Saturday, June 27, 2009

An opportunity to read Rachel DuPree's personal history for yourself

Not long after I posted my interview with Ann Weisgarber on April 27th, she generously offered to send copies of The Personal History of Rachel DuPree for blog readers as soon as she received them from her publisher. I happily accepted.

So now I have three new paperbacks sitting on my bookshelf, and each awaits a reader. All you need to do for a chance to win is leave a comment on this post saying why you'd be interested in reading it.

If you didn't catch my earlier interview with Ann, click the link above for details. Deadline is Thursday, July 2nd. The names of the three winners will be drawn on Friday. International entrants welcome.

And the best news of all: At the time of the interview, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree had yet to be picked up by an U.S. publisher, despite its South Dakota Badlands setting and classic American themes. I was very pleased to learn that this has changed. I got the chance to meet Ann at the HNS conference two weekends ago, and while speaking as part of the "debut novels" panel, she announced that it had been acquired by Viking US. Publication will be next summer. Congratulations, Ann, and thanks for providing copies for Reading the Past visitors!

Good luck to all the entrants!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Book review: Anna Elliott's Twilight of Avalon

(I finished Twilight of Avalon before leaving for the conference, which meant I got the opportunity to mention it in my "best new historical fiction" panel. For those who were there, here's an extended version of my thoughts.)

Despite my longtime interest in Arthurian myth and fiction, the classic romance of Tristan and Isolde had never truly captured my attention. While reading Anna Elliott’s new historical novel Twilight of Avalon, I've been trying to analyze why. As tradition has it, Tristan and Isolde accidentally drink a love potion while en route to her wedding to his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall. This serves as the catalyst for an intense conflict between love, honor and duty that ends ultimately in tragedy for the young couple. However, I’ve always found it hard to believe in a romance enhanced by magical means, and in a strong, beautiful heroine made weak by love.

Other recent fictional takes on the legend include Dee Morrison Meaney’s heartrending romantic tragedy (Iseult), Rosalind Miles’s proto-feminist triumph (Isolde, Queen of the Western Isle and its sequels), and Diana Paxson’s complex historical fantasy epic (The White Raven). All are moving, poetically written, and worth seeking out. Among them, only the latter found a place among my favorite retellings. It relegates selfish Esseilte to the background while her more intelligent and rational cousin, Branwen, steals the spotlight and gets her man. All too often, Isolde has been a woman whose circumstances earned my sympathy but who I found difficult to like or even admire; that is, until now.

Twilight of Avalon bears small resemblance to the earlier novels and indeed to the Arthurian saga most are familiar with. The genealogical chart in the opening pages let me know I was in for something different. The novel is set firmly in 6th-century Cornwall, a land beset by political turmoil, seven years after Camlann. Arthur’s heir, Constantine, has been killed fighting the Saxons, or so it's believed, and his widow, Isolde, is left alone, distrusted by everyone. The bastard daughter of Modred and Gwynefar – King Arthur’s traitorous son and his adulterous wife – Isolde was married to Con in an arrangement of political necessity.

Now that her husband the High King is dead, Isolde is helpless to do anything except try to heal soldiers’ battle-wounds and ponder her unknown future with dread. She is thought by all of Britain’s lesser kings to be a witch, though her powers of Sight – inherited from her grandmother Morgan – have been blocked, and her pre-Camlann past forgotten through force of will. King Marche of Cornwall, who is chosen the new High King by his fellow monarchs, forces her hand in marriage, though Isolde refuses to submit to his mistreatment. Her only sometime ally is Trystan, a part-Saxon, part-Briton prisoner whose suspicious outlook and desperate actions reflect the violence of the age. They form an unlikely, reluctant partnership to flee from Marche’s clutches at Tintagel and uncover evidence of his treason.

Readers looking for scenes of chivalrous romance or sweeping Celtic enchantment won’t find them here: this is not a Camelot-style fantasy world but a vividly evoked early medieval Britain of uneasy alliances and swift, surprising brutality. The characters express a healthy cynicism about how their reality will be transformed over time into glorious legend, as has happened with their forebears, but accept its inevitability and work it to their own benefit. This isn’t to say there’s nothing magical about the tale, though. Aside from Isolde’s own limited supernatural powers, Twilight of Avalon celebrates the magic of storytelling in ways that pay tribute to both the legends and their historical origins. Most notably, Isolde, for all of her initial powerlessness, is never a weak character. She knows what she must do to escape her situation and the long odds of her success; she has a few tricks up her sleeve as well.

I thoroughly enjoyed this inventive retelling, in all its gritty authenticity. It would be horribly unromantic of me to say it works better without the passionate love story, so I won’t go that far. Rather, it plants the seeds for a deeper connection between Isolde and Trystan that I’ll be eager to see develop in the next two volumes.

Twilight of Avalon was published in May by Touchstone Books ($16.00/C$21.00, 428pp, 978-1-4165-8989-9). Anna Elliott's website is

Thursday, June 18, 2009

HNS conference linkfest

(me, Joyce Saricks, and Georgine Olson speaking at our "what to read and why" panel at 8:30am on Saturday)

I've been back in Charleston for three days, but my mind's still up north in Schaumburg. It was wrenching to come back home after having such an outstanding time meeting up with authors and readers, old friends and new, at the HNS conference last weekend.

