Thursday, July 29, 2010

An indie and small press showcase, part 2

Here's the second half of my focus on new/upcoming historical novels from indie publishers and small presses. Part 1 of the showcase can be found here.

A magistrate investigates the domestic tragedy that ensued when almost 200 people suffocated while seeking shelter in an East London tube station in 1943; this historical incident was the war's biggest civilian accident. Jessica Francis Kane's debut novel, The Report, was recently named a Barnes & Noble Great New Writers title; it will also be an HNS editors' choice title for August. Graywolf (US), Sept.

In 1840, a runaway slave returns to America on a very personal mission, risking her freedom and her successful silk business in the East Indies. Though this novel stands on its own, I understand it follows the later life of Grace MacDonald, who appeared as a child in Kingman's earlier Not Yet Drown'd (one of my favorite novels of 2008). A portrait painter in Philadelphia, an older Grace uncovers a slew of family secrets as she tries to help her childhood friend. Norton (US), August.

Great cover, great title. In Kathe Koja's Under the Poppy, a Victorian brothel (the Poppy) is the setting for a most unusual love triangle. "This book made me drunk," says Cory Doctorow. Small Beer Press (US), October.

My latest purchase from Book Depository. In 1928 Macao, a Russian refugee haunted by secrets from her past meets an enigmatic Scot who has good reason to want to get to know her better. The back cover describes it as an "opulent family saga." The writing looks cosmopolitan and dishy, with plenty of exotic color. Sandstone Press (Scotland), June.

Bernice McFadden's Glorious, another HNS editors' choice selection, follows a female writer's up-and-down but eventually redemptive path to artistic success during the Harlem Renaissance. Akashic (US), May.

I've always found the American spiritualist movement fascinating. Deborah Noyes' Captivity centers on the mysterious Fox sisters of 19th-c upstate New York, three women who claimed to speak with the dead, and the effect their claimed abilities had on an impressionable young woman. Unbridled (US), June.

Ever since visiting Germany last fall, I've looked for historical fiction set there, but such books are few and far between. Heather Richardson's Magdeburg tells the story of one Protestant family of that city whose members are shattered and transformed during the Thirty Years War. Lagan Press (Ireland), June.

You may have read recently about an 82-year-old grandmother from North Wales who got a three-book publishing deal with Welsh publisher Honno. (Honno, which specializes in Welsh women writers, also published Margaret Redfern's outstanding Flint, which I reviewed last year.) M Stanford-Smith's The Great Lie is a historical adventure/mystery set amid the exciting world of London theatre in Elizabethan times. Honno (Wales), June.

This may be one of the more unique selections for the Royal Mistress Challenge. French novelist Jean Teulé makes a classy romantic hero out of the Marquis de Montespan, whose stunning new wife Athénaïs catches the eye of the Sun King. Gallic Books (UK/France), Feb 2011.

How do you know when you have too many books? When you get a catalog in the mail, get all excited about one of the books in it, put it on your wish list... then look at the title a little closer and realize you already own it. Mary Volmer's gender-bending tale of the California Gold Rush, Crown of Dust, came out in '06 in the UK, and will be published in the US for the first time this year. Soho Press, November.

Lily Sutton, a young Englishwoman traveling incognito aboard a luxury liner bound for America in 1933, contends with the appearance of an old enemy who could destroy her peace and plans for a new life. This is a different cover from the one in the catalog, so I'm not sure which is right. Allison & Busby (UK), May.

Hope Against Hope is Sally Zigmond's first full-length novel (her historical novella Chasing Angels , about real-life 19th-c French mountaineer Henriette d'Angeville, appeared a few years ago). This near-600 page Victorian saga spans ten years in the lives of two sisters from Harrogate. Sally and I were both editors at the Historical Novels Review for some years; I have her latest book on my desk and am looking forward to diving in. Myrmidon (UK, also distributed in the US), June.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

O is for Outer Banks

I chose this novel for Historical Tapestry's alphabet challenge for several superficial reasons: the newly-arrived galley was sitting on my desk; I'd just returned from a short vacation by the water and wanted to extend the feeling a little longer; and the title started with O, the letter of the fortnight. Also, Lady Q's review of The Outer Banks House had me looking forward to a thought-provoking escapist read. Happily, it fulfilled my hopes on these counts.

