Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Book review: Shadows of a Down East Summer, by Lea Wait

This skillfully drawn multi-period mystery blends present-day crime with scenes from 1890, a year when painter Winslow Homer was living and creating his masterworks along the picturesque Maine coast.

American Studies professor and antique print dealer Maggie Summer hopes to spend her holiday relaxing with her boyfriend Will at his great-aunt Nettie’s house in Waymouth, Maine, but things don’t turn out as planned. While Will dutifully performs home repairs for his relative, Maggie is asked to help a family friend, Carolyn Chase, conduct research on her mother, a noted 20th-century artist. Despite their brief acquaintance, due to her reputation and expertise Maggie ends up as the caretaker for some papers belonging to Carolyn’s family, including a century-old journal.

Maggie becomes drawn into the story of Anna May Pratt, a young woman who posed for several of Winslow Homer’s paintings alongside her best friend, Jessie. In her diary, Anna May expresses delight at the opportunity she and Jessie are offered, despite their initial wariness at being asked to let their hair down (literally) and wear outfits more appropriate to fisherwomen.

So calming is the seaside atmosphere in both the modern and historical scenarios that when a murder occurs, it comes as a shock. The diary contains long-held secrets someone is willing to kill for.

Genealogy buffs will enjoy sorting out the family relationships, and although careful readers will discern part of the puzzle long before Maggie does, it doesn’t make the parallel stories any less involving. The jealous rivalries present in both timelines demonstrate that human nature hasn’t changed much.

Wait includes the colorful characters expected for this small-town setting and a sufficient dose of suspense. She also adds plenty of educational details on the antique trade and many mouthwatering examples of Down East cuisine. Recommended.

Shadows of a Down East Summer was published by Perseverance Press, a small press publisher of mysteries, in April at $14.95 (trade pb, 236pp). I reviewed it for May's Historical Novels Review and thought I'd share my review here as well.  The novel is 5th in the Antique Print mystery series, but I didn't feel lost without having read the others.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

My BEA book collection, part one

I'm just back from an invigorating yet overwhelming week in NYC for BEA and the book blogger con.  These are the BEA titles that came home in my luggage, either because they were signed copies I didn't want to risk shipping or because I got them at the blogger con on the last day.  My husband took the rest of them over to FedEx on the last day of the show.

Most of these were titles I mentioned in my post about historical fiction picks at BEA.  There were many other titles on that list I didn't get, either because I didn't see them - like The Lantern - or because the signing lines were amazingly long.  My back doesn't tolerate standing for long periods, unfortunately, so my waiting 45+ minutes in line for a signed copy of Alice Hoffman's The Dovekeepers just wasn't in the cards.  I looked on jealously as I passed by.

I was pleased to come across a previously unannounced signing of Patricia Falvey's The Linen Queen, though - it's a love story set in Northern Ireland on the brink of WWII.  Of the other titles above, Open Wounds is a new YA set in Depression-era Queens, and The Little Women Letters is a mostly contemporary tale about a descendant of Jo March from Little Women who finds letters written by her ancestress.  These latter two were giveaways at the blogger con.  As with last year, it was great to get the chance to meet so many bloggers, authors, and publishers in person when I was in NY.

Things may be quieter than usual around here, at least in terms of reviews, until after the Historical Novel Society conference in 2.5 weeks.  There's a ton that needs doing before then, many loads of laundry included, plus I came home to three freelance assignments with shortish deadlines.  One of these is the new Philippa Gregory, so that will be forthcoming in a bit.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Guest post from Mary Tod: Researching Is a Sleeves-Rolled-Up Process

Today Mary Tod, a historical fiction writer and fellow blogger from Canada, is stopping by with a guest essay on the many different facets to her research involving the First World War.  Thanks very much, Mary, and welcome!

Researching is a sleeves-rolled-up process

Six years ago when I began writing historical fiction, I had no idea where the journey would take me. Nor did I have any idea of how much I would enjoy the research involved. I was an expat wife, often called the trailing spouse in the world of international assignments, and I landed in Hong Kong with nothing to do. Having worked for thirty years, this was a problem.

After many frustrating months, I decided to take matters into my own hands and write a book about my grandparents who lived through two world wars and the great depression - surely their experiences would provide the foundation for a novel, I thought. What has emerged from this vague beginning are three novels and ideas for many more. Along the way, I developed a passion for WWI and WWII and a host of research techniques and sources.

Sarah has kindly invited me to tell you a bit about the research that goes into historical fiction. Being a list making gal, I’ve organized my thoughts by topic:

 * I have several favorite WWI websites that I frequent for information on battles, maps, timelines, photos, personalities and the tools of war. Visiting these sites allows me to adhere to reality amidst the liberty of fiction. They also spark ideas to make each story come alive.

Official War Diaries
 * The Canadian government has an entire collection of official war diaries recording day to day events of every Canadian battalion. Governments can do some things right! I have spent hours poring through these pdf images looking for inspiration and accurate information. For example, my latest novel involves the heroine tracing her grandfather’s WWI experiences to solve a mystery. I placed this man in the 19th Battalion of the 4th Infantry Brigade, and using the war diaries, I know exactly where he is every day of the war.

