Saturday, March 30, 2013

Russian history, a mystery, and a reviewer's dilemma

When I received an ARC of John Boyne's The House of Special Purpose from Booklist in mid-February, I was pleased; I enjoy reading novels set in Russia, and while Boyne's novels are highly acclaimed, I'd never read his work before.  I was also a little puzzled.  The publisher's description went:

"From the author of The Absolutist, a propulsive novel of the Russian Revolution and the fate of the Romanovs."

Given that and the title, the meaning of which anyone who's done any reading about the Russian imperial family will likely recognize, I knew the event that the plot would be leading toward.  Why now, I wondered.  Why are we seeing a novel about the fate of the Romanovs now, when it's already been proven what happened to them?  

This is the US edition, though.  The original UK edition appeared in early 2009, when things weren't wrapped up quite so tidily.  I imagine that historical discoveries that happen mid-writing (or just before publication) can cause trouble for a novelist.  Any fiction published on that topic before a certain date could be considered speculative, and thus acceptable to readers.  Novels published after that time could be called either straightforward historical fiction, or alternative history/fantasy, depending on the direction the author takes.  However, in the case of The House of Special Purpose, calling it either one in the review would give away the plot!  I didn't want to do that.

Also, in reading the novel, I was given many hints as to where the storyline would be heading, but I didn't know for sure (I was prepared to be wrong).  Boyne did a great job keeping the suspense level high.  And so I struggled a bit with how to word the review, wanting to acknowledge the issues but trying to keep it as spoiler-free as possible.  I've tried not to give too much away here, either... hopefully I've succeeded.

This is what I came up with; it appeared in Booklist's 3/15 issue.

Russophiles should immediately comprehend the title of Boyne’s suspenseful and touching novel. In 1981, as his adored wife, Zoya, lies dying, Georgy Jachmenev, an elderly Londoner, reflects on their lengthy marriage and the secret tragedies they endured. A parallel plotline opens in early twentieth-century Russia as young Georgy, a muzhik (peasant) from a backwater village, saves the life of the tsar’s cousin and is brought to St. Petersburg, where he becomes protector to the frail tsarevich and finds romance with Grand Duchess Anastasia. The two narratives dovetail, as the latter progresses forward in time while the former marches steadily backward. The book’s central mystery is dated now, which may limit readers’ appreciation, but it is ingeniously constructed and gripping nonetheless. While no prior historical knowledge is required, the more familiar readers are with the Romanovs, the more clues (and false leads) they will encounter as they proceed. Boyne takes some factual liberties, particularly in the earlier-set segments, but he also skillfully evokes the wrenching pain of loss and exile while presenting a tribute to enduring love.

What are your thoughts?  Would you pick up a novel in which the central mystery no longer exists in real life?  Does it take anything away from your reading experience, or would you go for it anyway if the subject grabbed your interest?

The House of Special Purpose will be published by Other Press, a NY-based independent publisher, on April 2nd, 2013 (trade pb, $16.95, 480pp); it appeared from Doubleday in the UK in 2009.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

A careful juggling act: the small publisher in genre fiction, a guest post by Evan Ostryzniuk

Evan Ostryzniuk's detailed and informative essay examines small press publishing from the author's perspective.  His post should be of great interest both to writers contemplating a move to smaller publishers and to readers curious about about the publishing industry.  His novels Of Faith and Fidelity and Of Fathers and Sons, both from London-based Knox Robinson Publishing, are books 1 and 2 in the English Free Company series set in the late 14th century.  Welcome, Evan! 
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A careful juggling act: the small publisher in genre fiction
Evan Ostryzniuk

I will start this guest blog post with an equivocal statement. Being an author of a small publisher offers certain advantages and challenges, most of which stem from the limited scale of operations. Of course, I have not had the opportunity to work closely with a large publisher, so any implicit comparisons I might make may not be wholly accurate. That said, I have enjoyed my fair share of adventures with the start of my writing career!

When I went in search of a literary agent for my first novel, having been warned against submitting directly to a publisher of any description, I ran up against a polite and well-intentioned editorial wall. Despite having done a load of research on the publishing industry and how to present myself and my work properly, I could not find anyone to bite on my genre novel. Most responses, when I did receive genuine letterhead from the office of a literary agent, were generic and left me with the impression that they were looking for an instant hit or hoping to latch on to an already hot property, as opposed to cultivating unknown but ambitious authors. True, the genre I had chosen to write in is not at the very top of bestseller lists, so I was not discouraged by the experience, but it became clear to me that I would need to gird my loins if I wanted to travel down this well-trodden road that was thick with competitors.

So, after seeking solace in one of the many forums dedicated to wannabe authors, I chose the path-less-taken and sought out a small press, under the assumption that it would be amenable to direct contact. I quickly found a new, genre-specific publisher that had big plans and was willing to give my series of historical novels a chance. What immediately appealed to me about them, aside from their acceptance letter, was the opportunity for us to grow together. This might sound sentimental, but I am the type of person who wants to have if not control, then at least a thorough understanding of the publishing process. Major publishers have established structures, and so the author must follow the path laid out. A small outfit, on the other hand, offers a more intimate degree of interaction, exchange of ideas, and access to senior personnel who are making the decisions.

A major worry with small publishers is the level of professionalism, usually because of smaller staffs and less experience. I am fortunate that from the contract to editing to design, my publisher is an exemplar of professionalism. Also, any number of them might be fraudulent. This is one area where working with a small publisher can actually be an advantage, since because they have fewer competitive levers to level the playing field, they must compensate where they can. A major publisher can get away with ignoring or poorly treating their authors (up to a point) – small publishers cannot.

The greatest challenge of working with a small publisher, for me, is physical market access, as opposed to virtual access. The big boys hog shelf space in brick and mortar shops, especially when it comes to genre fiction. This leaves the author and publisher in a catch-22 situation, whereby a book cannot make it to the buying lists unless it has solid sales behind it, but without exposure sales are difficult to generate. Also, the small publisher does not have much leverage to really champion a book by an unknown author. As a result, I have had to sometimes resort to consignment selling and making personal agreements with shops.

The flip side to this old-fashioned way of doing the publishing business is that it is being comprehensively challenged by e-books and online sales, and this is a place where a small publisher can outpace established behemoths. The absence of a large bureaucracy, long-standing business model and vested interests within the company means that the small publisher is more flexible in adopting the new virtual tools of the industry, which allows for greater independence and more flexibility in approaches to promoting authors. I deal with very few people during the process of getting my books to print and the interaction is more dynamic. I can appeal to the senior editor directly instead of steadily calling upwards through a long chain of command, and responses are usually swift and precise.

That said, I am expected to do a lot of the leg work in generating interest in the product. This is both advantageous and problematic, I find. Because the publisher expects me to create ideas, suggest graphic elements and generally approve the final product, I have more control over my novel’s image. At the same time, the absence of an established methodology or system allows for uncertainty to remain about the venture and many valuable hours spent not in writing.

A similar situation exists in marketing and promotion, which is where I feel the least amount of support. The absence of an experienced PR arm with a long reach at a small publisher results in this heavy burden being transferred to the author. A shared fate implies shared responsibilities, but it also means having to master a host of new technologies and applications, which costs more time than money, albeit, but also means having to be even more creative. Sometimes, it is nice to have the path laid out. Again, having control over promoting and marketing also means having control of your own image. However, having the name of a major publishing house near the author’s name does provide a lot of cachet. At the same time, there is little risk of becoming overexposed.

