Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Deals, deals, deals

The good news - I finished my Edward Rutherfurd readalike article a month early and handed it in. Editors seem to like it.

The bad news - February is a short month (duh, I knew this), meaning I have only another 15 days to get another assigned book read and reviewed. Just when I start thinking I'm ahead of the game. This ARC looks interesting at any rate; I've never read any Jonis Agee, but generally enjoy multi-period novels as well as family sagas.

This afternoon I've been going through the dozen or so Random House summer catalogs and collating the forthcoming books info for the HNS website, so those should be online in a couple hours if things go well.

For the moment, here are a few more deals from Publishers Marketplace and elsewhere.

Tasha Alexander's novelization of Universal Studios' upcoming film, THE GOLDEN AGE, the story of Queen Elizabeth I and Sir Walter Raleigh, to Sarah Durand of William Morrow, by Anne Hawkins at John Hawkins & Associates.

Nicola Upson's AN EXPERT IN MURDER, set in the London theater world of the 1930s, to Walter Donohue at Faber, in a two-book deal, for publication in spring 2008, by Karolina Sutton at ICM.

Sarah D'Almeida's three more books in the Three Musketeers mystery series, to Ginjer Buchanan for Berkley Prime Crime, in a nice deal, by Lucienne Diver of Spectrum Literary Agency (NA).

Cesar Vidal's THE FISHERMAN'S TESTAMENT, a story of Christianity's earliest days, based on the theory held by some biblical historians that the apostlePeter was in Rome at the end of his life and was crucified there, as well as the original Spanish-language book, to Sue Brower at Zondervan, for publication in April 2008, by Diane Stockwell at Globo Libros Literary Management, on behalf of Silvia Bastos in Spain (World English).

Publishing director at Harper UK, Jane Johnson's CROSSED BONES, about a London woman who becomes obsessed with the story of a Cornish girl kidnapped in 1625 by Moroccan pirates, travels to Morocco to investigate the case, and finds romance and adventure there, to Allison McCabe at Crown, in a good deal, for publication in 2008, by Russell Galen at Scovil Chichak Galen Literary Agency (US).

Lastly, not from PM but via an email from the author - Sandra Worth sold two novels in her "Roses" series to Penguin Putnam (no imprint given) for publication in 2008 and '09, respectively. Details on Lady of the Roses and Roses for a Queen from her website.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

"That Christopher Columbus - he'll never amount to anything."

Is there a word or phrase to describe the throwaway comments historical novelists have their characters say, ones deliberately inserted to give readers a smugly superior feeling about their own historical knowledge? If not, there should be.

This has happened with a few novels I've read lately. With the current review book, the head of a London mental institution writes to a colleague, in 1896: "... this fad will pass as others have. There is no future in Freudianism." (It's a decent book, don't get me wrong, despite this bit of silliness)

And then there are the scenes I've read in some Tudor-set novels. It's almost stereotypical. Some gossipy English villager, cackling at the fall of Anne Boleyn, makes a prediction that "Nan Bullen's bastard daughter - what a shame she's a girl. She'll never amount to anything." The readers, of course, are gleefully laughing up their sleeves at such horrible ignorance. They know better.

In a previous read, we had a similar scenario featuring Caligula, presented as a spiteful, smarmy adolescent who surely wasn't destined to rule the Roman Empire, as one very minor character in the novel remarked. These comments may have been historically appropriate - Germanicus was the favored heir at the time - but the reader's foreknowledge of Caligula's eventual succession gives them added meaning.

These little asides nearly always draw me out of a story. Maybe because I don't want an author reaching out from behind the plot to congratulate me on what I know about history? These tactics feel too obvious, if that makes sense. Good for a chuckle, maybe, but not much more.

Ye olde historical novel meme

I'm kind of late to the party, but it's a slowish Friday night here, and I've already seen The Mask of Zorro once this week.

Straight Historical, Historical Mystery, Historical Fantasy, Historical Romance, or Time Travel?
Slight overall preference for straight historical, and historical romance probably least, but I read any and all of the above.

Historical Figures as Main Characters or Purely Fictional Characters in Historical Settings as Main Characters?
Doesn't matter at all to me. Hmm, now I'm sounding wishy-washy.

Hardback, Trade Paperback, or Mass Market Paperback?
Trade paperback, hardback second, mass market third. I like the feel of trade paperbacks, plus they're cheaper than hardbacks, and not as heavy to cart around.