* Much to my delight, I came across this site offering books of historical interest online at no cost. Of great value to me are Edith Wharton’s journals describing WWI France, Mildred Aldrich’s letters written from a small village near the front lines, and Charles Inman Barnard’s description of Paris on the brink of war. From another site I found Ruth Gaines’ vignettes of Picardy in 1918. All have been very helpful as I wrote about living with war in two of my novels.

My growing fiction and non-fiction collection
* Every time I visit my local bookstore or browse for an e-book, I look for new materials. Amongst others, my collection of non-fiction includes Vimy by Pierre Berton and Unlikely Soldiers by Jonathan Vance, the first is a detailed account of that famous WWI battle, the second is the true story of two WWII spies. Both offered deep insight into the war experience.

* My fiction collection includes authors like Anne Perry, Ben Elton, Pat Barker, Anita Shreve, Scott Turow, Joseph Boyden, William Woodruff, Siegfried Sassoon, Frances Itani and others. Wonderful works. My copies are well thumbed and well marked.

Diaries and letters
 * To add reality to my characters’ voices, I have perused many personal accounts of war, particularly WWI, and discovered phrases and language patterns of the day. I find it both amazing and heart warming to see so many soldiers honored by their families through websites and blogs containing letters, photos and personal details. British, American, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand stories are there for all to see. If you read French or German, you can find even more diaries.

* A particularly interesting book is The Letters of Agar Adamson, a WWI captain who enlisted at the age of 48. Fascinating first hand account.

Google & Google maps
* Ah, Google. An amazing source as every reader and writer knows, a place to find tidbits like the construction of a kite or the names of troop transport ships and to stumble upon serendipity like French marriage rituals or the lions outside New York’s main library.

* Using Google maps I can look at tiny villages like Villers-au-Bois or larger places like Amiens and can then check the surrounding countryside to see the contours of the land, the placement of crossroads, the bends in a river. I can then match war-time photos with present day in order to breathe life into descriptions of a picnic, a country drive, a battlefield or a behind the lines view.

* To date I’ve visited museums in England, Canada and France. These buildings, whether large or small, house a wealth of photos, posters, dioramas and context to augment my stories. In some cases, they include the sounds of war which are crucial to a writer’s toolbox. While visiting, I’ve taken many pictures and notes.

Personal travel
* Last summer my husband and I traveled to northern France with the express purpose of seeing WWI battle sites and memorials as well as the lands of Picardy and Nord-Pas-de-Calais where so many battles occurred. I filled an entire notebook and came home with over five hundred pictures.

* While sitting in a cafe having dinner one night, my third novel was born. You never know what a glass or two of French wine will inspire!

* Whenever I have the opportunity to watch a movie set in either war, I do using my ever-present notebook to jot thoughts as the movie unfolds. What I look for most is sounds and visuals.

* In addition to photos of the time, I’ve discovered a few fashion websites like www.fashion-era.com or www.victoriana.com or www.costumes.org. Pictures and descriptions from these sites give little snippets to use when setting a scene or introducing a character.

* Historical radio broadcasts have also helped. Hearing a speech made by Woodrow Wilson or King Edward VIII, listening to a reporter recount the actual Dieppe landing raids or hearing songs from the past make that world come alive in a visceral manner.

I am fortunate that the world wars are relatively recent and as a consequence easier to research. Nonetheless, I often work for hours in order to write a few sentences. Good thing I enjoy the process!

Mary Tod writes historical fiction with a focus on WWI and WWII. Her novel, Lies Told in Silence is represented by Anne McDermid & Associates. While The Secret Sits is a companion novel with intersecting characters. A third novel, Blind Regret is nearing completion.

Mary posts frequently on the topics of historical fiction and the business of writing on her blog, One Writer’s Voice.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Guest post from Kate Lord Brown: You Say Boxer Shorts, I Say Underpants

Kate Lord Brown is stopping by today to discuss some of the fascinating tidbits she uncovered while researching her debut novel.  The Beauty Chorus follows three young British women who sign up to be Spitfire pilots at the height of World War Two.  I went and bought myself a copy after reading her post -- I'm one of those readers who knows little about women pilots during the war, so am eager to meet her characters and learn more.  Welcome, Kate, and thanks for contributing an enlightening article!


I love the research involved with writing historical fiction – in fact, it is so absorbing, so much fun I have to give myself a cut off point or the novels would never get written. The inspiration for ‘The Beauty Chorus’ came from a tiny obituary in a flying magazine for a woman who flew Spitfires during WW2. My gut instinct was – why don’t people know about this? Then: this is a story that has to be told.

I’m married to a pilot, but I knew nothing about aviation during WW2. I didn’t know a Lancaster from a Stirling, or how to fly a Spitfire – but I do now (at least on paper). When I was little, I wanted to be a detective like Nancy Drew, to solve mysteries like Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Researching historical fiction is just as exciting to me now. I taught myself everything I could from the material available to the public – read everything I could, from first person autobiographies and memoirs from the women who had flown with the Air Transport Auxiliary, to biographies of the ‘big’ figures like Amy Johnson. Then the fun really started.