Diann Ducharme's debut novel operates within a standard framework: an upper-class young woman spends a summer at the shore with her family and falls for a local boy, derailing her promising future with the wealthy doctor her parents want her to marry. Will she follow her duty or her heart?

The Outer Banks House
falls into some stereotypical traps along the way, while stepping nimbly by others. Both a coming-of-age story and a romantic historical novel, its plot has a firm footing in its place and time. Adding period details with appropriate measure, Ducharme rounds out her characters' development by way of a secondary storyline involving the era's racial tensions, still raw three years after the Civil War.

In June of 1868, Abigail Sinclair's plantation-owner father brings his family from the North Carolina mainland to Nags Head, a small town on the barrier islands known as the Outer Banks. Their summer home, constructed by the Sinclairs' former field slaves over the past two seasons, is a precarious-looking wooden structure built on the sand at the ocean's edge. Abby, red-haired and freckled and seventeen, adores the seaside location and the fresh breezes flowing through the windows of their rustic cottage. Both she and it prove more resilient than the doubtful locals expect of them.

Abigail's father, a man who delights in killing animals for sport (never a good sign in a novel), hires Benjamin Whimble to be his guide to the best hunting and fishing spots. Nineteen-year-old Ben is good-natured and handsome, but filthy, smelly, and illiterate, and Abby recoils when her father asks her to teach him to read. Nonetheless, Abby and Ben grow closer as he learns his letters and they discuss Robinson Crusoe, the racial overtones of which had previously escaped Abby. Both are passionate about education, and their shared love for life comes through in exuberant scenes where they explore the islands together.

Various factors conspire to keep Abby and Ben apart. A blatant racist whose fortunes dwindled with the loss of the Confederacy, Mr. Sinclair has plans in mind for nearby Roanoke Island, and he uses Ben's poverty against him in his schemes. A number of black men, women, and children had settled on Roanoke during the war, and one in particular has a past he'd prefer to keep hidden.

Some characters are too lightly sketched in, while others hold surprises. Neither Abby's stuffy doctor beau, he with the "feminine quality about his lips," nor Ben's sour-tongued girlfriend Eliza stand a chance with their erstwhile partners, and Abby's bigoted dad comes straight from Central Casting. Her mother Ingrid, a Swedish immigrant's daughter stifled into wifely obedience, proves more complex than expected, however, and Abby and Ben have appealing and distinct narrative voices — even if Ben's folksy slang (lots of "I reckon" and "not a-tall") is laid on a bit thick. Both grow and change as the novel progresses, though after a while Abby seems to forget that Ben walks around everywhere barefoot and smelling like dead fish. Okay, that sounds crass. But still, I wondered about it.

Ducharme has a gift for writing quirky, colorful expressions, with the waves "sweetly lapping the shore like a cow licking salt" and Abby's long dress "whipping backwards like a yellow flag" in the wind as she stands atop the sand dunes. But despite the homey sense of place created by the language and seaside atmosphere, there's a grittier tale sitting beneath. One of the novel's most meaningful scenes involves the proud residents of Roanoke Island's Freedmen's Colony, and not only because it shows Abby's maturity more clearly than a tale of summertime romance could.

This would be a good read for the beach, both for those already there and those who wish they were. Although it ends at a satisfying point, some subplots remain unresolved. I'd enjoy reading a sequel should Ducharme decide to write one.

The Outer Banks House was published by Crown in June at $25.00 ($29.95 Canada).

