Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Book review: The General's Mistress, by Jo Graham

The nondescript title of Jo Graham’s fourth novel fits her heroine, a Dutch courtesan who becomes the lover, in turn, of three generals of the French Republic. However, Elzelina Ringeling would stand out as unique and memorable whatever one chooses to call her.

After discovering her indifferent husband married her for her dowry, Elza flees Amsterdam for Paris, in disguise as her late brother Charles. She agrees to become General Victor Moreau’s mistress if he’ll serve as her protector. Although their liaison satisfies her material needs and passionate nature, the red-haired man she had once glimpsed in a tarot reading continues to occupy her thoughts.

Elza adopts the name Ida St. Elme, “for the fire that illuminates everything and yet is nothing but illusion.” Her fortunes rise and fall, but with her beauty and wit, she’s never alone for long. Her path leads her to the theatre, to the world of the occult, and into the arms of a surprisingly attractive First Consul Bonaparte before she encounters her soul mate, Michel Ney, a man who accepts her for herself – her cross-dressing habits included. The expressive rendering of their supernatural connection gives the novel a haunting flavor, although references to their past lives may confuse readers unfamiliar with Graham’s previous books.

On one level, the novel reads as an entertaining and sexy fictional biography of a real-life adventuress who reveals her love affairs, life in post-revolutionary Parisian society, and excitement in following the French army. More than that, though, it’s a thoughtful exploration of the meaning of personal freedom. The General’s Mistress presents a world sailing bravely into the modern age, with Elza/Ida as its compass. With her determination to chart her own future, one feels she could inhabit our time as readily as her own.

The General's Mistress was published this month by Gallery at $16.00, or $18.99 in Canada (trade pb, 381pp).  This review first appeared in November's Historical Novels Review.  I enjoyed the read, and it also gave me a new appearance by Mme RĂ©camier to add to the cover art gallery.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Book review: The Gilded Lily, by Deborah Swift

Deborah Swift's second novel has a slightly different setting from her debut, The Lady's Slipper, but it's just as much of an involving page-turner. The Gilded Lily works as more of a spin-off than a direct sequel, so both can be read independently. For those who'd like to take a walk on the darker side of Restoration England in the company of well-realized female characters, these books are for you.

In The Lady's Slipper, the wild folkloric beauty of Westmorland in northern England is on full display. With The Gilded Lily, readers are taken from the countryside to the less affluent districts of a grimly evoked London in 1661, a place where, as one of the protagonists observes, “the poor were always hungry, for nothing grew here.” Corruption is rife, and truth is forced to hide beneath layers of artifice.

Ella Appleby may be the instigator of the novel’s action, but she's not really the heroine; that honor belongs to her younger, gentler sister, Sadie. After Ella discovers her married employer/lover, Thomas Ibbetson, has died unexpectedly, she takes off, but not without clearing his house of all its valuables, and convincing Sadie to help her.

The young women flee Westmorland and strike out for London, where they hope to blend into its masses of people and make a fresh start. Mr Ibbetson's identical twin, Titus, has caught their scent, though, and will stop at nothing to capture the "savage sisters" that robbed and (he believes) murdered his brother.

Having proven herself talentless at wig-making, beautiful, ambitious Ella attracts the notice of Jay Whitgift, a dashing pawnbroker's son who she hopes to entice into marrying her. He installs her as a salesgirl in his new salon, the Gilded Lily, which provides salves and ointments to London's most elegant ladies. Both Whitgift and his business have a dark and shifty side, though, and Ella finds herself caught up in both the surface glamour and his underhanded schemes.

Sadie attracts attention, too, of the unwanted kind... thanks to the large port-wine birthmark on her face. She is an admirable character, especially in the face of her sister's greed and cruelty. Ella has good reason to be bitter at rich folk, so while she may be difficult to like, her character isn’t completely unsympathetic. The desperate situation brings out realistic extremes in both sisters -- Ella's bossiness and Sadie's powerlessness -- and as their relationship turns bitter, Titus Ibbetson moves in to trap them, and danger erupts from an even more sinister venue.

There are a lot of viewpoints to follow, not just that of Sadie and Ella but also Ibbetson, one of Sadie's friends, Whitgift, and his elderly father, among others. This ensures a wide-ranging perspective on the events unfolding around them. The text has a good balance of dialog and description, which makes for a faster read than you'd expect for a chunkster-length novel. The characters’ language has an authentic period feel, and as Ella and Sadie come to discover what matters most, the plot speeds ahead toward a very satisfying conclusion.

