Friday, December 29, 2006

End of the year post...

The Great New England Bookstore Tour (known in other circles as Christmas vacation) is over, and I managed to find/purchase/receive about a dozen new historical novels. I even got the chance to read four of them while in Connecticut, while my slow-moving review book lay neglected on the coffee table back home. It's starting to make me feel guilty, though, so I'll be taking it up again shortly.

I probably won't be blogging again until after New Year's, as I'll be compiling and editing reviews for next week's deadline, processing the conference registrations that arrived while I was gone, and attempting to make the switch to the new Blogger without losing anything. In the meanwhile, if you haven't seen it for a time, I've updated the HNS forthcoming books page with titles through next August, in particular new historical fiction from Penguin, Houghton Mifflin, and Simon & Schuster.

In early January, I'll be posting an interview with Deanna Raybourn, whose debut historical Silent in the Grave is newly out in bookstores - and which I mentioned as a "galley to grab" at last year's BEA. Time permitting, I hope to interview other historical novelists for the blog in the future.

Hope you all have a great new year, and here's to more good reading for 2007!

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Islands of books

I'm writing from Connecticut, where I'll be until a couple days after Christmas. Just got back from one of my favorite used bookstores, the Niantic Book Barn, down by the shore in Niantic, on this foggy but surprisingly warm day. The store comprises one large two-story barn plus a loose collection of maybe half a dozen outbuildings, each of which is packed with used books. The one at the entrance, where books are bought when the weather's fair, is called Ellis Island. Quirky signs and shelf labels are scattered throughout the entire store; for example, the section labeled "That Pestiferous Little Corsican" features Napoleonic history. "Do not place books on the radiator - remember Fahrenheit 451!" warns another sign in the Haunted Barn.

The Book Barn also boasts the floppiest and laziest bookstore cats I've ever seen. They're so tame and used to being petted by customers that they don't even wake up. If you're not into cats, you can head outside (follow the bleating and baaing) to the small fenced-in area and visit with the friendly goats.

I bought two books - Manda Scott's latest Boudica novel (not having read the first two in the series didn't stop me, although maybe it should have) and Wayne Karlin's The Wished-For Country, set in colonial Maryland. Fortunately, Librarything tells me that I don't already own either one. It's an occasional problem.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The latest big medieval deal, and a top 10 list

This deal has been on the front page of Publishers Marketplace for the past few days:

Karen Maitland's A COMPANY OF LIARS, set in England in 1348, as the plague is spreading and a band of misfits are trying to outrun it, including a scar-faced trader in holy relics, a minstrel from Venice, an itinerant painter of church frescoes, a deformed storyteller wanted by the law, a strange albino child, a healer, and a bad-tempered magician traveling with an embalmed mermaid, and THE OWL KILLERS, also set in the middle ages, to Kate Miciak for Dial and Bantam, in a major deal, by Kathleen Anderson at Anderson Literary Management, on behalf of Victoria Hobbs at A.M. Heath (NA).

I said earlier I'd do an end-of-the-year Top 10 list, but there are so many historical novels from 2006 I haven't read that it's almost silly. But disclaimers aside, here they are, in alphabetical order by author:

Gretchen Craig, Always and Forever (Louisiana, 1823-37)
Margaret Ball, Duchess of Aquitaine (Aquitaine and Paris, France, 1137-49)
Charles Frazier, Thirteen Moons (Great Smoky Mountains, North Carolina, 1830s)
Margaret George, Helen of Troy (ancient Greece)
Sally Gunning, The Widow's War (Cape Cod, Massachusetts, 1761)
Jane Harris, The Observations (Scotland, 1863)
Amy Hassinger, The Priest's Madonna (Rennes-le-Château, France, 1890s)
Jaime Manriquez, Our Lives Are the Rivers (Ecuador and Peru, 1820s)
James Morrow, The Last Witchfinder (England, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, 1688)
Mary Sharratt, The Vanishing Point (Maryland, 1689)

Where reviews that I've written exist on the free web, I've linked them. For the Amazon reviews, look for the Booklist mentions.