Saturday, July 24, 2010

This one's for the ladies

Below we have five recent historical novels -- literary fiction, for the most part -- whose cover design changed between the hardback and paperback editions. What do they have in common? Hardback at left, trade pb at right.

All are written by male novelists, and female figures have made an appearance in the paperback cover art. Ladies, would you be more apt to pick up the books in the right-hand column? And for the men in the audience, which of the covers do you prefer?

I should point out that women do feature strongly in these novels, so the new cover designs aren't deceptive marketing, imho.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A look at Michelle Hoover's The Quickening

The setting for Michelle Hoover’s The Quickening caught my attention because it resembles the surroundings I drive past every day – farmhouses and cornfields in the rural Midwest – and because some of my ancestors, six generations back, were farmers in western Iowa. To some, this is flyover country, but the experiences of the area’s inhabitants form an important part of America’s history, one worth delving into and exploring.

Two women of opposite appearance and character take turns narrating this short novel, which spans from 1913 through 1950. Enidina “Eddie” Current is hardy and big-boned, a thirty-year-old bride most comfortable in male company and inured to the hardships of a farmer’s life. Her nearest neighbor, Mary Morrow, a town-bred newcomer who moves to the country to please her husband, is delicate, birdlike, devout, and occasionally thoughtless. While the house Enidina shares with her kindly, strong-but-silent husband, Frank, is squat and functional, that of the Morrows appears ornate and overlarge in comparison. But despite their differences, they share some traits in common: both are plain-spoken, stubborn, and quick to defend their own actions.

Out of necessity, they develop a friendship of sorts, though each remains cautious of the other’s ways. Over the years, Mary comforts Eddie about her difficulties carrying a child to term, and Eddie helps out when Mary's short-tempered husband takes his anger out on her. Then the reality of the Depression forces each woman into her own corner. The choices they make drive them apart from one another and also from the many unnamed, close-knit families populating the rest of the area.

The Quickening, replete with authentic pictures of farm life, presents a carefully functioning system in which the weather, land, animals, and people all play their part, and where any one of these can turn against you without warning. Hoover’s literary impressions of the landscape, with its “acres of farmland stretched in every direction, gray-green and buzzing,” crackle with life and color. The action is both external and internal, and some major happenings are left for the reader to infer. While this sometimes results in a lack of clarity, I can understand Hoover’s reasons for depicting her protagonists in such a way. While these self-reliant, self-contained Midwesterners might be outwardly stoic, their accounts are anything but unemotional. Mary and Enidina each reach out for connections that prove heartbreakingly elusive, and it’s their way to leave some important things unsaid.

Without naming an exact geographic location, Hoover establishes a strong sense of place, and this table-flat region of weeds and grasses offers both opportunity and despair. The characters are powerfully rendered, and the plot unfolds out of their unique situation. With insight and sensitivity, The Quickening depicts how two strong-willed farm women endured their isolated circumstances and reacted to what their environment required of them.

On her website, Michelle Hoover has examples from her great-grandmother’s journal, which served as inspiration for her story.

The Quickening was published by Other Press in July at $14.95 (pb, 224pp). This was one of my historical fiction finds from BEA.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Bits and pieces

In case anyone's wondering where I've been over the last little while... I spent quite bit of time here over a long weekend:

Behind me is Lake Cadillac, in the town of Cadillac, Michigan. I sat by the water, I went for a swim, I visited the local used bookstore, I finished three novels. Life was good. Now I'm back in hot, sticky, and tornado-prone Illinois, trying to ignore the fact that the students return in a month and my fall schedule is filling up. Sigh.

Here are some bits and pieces, including new publishing deals.

The public libraries in the North West of England are organizing a special promotion, Pages Ago, for historical fact and fiction. Many author talks and reading groups are being scheduled throughout the region, as well as a short fiction-writing competition. The Pages Ago website (see the book lists on the right-hand side) contains paired history and historical fiction titles by era, and they have a frequently updated blog that discusses the latest news and events. If I lived in the region, I'd be attending as many of these as I could.

