Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Bestselling historical novels of 2011

Publishers Weekly's annual announcement of bestsellers from the previous year is out.  Once again (see my previous posts from 2010, 2009, 2008 and 2007) I'm focusing on just the historical novels that made it.

Here's the full PW list from 2011, which starts off by saying "For both fiction and nonfiction hardcover titles, name-brand recognition is the key to bestseller success."  Which means that if a powerhouse bestselling author like Stephen King decided to write historical fiction, his novel would be on the list.  (And it is.) 

Books with hardcover domestic print sales over 100K were included in PW's list; publishers were asked to take returns into account, but some may not have, especially with end-of-year releases.  A separate ebook bestseller list is available (for PW subscribers only).

Among the top 15, we find these:

#2 - Stephen King, 11/22/63 (919,500+ copies)
#11 - Jean Auel, The Land of Painted Caves (447,600+ copies)

What I wrote in 2010:  "The rest of the top 15 is dominated by Stieg Larsson, a predictable crop of thrillers (Grisham, Patricia Cornwell, James Patterson and his coauthors), plus Nicholas Sparks, a couple of mysteries, and Franzen's Freedom."  Subtract Freedom and add George R.R. Martin, and you'll have a nice description of 2011.

Other historical novels with over 100K copies sold are below, in descending order of sales.  I'm using a broad definition of "historical novel," to include historical mysteries, literary fiction set in the past, fantasy set in a real historical era, etc.

Paula McLain, The Paris Wife (at position 27, or 301K copies)
Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus
P.D. James, Death Comes to Pemberley (Not bad for a December release - I wonder how many people got this as a Christmas gift?)
Lisa See, Dreams of Joy
Clive Cussler and Justin Scott, The Race
Charles Frazier, Nightwoods
Diana Gabaldon, The Scottish Prisoner
Alice Hoffman, The Dovekeepers
Jeffrey Archer, Only Time Will Tell
Philippa Gregory, The Lady of the Rivers
Geraldine Brooks, Caleb's Crossing

My library's online PW login has stopped working for some reason, so I haven't seen the mass market or e-book lists and will have to wait until the issue reaches my desk.  As before, it seems the best way to be a bestseller is to have been a bestseller, which gets circular quickly, but there are two debut novelists in there.

Amazingly, I've read some of these - the Gabaldon, Hoffman, Gregory, and Brooks.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

My 6th blogiversary celebration and giveaway

Today Reading the Past turns six years old.  To celebrate, I'm giving away six historical novels which I hope you'll find intriguing.

International entrants are welcome, plus the books originate from four different countries.  There will be six winners in all, and you'll have the opportunity to pick which books you'd like a chance at.  I've featured most of these on the blog before.

(1)  Belinda Alexandra's Tuscan Rose (HarperCollins Australia, 2010), epic fiction set in Tuscany in the years leading up to World War II, is about a courageous young woman who lives through numerous hardships as she struggles to discover her mysterious origins.

(2) Barbara Erskine's Time's Legacy (HarperCollins UK, 2011), a time-slip novel with mystical themes, moves back and forth between modern Glastonbury, England, and its pagan origins 2000 years earlier.  [read my review]

(3) Barbara & Stephanie Keating, To My Daughter in France (Vintage UK, 2003).  In this multi-period spy novel and family saga, the will left by Irish academic Richard Kirwan reveals that he had a secret French daughter, Solange de Valnay, the result of a wartime liaison. I read this last year; it's an intense novel that's full (sometimes overfull) of drama, but I enjoyed it.

(4) Roberta Rich, The Midwife of Venice (Gallery, 2012).  Suspense and adventure featuring a spunky Jewish midwife in 16th-century Venice who saves a Christian mother and her newborn baby at the risk of her own life.  [read my review]

(5) Richard B. Wright, Mr. Shakespeare's Bastard (HarperCollins Canada, 2010).  The story of Aerlene Ward, an elderly Oxfordshire housekeeper in the 17th century, who makes a late-in-life confession about her father's true identity.

(6) Margaret Wurtele, The Golden Hour (Berkley, 2012).  Giovanna Bellini falls in love with a Jewish freedom fighter during the German occupation of her Tuscan village.  [read my review and the author's guest post]

All are brand new and unread, either duplicates I received in the mail or books I bought two copies of by mistake (this happens more than I'd like to admit).

Please fill out this form to enter the giveaway.  Deadline Sunday, April 8th.  Good luck, and thanks for continuing to visit this site!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

A look at Madame Tussaud, by Michelle Moran

“You need to read Michelle Moran’s new book,” urged a reviewer friend after finishing Madame Tussaud. “Her ancient Egypt novels were good, but here she takes her writing to a whole new level.” I can’t help but agree. An epic about a smart woman and her troubled times, it depicts the transformation of Marie Grosholtz into the renowned wax artist whose creative skills were put to the test during the French Revolution.