Once I had the ‘scaffolding’ of the story – the major plot and characters outlined, the really deep research began. I poured over archives, handling documents and diaries yellow with age. I talked to surviving veterans who had lived and worked through this time. I read the wartime diaries of housewives to find out all I could about ‘make do and mend’ and ‘digging for victory’. I watched endless black and white films of the era to tune my ear into the dialogue, and listened to the music of the time. I wrote my first draft listening to Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra. I spoke to museums, libraries, chased down every single detail I could get my hands on to bring the story to life, to create a sense of place.

I found out amazing things – each clue, each question led to others. I found out pilots of the American Eagle Squadrons were known among the girls for their racy green socks. There were other sartorial cultural differences - while the American love interest would have worn ‘boxer shorts’, the Imperial War Museum told me normal British men would have worn utility underpants. I learnt that while the female pilots dreaded being stuck out at some bases, they loved getting stranded at the US bases because they could stock up on lipstick and silk stockings. Then there were larger things – I pieced together countless accounts of Amy Johnson’s last flight from biographies and RAF reports, and the account in the novel brings together details I haven’t read anywhere else. There was so much information I didn’t use a lot of it in the story – but I hope as Hemingway once said, you get a feel for the depth of this knowledge in the story – almost reading between the lines what isn’t said.

It was wonderful researching this story, and I hope my enjoyment and enthusiasm comes through. These women were amazing – modest, brave and skilful civilians doing one of the most dangerous jobs in the war, but they are all but forgotten. I hope ‘The Beauty Chorus’ will introduce them to a few new people.


Kate Lord Brown studied Philosophy at Durham University, and Art History at the Courtauld Institute of Art. She is currently taking a Masters degree. She worked as an art consultant, curating collections for palaces and embassies in Europe and the Middle East, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. She was a finalist in UK ITV’s the People’s Author competition in 2009.

‘The Beauty Chorus’ was published by Corvus, Atlantic on 1 April 2011; available from Amazon UK and Book Depository.  Visit Kate's blog, What Kate Did Next, at http://thebeautychorus.blogspot.com.

Friday, May 20, 2011

An updated post

A quick note to mention that my list of historical fiction picks at BEA has grown considerably in length, following my reading of Library Journal's and Kirkus's excellent previews of the show.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

An interview with Rosslyn Elliott, author of Fairer than Morning

Rosslyn Elliott's debut novel, Fairer than Morning, takes readers back to Ohio and Pennsylvania in the 1820s, a bygone era no less complicated than our own.  Ann Miller, daughter of a saddle-maker and circuit-riding minister from the small town of Rushville, Ohio, slowly awakens to the qualities in a person that truly matter.  To her surprise, she finds them not in Eli Bowen, a handsome suitor who enjoys reciting poetry, but in saddler's apprentice Will Hanby. Alternating chapters reveal Will's painful situation. Indentured to an abusive master in Pittsburgh when he was too young to know better, he forms a strong bond with Ann and yearns to be free to pursue a life of his choosing.

Fairer than Morning is more than just a romance and coming-of-age story, though.  Rosslyn Elliott surveys her early 19th-century American setting with a sensitive eye for historical and artistic detail as well as social injustice. The novel falls into the category of inspirational historical fiction and is an excellent example of its kind. Rather than feeling forced, the characters' faith reflects their time; it takes root in the courageous lives they lead and the situations they find themselves in.  Also, I always find it refreshing to read a Christian novel that shows real people and their realistic decisions, even if they go beyond the usual genre limitations.  The main characters are based in history, as are their stories, and the graceful writing style suits the place and era.

Had you planned from the beginning to write Fairer than Morning from both Ann's and Will's viewpoints?

Yes, I had planned it that way from the beginning. Both of their spiritual journeys are important, though Will’s is unusually strong for the ‘man’s side’ of a historical romance. When I first wrote the novel, it opened in Will’s viewpoint and Ann’s viewpoint came second. My agent asked me to switch the order, as publishers usually require historical romances to open in the heroine’s viewpoint. At first, I didn’t like the idea, but it worked out well after I figured out which scene to use for Ann’s opening.

Given that the Hanbys and Millers were real people, how much responsibility did you feel to reflect the historical and spiritual truth of their story? During the process of transforming their lives into fiction, did these truths ever conflict with one another?

I was determined to infuse this story with both types of truth. As I explain in the historical afterword, I departed from the historical record in some aspects of the novel, but I believe my choices clarified the spiritual truth of the novel and unified the narrative. I’m particularly pleased with the development of the relationship between Mr. Miller (Ann’s father) and Will Hanby. I think father/son relationships are fascinating, and I believe the fictional parts of this novel reflect the historical story of these two men in a way that historical records support but do not flesh out. Only a few history-lovers know about the strength of this connection between Mr. Miller and Will. You have to be a real researcher of the Hanbys to learn the few details that exist to tell us their story. I’m happy that more people will understand Mr. Miller’s contribution to the story as a result of the publication of Fairer than Morning. (I’ll reserve further comment on fact versus fiction to prevent spoilers, and I should also warn potential readers not to read the afterword before reading the novel, for the same reason!)

Will's relationship with Emmie Flynn, as well as the duel fought between two parties, go beyond what's often found in inspirational historicals. At the same time, these subplots made the storyline and characters more realistic for me. Did you ever feel like you were taking risks, with readers or with publishers, by including these scenes?