Another major challenge is getting ‘high-end’ reviews, although this may be more of a function of the author’s fame than the reach of the publisher. Nevertheless, in today’s increasingly consumer-driven venues, I find that the duty of getting books into the hands of readers is falling increasingly on the author himself or herself, with some support from the publisher, and that mostly of the technical variety.

To sum up, I would say that a small publisher offers excellent opportunities for the strong-willed author who really knows how he wants his readership to see him or her and has enthusiasm for mastering a great many aspects of the business. At the same time, the author must be fully aware of certain limitations involved and be creative in overcoming those challenges.

About the author

Evan Ostryzniuk was born and raised in Canada. After graduating from the University of Saskatchewan with a B.A. in History and Modern Languages and an M.A. in History, Evan crossed the ocean to do post-graduate work at the University of Cambridge, concluding four years of research with a doctoral thesis on the Russian Revolution. He then found his way to Eastern Europe, where he took up positions as a magazine editor, university lecturer and analyst in the financial services sector before rising in the ranks of the publishing industry to become Editor-in-Chief of a popular weekly. Evan currently resides in Kyiv, Ukraine near a large candy factory. He travels extensively, including to the locations of his novels.

About the novel Of Fathers and Sons: Geoffrey Hotspur and the Este Inheritance

Italy 1395. The Este lands are vulnerable. The death of the Marquis of Ferrara, Alberto d'Este, has left his eleven-year-old son, Niccolo, as sole direct heir. Though born out of wedlock, the pope himself has legitimized Niccolo’s birth, but in an age when great lords ruled by sword as much as by law, having a boy lead the family can be a sign of weakness.

Made unhappy by the father, some Este vassals want to humble the son, and they see their opportunity in Niccolo’s insecure minority rule. Championing their cause is the head of a reduced branch of the Este clan who is not only a famous condottiere, but also a captain of the ambitious lord of Milan. Fearing that the defeat of Niccolo will lead to a shift in the already fragile balance of power in favor of the over mighty Milan, the city-states of Florence, Venice and Padua have combined to try and keep the Este inheritance in the boy’s hands.

Of Fathers and Sons is the second book in the English Free Company series set in the late Middle Ages. The Company is led by the skilled but reckless Geoffrey Hotspur, an orphan-squire and ward of the mighty Duke of Lancaster, whose driving ambition is to become a knight. Before Henry won his miraculous victory at Agincourt, before the Borgias became infamous, before Constantinople fell to the Turks, there was Geoffrey Hotspur, a man as tall as Charlemagne and possessing a sword that rivaled Excalibur. Geoffrey and Niccolo are confronted by the same questions: How can an orphan find his place in a society informed by patriarchal relations? For how long must a son follow the wishes of his father? When does the boy become the man?

Publication date: March 7, 2013
Available From: Knox Robinson Publishing
Hardcover: ISBN: 978-1-9084831-5-7
Paperback: ISBN: 978-1-9084831-6-4

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Language and culture in Annapurna Potluri's The Grammarian, set in south India in 1911

Readers and publishers often wonder whether reviews sell books. I’d have to say yes, they can; the February 15th review of Annapurna Potluri’s The Grammarian in Shelf Awareness certainly sold me. Literary fiction about a Parisian linguist who travels to south India in 1911 and unwittingly provokes a cultural taboo? It was a novel I hadn’t heard of before, and the subject caught my attention (my academic background is in linguistics). The unfamiliar setting and haunting cover art didn't hurt. I ordered it the next day.

Its initial protagonist is Dr. Alexandre Lautens, a handsome professor at the Sorbonne, who has left his wife and children behind to study in India, a distant place with “as many languages as there were gods.” During his sabbatical, he plans to create the first written grammar of the Telugu language.

His host family in the coastal city of Waltair, the Adivis, is comprised of one man and four women: Shiva, an outwardly gracious and socially conscious Anglophile, plus his wife, mother, and two teenage daughters. Mohini is the beautiful younger girl, while Anjali, plain and crippled from polio, hides a sensitive heart behind a stoic mask, a defensive reaction to her father’s disappointment in her.

Their household is in a state of excitement preparing for Mohini’s forthcoming wedding, an event that Anjali, sadly, will never experience herself. During his stay, Alexandre takes an interest in Anjali, who enjoys literature and provides him with vocabulary for his project. Anjali finds him exotic and beautiful, while his feelings are more fatherly than romantic.

But when Alexandre's innocent act of kindness towards her – giving her a swimming lesson at the local beach – results in harsh gossip, embarrassment, and shame, Shiva makes a decision that has devastating and long-lasting repercussions for both his daughter and the foreign linguist.

A gorgeously composed yet solemn exploration of social values, prejudice, and the many forms of human expression, The Grammarian illustrates the purpose and power of language, as well as its constraints. The freedom that Anjali and Alexandre both feel, floating in the ocean, is a pure moment of happiness that, for them, transcends words:

The morning sun bounced its light off their skin, and the sea and sand; everything was bright with the evanescing promises morning brings, and her skin shone gold as his did in silver, the water crackling with sun… She thought for a moment of drowning so as to never have to live this life as before, because she now knew what it felt like to be awake.

Their return to the real world, however, is fraught with misunderstanding and distress.

In this time and place, some cultural barriers can't be bridged, something that Shiva’s elderly mother, Kanakadurga, knows well. She and Alexandre become close friends, sharing many delightful, edifying conversations that please them both. A magnificent character, she is a wise, forward-thinking realist about her tradition-bound society. Kanakadurga realizes that for Anjali, the granddaughter she adores, her only hope for a rich, full life lies elsewhere.

This novel is perfect for those who love languages and foreign cultures and seeing the complicated intersections between them. It demonstrates the author’s creative skill in bending language to her purpose. She crafts many turns of phrase that struck me with their beauty and rightness: England with its “riots of yellow leaves in autumn,” the streets of India “like a great mass of mottled humanity and beasts great and small, all converging in the light of a late afternoon upon some point in the horizon.”

Although I hadn’t been familiar with Telugu beforehand, the narrative would seem to reflect its melodic nature. With their multiple strings of phrases, Potluri’s lengthy, descriptive sentences create a punctuated rhythm that has an almost mesmerizing effect. In addition, just as the underlying meanings of words can be glimpsed through their etymologies, the characters are shaped by what happened in the past – particularly Shiva, an admirer of all things European in an era of increasing nationalist sentiment. The novel’s prologue, set in 1896, adds context to his later actions. In this way, The Grammarian can be read on multiple levels.

It’s a regrettable irony, in a novel about language, that the publisher didn’t take greater care with the text. With its numerous errors, typographical and otherwise, it reads like a manuscript that missed the copy editing stage. I read from the published hardcover, not an ARC.

Still, I hope this defect doesn’t discourage readers. In her account of a “mythic and strange land, located less in markers of longitude and latitude than in the psyche,” Potluri pinpoints why many of us read historical fiction – or fiction in general. It has the potential to put us into a mindset not our own, immersing us in a milieu we couldn’t otherwise visit – a goal she has accomplished superbly.

The Grammarian was published by Berkeley's Counterpoint Press in February ($24.00, hb, 272pp).

Monday, March 25, 2013

My 7th anniversary small press giveaway

We'll be returning to book reviews, guest posts, and other exciting things on Tuesday... but today it's time to party!


Reading the Past went live seven years ago, on March 25, 2006.  According to Hallmark, the traditional gift for a 7th anniversary is wool or copper, neither of which is all that exciting.  We're recovering from yet another snowstorm during the never-ending winter of 2013, so while I sit in my office with a warm shawl wrapped around me and wool socks on my feet, I thought I might give away a book or two instead.

