Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Guest post by Roger Hudson, author of Death Comes by Amphora

Today Roger Hudson is stopping by to talk about his research with ancient artifacts and what they can teach us about society and behavior. His novel Death Comes by Amphora is a historical mystery set in ancient Athens. Welcome, Roger, and thanks for contributing an excellent post!


As an historical fiction writer, I want to understand what the society I am depicting (in my case ancient Athens in mid-5th century BC) was really like, not just for accuracy but because it affects the attitudes and behaviour of my characters, maybe even what characters I create.

We have a fairly clear idea from written sources, for instance, of what the Athenian family was like. These tell us that married women stayed in the home in the women’s quarters, running the household, raising the children, overseeing the slaves, while the husband kept to his own rooms, was out all day when not away at war (a frequent occurrence), dined out often with friends, and visited his wife’s bed only enough to procreate a few kids, preferably male. No real family life at all.

Yet several carvings on tombs show just that – happy domestic scenes with husband and wife sitting together, children nearby, baby being dandled by husband. How does that fit in? If one set of evidence contradicts the other, which way do we go?

The received wisdom is that women didn’t go out or, when they did, they were heavily veiled and accompanied by watchful and protective slaves. Yet here is an image of a coy young woman with no veil being greeted politely by a young man. On that count, on what occasion could this have happened? And there is a carving showing a woman who has bought a rooster in the market taking it home in what appears to be a cab (a two-wheeled chariot) sitting on the cabby’s knee as he holds the reins. Could she be a slave? Well, just maybe.

There again is a clean-shaven man with a woman looking very like a married couple going shopping together – he is carrying the basket and they look as though they may be having a row. How does that fit in? Her calves are exposed too. Maybe they are from a lower class? But then, almost by definition, such people would be more numerous than the upper class. So why don’t we regard that as the norm?

And all those women dancing with men at parties or religious festivals, are they all slaves or prostitutes? Some of them look extremely well dressed but none of them are wearing veils.

So who do we believe? The word of the few upper class male writers whose work has survived, possibly describing the world as they would like it to be, or the artists and sculptors portraying life as it was actually lived? More important – which makes for the more interesting fiction? Perhaps these people weren’t quite as different from us as the historians make out. Or maybe there was an inner struggle going on in some individuals between the social rules and their natural human inclinations. Now there’s something I can make use of!

As a writer, I look at fragments of evidence and ask myself what they imply for ordinary people. That painting of a merchant ship on a piece of a vase (the only such representation we have), that would probably carry passengers as well as cargo. On a voyage across the Aegean or to the Black Sea coast, those passengers could get mighty thirsty in the summer sun, even if they found a harbour every night. So where would they get water? A photo of a giant earthenware amphora-shaped vessel gave me the answer. It had handles all over it implying, to me, that it was intended to hang in a leather or rope harness on a ship, so that any liquid inside wouldn’t be spilled by the tossing and swaying of the ship. Yet it would be possible to lower a dipper into it to remove water for drinking. Deduction from human necessity. That water-holding vessel actually went on to become the murder weapon in Death Comes by Amphora (the photo had shown the cracks where it had been stuck together again). Fragments have their uses.

I’m sure other writers have similar experiences, so I’d appreciate any comments or anecdotes.

My thanks to Sarah for inviting me to guest here today.

Roger Hudson is the author of Death Comes by Amphora, of which more on

Monday, March 29, 2010

My 4th anniversary giveaway

I'm late in announcing the winner of Kaki Warner's Pieces of Sky following the author's enjoyable guest post on the 17th. My apologies! Between editing reviews and classes to teach at work, I've been buried. But without further ado, the winner is... Carol W. Congratulations, Carol, and I hope you enjoy the novel!

It's come to my attention, pretty obviously really, that my desk has become overcrowded with books. The shelves are full, and my scanner is... somewhere around here. I have books to send to reviewers, books I've bought, books sent by publishers that I need to read and review... and among them are many duplicate copies. Namely these:

So, as a way of celebrating Reading the Past's 4th blogiversary, I thought I'd host a giveaway to share the wealth with my fellow bloggers and blog readers. Most of these are ARCs, with the exception of the English and McMahon. All are brand new and unread.

To enter the contest, leave a comment on this post letting me know which book(s) you're interested in winning ("any of them" is an acceptable answer), as well as your response to one of the following questions:

(1) What's the best historical novel you've read over the past four years?


(2) What's been your favorite post on this blog over the past four years?

Include your email address so I can contact you if you win.

Deadline is this coming Sunday, April 4th. I'll draw the six winners' names on Monday the 5th. Good luck to all entrants!

Friday, March 26, 2010

H is for Hill

Having reviewed a novel about Bonnie Prince Charlie not too long ago, I thought it only fitting to feature biographical fiction about the woman who became his consort: Louise of Stolberg.

Supporters of the Jacobite cause have had little good to say about Louise, an obscure German princess who wed the man they considered their rightful king in 1772, when she was 20 and he was 52. Their union, although contented at first, proved disastrous. Louise couldn't give Charles an heir, which was a problem. She also grew disenchanted with her meaningless title of "Queen of Great Britain, Ireland, France, and dominions beyond seas" and her marriage to a much older man who drank too much and mistreated her. Pamela Hill, a prolific Scottish historical novelist, presents Louise's side of the story.

Forget Not Ariadne opens in Louise's fortieth year. Louise, now a widow, is asked to quit her wealthy cousin Caroline's London home because of a social faux pas. Seems she picked the wrong day to be presented to Queen Charlotte: White Rose Day, the anniversary of the birth of her late father-in-law, the Old Pretender. Oops. Needless to say, Louise believes London to be the very center of prudishness and hypocrisy. Thus commences Louise's account of her impoverished childhood, ill-fated marriage, and subsequent yearning for freedom, a goal she finally achieves by leaving her husband. She finds true happiness by cultivating her substantial intellect and through her longtime affair with Italian poet Vittorio Alfieri.