Novelist C.C. (Chris) Humphreys (Vlad, The French Executioner, etc) is offering a 2-day hands-on workshop on writing the action-adventure novel. It takes place on August 7-8 in Vancouver. Details at his website.

Lucille Turner's novel GIOCONDA, described as "the first literary evocation in fiction of Leonardo da Vinci’s life," sold to Bella Lacey at Granta via Anna Webber at United Agents, for publication in July 2011. [Via The Bookseller and PM]

In another deal, this time for nonfiction: author of American Jezebel and cousin of Louisa May Alcott Eve LaPlante's MARMEE & LOUISA, the true story of Louisa May Alcott and her mother, based on recently discovered Alcott family papers and Abigail May Alcott's unpublished and unexplored letters and journals, sold to Hilary Redmon at Free Press, in a pre-empt, for publication in November 2012, by Lane Zachary and Rachel Sussman at Zachary Shuster Harmsworth Literary Agency (World). [via PM]

Kimberley Freeman's WILDFLOWER HILL, spanning half the globe and several decades, intertwining the lives of a disappointed young woman and her grandmother who hides a painful secret, each of whom must return to their Australian sheep farm to overcome loss and discover that happiness and love may be where you least expect it, sold to Trish Todd at Simon & Schuster, in a pre-empt, for publication in summer 2011, by Airlie Lawson at Hachette Australia (NA). [via PM]

A historical novel with an Australian setting comes to the US for a change. How often does that happen? According to a bookseller site, this one is jointly set in the 1920s and the present day. The Australian cover - it's out in August there - is at right. Perhaps one of the blog's Australian readers will obtain a copy and report back! Kimberley Freeman is the pseudonym that author Kim Wilkins uses for her women's fiction novels.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

N is for Némirovsky

Getting one thing out of the way... I'm sort of cheating by including this book as part of the Alphabet in Historical Fiction challenge. I hope I'll be forgiven, because it's very much worth highlighting.

Technically, Irène Némirovsky's Fire in the Blood doesn't fit the definition of a historical novel, as it depicts the period when it was written, or at most a few years beforehand. However, it never got the chance to be read as a contemporary work. As her biographers note in the foreword, only a fragment was known to exist until recently. Decades after the author's death at Auschwitz, two pages of the manuscript were found in a suitcase that Némirovsky's daughter Denise carried with her into hiding. The remainder, in the form of handwritten sheets, was discovered by her biographers in a French archive. Even for a work in progress (she was still completing the manuscript when she was arrested in 1942), it's a miniature masterpiece. You can read it in an afternoon, as I did. Succinct yet intense and packed with emotion, it's one of the best books I've read this year. What an excellent writer she was.

The scene opens in a village in rural Burgundy in the 1930s as Sylvestre, a middle-aged bachelor, looks back on his life. A prodigal son who spent his younger years traveling the world and spending his inheritance, he lives alone in a large, drafty farmhouse, keeping occasional company with his cousin Hélène and her family. He tells stories of his restless youth to Hélène's daughter Colette, a young woman soon to be married. But despite his affection for his cousins, he writes of finding the greatest satisfaction in a quiet evening in front of a crackling fire with his pipe, dog, and a bottle of red wine.

In this part of central France, families have resided on the same plots for generations, and this insularity emerges in their personalities. "Everyone lives in his own house, on his own land, distrusts his neighbours, harvests his wheat, counts his money, and doesn't give a thought to the rest of the world," Sylvestre says. These people work hard and aim to achieve contentment, a feeling they call happiness, seeing little distinction between the two.

Brilliant at evoking a sense of place — one can easily picture the pastoral beauty of Burgundy as the seasons change — Némirovsky applies the same sharp-eyed insight to her characters. Tension builds as the unexpected death of a newlywed throws the idyllic little village into turmoil. One person's determination to reveal the truth about the young man's demise brings long-suppressed feelings bubbling to the surface, along with revelations of illicit affairs, dark secrets, and unspoken regrets.

