Thursday, December 31, 2009

Last post of 2009!

We'll return to our regular historical fiction coverage shortly, but these guys wanted their moment in the spotlight.

In the meanwhile, if you're curious about my top 5 picks for 2009, you can find them at The Readers' Advisor Online. We plan to spend tonight going out for Thai, relaxing by the fire, and watching Memoirs of a Geisha from Netflix.

From our house to yours (and from our cats old and new), here's hoping 2010 brings you plenty of great reading!

Abby, new kitten #1, aka "little gray"

Callie, the heat-seeker, in one of the few moments she's not on my husband's lap

Max and Tortie, the original brother and sister, in their favorite spot. Poor Max is still recovering from knee surgery.

"Mad" Mary, former stray, mother of the two little ones. Great expression of boredom/disgust. The neighbors named her.

Meanie, resident porch cat, who has that name for a reason

Oliver, new kitten #2, aka "little yellow"

Monday, December 21, 2009

C is for Catherine

This is my third entry for the Alphabet in Historical Fiction Challenge sponsored by Historical Tapestry. My general theme for this challenge is "backlist books you haven't read, but should!"

Catherine Cookson's own life has fascinated readers nearly as much as her novels do. She grew up in poverty in Jarrow, an industrial mining town in the North-East of England, the illegitimate child of an alcoholic mother. In fact, because illegitimacy was so frowned upon in her overwhelmingly Catholic neighborhood in Tyneside, Cookson's grandmother raised her, and until she was a teenager she believed her mother, Kate Fawcett, was her older sister. Through determination, hard work, and education, she overcame her deprived background to become one of the most prolific and successful British novelists of the 20th century. By popular demand, Cookson wrote her autobiography, Our Kate, in 1969, and like her other works it became a bestseller.

In many ways, Cookson's journey fits the pattern of one of the regional sagas she is so famous for. Janet MacLeod Trotter, a saga writer from Newcastle, has successfully taken up the challenge to turn Cookson's own story into a biographical novel. It's an absorbing, smoothly written work that will leave you with admiration of how Catherine overcame a life of intense hardship to achieve her dreams.

Return to Jarrow begins in 1923, as 17-year-old Catherine "Kitty" McMullan despairs at her mother Kate's plan to marry an alcoholic sailor simply out of desire for respectability. Over the next decade and more, as she struggles to better herself, Kitty survives a number of demeaning jobs, taunts from other girls about her shameful birth, romances with the wrong men, her mother's incessant drinking, and a horrible rare blood disease, though never gives up hope that one day she'll leave the streets of Jarrow behind. Through her aunt, she discovers the identity of her birth father and takes pride in knowing he was a wealthy aristocrat. Readers of Cookson's autobiography will be familiar with this material, though Trotter also includes details that were deliberately left out, such as how the jealousy of a dangerously overprotective Irishwoman, a former close friend of hers, nearly prevented her marriage with schoolteacher Tom Cookson. And in true saga fashion, the novel ends on an optimistic note.

Return to Jarrow is third in a trilogy. The first two volumes, The Jarrow Lass and A Child of Jarrow, cover the lives of Cookson's grandmother and mother. Each can stand alone, and all are well worth reading for their eye-opening look at real working-class women's struggles in industrial England in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I've read several of Trotter's regional sagas and thorougly enjoyed them all. Her stories are compelling and heartwarming page turners, and despite the harrowing circumstances she depicts, she doesn't overdramatize. The settings feel wholly authentic, and her characters are vivid and real, with speech patterns that reflect their origins. This is a must-read for Cookson fans as well as anyone interested a well-told and compulsively readable story.

Return to Jarrow was published in 2004 by Headline at £6.99 (502pp, paperback, 0-7553-0849-2).

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Review: The Night's Dark Shade, by Elena Maria Vidal

In her third work of fiction, both a richly detailed historical novel and a dark morality tale, Elena Maria Vidal takes readers deep into the heart of the 13th-century French Pyrenees – a war-torn land whose verdant mountains conceal adherents of the mysterious Cathar religion.

The year is 1227. After her father and brother are killed fighting alongside the French king against the Cathars, seventeen-year-old heiress Raphaëlle de Miramande realizes she needs a male protector. As appropriate for a woman in her position, she arranges for her betrothal to the son of her uncle, the Baron de Marcadeau. With her small party and an accompanying group of pilgrims, she makes her way from her home in Auvergne to her uncle’s chateau, taking a treacherous mountain route overrun by dispossessed Cathar noblemen turned brigands. Upon arrival, she receives a peculiar welcome, and discrepancies in the family’s behavior put her on guard. Curiously, she finds no outward trappings of Catholicism, the family doesn’t celebrate mass, and her uncle’s wife, Lady Esclarmonde, declares Raphaëlle’s brightly colored clothing too ornate to be proper.

Raphaëlle soon comes to realize that the castle is full of Cathar sympathizers, and that Esclarmonde is a Cathar Perfecta, a member of their spiritual elite. An ascetic and vegetarian who believes too many children are born in the world, Esclarmonde tells Raphaëlle to expect a celibate marriage. Seeking escape from her betrothal to a heretic, Raphaëlle writes in desperation to Sir Jacques d’Orly, an officer of the king’s seneschal who later seeks to marry Raphaëlle himself. However, Raphaëlle’s uncle and cousin refuse to give up her dowry. Raphaëlle also finds her heart torn between her loyalty to Jacques and her overwhelming love for Martin, the flirtatious Knight Hospitaller and troubadour who had brought her safely to her uncle’s chateau. Jacques offers her stability, but Martin presents a romantic image that’s difficult for her to resist.

Denounced as a heresy by the Roman church, which saw it as a major threat, Catharism was a dualistic sect believing in the purity of the spirit and the sinfulness of the material world. Raphaëlle’s travels back and forth through the Pyrenees showcase the interplay of light and shadow against the beauty of the mountains, a symbol of the theological troubles raging in the land. These lyrically written passages, a highlight of the book, will likely inspire thoughts of travel to southern France. Raphaëlle, a fervent Catholic, can’t understand how the Cathars would disdain these beautiful sights because of their earthly origins, but even she is initially taken in by the sincerity of their beliefs and their surface similarity to her own.

As Vidal notes in her introduction, in medieval times people's faith ran strong; religion wasn’t a subject of indifference. This is something that many novels about the period downplay or omit. The Night’s Dark Shade, told as it is from a devout young Catholic’s viewpoint, depicts the Cathar faith as Catholics of the time would have seen it. Several Cathar characters cross the line into madness; Esclarmonde in particular embodies everything malevolent that was believed about them. Other members of Raphaëlle’s circle make sudden emotional about-faces toward the end. More nuanced characterizations in these cases would have strengthened the storyline, but Raphaëlle’s struggles for clarity with her own faith and love life are realistically depicted and heartfelt.

Julianne Douglas has also posted a review at Writing the Renaissance.

