Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Grist by Linda Little, a story of women's resilence in rural Nova Scotia

Even sensible girls can be taken in by unexpected attention. Linda Little's resilient heroine, a schoolteacher in rural Nova Scotia in 1875, discovers this to her regret when her landlord’s taciturn, socially awkward brother begins paying court to her. Describing herself up front as a “large, square-jawed girl – graceless but strong,” Penelope McCabe has a warm, honest voice that endears readers to her. How she deals with a situation that becomes progressively more unhappy gains her both sympathy and admiration.

Ewan MacLaughlin’s letters to Penelope are hardly the wooing sort – full of practicalities and odd questions, they’re the opposite of romantic.  It's apparent from the outset that something's off with him.  Maybe he's just shy?  Penelope is curious about his quirky approach, but part of her is pleased regardless. Understandably, she longs for marriage and a family, just like any other hopeful young woman of her time would.

Ewan owns and runs a mill “way up the Gunn Brook,” so he has the means to provide for a wife.  After he and Penelope wed, they board his wagon and ride three hours from town to Ewan’s newly constructed home, which she delights in exploring. Her optimism turns to puzzlement, though, once she gets a better grasp of Ewan’s true nature.

Ill-mannered and controlling, his personality grounded in a warped form of piety, Ewan makes it clear he hates conversation and resents her socializing with anyone. Mills are Ewan’s life, and he’s so talented at building and improving them that his skills are in high demand from all over the province. Forced against her will to run their mill alone, Penelope finds her happiness where she can: in the stark beauty of the landscape, which is beautifully evoked; in her friendship with neighboring farmers; and in unanticipated stolen moments. Ewan takes his revenge for her perceived weaknesses, and it's left to Penelope to protect her family from its effects.

Over the course of this multi-generational story, several chapters draw readers into Ewan’s viewpoint – told in the more distant third person, as feels appropriate – and allow insight into his mindset and why the straight, predictable art of engineering served as a peaceful escape from his rough childhood. Given how he treats Penelope, these sections can be a hard sell in eliciting significant empathy for Ewan, but they succeed in providing background for why he acts as he does. Elegantly written, with lovely descriptions of mill work and the transient joys Penelope finds in family life, Grist is a bleak and bittersweet ode to historical women’s strength and endurance.

Grist was published in 2014 (trade pb, $20.95, 234pp) by Roseway, the literary imprint of Nova Scotia-based Fernwood Publishing, which "aims to publish literary work that is rooted in and relevant to struggles for social justice."  Thanks to the author and Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for the review copy.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Book review: The Orenda, by Joseph Boyden

A noteworthy literary achievement, Boyden’s mesmerizing third novel sits at the confluence of three civilizations in 17th-century Ontario. The narration alternates among Bird, a Wendat (Huron) warrior; Snow Falls, the young Iroquois captive he adopts after killing her family to avenge his wife and daughters; and Père Christophe, a thoughtfully intelligent, multilingual Jesuit missionary. Over some years, as the growing French presence in the New World upsets a fragile balance and threats from the Iroquois become urgent, the French and Wendat move toward alliance, which, tragically, increases the latter’s susceptibility to European diseases.

In this deeply researched work, Boyden captures his characters’ disparate beliefs, remaining impartial even as they pass judgment on the customs they find simultaneously fascinating and repellent in the others. The prose conveys a raw beauty in its depictions of trade journeys, daily life within longhouses, and spirituality; the Huron Feast of the Dead, for example, is presented as a majestic symphony of reverence. The scenes of ritual torture are difficult to read, and the novel offers many intense impressions of cross-cultural conflicts and differences, yet it is most affecting when evoking its protagonists’ shared humanity and the life force—the orenda—burning brightly within each of them.

The Orenda will be published by Knopf on May 13th (hb, $26.95). It was first published by Hamish Hamilton last September in Canada, where it became a national bestseller.  Last month, it was chosen as the winner of the 2014 Canada Reads literary battle

I wrote this starred review for Booklist's March 1st issue.  The Orenda also made it to Booklist's top 10 in historical fiction for 2014 (which also includes two other picks of mine: Emma Donoghue's Frog Music and Henning Mankell's A Treacherous Paradise).

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Downton Abbey readalikes meet the university library

I recently had the opportunity to put up a display of Downton Abbey readalike books at the university library where I work.  The exhibit was timed to begin just after Season 4 wrapped up – it ran during the month of March so I figured I'd have an eager audience.  Even so, I underestimated the huge demand there was for these books, and I found myself scrambling to meet it.

Library book displays are nothing new, so it seems silly in a way to dedicate a blog post to it.  But I thought I might share my experience as a way of encouraging academic libraries in particular to try something similar.  College students are avid readers, as are faculty and staff. 

Also, I've heard from friends in the publishing industry that interest in country house sagas and the Edwardian era is starting to wane.  This is hardly a scientific experiment, but if the success of this project is any indication, this isn't true as far as readers are concerned.