In its depiction of celebrity culture, the tale feels strikingly modern. Her family’s exhibition at the Salon de Cire is where Parisians come to see the day’s superstars – their wax doubles, that is. From an authentic re-creation of Thomas Jefferson’s elegant study to Marie Antoinette at her boudoir, they give the public what they want to see. As the novel hints, their creations are not just mannequins but symbols for the real thing, a fact that carries both responsibility and danger.  Marie gets what she wants, too: a museum visit from the king and queen.  Despite their growing unpopularity, Marie is a businesswoman at heart and knows their presence will draw crowds.

Very soon, she finds herself giving sculpting lessons to the king’s devout sister, Madame Élisabeth, at Versailles, while her three brothers serve in the Swiss Guard.  At the same time, in the evenings at their home, the kindly man she calls her uncle, her mentor Philippe Curtius, hosts a salon attended by the revolution’s future architects: Robespierre, Desmoulins, and the Duc d’Orléans.

While Marie and her family prosper, thousands are starving in the streets and blame the royals for their misfortune. What starts as a people's rebellion devolves into bloody anarchy, a process conveyed in rich, devastating detail. The king and queen, while sympathetically portrayed, are self-absorbed and make foolish choices, and during this painful time in French history, even the smallest connection to the aristocracy leads one to the guillotine. Marie, whose family has the Revolution’s trust, has the grisly honor of creating death masks for its most famous victims. She is the ultimate survivor: by keeping one foot in each camp, she saves her business and her head.

This magnificently crafted work makes you forget you’re reading fiction; the story is so real and immediate that you’ll feel like you’re watching each vivid scene as it happens. Highly recommended.


Madame Tussaud was published by Broadway in December at $15.00/$17.00 in Canada (trade pb, 456pp, including glossary, author's note, and reader's guide).  Quercus is the UK publisher, at £7.99. I read the added material in full, so I think this qualifies for the Chunkster Challenge even though that doesn't seem fair.  I barely noticed the page count as I was reading.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A visual preview of the summer season, part 1

A new season and a new preview, with some great-sounding books on offer.  Many of these are by authors whose past works I've been enthused about.

If you haven't read or heard of Annamaria Alfieri's superb City of Silver, it may be time to change that. Set in the Peruvian city of Potosí in 1650, it swirls together the counterfeit silver trade, a young woman's supposed suicide, and racial tensions between Spaniards and natives. Invisible Country, the author's second South American mystery, moves two centuries ahead to 1868, when Irish courtesan Eliza Lynch was busy beguiling Paraguay's president, Francisco López.  One of López's allies gets offed in this offering.  Minotaur, July.

Amirrezvani's The Blood of Flowers was a major literary hit in 2007 for its portrayal of a female rug designer's quest for personal freedom and artistic expression in 17th-century Persia.  Equal of the Sun is set in the royal court of Iran in 1576, and is based on a surprising friendship between the Shah's daughter and a eunuch after her father's unexpected death.  Scribner, June.

Anton continues on her path of reanimating the lives of lesser-known women from early Jewish history.  Subtitled "a novel of love, the Talmud, and sorcery," this first volume in a series tells the story of Hisdadukh, the youngest child of a wise and famous rabbi in 3rd-century Babylonia, a world of political and religious turmoil. Expect lots of interest from reading groups. Plume, August.

A few authors posted this pic on Facebook yesterday, and I just had to stop and gaze at it.  Bohjalian is making a return to historical fiction (his Skeletons at the Feast, from 2008, followed a group's lengthy, traumatic flight from Nazi Germany).  Following the Armenian genocide of 1915, a young Mount Holyoke grad travels to Syria to care for ill refugees.  An alternating tale in the present day reveals her granddaughter's story and uncovers a long-lost family secret.  Doubleday, July.

The Woman at the Light is a debut novel set on an island off Key West in 1839.  After her husband's disappearance at sea, Emily Lowry takes his place tending the lighthouse while caring for her three children.  Then a runaway slave comes into her life.  This was one of my LibraryThing Early Reviewers picks, and I chose it not just because of the setting but also because of the many four- and five-star Amazon reviews - which were based on the original self-published edition.  St. Martin's Griffin, July.

When the author told me her next book would be a time-slip novel, I knew I had to add it to my wishlist.  Since then, Courtenay won the 2012 Romantic Novelists' Association's historical novel prize for Highland Storms, set in 18th-century Scotland.  The Silent Touch of Shadows contains many of the elements that appeal to me in fiction: a genealogical mystery, a multi-time structure, and a modern woman's visions of a couple from England's medieval past.  Choc Lit (UK), July.

The woman on the cover should be easy to recognize even without half her head.  Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, is the shadow queen in Dean's biographical novel about the infamous American divorcee who seduced Edward VIII away from his throne.  It begins with her poverty-stricken girlhood in Baltimore, and based on the blurbs, portrays her as a survivor.  The UK title is Wallis: The Shadow Queen. Broadway, August; HarperCollins UK, May.