The Night’s Dark Shade was published in November 2009 by Mayapple Press ($22.50, trade paperback, 978-0-557-15924-6). Elena Maria Vidal blogs at

Monday, December 14, 2009

Weekend books and cats

Things have been a little quiet around here as reviews for Feb's Historical Novels Review begin to arrive. Plus I've been occupied with these little critters:

They and their mama showed up on our front doorstep on Thursday at lunchtime, when it was 20 degrees out and windy. They were shivering. I brought them all inside and put them in our spare room along with a litter box, food, and water, and they're still there. We decided we'll keep them. On the same day, a friend rescued a longhaired orange kitty and took him in, which makes four kitties saved from the cold last week. We're turning into crazy cat people, all right.

I'll have some more reviews to post soon, though this past weekend I deliberately took a break from the immediate TBR pile. We recently started a subscription to Netflix, and Memoirs of a Geisha came up as a DVD I might enjoy watching. I put it in my queue but figured I ought to read the book first. Especially considering I'd bought it from Book of the Month Club when it came out (1997) but had yet to read it. (Other books in my collection have gone unread for longer than that. I try not to think about it too much.)

I won't be doing a formal writeup here, the book's too well known for that, but I did enjoy it a lot. However, I can't say I was swept away by it. It painted a very detailed picture of life as a geisha in Kyoto's entertainment district both before and after WWII. Sayuri's first-person narrative was involving and convincing, with an appropriate amount of emotional reserve. I would have liked more detail on her life as a witty, accomplished entertainer/artist as opposed to her mizuage (sexual initiation signifying her transformation from apprentice to full-fledged geisha). I had read Liza Dalby's Geisha in my intro to cultural anthropology class in undergrad and was fascinated by her depiction of the geisha world, which few Westerners get to glimpse; Golden's novel held the same fascination for me.

The second book I finished this weekend was a surprise. Sometimes I receive books for HNR that are outside the magazine's parameters, so I can't send them out to reviewers. Usually these are contemporary novels about the past rather than full-fledged historicals. On Friday afternoon, I opened up a mailing from Random House and found a copy of Michael Thomas Ford's Jane Bites Back, which has the cover tagline "It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen is still alive today... as a vampire." Oh, yes. It was one of them. I'd read last year about the four-way auction for this book, which Ballantine won, and tucked that information away in the part of my brain I reserve for publishing trivia. I don't normally read vampire novels. Blood doesn't excite me. I'm not really a Janeite, either. But for some reason, I picked this novel off the coffee table while lazing around on the couch on Sunday morning and got hooked. Before I knew it, it was 4pm and the 300-page book was finished.

The main character, Jane "Fairfax" nee Austen, is a bookstore owner after my own heart. After the 200-odd years since her supposed death, the Austen industry has exploded. Not surprisingly, Jane is fed up with authors motivated not by the love of her work but by the desire to make a fast buck. After succeeding in a last-ditch attempt to find a publisher for her manuscript, written just before she was "turned," she simultaneously contends with a jealous Bronte scholar, a new boyfriend who may not understand her secret, the unpleasant return of an undead former suitor, and keeping her true identity hidden in the face of newfound fame. Her carefully concealed sharp fangs really aren't the point (pun intended), though she does need to feed now and then. Instead, it's a very funny spoof of the trend-hungry publishing industry, Austenmania, and vampire novels, and it doesn't make the mistake of taking itself too seriously. On the other hand, the author clearly knows his way around early 19th-century literature. The result is a vampire novel that even doubters of the concept could be caught dead reading. The official pub date is December 29th.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

B is for Boundless

I thoroughly enjoyed this paranormal time-slip novel when I read it last year, though it doesn't seem to have gotten much attention from the historical fiction community. When it came time to post about a book corresponding to the letter "B" for Historical Tapestry's Alphabet in Historical Fiction challenge, I knew this was going to be my pick.

Graduate student Liza Donovan has been experiencing unsettling dreams of 19th-century Nantucket, so she jumps at the chance to spend summer break there with her roommate and best friend, Jane. Jane's aunt Kitty happens to live in one of the island's most prominent and famous homes. The stories Kitty recounts about ship’s captain Obadiah Young, who owned her house back in the 1840s, startle Liza, because she recognizes him as the man from her visions ... which are becoming progressively more intrusive, and also more erotic.

In the course of her search, Liza grows close to Adam Gallagher, a gorgeous curator at the Nantucket Whaling Museum. Together they learn more about Obadiah’s relationship with his beautiful, frail socialite wife, Lucy, and her mysterious death. Long-ago rumor holds that Obadiah murdered Lucy, pushing her down a flight of stairs before heading out to sea on what was to be his final voyage.

Liza's uncanny ability to identify scenes and whaling paraphernalia dating from the early 19th century puzzles everyone, Liza included, until she comes to accept that her visions must relate to a past life. Kitty's godson, Lucian, is skeptical of anything remotely New Agey, but Liza feels strangely attracted to him even despite his doubts and snarky remarks. The most confusing thing of all is the content of the dreams themselves. In them, Liza seems to be viewing the past through the alternating viewpoints of both Obadiah and Lucy. If Liza is truly experiencing dreams from an earlier lifetime, who was she back then?

When I read novels with parallel timelines, the present-day scenarios often prove to be annoying distractions from the more interesting historical segments. This isn't the case here. The modern-day characters are so open and genuine that they're impossible not to like. Their snappy dialogue and the many contemporary references contrast well with the serious tone of the earlier setting: a 19th-century Quaker whaling village, a place where social proprieties matter and death at sea is a tragic fact of life. When the two timelines overlap in Liza's dreams, it has a haunting effect, and the intensity increases as the novel approaches its conclusion.

There are some explicit sex scenes you'd never have found in a Mary Stewart or Anya Seton novel of this type, but they're integral for character development, and the storyline as a whole is engrossing. This was one of my most entertaining reads of 2008. Plus, it has an awesome cover.

The Boundless Deep was published in 2008 by Forge at $14.95 (432pp, paperback, 978-0-7653-1972-2).

Friday, December 04, 2009

Review of The Heartbreaker, by Elisabeth McNeill

If you prefer your heroes romanticized and untarnished, you may not want to read this novel. Elisabeth McNeill's The Heartbreaker takes an unflinching look at Prince Charles Edward Stuart -- Bonnie Prince Charlie -- and the woman who saved him from the English, Flora Macdonald, following how their lives diverged after the Battle of Culloden.

Both of their lives were dramatically changed after she spirited him away to the Isle of Skye, him disguised as her Irish serving maid, after the Jacobite army's devastating defeat in 1746. McNeill's story picks up five years later. Flora, who aided her prince on her stepfather's orders, was never really a fervent supporter; she helped him evade the English redcoats because he was in desperate straits. She gains many admirers, and her status attracts a handsome, well-placed husband, but not everyone wants to associate with a Jacobite heroine. Her happy marriage brings her contentment and many children, though money troubles force their family to abandon Scotland for the Carolinas -- right before the American Revolution begins.