Philippa Gregory or Margaret George?
Gregory, though I enjoyed George's Helen of Troy. Her Mary, Called Magdalene was too slow-moving for my taste. However, I still need to read the copy of The Boleyn Inheritance I got from Costco last month.

Amazon or Brick and Mortar?
Amazon, overwhelmingly so. Before buying the Gregory (see previous question), the most recent book I'd bought at a brick and mortar bookstore was Robert Harris's Pompeii, which I think is from 2003. Excluding Half Price Books and other used/remainder stores. (I remember weird things like this; I still haven't read the Harris.) Having an Amazon credit card is a big influence.

Bernard Cornwell or Sharon Penman?
Penman, one of my favorite authors of all time, although I did like Cornwell's The Last Kingdom.

Barnes & Noble or Borders?
Probably Borders, at least for browsing, though Champaign has both of them. The only reason we go to B&N more often than Borders is because Mark doesn't like Seattle's Best coffee.

First Historical Novel You Ever Remember Reading?
I think this was probably Anya Seton's Katherine, if we're talking adult-level fiction. If you count YA, Patricia Clapp's Jane-Emily could be the one.

Alphabetize by Author, Alphabetize by Title, or Random?
None of the above. They're shelved by date of acquisition - not deliberately so, but it's how the shelves get filled. The photo at top left shows most of my acquisitions from mid-2006 to present. Click to enlarge.

Keep, Throw Away, or Sell?
I keep nearly everything, except books I really can't stand. Those get sold or donated to the library sale. This is why I have a storage problem.

Jean Plaidy or Norah Lofts?
I enjoy them both, though neither as much as I did 10-15 years ago.

Read with Dust Jacket or Remove It?
Remove it, because my cats like books too much to leave them alone.

Stop Reading When Tired or at Chapter Breaks?
When tired or otherwise distracted. Doesn't matter if it's in the middle of a chapter.

“It was a dark and stormy night” or “Once upon a time”?
The former, although I will read some fairytale-like fantasy novels.

Buy or Borrow?
I'm a bad library patron - I buy almost everything, and the books I do borrow, I often return late. Good thing I work there.

Posie Graeme-Evans or Pamela Kaufman?
Neither one, really.

Buying Choice: Book Reviews, Recommendations, or Browsing?
A combination of all three.

Dorothy Dunnett or Anya Seton?
Seton, as I've read nearly all of hers. Dunnett seems to be an acquired taste I've yet to acquire.

Tidy Ending or Cliffhanger?
Tidy ending, although I will accept a little ambiguity now and then.

Sticking Close to Known Historical Fact, or Using Historical Fact as Wallpaper?
Close to historical fact, and I suspect most readers of this blog will agree.

Morning Reading, Afternoon Reading or Nighttime Reading?
Nighttime, unless it's the weekend, and then it's all of the above.

Series or Standalone?
Standalone, but I will glom onto some series. Like Margaret Frazer's Joliffe mysteries, Anne Perry's William Monk series, and more I can't think of now.

Favorite Book of Which Nobody Else Has Heard?
Alison McLeay's Sweet Exile, which I mentioned in my Top 5 list a while back. I'd also say Brian Wainwright's Within the Fetterlock, except that many readers of this blog have likely heard of it.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Catching up on blogging

In my efforts to be way ahead of my deadlines for a change, this is my first chance to blog for a while. Seems everyone has a "life trumps blogging" post every so often, no? In the last week I've read three novels and written reviews for six. Vanora Bennett's Portrait of an Unknown Woman, which will get a full writeup in my May NoveList column, is my pick for the current season. To my mind it's comparable to Sharon Kay Penman at her best, and Penman's one of my favorite authors.

The snow's still hanging around, though it may hit 40 today, which means a muddy, slushy mess in our immediate future. This photo (taken by Mark) of our backyard over the weekend is pretty funny.

Some historical bits and pieces.

On her website, Joan Druett - author of the Wiki Coffin maritime mysteries set in the 1830s - offers a contest: who can find the most technical errors in the cover design of her latest, Deadly Shoals? Even if you're a landlubber like me, you can discover clues by reading the first chapter, which is online.

A couple Publishers Marketplace deals:

Author of THE BLOOD CONFESSION Alisa Libby's historical novel based on the life of Catherine Howard, fifth wife of Henry VIII, to Mark McVeigh at Dutton Children's, by Esmond Harmsworth at Zachary Shuster Harmsworth Literary Agency (world).