As for what I'm reading now, I'm nearly done with Ann Waldron's The Princeton Imposter, part of the "Death is Academic" murder mystery series set on the Princeton campus. It showed up in yesterday's UPS mail, and I got sucked in after reading the first couple pages.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Old favorites, and some new ones

About five years ago, I wrote a column for HNR on specific novels that deserved to be published (or republished), because I felt there was a strong market for them. To my surprise, nearly all of them have since appeared in print, or will shortly. As examples: Donna Gillespie's Lady of the Light, Judith Merkle Riley's The Water Devil, Anya Seton's Green Darkness and Katherine, Colin Falconer's The Sultan's Harem...

I don't know if I've been lucky, whether I can pick them, or what.

Then this evening, while browsing the HarperCollins rights guide (this is what I do in my spare time, see), I read that Patricia Clapp's Jane-Emily is going to be reprinted next July by Harper Paperbacks. This is very exciting news. Jane-Emily was one of my two favorite novels as a child, the other being Janet Lunn's Twin Spell. With no idea of where my original copy disappeared to, I considered getting a copy off ABE a few months ago, but didn't feel like paying very much for a paperback in ratty condition. Now I won't have to.

In case you don't know it, Jane-Emily is a classic novel of the supernatural set in Lynn, Massachusetts, in 1912. Jane, a nine-year-old orphan spending the summer at her grandmother's stately home with her eighteen-year-old Aunt Louisa (who narrates) , makes contact with the spirit of another young girl, Emily, who died on the grounds of the same house twelve years earlier. Every time I see a glass reflecting ball in someone's yard, it reminds me of Jane-Emily, for in the novel, it glows whenever Emily's ghost is nearby. It's haunting, romantic, and terrifying, and with Jane and Louisa as the two protagonists, it can be read and enjoyed by people of any age.

Not to mention that the cover was seriously cool. Picture a New England-style house in the deep blue of late evening, with a reflecting ball mysteriously aglow in the foreground. This is what I remember, 20 or so years after I last read the novel, though I can't find a photo online.

While typing this, I visited the Amazon page for Jane-Emily and read comments by both the publisher and Patricia Clapp's granddaughter, who posted there.

Has anyone else read it? Do you know of any novels that are currently unavailable that you'd like to see published?

Saturday, December 16, 2006

In a bit of synchronicity

On the subject of women's historical fiction discussed in my 12/12 post - have a look at "Tapestry of Tales," an article from today's (well, tomorrow's) The Scotsman.

It's written from a UK viewpoint, which may (?) explain the comment "It is still a form that is dominated by women, and it is hard not to wonder if that is the reason for the industry's ambivalent attitude to one of its biggest success stories." Is this true in the UK? I hardly think the US publishing world is ambivalent to women's historical fiction; quite the opposite.

The article's lengthy and quite detailed, and definitely worth reading for an overview of the genre - though they oversimplify the HNS definition of historical fiction, and don't make much of a case for their argument. I'm also confused by Philippa Gregory's comments - Anya Seton (which the paper spells as "Seaton") wrote about Katherine of Aragon? Did she mean Norah Lofts, I wonder?

Three deals and not much more

We saw "The Holiday" earlier this evening up in Savoy... of course, my ears perked up when the Jude Law character said that his father wrote historical fiction. A very respectable profession. Then I had to see whether I recognized any titles on his bookshelves (Lalita Tademy's Cane River was one of them, for the record; he has good taste).

Things may be quiet around here for a while, as all the book reviews for Feb 2007' s HNR are arriving, and I'm in the midst of reading a decent but slow-moving review book. But for now, here are some deals from Publishers Lunch on Friday.