Up for grabs:  Your choice of any small press novel mentioned in a post here between March 1st and March 31st of this year.  You don't have to tell me which one now – the month's not yet over – but I'll ask you to pick one if you're the lucky winner.  Your thoughts (optional) on any aspect of the site are very welcome, too.  What do you like most?  What would you like to see more of?

One entry per person, please; deadline March 31st.  I'll give away a book for every 50 entries I receive.  This contest is open internationally.

Good luck, and thanks for visiting and reading my site!

This contest is closed as the deadline has passed. Thanks to all who entered!

Friday, March 22, 2013

A look at Barbara Garland Polikoff's Her Mother's Secret, set in late 19th-century Chicago

Her Mother's Secret features a 15-year-old heroine, but you don't have to be a teenager to appreciate the detail-rich environment the author creates.  Barbara Garland Polikoff has partly based her latest novel on the life of her "gypsy aunt," a lively woman with bohemian fashion sense who studied and later taught art at Chicago's Hull House.

Perhaps to intertwine her aunt's experiences with well-known events of the late 19th century, the author shifted the plot backward by about 20 years.  She writes with a light, easygoing touch, which should make it comfortable for younger readers to assimilate her story.  Although the historical and cultural backdrops are presented with well-rendered specificity, many of the problems that Sarah and her family deal with are universal.

The Goldmans, as readers learn early on, are Jewish immigrants who fled their Russian shtetl following pogroms.  By 1892, they've settled into their Chicago neighborhood, where Sarah's father Jacob works as a butcher. However, the personal troubles they faced in the old country still cast a long shadow over their lives and their interactions with one another.  This is where the book's title comes from; there's something hidden in her mother Rifke's past that Sarah knows nothing about.

Although she remains close to her father, Sarah struggles with the knowledge that her older sister Fanny is Rifke's favorite.  When Fanny starts dating a young Irishman who runs with a bad crowd, her parents are less than pleased, which unexpectedly puts Sarah on Rifke's good side for a change.  Adults should appreciate how Polikoff refers to Rifke and Jacob by their first names, since this makes them seem more approachable.  The Goldmans undergo difficult times, but their story is warmly told.

Most of the novel covers Sarah's coming of age, her relationships with her parents and siblings, and her exploration of the artistic talents that blossom during her classes at Hull House.  She becomes best friends with an Italian classmate and takes a trip to the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition with an amusing young man named Charley.  "How small her parents' restrictions had made her world," she thinks, and readers should enjoy watching as her true personality emerges.

The novel reads in places like a series of interconnected vignettes.  Some important moments are told about  only in retrospect, which may leave readers feeling a little left out.  Overall, though, it presents an entertaining look at Chicago at a vibrant time in its history, as seen through the eyes of a shy young woman who gradually learns where she belongs.

Her Mother's Secret was published by Allium Press of Chicago in 2012 (trade pb, $14.99, 169pp).  A 12-page companion guide with photos, historical background, and discussion questions is available online.  Allium Press is an independent publisher focusing on fiction with a Chicago connection.  Their tagline is "Rescuing Chicago from Capone… one book at a time."

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

New historical novels from small and independent presses, part 2

Here's the second half of this month's feature on recently published novels from small and independent presses. If you missed part 1, it can be found here.  Please leave your recommendations for other small press historicals in the comments!


Romance and adventure featuring a Italian female chef and a handsome rancher of Nez Perce descent, taking place amid the rustic environment of Yellowstone Park in 1925.  Part of the author's continuing Yellowstone series (the last of which was Lake of Fire [link goes to an older review of mine], set in 1900 and covering the previous generation).  Camel Press, an independent publisher of genre fiction (Mar '13, $15.95, trade pb, 358pp).



WWI-era biographical fiction with a literary bent, about English poet Edward Thomas, his devoted wife Helen, and his friendship with an American colleague, poet Robert Frost.  StreetBooks, a micro-publisher from west Oxfordshire, UK (Feb '13, £9.99, trade pb).



A reluctant nun in Yorkshire finds herself torn between her religion and her country's future after Henry VIII breaks with Rome.  Written by an English professor with a PhD in Renaissance literature.  Knox Robinson, a specialist publisher of historical fiction, historical romance, and fantasy (Mar '13, $27.99 or £19.99, hb, 238pp).



In 1897 Paris, Clarie Martin, wife of one of the city's magistrates, looks into the mysterious deaths of immigrant girls.  Part 3 of an ongoing series; the previous two books featured Clarie's husband, Bernard Martin, as investigator.  Pegasus, a NY-based independent press (Feb '13, $25.95, hb, 384pp).



This gentle romantic adventure set during the first years of Kentucky's settlement (1774-1781) was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize following its original 1930 publication.  This was the winner of the publisher's 2012 "Uncover a Classic" competition.  Hesperus Press, whose specialty is neglected English literary classics (Oct '12, £8.99, trade pb, 200pp, available in the US in June).



Turn of the Tide is another competition winner; it took the Historical Fiction prize in the 2011 Harper Collins / Alan Titchmarsh People's Novelist Competition.  A man finds his actions restricted by ongoing clan wars in 16th-century Scotland.  Capercaillie Books, a small press from Edinburgh (Nov '12, £8.99, trade pb).



An exploration of survivor guilt and societal resentment that sweeps through a small Illinois town in 1925, following the worst tornado in American history.  Europa Editions, which publishes literary fiction, mystery, and narrative nonfiction from around the world (Mar '13, $16.00, pb, 272pp).



In 1691 Florence, a wax artist fascinated by the grotesque receives a lucrative commission that brings him into the circle of an apothecary's daughter with a shocking secret.  What a cover!  Granta, an independent UK press (Mar '13, £14.99, hb, 320pp).




A Jewish physician's daughter confronts religious turmoil after being forced to flee her home in the 9th-century Middle East, during Islam's Golden Age.  Yotzeret, an independent Jewish-focused publisher (Aug '12, $14.95, trade pb, 328pp).



Veteran historical novelist Wood returns to a subject that has long intrigued her, women in the medical arts, with this epic about a 19th-century Englishwoman who pursues her dream of becoming a midwife in Melbourne, Australia. Turner, a US-based independent (May '12, $19.95, trade pb, 464pp).

Monday, March 18, 2013

New historical novels from small and independent presses, part 1

This is the first of two posts showcasing ten recent historical novels from small and independent publishers, chosen primarily out of personal interest (I have copies of most of them).  Please explore the publishers' websites, linked below, for more details and additional books.



Biographical fiction about Frances Latham, daughter of Charles I's royal falconer in the 17th century, who defies her family's and society's expectations.  The novel moves from the English countryside to London to Ireland and concludes at last in colonial America. Fireship Press, which specializes in nautical and historical fiction and nonfiction (Sep '12, $19.95, trade pb, 395pp).



The story of the lost Khmer empire and the construction of the mountain-temple of Angkor Wat in what today is Cambodia, as seen through the eyes of a remarkable heroine, a woman named Sray.  River Books, a Bangkok-based press focusing on Thai arts and culture (Jan '13, $14.95, trade pb, 500pp).



This adventurous sequel to The Scarlet Kimono, set in 1641 Japan, follows a young Japanese woman forced to flee to England aboard a ship owned by the Dutch East India Company in order to save her life. Choc Lit, a UK press for women's romantic fiction (Feb '13, £7.99, trade pb, 400pp).



In the late 18th century, a woman finds adventure, danger, and romance as she journeys through the wilderness to rescue her kidnapped cousin.  Bell Bridge Books, which centers on but isn't limited to Southern fiction (Sept '12, $18.95, trade pb, 329pp).



In this fictional autobiography, 18th-century painter and printmaker William Hogarth tells of his life and the age in which he lived.  Overlook Press, an independent general interest publisher (Jan. '13, $26.95, hb, 272pp).