Charles, formerly the charismatic figurehead for the Jacobite cause, traipses across Europe in a drunken, spendthrift haze, uncaring that many Highlanders gave their lives for him. A self-absorbed wastrel who ignores his ailing father and beats his devoted mistress, Clementine Walkinshaw, he grows more pathetic every year. The Pope doesn't take him seriously, and not even his faithful followers believe he could successfully invade Britain, though Charles persists in his delusion. It's a harsh portrait, and McNeill spares him not an ounce of sympathy. (While this interpretation is based on fact, the negativity does go over the top in places.)

Disowned by her family for her loose behavior, Clementine raises her illegitimate daughter Charlotte alone, refusing to condemn her former lover but aware of his many faults. Her good sense and circumspectness impress Charles's father and brother, who agree to fund their upkeep.

Rather than write a lengthy epic, McNeill opts for a streamlined fictional history that emphasizes action, fact, and character. She covers nearly forty-five years of history in less than 200 pages, so don't expect lavish detail, but it touches on the major events in Charles's and Flora's later lives. The ending chapters move briskly, reading almost like nonfiction with conversations added in.

The novel paints insightful portraits not only of Charles and Flora but also of Clementine, Charlotte, Charles's brother Henry (a Roman Catholic Cardinal) and Charles's late-in-life spouse, Louise of Stolberg. In this version Henry is a homosexual with a longtime lover in the church, which may or may not be true, but otherwise sticks closely to common interpretations. Clementine did leave Charles because she feared for her life, and left a note saying so. The novel also follows the latest revelations on the Stuarts' genealogy, mentioning Charlotte's son and two daughters -- a closely held secret -- and the latter's marriages with Polish noblemen.*

McNeill has a gift for personalizing tragic moments in Scots history, while looking beyond the myths and examining their long-term effects. While hers is a lively, gripping tale, it's also one of sorrow and deep regret. The women's resilience through troubled times is admirable, and it contrasts with the dissolute tragedy of the man they once looked up to. Here Charles Edward Stuart is a heartbreaker indeed, a man who symbolized Scots nationalism but who failed his supporters in more ways than one.

The Heartbreaker: A Novel of Bonnie Prince Charlie is officially published in January 2010 by Severn House at $27.95/£18.99 (185pp, hardbound, 978-0-7278-6837-4). The US release date is March 2010. I preordered it from Book Depository and received it in early November, and it seems to be available now.


* For an eye-opening account of Charles Edward Stuart's Polish descendants (which has been judged as meticulously researched and likely accurate), read Peter Pininski's The Stuarts' Last Secret (Tuckwell, 2001). The author was interviewed by Burke's Peerage and Gentry, which will give you the basics of his claim; I requested the book via ILL several years ago and found it absolutely fascinating.

Guest post: "Reconstructing the American Revolution," by J.M. Hochstetler

Today inspirational historical fiction author J. M. (Joan) Hochstetler is stopping by Reading the Past to discuss her interest in American colonial and Revolutionary War history and how it relates to her fiction. Welcome, Joan!


History has been a major interest of mine since I was in high school. Coming from an Amish/Mennonite background, I was steeped in it from the beginning. Faith, family, church, and community are very important to the Amish and Mennonites, and the Hochstetler family has an especially interesting history that’s well known in the community and is regularly recounted. So that had a powerful impact on my life and interests.

In college I learned to love doing research and especially learning about the lives of people from different periods. For me, the dry facts of history have always represented the stories of real people just like me. Now as a writer, I have the privilege of bringing the past to life for others. I’ve had readers tell me that they hated studying history in school, but that in reading my novels, suddenly this period, these events, and the lives of the people of the time opened up to them and became real. That’s what keeps me writing.

I’m particularly attracted to the American colonial and Revolutionary periods because it’s the seminal story of our nation’s founding. I’ve grown very concerned that our citizens today know so little about the founding of our nation. My fear is that if we don’t learn our own history and the values that have been handed down to us, we’ll lose the precious heritage of liberty our Founders sacrificed so much to gain. I hope and pray that the blood they spilled has not been sacrificed in vain.

In the American Patriot Series my goal is to write a comprehensive fiction series on the American Revolution. I’m not aware of any others that portray all aspects of it, including the experience of colonists, African Americans, Native Americans, and women. This period is chock full of fascinating people who lived in a lively and diverse culture in many ways similar to our own. They were involved in thrilling, scary, intriguing, and crucial events that shaped our nation, events that sound surprisingly familiar because we see many similar things happening all around us today.

I construct these stories by simply dropping my fictional characters right in the middle of the critical events of our nation’s founding, where they interact with the real historical people who were involved in them. That gives me the opportunity to include many of the recorded words and actions of the real historical figures as well as details from history such as storms and other natural phenomena that affected the outcomes of battles. What results is a narrative that is as dynamic and thrilling as the real events because it’s based solidly on fact.

I believe passionately that history matters. God calls us to remember all the ways he has blessed us in the past. When we look back, we can see his hand of guidance through trials and gather hope, confidence, trust, and faith that God will continue to guide and bless us as we follow his leading. History teaches us that we are part of the stream of life, part of the legacy of faith that runs through our own families and our nation from their beginnings, part of something bigger than ourselves. It enriches our lives, gives them meaning and purpose, and equips us to be responsible citizens, parents, teachers, and disciples. I hope the American Patriot Series will provide a measure of insight and encouragement toward that end.

J. M. Hochstetler writes stories that always involve some element of the past and of finding home. Born in central Indiana, the daughter of Mennonite farmers, she graduated from Indiana University with a degree in Germanic languages. She was an editor with Abingdon Press for twelve years and has published four novels. Daughter of Liberty (2004), Native Son (2005), and Wind of the Spirit (March 2009), the first three books of the critically acclaimed American Patriot Series, are set during the American Revolution. One Holy Night, a retelling of the Christmas story set in modern times, is the 2009 Christian Small Publishers Fiction Book of the Year and a finalist for the 2009 American Christian Fiction Writers Long Contemporary Book of the Year.

Hochstetler is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Advanced Writers and Speakers Association, Christian Authors Network, Middle Tennessee Christian Writers, Nashville Christian Writers Association, and Historical Novel Society. She and her husband live near Nashville, Tennessee.

You can find Joan online at or at this book’s blog

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Book review: Death at Hull House by Frances McNamara

It's November in downtown Chicago. The local political machine is in full swing; corrupt elected officials sit in the pockets of powerful businessmen. Following a major economic recession, unemployment runs rampant. Immigrants in the workforce, fearful of losing the positions they have, struggle with illiteracy, constant poverty, and appalling living conditions. Then a deadly epidemic sweeps through the city, overwhelming health care workers and hitting young people especially hard.

Some things, it seems, never change.

The year is 1893. Miss Emily Cabot, a native Bostonian, has been kicked out of her sociology graduate program at the University of Chicago -- not for academic reasons, but because of a social disgrace. The Dean of Women gives Emily a chance to redeem herself by securing a position for her at Hull House, the settlement founded by Jane Addams in the heart of the city's West Side. Devastated by the loss of her fellowship, Emily is grateful for the opportunity, though she's skeptical about Hull House's practical, hands-on approach to solving the immigrant community's problems.

