Thursday, November 30, 2006

Expect the unexpected

For no particular reason; I was glancing at a list of older historical novels when the subject for a blog post came to me. This isn't an official meme (can things be "official" in blogland?) but you're welcome to make it one.

Five novels I didn't expect to like but did:

(1) Isabel Allende, Daughter of Fortune.
For years, I mistakenly had the impression that Allende's works were obscure and inaccessible. Silly me. This was a rollicking good story about Chilean and Chinese immigrants during the California Gold Rush; the sequel, Portrait in Sepia, was equally well done.

(2) John Ensor Harr, Dark Eagle.
Biographical novel about a man whose name is synonymous with "traitor" - it promised lots of battles, names, and dates. Sounded dry. But the story behind Benedict Arnold's treason wasn't as simple as it appeared. Great characterizations here, especially Arnold, his much younger wife Peggy Shippen, and Major John Andre.

(3) John Lanchester, Fragrant Harbor.
What I thought would be a typical coming-of-age story about an naive young Englishman in pre-WWII Hong Kong was a poignant, engrossing novel about love and corruption in a brilliantly realized locale, depicted vividly and with a certain irony ("Hong Kong" translates as "fragrant harbor").

(4) Beverly Swerling, City of Glory.
I didn't care for Shadowbrook as much as I'd hoped - loved the unusual French and Indian War setting, but didn't sympathize with the characters, and felt the plot dragged throughout - but was pleasantly surprised by City of Glory. A very entertaining saga set amid the War of 1812 in Manhattan. Review forthcoming.

(5) Rennie Airth, River of Darkness.
A serial killer stalks the Surrey countryside in the post-WWI years. Blood, guts, and forensics, with lots of gross bits. Ugh. But the intense psychological drama and gripping storyline won me over. I'd gladly read the next in the series, although so far I haven't.

Five novels I expected to like but didn't:

(1) Nicole Galland, The Fool's Tale.
This one had great potential. A love triangle between a king, queen, and the king's fool in 12th century Wales. The author did some research on medieval Welsh law, and the romantic subplot was compelling, but I found the fool's antics (not to mention his very existence) ridiculous and totally out of keeping for the period.

(2) Judith Koll Healey, The Canterbury Papers (UK title The Lost Letters of Aquitaine).
A classic example of good story and bad history. I have a thing for novels about obscure royal women, so this historical adventure about Princess Alais of France, who became Henry II's mistress while betrothed to his son, appealed to me. But there are many chronological impossibilities, especially regarding historical figures, and the characters' actions were more modern than medieval.

(3) Audrey Howard, As the Night Ends.
Generally I enjoy Audrey Howard's regional sagas, despite the melodramatic tone that's crept into the last few. But this one had an annoying heroine - it's hard to root for a romance when you feel sorry for the hero - and it covered too much historical ground. Nearly every major event in early 20th century British history was crammed into an already overstuffed storyline.

(4) Catherine Jinks, The Gentleman's Garden.
All the novels by Jinks that I've read take a slightly different tone. The Inquisitor was a dark and serious medieval thriller; The Notary was a bawdy medieval romp. This literary romantic novel of 1814 Australia was written in the style of Austen and Eliot (per press materials), but I never warmed to the standoffish female lead, and the pace was incredibly slow.

(5) Prince Michael of Greece, The White Night of St. Petersburg.
A star-crossed romance of a Russian grand duke, the mistress he couldn't give up, and the financial havoc they caused. Terrific potential. But it's hard to feel sympathy for a protagonist with so little common sense, and the author's dry and plodding style didn't help things.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

One Big Deal and several other deals

From Publishers Marketplace as usual. Yes, it looks like publication of the first one (as yet untitled) is two years away...

Katherine Neville's sequel to her debut novel, The Eight, ranging from the dawn of the war of Greek Independence in 1822 to the outbreak of the Iraq War in 2003, this novel begins when the heroine of The Eight mysteriously vanishes, and her daughter must follow a set of cryptic clues on a dangerous quest to discover who murdered her father, to Mark Tavani at Ballantine, for publication in fall 2008, along with an audio version of The Eight for the first time, by Simon Lipskar at Writers House (NA).

Christy Award-nominated author of Chateau of Echoes Siri L. Mitchell's WHITE ILLUSIONS, a Cinderella story in reverse, as a beautiful woman uses poisonous lead-based paint to turn herself into an ugly duckling in order to further her husband's position in the court of a vain Queen Elizabeth, to David Long at Bethany House, by Beth Jusino at Alive Communications (world).

