follow along with me!

(Edited later to add the novels' publication dates.)

Monday, December 10, 2012

My stop on the Historical Holiday Blog Hop

The holiday season is upon us, and like many other historical fiction bloggers, I'm participating in the 1st annual Historical Holiday Blog Hop sponsored by Passages to the Past. Nearly 40 different bloggers have signed up, and readers have a chance to win prizes at each of our blogs... so hop on by and see all of us!

In addition, Amy at Passages to the Past is hosting a large grand prize drawing over at her site (see the end of this post for what you can win there; limited to US only).

For my giveaway, I'm offering up a copy of my newest book, Historical Fiction II: A Guide the Genre (Libraries Unlimited, 2009).

This is a readers' guide to English-language historical novels for adults published between 2004 and 2008. The books are grouped into subgenres -- mystery, romantic, epics, literary, thrillers, Christian, sagas, traditional historicals, and more -- and then arranged by time period or theme.  Over 2,700 novels are included and described.  I also give detailed introductions to each subgenre, a short history of historical fiction, reading lists by plot pattern or theme, and lists of award winners.

It's 738pp long, weighs nearly 4 lbs, and retails for $70... and comes complete with its own headless cover.  International entrants are welcome, so I hope many will enter (consider it my contribution to the financially strapped US Postal Service).  Fill out the form below for a chance to win.  Deadline:  December 17, 2012.


The Grand Prize Giveaways for the Blog Hop are as follows. Amy at Passages to the Past will be creating four big prize packages out of these titles graciously donated by the authors or their publishers.  I've linked to my reviews/interviews when applicable.

Historical Holiday Blog Hop Grand Prizes (US Only)

- $25 Amazon or Barnes & Noble Gift Card
- Prize package(s) of historical novels including:

1. Oleanna by Julie Rose (pb)
2. The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn by Robin Maxwell (pb)
3. Jane: The Woman Who Loved Tarzan by Robin Maxwell (Audio Books)
4. The King's Daughter by Barbara Kyle (pb)
5. The King's Concubine by Anne O'Brien (pb)
6. Royal Romances: Titillating Tales of Passion and Power in the Palaces of Europe by Leslie Carroll (pb)
7. The Darling Strumpet by Gillian Bagwell (pb)
8. The September Queen by Gillian Bagwell (pb)
9. The Kingmaking by Helen Hollick (pb) *w/signed bookplate
10. The Forever Queen by Helen Hollick (pb) *w/signed bookplate
11. Sea Witch by Helen Hollick (pb) *w/signed bookplate
12. Claude & Camille by Stephanie Cowell (pb)
13. Marrying Mozart by Stephanie Cowell (pb)
14. The Queen's Vow by Christopher Gortner (pb, UK edition)
15. Into the Path of Gods (Book 1, Macsen's Treasure Series) by Kathleen Cunningham Guler (pb)
16. In the Shadow of Dragons (Book 2, Macsen's Treasure Series) by Kathleen Cunningham Guler (pb)
17. The Anvil Stone (Book 3, Macsen's Treasure Series) by Kathleen Cunningham Guler (hc)
18. A Land Beyond Ravens (Book 4, Macsen's Treasure Series) by Kathleen Cunningham Guler (hc)
19. Pale Rose of England by Sandra Worth (pb)
20. The Rose of York: Love & War by Sandra Worth (pb)
21. A Dance of Manners (A Regency Anthology) by Susan Flanders, Cynthia Breeding, Kristi Ahlers, Gerri Bowen and Erin Hatton (pb)
22. The Book of Lost Fragrances by MJ Rose (hc)
23. The Sumerton Women by D.L. Bogdan (pb)
24. Mistress of the Sun by Sandra Gulland (signed pb)
25. The Master of Verona by David Blixt (hc)
26. Before Versailles by Karleen Koen (pb)
27. Four Sisters, All Queens by Sherry Jones (pb)
28. At the Mercy of the Queen by Anne Barnhill (pb)
29. What You Long For by Anne Barnhill (pb)
30. Cascade by Maryanne O'Hara (signed hc)
31. The Lady's Slipper by Deborah Swift (pb, UK edition)
32. The Plum Tree by Ellen Marie Wiseman (signed pb)
33. The Secret Keeper by Sandra Byrd (pb, with Tower of London Tea Sachets)
34. The Mischief of the Mistletoe (2 copies - 1 pb, 1 hc - both signed)
35. The Sister Queens by Sophie Perinot
36. The Secret History: A Novel of Empress Theodora by Stephanie Thornton (pb w/bookmark)
37. The King's Grace by Anne Easter Smith (pb)
38. Illuminations by Mary Sharratt (hc)
39. Selene of Alexandria by Faith L. Justice (2 copies - 1 pb, 1 eBook)
40. A Thing Done by Tinney Sue Heath (2 copies, pb)
41. Rebel Puritan by Jo Ann Butler (pb)
42. The Bird Sisters by Rebecca Rasmussen (audio cd's)
43. By Fire, By Water by Mitchell James Kaplan (2 copies, pb)
44. The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan (ARC, courtesy of Penguin Publishing)
45. Above All Things by Tanis Rideout (ARC, courtesy of Penguin Publishing)
46. The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh (ARC, courtesy of Penguin Publishing)
47. Movement of Stars by Amy Brill (ARC, courtesy of Penguin Publishing)
48. Teaspoon of Earth and Sea by Dina Nayeri (ARC, courtesy of Penguin Publishing)
49. The Queen's Daughter by Susan Coventry (hc)
50. The Virgin Queen's Daughter by Ella March Chase (pb)
51. Three Maids for a Crown by Ella March Chase (pb)
52. Mistress of Rome by Kate Quinn (pb)
53. The Forgotten Queen by D.L. Bogdan (ARC)
54. The Sign of the Weeping Virgin by Alana White
55. A Place Beyond Courage by Elizabeth Chadwick (pb)
56. The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau (signed pb)
57. Second Lisa by Veronica Knox

To enter the Grand Prize Drawing, visit Passages to the Past.