Downer is an author I haven't read before; she specializes in Japanese historical settings in both her fiction and nonfiction.  Across a Bridge of Dreams is billed as a romantic wartime epic set in the 1870s, just following the country's civil war, and is based on the historical story of the last samurai.  Bantam UK, June.

With their glittering imagery of Gilded Age decadence and social differences, many of today's historical novels are described as Whartonesque... so it's logical that we now see a work of biographical fiction about Edith Wharton herself.  Jennie Fields' novel aims to provide insight into the personality of one of New York's most famous novelists in its depiction of her affair with a younger journalist, and the effects it had on her friendship with her literary secretary, Anna Bahlmann.  Pamela Dorman/Viking, August.

Look to Marina Fiorato for women's fiction with an Italian historical flair.  I enjoyed The Daughter of Siena when I reviewed it last May, and the cover art gods are smiling on her books once more.  The Venetian Contract begins as the plague arrives in Venice in 1576, a revenge gift from the Ottoman Turks following their defeat at the Battle of Lepanto.  The stories of a brilliant architect, a plague doctor, and a female harem doctor intertwine.  John Murray (UK), June; pb in August.

There have been few historical novels written about Isabella of Castile, though her daughters Juana (the so-called mad queen) and Katherine (Henry VIII's first wife) have gotten more attention.  Gortner's biographical novel begins with Isabella's youth and follows her path as a wife, political leader, defender of the faith, and supporter of Columbus's exploratory vision.  Look for an author interview here later this summer. Ballantine, June.

We've talked about the popularity of WWII novels featuring women; Gregson's latest carries this trend forward to a relatively unexplored setting.  When Welsh singer Saba Tarcan travels to Cairo as part of a tour to entertain the troops, she's recruited for the British Secret Service - complicating her relationship with her fighter pilot beau.  Touchstone, June.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

"A darker, redder name"

The name of Morgan Le Fay... it comes with some baggage.

As Arthurian buffs will know, Morgan is the daughter of Ygraine by her first marriage to Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall.  Depending on which version you follow, she is either sent away to a nunnery or married off to a northern lord after Uther Pendragon kills her father.  Or both of these, consecutively.  Later, she becomes a sorceress who plots against Queen Guinevere and whose dark powers stir up trouble at her half-brother's court at Camelot.

Alex Epstein's The Circle Cast, a novel of her lost teenage years, forces us to re-imagine her character and role in the mythos by calling her something else.

His heroine, Anna of Din Tagell, is a girl of eleven when her life is shattered. Although it uses the legend as a springboard, this story is firmly situated in early medieval Britain, with Saxons preparing to attack, Uter Pendragon rallying the British as war leader, and Gorlois acting in the role of Roman provincial governor despite the Romans' departure from the island a century earlier.

Uter and Gorlois are allies at first.  But when Gorlois gets wind of Uter's advances toward Ygraine, he breaks his oath to Uter and leaves... which causes Uter to come after him. Though still a child, Anna can sense enough magic to detect the glamor that the Enchanter casts on Uter and his men, the one that leads to Uter's seduction of Ygraine, the murder of Gorlois, and, nine months later, the birth of Arthur.  (The Enchanter isn't called by name; names, as we learn, are important.)  Anna is also puzzled at Ygraine's choice not to complete the magic circle that would have invoked the war goddess Morigenos in the defense of Din Tagell.

To keep her safe from Uter, Ygraine sends Anna away to Ireland, where her cousin Queen Ciarnat rules, and gives her a new name for her protection: Morgan, sea-born, "a darker, redder name than the name the wind had taken." Over the next number of years (either four or ten... the story contradicts itself in places), Anna/Morgan is forced to reinvent herself in other ways.  Her plan for revenge against Uter takes root in this foreign land and sustains her during her travails.  She becomes the slave of a pagan wise-woman, a scribe and teacher in a Christian settlement, and, finally, the wife of an Irish chieftain, Conall.

Wherever Morgan ends up, her scenes are rendered with a lyrical simplicity.  The prose can read like that of a young adult novel, although some of the themes are geared more towards adults.

The story loses some focus the longer Morgan stays in Ireland, and Morgan, it seems, feels this too.  She doesn't want to lose her ties to the land and its power, and she needs to see her mission through.  Despite her strong affections for Conall, her role as his wife is getting in her way.  What follows next is a vigorous yet heartbreaking tale about the value and price of vengeance.  

The Circle Cast should add to the intrigue surrounding this complex Arthurian figure.  Morgan's decisions may or may not be the reader's, but she stays true to herself regardless of the sacrifice.

The timing of this post is accidental, but as long as we're here: for those who don't especially care about the Arthurian connection, The Circle Cast also offers a sweeping picture of 5th-century Ireland, a place of woods and green meadows, warring clans, ancient pagan rites, and a young, new Christianity that inspires fierce devotion in its followers.  There's plenty of ale and good storytelling to go 'round, too. Sláinte.