Louise's first-person voice, as related by Hill, is direct, commonsense, and witty. She has a knack for funny pronouncements and clever metaphors; she has also had her fill of Jacobite romanticism. "A Guelph madman on the throne ... it might have been a Stuart drunkard," she muses. Looking back, Louise reminisces about her childhood, spent as a boarder at an abbey in the Austrian Netherlands after her father dies in Empress Maria Theresa's wars against Prussia. Dowerless girls, after all, have no purpose at court.

Ironically, after escaping the loneliness and poverty of Ste Wandru's via Charles Stuart's surprising proposal, her marriage and royal title prove equally empty. It's at this point she begins identifying with Ariadne, a princess of ancient Crete who was abandoned by her lover, Theseus, on the Isle of Naxos after giving him the means to save his life. Louise refuses to let herself be forgotten. She leaves Charles by taking refuge in a convent, sets up household with her lover, and spends her days traveling Europe, eventually winning over her ecclesiastical brother-in-law and founding a salon in Paris that attracts the best and brightest minds.

Forget Not Ariadne, Pamela Hill's lively and fact-based sixth novel, is one of her best. It's written like a memoir or oral history, as Louise details her eventful life in forthright and occasionally imperious fashion (after all she's been through, Louise has earned the right to say as she thinks). As a fictional account of a historical woman who refused to let society dictate how she lived her life, it fits in well with current themes in the genre. Published by A.S. Barnes of South Brunswick and New York in 1965, it is long out of print but available on the secondhand market.

This is my latest entry for Historical Tapestry's A-Z challenge. A shout-out to my fellow members of Historical Fiction Online, who'll know why I couldn't resist writing about this book!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Guest post from Nancy Means Wright, author of Midnight Fires

Nancy Means Wright, author of Midnight Fires (Perseverance Press, April), is stopping by today to discuss bookseller-publisher Joseph Johnson and his role in the 18th-century English book trade -- and as mentor to young writer Mary Wollstonecraft. Welcome, Nancy!



Joseph Johnson’s rooms were in no. 72 St. Paul’s Churchyard in the literary heart of 18th century London—the book trade had flourished there among the tea shops and coffeehouses from the 17th century to the 20th when enemy bombs devastated the area. A small, unassuming, asthmatic man of fifty, Johnson was the most innovative, open minded English publisher of his time. He was known for his promotion of young writers, male and female, whom he served as editor, banker, and father-confessor. The most celebrated literati of his day attended his five o’clock veal and boiled cod dinners, where one might hear poet Wordsworth arguing with artist William Blake; Anna Barbauld debating female education with writer Mary Hays; a young Coleridge discussing plans for a Utopian adventure in America. Fueled with wine, philosopher Godwin and others would undoubedly break out in a chorus of Ça Ira in support of the French Revolution.

Johnson published inexpensive, accessible books, aimed at middle class readers, and took on controversial subjects like political and religious toleration, rights for slaves, chimney sweeps, and prisoners. Many in his circle were Unitarian Dissenters, who like himself, could neither hold public office nor take a degree at Oxford or Cambridge; in retaliation, they wrote essays and books designed, they said, to reform the world. Pro-revolutionary pamphlets by Thomas Paine and others flew off the press, and when Paine was tried for treason and then arrested for debt, Johnson jumped to his rescue. After Joseph Priestley’s books and laboratories were burnt by the King’s mob, Johnson refinanced him. When he himself was arrested for seditious libel, he rented rooms within the King’s Bench Prison for his weekly soirées, to which his writers loyally flocked.

In 1787 a destitute 28-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft arrived on his doorstep in shabby boots and beaver hat, manuscript in hand and fire in her eye, and he took her in, she wrote, “with tenderness and humanity.” The year before he had published her Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, a work that insisted children be taught to think and judge for themselves—a mindset that girls of that day were urged to suppress. Her then employer, Lady Kingsborough, was horrified to think what this governess might teach her children! But a delighted Johnson offered free meals and lodging in the rooms above his shop. In desperate need of support, she accepted, having been rudely dismissed by Lady K, who was jealous of the girls’ affection for their governess. Wollstonecraft got her revenge in Mary: A Fiction, the manuscript she had handed her publisher, in which both Kingsboroughs are drawn with a satirical brush: He hunted in the morning, and after eating an immoderate dinner, generally fell asleep…he would then visit some of his pretty tenants. While Milady ignored her children in favor of her pet dogs who shared her bed and reclined on cushions near her all the day.

“Little Johnson” as Mary often called him—in part to distinguish him from the great Dr. Johnson, whom she also knew—became the parent she never had (her father drank, her mother openly preferred the older brother). Johnson recognized her brilliance and published her work. He paid her creditors, made her editorial assistant of his Analytical Review, and gave her work as a translator, for which, self-educated, she learned French and Italian, on her own. At a time when women writers were viewed with skepticism, even horror at the sacrifice of their native modesty, she vowed to live wholly by her pen—or starve. And of course Johnson wouldn’t allow that: his generous patronage helped her become one of the first professional female authors.