Tamera Alexander's untitled Colorado series, the first title about a former Confederate Lieutenant who moves west, but instead of riches discovers a life of welcomed solitude from his dark past - until a "lady Yank journalist" arrives in town dredging up old memories forcing him to re-evaluate his perceptions on hope, again to Charlene Patterson at Bethany House, in a good deal, in a three-book deal, by Deidre Knight of The Knight Agency (World).

Jana G. Oliver's VIRTUAL EVIL and MADMAN'S DANCE, the second and third novels in the Time Rovers Series, in which a time traveler from 2057 is sent on a mission to Victorian England during the Ripper murders and encounters a secret society of shape-shifters bent on changing history, to Gwen Gades at Dragon Moon Press, in a two-book deal.

Monday, November 27, 2006


Last night I took a break to do a little egosurfing, that is, googling my book title to see what people are saying about it. Googling my name isn't always helpful, although a surprising number of the first couple pages of hits are me. (I'm not the murderer, attorney, quilter, or dietician among them.) What I found:

- It's been reviewed in the latest issue (v.30 no.3) of Collection Management. We don't subscribe, and I'm assuming the publicity dept. hasn't seen it (or they'd have sent it to me) so I requested a copy over interlibrary loan. Collection Management is a peer-reviewed academic journal, which explains the year-and-a-half delay. I'm used to this; I edit for another library journal from the same publisher.

- It's listed on a bunch of library websites and newsletters. Always good to see.

- Someone had positive (and mostly correct) things to say about it on the Romantic Times boards.

- I found another review from the Australian Library Journal, dating from this August. Positive comments overall, though parts are snarky. I always find it interesting what reviewers outside North America have to say about titles geared for an American audience. I got similar comments on my first book when British and Australian reviewers took it on, even after being very clear about the expected readership in the intro. I like very much that readers outside the US will be reading it, and using it for book recommendations, but the selection of novels is based on the American market, which is what I know best. Alas, very few historical novels set in Australia have been published in the US in the last ten years. That must be the "eclectic" part. I wish it weren't so.

- Three people have it on their wishlist in Paperbackswap. I suspect they'll be waiting a long time, because nobody in their right mind's going to input a 4-pound hardcover into a system meant for trading 8-oz paperbacks. The postage is a killer.

Anyway, I'm generally pleased, as WorldCat lists about 700 holding libraries/library systems for it currently.

For those of you following the never-ending book saga ("never-ending" modifies both words here) - I've finished the novel and have drafted the review, though I'm still fiddling with the last two sentences. Having only 175 words to work with was a challenge, but I consider it an art form if I can pull it off with none to spare.

My guilt assuaged, now I'm going to read something fun.

Friday, November 24, 2006

What's in a name?

As it turns out, in the case of the novel I just attempted, an awful lot.

On a Highland Shore came highly recommended by friends, and Givens has a reputation for historical accuracy. In terms of historical detail - events, places, and so forth - this seems to be true. But... the heroine's best friend, a secondary character who plays a big role in the first 50 pages, is named Fiona. The novel's set in Scotland in 1263. This is a problem, because the name Fiona - very popular in Scotland nowadays - was a 19th century, or maybe 18th century, invention. Some background: it was popularized by Scots novelist/poet William Sharp, who chose "Fiona MacLeod" as his pseudonym beginning in 1893, and likely first used by James McPherson, supposed "translator" of the Ossian Cycle, in his poem "Fingal" circa 1762.

More details on the origins of "Fiona" here. The literature seems clear that it's not a medieval name; it's never been documented as such.

Am I being pedantic? You tell me, but I'd be lying if I denied that every time I saw the name, it pulled me out of the story. I would have quibbled just as much if a medieval English heroine was named Pamela. The story itself was engaging, and the heroine appealing (if a bit too modern in her actions), but I'm also not a fan of accents written out phonetically in dialogue. I understand that we're in Scotland, but don't need to be hit over the head with it every time someone speaks. (Diana Gabaldon, however, does this well.)

Chacun à son goût and all that, but for me, the novel's been reshelved - maybe to be picked up at another time.

This got me thinking about first names invented by authors. Surely all names were used first by someone, but not all can be documented. Sir Philip Sidney not only invented "Pamela" for his 1590 poem "Arcadia," but also - if you believe this page (whose data comes from a variety of name dictionaries) - the name "Stella." Samuel Richardson named the heroine of his novel Pamela after Sidney's character, and the name grew in popularity after that. Not surprisingly, Shakespeare is credited with inventing many female names: Jessica, Olivia, Viola, Miranda, Cordelia.