Here are pics of both sides.  I started out with 16 titles purchased just for the display (ordered by my colleague Pam, who oversees our popular reading collections). They were mostly trade paperbacks, both fiction and nonfiction.  Then I supplemented them with more titles we already had in our collections, for a total of 22 in all.  I was fortunate to be given a visible spot on the library's main level, right near the circulation desk.  At the top were two signs I had fun creating:  "Looking for something to read while waiting for Season 5?" and "Reading Fit for a Dowager Countess."

The display went up on Monday, March 3rd.  By Tuesday afternoon, half of the titles had been checked out.  By the end of the week, only six titles remained, and the exhibit was looking very picked over.  So I pulled more relevant titles from our Read & Relax (paperback) and Bestsellers (hardcover) collections to fill up the display again, and anything that looked like it would remotely fit went in.  (For example, Philippa Gregory's Fallen Skies; a couple by Jacqueline Winspear.  We had many other WWI-era novels in our main stacks, but without covers, so I didn't include many of them.  Books on display without covers tend to sit there.) I replenished it twice more, and took away some unused display stands so it didn't look quite so empty.  Some returned items came back to the display.  Still, by the end of March, only three books were left.  It was impossible to keep it filled.  Almost everything added was checked out immediately.

On April 1st, I created a MS Access report to look at the circulation (i.e., number of checkouts) of all 32 items that were on the display at some point.  During the month, all but three titles had been checked out at least once, and many of them had been checked out twice.

I hope to revisit this display next winter, just before Season 5 starts... and next time, I'll be ready with even more books to include.  My next project is a display on novels set in the 1960s, both historical fiction as well as fiction that was written back then and gives a good sense of the era.  The library is organizing a large-scale exhibit and speaker series on the '60s for the fall, so this will be part of it.  I don't know if that book display will be as popular as the Downton one was, but I'll be curious to see how it turns out.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Book review: Wake, by Anna Hope

Wake is skillfully written from the outset, though the initial premise doesn’t feel especially groundbreaking: in post-WWI London, three ordinary women cope with their stagnant lives. Hettie partners single men at a Hammersmith dance hall to support her mother and shell-shocked brother, upper-class Evelyn works as a pension clerk while mourning her lover, and Ada can’t move past her soldier son’s death.

Hope then proceeds to color in their personal histories, revealing the distinctiveness of each character and situation over five days, during the lead-up to the unveiling of the Unknown Warrior’s tomb in Westminster Abbey. As their circumstances change and new people enter their lives, the women are spurred to action. Likewise, as these characters’ stories and others’ are intermixed, readers will be flipping pages to discover their tragic connection.

The background details are vivid, from a crowded West End jazz club to the trenches of northern France, both in 1920 and earlier. This increasingly riveting novel about war’s futility, grief, remembrance, and renewal is a solid effort timed just right for the WWI centenary.

This review first appeared in Booklist's November 1st issue.  Wake was published in February by Random House (hardcover, $26, 284pp); Doubleday published it in the UK in January (hardcover, £12.99).

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Bestselling historical novels of 2013

For the past seven years, I've analyzed Publishers Weekly's annual Facts & Figures articles to see which historical novels sold the most over the previous year.  The data for 2013 were published in PW's 3/17 issue, which just landed on my desk. As Daisy Maryles notes in her introduction, there are many familiar names overall particularly thriller writers but authors are having shorter tenures on the weekly bestseller lists.  With respect to historical novels, we're also seeing a few authors making their first appearance here in a while.

The usual disclaimers apply.  Books with hardcover domestic sales over 100K in hardcover or paperback were included in PW's list; publishers were asked to take returns into account, but these figures weren't often available at the time.

Here are the historical novels that made it on the list.  See also my previous posts on this topic from 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008 and 2007.

Looking at hardcovers in 2013, one semi-historical novel made it into the top 15:

#5 - Nicholas Sparks, The Longest Ride, which traces an elderly couple's love story over decades, beginning in 1939.  Did you realize Sparks had written a novel set in the past?

Topping the hardcover list was Dan Brown's Inferno (no surprise) with over 1 million copies, followed closely by Stephen King and John Grisham.

Other historical novels with 100K+ hardcover copies sold, in descending order of sales:

Jodi Picoult, The Storyteller (a perennial bestseller's first work of historical fiction; while mostly present-day, several threads are set in the past)
Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things (read my review here)
Amy Tan, The Valley of Amazement
Fannie Flagg, The All-Girl Filling Station's Last Reunion
Kate Atkinson, Life After Life (which won the historical fiction category in the Goodreads Choice Awards)
Clive Cussler and Justin Scott, The Striker
Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland

Look at the wide range of settings: Nazi Germany, 1800s America, early 20th-century China, the 1940s South, 20th-century England, 1902 America, and 1960s India.  None are set in the distant past, but nonetheless, readers can travel around the world through these historical novels.