As Emily quickly gets absorbed into the day-to-day tasks of the settlement, her eyes are opened to a different world. Along with Florence Kelley, Chief Inspector of Factories for the state, she visits manufacturing establishments to ensure they're following a new law that limits female workers to eight-hour days. They meet resistance from all avenues, including from the workers themselves. Then, on Christmas morning, while nearly everyone is at church, a man representing the interests of a sweatshop owner is found bludgeoned to death in the Hull House parlor. Because Mr. Hanrahan had connections to their late father, Emily's brother Alden thinks he was killed to prevent him from revealing his knowledge about Judge Cabot's own murder back in Boston.

Emily and Alden pursue separate investigations, as do the local police, and their differing conclusions complicate matters and draw innocent bystanders into the fray. The Hull House residents, while widely respected in Chicago society, risk losing their good reputation if one of their own is accused of murder. Meanwhile, attendance at their classes and clubs for European immigrants has dwindled due to the smallpox epidemic. Emily finds herself assisting in situations she never learned about in school, like convincing nervous mothers about the safety of vaccinations and laying out disease-ridden bodies for burial.

This fast-paced, enjoyable historical mystery does an excellent job plunging readers into the hubbub of activities at Hull House and the chaos resulting from the spread of smallpox. There's a lot going on at once, but the many plot threads are laid out cleanly. The dialogue is slightly formal, and the secondary characters from Alden to Emily's doctor friend to Jane Addams herself are generally well-rendered. Although Emily's personality comes through strongly on page one, her friends and associates often outshine her; it would have been nice to get to know her a little better. There are some copyediting errors, but they become less noticeable as the story continues.

This is second in a series (after Death at the Fair), and with many references to earlier events, the books may be best read in order. Not all the subplots end happily, which reflects the reality of this place and time. Readers should come away from Death at Hull House with newfound respect for the women social reformers of the late 19th century, and the difficulties they faced creating a bridge between the two halves of Chicago society.

Death at Hull House is published on December 1st by Allium Press of Chicago at $14.99 (pb, 261pp, 978-0-9840676-0-2).

Monday, November 23, 2009

Book review: Murder on the Cliffs, by Joanna Challis

When I was a teenager, Gothic novels formed a good part of my pleasure reading. They were the perfect escape, and I devoured them by the boxful. In a typical storyline, an attractive but naive young woman encounters danger and romance when she takes a position at a crumbling old castle or haunted mansion in the English countryside. She fights her attraction to the titled master of the house, a guarded, solitary man whose first wife died under mysterious circumstances. I can picture the covers easily: the heroine fleeing in her flimsy nightgown at midnight, her long hair whipping in the wind, a lone candle flickering in the dark mansion behind her...

Although the genre has declined in popularity since, regrettably so, I'm still very fond of Gothics. So when I got word about Joanna Challis's new historical mystery, I knew I had to read it. What longtime fan could resist this cover?

Murder on the Cliffs pays tribute to the genre and one of its modern masters, Daphne du Maurier. At the same time, it puts a twist on many familiar tropes. For example, Challis's resourceful heroine is more than a match, socially and intellectually, for the Hartleys of Padthaway, so she arrives on the scene in a position of power. As the daughter of famed British actor Sir Gerald du Maurier, her name, unlike that of Rebecca's narrator, is not only known but renowned. Because she is who she is, we know she'll survive and thrive. Not everyone is so fortunate, though. It's beautiful Victoria Bastion, former kitchen maid at Padthaway and its master's would-be bride, who is found dead. How did she die, and who killed her?

Twenty-one-year-old Daphne, a devotee of all things historical, comes to remote Cornwall in 1928 seeking adventure and escape from the marriage market. She looks forward to spending her days researching records from Charlemagne's time at a nearby abbey. On one stormy and windswept night, she discovers the body of a beautiful young woman, clad in a nightgown, lying in a deserted cove, and a teenage girl in hysterics beside her. The girl introduces herself as Lianne and tells Daphne that the dead woman was her brother's fiancee.

Lianne brings Daphne back to her home, an grand Elizabethan-era mansion, to break the news to her family. Here Daphne's real adventure begins. Lianne's mother, Lady Hartley, was less than thrilled at seeing her son, Lord David, marry a social inferior with a racy reputation. But even though she had clear motive for wanting Victoria gone, the investigation proceeds slowly. Sir Edward, the local magistrate, seems to buy into the notion of "aristocratic privilege" and delivers a verdict of accidental death. Evidence turns up implying otherwise.

The Hartley household is as eccentric as any Gothic fan could hope for, and secrets from the past hang over all of Padthaway's residents. The mansion comes complete with a grim, overprotective housekeeper, and Lord David's brooding nature, enhanced by his recent bereavement, appeals to Daphne's romantic side. Daphne's privileged background and friendship with Lianne help her get closer to the Hartleys and discover the secrets they're hiding. She also finds inspiration for the novel she hopes to write ...

After the dramatic opening scene, Murder on the Cliffs settles in as a quietly atmospheric mystery that builds in intensity again toward the end. Several obvious questions remain unaddressed for a good long while, but eventually the answers come fast and furious. Upper-class Daphne's haplessness at housework is amusing, and her relationships with other village residents draw out other aspects of her personality. She has a close, teasing relationship with her father, which is glimpsed through correspondence, and relates well to people from all walks of life. The slowly changing social fabric in a small Cornish village in the post-WWI years is especially well presented.

Readers will have different tolerance levels for historical characters as sleuths, since these novels require extra suspension of disbelief. The real Daphne was enchanted by the region's rich heritage and wild, romantic atmosphere, and her fictional counterpart feels similarly. The openness of her fictional voice takes away somewhat from her undoubtedly complex, enigmatic personality. I wondered whether a third-person viewpoint might have conveyed this better, and there were times I wished the protagonist wasn't meant to be a historical figure. The youthful freshness of her narration is appealing, though, and the prose style clear and direct. Perhaps other facets of her character will come through in later books.

Whether or not you buy the idea of Du Maurier as detective, this is good escapist fare with an excellent sense of place and history -- and with plot elements that both adhere to and defy the conventions of the traditional Gothic.

Murder on the Cliffs was published this November by Minotaur at $24.99, hb, 291pp, 978-0-312-36714-5.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A is for Alchemist

This is my first entry in Historical Tapestry's "The Alphabet in Historical Fiction" challenge. Over the next year, I'll be traveling through the alphabet, looking at 26 historical novels that fit the letter of the week. I plan to focus on backlist titles that are worth a second look.

I remember when Eileen Kernaghan's The Alchemist's Daughter arrived in the mail. I hadn't intended to keep it to review myself, but I'd grabbed the package from the mailbox on my way out the door and, having nothing else of value to read in a doctor's waiting room, opened it up to the first page. Of course, I quickly got caught up in the story. The author's Bronze Age high fantasy series, the Grey Isles trilogy, had been favorites of mine in high school, so this shouldn't have come as a surprise.

In any case, here's my review (first published in the Historical Novels Review in Feb '05).