The Gilded Lily will be published by St. Martin's Griffin on November 27th at $15.00 (trade pb, 471pp).  This review is part of the author's blog tour with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours. For more information on Deborah Swift and her novels, see her website at www.deborahswift.co.uk.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

A visual preview of the winter season: Downton Abbey readalike edition

In updating the Historical Novel Society's forthcoming books list, I read through a lot of publishers' catalogs.  Certain themes quickly became apparent therein: A number of historical novels for late 2012 through early 2013 are being promoted as good choices for Downton Abbey fans.  (And I'm one of them.  No spoilers on Season Three, please!)  These dozen titles are the focus of this latest visual preview.

With Downton being so enormously popular, publishers are pouncing on literary comparisons.  This doesn't mean these books are carbon copies of one another, though, or that authors are rushing to imitate the show... but if there are any similarities in topic, theme, or setting, you can bet they'll be noted.  Some titles recommended as readalikes, like Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs mysteries, have been around considerably longer than Downton. (There'll be a new Winspear next March, Leaving Everything Most Loved, but the cover isn't available yet.)

That said, if you're an author working on an Edwardian- or WWI-set novel, this may be the year to make that sale!

Most of all, this varied list demonstrates the many different tie-ins that can be made to Downton Abbey, something that interests me as a readers' advisor.  Some of the historical novels below are set in the same pre-WWI-through-1920s timeframe; other are sagas that dramatize the interaction between aristocrats and servants on a grand English estate.  Some emphasize the changing social fabric during wartime in the early 20th century, and for one or two, the main link between them and Downton is their joint focus on strong, capable (British) women. 

All of the titles below are US editions.  Also interestingly:  I've been through some UK catalogs as well, and don't see nearly as many Downton mentions!

In Victorian England, a poverty-stricken young woman seeking personal independence and a way to overcome troublesome incidents from her past takes a job at an exclusive seaside resort.  Check out the gorgeous period artwork at the author's Pinterest page.  Gallery, January.
Fast-moving biographical fiction about adventuress May Dugas, a notorious con artist and social climber in Gilded Age and 20th century America, London, and Shanghai.  Doubleday, January.
The first two books in a trilogy about three women, two aristocratic sisters and the governess's daughter they grew up with, adjusting to society's changing rules in pre-WWI England.  Gallery, January and March.
An upstairs-downstairs friendship turns to romance at a great English country house in 1914, as political winds are shifting towards war and a glorious era comes to an end.  Isn't this a gorgeous cover?  NAL, January.
Julian Fellowes wrote a blurb for this literary romance set amid the beautiful, unforgiving landscape and cruel diamond mining operations of 1880s South Africa. A young Englishwoman travels there to establish a new life and finds herself confronting social injustice.  Amy Einhorn, April.
A backlist title from 1979 gets reissued with a fresh new look to attract Downton fans; the next two volumes in the series will follow. The Passing Bells centers on the aristocratic Greville family of Abingdon Pryory as their world of elegant garden parties and debutante balls comes crashing to a halt as war breaks out in 1914. Rock died in 2004.  December, Morrow.
This debut novel by a well-known British historian is a romp through 18th-century London through the eyes of a young woman raised alongside her aristocratic cousins but who's forced to create a new life for herself on the streets. Grand Central, January. 
The grimly evoked post-WWI period in Charles Todd's long-running Ian Rutledge mystery series has obvious links for Downton viewers (who should also check out his standalone novel The Walnut Tree, which is out now).  In Proof of Guilt, a seeming hit-and-run accident turns into a murder investigation, but the victim's identity and place of death remain unknown.  Morrow, January.
First in a new trilogy from the Upstairs, Downstairs writer, Habits of the House examines the day-to-day lives of an aristocratic English family and their servants as the financially strapped Earl of Dilberne seeks to recoup his fortunes by marrying his son off to a Chicago heiress.  St. Martin's, January.
The lives of loves of the inhabitants of an English country mansion, from the original architect to its final owners in the present day, over the span of 240 years.  Simon & Schuster, January.
Willig takes an excursion away from her Pink Carnation series with this standalone novel that promises to "bring an Out of Africa feel to a Downton Abbey cast."  A modern-day lawyer learns a century's worth of family secrets in a tale that moves from 21st-century Manhattan to WWI England to 1920s Kenya. St. Martin's, April.

Update, Jan 2013:  For more Downton Abbey readalikes, see Part 2 of this post.

Monday, November 05, 2012

In which I read Jenny Barden's Mistress of the Sea

With a blurb describing it as an “epic, romantic swash-buckling adventure,” Jenny Barden’s debut Mistress of the Sea is a novel I’ve been eager to read. Back in August, as you may recall, Jenny had contributed an informative guest post about Francis Drake's expedition to Panama in 1570-73, in which he took revenge against the Spanish for their treacherous rout of the English fleet two years prior.

The exploration of New World lands – and the profits gained thereby, especially at the expense of the Spanish – contributed to the glory of the Elizabethan Golden Age. Despite this, the novel’s subject isn’t one that most aficionados of Tudor fiction will be familiar with, and its originality is all to the good. If you’re a reader who thirsts for adventure, wouldn’t you prefer to travel somewhere you’ve never been?  

