Thursday, March 30, 2006

In Which a Historical Error Repeats Itself

In my latest "What We're Reading" column for NoveList, a readers' advisory database for public and school libraries, one of the novels I highlighted was Fiona Avery's The Crown Rose. It's a historical fantasy novel about Isabelle, Princess of France, the younger sister of Louis IX who was later canonized (as was he). I won't give a formal review here since the column won't be out until June, other than to say that for "What We're Reading," I only cover novels that I enjoy. But you can read the description and reviews on Amazon.

You can also read more about St. Isabelle at the public domain Catholic Encyclopedia, although since Crown Rose is a historical fantasy, the novel diverges from her actual life story in unique ways.

The dust jacket copy begins as follows: "The Crown Rose tells the story of Isabelle of France, born heir to the throne: her life from childhood to her later years; a life of turmoil and strife and longing...."

Right away, I wondered if whoever wrote this blurb read the book, or even showed the blurb to the author in advance of publication, because it makes you wonder if the author knows anything about French history. Isabelle was not born heir to the throne; in 1240, when the novel begins, she not only has two older brothers, Robert and Alphonse, in addition to King Louis, but she also has a younger brother, Charles. And if I'm not mistaken, the Salic law was operating during that time, as it did for most of French history, so women could not inherit at all.

Anyway, it's not the author's mistake, and this is clear after you read the book. But nonetheless, on Amazon you'll find reviews in Publishers Weekly, the Midwest Book Review, and from Klausner repeating the same "heir to the throne" bit. Curious.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Reusable Cover Art

Have you ever thought that the cover of a historical novel looked kind of familiar? Designers are getting very creative with PhotoShop lately, but your humble blogger can spot a duplicate cover image a mile away. Most of the examples I've seen depict historical women. This may reflect current trends in cover art, or it may reveal something about my powers of observation.

A few years ago, I began posting examples of duplicate covers on the HNS e-mail list. Since then, I've found a bunch more.

I realize that authors have little choice in cover design. These examples are very eye-catching, so I have no criticisms about the art in itself. In fact, the images are so attractive that they've been used as cover art more than once. Sometimes more than twice. I mean no harm by this exercise; I'm merely suggesting that maybe, it would be nice if the art department was a little more selective when browsing through the Corbis collection, or in choosing classic works of art to grace dust jackets. Perhaps there's another image of Cleopatra that could work just as well? Etcetera.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy these. Please visit Reusable Cover Art in Historical Novels: A Gallery.

Monday, March 27, 2006

A Big, Thick Novel by a Debut Writer

My daily Google alert for "historical novel society" brought up a recent article on Anne Easter Smith's A Rose for the Crown which, as she rightly notes, was an Editors' Choice selection in the HNR last quarter. I can't wait to read it. Her next novel's going to be about Margaret of York, sister of Edward IV:

Smith is two-thirds of the way through "A Daughter of York." Book tour aside, the writing is more stressful than her first book. Margaret of York (1446-1503) was the daughter of Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York, and Cecily Neville. She became known as Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy when she became Charles' third wife. Their dynastic and opulent marriages occurred in Bruges on July 9, 1468.

More details from the Press Republican, a newspaper local to eastern NY State.
And read the HNR review of her novel, too.

If it's true that chain bookstores refuse to carry big thick novels by unknown writers, how do you explain the success of this 670-page tome?
Literary Market Place and Its Readers (Or Lack Thereof)

So today I'm on my lunch break, going through the foot-high stack of mail that piled up while I was at PLA last week. Of course, I open up the packages first. Three of them are addressed to me as Historical Novels Review editor. Today's take includes: three nice-looking paperbacks from a legit fantasy/gaming publisher; a self-published legal thriller; and a self-published Christian SF novel personally inscribed by the author to "Sarah Johnston." Into the book sale pile they go, unless anyone reading this happens to be interested in fantasy/RPG novels (email me for the titles if so) or either of the other two (doubtful).