I'd planned on doing a longer, more descriptive post, but so many bloggers have already done it for me. Below are other authors' and readers' summaries of the event, in no particular order, with occasional commentary from me.

Barbara Vey, contributing editor of Publishers Weekly, blogged from the event over the entire weekend, complete with photos, covering Margaret George's keynote, the late-night sex scene readings -- which has become a tradition -- and a nice wrap-up, complete with conference committee photo. If you haven't done so already, you must watch C.W. Gortner's hilarious drive-by interview with Barbara. Afterwards, responding to HNS authors' discussions on research, Barbara asked Beyond Her Book readers whether they require accurate details in their fiction.

I chatted with Barbara and Romance B(u)y the Book and B&N genre fiction columnist Michelle Buonfiglio in the hotel lobby on Saturday afternoon about book recommendations and the mission/history of the HNS. The organizing committee put a lot of effort into ensuring that many different types of historical novels (including historical romance) were well represented at the conference, so it pleased me to see this come out in her report. There's a photo of us three at Michelle's RBTB blog.

Julianne Douglas wrote an excellent summary of the event which covered many panels I didn't get to see. As I told her afterward on the Historical Fiction forum, the hotel used to be done up in Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie Style, though following last summer's renovation, it looks more like 2020 than 1920! Other bloggers include:

  • Nancy Blanton, who got a photo of some costume pageant participants;

  • Conference volunteer DL Larson, who writes about her book-signing experience;

  • Joyce Moore, who moderated the "query letter" panel and who wore a gorgeous green linen gown at the costume pageant. Scroll down to Joyce's gallery for more photos.

  • Sheramy Bundrick, on how she and Margaret George make connections with their characters;

  • I shared a book-signing table with Doug Jacobson and thoroughly enjoyed the "historical boys" panel on Sunday;

  • It was fun to catch up with Michelle Moran and get my copy of The Heretic Queen signed! Her blog has a few more photos.

  • HNS reviewer and Facebook pal Laurel Corona has a great picture of all the Jane Rotrosen Agency clients who attended (quite a few!);

  • Dawna Rand did an extensive writeup that covered some cool photos (of three-time conference attendees Vic and Jenny Brown, who bought me drinks and kept me up late in Salt Lake City in 2005), the "debut novels" panel, more great pics, and marketing tips from Karen Essex, C.W. Gortner, and Michelle Moran (which I couldn't attend because my panel ran concurrently, alas).

  • Costume pageant winner Joan Baril, from Thunder Bay, Ontario, talks about Margaret George's unique writing method;

  • And Gemi Sasson, whose summary made me proud to be part of the conference, and who created a clever logo!

Did I miss anyone's blog post? Let me know!

Coming soon - a review of Anna Elliott's Twilight of Avalon and a giveaway of Ann Weisgarber's The Personal History of Rachel DuPree.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

And so, the big conference adventure begins

It's Wednesday morning, and the trunk of our SUV is completely full of tote bags, programs, and assorted flyers and promo items sent by authors/publishers for the HNS conference this week. Mark's still asleep, and we haven't really packed anything else yet, though I've got a folder of notes and other printouts set aside.

The last week has been hectic, even beyond expectations. After BEA, we were home for exactly two days before taking off in the car again for my cousin's wedding in London, Ontario, a 9-hour drive, though we overnighted in Ann Arbor on the way out. The trip went smoothly, the wedding was lovely (beautiful sunny day, not too hot, held at a historical estate on the outskirts of London) and we got to visit with many family members from across the US and Canada.

More troublesome was the return trip to the States on Sunday, which Mark summarized succinctly on his blog. Yeah, we're armed and dangerous, all right. (Armed with book purchases, maybe. I did some historical novel shopping at a Canadian bookstore on Saturday morning.)

On Monday morning, we learned that one of our author guests of honor, Edward Rutherfurd, had a family emergency and had to return to England asap, so was unable to appear at the conference after all. He was extremely sorry about it, and we're disappointed we won't be seeing him there, but family comes first. Fortunately for us, conference attendee Sharon Kay Penman accepted our very last-minute invite to give Saturday night's keynote address in his place. Sharon's one of my favorite historical novelists, and I'm really looking forward to meeting her and hearing her talk.

Today's plan: head up to Schaumburg, unload all our stuff at the hotel, and meet up with editor/agent liaison Ann Chamberlin for the drive out to hotel liaison Winifred Halsey's house an hour west; she's been storing 120+ boxes of books in her garage for the past month and more. Publishers were very, very generous with donations for attendees, so there's lots of good reading to look forward to. These books will mysteriously reappear in conference attendees' tote bags when registration opens on Friday. We're renting a U-Haul and plan to do the big book move this afternoon and evening.

Inspired by a post by Susan on the HFO forum, I've set up a Twitter account, which I'd been mulling over since BEA, and will be posting news flashes from the conference there as time permits. Holly from Wonders and Marvels (tweeting as history_geek) and I are wondering what other historical novel folks are there, so if you're connected up, let me know! I'm coming late to the party and am still figuring out how it works - no snazzy backgrounds yet - so please bear with me. No doubt I'll be blogging more about the event as well, though maybe not until after it's over.

Looking forward to seeing many of you in Schaumburg!