My goal during the writing process was to write the best story I was capable of writing, in every way, and that meant not worrying about the typical boundaries of inspirational historicals. I like the way Jodie Foster once described the act of creating art. She said “it’s putting everything you are onto the head of an arrow and shooting it out into the world.” For me, ‘everything I am’ may include a number of virtues, but I’m also messy and flawed, and that’s true for most believers. Too many times, I’ve seen Christians try to assume a perfect façade, even though that doesn’t reflect reality. I don’t think we should do it in life, and I don’t think we should do it in our fictional characters. So I decided to write this novel about real love, real failure, and real courage, and I found a publisher who believed in that kind of story. I have to admit that I was sweating it out when my agent submitted this novel to publishers. I knew this novel was the best I could do, and if no publisher wanted it, that would be the end of my dream to publish this kind of fiction.

What appeals to you about small-town Ohio? Also, what compelled you to set part of your novel in the industrial city of Pittsburgh?

I like the heritage of Ohio because of its pioneer roots. I can still see those roots in many small towns, whereas big cities have choked them out with concrete and steel. I also like the way that Ohio hasn’t been overused as a setting in historical novels, and the same is true for Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is a city with a fascinating history, both bright and dark, and it really adds to the atmosphere of a historical novel. Atmosphere was part of my decision to set part of the novel in Pittsburgh. I needed a strong dramatic contrast between Will Hanby’s world and Ann Miller’s world, plus, I wanted narrative access to some big city features that I couldn’t create in a rural setting.

Fairer than Morning is set during a time when individual craftsmanship mattered. It takes pleasure, for example, in showing us the details Samuel Miller carves into his leather saddles and the calligraphy on hand-addressed dinner invitations. Do you feel modern society has lost some appreciation for these things?

As a whole, yes, I think we have lost it. Last fall, I went to a fashion museum in Tombstone with a friend, and we exclaimed over every handcrafted detail of those nineteenth-century ensembles. The curator loved us. He said he couldn’t believe it when people came into the museum and complained of being bored, but it happened more often than we might think. Fortunately, no matter how our culture changes, there will always be people who love craftsmanship. We may not use horses as our transportation anymore, but I know a saddler who lives close to my house. The fascination of creativity will always draw new people into the old crafts.

How much time did you spend researching your novel on site? How clearly could you see the Rushville of nearly two centuries ago beneath the new?

I was only able to visit Rushville in person late in the writing process, but I was glad to see that the town’s history is well-preserved, though not always marked. The advantage of zero population growth in tiny towns is that no one knocks down buildings to make way for supermarkets. Beautiful old homes are well-preserved by citizens who have lived in them through the years. I saw the Rushville home of a doctor who appears in the second novel (1850s), and I saw the cracked, forgotten gravestone of Samuel Miller himself. (Some of the valiant supporters of Hanby family history repaired that stone this year.)

Ann Miller finds herself transfixed by Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho, and the characters' lives and words resonate with her. On your website, you've listed some of your favorite novels, including Dickens' Oliver Twist, two by C.S. Lewis, and William Dean Howell's A Hazard of New Fortunes, which is a book that's new to me. What did you take away from the reading experience of each?

Both Dickens and Howells were compassionate souls, and both were sensitive to the social forces at work around them. Dickens is one of my personal heroes, and I could write a hundred pages on everything I admire about his work. I already wrote a hundred pages on Howells, who was one of the two authors I discussed in my doctoral dissertation in English (completed in 2006). Both authors are valuable reads for me because my Saddler’s Legacy trilogy spans most of the nineteenth century. Dickens is a major influence on Fairer than Morning, and Howells will have his turn in the last novel, which is set in his period, the 1870s. Howells was Mark Twain’s best friend, and one of the best-known writers of his time. I sometimes think his work has gone out of fashion in academic circles because he is too gentle, wise and ethical. His work won’t serve as a platform for the fierce battles that currently rage through university English departments.

The two books from C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy changed my life. After a Catholic childhood, I lost my faith as a teenager and was agnostic for ten years. It was a dark decade for me. The light finally began to dawn again when I read Lewis’s Perelandra. It’s a brilliant, redemptive novel that convinced me of the reality of evil as an active, intelligent force in our world. Once I believed in evil, I had to reconsider the possibility that good might also be the same kind of active, intelligent force. That restarted my spiritual journey, and a couple of years after reading Perelandra, I returned to Christian faith.

Thanks for your excellent questions. It has been a pleasure to go behind the scenes with you and revisit some of the joys of writing Fairer than Morning.


Thank you too, Rosslyn, for agreeing to be interviewed.  I thoroughly enjoyed the read, and I look forward to reading your next book as well.

Fairer Than Morning, first in the Saddler's Legacy series inspired by the Hanby family of central Ohio, was published by Thomas Nelson in May at $15.99 (trade pb, 391pp).  Visit Rosslyn's website and her blog for biographical information, the history behind her books, insight into the writing process, her observations on historical fiction and other literature, and more.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A look at Marina Fiorato's The Daughter of Siena

British-Venetian author Marina Fiorato heads to Tuscany for her latest novel of love and suspense in a beautifully evoked Italian setting. As the fierce competition between the contrade (city wards) for victory in the annual Palio horse race takes a treacherous turn, two women of Siena muster up their courage to survive threatening situations.