This is pretty common. Most review copies arrive at my home address, but when I went to the trouble of listing HNR in Literary Market Place a few years ago, I included my work address, phone, and email. Sometimes I do get phone calls - and very odd ones at that - but I'll save that for another time. But out of all the review copies that have shown up at the library over the years, exactly one of them has been relevant to HNR and suitable for review. (And that one didn't get such a hot review, so maybe the publisher is sorry they bothered.) Don't get me wrong, I think LMP is a great reference source, and it's even published by Information Today, who published my first book. Too bad its users don't know how to read. Otherwise why would they send this random stuff to a historical fiction review journal? These are packages sent Priority Mail and hand-addressed, too. I hope there'll be more interesting packages waiting for me at home today - books I can actually do something with.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Tolstoy and the Semi-Headless Gowned Women

Sarah C has already blogged about Faber & Faber's promotion of Jane Harris's upcoming historical novel The Observations. The British cover is posted at her site. Generally, I like the semi-headless woman-style covers, since they're eye catching and have "historical novel" written all over them. It makes historical fiction easy to identify, for a nice change. (In the US at least, this style cover is less associated with historical romance, although this trend has been catching on in US romance publishing within the last year.)

On the other hand, when I saw the UK cover for the new translation of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, I couldn't help feeling a bit torn about this trend. Yes, it's a beautiful cover, and it might even convince me to buy the book (no, I haven't read it before - blasphemy!). I know that's Penguin's strategy, to get people to purchase it, for aren't all publishers in the business of making money? I suppose this very modern cover also indicates that Anthony Briggs's translation has updated the story for the present-day reader. That's what Viking (US)'s publicity blurb stated, when I received the review copy. On the other hand, unlike The Observations, re-releases of Jean Plaidy novels, The Other Boleyn Girl (which is the first usage of this cover style that I can recall), and other novels with these covers, War and Peace doesn't focus exclusively on a woman's life. Sure, there are strong women in it, but that's different. Which makes the cover just a tad deceptive, IMHO.

This also points out to me that the semi-headless woman trend is in danger of being overused. And when book cover styles are overused, they can easily become stereotypes. Check out the cover of HarperPerennial's version (also UK), which is being released this April - only this is a different translation and version than the Penguin one. Again, another gorgeous image. Then compare to the very plain jacket chosen by Viking (US), which is the one I received; it'll be reviewed in May's Historical Novels Review. Which one would you choose?

All in all, I suppose as long as these covers are getting people to read historical fiction, especially classic works of historical fiction, I really shouldn't complain. Maybe I should shut up and purchase it already. Were postage not prohibitive, I admit I'd be tempted to buy one of the British editions, just because of the pretty cover. Sigh. Marketing strategies do work.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Other random thoughts on PLA in Boston

Disclaimer - I didn't actually attend PLA, just the precon I spoke at and the exhibits, due to expense and a lack of time on my part (I had too many other PLA-related commitments during the day), so you can take these thoughts as they are. But in looking at the program, I can see a number of sessions I would've liked to attend. I'd seriously consider attending in the future, if only to get the chance to see reader's advisory sessions on topics I'm not as familiar with.

  • All the public librarians I met were really cool. I got to hang out with a bunch of readers' advisors from the PLA Readers' Advisory Committee, other NoveList writer-type folks, and other LU authors. It was good to finally match faces with names, after seeing all these people's posts and columns on NoveList and Fiction-L.

  • If I had any other doubts that Charleston, Illinois, was the unofficial center of the known universe, they were brushed aside after I went to Elsevier's booth in the exhibit hall and had a nice chat with one of the sales reps. She was an EIU alum who said she used to party with EIU's current prez. And this is after learning that Brad Hooper, my editor at Booklist, grew up in a house in my subdivision here in Charleston.

  • Don't bother with the saag paneer from the fast-food Indian places at Copley Place or at Quincy Market. (Yes, I tried both) It's better than the creamed spinach that passes for saag in these here parts, but it's still nothing like the real thing.