Still, Mary had to live frugally—any extra money she made from her writing went to her siblings. She had few changes of clothing, and wore her curly brown hair plain and unpowdered. For a time she remained quite anonymous except for her book Original Stories, in which a governess introduces two young girls to the harsh realities of poverty—and only then because it was illustrated by William Blake. It was not until A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which she wrote in six weeks and was printed page by page by Johnson in 1792, that her own name appeared on the cover. She became at once famous—and infamous. The work was an impassioned plea in favor of equal education and rights for women, demonstrating how the very protection given women by men made them an inferior class, unable to assert their full humanity. Marriage, she boldly announced, was little more than a “legal prostitition—women were the slaves of man.” Imagine the uproar! Horace Walpole called her a “hyena in petticoats.”

But Little Johnson patted her shoulder and assured her it was a groundbreaking work.

In Midnight Fires, the first in a series of mystery novels featuring Mary Wollstonecraft, the women’s rights controversy was still to come. In 1786, a younger, more naive Mary takes a packet boat to Ireland to be governess to three unruly aristocratic girls and to deal with the pregnancy of a peasant girl, and the death of an illegitimate, roué half-brother. As you can imagine, this rebellious but conflicted woman flings her whole fiery self into the search for a killer—and justice for all concerned.

Nancy Means Wright
Facebook page: “Becoming Mary Wollstonecraft

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Examples of authentic reviewerese

I've been thinking about research lately -- specifically, the words and phrases used to describe how effective an author has been at it.

Two weeks ago, I came across a review of a historical novel that was described as "impeccably researched." It was meant as a compliment, and most authors would take it that way, understandably so. I emailed the review to a friend who knows the period well, figuring she'd be interested in hearing about it. It turned out she had already read the novel, and disagreed with the assessment. There were many significant, surprising errors in the book, which she found disappointing.

Of course, readers look for much more in historical fiction than facts that are 100% correct. Nobody wants to read infodumps, and novelists sometimes alter history slightly (or more than that) for the storyline's sake. On the other hand, the problematic review casts doubt not only on the author's credibility, but also the reviewer's.

"Impeccably researched" is one of many phrases that has unfortunately slipped into reviewerese, that special lingo used by book reviewers as a short way of saying how they feel about a work. The terms "emotional rollercoaster," "laugh-out-loud funny," and "unputdownable" all belong to this vocabulary; they're overused to such an extent that they've become signs of cliched writing. There's even a bingo game based around them. (Disclaimer: I know many excellent reviewers who've used words on those scoreboards. So have I!)

Along with a wish that a historical novel be (mostly) accurate, readers want it to provide a sense of authenticity. They want to be made to believe that the historical world an author creates is real, that it could have existed as described.

Yesterday, a friend sent me to a SF/fantasy fiction blog which posted the following quote from writer Saladin Ahmed:
... I wish reviewers/critics would stop using [authenticity] as a criterion. 90% of critical/readerly praise for authenticity amounts to either “this guy imagines this culture in a manner which agrees with my imagining of this culture,” or “I didn’t know anything about Malaysian street culture, but now I do!”
That is to say, terms describing a novel's research or authenticity are used all the time by reviewers to indicate something other than what they actually denote.

When you see a novel described as impeccably researched, meticulously researched, or historically accurate (and you'll find this in publicity material, too), what the reviewer may really mean is: "the author includes a lot of historical details that made the setting come alive" or "I didn't notice anything obviously wrong" or "I learned a ton of new info from this book" or even "it has a massively long bibliography." Or it could mean exactly what it says. Without knowing anything about the reviewer's capability to judge such things, it's impossible to know for sure.

Likewise, the word "authentic" often refers to the author's exceptional world-building skills. Are the setting, atmosphere, and characters convincing enough to seem real? This may or may not reflect accuracy -- especially given the preponderance of the phrase in instances where the reviewer admits knowing little about the setting.

I'd cut people some slack for writing that a novel feels authentic rather than outright stating that it is such. It's possible to praise the author's knowledge, efforts, and world-building abilities while still acknowledging his/her limitations in writing about a time that s/he didn't personally experience -- as well as the reviewer's limitations in evaluating that author's work.

These words, like all of reviewerese, should be used judiciously. Careful consideration of the real meaning behind these oft-used phrases makes for stronger, more trustworthy, and (dare I say) more authentic reviews -- and isn't that something worth striving for?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Index to Book Reviews and Author Interviews

Now that the blog has reached the venerable age of four, I've put together a comprehensive index of all the book reviews and interviews I've posted. There aren't as many reviews as I'd thought - not quite 70 - but the majority are recent (Historical Tapestry's A-Z challenge has been a big encouragement). I expect this to increase now that my "what we're reading" column for NoveList is on temporary hiatus. My large collection of unread books awaits!

This post is linked from the blog's sidebar for future reference; it will be updated as new reviews and interviews are posted.

Author Interviews, 2006-present:

Blevins, Christine
Blixt, David [part 1 | part 2]
Dunant, Sarah
Edghill, India (external site)
Gortner, C.W.
Hays, Tony
Holland, Cecelia [from 2002 | from 2010]
Kay, Guy Gavriel
Kirkpatrick, Jane [part 1 | part 2]
O'Brien, Patricia
Proud, Linda [part 1 | part 2]
Raybourn, Deanna
Romano-Lax, Andromeda
Scott, Susan Holloway
Sharratt, Mary
Weisgarber, Ann