While the backdrop is historically based, the main characters of Mistress of the Sea are fictional. Their story pivots upon a “what if” premise: Suppose a young woman took part in Drake’s voyage to Panama. What would her motives have been, and what would her experience have been like? What price would she pay for her impulsive act?  

Ellyn Cooksley, daughter of a wealthy Plymouth merchant in 1570, loves her irascible father but can’t see marrying either of the boorish suitors he tries to pair her with. Master Cooksley agrees to finance Drake and his privateers, but when he insists on joining them, Ellyn worries about his poor health. To help care for him, she stows away aboard Drake's ship, the Swan, in the garb of a cabin boy.  

If you anticipated a feminist scenario in which Ellyn successfully maintains her disguise and becomes an accepted member of their daring crew, you’d be much mistaken. While the men admire her beauty and respect her as their backer’s daughter, Ellyn is clearly a liability. In particular, Will Doonan, a master caulker and her family’s handsome lodger, feels let down by her presence. Will had dreamed of making his fortune and possibly winning Ellyn when he returned from sea, but now he starts questioning her judgment.  

Although he has sworn to support Drake, who is depicted as merciless in seeing their mission fulfilled, Will also has a more private reason for signing on. His brother Kit was captured by Spaniards on a previous Caribbean voyage, and Will means to avenge his loss. He has tough calls to make, since protecting Ellyn will pull him away from their plan.  

The prose has a calm confidence, balancing scenes of perilous escapades with others of thoughtful reflection while propelling readers smoothly through the exotic West Indies. The viewpoint switches from brave Ellyn, who is left behind with her ill father on a Caribbean island, to Will and Kit and then back again; this ensures a varied perspective while driving the story forward.

Will and Ellyn’s tender love story is no less passionate for its being chaste.  They also endure long periods of separation, but their growing bond is anchored in the spirit of the age. One gets a sense of the vastness of the world, as the Elizabethans would have perceived it, and the mysterious forces that nonetheless tie these lovers to one another. Their dialogue has a gentle Shakespearean lilt, and given the novel’s strong historical sense, exclamations like “What ho!” and “Go to!” and “Fie!” come out sounding natural.  

With its feminine spin, Mistress of the Sea invigorates a genre too often focused solely on brawny male exploits, but there’s plenty to satisfy fans of seafaring action, too. (And if you can’t distinguish a pinnace from a shallop, carrack, or caravel by the time you’re done, even with all the context provided, get thee to the glossary at the end of the book.) Whether you sign up for this journey in search of romance, high-stakes adventure, or just engaging entertainment, there’s something for most everyone here.  

Mistress of the Sea was published by Ebury/Random House UK in August at £14.99 (hardcover, 408pp). The author is a fellow member of the Historical Novel Society, whose recent London conference she coordinated (and ran flawlessly) – and where she gave a great presentation on how her book found a mainstream publisher. Her website is www.jennybarden.com.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Bits and pieces

Happy weekend!

The winner of the giveaway for Mary Sharratt's Illuminations is Shelly W.  Thanks to everyone who entered!  I've notified Shelly, and her copy of the book is en route.

Sarah Nagle, Collections Librarian at Carver County Library in Chaska, MN, has put together a great "World War II in Fact and Fiction" handout with two of her Minnesota library colleagues; it accompanied their program at the MN Library Association conference on October 5th.  If you haven't been able to find enough wartime fiction for yourself or your library's patrons, check out their thematically-arranged list... I'm sure there will be some that are new to you.

Reviews from the Historical Novels Review's November issue are up - all 305 of them. Over 30 reviews of indie titles are online as well.  The Historical Novel Society was founded in 1997, and for the cover story, a small number of longtime members shared their perspectives on the HNS on the occasion of its 15th birthday.  It was fun compiling that piece and hearing everyone's thoughts.

The next big thing in the book blogosphere is a meme called... The Next Big Thing.  Actually, it's been spreading for the last two months or so.  Authors, including many historical novelists, have been tagging one another to describe what their work-in-progress is about.  Here's a short collection of these posts. Check them out to see what's in the works.

M.M. Bennetts
Nancy Bilyeau
Debra Brown
Sandra Byrd
Michelle Cameron 
Christina Courtenay
Stephanie Cowell 
Heather Domin
Christy English
Elizabeth Caulfield Felt
Kate Forsyth
Jean Fullerton
Sandra Gulland
Liz Harris
Tinney Heath
Susan Keogh
Victoria Lamb
Lilian Nattel
Sophie Perinot
Teralyn Pilgrim
Kim Rendfeld
Julie K. Rose
Susan Spann
Deborah Swift
Kris Waldherr 
Lisa J. Yarde

If I'm missing any posts (of the historical fiction persuasion, that is), let me know in the comments!