These days, of course, anything goes. Apple, Sailor, Moon Unit, anyone? I was also greatly amused by last night's episode of Ugly Betty, in which our intrepid heroine plans for a photo shoot for the celebrity infant known as "baby Chutney."

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving

Tomorrow's the big holiday, so I spent today with my bread machine, making a couple loaves of holiday bread and dipping into the fruitcake mix a little too often (it's bad for me, but there is real fruit in it).

I'm over halfway through my review book, and in the holiday spirit, I am giving thanks that nothing quite so odious has happened in Part 2. Yet. But because I'm also thankful that most other authors have a greater sense of decency - as well as a less, um, overstuffed writing style - I'll be putting this novel down for the interim and finding something more to my taste. I've picked out Kathleen Givens' On a Highland Shore, which a couple friends have recommended, and we'll see how that goes.

For the moment, though, we're settling in to see The Da Vinci Code on DVD. I still haven't read the book.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A few new deals

From Publishers Marketplace this week. There really have not been many historical fiction deals reported over the last month, but these may be of interest:

Cambridge University historian and author of BLOOD & ROSES Dr. Helen Castor's SHE-WOLVES, a portrait of seven pre-Tudor queens, ranging from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Margaret of Anjou, who had to find ways to pretend that they weren't actually running the country, to Walter Donohue at Faber & Faber, by Patrick Walsh at Conville & Walsh.

Ildefonso Falcones' Spanish bestseller THE CATHEDRAL OF THE SEA, to Julie Doughty at Dutton, publication in for spring 2008, by Sandra Dijkstra at Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency (NA). (First announcement for US publication; UK details are here.)

And a film deal: Sarah Dunant's novel about a courtesan and her companion dwarf in sixteenth century Renaissance Italy, optioned for feature film to producers Donna Gigliotti (Emma and Shakespeare in Love) and Barry Weissler (Chicago), by Lesley Thorne at Gillon Aitken Associates, on behalf of colleague Clare Alexander .

Sunday, November 19, 2006


So here I am yesterday around 11pm, about 90 pages into my latest historical novel, when I come across a scene so incredibly distasteful that it stops me in my tracks. If this wasn't a review book, I'd have put it down right then, if not flung it across the room. (The latter may still happen.) It doesn't help that this novel's pacing is so slow I can barely make it through 50 pages an hour. However, since I'm obliged to finish it, I'll continue to persevere through the next 450-odd pages. And hope it gets better.

I'm sure that was the author's intent, to develop a character so repulsive that the reader feels it, but it sure doesn't make me want to read further. As this is a review book, I won't go into the details now, other than to say you'd probably be sorry you asked.

I don't usually get squeamish about scenes in novels like I do about films at times - over the last few books, I've read about graphic autopsies, murders, hangings (you name it, really, historical fiction can be very realistic) - but there are some mental images I would prefer not to have.

However, Saturday night wasn't a total loss, since a few hours earlier we were up in Champaign at the Borders, where I noted the titles/ISBNs of a good number of books to order for the library's math collection on Monday. Not very exciting, but necessary - I have a bunch of funds I need to spend in the next few weeks.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Coming up for air

I've been working on conference stuff starting around 8am today and finishing around 8pm, with a few breaks for meals, laundry, and a post office run. It didn't feel much like a day off.

However, I also managed to update the HNS forthcoming books page with historical novels through next August, believe it or not, since Penguin and Random House have released info on their upcoming titles. Several historical novels from the '80s are being reprinted in trade paperback, such as Rosalind Laker's To Dance with Kings and Margaret Forster's Lady's Maid, both from Random House imprints. Also, Overlook is reprinting a couple of Joan Grant's older historicals (which are supposedly based on her past lives...)

My picks for books I most want to read: Kate Furnivall's The Russian Concubine and Anita Amirrezvani's The Blood of Flowers. Mainly because they're set in locales you don't often read about.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

If I lived near Washington DC

I'd be going to this lecture series next February at the Smithsonian.

I have been a bad blogger, not posting in over a week, but I have been reading, and writing, and - mostly - conferencing, plus tonight I packed up 25 more review books for mailing, the last batch for next February's HNR. After spending all day Saturday in Springfield, then all day Sunday at work, my schedule's all messed up.