Literary fiction about a Japanese teenager who finds herself in the wrong place at the very wrong time - the firebombing of Tokyo in 1945 - and how she and others, including some Americans, come to terms with the aftermath.  Norton, an independent US press (Mar '13, $26.95, hb, 384pp).



In this imaginative retelling of the Rapunzel fairy tale and one of its first authors, set in France and Venice in the 16th and 17th centuries, three women's stories intertwine.  Previously published by Random House Australia (see my interview with the author from last May).  Allison & Busby, a "small publisher of big books" (Feb '13, £12.99, hb, 496pp).



A historical mystery set in a distant era, 18th Dynasty Egypt, in which Akhnaten's ascent to the throne stirs up palace intrigue.  Poisoned Pen Press, which focuses on mysteries (Feb '13, $14.95 pb, $24.95 hb, 250pp).



A jester-for-hire gets caught up in the fierce rivalry between warring families in early 13th-century Florence when he's ordered to carry out a prank.  Fireship Press (Oct '12, $19.95, trade pb, 311pp).



Literary fiction on the changing fortunes of a tiny border town in 1930s Mexico after a local doctor claims to have found a cure for impotence - and promotes it far and wide via an enormous radio tower.  Steerforth, a publisher of quality fiction and nonfiction (Jan '13, $14.99, trade pb, 432pp).  Previously published by House of Anansi in Canada.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

A spotlight on Lindsay Ashford's The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen

Honno ed., 2011
I bought a copy of Lindsay Ashford's The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen last year, based on the description in the online catalog of its publisher, Honno, an independent press featuring Welsh women's writing. After reading another novel of theirs in 2009, Margaret Redfern's Flint, I knew their editors had discerning tastes.

I didn't know at the time, though, that its author, a popular British mystery novelist with an academic background in criminology, had been interviewed by the Daily Mail and the Guardian about her controversial revelations or that her novel had been picked up by Sourcebooks for publication in the US.  (Although the latter should surprise no one.  Sourcebooks has cornered the market on Austen-themed fiction, and this was a smart purchase.)

Behind its dark yet unassuming cover lies an absorbing and disturbing recounting of events from the life of one of England's most beloved authors. Following extensive research, Ashford has run a poisoned comb through the dynamics of the large and close-knit Austen family and come up with a provocative notion that nonetheless—I can't help but admitlies within the realm of possibility.  Did Jane Austen die from unnatural causes?  If so, how did this come about?  Was she murdered, and by whom?

The mystery hinges on two sources.  In one of Jane's letters, written just before she died at the young age of 41 in 1817, she described her looks as "black and white and every wrong colour."  Also, some years later, after forensic techniques had sufficiently developed, a lock of Austen's hair tested positive for arsenic.

Ashford's novel offers her interpretation of these facts and others, all taken from Jane's daily life and known activities and those of her relatives and friends.  The "detective" (a term used loosely, as the book doesn't read like typical crime fiction) is Anne Sharp, governess to the children of Jane's wealthy brother Edward Knight.  Anne, a bluestocking with no marriage prospects, sees Jane as a kindred spirit and conceives an unrequited love for her—a curious assumption the author makes.  Many of the other undercurrents swirling throughout the novel, however, actually existed.  Anne's keen observations of Jane's other relationships allow her insight into what may have been the cause of her dear friend's death.

Sourcebooks ed., August 2013
Saying more would be revealing too much of a tale that readers would be best off discovering on their own. I feel uneasy about the depiction of some historical characters, and whether or not I bought into the solution, I found it a fascinating read.  The settings are delightful and deftly rendered, as readers follow Anne from the Knights' isolated country house at Godmersham Park in Kent to Bath's famous Pump Room, where she overhears some startling conversations, to her new employer's home in Yorkshire.  

Although I'm far from an expert on Austen or her novels, I visited the Jane Austen Centre in Bath last year, learned more about her family history, and saw all of the exhibits and related memorabilia.  It had the effect of piquing my interest in her life.  Halfway through reading this book, while doing some online research, I also learned that Anne Sharp was a historical character, one of the few individuals to whom Austen had sent a presentation copy of Emma.  That knowledge added even more to my reading experience.

If you're at all interested in Jane Austen's writing, life story, and the places and people that surrounded and influenced her, give this insidiously compelling book a try and draw your own conclusions.

The Mysterious Death of Miss Austen was published in 2011 by Honno Press (£8.99, trade pb, 331pp). This August, Sourcebooks will publish The Mysterious Death of Miss Jane Austen in the US and Canada ($14.99 US / $16.95 Can, trade pb, 432pp; note the slight change to the title).

Friday, March 15, 2013

Guest post from Elan Barnehama, author of Finding Bluefield: Embracing Change

With Elan Barnehama's guest post for today, we move much closer to recent times: the colorful and turbulent 1960s, as experienced by a lesbian couple.  If you believe history only encompasses events from the distant and untouchable past, or focuses mainly on well-known names, read this essay and think again.  Many of the sentiments he expresses below resonated with me, and I hope you'll enjoy reading his post also.

~

Embracing Change
Elan Barnehama

My debut novel, Finding Bluefield, chronicles the lives of two women who, by seeking love and family, found themselves navigating unknown territory during a time when relationships like theirs were mostly hidden and often dangerous. It is a multi-generational family saga spanning the years 1960-1983 and set against a background of segregation, Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, the JFK election, Woodstock, the South, the Moon Landing, and the Sanctuary Movement.

The 1960s were loud, idealistic, and divisive with a lot of good music and free love. Outrageous was the norm for a counter-culture that approached activism as theater and turned personal statements into political manifestos. As the nation shook off the sleepy '50s, it found JFK in the White House inspiring hope and symbolizing a generational shift in power. But then there were all those assassinations, the Vietnam War, our cities on fire, and a turbulent civil rights movement. It didn’t take long for the US to find itself in one serious identity crisis. And that was where I wanted my characters to begin.

I’m interested in what happens below the surface, away from the spotlight, inside the crowds. Great events are as much about the leaders as they are about the participants. Individual stories contribute to the moment and add up to a movement. We all collaborate to create history. It’s a team sport.

Finding Bluefield is located within arm’s length of some of great moments. As the nation searched to find its footing, Nicky and Barbara were finding theirs. Kennedy’s victory, which included winning Nicky’s home state of Virginia, inspired her to act. She already had courage. The election victory gave her hope. She thought it gave her cover.

Later, Nicky attended the Martin Luther King March on Washington—where Dr. King shared his dreams with the world—because she wanted to see history. The DC Mall and huge crowd provided a venue and an opportunity for Nicky to anonymously sleep with a man in order to have a child in this pre-sperm donor, pre-in vitro fertilization world. But the scene’s main purpose was to highlight that Nicky’s rights as a lesbian were not on the agenda. The march was not for her. It did not have her back.

After Paul was born, Nicky and Barbara planned to raise him in the Bluefield home that bore Nicky’s family name for two hundred years. But, once word spread that Nicky was a lesbian, it turned out that two hundred years was not nearly long enough for Nicky to maintain her local status, her insider membership. Sure, change was going to come, but Nicky’s dream for her child turned out to be premature.

While working on the first draft of Finding Bluefield, I remembered reading a number of articles citing cases where courts used existing laws to justify removing children from gay and lesbian parents. In some cases in the 1950s and '60s, courts gave custody of children to fathers in divorces where the mother was "rumored" or confirmed to be a lesbian, in stark contrast to the almost universal approach, at the time, of granting custody to mothers.