Book Reviews, 2006-Present

Agee, Jonis - The River Wife (1811 and 1930s New Madrid, Missouri)
Anand, Valerie - The House of Lanyon (15th c West Country, England)
Avery, Ellis - The Teahouse Fire (late 19th-c Japan)
Bell, Anne - Daughter of the Dragon (11th-c Wales)
Bennett, Vanora - Portrait of an Unknown Woman (Tudor England)
Blake, Sarah - Grange House (late 19th-c Maine)
Blixt, David - The Master of Verona (1314 Verona, Italy)
Borodale, Jane - The Book of Fires (1752 Sussex, England)
Brallier, Kate - The Boundless Deep (time-slip, present-day and 1820s Nantucket)
Brown, Molly - Invitation to a Funeral (Restoration England)
Bundrick, Sheramy - Sunflowers (1883 Arles, France)
Cameron, Michelle - The Fruit of Her Hands (13th-c France and Germany)
Carhart, Thad - Across the Endless River (19th-c Missouri and Europe)
Carr, Philippa - The Miracle at St. Bruno's (1530s-40s England)
Challis, Joanna - Murder on the Cliffs (1928 Cornwall)
Clark, Clare - Savage Lands (18th-c colonial Louisiana)
Clark, Jean - Untie the Winds (17th-c New Haven, Connecticut)
Condé, Maryse - Victoire: My Mother's Mother (19th-20th c Guadeloupe)
Cullen, Lynn - The Creation of Eve (17th-c Spain)
Dean, Anna - A Moment of Silence / Bellfield Hall (1805 England)
Dillon, Eilís - Wild Geese (18th-c France and America)
Ducharme, Diann - The Outer Banks House (post-Civil War North Carolina)
Eccles, Marjorie - The Shape of Sand (early 20th-c England and Egypt)
Elliott, Anna - Twilight of Avalon (6th-c Cornwall)
Erskine, Barbara - Time's Legacy (timeslip, modern and 1st-c Glastonbury, England)
Fairburn, Eleanor - The Golden Hive (11th-c Wales)
Ferrer, Sophie - The Jewess of Kaifeng (17th-c Macao and Kaifeng, China)
Feuchtwanger, Lion - Raquel: The Jewess of Toledo (12th-c Spain)
Follett, Ken - Fall of Giants (early 20th c - external site)
Ford, Michael Thomas - Jane Bites Back (contemporary U.S.)
Gantt, DeVa - Colette Trilogy (A Silent Ocean Away, Decision and Destiny, Forever Waiting, 1830s West Indies)
Gifford, Melanie - The Gallows Girl (18th-c Hampshire, England)
Gower, Iris - Destiny's Child (15th-c England)
Gregory, Philippa - The Wise Woman (1530s County Durham, England)
Grissom, Kathleen - The Kitchen House (18th-19th c Virginia)
Gunning, Sally - The Rebellion of Jane Clarke (1760s Boston and Cape Cod)
Hand, Dana - Deep Creek (1887 Idaho Territory)
Haran, Maeve - The Lady and the Poet (Elizabethan England)
Harwood, John - The Séance (Victorian England)
Hill, Pamela - Countess Isabel (12th-c England); Forget Not Ariadne (18th-c Europe)
Hoover, Michelle - The Quickening (20th-c Midwest)
Horn, Dara. All Other Nights (US Civil War)
Hunter, Frances - The Fairest Portion of the Globe (American frontier, 1793)
Jenkins, Rebecca - The Duke's Agent (1811 County Durham, England)
Jinks, Catherine. The Inquisitor (1318 French Pyrenees); The Notary (14th-c Avignon, France); The Secret Familiar (1321 Narbonne, France)
Kalotay, Daphne - Russian Winter (Soviet Russia & present-day Boston)
Kelly, Carla - Beau Crusoe (Regency England)
Kernaghan, Eileen - The Alchemist's Daughter (1587 England)
Kingman, Peg - Not Yet Drown'd (1822 Scotland and India)
Knight, Brigid - The Cloister and the Citadel (16th-c France, Netherlands)
Lefteri, Christy - A Watermelon, a Fish, and a Bible (1974 Cyprus)
Long, James - Ferney (timeslip, England)
Luke, Mary - The Nonsuch Lure (Tudor England)
Mandanna, Sarita - Tiger Hills (19th-20th c Coorg, India)
Manrique, Jaime - Our Lives Are the Rivers (19th-c Ecuador & Bolivia)
McCrumb, Sharyn - The Devil Amongst the Lawyers (1935 Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia)
McNamara, Frances. Death at Hull House (1893 Chicago)
McNeill, Elisabeth. The Heartbreaker (1740s Europe & Carolinas)
Moore, Joyce - The Tapestry Shop (1260s Northern France)
Morgan, Bernice - Random Passage / Waiting for Time (1800s Newfoundland)
Morgan, Jude - The Taste of Sorrow (1820s-30s Yorkshire)
Myers, Tamar. The Witch Doctor's Wife (1958 Belgian Congo)
Némirovsky, Irène - Fire in the Blood (1930s rural Burgundy)
Norman, Diana - Fitzempress' Law (12th-c England)
Norman, Diana - King of the Last Days (12th-c England)
Novik, Mary - Conceit (Elizabethan and Jacobean London)
Parris, S. J. - Heresy (16th-c Oxford, England)
Peters, Maureen - A Song for Marguerite (13th-c England)
Raybourn, Deanna - Silent in the Grave (Victorian England)
Rayner, Claire - The Performers Series (Victorian London)
Redfern, Margaret - Flint (early 13th-c Wales)
Riley, Judith Merkle - The Serpent Garden (1514 England)
Sampson, Fay - The Land of Angels (6th-c England)
Sandemo, Margit - Spellbound: The Legend of the Ice People (16th-c Norway)
Schryer, J.H. - Goodnight Vienna (1938 Vienna)
Scott, Susan Holloway - The French Mistress (Restoration England)
Slouka, Mark - The Visible World (WWII Czechoslovakia)
Speed, John - The Temple Dancer (1657 Goa and Bijapur, India)
Stangerup, Helle - In the Courts of Power (16th-c Denmark and France)
Sundell, Thomas - A Bloodline of Kings (ancient Greece)
Tannahill, Reay - Having the Builders In (14th-c England)
Tennant, Emma - The Harp Lesson (18th-c France and Ireland)
Trevaskis, Eve - The Lord of Misrule (1300s England)
Trotter, Janet MacLeod - Return to Jarrow (1923 North-East England)
Vidal, Elena Maria - The Night's Dark Shade (1227 southern France)
Willocks, Tim - The Religion (1565 Malta)
Wood, Barbara - Woman of a Thousand Secrets (14th-c Guatemala, Mexico)
Yampolsky, J. Louis - A Boardwalk Story (1939 Atlantic City)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Guest post from Kaki Warner, author of Pieces of Sky