Then as I emerged from my week-long state of mental disorganization, I learned there's a new 1085-page historical novel out that everyone's talking about (except me, obviously, besides now) and that I'd never even heard of. Emails to Penguin Press will be sent tomorrow morning. The Amazon subject headings say it's literary fiction, not historical fiction, and I don't remember it from the catalog. My feeble excuses.

I'm glad I have most of next week off, so I can tackle my one remaining doorstop of a review book.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Reviews of Obscure Books:
Diana Norman, Fitzempress' Law

Norman, Diana. Fitzempress' Law. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1980. 284pp. Also Hodder & Stoughton, 1980, 284pp.

Novels pass into obscurity for a variety of reasons - poor writing, low reader interest, small print runs, old age. But the reason, I suspect, that Fitzempress' Law is so hard to find has more to do with the author's excellent reputation as a medieval novelist. Aside from library editions, most copies reside in the hands of readers who won't give them up. This novel, Norman's first, has three major themes in common with her latest (Mistress of the Art of Death, 2007, written as Ariana Franklin), published 27 years later. Namely: rural life in 12th century England, as seen from the inside out; the plight of the Jews of Cambridge; and the judicial reforms of Henry II and their relevance to the modern world. I had no idea of the similarity of setting and subject when I decided to read the novels one after the other, but they make for a nicely matched pair. Their plotlines, however, are quite different.

In the present day, three 18-year-old hoodlums get thrown back in time after committing a crime against an eccentric old woman. She invokes a curse on the trio that the only way to save their souls will be through law. Now, in Henry II's England, each must find a way of using early medieval law to solve a major personal crisis. Len awakes in the body of Aluric of Tatchwerte, a village in the Hundred of Broadwater in Hertfordshire. Aluric is a swineherd who had been mute for many years, ever since the mysterious stabbing death of his older sister. He's charged with proving he was born a free man, which will allow him to fulfill his mother's dream of becoming a monk. Pete, who in his previous existence was a shy, unassertive type, enjoys his newfound status as Sir Roger of Mardleybury, a knight in service with Henry II's forces in France. Unfairly disseised of his hereditary lands, Pete must find a way of proving his right to his late father's manor. And Sal finds herself occupying the body of Hawise, a young gentlewoman whose betrothal was unfairly broken and who was forced into a nunnery against her will.

This isn't a typical time-travel novel, in that the characters spend remarkably little time exploring the differences between "then" and "now"; they're fully absorbed into the 12th century almost immediately. In fact, they find that their new circumstances, difficult and uncomfortable as they are, offer them much that their previous existence did not. Len, formerly an orphan, now has a mother and a home of his own, though Edeva practices "tough love" on her son, and their residence is a peasant's hut. As a leader of men, Pete develops self-confidence and a new sense of authority, and Sal, to her great surprise, finds serenity in the contemplative life of the cloister. If not for the fact that she must use the law to validate her betrothal, in order to break the curse, Sal as Hawise might well have taken her religious vows.

Norman's descriptions of medieval English life are breathtaking; there are so many distinctive, memorable scenes that bring the 12th century to vivid, sparkling life. One gets to experience the back-breaking but necessary task of farming the land, day in and day out, despite uncooperative soil and tired oxen. Besieging a French castle by gradually starving its residents into surrender. Surviving the harsh winters of rural Hertfordshire with only a meager fire and minimal food and shelter. Protecting the Jews of Cambridge in an era when Jewish moneylenders are despised for their wealth and their supposed uncleanness. And overshadowing everything is Fitzempress's fatal quarrel with Becket, an act for which the English can never forgive him - despite his numerous judicial reforms (which resulted in the modern jury system), his keen intelligence, and his wise counselors' general belief that Becket got what he had coming to him.

Norman presents the religious zeitgeist among the populace with delicious irony. Christianity exists side-by-side with an earthy paganism that refuses to die out completely. When another young girl is found stabbed in the forest, Tatchwerte's peasants blame the Wild Hunt, despite their knowledge that not naming a human murderer will result in their village being fined. The local cleric, Father Herve, is fortunately more forward-thinking:

Len said, "It's nonsense, this Wild Hunt business. A real person killed her. I've seen that knife before, I know I have. Where the hell was it?"
The priest just watched him.
"You don't believe it was the Wild Hunt, do you?"
"No," said Father Herve, "that's just heathenish superstition."
"Who do you think it was then?"
"The devil." (p.120)
Fitzempress' Law is full of these exchanges, conversations between characters that reveal who they are, what they believe, what they stand for. The initial time-travel plot device really isn't the point. Instead, I spent much of the time hoping that the trio would decide not to return to the 20th century, so much did I enjoy their experiences in their new lives - as much as I believe they themselves did. This is one of the best examples of medieval fiction I've come across. It deserves to be more widely available, but even if that won't happen, it deserves to be more widely read.