In July of 1723, Pia Tolomei, a gorgeous, well-educated nineteen-year-old said to be descended from Cleopatra, is betrothed to a cruel man from an opposing contrada. After he is killed in an accident during the Palio, she is forcibly wed to his equally malicious albino brother. Shuttered away at his family’s palazzo, she can’t deny her growing affection for Riccardo, a horseman whose background is far less distinguished than hers.

While Pia makes for a suitable romantic heroine, another noblewoman provides a more intriguing and complex character study. Violante Beatrix of Bavaria, a barren Medici widow who had the misfortune to love her neglectful husband, governs Siena with benevolent dignity, but factions within the city – led by Pia’s nasty father-in-law – aim to depose her. Violante wants to put an end to the rivalries tearing Siena apart. In doing so, she awakens a new capability for political maneuvering. With Riccardo’s help, she investigates the secret plot against the Medici, but their unraveling of the scheme is marked by danger as well as missteps on both their parts (a realistic touch).

The parallel stories of these two daughters of the city, one native and one adopted, provide an intricate examination of women’s power and powerlessness in early 18th-century Italy. The villains are recognizably evil, and the coincidence-heavy denouement strains believability, but Fiorato deserves kudos for bringing to life an underutilized European setting. Most readers won’t be familiar with the royal families involved, which allows the historically-based subplots to unfold unpredictably.

The rich heritage of Siena is shown in all its facets, with scenes moving from formal staterooms and candle-lit cathedrals to dirty stables and macabre dungeons. The apricot silk gown on the cover reveals only part of the tale. Like the Palio itself, The Daughter of Siena is an exciting entertainment steeped in local color and years of cultural traditions.

The Daughter of Siena was published May 12th by St. Martin's Griffin at $14.99/$16.99 Canadian (trade pb, 382pp, includes author Q&A and reading group guide).  John Murray will publish it in the UK in September.

Monday, May 16, 2011

New Pauline Gedge review

My review of Pauline Gedge's The King's Man, the long-awaited final volume in her trilogy of the same name, was published in today's Globe and Mail.

If you enjoy ancient Egyptian settings, The King's Man is a must-read, but you really need to begin with the first volume, The Twice Born, for the storyline in the subsequent books to make sense.  Gedge is an internationally bestselling author, and her earlier books had American and British publishers, but the current trilogy was published in English only in Canada.  If you're not Canadian, I'd recommend spending the extra money on postage; her books are worth it.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Historical fiction picks at BEA

(This post was updated on May 20th with many new details courtesy of the Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews BEA preview publications.)

In just over a week, I'll be heading to BEA in New York for four days of networking and book chat, presentations, walking, dining, sightseeing, and shopping.  Anyone else going?  I'll also be heading to the book blogger con on Friday the 27th, as one of five Sara(h)s on their roster.

It's taken me a while to draw up a list of signings/galley grabbing that may interest historical fiction readers. The online schedule isn't as user-friendly as usual; you have to click around a while to find out what the authors will be signing and what their books are about.  So I may have missed some important titles... please let me know in the comments if you spotted something I didn't!  It doesn't appear to be a big year for historicals at BEA, but there will be some exciting-sounding books on offer.

Galleys to Grab

Doubleday (booth 4617)
Erin Morgenstern, Night Circus - described by PW as having "19th-century magicians, star-crossed lovers, and a most unusual circus."

Simon & Schuster (booth 3652-53)
Alma Katsu, The Taker - a combo of historical novel and supernatural epic spanning over a century in rural Maine.  Are you spotting a trend yet?  Historical paranormal is hot.  Well, anything paranormal is hot.

Alice Hoffman, The Dovekeepers - novel, based on the true events of Masada, which is being referred to as the author's Beloved.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (booth 3438)
Umberto Eco, The Prague Cemetery - about conspiracy theories in 19th-century Europe.

HarperCollins (booth 3338-39)
Deborah Lawrenson, The Lantern - a modern gothic set in the south of France, and PW says there will be galleys everywhere.  Not historical, but anything remotely Thirteenth Tale/Kate Morton-ish is good enough for me.

Random House (booth 4617)
Charles Frazier, Nightwoods - literary fiction set in 1960s small town North Carolina.

Macmillan (booth 3352)
Yangzom Brauen, Across Many Mountains - an epic of three generations of Tibetan women in the mid-20th century.  Per her website, the author is an actress in theatre and film.  Giveaway at 9am on Wednesday 5/25.

Stella Tillyard, Tides of War - epic of Regency England, at 9am on Wednesday 5/25

Steve Sem-Sandberg, The Emperor of Lies - novel of the Lodz ghetto, at 10am on Wednesday 5/25

Spiegel & Grau (booth 4420)
Ellen Feldman, Next to Love - multi-generational epic about three young women and the men they're involved with, set during WWII.


Tuesday, May 24th, 11-12, table 13
Alma Katsu, The Taker - see description above

Tuesday, 11-11:30, table 26
James R. Benn, A Mortal Terror, latest in his Billy Boyle WWII mystery series

Tuesday, 11:30-noon, table 4
Evan Fallenberg, When We Danced On Water - a famous Jewish choreographer, now aged, meets a younger woman whose presence brings back suppressed memories from his past.