Sidonie Quince, a teenager in 1587 England, lives with her father, alchemist Simon Quince, in Charing Cross. She has inherited from her late mother the ability to scry into the future, but considers her gifts a curse, for she foresees only disaster for her country. When Sidonie’s father receives an invitation from Lord Burleigh to attend upon Her Majesty at Hampton Court, Sidonie accompanies him, and dares to tell Queen Elizabeth the truth about the forthcoming Armada. But to prepare for war, England needs money, and Simon’s foolish promise to turn base metal into gold leads only to trouble.

While he travels to London for supplies, Sidonie and her friendly neighbor, apothecary’s son Kit Aubrey, head to Glastonbury Abbey to find a mysterious red powder that may be their only hope. Their adventure leads them into the company of Dr. Dee, Lady Mary Herbert, William Shakespeare, and other Elizabethan notables – plus more danger than they ever expected.

I was enchanted by this lighthearted historical fantasy. The scenes describing Simon Quince’s failed experiments (which give off foul odors that cause his servants to flee) are hilarious, and the author’s precise language and brilliant depictions of the Elizabethan world are a pleasure to experience. Young adults will delight in the romance and magical setting, and adults will appreciate this wonderfully written novel as well.

The Alchemist's Daughter was published by Thistledown Press in 2004 in trade paperback ($13.95/C$15.95, 187pp, 189345797). For more details, see the author's website.

The evolution of enthusiasm

I've mentioned DeVa Gantt's Colette trilogy on occasion here, mostly in the visual previews. I reviewed all three books for the Historical Novels Review and thought I'd post about them all now that the final review is out in HNR's November issue. Forever Waiting, volume three, is officially released next Tuesday.

My fondness for family sagas isn't a secret, so as soon as I heard about these books, I asked my fellow reviews editor Ellen to request copies for me. As you'll see, I wasn't completely sold on book one, but by the midpoint of book two, I found myself wrapped up in the story, and book three was my favorite of them all. Misfit has also reviewed the first two, and our opinions turned out very similar.

If you're into sagas at all, I recommend seeking out this trilogy, as it's completely addictive.

DeVa Gantt, Harper, 2008, $13.95/C$14.95, pb, 373pp, 9780061578236

In 1833 Richmond, Virginia, fifteen-year-old Charmaine Ryan leaves poverty behind when she takes a job as companion to wealthy Loretta Harrington. The daughter of an alcoholic wife-beater, Charmaine naturally distrusts most men yet remains open to whatever opportunities life might offer her. Three years later, Mrs. Harrington helps her obtain a position as governess on Charmantes, the Duvoisin family’s private Caribbean island estate. Charmaine quickly befriends Colette Duvoisin, the youthful mother of her three charges, but all is not well in her adopted island home. As she gets drawn into the Duvoisins’ circle, Charmaine puzzles over the reasons behind their obvious discontent. Why are relations uneasy between Colette and Frederic, her elderly shipping magnate husband, and what caused his estrangement from his eldest son, John? Is there an unnatural reason for Colette’s constant ill health? And will Charmaine act on her attraction to Paul, Frederic’s dashing bastard son?

The novel, co-authored by two sisters writing under a pseudonym and previously self-published, lacks a certain polish. There are many abrupt viewpoint shifts (do we need to hear every minor character’s thoughts?), and the prose veers from clunky to elegant and back again. Perhaps the lush, informal island setting can excuse the lack of attention paid to some social niceties, but one would expect sharper divisions between the classes, and Charmaine’s position as governess doesn’t involve much academic instruction. Yet despite its flaws, the saga never failed to keep my attention. It has an epic, page-turning quality many other novels only aspire to. I found myself transported to the authors’ fascinating fictional creation of Charmantes, caught up in the drama of the characters’ lives and eager to continue the Duvoisins’ story in the next volume of the Colette trilogy. Put this one in the “guilty pleasure” category.

DeVa Gantt, Avon A, 2009, $13.99/C$16.99, pb, 363pp, 9780061578250

The sisters who co-write as DeVa Gantt have hit their stride with the middle volume of their Colette trilogy (originally self-published as one volume). With its narrower scope, engrossing storyline, and fewer competing viewpoints, Decision and Destiny is much stronger of a novel than A Silent Ocean Away, although it can’t stand on its own. It opens in August 1837 on Charmantes, the West Indies island owned and developed by the Duvoisins, a family involved in international shipping and the export of local crops. Charmaine Ryan, governess to three-year-old Pierre and nine-year-old twins Yvette and Jeannette, has become a substitute mother figure since the death of their beautiful young mother, Colette. Although Charmaine is ostensibly the protagonist, the plot centers on John, the long-estranged Duvoisin heir, a man whose cynical, sarcastic exterior masks an anguish-filled past. Though strongly attracted to his charming half-brother, Paul, Charmaine grows intrigued by the enigmatic John, for he clearly adores her young charges. While slowly revealing facets of their personalities, the action steadily builds toward a denouement in which secrets hidden for decades are finally laid bare.

Decision and Destiny is chock full of all the elements saga fans expect: drama, romance, blackmail, family rivalries, a past that hangs over the present, and strong bonds of affection, too. The Gantts have taken special care in developing their younger characters, and it shows. The three Duvoisin children exhibit realistic traits and engage in antics that are delightfully humorous without being precious. While the tropical island setting feels authentic and tangible, the dialogue is sometimes too modern, and the historical backdrop lightly sketched, though this last was a wise decision. It keeps the focus where it belongs, on the Duvoisins themselves. I can’t wait to read the final installment, out in November.

DeVa Gantt, Avon A, 2009, $13.99, pb, 434pp, 9780061578267

The Duvoisin family saga that began with A Silent Ocean Away and Decision and Destiny wraps up with this final volume. It takes place in the late 1830s in Virginia and on the lush West Indies island of Charmantes, the longtime residence of the wealthy Duvoisin family. Charmaine Ryan, the family’s governess, finally makes her choice between the two Duvoisin brothers: Paul, the dashing illegitimate son, who makes his marital intentions clear at last; and John, the complex man with whom she has, to her surprise, fallen in love. In the last book, John had left Charmantes in the wake of a devastating tragedy, but circumstances call him back again – to face his father, patriarch Frederic Duvoisin, and determine whether the deep wounds between them can ever be repaired. Forever Waiting is ultimately a novel about maturity, forgiveness, and coming to terms with the past, but before the dust settles, there’s still much more of the Duvoisins’ painful history yet to be revealed.

The novels must be read in order, and although the first one started out rough, I quickly became sold on this trilogy. It’s full of likeable, flawed characters I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with; John’s gradual transformation from embittered, cynical family pariah to honorable hero was especially well portrayed. While the ongoing drama remains at the forefront, the story takes place against a well-rendered backdrop of the 19th-century shipping industry and the burgeoning abolitionist movement along America’s eastern seaboard. The plot twists and turns in unpredictable ways, and the conclusion is as satisfying as anyone could wish. DeVa Gantt is the joint pseudonym for co-author sisters Deb and Valerie, and some have called their style old-fashioned, but if their work marks a return to solid, engrossing storytelling, then I’m all for it.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Monday night link roundup

I'm pretty tired following a 2-hour meeting this afternoon, followed by an extended session on the NordicTrack at home (gotta work off all the German food I ate on vacation), but I wanted to get a blog post written tonight. For those who follow me on Twitter, you may have seen some of these already.