Gerri Brightwell's THE DARK LANTERN, about the secrets in a Victorian London household and how they affect the master's experiments in establishing identity through body measurements, to Allison McCabe at Crown, for six figures, in a pre-empt, for publication in spring 2008, by Zoe Fishman at Lowenstein-Yost (world). (The author's website includes the opening pages)

C.J. Sansom's WINTER IN MADRID, a spy thriller set in 1940s Spain, again to Kathryn Court at Viking, for publication in winter 2008, by Jean Naggar of the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency, for Antony Topping of Greene & Heaton (US).
(Glad to see this one is being published in the US, finally)

National commentator and columnist Robin Gerber's ELEANOR VERSUS IKE, a fictional reimagining (inspired by actual events) of what would have happened if Eleanor Roosevelt ran for president against Eisenhower in 1952, to be published just in time for the historic 2008 presidential primaries, to Sarah Durand at William Morrow, by Stephanie Tade at the Stephanie Tade Agency.

Lastly, there are a couple editorial positions open at the HNS Newsletter. The newspapers described have online book review sections, so geography isn't a factor (you don't need to be British to cover British papers). For details, contact Sarah Cuthbertson at the email at the end of this announcement:

***WANTED: Editors!!***Lucienne and Sarah will both be leaving the HNS Newsletter at the end of January 2007. Ideally, from 1 February 2007 we'd like at least one new editor to cover one or more British newspapers. Obviously, the more editors the merrier as it would spread the load. The job means scanning newspaper book review pages for reviews of historical fiction and non-fiction and pasting the details (book title and author, name of newspaper, review date, name of reviewer, review URL) into a newsletter template under the relevant headings. For historical fiction add a taster quote from the review; for non-fiction only add a quote or description if the topic isn't obvious from the title. It takes about 30-45 minutes per newspaper per week. The links are then sent to the co-ordinating editor who compiles each issue and posts it to the members once a fortnight via Yahoo Groups. At present the editors take turns as co-ordinator for 2 months each. For more details, if needed, contact

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Idle observations on current historical novels

I've been pulling together a list of what I call "traditional historical novels" (genre fiction, that is, as opposed to literary fiction - though the line between them is blurring more and more) published between mid-2004 and mid-2007. You may find this interesting. The numbers will change slightly as more novels are published or announced, but thus far, 2/3 of them (98 out of 148) fit the "women in history" theme. In fact, most fit one of these categories:

- biographical novel of a female ruler, or female member of a royal family
- biographical novel of the wife/consort/mistress of some famous man (including biblical figures)
- novel of a fictional woman's daily life in a given time period

What I'm not seeing are many new deals for this type of novel in Publishers Marketplace, though there have been a few. It makes me wonder whether this theme - along with the corresponding headless bodice covers - will have played itself out in the next year or two.

I haven't yet started analyzing literary historical novels for the same time period, though I know there are many more of them.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Visiting a new world

This post's topic may seem tangential to what I usually talk about, but bear with me - it may not have to do with historical fiction per se, but it does touch upon history (well, that may be a stretch) and reading in general.

I spent Friday afternoon at the University of Illinois undergraduate library seeing a demo of library services within Second Life, a 3-D virtual world where people can interact with one another and the world around them by creating "avatars" that represent themselves. About 25 other librarians from central Illinois attended, and the organizers told us to bring our avatars if we had them (seriously)... and a few did.

Now I'm not a gamer, and the last time I used software to enter a "virtual world" of any kind (other than the Internet itself), it was probably 1985, and everything was text-based. At the risk of sounding like a dork, I'll admit this Second Life thing totally amazed me. I had no idea that people could create a 3-D virtual world that looked so realistic (well, in an anime-like, computer-generated kind of fashion). There are buildings, landscapes, and waterways, and people have re-created a number of real-life contemporary and historical properties "in-world" (the lingo for describing something within that environment). You can see some screenshots of the Second Life environment here, including an image of Caledon, a 19th century library where avatars are required to be dressed in Victorian attire in order to enter.

A number of librarians worldwide have gotten together to provide library services within Second Life, figuring that if they are to remain relevant and up-to-date in the 21st century, they (we) should go to places where patrons are spending their time. And as they have found, if you do enter Second Life identified as a librarian, people will ask you questions, just like they do in real life (aka "first life"). Staff at the Alliance Library System in Peoria schedule regular book discussion groups in this virtual environment. Basically, people can bring their avatars over to a common locale at a certain time and chat with one another online about that week's book. The blog at summarizes current and upcoming library events, such as an immersive exhibit and re-enactment of "Marie Antoinette, the Teen Queen," which has been rescheduled for sometime after Christmas.