Tuesday, 12-12:30, table 16
Thanhha Lai, Inside Out and Back Again - Vietnam-era YA fiction.

Tuesday, 1-2pm, table 24
Luis Alberto Urrea, Queen of America - sequel to the excellent The Hummingbird's Daughter, which is enough to make me want it.  Also a galley giveaway on Wednesday morning at booth 3620 (Hachette).

Tuesday, 2pm, as part of "Feminism in Fiction Today" panel
Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic - Japanese mail-order brides in 1900s San Francisco

Tuesday, 4-5pm, table 5
Ilsa J. Bick, Draw the Dark - WWII comes to small-town Wisconsin.

Wednesday, May 25, 10-10:30, table not given in schedule.
Maria Dahvana Headley, Queen of Kings - a supernatural version of Cleopatra's life.

Wednesday, 10-10:30, table 4
Barbara Reichmuth Geisler, In Vain - a medieval mystery, part of the Averillan Chronicles series.

Wednesday, 10-10:45, booth 4638
Deanna Raybourn, The Dark Enquiry - the latest in her Julia Grey mystery series.

Wednesday, 11:30-noon, table 18
Andi Rosenthal, The Bookseller's Sonnets - historical mystery spanning the Tudor era, Holocaust, and present day.

Wednesday, 12-12:30pm, table 22
Talia Carner, Jerusalem Maiden - a young woman in early 20th-c Jerusalem must choose between her religion and her dream.

Wednesday, 1pm, booth 4420 (Random House)
Esmeralda Santiago, Conquistadora - saga of 19th century Puerto Rico

Wednesday, 2:30pm, booth 3252 (Penguin)
Amor Towles, Rules of Civility - social mores in the 1930s

Wednesday, 3pm, booth 4420 (Random House)
Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus, details above.

Wednesday, 3-3:30pm, table 6
M.L. Malcolm, Heart of Deception - novel of espionage, and a father's love for his daughter, set in 1942.
A note from M.L:  As a thank you for all the support I’ve received from readers in the Blogsphere this year, I’d like to treat the first 25 Book Bloggers who come by my signing on Wednesday to a glass of wine at the Book Blogger Convention reception.  All they have to do is come by Table 6 at 3:00 on Wednesday, pick up a signed copy of “Heart of Deception,” give me a card with the name of their blog on it, and I’ll give them a ticket for a free libation when they come to the reception on Thursday.

Other Featured Books

These were in the Books@BEA catalog, which means they'll be featured at the show in some way - whether galleys will be available, I'm not sure, but I'll be asking about them (and others too).

Bloomsbury (booth 3358)
Victor Davis Hanson, The End of Sparta - epic of war and freedom in ancient Greece.

Farrar Straus & Giroux (booth 3352)
Amitav Ghosh, River of Smoke - 2nd in historical saga set against the Opium Wars in China and Mauritius in the mid-19th century.
Steve Sam-Sandberg, The Emperor of Lies - an international award-winning novel about the Jewish ghetto of Lodz during WWII, and its authoritarian ruler.

Henry Holt (booth 3352)
Stella Tillyard, Tides of War - novel of the Peninsular War, by a noted historian (Aristocrats).

Hyperion/Voice (booth 3324)
Margaret Leroy, The Soldier's Wife - WWII in Guernsey

Other Press (booth 4421)
John Thompson, The Reservoir - mystery set in Reconstruction-era Virginia.

Peachtree (booth 2955)
Krista Russell, Chasing the Nightbird - YA, historical shipboard adventure

Penguin (booth 3253)
Maile Maloy, The Apothecary - YA, Russian spies in 1952 London

Simon & Schuster (booth 3652-53)
Ursula Hegi, Children and Fire - lead-up to WWII in Germany

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Book review: The Watery Part of the World, by Michael Parker

Sometimes the past is another country. Other times, as in Michael Parker’s inventive recreation of Theodosia Burr Alston and her fictional descendants, the past casts such a large shadow on the present that it’s impossible to escape.

The historical Theodosia, daughter of Vice President Aaron Burr, was lost at sea in 1813 after boarding a ship from South Carolina to New York. (Readers may recognize her as the tragic heroine of Anya Seton’s classic My Theodosia.) The Watery Part of the World picks up the frayed ends of her life story. In this version, she survives a pirate attack by feigning madness and takes shelter with a hermit on the Outer Banks. He’s the only man inclined to help her of his own free will.

On this remote barrier island off North Carolina’s coast, survival is precarious. Theo’s knowledge of Latin and Greek, and her extensive training in the social graces, proves useless in an environment where people rely on scavenging (or “progging,” in the delightful local lingo) for driftwood and other things that wash up on shore. A portrait of her long-ago self, the only item left from her former existence, symbolizes her proud history and the mission – restoring her father’s good name – that she can’t let herself forget.

In alternating sections set in 1970 and earlier, Parker skillfully delves into the inner lives of the island’s last remaining residents: two elderly sisters, Theo’s fifth-generation descendants, and the black man, Woodrow Thornton, who helps them with their household needs. His family has a longstanding tradition of service to theirs, a pattern he resents but follows anyway.