I'm curious to see a YA treatment of Catherine "yours as long as life endures" Howard's life, but I assume an author whose last YA novel was based on Erzsebet Bathory is up to it.

Sheila Kohler's BLUEBIRD, OR THE INVENTION OF HAPPINESS, to Susan Allison and Jackie Cantor at Berkley, by Carol Lazare at Other Press.

This is good news about the paperback rights for this biographical novel of Irish-French aristocrat Henriette Lucy Dillon; the hardcover will be out in April. My review of Bluebird was out in the 2/15 issue of Booklist, though it's not on Amazon yet.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Snow day!

Here's our backyard, on a beautiful sunny Wednesday morning, and as you'll see, it's feeding time at the zoo. None of the footprints were made by humans. EIU's classes are cancelled again today (this never happens), so with no scheduled hours this afternoon, I've emailed in my intentions to take some time off. I'll still be working my usual Wednesday evening reference desk shift tonight, assuming I can get out of the driveway, but I don't expect much business. What's more, the library's closed Friday for Presidents' Day.

Early this morning I wrote my review of Sharon Ewell Foster's Abraham's Well, for HNR, and I've already started reading Vanora Bennett's Portrait of an Unknown Woman, for review for NoveList; it's excellent so far. Two more historical novels for Booklist review are en route, for publication in their April "spotlight on historical fiction" issue. I've also got at least two more books in the immediate TBR pile. But with all this unexpected free time, I plan to curl up on the couch and get a good amount of reading done.

Sidenote to any librarian reading this - I have a large number (maybe 30 at present) of non-historical fiction paperbacks for free giveaway to your library, in return for a receipt I could use for tax purposes. They're a mix of paranormal and erotic romance, contemporary mystery, and women's fiction, mostly. All brand new, unread, 2007 publications. My library has said "enough" because our paperback shelves are overfull, and I've already donated plenty to our book sale. If you'd like them, send me your mailing address and I'll have a large box in the mail to you soon (and every so often, if you want regular shipments). If more than one librarian replies, I'll divide the box up, or alternate between you. Thanks!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Big big snow

Welcome to my front yard, around 4:30pm today (photo taken by Mark). The snow's still coming down, and there's a nice thick layer of ice underneath it all. The University of Illinois, as the news folks keep telling us, cancelled classes today for the first time since 1979. They're also cancelled tomorrow. EIU cancelled today, too, at 11am, by which point I was already at work.

No, this post has no historical fiction content whatsoever, although if I'm home tomorrow, I'll probably be writing a couple outstanding reviews.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Monday evening book chat

Posting on Monday night because I didn't have time to post this afternoon - on my lunch break from my "real" job I finally managed to get copies of reviews from HNR's Feb issue out to publicists. This printing (from the issue mock-up), letter-writing, and envelope-stuffing exercise usually takes a few days.

Some links and commentary below.

This is not historical-related at all, but from the Scotsman, an esteemed book reviewer writes her first novel and gets reviewed - demonstrating, perhaps, that reviewers had better put their money (keyboard?) where their mouth is before turning to fiction. Killer final paragraph:

Not only that, the [unnecessary digressions] add to the already suffocating sensation of reading a book about literary people, written for literary people, by a literary person. When the media eventually gets around to eating itself, it will sound like this.
Um... ouch. Now, plenty of reviewers I know have written novels, and are quite good at it, but you won't see a work of fiction from me anytime soon. For one, I'm a horrible storyteller and constantly digress into pointless ramblings. The only novel (I use this term very loosely) I've ever written was called It Happened Last Summer, created for an 7th grade English project. It was a contemporary mystery/ghost story whose solution hinged on the fact that ghosts from 50 years ago couldn't possibly know how to operate modern-day air conditioners. I kid you not. My co-author was a classmate and good friend who later went on to get a JD and a PhD in philosophy; she's now a professor at an elite East Coast university. She's also an award-winning bodybuilder. If either of us had been moderately successful in fiction, none of this would ever have happened, although I could have been doing something a lot more exciting and lucrative than librarianship and review editing.

See what I mean about pointless ramblings?