Change, it turns out, is slow and messy. It often stumbles. And there are always casualties. Sometimes the casualties are caused by friendly fire. Many people grew frustrated with the pace of change in the '60s and became disillusioned. Others simply burnt out. I wanted to create characters that avoided the “loud and proud” megaphone, in-your-face lifestyle that was so much a part of the time but were in it for the long term.

author Elan Barnehama
Nicky and Barbara never apologized for who they were, and they never pretended to be straight. They didn’t go to elaborate lengths to cover up who they were. Their focus was to create a life together and have a family. They kept their lives to themselves and shared it only with the people they cared about. They were trying to get from one moment to the next safely, with grace, integrity, and love. By doing that, they became the role models they lacked. When their lives became other people’s business—like Carol Ann, Nicky’s sister—they were at risk.

Blending stories into the study and contemplation of the past has the potential to turn history into the active experience that it is. And since fiction must be believable, what the characters did, how they acted, what they thought, the decisions they made, all had to have been possible. The reader has to think it could have happened that way.

Everyone enters the world in the middle of great events—not all of them good. We can choose to embrace our lives or whine loudly about our circumstances. Or we can muster the courage to imagine a different life, a life that has yet to exist.

~

Elan Barnehama grew up in NYC, where he developed a taste for pizza and learned to recognize a joke. He's been a high school baseball coach, a radio news announcer, and a cook. He earned an MFA from UMass Amherst, and his commentaries and essays have appeared on public radio, the web, and in newspapers. He spends his days teaching college and the rest of his time writing, because between getting up in the morning and going to bed at night, it's what he wants to do. Elan lives in Northampton, MA.

Elan Barnehama's Finding Bluefield was published by Bold Strokes Books, a press focusing on LGBTQ literature, in September 2012 ($16.95, trade pb, 224pp).   Find out more at the author's website, elanbarnehama.com.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Ursule Molinaro's The New Moon with the Old Moon in Her Arms, a feminist novella of ancient Greece

At an initial glance, Ursule Molinaro's feminist novella appears to be a curious amalgam of ancient Greek tragedy and scholarly discourse.  The story is told with unorthodox punctuation and a self-aware modern voice, and it uses few historical fiction tropes. Readers won't find lengthy descriptions of fashion, hairstyles, or evocative foreign landscapes in this slim volume.

The New Moon With the Old Moon in Her Arms isn't a traditional historical novel and shouldn't be judged by those standards.  (The wonderful title, taken from the Scots ballad "Sir Patrick Spens," is just one example of the anachronistic borrowings Molinaro freely uses to make her points.)

But even within a plot nearly whittled down to its thematic essence, the author presents an absorbing and character-centered story that proceeds in an easy-to-follow, chronological fashion.  The style is nowhere near as complicated as it looks.

The narrator, an unnamed poetess in Athens of 293 BC, is living through the last month before her execution. As a form of protest against the patriarchal culture, the moon goddess Circe had persuaded her to put herself forward as a Thargelia volunteer: half of a couple who will be stoned to death on the next Expulsion Day, taking the city's sins with her when she dies.  Thargelia was a religious festival of ancient Greece, held in late spring; the author's research is sound in this and other instances.

Unlike past sacrificial victims, who were deformed or crippled—as was historically the casethe poetess is whole, shapely, and attractive.  On the downside, she's a 30-year-old unmarried virgin whose writing has gone unnoticed, and who lived with her parents until recently.  Those of an academic bent will empathize. It seems jobs in the humanities have always been hard to come by.

Living alone in secluded municipal quarters with an attendant to serve her every need, she doubts the wisdom of her choice with every new day that passes, but Circe is always there in the back of her mind with promises of laurel leaves, which will dull the pain at the end, as well as convincing arguments.  

"If we succeed I might be read: the moon goddess tries to bribe me back into submission.
 I'm not sure a posthumous audience is worth dying for: I say out loud into the quiet room."

If that's not enough for her to muddle through, an adolescent girl presents her with a moral dilemma, and a possible (if temporary) reprieve from her fate.  The poetess also tumbles into a lusty affair with a man who makes her feel desirable.  For the first time in her life, she has something to live for.

The narrator's decisions generate a fair bit of suspense (Will she take the escape route(s) offered?  And if she does, will she be caught?).  Interspersed with her musings, she (or Molinaro) adds informative historical digressions on linked topics: the months of the Greek calendar, the legend of Circe, the medicinal properties of stones, and interpretations of Homer's poetry—including ten excellent reasons Odysseus is overrated as a heroic figure. Those alone are worth the price of admission.

In the most prominent strand of knowledge braided into the story, Molinaro (or the narrator) provides many examples of how feminine power was deliberately subverted by men through the ages. She offers many points for discussion, and for this reason, one could easily imagine The New Moon as assigned reading in a women's history class.

This sharply intelligent, witty book shouldn't be restricted to this audience, though.  It demonstrates that experimental fiction can be approachable and smoothly readable, even for historical fiction fans who wouldn't normally consider it. Anyone interested in ancient Greek history should give it a try.

~

The New Moon With the Old Moon in Her Arms (subtitled "A true story assembled through scholarly hearsay") was published by the independent literary press McPherson & Co. in 1993 in trade paperback (119pp, $10.00).

Friday, March 08, 2013

Guest post by Jodi Daynard, author of The Midwife's Revolt

My guest today, Jodi Daynard, has contributed an enlightening essay covering her research discoveries about early America, as exemplified through period letters and recipes and relevant photographs.  Her novel The Midwife's Revolt, a semi-finalist in Amazon's Breakthrough Novel Awards, was published this past January.  Her protagonist Lizzie Boylston is a midwife, widowed at Bunker Hill, who develops a close friendship with Abigail Adams and becomes a spy for the patriot cause. Publishers Weekly has called the novel “A charming, unexpected, and decidedly different take on the Revolutionary War.”

Jodi will be speaking at the 2013 Historical Novel Society conference on the "American Experience" panel on Sunday morning, June 23rd.  To read more about her work, go to www.jodidaynard.com.

~

Things you never learned in School about our Founding Fathers and Mothers.

Tiny Houses, Big Dreams:  After reading the letters of Abigail and John Adams, I was expecting to find that they lived in a fine house, one befitting a distinguished lawyer and his family. I was struck dumb when I saw the cramped, rustic abode in which this illustrious pair lived so much of their lives.


 The dichotomy between the physical meanness and the intellectual exaltedness of the Adamses moved me. It drove home the wildly idealistic nature of their dream of independence from Britain. And yet, two hundred and thirty-one years after the enormous edifice of British rule has toppled, these humble farmhouses remain.

Money Matters: The State of Continental currency.
Writing The Midwife’s Revolt, I understood that money was scarce, and that my midwife would have to barter her services for food and other goods. But I didn’t really understand why. The story of Continental paper money is amusing, in a tragi-comic way: the Continental Congress needed money to pay for the war, so they produced it in great quantities. Unfortunately, the money was not backed by anything—not gold, not silver, certainly not taxes. No, it was backed by hope and prayer: hope that God was on our side, prayer that He would let us win the war. Only then might our states squeeze enough taxes out of its citizens to pay back the debt.

What’s more, these bills were easy to forge, and their growing worthlessness was hurried along by British and Tory counterfeiters like Mr. Stephen Holland, who makes an appearance in my novel.

Here is an example of one of these worthless bills, beautifully designed by Paul Revere: notice that it’s dated 1779. It is made out for eight pence and gives the bearer the right to redeem it eight years later. With any luck, the bearer would be dead by then.


Abigail Adams: “Farmeress” or First Lady?