The Circle Cast was published by Tradewind Books in 2011 at $12.95 (trade paperback, 300pp), same price in the US and Canada.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Guest essay from Chelsea Quinn Yarbro: Coming Up to the Terror

Almost exactly a year ago, I interviewed Chelsea Quinn Yarbro about the 24th entry in her St.-Germain cycle, An Embarrassment of Riches, set in 13th-century Bohemia.  I'm happy to welcome her back to the blog today to discuss the historical backdrop to her most recent novel. 

With Commedia della Morte (Tor, March 2012), she presents a new angle on a well-known historical event: the French Revolution.  I hope you'll enjoy her essay about late 18th-century French theatre, especially its life outside Paris, and how traveling performers were affected by the era's traumatic political events.

Also of note: Tor is currently holding a giveaway on Goodreads for 25 copies of Commedia della Morte, to mark its status as the 25th book in her series.  US readers can enter the contest here.


Coming Up to the Terror
by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

Approaching the history in historical fiction can often become a kind of intellectual juggling act, finding ways to keep the story and history in dynamic balance, and never more so than when dealing with such major events as the French Revolution. It is not just a matter of sorting out the layers of incidents that brought it about in the first place; it requires a careful examination of all the factions, persons, and various groups that contributed to the Revolution, its high ideals and its turn toward the excesses of the Terror.

As a novelist, I find myself drawn to what I call the tweensie periods, those transitional phases of social changes that alter the character of the society that has gone before, which made 1792 irresistible for my twenty-third Saint-Germain novel (there are also two collections of short fiction), Commedia della Morte, when the forces of reform became increasingly extreme in their positions. The book began, as such works often begin, with what I call chasing the wild footnote: I was reading an extensive work on the French Revolution, looking for a time of modulation, when purpose and common goals diverge and politics become more intense. Within that crucial period, I try to find an event or series of events on which to hang my story; during that search, I came upon a footnote on the proliferation of street theatre throughout France during the Revolution. That was an angle that appealed to me, and I started hunting down as many sources on those street theatres as I could. What really hooked me was an article written some forty years ago on some of the touring companies in France at the time, some of which did not originate in France. Even better, I thought. Outsiders are always useful characters in dealing with social upheaval in fiction.

Like the rest of French society, in 1792 the nature of theatre was undergoing a redefinition: noble patrons had vanished (if they knew what was good for them) leaving their troupes to find other means of survival; the troupes changed their repertoire from classic French theatre to broad farce and broader satire. Public trials and executions were on the increase but did not provide the kind of entertainment many people craved, and so the actors who had performed for the aristocrats now took their talents to the common people, their new material and audiences pushing the troupes to extend the limits of their themes and styles well beyond what they had done for their high-born patrons. While Commedia del’Arte was largely on the way out by the mid-seventeen hundreds, the tradition was not entirely gone. The habits of touring players returned, performing plays and scenes adapted to the times and circumstances of the people who were their primary audiences. Some of these troupes proved to be highly successful, gaining enthusiastic followers. Among such feted troupes, occasional dramatic missteps or blunders gained far more attention than those made by lesser companies, and what was an artistic fumble for minor groups became a political disaster for major ones; those unlucky enough to have such a mishap could find themselves in tumbrels along with other unfortunates, meeting the same end that many of their patrons had met.

Being traveling players, the troupe, calling itself and its dramatic material Commedia della Morte, unlike many novels constructed around the French Revolution, the action takes place outside of Paris, in Avignon and Lyon for the most part, emphasizing the increasing executions and the growing political rancor among those forming the new bureaucracy. The shenanigans of local politicians jockeying for power plays a part in the successes of the troupe, often for reasons that have nothing to do with their scenarios or their popularity, but serve to provide leverage to local authorities in their maneuvering for personal advantage. Although most of these characters are fictional composites of authorities during that pivotal year, their various views, ambitions, and degree of ulterior motivation reflects the nature of the time.

By telling the story around this particular troupe, one that had had high-ranking patronage until the Revolution, and had fled France to the university city of Padova in Italy after the Revolution began, the return of the performers to France at the behest of Ragoczy Saint-Germain, the long-lived hero of the series, not only puts the story in motion, it provides a perspective on the Revolution seen through the troupe’s eyes; having survived the initial purges of aristocratic privilege, the members of the company know they are in dangerous territory, not just for the nature of their performances, but due to the shifting political sands which they must accommodate. As their fame increases, the troupe’s position becomes increasingly perilous, revealing how the turn to extremism was expressed in places outside of Paris.

From the first I have called these books historical horror novels, meaning that the history is horrifying, and that has never been more true than in Commedia della Morte.

About Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

Chelsea Quinn Yarbro is the first woman to be named a Living Legend by the International Horror Guild and is one of only two women ever to be named as Grand Master of the World Horror Convention (2003). In 1995, Yarbro was the only novelist guest of the Romanian government for the First World Dracula Congress, sponsored by the Transylvanian Society of Dracula, the Romanian Bureau of Tourism and the Romanian Ministry of Culture.