As everyone and their brother probably already knows, Stef Penney's The Tenderness of Wolves from new UK publisher Quercus (and Viking Canada) won the Costa Book of the Year, quite an achievement for a first novelist, especially given that it's set in snowy Canada, a country she'd never visited - provoking numerous discussions about the importance/necessity of primary source research. And yes, it is a historical novel, granted Editors' Choice status in HNR's February issue. Sometimes, I guess we get things right.

If I ever do decide to write a novel, I'll try to set it in Hawaii or Florida or someplace warm, and you'd better believe some on-site research will be in order.

Fred Mustard Stewart, author of numerous American historical sagas such as Ellis Island (which was made into a TV miniseries), died last Wednesday. Obituary in the New York Times.

Diana Gabaldon really likes Ariana Franklin's Mistress of the Art of Death. So did I.

An article/interview on Kevin Baker's approach to historical fiction, from the Columbus Dispatch:

I believe historical fiction should not be divorced from other literature. It should be held to the same standards and requirements, and the first requirements of all fiction are "Tell a good story" and "Know the human heart."
Worth reading.

Rumor has it that my book has been spotted as the centerpiece of a historical fiction display at Braintree Public Library in Massachusetts. I'm investigating whether my contacts in the area (mother-in-law) will be able to sneak a photo.

I'm also discovering that, sadly, I'm a more productive/responsible reader when I do have deadlines looming, as demonstrated by the relatively sparse number of novels read so far this year (despite reading four Booklist review books between January 1 and January 5). I'll talk more about some of these novels in another post, as this is getting long.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Everything old is new again

Occasionally I get questions from people asking why the HNS bothers reviewing novels that are reprints. The February HNR, for example, contains reviews of Anya Seton's The Winthrop Woman and Ben Ames Williams' A House Divided, both reissued by Chicago Review Press in late 2006; William Golding's To the Ends of the Earth, a 3-in-1 compilation of his classic sea trilogy, from Farrar Straus & Giroux; and Judith Merkle Riley's In Pursuit of the Green Lion, rereleased by Crown/Three Rivers to coincide with publication of v.3 in her Margaret of Ashbury trilogy.

We don't review every novel of this type. Very few of the Plaidys, either the Three Rivers trade pbs or the UK editions with the attractive new covers, have been revisited by us. It all depends on space, whether publicists decide to send them, and whether the editors think they're worth extra attention. (At the risk of derailing this post, I'll mention that some Victoria Holts will also be reissued soon, but the covers are, imho, garish in an odd psychedelic way and a little creepy.)

It struck me while reading the 1/29 Publishers Weekly over lunch that HNR isn't unusual in sometimes reviewing new editions of older books, although I haven't seen this done in PW very often. On p.42 I found a very nice review for Orson Scott Card's Saints, in its new Subterranean Press edition. Saints is a historical novel about Dinah Kirkham, a heroine of the early Mormon church; born in Britain, Dinah lives through the Industrial Revolution of the early 19th century, converts to Mormonism, and emigrates to America, where she becomes one of the wives of Church founder Joseph Smith. The novel has an interesting history in itself. First published in 1984 by Berkley as A Woman of Destiny and marketed as a romantic saga, it was renamed Saints and republished by Forge as a mainstream historical in 1988. It also appeared as a Forge trade paperback in 2001. (I own the original and the 2001 editions. Yes, I realized they were the same book. I liked the 2001 cover better.)

A quick trawl through the PW and Booklist databases reveals no previous reviews for the earlier editions of Saints, under that title, though plenty of libraries own copies - well over 300 holdings in WorldCat for the two combined, plus 70 holding libraries for the original Woman of Destiny. So it's not quite the undiscovered gem the review hints at (emphasis on "undiscovered").

Still, six years after its most recent edition, it gets republished, repackaged, and garners a rare starred review from PW. Not bad at all for a historical novel on its fourth life in print.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Writer wanted for historical anime piece

The Historical Novels Review is looking for someone interested in writing a piece on historical anime films for our regular "History and Film" column in the magazine. Length should be 1500-1800 words and can either deal with a single film or a collection of them. The piece would accompany a longer article on historical fiction graphic novels, which is currently in preparation.

If interested, please email managing editor Bethany Latham at for details. The HNS is an all-volunteer organization, and as such, we cannot offer payment - but if this is a topic that interests you and you'd like to write about it, please get in touch.

Catalog this...