Good luck to all entrants!

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Book review: Nine for the Devil, by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer

Mary Reed and Eric Mayer's solid historical mystery, 9th in a series set in 6th-century Byzantium, places their protagonist in an impossible situation.  How can one unmask a murderer when no crime was actually committed?

Crazed by grief, Emperor Justinian pressures John, his shrewd Lord Chamberlain, to find who killed his beloved wife so the perpetrator can be brought to justice.  Problem is, everyone knows Empress Theodora died of a lingering, painful wasting disease (one which we'd call cancer). All the same, if John doesn't come up with a killeror a scapegoathe and his family will pay the price. 

The unusual premise instills the narrative with a disturbing tension.  Justinian's methods are swift and brutal, and he doesn't hesitate putting people to death or through torture for minor transgressions... or even for no reason at all.  Honorable and ever practical, John takes his assignment seriously.  As John proceeds with his investigation, he interacts with characters from all walks of life, from the palace physician to reformed prostitutes to Justinian himself.  Only the emperor and a select few attendants had access to Theodora as she lay dying, making this not quite a locked-room mystery, but close.

Theodora, a bear tamer's daughter and former actress, had accumulated many enemies during her time in power, so John has a large cast of would-be suspects to sort through.  For example, her matchmaking efforts pleased her grandson and his prospective young bride but angered the young woman's parents.  Other military leaders, aristocrats, and religious figures had cause to want Theodora dead, too.  (It may take a while for series newcomers to adjust to who's who, so the list of characters at the beginning is a big help.)

Evidence for murder is lacking, but people are still behaving awfully suspiciously.  This is perhaps the novel's most clever aspect.  What seems at first to be a wrenching moral dilemma develops into a twisting puzzle with a plethora of clues and possible motives.  John may be acting on behalf of a capricious and paranoid autocrat, but it seems he's got a real mystery on his hands.  He has plenty to occupy his thoughts on the personal front as well, with his elderly servant's decline in health and the impending birth of his grandchild.

Nine for the Devil is a good example of how to set a mystery within a real-life scenarioin this case, one taken directly from the annals of the Eastern Roman Empire.  The colorful backdrop of Constantinople in 548 AD ripples with intrigue, with Pope Vigilius forced to remain in the city against his will, the thwarted ambitions of Justinian's cousin Germanus, and the scheming of Theodora's friend, Antonina, wife of General Belisarius. The result is a denouement that's both satisfying and historically plausible.

Nine for the Devil was published by Poisoned Pen Press in hardcover ($24.95) and trade paperback ($14.95) in March 2012.  304pp, including an informative and delightfully witty Afterword plus glossary.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

A look back at Sarah Jio's Blackberry Winter

It's a little embarrassing to be posting a review of Sarah Jio's Blackberry Winter this late, considering I received the ARC back in (ahem) March.  I breezed through it more quickly than I expected, turning the last page on the night before I took my flight to London in mid-September.  Then other responsibilities called, and well...

My tardiness, however, proved that Jio has a talent for crafting memorable characters and scenarios.  My recollections of her two heroines, both in 1933 and 2010, are as clear as the language used to describe their emotional stories.

Vera Ray's heartbreaking tale stands out for me the most.  A single mom struggling with poverty in Depression-era Seattle, she is forced to leave her adorable three-year-old son, Daniel, alone in her apartment while she works the night shift as a maid in an exclusive hotel.  On the morning after a freak May snowstorm, Vera returns home to find Daniel gone, and his teddy bear left abandoned in a snowdrift.  Even readers without children will be able to relate to her pain and helplessness.  In this class-conscious era, money talks; the police turn aside her pleas for help, saying Daniel must have run away.  Which is ridiculous, of course, and Vera knows it.

Vera's job puts her in the company of the city's elite, although she knows she can never join their ranks.  Flashbacks draw her back to her affair with Daniel's father, the wealthy son of a prominent Seattle family.  Her first-person voice brings her plight home in an immediate, very personal way.

A parallel strand introduces Claire Aldridge, a talented 21st-century journalist still grieving the loss of her unborn baby, an event which is tearing her marriage apart.  Claire has managed something Vera could never achieve, marrying into a powerful newspaper dynasty, but she suffers from depression and lacks purpose.  After a similar "blackberry winter" storm hits Seattle, Claire's editor asks her to come up with a story surrounding the May Day snow of 1933, which leads her to Vera and Daniel... and drives her to uncover the mystery of the boy's abduction.

And so the novel bounces lightly between big-band dance marathons and contemporary society galas, and between a dingy Depression-era tenement and a bustling modern café as two women nearly 80 years apart search for answers and try to recapture what they've lost.  There's a lot of dialogue in both sections, peppered with slang from their respective periods, which keeps things humming briskly along.

Are Claire and Vera linked in unexpected ways?  That's what the back cover blurb asks, and readers will already know the answer.  It's a credit to Jio's storytelling that the plot's uncanny coincidences (and there are a lot of them) don't lessen its poignancy, though.  Her empathy for mothers who had the misfortune to lose a child, as mentioned in her dedication, comes through on every page.

Blackberry Winter was published by Plume in September at $15.00, or $16.00 in Canada (trade pb, 290pp).