The overexposed cover photo of a rural couple, shown as if they've spent too long in the sun, perfectly fits the novel's themes. Which is one's true self, Sylvestre wonders, the "fire in the blood" that burns out quickly, or the serenity gained after youthful passions fade? The novel's pacing is marvelous, with successive layers of the plot uncovered little by little. The dust jacket calls it a "morality tale with doubtful morals," and I love that incongruity about it.

On the strength of this book, I have the rest of Némirovsky's novels (those translated into English, anyway) on order. Her English translator is Sandra Smith. Fire in the Blood was published by Chatto & Windus (UK) in 2007, and Knopf (US) in 2008.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Book review: Time's Legacy, by Barbara Erskine

Barbara Erskine's latest time-slip novel, a work of considerable scope and power, immerses readers in the mystical atmosphere of Glastonbury past and present.

As a female Anglican priest, Abi Rutherford must deal with occasional prejudice, and not only because of her attractiveness, youth, and gender. When she takes up a post as curate to Kieran Scott, the charismatic rector of St. John's in Cambridge, her hands-on, compassionate style of ministry conflicts with his stern, fundamentalist approach. Then an unexpected gift from her mother, a mysterious sphere of rock crystal, ratchets her naturally psychic abilities up several notches. After Abi admits to seeing a ghostly congregation in the quaint old church to which she's been assigned, Kier's personality takes a disturbing turn. Secretly fearful of the same powers arising within himself, he expresses doubts about Abi's religious beliefs and accuses her of witchcraft — a typical male reaction to the emergence of female power over the centuries.

With the help and support of her bishop, who believes the Church can't afford to lose her, Abi takes refuge with the Cavendish family at their home in the Glastonbury area. The manor's resident ghosts, a family living in pagan Britain of the 1st century AD, do not lie quietly, however, and they have a message they need to communicate through Abi. Images of a Druid priestess and her pupil, a young healer from Galilee, begin invading Abi's thoughts, disturbing her equilibrium and causing her to question what she knows about Christianity's origins. Suspense builds as Abi, embroiled in this ancient drama, can't help but follow it through to the very end. Meanwhile, her new friends grow concerned for her welfare, and Kier becomes dangerously obsessive in his attempts to exorcise her pagan demons and bring her back to God.

That the novel grips from the very beginning is due to Abi herself, a woman whose intelligence, kindness, and open-mindedness demonstrate the strength of her character. It takes skill to create a heroine of unswerving faith who can appeal to religious and non-religious readers alike. The beauty and almost hypnotic lure of Glastonbury come through strongly in the past and modern-day scenes, and Erskine deftly explores the correspondences between specific places (the Tor, the Chalice Well) considered holy in both timelines. Although the novel deals with a potentially divisive subject – the intermingling of pagan and Christian beliefs two millennia ago, as well as now – all is presented in a thoughtful, nonjudgmental manner.

Refreshingly, Kier is too complex to be a straightforward villain, and yet his dogged determination to make Abi see the error of her ways results in some repetitive scenes. And for an otherwise smart woman, she takes a very long time to realize that Kier means business. But despite these flaws, this engrossing novel isn’t too long even at 400-plus pages. It’s a smoothly written, uplifting read that explores the history and legends surrounding one of Britain's most sacred spaces.

Time's Legacy is published today, July 8th, by HarperCollins UK in hardcover at £18.99 (434pp, 978-0-00-730227-7). I thought I'd share the book trailer, as the visual imagery and soundtrack both complement the novel very well.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

An indie and small press showcase, part 1

So I'm a little late for Small Press Month (which happens every March)... however, I'm right on time for Independence Day. This weekend, I thought I'd feature some independently-published and small press historical novels that made their way to my wish list. These publishers are risk-takers, seeking out distinctive voices and high quality writing without necessarily focusing on popular trends. In this list you'll find unique historical settings, different approaches, and real-life stories never before told in fiction -- all of which are reasons these books intrigued me!