Reviews of Editors' Choice titles for the Historical Novels Review's Nov 2009 issue are up. For a nice change, I've read four of them already: Rebels and Traitors (which I lugged to Europe and back), A Separate Country, Flint, and The Little Stranger.

The November reviews for Historical Novels Review Online are also up, as of tonight, and the forthcoming books page for 2010 is updated -- with thanks to Sarah C, who keeps track of UK publications. They're online through next August.

Edward Rutherfurd defies the political correctness police in writing his New York: The Novel.

Another British historian jumps on the historical fiction bandwagon: Hallie Rubenhold's trilogy about "an 18th century heroine, Henrietta Lightfoot: courtesan, adventuress, spy and erstwhile murderess" has sold to Transworld, for publication beginning in 2011.

The different approaches to historical fiction taken by a Booker winner and a Governor General's nominee, from Maclean's. However: "Someone who made her name in historical fiction wouldn’t stand a chance, however good her work, of a Booker nomination." What about Sarah Waters, shortlisted for Little Stranger? All of her novels fit both categories.

An interview with Annabel Lyon, author of The Golden Mean, the novel about Aristotle which was triple nominated for literary awards in Canada. And which got snapped up by Knopf (US) and Atlantic (UK) shortly thereafter.

Historical Tapestry is hosting its first challenge: the alphabet in historical fiction. As they write: Each fortnight you write a blog post about an historical fiction book of your choice (it might even be something you already read before), but it must be related to the letter of the week. Jump over to their site for the complete rules.

This is a great idea and theme; I'm going to participate in this, time permitting. I expect most if not all the books I'll be talking about are backlist titles. I also wonder what will happen when we get to the letter X. Will we all be blogging about Xavier Herbert's Capricornia, or Edison Marshall's Caravan to Xanadu? How about something set during the reign of King Xerxes? I guess we have 48 weeks to figure this one out.

Finally, I was pleasantly surprised to find Historical Fiction II reviewed on the Booklist book club blog last Friday; it's especially nice when a reviewer understands the approach I decided to take.

Now back to reading Wolf Hall. I'm halfway done.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Judging a book by its title

This past July, I wrote up a review of the historical novel at left. Although 2009 isn't anywhere near over, it seems safe to say that it'll easily make my top 5 list for the year, if not the top spot altogether. (I don't want to make any pronouncements, as I haven't started Wolf Hall yet, and I've heard... maybe a few rumors that it's supposed to be good.)

And so I was extremely pleased to learn that it will be published in the US next year. Jude Morgan is a novelist who, I feel, has never received the wide acclaim he justly deserves, although this will be far from his first book to be published stateside. If I'm to believe Amazon as well as Baker & Taylor, it will be released as a trade paperback on April 27, 2010.

However, there'll be a change of title. Instead of the poetic and thematically appropriate The Taste of Sorrow, the US release is currently going by Charlotte and Emily. No cover art available so far.

This puts two of the main characters' names up front. Famous names sell books, and readers can easily guess who they are. Maybe the original title was too vague? Too much of a downer? (Does anyone expect a novel about the Brontës to be a pleasant walk in the park?) I'm all for increasing the potential sales of a novel of this caliber, but the new title is bland, it's overly generic, and it misrepresents the content to some degree. There are three viewpoint characters in the novel, and the revised title omits one of them.

At the All About Romance blog in June, Lynn Spencer talked about this phenomenon in the context of romance novels -- how imaginative titles are being tossed out in favor of generic ones when the books are reprinted. Her post, along with the comment trail that followed, is worth reading. Another example: Susan Wiggs's historical romance Vows Made in Wine has been re-released as The Maiden's Hand. One reader made a comment that stuck with me: "I think that they’re really sucking the poetry out of book titling with this generic, keyword-driven approach."

This may very well be a smart marketing tactic, but I can't help feeling a little sorrow for the poetry lost... as well as for poor neglected Anne.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Strolling through Salzburg

It's a warm and lazy Sunday afternoon here in Illinois, so after spending the morning reading Elissa Elliott's Eve: A Novel of the First Woman (for coverage in NoveList; I'll do my writeup tomorrow), I thought I'd get back to posting my travelogue. Here I am, above, sitting in the outdoor café at Fortress Hohensalzburg, overlooking the city of Salzburg with the Tyrolean Alps as a backdrop, on October 22nd. We hadn't made any plans to visit here, but with the help of the local tourist office and a little random luck, we managed to see a number of sites of great visual and historical interest.

For example, after walking a block from our hotel in the old city and passing through the Mozartplatz Square, we came upon the Salzburger Dom, a magnificent cathedral and a masterpiece of Baroque architecture. Interior view at left. There was a sign out front advertising a special event at the Dom that very evening, Licht Nacht (light night), so we took a stroll over after dinner to see what it was all about.

If you've never heard choral music sung in a cathedral as grand as this, it's quite an experience. The interior was lit up with colored lights that changed and faded in and out in accompaniment with the singers and organist. The cathedral pews were filled with a combination of locals and tourists (mostly the former); we had to stand in the back until seats opened up along the side. Mark took a video with his digital camera that came out surprisingly well. (Adobe Flash required to view.)

The gates at the entrance to the Dom provide more information about its history. You may need to enlarge the photo to see them clearly, but atop them are three dates which memorialize the three separate consecrations of the Dom: 774, 1628, and 1959. The original structure, consecrated to St. Virgil and St. Rupert in 774 AD, was destroyed by fire in the 12th century and rebuilt. Another fire ravaged the cathedral at the end of the 16th century, and it was reconstructed during the Thirty Years' War. The most recent consecration took place in 1959, after the cathedral dome was destroyed by Allied bombers during WWII and rebuilt yet again. (Most of the rest of the structure remained intact.)

Earlier that day, we had crossed a bridge over the Salzach River and wandered around more of the city's narrow streets. Lots of shops. Just to the side of St. Sebastian's Church (Sebastianskirche), another Baroque structure, is a cemetery with some very famous residents. It was only by chance that we stopped to walk around there, but I recognized several names right away. A few yards from the entrance, you'll find the plot for Leopold Mozart, the composer's father, as well as that for Constanze (Constantia), widow of Mozart, who settled in Salzburg with her second husband, Georg Nissen. Historical fiction readers may recognize her as a lead character from both Stephanie Cowell's Marrying Mozart and Juliet Waldron's Mozart's Wife. (I had to get historical novels in here somewhere!)

This last photo is the sight we saw while walking back toward the city center from the other side of the Salzach: the Dom towers behind the buildings at right, while the 11th-century fortress, at the very top, overlooks everything.

Note: there's something wrong with this post in IE; the date stamp and comment link are missing in the main blog view. I have no idea why. If it doesn't appear, you should be able to get there through this page instead.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Book review: Sunflowers, by Sheramy Bundrick

In her debut novel, Sheramy Bundrick casts a sympathetic light on troubled painter Vincent van Gogh, imagining a romantic relationship between him and Rachel, the young prostitute from Arles mentioned in one of the more dramatic and tragic episodes of his life.