Debut novelist Kaki Warner is stopping by today to discuss a subject that readers of the blog should find familiar: the difficulty in categorizing historical novels that don't fit neatly as genre romances or mainstream historicals. I hope to post a review of Pieces of Sky when my schedule lightens up a bit. We have a giveaway opportunity toward the end of this post, too. Welcome, Kaki!


I think, since Pieces of Sky is being marketed as a romance, I should start putting warning labels on the cover.

CAUTION: Bad things happen.

It’s only fair. In traditional romances, insomuch as the hero/heroine is above brutality, stinky feet, and God forbid, poor choices and un-heroic behavior, I think the reader should be given advance warning that this book might not fit the norm. Granted, there are clues: the cover (which I adore) doesn’t look very romancy. And the first scene is a bit brutal. And the quest for sexual bliss is only a small part of the story (although I feel I should get extra credit for having it occur out of wedlock), and when consummation is finally achieved near the end of the book, it’s not in very graphic detail. In fact, I don’t think I mentioned “throbbing” once (except in reference to a headache, but that was in another scene).

So if Pieces of Sky is not “steamy” enough for a traditional romance, and it’s too steamy for a Western, and if it doesn’t have a strong enough focus on actual events and/or people to make it a straight historical, then what the heck is it?

Just a story. One set in the West just after the Civil War and just before the completion of the transcontinental railroad, when bad guys were really bad, and good guys were only marginally bad—unless they had reason to be worse—which my hero does.

Hence, the warning.

However, in keeping with the “romance” tag, there is also an engaging love story, good winning over evil (a la Code of the West), and of course, the obligatory happy ending. Did I tell you it was somewhat humorous, too?

Brady (aka hero) is the eldest of three surviving brothers and the man in charge of the sprawling Wilkins ranch in the desert mountains of New Mexico Territory in 1869. Trapped in a bloody land feud and already haunted by the death of one brother, he’s desperate to protect his remaining brothers and the ranch from further destruction. The last thing he needs is a prim, proper, rule-spouting English spinster complicating his life. But after their stagecoach crashes and she is forced to recuperate at the Wilkins ranch, that’s exactly what he gets.

Jessica Thornton (aka heroine), already burdened by a violent act that has left her pregnant and distrustful of men, now finds herself stranded in a male-dominated household under the watchful eye of the worst of the lot—profane, ill-mannered, high-handed Brady Wilkins. Cultures clash. Sparks fly. Complications abound. But then…as antipathy gradually becomes attraction, he sees in her all the gentle things missing from his lonely life, and Jessica realizes that what’s “proper” might not always be what’s “right.” Against a backdrop of violence, vengeance, and tragedy, these two wounded souls learn to trust again, and through humor and courage find redemption, forgiveness and the love they both deserve.

But be warned, dear reader. This story is about difficult times in a harsh place, where hard lessons are learned, and desperate choices are made. Bad things may happen, but good people prevail and love triumphs. Sort of a romance, but with a Western flavor and a touch of real history. Just a story. I hope you’ll give it a try.

Thanks for inviting me to visit today! It’s been fun!

Kaki Warner is the award-winning author of the Blood Rose Trilogy (Berkley Trade, Pieces of Sky, January 2010, Open Country, June 2010, Chasing the Wind, 2011), a historical series about the unpredictable West and the men and women who brought it to life against all odds. Although Kaki now lives on the eastern slopes of the Cascade Mountains in Washington State, she actually grew up in the Southwest. Her years spent riding horses and enjoying the expansive views of Texas became the inspiration for the backdrop of her novels – the wide open spaces of historic New Mexico Territory. Kaki spends her time gardening, hiking, reading, writing, and soaking in the view from the deck of her hilltop cabin with her husband and floppy-eared hound dog. For more information, please visit Kaki's website at

Curious about the book? There's a short excerpt available at the author's website. I have a signed copy of Pieces of Sky to give away to a selected blog reader. To enter the contest, leave a comment on this post with your email address. Deadline is a week from today (Wed 3/24). Good luck to all entrants!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Book review: Deep Creek, by Dana Hand

No one who went upriver to Deep Creek came back the same, if they came back at all, remarks one of the few men to escape a horrific massacre in May of 1887. Dana Hand’s debut novel, a powerful and thorough indictment of the racial discrimination rampant in the late 19th century, takes its name from a site on the Snake River where over thirty Chinese gold miners were brutally slaughtered. Joe Vincent and his daughter make the grisly discovery one day while out fishing, dozens of miles downriver from the crime, following a flood that swept several of the corpses from their resting place.

Auction house owner, hotelkeeper, police judge, and former marshal in Lewiston, Idaho Territory, Joe knows local politics. With his estranged wife’s father as publisher of the Lewiston Teller, his entire family sits in the thick of it. Lee Loi, a Yale-educated representative of the San Francisco-based labor exchange which employed the miners, offers Joe a hefty fee to find the perpetrators. The Sam Yup Company wants the crime resolved, and the Chinese government wants reparations. Joe accepts, even knowing that the region he’s investigating, a 7,000-foot-deep canyon carved into the Oregon-Idaho border, is a jurisdictional no-man’s-land. Neither territory wants to acknowledge the crime unless forced.