  • I was surprised to see how few PLA attendees bothered with the subway system (the "T"). It's the only way I've ever gotten around Boston, and it sure beat making the long trek from our hotel to the Hynes Convention Center across Boston Common in windy 30-degree weather. Okay, I really did need to wake up that morning, but that walk probably wasn't such a good idea.

  • I wish I could remember the name (it started with a "D"...), but there was this Irish pub on an upper floor of a building adjacent to Quincy Market. I had "Boston schrod" with breadcrumb topping. Highly recommended. (Mark tells me it was "Durgin Park" at North Market - sounds right)

  • Boston rush hour starts around 5am.

  • I'm probably too spoiled by ALA and BEA to give a realistic impression of the exhibits. The halls were huge, sure, but where were all the adult trade publishers? Random House had their usual conference spread, I was pleased to see, and I managed to grab all of their relevant summer catalogs. For some unknown reason last fall, they dropped me from their mailing list, which makes it much harder to request ARCs... grr. I also got some ARCs from the Holtzbrinck (St. Martin's/Tor/Forge/etc) booth in exchange for a business card. But Simon & Schuster, Hyperion, and Penguin's booths were quite small, and most only featured children's titles. I saw in the exhibitor list that many trade pubs were first-time exhibitors, which is a good sign. Maybe it means they're taking the library market more seriously. Poisoned Pen Press, a small publisher that does a lot of historical mysteries, was there - I don't work with them personally, but my fellow HNR editor Ilysa Magnus does, and they've been keeping her up to date. For the rest, I'll have to wait for BEA in a couple months. I don't think I'll be attending ALA this year.

  • All of the presenters at the precon (Brad Hooper, Duncan Smith, and authors Ronald Florence and Kathryn Lasky) agreed that historical fiction was finally seeing a long-awaited resurgence among readers.

Madlyn Schneider, chair of the PLA RA committee, sent me a link with some photos from the conference. Bearing in mind that I rarely photograph well, here they are.
PLA conference talk report

Last night Mark and I got home from the Public Library Association conference in Boston, where I was invited to give the keynote at a preconference workshop on historical fiction/nonfiction. So this afternoon, I was googling the session to find out if anyone blogged it, and it turns out that someone did. Someone from YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association) must have been sitting there with their laptop taking notes while I was talking, because the report seems accurate. It's a rundown of some of the points I covered, minus the actual PowerPoint slides. I'm impressed - this is pretty cool. It even makes the talk look relatively well organized, which is a good thing :)

I've been hearing positive feedback from the committee who invited me, as well as others who attended, so I'm assuming it went well. We had a sold-out crowd of about 200 people, and it was great to see so much interest in historical topics. Right after the talk, I had one librarian come up to me to tell me what she didn't like, namely that I didn't booktalk (i.e., give a plot summary/enticing description) all the books whose jackets I displayed during the presentation. Well, there were around 30 such books, and I only had 45 minutes, so this wasn't terribly realistic. But I am going to prepare a handout listing these books, in case people are curious about hearing more. Supposedly PLA's going to put my other handout online, too, the one that talks about the different HF subgenres.

Although I had a book-signing on Thursday afternoon at the Libraries Unlimited booth, nobody came to it, but that didn't surprise me much - it was scheduled opposite Elie Wiesel's lunch talk, and not everyone wants reference books signed anyway. So I spent a pleasant hour talking about the writing process with two other LU authors, Sharron Smith (Canadian Fiction) and John Mort (Christian Fiction).

It's weird to be back home in Charleston after four days of steady activities. The dinner that NoveList staff organized for their read-alike authors at Grill 23 on Wednesday night was especially awesome, as was the LU reception at the Boston Atheneum on Thursday. No offense to the restaurants around here, but it won't come as any surprise that they don't quite measure up. Today I'm pretty much relaxing, going through the mail (a few review books showed up while I was gone...) and am about to start an exciting load (or loads) of laundry... stay tuned.