Reading the letters of Abigail’s letters, I was able to infer some interesting things about her. For this discussion, I will refer to her letter of May 14, 1776, to John Adams, who was then in Philadelphia.

May 14, 1776
I set down to write you a Letter wholy Domestick without one word of politicks or any thing of the Kind, and tho you may have matters ofinfinately more importance before you, yet let it come as a relaxation to you. Know then that we have had a very cold backward Spring, till about ten days past when every thing looks finely. We have had fine Spring rains which makes the Husbandary promise fair -- but the great difficulty has been to procure Labourers. There is such a demand of Men from the publick and such a price given that the farmer who Hires must be greatly out of pocket. A man will not talk with you who is worth hireing under 24 pounds per year. Col. Quincy and Thayer give that price, and some give more. Isaac insisted upon my giving him 20 pounds or he would leave me. …I am still in quest of a Man by the year, but whether I shall effect it, I know not. I have done the best I could. We are just now ready to plant, the barly looks charmingly, I shall be quite a Farmeriss an other year.



Our Little Flock send duty. I called them seperately and told them Pappa wanted to send them something and requested of them what they would have. A Book was the answer of them all only Tom wanted a picture Book and Charlss the History of king and Queen. It was natural for them to think of a Book as that is the only present they ever Pappa has been used to make them.
Adieu -- Yours,
Hermitta

First observation: poor Abigail couldn’t spell. But then, nobody could back then. The men, given at least some formal education, fared slightly better, but there were no standards with regard to punctuation and capitalization. Thus, Everything, especially Nouns, always seemed slightly larger than Life!

Abigail took pride in her farming. In boasting to John that she will be “quite a little farmeress,” she wishes not only to relieve his anxiety about her but to assure him that she’s on board with a popular value at that time: homespun self-sufficiency. What money she has is nearly worthless; her farm hand’s an incompetent drunk. But, by golly, she is going to get the job done—singlehandedly, if necessary.

It is jarring to tour Abigail’s later house, Peacefield, which the couple bought in 1787 and which Abigail immediately enlarged and renovated, ordering furniture from France to fill it. The later house matched their increased wealth and status, but the Gilbert Stuart portrait of Abigail, begun in 1800, will always strike me as disingenuous. Gone, it seems, is the proud “farmeress.” But I suppose that’s American upward mobility for you.

Finally, Abigail had a wonderful way of needling John Adams. Unlike even some of the world’s greatest statesmen, she was fearless of him. Her letter concludes with a transparent reproach: that he is forever buying books for the children, when presumably they would like something less intellectual now and then.

George Washington, Terrorist

In an earlier letter, dated March 31 of that year, Abigail famously teases John:

I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could.
The discovery that amazed me, however, was not Abigail’s letter of March 31st but another, penned on the same day. This second letter was written by His Excellency George Washington to his brother John, and presents an eerie correspondence with Abigail’s own. Writing from Boston, Washington writes,


March 31, 1776 …all those who took upon themselves the Style, and title of Government Men in Boston, in short, all those who have acted an unfriendly part in this great Contest have Shipped themselves off in the same hurry, but under still greater disadvantages than the King's Troops have done; being obliged to Man their own Vessels (for Seamen could not be had for the Transports for the Kings use) and submit to every hardship that can be conceiv'd. One or two have done, what a great many ought to have done long ago, committed Suicide.
While I knew Washington to have little sympathy for traitors, and hung people without a shred of remorse, I was shocked to discover just how venomous he could be. His was a steely radicalism that shared more with the likes of Robespierre or even Bin Laden than, say the compassionate and inwardly conflicted Abraham Lincoln. I was soon to find reverberations of Washington’s radicalism rippling out from the epicenter: in confiscation acts that took Tories’ homes and goods, in the banishments and death threats. As the war progressed, these acts took on the dangerous cast of ideological fundamentalism.

The Oyster that Ate Manhattan

On a lighter note, the abundance of New England’s wildlife at the time is astonishing. Clearly, we fought not only for independence but for the primacy of our species in this relatively new land: bears occasionally roamed the farms of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Oysters were so large that a couple could feed on a single one for dinner.


Lobsters the size of human beings were reported. Indeed, lobster was so abundant in New England waters that savvy servants wrote it into their contracts that they were not to be fed lobster more than twice a week. In January of 1779, in Braintree, the crow population grew so large that the air looked like something out of Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” Braintree’s selectmen offered its citizens 6 shillings for an old crow and 2 for a young one. By May, that offer had risen to 30 shillings for an old crow. This fact appears in a few scenes of my novel.

I conclude my wildlife section with a recipe from Revolutionary War Period Cookery, by Robert W. Pelton. It was John Adams’s favorite oyster recipe, and calls for a quart of shucked oysters. Skip it if you are not rolling in cash!

Chicken and Oysters – An Adams Family Favorite
½ cup butter
½ cup flour
1 tsp salt
1 cup spinach, chopped
¼ tsp pepper
4 cups cooked chicken, diced
4 cups cream
1 quart oysters, drained
1 cup celery, chopped fine

Put butter in cast iron skillet and melt. Add salt, pepper and cream. Blend well. Slowly stir in flour so as not to lump. Then add spinach and cooked chicken pieces. Mix everything thoroughly. Lastly add the oysters. Let mixture simmer until oysters are nice and plump. Sprinkle over nicely with fine chopped celery and serve immediately.  

Strange Bedfellows

Finally, a fact that moved me most of all to discover was the physical intimacy of the time. Individuals did not feel entitled to have a great wall of space around them, as we do now. Coaches, church pews, markets, and beds were shoulder-to-shoulder crowded. Men and women had few issues with touching, kissing, and sleeping with someone of the same sex. Tolerance for odors was certainly much higher than ours—people generally bathed once a month, washed their clothing once a year. Beds were expensive and families often slept in one bed, as did travelers. Life stank.

And on this note, I’ll close with a famous story about the time John Adams and Ben Franklin were forced to share a bed while traveling from Philadelphia to Staten Island. Here is an excerpt from John Adams’s journal entry:

Sept. 6, 1776

The Taverns were so full We could with difficulty obtain Entertainment. At Brunswick, but one bed could be procured for Dr. Franklin and me, in a Chamber little larger than the bed, without a Chimney and with only one small Window….

… The Doctor then began an harrangue, upon Air and cold and Respiration and Perspiration, with which I was so much amused that I soon fell asleep…

I have often conversed with him since on the same subject: and I believe with him that Colds are often taken in foul Air, in close Rooms: but they are often taken from cold Air, abroad too. I have often asked him, whether a Person heated with Exercise, going suddenly into cold Air, or standing still in a current of it, might not have his Pores suddenly contracted, his Perspiration stopped, and that matter thrown into the Circulations or cast upon the Lungs which he acknowledged was the Cause of Colds. To this he never could give me a satisfactory Answer. And I have heard that in the Opinion of his own able Physician Dr. Jones he fell a Sacrifice at last, not to the Stone but to his own Theory; having caught the violent Cold, which finally choaked him, by sitting for some hours at a Window, with the cool Air blowing upon him.

For me, this letter reveals so much: not just about John Adams’s thorny character but about the profound closeness that could be achieved at the time. It wasn’t a good closeness; it wasn’t a bad closeness. It was an “I love you/hate you/accept you/you’re in my face” kind of closeness that is unmistakably real, unmistakably human, and that I feel, in this age of Tweetchats with cyber-strangers, more than a little nostalgic for.

The physical intimacy of these two outsize personalities is the stuff of high comedy to us now. Adams professes boredom with Franklin’s harangue, but that doesn’t mean he let the matter drop. No, he continued to argue with Franklin—for years—about the cause of the common cold. And when he reveals that Dr. Franklin finally succumbed to a bad one from “sitting hours at a window, with the cool Air blowing upon him,” his glee is obvious. John Adams always had to have the last word. And he always did—unless he happened to be speaking to his wife, Abigail.