In the novel’s first part, the men are joined on their evidence-gathering excursion by an experienced trail guide, Grace Sundown, a half-French, half-Nez Perce métisse with a mysterious past. Alternating chapters look back nine months earlier, as the miners settle in to their grueling work, reminisce about their families in Canton, and struggle to remain healthy. These separate plot strands, equal in suspense, cleverly twist together until the second is suddenly, violently, cut off – a tragedy whose impact isn’t lessened by its inevitable conclusion.

Joe, Lee, and Grace, an unlikely team, form a gradual bond of trust, their togetherness and mutual dependence being the main things keeping them alive. Forced into close company for long stretches, Joe and Grace can’t avoid revisiting their own troubled history. As the trio pursues a trail that’s quickly growing cold, they encounter a strain of pure evil in the form of a predator who uses everything to his advantage, including society’s well-known biases against nonwhites.

The Snake River Country is depicted as magnificent yet brutal, in both appearance and temperament, and the spare, visceral prose brilliantly evokes its harsh nature. It takes time to adjust to the writing style, with its straight-on approach and densely packed sentences, yet the strong narrative takes off of its own accord. Likewise, the characters, among the most courageous and original to be found in Western fiction, don’t reveal their secrets until they’re good and ready. Grace is an especially well-rendered creation; a woman torn between two worlds but belonging to neither, her inner complexity is vividly and movingly expressed.

As their journeys, past and present, wend throughout the Northwest, from small upcountry pioneer towns to the Nimipu settlement at Lapwai, they find indisputable proof of the murderers but few allies and supporters. With anti-Chinese hostility running unchecked through this isolated land, prejudice against Indians alive and kicking, and railroads converging on the area around Lewiston, the scope of the original crime extends much further than the tiny miners’ cabin on Deep Creek. Elements of Chinese and Nez Perce beliefs are intertwined into the tale, augmenting its meaning and strengthening the characterizations.

Deep Creek can’t help but evoke sympathy for the miners and outrage against their killers, especially given that the historical incident at its heart lay forgotten for over a century. In resurrecting its primary players and enhancing their story with imaginative insight, the authors have penned a poignant memorial to the victims, and a compelling tribute to those who pursued justice for them when few others would.

Dana Hand is the joint pseudonym for historians Will Howarth and Anne Matthews, who have authored many nonfiction works separately. Deep Creek was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in February 2010 at $25.00 (hardbound, 308pp, 978-547-23748-0). (I requested a review copy from the publisher out of interest.)

Friday, March 12, 2010

Contest winner, and about that photo

I'm pleased to announce the winner of the Fairest Portion of the Globe contest: Sue, who named Eleanor Roosevelt as her favorite female historical character. Congratulations, Sue! I'll be in touch shortly, and I hope you'll enjoy the novel as much as I did. A big thanks to Mary and Liz Clare (aka Frances Hunter) for providing such an excellent guest post and offering the giveaway, and thanks also to everyone who entered. I enjoyed reading all of your comments as well as your heroine picks!

My current read is Dana Hand's Deep Creek, and I hope to have a review posted within the next week. After that, I'll be settling in with David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, set in Japan in 1799, since I've got a tight deadline to make. Somewhere in there, the remainder of the reviews for May's Historical Novels Review will be arriving... good thing I plan to take time off next week while the students are gone.

You may have noticed this blog has a new header image, my minor concession to a redesign as part of the whole blogiversary thing (I don't have time now to do more). A couple visitors have commented positively on it (thanks!). I got into a conversation with another reader earlier today that got me thinking about why exactly I went with this picture, and since it fits in with my approach to the genre and my feelings about cover art in general, I thought I'd elaborate.

The image is an actual photo, one taken by my husband two years ago. The Lincoln Log Cabin historic site, a living history village seven miles from here, is meant to re-create pioneer life in rural Illinois circa 1845. It's situated on the site where Thomas and Sarah Bush Lincoln, father and stepmother of the President, lived and worked. The cabin is a replica of the original, which was lost following its appearance at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. (My local hospital is named after Mrs. Lincoln. The main drag through town, route 16, is otherwise known as Lincoln Avenue. There's a pretty tacky 70' Lincoln statue a little further east that has a small resort built around it; we've played mini-golf there a few times. You really can't avoid Lincoln here...)

The site's one of those local attractions where you always bring out-of-town visitors. It sits on a large expanse of prairie, along with many other buildings. The costumed volunteers always stay in character, sticking to their 1840s viewpoint if you ask them questions. The site was briefly closed during our esteemed former governor's tenure, due to a budget shortfall, but it's back open and will hopefully stay that way. If you ever find yourself passing through the area, it's definitely worth an hour or two of your time. Other photos from our visit are scattered throughout this post, and yes, that is a real live, very unhappy sheep being sheared further up. The header photo has been sepia-tinted, thanks to Photoshop, to match the Blogger-supplied background.

I'm rambling, but I do have a point to make. When it came time to choose an image to feature up-front on the blog, I knew that I wanted it to reflect American history, in particular something with a personal connection. Since I'm from New England originally, I tried at first to find a colonial American painting to adapt, but nothing worked well — but we found a recent photo of the Lincoln cabin site that did.

So many other historical fiction blogs emphasize European or British history, and I enjoy both the sites and the novels covered there. I have an enormous collection of obscure royalty novels, for instance. That said, I deliberately went for something different. The same holds true for the settings and subjects I prefer most; I'll read just about anything that's historical (gruesome war stories excepted) but, given the choice, I'll go for less familiar settings and subjects every time. The eclectic nature of my reading choices is what you'll see represented on the blog.