When they first meet in a public garden on the fringes of the city in summer 1888, both are seeking a place of refuge and repose. They find it in one another. Vincent has just moved from Paris to Arles to take artistic inspiration from the local people and beautiful scenery and to establish an artists’ colony in southern France. In escaping to the countryside, Rachel wants to forget, temporarily, her unfortunate life as a fille de maison on the Rue du Bout d’Arles. Both have painful romantic pasts and are short of funds: Vincent depends on the largesse of his art dealer brother, Theo, for his subsistence, while Rachel, forced out of her home after an indiscretion, means to earn enough francs to get her name removed from the city’s register of prostitutes.

Although Vincent starts out as her client, he always treats her with respect, bringing her flowers and ensuring she enjoys their time together as much as he does. Their growing romance becomes a source of comfort to them both, and in willingly cooking and cleaning the yellow house where he lives, Rachel adds a touch of domesticity and normality to their lives. In his exuberant paintings of sunflowers, she catches a glimpse of his passionate soul. Although she is threatened by Vincent’s reluctance to mention her to his family, Rachel remains devoted to her lover. Their love remains constant, despite the censure of her house’s proprietress and the crises of madness he experiences – which become ever more frequent and severe.

Bundrick presents Vincent van Gogh as a gentle man possessed of enormous artistic creativity yet tormented by inner demons, a victim of a medical condition – possibly manic depression – that no one, neither Rachel nor himself, is able to fight. With its imagery of the ruins of Roman Gaul and the dingy cafés lining the city’s streets in the late 19th century, Sunflowers has a strong sense of place and time and serves as an enticement to visit southern France. Like the paintings themselves, the narrative is suffused with brilliant swirls of color, as seen in the warm gold of the wheat fields and the deep blue of the sky over Arles. Vincent himself, with his red hair and beard and famed yellow straw hat, becomes part of the overall portrait. The plot moves in accord with the rhythms of Provençal life, from the unrushed time of the wheat harvest to the mistrals that blow fiercely through the city. It’s a richly satisfying reading experience.

A sidenote: I took Sunflowers with me on my recent European vacation, and it kept me happily occupied on a long overnight flight. I began writing up my review on our first night in Munich. To my surprise, I saw a note on the back of the book that the cover painting could be found in Munich’s Neue Pinakothek, which specializes in 18th and 19th-century European art. And so we made plans to visit the museum (and painting) in person the following day.

Sunflowers was published this October by Avon A at $14.99 (401pp, pb, 978-0-06-176527-8).

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Guest post from Sheramy Bundrick: Van Gogh, Reader of Novels

Sheramy Bundrick, author of Sunflowers (Avon A, October) and proprietor of the blog Van Gogh's Chair, is stopping by today as part of her blog tour. I'll be posting a review of her debut historical novel tomorrow. Visit her website at Welcome, Sheramy!

Van Gogh, Reader of Novels
By Sheramy Bundrick

Most people know Vincent van Gogh as a prolific artist — over eight hundred paintings in ten years’ time — and perhaps as a prolific letter writer. But he was an equally prolific reader, with an “irresistible passion for books” (as he put it) and a particular love for novels. Vincent read Dutch, French, and English fluently, and the authors’ names sprinkled through his correspondence form a who’s-who of nineteenth-century literature. In the letters, he offers recommendations and critique of books to his brother Theo, his sister Wilhelmina, and other family members and friends. We learn which books he thought consoling (Dickens’ Christmas stories and Shakespeare’s plays were a comfort in the asylum) and which inspiring (John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress). He praises French Naturalists like Émile Zola and Gustave Flaubert for their views on modern life; Dickens, George Eliot, and Harriet Beecher Stowe for their sense of social reform. He even read Jane Eyre and Shirley, novels of Charlotte Brontë then known under her pseudonym, Currer Bell.

For van Gogh, novels represented modernity. In many of his portraits and still-life paintings, he tucked a yellow-covered paperback novel or two to serve as symbols of contemporary thought. In Still Life with Bible and French Novel (1885), a well-worn copy of Zola’s La Joie de vivre sounds a note of rebellion against the massive Bible that had belonged to Vincent’s recently deceased father. The lovely Still Life with Almond Branch and Book (1888), a birthday gift for his sister Wilhelmina, sets a plump paperback against a flowering almond branch, both likely intended as emblems of new life and modern thinking. Van Gogh always wanted to paint a bookshop lit up at night, but never managed it; the closest he came was the pictured oil sketch, La Liseuse des romans (The Novel Reader) of autumn 1888, showing a very modern girl reading a very modern novel before a bookseller’s shelves.

It is worth highlighting Vincent’s attitude towards women and books. Not only did he admire (and condone) female authors like Stowe and Eliot, he also felt ladies should read whatever they pleased, a way of thinking not shared by most men of the day. Even his brother Theo preferred to shelter their sisters from controversial Naturalist novels — “forbidden fruit,” Theo called such books — while Vincent eagerly suggested Wilhelmina read this or that to expand her horizons. To “satisfy the need we all feel of being told the truth,” as he said. For van Gogh, novels as much as any other books could reveal truth, teach us things about ourselves and the world in which we live through the guise of a fictional story.

Sometimes I wonder how van Gogh would feel to be the subject of novels himself nowadays: Irving Stone’s Lust for Life, Adam Braver’s Crows Over the Wheatfield, Alyson Richman’s The Last Van Gogh, my own Sunflowers, to name a few. Would he be embarrassed at the attention? Secretly pleased? For my own part, I tried to write a book I thought he would like, with the sort of heroine he might admire. And I hope he’d be satisfied.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Books I can't read

Oder, so viele Bücher, die ich nicht lesen kann.

This is the scene that greeted me upon entrance to a typical German bookstore. Historical novels everywhere. Some had separate sections labeled "Historiche Romane" (and when's the last time you saw that in an English-language store?) while others had piles and piles of them front and center. This photo comes from a mall store in Nürnberg's old city.

I had always heard that historical fiction was alive and well in Germany, and I now have firsthand proof of it. My two years of college German from 20 years ago were nowhere near sufficient for me to read any of them cover to cover, but I got the gist of the setting and characters from the titles and back cover blurbs.

There was a good selection of novels translated from English and other European languages. Can you spot Judith Merkle Riley's The Water-Devil, Jane Harris's The Observations, and C.J. Sansom's Revelation in the pile, not to mention several by Bernard Cornwell? The majority were, of course, written in German. Next to none will ever be translated into English, and they cover many subjects and settings that simply aren't covered in English-language fiction. There is no market here, apparently, which is very frustrating. So if you want to read a novel set in medieval Würzburg or 17th-century Bavaria, you'd better know how to read German or you're out of luck. And believe me, I'm tempted.

You'll gather that the headless woman trend is doing just as well there as it is here, and most of the novels do seem to have female protagonists; however, in my admittedly limited sampling, the emphasis on royalty isn't nearly as strong.