~

Jodi Daynard is the author of The Midwife's Revolt, a novel, and The Place Within: Portraits of the American Landscape by 20 Contemporary Writers. Her stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Paris Review, The Harvard Review, Harvard Magazine, The Boston Globe, Agni, The New England Review, and elsewhere. She taught writing in the Expository Writing Program at Harvard University, at M.I.T., and in the MFA program at Emerson College. The Midwife's Revolt was published by Opossum Press in January 2013 ($18.95 trade pb / $4.95 ebook, 440pp). 

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

An examination of Claire Holden Rothman's The Heart Specialist

Although I'm using the next month to devote attention to small press historical novels, March is best known as Women's History Month. As such, I thought The Heart Specialist would be a good selection for both events.

Claire Holden Rothman's quasi-biographical novel about one of the first female physicians in Canada provides an eye-opening perspective on the obstacles that modern medicine's founding mothers had to overcome. 

Rothman bases her lead character on Maude Abbott, who graduated from a Montreal medical school in 1894 and became a world-renowned expert on congenital heart disease. I decided not to link to any online articles about her because then the career path of Agnes White, Dr. Abbott's fictional counterpart, would hold no surprises. However, because she's writing about an invented character, the author has greater freedom in developing Agnes's personal life, which she has creatively imagined.

Agnes is an unfashionable woman who takes interest in an unfashionable field of medicine, since few cures were possible for her unfortunate patients at that time.  We first meet her in 1882 as a curious child who would rather be performing dissections than playing dress-up.

Her mother is dead, and her father HonorĂ© Bourret, formerly a physician at McGill University, had abandoned the family in the wake of scandal after his sister's murder.  Agnes believes him innocent and looks for him in every older man she sees.  She and her fragile younger sister, Laure, are brought up in the QuĂ©becois village of St. Andrews East by their indomitable grandmother, who changed their last name to her own name of White.

One bright spot in Agnes's childhood is her governess, Miss Skerry, herself a woman of science and learning. There were limited choices open to educated women at the time: they could become governesses, schoolteachers, or, preferably, wives and mothers  There are no true role models for "unnatural" girls like Agnes, who must blaze her own trail and face the consequences.

Writing with empathy and conviction, Rothman takes us through Agnes's pioneering journey: the long hours of study, the intellectual triumphs, and the contemptuous doctors who are her only hope for a professional education but who refuse to let her advance. Even as a middle-aged physician during the WWI years, Agnes must take the back stairway, the one reserved for "waiters and women," when meeting a colleague for dinner at McGill's University Club. The unfairness of it all comes through powerfully.

For that reason, some of the author's choices are frustrating in a different way.  For the early part of her career, Agnes has a strong narrative voice, but she's given little dialogue with which to share it.  When her male colleagues and superiors speak, she mostly nods, smiles, or stutters.  Her emergence as an outspoken feminist wouldn't have helped her career; all the same, her excessive verbal passivity doesn't suit her ambitions or academic prowess, and I felt myself wanting to pull words out of her.

Likewise, while it gives her an appealing vulnerability, Agnes's social awkwardness is overemphasized, and her scientific detachment from her emotions edges close to stereotype.  The novel's title has an ironic double meaning that plays out predictably: she has experience aplenty with cardiology but fails to recognize love when it's under her nose.

Several intertwining forces shadow Agnes throughout the novel: her desire to please her long-absent father by following in his footsteps; the guiding influence of her mentor, one of her father's former students; and a defective three-chambered heart, stored and preserved in a glass jar.  At novel's end, the mysteries associated with all three are resolved in a realistic manner.

Agnes's tireless efforts are finally vindicated, and seeing her accomplishments publicly acknowledged, in the end, makes for a satisfying story.  Reading this book left me with immense respect for the brave women who were the first to break out of their strictures, as well as the struggles they endured in order to be taken seriously.

In the US, The Heart Specialist was published by Soho Press out of New York in 2011 ($25.00, hb, 325pp).  Cormorant Books, which specializes in new literary fiction, published it in Canada in 2009 ($21.00, pb).  This was a personal purchase.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Guest post by Justin Swanton, author of Centurion's Daughter

Today I'm pleased to welcome Justin Swanton, a South Africa-based novelist and illustrator, who has contributed a detail-rich essay about the twilight of Roman Gaul and the corresponding rise of the Franks under Clovis in the late 5th century.  In his novel Centurion's Daughter, Aemilia, a young woman of seventeen, gets caught up in the war between the last unconquered Roman provinces and the Frankish alliance.  How do you research a period that's historically important but in which the primary sources are maddeningly few?  Below, Justin explains his process and the conclusions he drew from what he learned.

~

Centurion’s Daughter is set in an era that has hardly been touched by fiction: Gaul at the end of the fifth century, when the last provinces of the Western Roman Empire were attacked by a Frankish confederation under Clovis. It is a fascinating period and an important one, as everything that happened here would determine the nature of the Middle Ages that followed.

Besides the history, you would think the personages and events would bring novelists out in droves. On one side you have Afranius Syagrius, 57, Roman aristocrat and general, epitomizing everything the old order had stood for. On the other side there is Clovis, 20, young and dynamic, who would acquire a Catholic wife he deeply respected and, later on, her religion, making him so much the future of western Europe. Clovis was a man to take incredible risks when necessary. At the Battle of Vouille he confronted a vastly superior Visigothic cavalry. What other general would have gathered his personal guards, charged straight at the Visigothic king Alaric, killed him personally in hand-to-hand combat, then galloped back to his lines with the entire enemy cavalry in hot pursuit? Riveting stuff.

So why is the period almost untouched? The problem as I found out is the research. Just things like discovering that Syagrius’s first name was Afranius was quite an achievement. Putting together a coherent picture of the time took me years and involved a careful reading of the primary sources, as well as abandoning several popular misconceptions. Let me give a few details of what I uncovered.

1. The Roman army survived the official fall of Rome. Procopius, personal secretary to the Byzantine General Belisarius, describes as something remarkable the fact that formations of the Western Imperial army had endured right up to his time, the middle of the sixth century, with their standards, uniforms and traditions intact. These were the units – former legions – that Syagrius had led with confidence against Clovis. After Syagrius fell, they were maintained by rich Roman aristocrats as bucellarii, or private troops.

Credit: Letavia
2. The Roman nobility also survived the official fall of Rome. A popular conception of the fall of the Empire consists of hordes of barbarians marauding over the countryside, pillaging and burning, ending the Roman way of life forever. The truth was very different. In places like Britain, parts of Spain and north Africa, society did descend into anarchy, but this came more from internal dissolution than barbarian influence. The greater part of the former Roman territories, however, kept their societal structures intact, which meant the wealthy landed class – rich senators – remained in possession of their estates, even under barbarian rule. It is a complicated period. The new barbarian masters worked with the entrenched Roman ruling class, they did not displace it.

3. It took Clovis ten years to conquer the last Roman provinces. This is my own conclusion, after comparing primary sources like Gregory of Tours, Procopius, the Life of St Genovefa, the Liber Historiae Francorum, and other works. To sum up the history, Clovis was a foederatus, or subordinate ally of Syagrius, who initially gave him the title to Belgica II, one of the four provinces he controlled. Time passed and Syagrius decided to reassert his authority over the province, setting up his capital in Soissons. In 486 Clovis gathered an alliance of Salian Franks and fought Syagrius near Soissons, defeating him. The Roman governor was deposed by his realm and forced to flee to the Visigoths, who later handed him over to Clovis for execution. The three Roman provinces not under Clovis’s control made their stand and stopped the Frankish king dead in his tracks for ten years. It was during this time that Paris was besieged and, under the leadership of St Genevieve, successfully held out against the Franks.