Similarly, when it came time to fill out the marketing questionnaire for the first Historical Fiction: A Guide to the Genre, I put down that I didn't want it to have the "royal woman" look. Not because these covers aren't beautiful and attention-grabbing — they are — but because I didn't want to misrepresent the contents. I wanted something attractive yet atypical, preferably something which would appeal to readers of both genders, and the designers listened.

Long story short— it is a local image, but it was also my attempt to provide a broader perspective of historical fiction — something other than what everyone's used to seeing on book covers. And here you all thought it was just a nice old-timey photo :)

(One nice thing about sepia toning the original photo, shown above: the park worker in the bright red shirt is no longer so obvious!)

Monday, March 08, 2010

Blogiversary, and other news

Lately I've been so busy preparing things for the blog (author interviews, reviews, giveaways, more...) that I haven't had as much time to actually blog. Funny how that works.

Pardon the self-promo, but everyone loves cake, right? Reading the Past celebrates its 4th blogiversary this month. The traditional acknowledgment of a 4th anniversary is fruit or flowers, but neither travels well in the mail, so I'll be hosting some book giveaways instead. Watch for more details soon!

I'm late in reporting this, especially since I got co-opted into helping organize again, but the location for the 4th North American Historical Novel Society conference has been finalized. Come join us at the Holiday Inn on the Bay in sunny San Diego on June 17-19, 2011. (That's 2011... a year from now.) The hotel's across from the harbor, so I understand. I'll be flying out in about a month for our annual board meeting and will see it for myself. A nice late spring break trip. Registration opens this fall.

The Wall Street Journal's Dear Book Lover of March 5th gave recommendations of historical British novels for a reader who loves Philippa Gregory. To her credit, the columnist went out and read The Other Queen herself, but her list of suggestions doesn't work for me. They're all set in Britain, sure, and are excellent novels in their own right, but the style of these books -- labyrinthine Victorian epics and literary thrillers, for the most part -- doesn't mesh with Gregory's royal dramas at all. See what you think. I'd be curious how well the ideas worked out.

A lengthy discussion on Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander from the A.V. Club. (Someone send a few of these folks some more good historical fiction.)

Finally, seen via Twitter yesterday, a talk on the essentials of plot from Cheryl Klein, editor at Arthur A. Levine Books. I don't write fiction but enjoyed all of her insights into how to craft an excellent read.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Guest post (& giveaway) from Frances Hunter, author of The Fairest Portion of the Globe

I'm glad to welcome Frances Hunter to the blog today. When I approached the authors about possibly doing a guest post, they asked if there was any aspect of The Fairest Portion of the Globe I was interested in reading more about. Fanny Clark O'Fallon, the younger sister of George Rogers Clark and William Clark, immediately came to mind; she was a particularly fascinating character who hadn't been well known to me before reading their novel. Happily, they agreed. I hope you enjoy their essay! There's also a giveaway opportunity at the very end.


First off, I want to thank Sarah for reviewing our book and inviting us to do a guest post on this terrific blog. We’re honored to be among the historical fiction authors spotlighted on Reading the Past!

Like many readers of this blog, our mom was the one who got us started reading historical fiction. She loved multi-generational family sagas, and her favorite characters were fiery, tempestuous heroines who lived life on an epic scale, complete with pulse-pounding romance and lots and lots of suffering. Frances Eleanor Clark, the lead female character of our new book, The Fairest Portion of the Globe, could have stepped straight from the pages of one of Mom’s dog-eared old sagas. In our book, we meet Fanny during her tortured first marriage. In her later life, the real-life Fanny packed enough adventure and tragedy into her 52 years to star in a rip-roaring novel of her own.

Fanny was the youngest of ten children—six boys and four girls—born to John and Ann Clark. Born in Virginia in 1773, the little black-eyed beauty was close to her brother William, just three years older, who became the famous “Clark” of the Lewis & Clark Expedition. As might be expected, the lives of Fanny’s brothers are much better documented than those of Fanny and her sisters. Most of what we know of Fanny’s life comes from fascinating family stories, some of which are contradictory.

Fanny was just a child when the family was engulfed by the shocking consequences of the Revolutionary War. Three of Fanny’s brothers were held as prisoners of war on British hell ships. All of them survived the ordeal, but one came home only to cough his lungs out from tuberculosis. Another brother disappeared on a scouting run in the western wilderness and was never found.

Even the great battlefield victories of Fanny’s older brother George Rogers Clark, a bona-fide hero in the Revolution, were soon overshadowed by the ingratitude with which he was treated by the nation he helped to save. Fanny was 11 when the Clarks pulled up stakes and moved west to the new settlement of Louisville, Kentucky. George had founded the town, and the Clarks soon vaulted into the ranks of the frontier elite. But all too publicly, George’s life started to fall apart. Bankrupted by his wartime debts, George was desperate to regain the pride and success that he had once known. It was in George’s cause that Fanny would be propelled into her first great crisis.

A willowy, sensitive beauty, Fanny was a prize among the Louisville belles. She fell in love with a young Army officer named Charles Thruston, but when Thruston failed to write during a trip back to the east, young Fanny became convinced he had forgotten her. And that was when James O’Fallon made his move.

Burly and well over six feet, O’Fallon was an Irish physician and rabble-rouser who had arrived in the United States just before the Revolution. During the war, he served as a senior surgeon for the Continental Army and broke Tories’ skulls in his spare time. After the war, O’Fallon took the lead in one of the many land schemes that shaped the destiny of the early frontier. He proposed to found an Irish Catholic colony in Spain’s Yazoo Country (present-day Mississippi), alternately fawning, cajoling, and threatening the Spanish with a hostile takeover of the Yazoo land by a horde of Kentucky wild men—led by one General George Rogers Clark.