I know this blog has some German-speaking readers, and I'd love to hear their opinions! I can think of several historical novels written in English that appeared in German long before they were published in the US or UK (or elsewhere)... such as the Riley novel above and Donna Gillespie's Lady of the Light, sequel to The Light Bearer.

So, book shopping wasn't a major component of this trip, unlike my last visit to the UK (when I brought home a suitcase full). But I did do a lot of browsing.

What was I saying about some English-language content appearing first in German translation? Pope Joan, the film based on Donna Woolfolk Cross's bestselling novel of the same title, premiered October 22nd in Germany. You couldn't walk down the streets of of any major city without running into posters. The one at left comes from the Nürnberg Hauptbahnhof (main train station). The novel Die Päpstin was prominently displayed in every bookshop window we saw -- and in multiple sizes and covers.

I knew that the movie had been filmed in English, but the film that was being shown appeared to be in German, so we asked the desk clerk at our Nürnberg hotel and he confirmed it. After some googling around, I discovered that rather than subtitle Hollywood films for German-speaking audiences, the producers dub them into German using voice actors. There's a large foreign film cinema in Nürnberg called the Roxy, and the clerk advised checking there, but they weren't showing it in English -- because the English-language version, the original, hadn't been released yet (edited to say: or so I'd thought -- see comments for an update from a German reader). We could have gone to see the German version but decided to wait until it's available in the States. I hope it will be soon.

Friday, October 30, 2009

European sojourn, part one

It's been a long time since I've posted anything... but I have a good reason. Mark and I just returned from a 10-day vacation to Germany and Austria, a trip we'd been planning to take for quite a while. We had a wonderful time, and here's a recap of some of the sights we saw along the way -- with historical interludes, of course. Click on the images to see larger versions with greater detail.

We got back this past Wednesday evening, and I'm still dealing with jet lag... here I am posting at 8pm on Friday, and I can barely stay awake, but I'm determined to get something posted here, finally!

After arriving in Munich on Sunday the 17th, we spent the next day exploring the city. To the left is Nymphenburg Palace, which I'd never heard of previously, but Mark had visited it when he'd lived in Germany back in the 1980s. Following an extended tour of the palace and grounds (it was interesting to see that their lawns were suffering the same rodent problems as ours does), I found it easier to establish its context relative to other historical information I already knew.

Nymphenburg was commissioned by Ferdinand Maria, Elector of Bavaria, for his consort, Henriette Adelaide of Savoy, after she'd given birth to their heir, Max Emanuel. Henriette Adelaide was a granddaughter of Henri IV of France and his queen, Marie de Medici, through their daughter Christine; Henriette Adelaide in turn was the mother of Maria Anna of Bavaria, who married Le Grand Dauphin, eldest son of Louis XIV. If you've read enough French-set historical fiction, you may recognize some of these names. It's one great big European extended ruling family.

Ludwig I of Bavaria resided at Nymphenburg in the mid-19th century. To the right are six selections from his Schönheitengalerie, or Gallery of Beauties, a collection of 36 portraits of gorgeous women mostly from the nobility and middle classes; it was considered a great honor to be selected to pose for the gallery. The portraits cover the walls of a large room, and sexist as this may seem, I have to admit that the king had a good eye for these things; these women (as memorialized by Joseph Stieler, court painter) truly were beautiful. Another surprise: I immediately recognized two of the women as ones I'd read about in historical novels: Lady Jane Ellenborough (perhaps better known under her birth name of Lady Jane Digby) and Lola Montez. Both were mistresses of the king, while the other 34 were simply other women who possessed the qualities he was looking for. His long-suffering wife wasn't selected for the gallery, though Ludwig honored his daughter Princess Alexandra, his daughter-in-law, Marie of Prussia, and his first cousin Sophie of Bavaria (mother of Emperor Franz Josef of Austria) by including them in the gallery.

Okay, back to our travels. What would a visit to Bavaria be without a trip to Schloss Neuschwanstein, the fairy tale castle constructed as a mountain getaway for King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Even in late October, the grounds were buzzing with tourists from a variety of countries. They gave English-language tours, so after hoofing it up the mountain for about a mile (because of the snow at the top, the buses weren't running) we all clustered in the castle courtyard until our tour number was called, after which point we lined up like cattle within the gates until the tour guide arrived. Neuschwanstein is apparently suffering due to the large influx of tourists it receives each year and regularly undergoes restoration work; you can see the scaffolding on the far right side of the photo where work is being done. The opposite side of the castle is also completely covered in scaffolding, something we only discovered after making yet another steep climb up to Marienbrücke (Mary's Bridge) after the tour ended.

The photo at right, above, displays the 17th-century Chapel of St. Coloman against the backdrop of the Bavarian Alps just outside Schwangau, the town just before the climb up to Neuschwanstein begins. We had great weather that day, although it was rather chilly out; both of us were wearing winter coats and gloves. Right down the road from Neuschwanstein, another 15 minute drive, was the town of Oberammergau, where residents stage their famous passion play every ten years. If you want to catch the next performance, make your travel plans for May through October 2010.

That night we returned to Munich and then headed out with our rental car to elsewhere in Bavaria the following day. Our next stop was Ramsau, a picturesque village with a population of less than 2000 people. The only reason we knew about it, and decided to visit there, was because of an online webcam showing the exact same scene of a church and bridge over a river as you see on the left. Even though it looks like the two of us were photoshopped in after the fact, this is an actual picture (Mark brought along a tripod, along with a digital camera on a timer). We saw the webcam, right where it was supposed to be, and if you want to see what's happening in Ramsau right at this very minute, here's a link to it.

Salzburg, Austria, was our next stop. Because we hadn't made any hotel arrangements for the next two nights, and it was within a reasonable drive, we made a side trip of it. We credit Helga, the name we gave to the voice on the GPS system built into our rental car, for getting us to Salzburg and through all the one-way streets of the city. What an insane drive, but it wasn't exactly designed for cars. We stopped in at the visitors' center and reserved a room at a hotel within the old city at a very reasonable price. It pays to travel in the off-season. Photo of twilight in Salzburg on October 21, at right; this was my 40th birthday, and what a great place to spend the rest of the day.

The following morning, after croissants and coffee in the hotel's breakfast room, we explored the old city's cobblestone streets. I was amazed at the church at left, since it looked like it had been built directly into the mountain. Its name is St. Blasius Kirche (church). As one of my fellow reference librarians told me after I got back home, you get to hear about saints you'd never known about before when traveling to this part of Europe. St. Blasius is the patron saint of throat ailments, and his church, a rather unprepossessing structure compared to others in Salzburg, was built in 1330.

One final photo for this blog entry: after taking the funicular railway up to the Hohensalzburg Fortress (Festung Hohensalzburg), which sits atop a hill overlooking the city, we took some photos of the scene below; you could see for miles. The fortress, which essentially housed a small city in itself, dates from the 11th century. Can you imagine living here and looking out to see views like this every morning?

More to come -- and there'll be more about historical fiction in the next post, promise!