In 493 Clovis married St. Clotilde, a Burgundian princess whose father and mother had been murdered by her uncle. She was a Catholic and immediately set out to convert her pagan husband, partly because it was the only way to end the war between the Franks and Gallo-Romans, who would never accept a pagan ruler. Clovis loved her and allowed her to baptize their children, but only became Catholic himself when his army was on the brink of rout in a battle against the Alamans in 496. He promised the God of Clotilde he would convert if he won. The Franks rallied and went on to victory, and Clovis kept his word and was baptized on Christmas Eve that year or the year following. With Clovis a Catholic a peace could finally be brokered and the last provinces of Rome came under Frankish rule, with the exception of Brittany which remained semi-independent.

Credit: Letavia
My own novel covers the time just before, during and after the battle near Soissons between Syagrius and Clovis. Personally I like sticking to the old Greek drama rule of having everything happen in one place during a limited period of time. Centurion’s Daughter takes place in or near Soissons over the space of a year.

A lot of time went into researching Gallo-Roman daily life at the end of the fifth century. Again, it wasn’t easy. I couldn’t find a book that covered clothing, eating habits, furniture and housing arrangements of Gallo-Romans at the very end of the Empire, all under one cover. It was very much a case of uncovering a bit here and a bit there. Gallo-Romans, for example, had wickerwork high-backed chairs and usually ate at tables, not lying on couches like the Romans of Italy. Money was really problematic. I didn’t have too much difficulty finding out what coins were in use, but deducing to what extent the monetary system had collapsed and been replaced by barter was much less straightforward. Coin and barter both exist in my novel. In the end I had to use educated guesswork for a number of the details.

Now that the research is substantially done I intend to use it for a number of future novels of which one is already in the pipeline, taking place near the end of the ten-year war described above. It is an exciting era, and I don’t regret the effort I put into it. I hope you enjoy the result.

~

Justin Swanton is a graphic designer and manager in a small printing firm in South Africa. Centurion’s Daughter is his first novel. He has a website and a blog. Besides writing, his interests are computer and hand drawn illustration and wargaming.

Centurion's Daughter was published by Arx in 2011 (list price $17.95, heavily discounted on Amazon; trade pb; 336pp). The Kindle edition sells for $5.97.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Anne-Marie Drosso's In Their Father's Country, thoughtful reflections on 20th-century Cairo

Anne-Marie Drosso's In Their Father's Country presents a sensitive and bracingly honest view of modern Egyptian history, as seen through the eyes of a woman whose life spans nearly the entire 20th century.

This setting may seem exotic to Western readers, but Claire Sahli and her older sister Gabrielle are modern women growing up in the cosmopolitan city of Cairo, which makes the mental transition relatively smooth.

The novel opens in 1924, when Claire is fourteen and Gabrielle fifteen.  Their beloved father Selim, an experienced lawyer who is a proud crusader for the working classes, is succumbing to kidney disease.  His death leaves his wife and daughters vulnerable and forces them to turn to his brother Yussef for their livelihoods.

Claire and Gabrielle's mother is Italian, and Claire can't help but wonder why her father's obituary omits the name of his wife.  Was it because of her desire for privacy, or something more?  As the novel progresses, secrets from her parents' history are slowly exposed, leaving Claire to decide how to react to what she learns.

The novel's title is apt.  Egypt was Selim's homeland, but over time, his Greek Catholic family finds themselves increasingly pushed to the margins of Cairo society.  They are privileged, but not rich, and the nationalist movement is gaining ground.  Although the Sahlis favor Egypt's independence from Britain, the country's mid-20th century focus on Arab solidarity, under Nasser's rule, threatens to leave them behind altogether.

She remembered the twenties as a time when just about everyone around her was touched by nationalist fervor.  Now, in her circles, many of her friends and acquaintances were saying that that the new generation of nationalists was becoming rudderless and uncontrollable.  Was the current political agitation perceived in those circles as posing a fundamental threat to their existence?

Through Claire and her relatives' experiences, readers get an informative glimpse at Egypt's volatile politics and varied social values, which mix the surprisingly liberated with the very traditional.  Married when she's barely out of school to a man who's considerably older, Claire later takes lovers; meanwhile, her cousin's husband stirs up conflict with his desire for a second wife. 

Claire's story is spliced into segments, each of which brings an important period of her life to the forefront: the death of a past lover in 1941, the birth of her son in 1947, her unwilling job transfer to the city of Minya in 1968, a decision forced upon her by her supervisor because of political pressure.  Claire moves there because she wants to keep her retirement pension, but with her high salary and lack of fluent Arabic, she is strongly resented by her coworkers.

The changing relationships between Claire and members of her large, extended family, which includes close friends and servants, figure prominently.  The tensions between warm, gregarious Claire and Gabrielle, who is described as "neither tender nor nurturing," only grow as the sisters age.  Because the plot jumps from one time period to another, readers are left to fill in some gaps themselves.  In particular, I wish Drosso had allowed us to glimpse Claire's formative yearsshe skips straight from 1924 to 1941so we could see how her personality formed.

Many chapters revolve around a relative's death, which creates a nostalgic, thoughtful feel.  Adding to this sense are the different forms of literary expression included in the text, such as personal letters, journal entries, and a short memoir written by one of Claire's daughters.

In Their Father's Country is an absorbing, reflective portrait of a resilient woman, her country, and how they weathered the external forces affecting them both.  It was published by Telegram Books, an independent publisher of international literary fiction, in 2009 (£7.99, US $13.95, Can $15.50, trade pb, 227pp including glossary).  This was a personal purchase.

Welcome to Small Press Month at Reading the Past

Individualistic.  Specialized.  Risk-taking.  Independent.  These are some words that come to mind when speaking about small presses.

Last year around this time, I started seeing bookseller reports and bloggers' posts about Small Press Month, which was traditionally held during March.  I decided then that I wanted to participate the next time March rolled around.  Unfortunately, the national celebration of this event seems to have fallen by the wayside for 2013 perhaps funding was lost? but I decided to forge ahead with my plans regardless!

Starting today, and over the next 30 days, Reading the Past will be looking exclusively at historical novels from small presses.  Definitions for this term can vary, but I'll be using it to include those publishers outside of the Big Six that are independently run and not part of large conglomerates.  Many of them specialize in certain types of works (literary fiction, regional settings, particular genres, and so forth).  There's even a growing number of small presses that publish only historical novels, something I find very exciting.

Because they may have more modest sales expectations than the industry big boys, they can afford to take chances on topics and styles that lie outside the mainstream or which may not have huge audiences.  However, while small presses may not feel as much pressure to follow trends, they can find themselves creating or shaping them.  Some examples of small press titles that became breakout hits for their authors: Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill), Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants (ditto), Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White (Canongate), Peter Behrens' The Law of Dreams (House of Anansi), and John Shors' Beneath a Marble Sky (McPherson & Co).

Historical novels have thrived in the world of small and independent presses, and I've always enjoyed seeing the diversity they offer readers.  In fact, they're a necessary part of the industry, especially now, a time when many excellent mid-list authors are being dropped by their Big Name publishers for not meeting high sales goalsor for other more nebulous or arbitrary reasons.

I have a great selection of guest posts, reviews, and previews of small press titles lined up over the course of the next month, and I hope you'll enjoy reading along and seeing what's in store.