How O’Fallon and George met is not known; the turbulent doctor may have helped Clark deal with the alcoholism which was beginning to afflict his life. Even after the Yazoo scheme collapsed, George was convinced that together, he and O’Fallon could get an adventure going in the wild west that would restore his fortunes. Somehow, he and O’Fallon persuaded Fanny and her parents that it would be a good idea to cement the partnership by marrying 17-year-old Fanny off to the 42-year-old “divine physical.”

Unfortunately for Fanny, O’Fallon’s bold and aggressive manner, which at first seemed so exciting and attractive, masked the fact that he was nothing but a con man and a bully. Following the pattern of a classic abuser, he first isolated Fanny from her family, then began to he beat her every time she “stepped out of line.” Like many battered wives, Fanny concealed the abuse from George, William, and her parents, not wanting to ruin her brother’s chances for a comeback. But as it so often does, the abuse worsened. While pregnant with her second child, Fanny suffered a mental breakdown in which she heard tormenting voices telling her to kill herself. There was no longer any way to conceal the truth from her family.

There are rumors—perhaps true, perhaps not—of an epic fistfight between George Rogers Clark and his abusive brother-in-law. The next time the historical record speaks of the not-so-good doctor, is the courts were settling his estate. O’Fallon’s fate and resting place is unknown, but it is impossible not to wonder if he may have met Fanny’s brothers on a dark night on an isolated country lane.

Now a 20-year-old widow with two children, Fanny did not stay on the market for long. Her Army officer, Charles Thruston, had been distraught ever since Fanny had married O’Fallon. He was now free to make up for his mistake in not writing. He and Fanny were married in 1793. Fanny and Charles loved each other, but the marriage was not without its heartbreaks. For whatever reason, Thruston did not want to raise the O’Fallon boys, John and Benjamin.

Her estrangement from her older sons must have been painful for all concerned; it appears to have caused some permanent family bitterness. Charles did not relent even after Fanny’s parents died, nor after she bore him son Charles and daughter Ann.

In 1800, Fanny became a widow again under shocking circumstances. Charles had butted heads with a young family slave named Luke. Chronically in trouble, Luke ran away to avoid being punished for his latest infraction, stealing a leg of lamb. When Charles tracked him down to his hiding place in a corn shock, Luke snapped, springing out and stabbing his master to death. Luke was soon hanged for his crime.

Devastated, Fanny turned back to her brothers for help and companionship. She moved out to Point of Rocks, a rustic cabin on the Indiana side of the Falls of the Ohio, where George and William were living to avoid George’s creditors. For all three of the siblings, life must have seemed a long way from the days of fox hunts in Virginia, wartime glory against the British, or dances as the “black-eyed beauty of Louisville.” But Fanny was reunited with her older sons at last. The little family group remained close until 1803, when William left for the opportunity of a lifetime, exploring the West with his old Army friend, Captain Meriwether Lewis.

(It should be noted that William did not forget Fanny while he was away. Not only did he collect natural history specimens for her, but he named a beautiful island in the Columbia River “Fanny’s Island” (today’s Crims Island) and the nearby flood plain “Fanny’s Bottom.” No word on whether Fanny clubbed her brother over the head with the sheephorn over this honor.)

William was still away on the Expedition in 1805, when 32-year-old Fanny married for the last time. Dennis Fitzhugh, a cousin of the Clark family, was five years younger than Fanny and co-owned a dry-goods store called Fitzhugh & Rose. Fanny and Dennis lived above the store at 5th and Main in downtown Louisville. Fanny had two more children with Dennis, a boy named Clark and a girl named Lucy.

In 1809, Fanny’s beloved brother George, now a frail shadow of the dashing hero he once was, fell in his cabin at Point of Rocks and severely burned his leg. He was brought to Fanny and Dennis’s house for treatment, and there his leg was amputated, without anesthesia, while a military band played outside in the street. Fanny’s daughter Ann recalled how her mother paced outside her brother’s room in agony as the operation took place. In spite of the fact that George had grown notoriously grouchy, drunken, and hard to get along with, Fanny volunteered to take him into her home and was heartbroken when the family decided that another sister with a large fine home could make a better place for the old general.

Dennis died in a cholera epidemic that swept through Louisville in 1822. By then almost 50, Fanny moved to St. Louis to live near her daughter Ann and brother William. If she found any peace, it was brief. Fanny died in 1825 at the age of 52.

Details on the illustrations above (in order):

1 - No portraits of Fanny Clark are known to exist. We were inspired by this unknown woman by an anonymous artist of the period. From the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
2 - The Falls of the Ohio River at Louisville. The falls were submerged when the river was dammed in the 1920s.
3 - This horn from a bighorn sheep was collected by explorer William Clark and given to Fanny as a gift. Today it resides in the Filson Museum in Louisville, the only verified animal specimen from the Lewis & Clark Expedition.


Thanks very much, Frances, for an entertaining and educational post! I appreciate the opportunity to learn more about Fanny; she was a heroine who'd clearly been through a lot in her short life, and I couldn't help but root for her.

The authors will be happy to respond to any questions left in the comments. Also, they've graciously offered to provide a giveaway for blog readers. Up for grabs is a copy of The Fairest Portion of the Globe, to be awarded to a randomly selected reader. To enter, leave a comment on this blog post in response to the question: Who is your favorite female character from your country's history? Please provide your email address as well.

Deadline is Thursday, March 11th. Good luck to all entrants!