This genre doesn't exactly thrive in mass market paperback format, so let's move on to the trade paperback list.  Here we find Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins (1960s), with 300K+ copies; Christina Baker Kline's unexpected bestseller Orphan Train, which had a nice PW profile last week; M.L. Stedman's The Light Between Oceans, a bestseller in hardcover; The Paris Wife, which continues well on the book club circuit; Ken Follett's mammoth The Winter of the World; The Storyteller again, in its trade pb re-release; Kate Morton's excellent The Secret Keeper... to name many in the 150,000+ copy range.

The top seller in trade paperback overall?  F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.  And looking at e-books, the top historical fiction seller is The Storyteller again (400,000+ copies).

How many have you read?  For me, just Signature of All Things and Winter of the World, but I have several others on the TBR.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Small Press Month: Wrap-Up and Contest Winners

We've moved on to April (if not quite spring yet, here in the Midwest), so it's time to wrap up last month's focus on small press historical fiction.

Thanks to everyone for reading along and commenting, and I'd like to extend a special appreciation to the ten guest authors who took the time to contribute essays about their novels and research.  It was a busy month, but a fun one for me.

Thanks also to all of the readers who left comments as part of my 8th anniversary giveaway; it was great to hear your thoughts, and I'll do my best to continue with the features you enjoy the most.

And now for some contest winners:

Copies of Brian Walter Budzynski's The Remark will be going out to:

Gabriele G.
Cheryl O.
Susan C.

And a small press novel of her choice (anything mentioned in a post in March) will be going to:

Erin H.

I'll be in touch this morning to get your mailing addresses.  Congratulations, and hope you enjoy the books!

Back in February, I said I'd provide a Mr. Linky for other bloggers to link up their reviews of small press historical fiction, and since I neglected to do so earlier, you're welcome to include them in the form below. Links should lead directly to your review post and not to your blog's main page.

There's no time restriction for these links; if you've reviewed a historical novel from a small press at any point on your sites, it's fine to include them. This will give other readers the largest selection possible of small press reviews to browse. If nothing else, I'm including my own four March reviews here!

Monday, March 31, 2014

History as seen by peasants and pagans, a guest essay by Kim Rendfeld

For the final post in this year's Small Press Month focus, Kim Rendfeld (who was interviewed here in September 2012) talks about the different perspectives offered by her two historical novels, both set in 8th-century Francia. 

History as Seen by Peasants and Pagans
By Kim Rendfeld

What would it be like if everything you believed literally went up in smoke? And what would it be like if one minute you were a freewoman and the next sold into slavery?

Those two questions arose in my mind during my research for my debut novel, The Cross and the Dragon (2012, Fireship Press), a tale of love amid the wars and blood feuds of Charlemagne’s reign. As I looked into the history of this era, two things caught my attention:

• In 772, Frankish King Charles destroyed the Irminsul, a pillar holy to the pagan Saxon peoples. The location and what the pillar was made of – or even if there was only one – are uncertain. Charles’s act was reminiscent of deeds by Saints Boniface and Willibrord. 

Charlemagne's destruction of the Irminsul, Hermann Wislicenus (ca 1880).
Source: Wikimedia Commons

• Slavery was alive and well in this era. War captives often ended up in servitude.

I had to let this information rest in the back of my mind while I wrote a novel from the perspective of Frankish Christian aristocrats who had their own difficulties to contend with. Novels by their very nature immerse readers in the world of the characters. For the story to feel real, readers must see events through people with their own virtues and flaws, beliefs and biases.

But that also means excluding other points of view. This causes a bit of tension for me. During my nearly two decades in journalism, I valued fairness and telling all sides of the story, especially from people not in power.

The pagan Continental Saxons fit the definition of underdog. They are history’s loser. After more than 30 years of war off and on and brutality on both sides, Charlemagne’s Franks subjugated them. In addition, the Church did everything it could to obliterate the religion, which it considered devil worship, and the Continental Saxons did not have a written language as we know it.

Even on the Frankish side, literacy was limited. The annals, letters, and other documents concern themselves mainly with the affairs of royalty and saints. Pagans are depicted as brutes, war captives are treated like war booty, and peasants are rarely mentioned at all.

That urge for fairness is one reason an imaginary Saxon peasant family sold into slavery insisted I tell their story as I was trying to figure out my second novel. Originally secondary characters, they hijacked my plot.

The result: The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar (forthcoming 2014, Fireship Press), which depicts many of the same historical events as my debut but from the views of a pagan mother and her two children. My heroine, Leova, must grapple with why the gods let the Irminsul burn and how to protect her children when she’s lost everything – her husband, her home, her faith, even her freedom.

Here, historical fiction fills a gap. It might be the only way to see early medieval history through the eyes of pagans and peasants.


A former journalist and current copy editor for a university marketing and communications office, Kim Rendfeld has a lifelong fascination with fairy tales and legends, which set her on her quest to write The Cross and the Dragon and its companion, The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar.

For more about Kim, visit kimrendfeld.com or her blog, Outtakes of a Historical Novelist. If you’d like to receive an e-mail from Kim when The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar is available, contact her at kim [at] kimrendfeld [dot] com.