Yarbro is best known as the creator of the heroic vampire, the Count Saint-Germain. With her creation of Saint-Germain in Hotel Transylvania (St. Martin's Press, 1978), she delved into history and vampiric literature and subverted the standard myth to invent the first vampire who was more honorable, humane, and heroic than most of the humans around him. The 25th volume of the Saint-Germain Cycle, Commedia della Morte, was published by Tor in March 2012. The first three books, Hotel Transylvania, The Palace and Blood Games, are all available as e-books from

A professional writer since 1968, Yarbro has worked in a wide variety of genres, from science fiction to westerns, from young adult adventure to historical horror.

For more information on Yarbro’s many books and interests, check out her website at

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Reader survey for historical fiction

Mary Tod, a historical fiction writer who has guest blogged here in the past, has put together a survey on historical fiction reading preferences.  Please take a moment to help her out by clicking on the survey link below, following her introduction.  There's very little data on the readership for historical fiction out there, and the more responses she gets, the more useful the results!  -- Sarah


Mary Tod writes historical fiction and, along with her agent, is working hard to secure a publisher. She blogs at and at While researching for a blog post, Mary conceived the idea of conducting a survey to discover more about those who read historical fiction and those who do not - demographics, story preferences, favourite time periods, reasons for reading or not reading this genre, sources of recommendations and so on.

Please take a few minutes to complete the survey. To add to the robustness of data collected, please pass the survey URL along to friends of all reading interests.

Here's the link: 

Many thanks!  ~Mary Tod

Sunday, March 11, 2012

A visit to ancient Egypt with Lavender Ironside's The Sekhmet Bed

Off the top of your head, how many historical novels set in 18th-Dynasty Egypt can you name?

There isn't much fiction taking place in this illustrious period of Egyptian history, despite its well-known historical figures (Nefertiti, Akhenaten, Tutankhamun) and major religious controversies, not to mention the many archaeological discoveries from the era. The industry seems to believe that aside from Cleopatra's time, ancient Egypt is a hard sell: the customs are too strange, the polytheistic religion too unrelatable, the names too unromantic.

I don't know about everyone else, but when I pick up a new historical novel, I don't want to read about people just like me.

For readers who crave fiction in this most promising of settings, Lavender Ironside’s The Sekhmet Bed will be a treat. Opening in 1506 BCE, upon the death of Amunhotep I, it depicts a colorful, exotic land filled with feminine power and competition and the interference of demanding gods. Ahmose, the future mother of Queen Hatshepsut, Egypt’s most successful female pharaoh, is the heroine – which may be a first. Little is known about Queen Ahmose’s life or family relationships, which gives Ironside ample room for her interpretation.

A highlight is the fluid, accessible writing style. The descriptions are striking and culture-appropriate – the mosaic floors, the shining Nile waters, a man’s jackal-like laugh – yet don't get in the way of the swift-moving plot. Ahmose, a young woman of fourteen, grabbed my attention from the start. She is just beginning to discover herself as a person when she’s thrust into an unimaginably difficult position. Ahmose, rather than her beautiful 16-year-old sister Mutnofret, is chosen by her mother and grandmother, Egypt's high priestess, to become Great Royal Wife to Thutmose, the soldier hand-picked to be the new pharaoh.

When Thutmose takes Mutnofret as his second wife, their sisterly rivalry is taken to extremes, a premise that has gotten to be familiar. There are obvious comparisons to The Other Boleyn Girl and, some six generations after this novel takes place, Nefertiti and Mutnodjmet in Michelle Moran's first book. The difference here is that while Ahmose and Mutnofret are both strong-willed women who want the same things, they wield different types of power.

Intelligent, sensitive Ahmose is a dream-reader, and the gods speak through her; she has the strength the land needs. Nofret is hot-tempered, sexy, and fertile, a dangerous combination for a sister-queen. She knows how to attract a man, and she plays into her younger sister's insecurities and fears, including the dangers of childbirth. Each treats the other cruelly, and their mistakes have serious consequences. Their ongoing rivalry to outshine the other sometimes leaves their husband in the dust. Nofret may be the designated evil sister, but she never expected to play second fiddle; she had my sympathy at times, too.

Ahmose eventually gives birth to a daughter, Hatshepsut, whom she knows will be an only child. From her visions, she also knows the baby's ka, or soul, is male, and that Hatshepsut was born to be pharaoh in turn. Thutmose loves his daughter but refuses to accept this. It’s here the novel attains its emotional height, with triumph, shocking tragedy, and reconciliation all interwoven in heartrending ways.

The novel carried me smoothly through the characters' drama-filled lives, but I had one niggling observation. Ahmose and Nofret grew up in the House of Women, the pharaoh's harem; they barely see or know their parents or grandmother until after the story begins. There's mention of a childhood nurse, and some older friends and cousins, but the sisters rely primarily on one another. Perhaps their early closeness made it easier to set up their rivalry later on, but still, I wondered why they had no other mother figure to depend on.  It felt like something was missing in their history.