And if you attend Bradley University, you can take a continuing education course completely within the Second Life environment.

What do you think of this concept - is this what people will have to do to reach readers in the future? Does anyone reading this regularly visit Second Life? If you're an author, can you visualize yourself giving a presentation or reading here? It was hard to get my mind around the whole concept, and I don't have the free time that it seems to demand, but I found it fascinating in a strange sort of way.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Switching gears

I've been taking a break from review books, and historical fiction in general, and have spent the past two evenings engrossed in Lois McMaster Bujold's The Curse of Chalion - an epic fantasy novel that was sitting neglected in my TBR pile for about five years. (That didn't stop me from buying both of the sequels when they came out. I haven't read them yet either.)

The endorsements on the back cover intrigue me, for Robert Jordan, Jean Auel, Mary Jo Putney, Harry Turtledove, Jo Beverley, and Dennis L. McKiernan all contributed glowing commentary. Prominent names in a few different fields. Which goes to show the publisher's expectations for the novel's success, as well as its cross-genre appeal.

Meanwhile, my editor's asked me and a bunch of other authors to select our favorite 2006 novel for the year-end update of Reader's Advisor Online (a database containing the electronic versions of my book and others in the same series). I haven't yet decided what I'll pick. There are so many titles I haven't read that picking a favorite is somewhat arbitrary. But I'll come up with one or two, I'm sure, and will try to post a Top 10 (or more) list here sometime before the end of the year. There are still 27 more days left of December, after all...

Saturday, December 02, 2006

A reading of Emma Tennant's The Harp Lesson

Since roads were treacherous and I had vacation time to use up, I took yesterday off, spending most of the day reading. I started and finished one slim novel, Emma Tennant's The Harp Lesson, biographical fiction about Pamela Sims, aka "La Belle Pamela" (1773-1831), who happens to be the author's 3rd great-grandmother. The discussion following my "what's in a name" post inspired me to pick it up.

If you know Tennant mainly as the author of Jane Austen pastiches, you're in for a surprise and treat with this volume. Pamela was a young woman of mysterious origin. Raised as the daughter of an Dorset washerwoman until the age of six, she was fetched one day by messenger and brought to the estate of the Duc de Chartres (later the Duc d'Orléans), where she resided until the French Revolution. At the French court, she was believed to be the illegitimate daughter of the Duc - who took the name Philippe Égalité during the Revolution - and Madame de Genlis, the tutor of his children. It was Madame de Genlis, an admirer of Samuel Richardson's work, who changed the young girl's name from Anne or Nancy to Pamela. Tennant recounts her story in the form of a fictional memoir, related both by Pamela and her daughter, called Little Pam, in alternating chapters.

By all accounts, Pamela led an extraordinary life, both in France and in Ireland, as the wife of revolutionary Lord Edward Fitzgerald. But Tennant takes a low-key approach, recounting the major events of Pamela's life using understated prose that's quite poetic at times. It works. The sections narrated by Pamela and her daughter overlap and flow into one another. While Pamela tells her story to Little Pam, the younger woman takes down her mother's words and, later, relays them to her own family - an oral history that was passed down to Tennant. While there are dramatic moments, there are no great revelations. The true parentage of La Belle Pamela remains even more of a mystery, for both of her potential mothers deny giving birth to her.

A lovely little book about the private life of an enigmatic 18th century woman who rose from obscurity to lead a very public existence. Its front and back covers display scenes from a painting by Jean-Antoine-Théodore Giroust. Pamela holds the sheet music for Adélaide, daughter of the Duc d'Orléans (possibly her half-sister?), who learns to play the harp while her tutor Madame de Genlis, a celebrated educator and harpist herself, looks on. Click on the link above for the image, as well as additional details about the lives of all three women.

Full citation: Tennant, Emma. The Harp Lesson. London: Maia, 2005. 159pp. ISBN 1-904559-16-6.