A blurb in the latest issue of Library Journal (which quoted Matt Weiland's piece in the NYT Book Review from 12/31) about the interesting Library of Congress subject headings assigned to novels got me thinking. He admires the succinct description offered by "Middle class men -- Fiction" for John Updike's Rabbit, Run, for example.

Here are some other examples to muse on, from current historical novels. Subjects for biographical novels are usually straightforward, but for those with fictional characters, literary fiction, "novels of ideas," etc., the catalogers can be quite creative.

Subject headings for Dan Simmons' The Terror:
Survival after airplane accidents, shipwrecks, etc. -- Fiction.
Sea monsters -- Fiction.

For Judith Merkle Riley's The Water-Devil:
Forced marriages -- Fiction.
Women mystics -- Fiction.

For G.W. (Gordon) Dahlquist's The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters:
Rejection (Psychology) -- Fiction.

For Brenda Rickman Vantrease's The Mercy Seller:
Illumination of books and manuscripts -- Fiction.

For David Gemmell's Shield of Thunder:
Troy (Extinct city) -- Fiction.

For Heather Terrell's The Chrysalis (which may be a modern novel about WWII, haven't checked yet):
Art treasures in war -- Fiction.
World War, 1939-1945 -- Destruction and pillage -- Europe -- Fiction.

See, there are Library of Congress subject headings for just about everything. (Back to my more content-intensive posts once my work and HNS schedule lightens up, I hope.)

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Thursday historical fiction roundup

I'm writing from my office on my lunch break. My favorite reference question of the day - so far - came from a student looking for books on Thermopylae. "Do you know how to spell Thermopylae?" he asked. Yes, yes, I do, I said proudly (with thanks to Steven Pressfield) - and then I showed him how to search the online catalog. Another happy library patron.

BEA this year is back in NYC the first weekend in June, as it is every other year, and just like in '05, they'll have a special librarians' hotel, which is (again) the Holiday Inn Midtown on 57th. It's within walking distance of Central Park and - if you really like to walk - the American Museum of Natural History. (Been there, done that, in '05.) It's a great improvement over the New Yorker Hotel which was, I believe, the designated librarians' hotel in '03. Anyone else going?

HNS, of course, is the second weekend in June, and I've just been booked to give a 1/2 day workshop for a library system in Massachusetts (on historical fiction, naturally) on Tuesday, June 5th. It's going to be a very busy week, but I wouldn't miss BEA in NYC for anything. Just like last year, I'll be posting info on "galleys to grab" in April, when that info appears in Publishers Weekly and on the BEA website.

A roundup of some recent deals.

This is nonfiction, UK only at present:

Impossible Journeys author Matthew Lyon's THE FAVORITE, the intimate story of the relationship between Queen Elizabeth and Sir Walter Raleigh that re-evaluates the life and times of a great British hero and his queen and brings new light to his role within the court, politics, adventure and science, to Leo Hollis at Constable & Robinson, in a nice deal, by Sarah Such at Sarah Such Literary Agency (world).

Susan Holloway Scott's two untitled books set in the bawdy Restoration court of King Charles II, to Claire Zion at NAL, by Meg Ruley at Jane Rotrosen Agency (NA).

Susan Holloway Scott blogs over at Word Wenches; her first mainstream historical novel, Duchess, about Sarah Churchill, was one of HNR's editors' choice picks for November.

I have a feeling there's more to this novel/film than this blurb suggests:

Juan Eslava Galan's THE MULE, about the relationship between a man and his mule set during the Spanish Civil War, to be a movie directed by Michael Radford (Il Postino), to Josh Pasternak at Bantam Dell, by Anne Edelstein of the Anne Edelstein Literary Agency, in association with Silvia Bastos Agencia Literaria.

This one just begs for a certain type of cover art:

Journalist Craig McDonald's HEAD GAMES, based on the theft of Mexican Revolutionary Pancho Villa's head in the 1920s, to Benjamin LeRoy of Bleak House, for publication in fall 2007, in a two-book deal, by Svetlana Pironko at Author Rights Agency.

And just to show that librarians really do rule the world:

The Dead Beat author Marilyn Johnson's KEEPERS: Librarians, Cybrarians and Other Superhuman Guardians of Civilization, in which the author travels around the country meeting the visionaries and cultural saviors who have transformed libraries in the digital age in a quest to answer the question "What is worth saving?", to David Hirshey at Harper, in a pre-empt, by Chris Calhoun at Sterling Lord Literistic.