For other reviews in the Obscure Books series, see here and here.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

HNS conference registration is open

At long last, the Historical Novel Society's Albany conference next June is officially open for business. I transferred all the web files over on Saturday night, and announcements are going out today. There are some holes in the schedule - presenters are still being confirmed - but you can get a good idea of the variety of programs offered. New for 2007 is the Saturday evening "feast and fun" (an optional event), which includes a talent revue with historical novelists as the performers.

Registration is limited to 300 people, and I expect it to sell out (as it did in 2005) - so if you plan on attending, please don't wait until the last minute to sign up. If you're curious to learn what these conferences are like, read the write-ups from our 2005 event in Salt Lake City.

Hope to see many of you there!

Friday, November 03, 2006

A heady brew of book review clichés

Experienced writers of book reviews - just like all experienced authors - know to watch for clichés in their work. No doubt you're familiar with some of these: calling a book "unputdownable" or an "emotional rollercoaster," for example. Or noting that some faults are "only minor quibbles," or that a novel will "stay in your mind for long after the last page is turned."

For a refresher course on these and other overused phrasings, this 2004 article from the Telegraph is here to offer assistance.

But perhaps the book reviewer's most tempting adversary is the recipe format. As in, "take The Da Vinci Code, throw in some Name of the Rose, top it off with a dash of Left Behind - and you'll have something resembling Lisa Bergren's The Begotten."

Okay, I just made that one up, after examining one of the novels in my TBR pile (and I don't think it's half bad), but you get the idea. In keeping with last Friday's theme of sins and redemption, I have a confession to make - sometimes I find these recipes very funny. I nearly burst out laughing when I read Elizabeth Hawksley's review of Deryn Lake's The King's Women, about to be published in November's HNR, in which she described it as "Dan Brown meets Angelique." And plainly written on the ARC of Ariana Franklin's Mistress of the Art of Death is a quote from Kirkus describing it as "CSI meets The Canterbury Tales." It fits, it really does.

I'd like to propose a challenge of sorts, without knowing whether anyone will take me up on this or not. For the novel you're currently reading (or any other you feel like), what recipe would you use to describe it? Be as creative as you wish. Alternatively, use the recipe format to propose a fictitious novel that you think would be an interesting read.

I'll be curious to see what types of literary stews people manage to cook up. Hopefully they will be edible (or readable, as the case may be).

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Publishing deals du jour

I am spending a very exciting lunch hour alternately typing letters to publishers (to accompany copies of reviews from November's HNR) and going through Publishers Marketplace. Some deals of interest:

Elissa Elliot's EVE, retelling the life of the world's first woman in the vein of "The Red Tent," to Tracy Devine at Bantam Dell, by Daniel Lazar at Writers House (NA).
This one isn't historical, but it sounds hysterical (sorry...)
Alan Gratz's SOMETHING ROTTEN, Hamlet rewritten as a contemporary murder mystery set in fictional Denmark, Tennessee, with the character of Horatio recast as a wry, Philip Marlowe-esque seventeen-year-old detective, to Liz Waniewski at Dial, in a nice deal.

From the "prequels and sequels" department:

Budge Wilson's authorized prequel to Anne of Green Gables, BEFORE GREEN GABLES, the story of Anne's early life in foster homes and an orphanage in Nova Scotia, to Helen Reeves at Penguin Canada, for publication in 2008.

Barnes and Noble Discover Award winner Lenore Hart's BECKY, which imagines the "true" story of Becky Thatcher, Tom Sawyer's sweetheart and companion, past her days of adventure with Huck and Tom, into her years as a young mother on the frontier and beyond, to Hilary Rubin at St. Martin's, by Christine Earle at ICM (World).
From the "this is all over the web but here it is anyway" department:

Jonathan Littell's LES BIENVEILLANTES, aka THE KINDLY ONES, to Jonathan Burnham at Harper, in a major deal, for $1 million, and to Alison Samuel at Chatto & Windus (which says it was not the highest bidder) in the UK, for publication in spring 2008, by Andrew Nurnberg at Andrew Nurnberg Associates. Canadian rights to Ellen Seligman at McClelland & Stewart. Related New York Times article here.