Whaley is stiff and proper, a silly pretension when there’s nobody around to impress. Her moody and passionate sister Maggie envisions herself as Virginia Dare, believing she’ll meet with disaster if she ever leaves her home. While Whaley reads about the curious outside world in newspaper ads, Maggie can’t forget her failed love affair with a younger man thirty years before.

Despite the 150-odd years separating them, the storyline glides smoothly between their time and Theo’s. In both eras, Parker periodically revisits the novel’s most decisive scenes, each time with more shocking impact.

In places, the text has an archaic syntax that reflects the modern trio’s circumstances, living isolated from the mainland for such a long time. Two anthropologists visit them every spring to record their peculiar dialect and the outlandish stories of island lore they choose to tell them – an act they partially put on for the outsiders’ benefit. Caught by fear and habit, Maggie wonders if she’ll ever be able to reveal their real story.

Dependent on one another for reasons they can’t explain, the black man and "his white women sisters" cling to their roles, the same ones held by their forebears, like they would to a lifeline. Parker writes of their complicated dilemmas with grace, care, and not a little empathy. Even with the deftness of the human characterizations, though, the wind-scoured, lonely island has the strongest and most steady presence. One knows it will be around long after everyone has gone.

The Watery Part of the World was published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill on April 26th ($23.95, hardcover, 261pp).

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Guest post from M.L. Malcolm: The Real James Bond Wore Lipstick

I'd like to extend a warm welcome to M.L. Malcolm. She's stopping by Reading the Past today to talk about discovering the female James Bond, one of the many fascinating characters in her latest historical novel, Heart of Deception.

M.L. Malcolm will be speaking and signing books at the upcoming Historical Novel Society conference.  Her talk, "Going from an Indie to a Big House," is scheduled for 8:30-9:30am on Saturday, 6/18.

The Real James Bond Wore Lipstick

By M.L. Malcolm

One of the main characters in my latest novel, Heart of Deception, is recruited to work as a spy for the Allies at the very beginning of World War II. This dashing Hungarian’s name is Leo Hoffman, and knowing my characters as well as I do, I knew that Leo (being Leo) was going to develop at some point during the story a romantic interest in a very fascinating woman.

I also knew that this lady was going to be a spy. For one thing, during the war many spies working closely together did fall in love—there have actually been studies about how people are more likely to fall in love when they meet in situations where their adrenalin is pumping—and it’s unlikely that Leo would get close to anyone who wasn’t also a spy; that might interfere with his real goal, which was to earn his American citizenship, get back to the States, and find his daughter.

I wanted Leo to fall for a real historical figure, someone who’d actually been a spy, so I went on a scholarly quest to find his lady love. Call it authorial match-making; I read everything I could find about the women who served in the British spy service, the Special Operations Executive, and the American spy corps, the Office of Strategic Services, looking for the right woman.

That’s when I discovered that Julia Child had worked in the OSS. (This was long before “Julie and Julia.” Historical research takes a lot of time, you know.) After duly considering Julia (née McWilliams) as a possibility, I realized there was one insurmountable problem with the match. That’s right—to use Julia’s own words, “TOO TALL.” And, Julia was essentially a clerical worker, frankly not a sufficiently exciting position for the paramour I had in mind.

After a lot of study, considering and then rejecting many potential candidates, I found myself leaning toward Virginia Hall. The youngest daughter of an American who’d made a fortune in the shipping business, Virginia was rich, well-educated, attractive, adventurous, and quite the world traveler. Unfortunately when she was just twenty-six she accidentally shot herself in the foot while on a hunting trip in Turkey. The wound became infected, and her leg was amputated at the knee; she named her wooden prosthesis “Cuthbert.” (Score points for her sense of humor.) However, the injury meant that Virginia had to abandon her dream of working for the American Foreign Service, which at that time would not hire anyone who was missing a limb. Really.

Luckily Virginia’s career in espionage did not depend upon good marksmanship. She became a spy by being in the wrong place at the right time; she was working in France when Germany invaded, made her way to England, and volunteered to work for the SOE. Her first assignment was in Lyons, France. Her cover? She was hired as a reporter for the New York Post, and in that capacity she succeeded in getting money and assistance to the those French who were trying to resist the Nazis, in addition to getting valuable information back to the U.S. via her coded cables.

She left France (rather hurriedly) in November of 1942 when the Allies invaded North Africa and the Nazis put an end to the “independence” of Vichy France. However she was back by 1944, sending clandestine transmissions, recruiting resistance fighters, and causing such a problem for the Germans that they posted “wanted” posters of her all over France, labeling her “the most dangerous of all Allied spies.”

So Leo’s love interest was going to be Virginia Hall. Until I discovered Christine Granville.

Krystyna Skarbek, more widely known by her British alias, Christine Granville, was the daughter of a Polish count. She and her husband were living in Kenya when Poland was invaded in 1939. They immediately came to London, and soon volunteered to work for the British government. Christine offered to travel to Budapest, and then go from there to Poland to do reconnaissance work. She said she would get there by crossing over the Tatra Mountains. On skis.