I've been thinking about a round-up post on this topic for some time, and I had great fun choosing which titles to feature. There are many titles and publishers I haven't included, and I'll do this again sometime.

The publishers range from larger indies whose books are often found in Borders/B&N to the smallest of small presses, mostly American and British but also some from Canada and Europe. Wherever they're from, you can find them on Book Depository and/or Amazon. There are 24 in total, all published in 2010. Follow the links for more detailed information on the publisher's websites. This is the first of two posts.

Maria Allen's Before the Earthquake is a family drama set in rural southern Italy at the turn of the last century. Tindal Street (UK), £7.99, February.

Elizabeth Ashworth's The de Lacy Inheritance takes readers to 12th-century Lancashire, where a man recently returned from Palestine undertakes one last obligation for his grandmother. Totally gorgeous cover. Myrmidon (UK), £7.99, June.

Englishwoman Anna Jameson arrives at the tiny settlement of Toronto in 1836 to gather material for a new book and discovers unexpected freedoms as well as a surprising relationship with an unconventional man. Anna Birch's Settlement is based on historical characters. RendezVous Press (Canada), $22.95 US/Can, September.

In the tradition of The Red Tent, Mary F. Burns's debut novel J: The Woman Who Wrote the Bible imagines the origins of the Old Testament in its depiction of Janaia, daughter of King David, a visionary secretly initiated into the art of writing. O-Books (UK/US), £11.99/$20.95, July.

Based on a collection of recently uncovered letters, Maria Caracciolo Chia retells a little-known story from Italian history: that of Vittoria Colonna, Princess of Teano, and her brief but intense love affair with Futurist painter Umberto Boccioni in the early 20th century. Translated from the Italian by Howard Curtis. Pushkin Press (UK), £12.00, July.

After an absence of twelve years, P.F. Chisholm's Elizabethan murder mystery series featuring Sir Robert Carey picks up again with this latest volume, A Murder of Crows, which takes him from his usual haunts along the Scottish border to central London. Poisoned Pen Press (US), $22.95 hb or $14.95 pb, June.

Christina Courtenay's sweeping romantic epic Trade Winds moves from Edinburgh to Gothenburg, Sweden, to the Far East in the 1730s, and begins with a marriage of convenience. Choc Lit (UK), £7.99, September.

A literary love story with a tinge of mystery set along the southeastern Irish coast in 1945, as the traditional social order has begun to break down. Peter Cunningham's The Sea and the Silence comes with high praise from novelist Roddy Doyle. GemmaMedia (US), $14.95, June.

From Peter Donahue, a past winner of the Langum Prize for American Historical Fiction, comes his new literary novel Clara and Merritt, about a star-crossed love story taking place against the backdrop of the Longshoreman's Strike of 1934 Seattle. Wordcraft of Oregon (US), $15.00, June.

In Clare Dudman's A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees, an intrepid group of Welsh colonists sets sail for Patagonia in southernmost South America to create a new home for themselves in 1865, but the inhospitable cold desert is hardly the paradise they expected. Seren (Wales), £8.99, June.

Cecilia, by author Linda Ferri, is biographical fiction about St. Cecilia, a young woman born into a noble family in Rome of the 2nd century AD. Translated by Ann Goldstein from the Italian. Europa Editions (NY & Rome), $15.00, May.

While Catherine Hermary-Vieille may be a well-known and prolific author in her native France (the French wikipedia page lists a lengthy bibliography), few of her novels have been translated into English. Lord James takes as its subject the controversial James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, the third husband of Mary Queen of Scots, and whose great love for her led to his downfall. I found a fascinating article (from '06) about his family's and Hermary-Vieille's joint fight to bring his body back to Scotland for proper burial. This cover comes from the French edition (yet it's also on the UK publisher's website; I'm assuming it's been translated!). Luath Press (Scotland), £16.99, July.