Pauline Gedge is the most prolific novelist writing about the same timeframe, and fans of hers should welcome this novel, too. Gedge's ancient Egypt feels alien from the outset, but thanks to her likable heroine and informal dialogue, the world Ironside creates doesn't feel as distant… not at first.  She writes in her historical note that she did her best to balance the comfort of the reader against historical accuracy, and I feel she succeeded in her aim.  The names, including place names, are authentic, and subtly inserted scenes, such as when Ahmose has her scalp shaved as per custom, emphasize the fact that this isn't a place we know.


The Sekhmet Bed, first in a projected trilogy called The She-King, is published as an e-book in various formats at $5.99; see Smashwords, or Amazon for the Kindle version.  (I read it as a trade paperback proof, and, per the author, a paperback edition is in the works.) This is a self-published novel, though don't let that put you off. Despite enthusiastic praise from mainstream publishers, the author's agent was unsuccessful in selling it to one of them; the unfamiliar setting made it too much of a risk. Fortunately, there are new options available to authors these days.  For more information, visit Ironside's blog at

Saturday, March 10, 2012

New review of Tatiana de Rosnay's The House I Loved, and contest winners

I have been busy.  My review of Tatiana de Rosnay's The House I Loved, an epistolary novel with lovely descriptions of old Paris, is out in today's Globe and Mail:

"Can a novel make us nostalgic for a place we’ve never been? With her third English-language release, an uncomplicated story brimming with homespun details, Tatiana de Rosnay presents a convincing case. Nearly every sentence evokes the appeal of mid-19th-century Paris, the city she clearly loves, and her empathy for the citizens whose homes and dreams were obliterated by the march of progress."

That's just the beginning... see the full review here.


I also have some contest winners to announce, following Christine Blevins' guest post about camp followers during the American Revolution and her period-inspired giveaway.  I have to say, wow... this was the most popular contest I've offered so far.  Thanks to everyone for your interest!

Giveaway #1, a copy of The Turning of Anne Merrick and a Bayberry Candle Bundle, will be going to Jill.  [Edited from the original posting... the first winner chosen had won a copy from another site, so graciously let me pick someone else.]

Giveaway #2, a copy of The Turning of Anne Merrick and a Stationery Bundle, will be going to Mieneke, who reviews speculative fiction, historicals, crime, YAs, and more at A Fantastical Librarian.

Congratulations to you both, and look for an email from me in your inbox.  I hope you'll enjoy the novel and goodies!  A big thanks to Christine Blevins, too, for the post and prizes.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Book review: Hawk Quest, by Robert Lyndon

Robert Lyndon’s impressive Hawk Quest shows what historical adventure novels can achieve when their world-building, action sequences, descriptive scenes, and characterizations are all written to the same high caliber.

The year is 1072, as William the Conqueror proceeds with his grim subjugation of northern England. Further south, Sir Walter, a Norman magnate’s son fighting for the Byzantine emperor, has been taken prisoner in Anatolia after the Battle of Manzikert. With his family unable to afford Emir Suleyman's other ransom terms, their only hope lies in finding four white gyrfalcons, to be captured from their eyries in the frozen North... and time is of the essence.

A diverse group of men sets out on a mission to catch and bring back the hawks. Each has his own reasons for signing on, though not all are revealed to their comrades.

Vallon, a Frankish soldier of fortune with a mysterious past, becomes the party's de facto leader. His fellows include idealistic Hero, a Sicilian Greek medical student; Wayland, a peasant and master falconer who was rendered mute after his family's murder; Richard, Walter's intelligent yet browbeaten stepbrother; and Raul, an expert crossbowman from Germany. Wayland’s huge nameless dog, a great character in his own right, proves to be an equally valuable member of their band.

The journey, which reaches to the far corners of the known world and back again, is the very definition of arduous. Imagine making your way from a hut in the Alps to the fens of East Anglia, thence to the rough, undeveloped Orkney Islands and to the wilds of distant Iceland and Greenland, on foot and by sea – the latter, by means of a creaky vessel held together by skill and luck, under the oversight of a disfigured, uncouth, possibly double-crossing shipbuilder. And from the moment they leave his family's castle, Walter’s jealous stepbrother Drogo pursues them, as eager to halt their quest as they are to finish it.

That’s only half the story. On the route back, Vallon and company contend with Vikings, Lapps, difficult waterways, treacherous guides, and other obstacles from the natural and human realms. Two women join the party at different stops, which adds romantic tension, but they're still interlopers in what's clearly a male domain. During this harsh age, strength is no guarantee of survival.