Skeptical at first, the SOE eventually agreed. Christine was an excellent skier; accompanied by one former member of the Polish Olympic ski team, she made it over the mountains and began engaging in undercover reconnaissance and recruitment. During the trip to Hungary her male companion began what became a common trend; he fell madly in love with her by the time they made it to Hungary, and threw himself off a bridge when she refused him. He was so distraught he didn’t notice that the river had iced over, and he only broke his leg.

At some point she was brought back for training at Beaulieu, one of only sixty-five female agents to be trained at that Stately-Home-Turned-Spy-Camp, in subjects ranging from how to kill silently, how to use explosives to blow up strategic targets, personal disguise, forgery, and the use of black propaganda.

All of which made her even more lethal than the average femme fatale. Men were quite simply mesmerized by Christine Granville; as one ardent admirer explained, “Even though she was very quiet, there was something about her that put other women in the shade.”

Very interesting…

Then I learned that after the war, Christine Granville had a brief affair with Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond books.

Fleming supposedly told a close friend that Christine "literally shone with all the qualities and splendors of a fictitious character,” and he eventually used her as one; it’s now generally agreed that Christine was Fleming’s inspiration for the first Bond girl, Vesper Lynd. “Vesperale” was Christine’s nickname when she was a child, because (just like Vesper Lynd) she was born during an evening thunderstorm.

Moreover, Fleming’s description of Vesper is similar to that of Christine, both physically (dark hair, wide mouth, little make-up) and in terms of her personality: “She was thoughtful and full of consideration without being slavish and without compromising her arrogant spirit… She would surrender herself avidly, he thought, and greedily enjoy all the intimacies of the bed without ever allowing herself to be possessed.”

Christine’s accomplishments during the war far surpassed those of Fleming, who actually never engaged in front-line espionage. Like Julia Child, his responsibilities lay primarily behind his desk.

Vera Atkins, who was the second-in-command of the SOE section responsible for helping the French resistance, described Christine as “a woman of quite unusual character. She was very brave, very attractive, but a loner and a law unto herself.” Sound like any other famous spy you know?

And like James Bond, fidelity was never her strong suit.

Fleming always maintained that Bond was a “compound of all the secret agents and commando types” he’d encountered during the war. Given all I learned about her, I think Fleming’s composite also included one spy he met after the war. I believe that Christine was more than just the inspiration for the first Bond girl; Fleming also incorporated her abilities and attributes into the actual James Bond character.

So the real James Bond wore lipstick; and that made her the perfect match for Leo Hoffman.

M.L. has won several awards for her fiction, including special recognition in the prestigious Lorian Hemingway International Short Story Competition, and a silver medal from ForeWord Magazine for Best Historical Fiction Book of the Year 2009. A “recovering” attorney and freelance journalist, she has also amassed an impressive hat collection (and yes, she does wear them). Her novel, Heart of Deception, was just released by HarperCollins.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

In which I read Rebel Puritan, by Jo Ann Butler

Being a proud descendant of early New England troublemakers, I was pleased to come across a biographical novel about a woman fitting this description.

Jo Ann Butler's Rebel Puritan tells the story of her ancestor Herodias Long, who lived in 17th-century Rhode Island.  I read an excerpt on the author's website and knew I had to read the rest of the book.  Plus, "Scarlett O'Hara meets The Scarlet Letter" is one of the most irresistible taglines ever.

As a child in the Devon countryside, Herodias survives a bout of plague that kills her father and brother.  Her mother, finding her too difficult to manage, sends her off to London to be a servant to her aunt.  At thirteen she marries John Hicks, a man she barely knows, to escape a life of drudgery and flees with him to Massachusetts. She's too young to know better, alas, but feels she has no choice. The fledgling town of Weymouth finds itself divided by rival ministries, and the dispute leads her family to quit the strict Puritan church and move further south to Newport.

Herod is a strong young woman, choosing to befriend nonconformists like Mary Dyer and Anne Hutchinson despite John's disapproval.  How she grows into adulthood and raises her children while facing increasing abuse from her controlling husband — as documented in the historical record — forms the crux of an engrossing tale of endurance and triumph.  She finds herself obliged to live by society's rules until it becomes clear she no longer can.  Her moving story of women's immobility against colonial doctrine rings heartbreakingly true.

Along the way, the author fills us in on what life demanded of the early New England colonists — not just the religion and politics, but also the basics like building a suitable dwelling, growing food, making soap, and the need to rely on one's neighbors. Most colonial-era novels are set during the Salem witch trials or the pre-Revolutionary era, but here we're in newer territory: the 1630s and '40s, the first few decades of settlement, when towns were being carved out of the wilderness.

First in a well-researched series about Herodias's life (which promises to get more scandalous as it continues), Rebel Puritan was self-published, though don't let this dissuade you from checking it out. Professionally written and packaged, it stands up well against any mainstream novel on the market.  (One distraction: the characters' thoughts are written in single quotes, almost like dialogue, but I got used to this after a while.)  If you enjoy realistic novels about strong women from early America, this is a must-read.

Rebel Puritan was published by Neverest Press in January 2011 at $16.99 (trade pb, 324pp).  You can order it, like I did, through the author's website for the cover price plus postage.  Visit Christy English's blog for a guest post from the author, who writes about her experience with self-publishing.