In this whopping 658-page novel, the final goal remains in view throughout, but the danger of the moment is frequently more pressing. Fortunately for the adventuresome reader, there’s plenty of it to keep the plot moving ahead, and the ties between the men strengthen as their trek continues. The ever-changing environment is presented with a fierce immediacy that makes you feel like you’re braving the elements (and the enemy) right along with them.

The novel opens with a hanging, and this dark and haunting image sets the stage for what’s to come. Lyndon describes sights with stark, visceral language: “Dawn broke like blood percolating through dirty water.” But then, just as you start to feel overwhelmed by bleakness, the beauty of these remote places will catch at your heart. He writes of the northern aurora: “Down from the top of the heavens scrolled a gossamer curtain of pale green, its shifting drapes fringed with bands of purple. The folds undulated with a kind of beckoning motion, fading and returning.”

Such is the dilemma offered by this thrilling yet lyrical epic. Though you may be tempted to speed on through, many scenes are worth lingering over and savoring. Hawk Quest demands commitment but is worth the time invested.  Billed as “the ultimate historical adventure,” it does a good job fulfilling that promise.

Hawk Quest was published by Sphere, an imprint of Little Brown UK, in January at £12.99 in hardcover and trade paperback (same price; take your pick).  And yep, this is another chunkster for that challenge.

Monday, March 05, 2012

New review of Elliot Perlman's The Street Sweeper

My review of Elliot Perlman's The Street Sweeper, a 554-page epic spanning over a century of racial prejudice and its consequences, ran in today's Globe and Mail.  It's still early, but it's bound to make my list of favorites for 2012. 

If you decide to pick up the US edition instead, that one is 640 pages.  Either way, it more than qualifies for the Chunkster Challenge.  This makes four chunksters so far for me this year, and I'll be reviewing #5 later this week.

Friday, March 02, 2012

An interview with Julie K. Rose, author of Oleanna

Most novels about immigration tell of people who leave the old country for new opportunities in America.  Julie K. Rose's Oleanna, set in Norway in 1905, focuses instead on two women who stayed behind.

Oleanna Tollefsdatter Myklebost, the protagonist, was the author's great-great-aunt, and the novel takes her life as inspiration.  As it opens, she is in her late twenties. Her parents are dead, as are two of her sisters.  Seeing no future for himself in Norway, her brother John has followed another brother to the Dakotas to start a new life there.  Oleanna's only companions on her family's tiny farm in the Sunnfjord region of western Norway are her remaining sister, beautiful Elisabeth, whose fun-loving nature is tempered by the burden of their heavy responsibilities, and Elisabeth's active young son.

While Oleanna sees it as her duty to nurture the memories of her lost family members, she also finds herself drawn to her neighbor, Anders Samuelsson, who has a restless streak that attracts her. Despite his promises not to abandon her like others have, she isn't able to trust him fully.  Her stubbornness, loneliness, and strength appear vividly on the page, as does Norway's gorgeous and isolated fjord country.  The year 1905 is a pivotal time in Norway's history, and Oleanna incorporates how its break from Sweden instilled a sense of independence and pride in its people.  Rumors of these changes eventually reach rural western Norway, and they inspire the novel's characters to rethink their place in the world.

I'm always interested in reading historical novels set in unfamiliar places, so after Julie's guest post about her novel appeared here last year, I asked if she'd like to do an interview.  Oleanna is a wonderful book; I found myself captured by the richly described setting as well as Oleanna's internal struggle to decide where she really belongs.


What was it like to write a novel based on members of your family?

A little terrifying, to be honest! I was too young to remember meeting John, and I never met Elisabeth and Oleanna, but my mom did, and the impression I got from her was of two women who were talented and tough, as well as gentle and kind. They were the inspiration, and their spirits were the core of these characters, but ultimately the characters became their own people. Throughout the writing of the book, and now that it's out in the world, I've really wanted to do right by them.

Did you know from the beginning that you wanted to set Oleanna in 1905?

Actually, no. The characters came to me first, and then I fudged their ages (and John's emigration date) by a year or two in order to take advantage of the obvious dramatic possibilities of the separation of Norway and Sweden in 1905.

Last year, you wrote a wonderful guest post for this site that talked about the strong sense of place that historical novels can provide. Oleanna definitely makes the majesty of Norway's fjordland come alive, with the clear blue water of Lake Jølster, the mountains in the background, and the quiet isolation of the sisters' farm. In your author's note, you mention that you visited Norway in 2004. How much did this influence your decision to set a novel there?

It didn’t determine or decide the setting, but did it influence the strength of the visuals and the tone. Oleanna was always going to be set in Norway, because that's where they lived, and that's where our family mythology centered. I started writing Oleanna in 2006, so the trip was definitely fresh in my mind, and the feelings the place evoked were still very present in my heart. It's an absolutely magnificent country, such an incredible blend of the dramatic and the bucolic.

Plus, you read that the mountain villages and fjord communities are remote and isolated, and you say, "Yes, yes, remote and isolated." But seeing it in person, and seeing how remote and isolated it can be today, gives you just a glimpse of what it was like even 100 years ago. I'm so grateful that I was able to visit, because understanding the landscape is crucial to understanding Oleanna and her family.

It sounds like you'd had the idea for Oleanna in mind for some time. At what point did you decide that it was a novel that had to be written? What convinced you?

The idea for the book came to me very suddenly, in November 2006, with the image of Oleanna outside the saeter's cabin, her long blond hair being whipped by the wind. I'd never seen a photo of my great-great-aunt Oleanna (except in advanced age) so this was a surprise, to say the least. I won't say it was a mystical kind of visitation, but...well. She just appeared, and I couldn't turn my back on her. I'd never considered writing a book about them before, but the thought train had started, and I couldn't get off: why were Oleanna and Elisabeth still living together, alone on the farm, in the 1960s? Why did they never leave Norway? Why did John leave Norway? What were their lives like? What was it like to be left behind? I just couldn't shake them, and so over the course of five years, many drafts, and a lot of coffee, the book came to life.

Oleanna's sister Elisabeth gives their brother John a beautiful hand-decorated trunk before he leaves for America. Was this based on an heirloom from your family's history? What about the country's folk traditions inspires you?

Sadly, no, it's not based on a family heirloom, but on the trunks I saw at the Norsk Folkemuseum in Oslo and the Vesterheim's excellent online collection. The folk arts of Norway inspire me because they're beautiful, and something about their immediacy really speaks to me. They don't seem to strive for perfection, but for honest expression and emotion. I also love them because they represent a nearly unbroken line of tradition extending back over one thousand years, and that appeals to the history geek in me.

Elisabeth is a single mother who, in the beginning, resists the urge to marry. How typical is she for the time and place?

She's not typical, but not unheard of. Sexual mores in the lonely, isolated countryside were a bit more liberal, so the fact that she had sex was not unusual. In fact, the saeter (a farm's summer mountain meadows) was engrained in Norwegian consciousness as an erotic symbol, a place of trysts and a liminal place where the regular world touches the supernatural.*

The fact that she kept the baby once she got pregnant, and did not marry, was definitely more unusual. I think given the fact that she was lost in the middle of the pack of Myklebost children, she grew up with an unconventional and more liberal-minded mother, and the terrible losses she and Oleanna suffered, led her to cling to that which gave her some measure of peace, but also allowed her to be defiant in the face of the whims of fate.

* Dr. Ellen Rees, University of Oslo: "Domesticated Wilderness in Two Norwegian Children's Classics" (Scandinavian Studies; Spring 2011)

With your first sentence, you talk of how Oleanna was "beset by ghosts," referring to her inability to set aside her grief for her lost family members. The otherworldly has a gentle yet haunting presence in the novel, such as the flowers blooming out of season in the woods at her mother's gravesite, and Oleanna imagines seeing her late mother and sisters when she's ill with fever. Aside from these brief hints and glimpses, the novel reads as mainstream historical fiction. How did you decide how much of the fantastic to weave into the story?

The fantastic elements emerged very naturally from the story itself. Folk beliefs were still very much a part of life into the early 20th century, but there was a tension with the coming of the modern world into the mountains. I didn't want to put a spotlight on those beliefs, but fantastic elements in the book can be read as a nod to the times and beliefs passing away. They're also suggestive of Oleanna's mindset after so much loss.

What part of the research or writing process did you enjoy the most?

The research was such a joy, because it made sense of the stories and traditions that I had learned from my mom and grandmother. I particularly loved delving into the folk arts, and learning about the women's suffrage movement.

The writing process was difficult. I wrote (and edited, and rewrote) another novel, and made a start on two others, while I was writing Oleanna. The themes and characters were very close to the bone, and I needed to take breaks to get my brain recalibrated and come back with fresh eyes.

The three Myklebost siblings in Oleanna are very different. Did you relate more easily to any of them?

I could definitely relate to all three of them in different ways, but Oleanna is the character I can relate to most, which is probably why it took so darn long to write this novel.

Can you give any examples of how Oleanna's character developed or changed during the writing process -- or did you have her personality solidified in your mind early on?

It was a real journey, getting to know Oleanna and trying to understand her choices. The basic core of her personality was set from the start, as were her challenges and struggles, but what she ultimately did with them was something we discovered together. I tried always to put myself in her shoes, in her milieu, and not judge her choices or impose my mindset on her. It's sometimes a tough thing to do as a writer, especially with a character with whom you feel so strong a connection.


Julie K. Rose is an author of historical and mainstream fiction with a touch of the fantastic.  She is a longtime member of the Historical Novel Society and a former reviewer for the Historical Novels Review. She lives in the Bay Area and loves reading (especially Patrick O'Brian), watching episodes of Doctor Who, and enjoying the amazing natural beauty of Northern California. Oleanna, short-listed in the 2011 Faulkner-Wisdom literary competition, is her second novel.  It was published in January ($20.00 pb / $5.99 on Kindle, 341pp).