Thursday, May 30, 2013

A look at Lighthouse Bay by Kimberley Freeman

Kimberley Freeman's Lighthouse Bay is an ideal summer book to relax with and immerse yourself in.  Even though I can't think who the woman on the cover is supposed to represent based on her appearance, she's not any of the three main characters the design does a good job conveying a sense of place and the story's intended effect on the mood of readers.

In Lighthouse Bay, a village on the coast of Queensland, Australia, three women who have lost a loved one are forced to make new lives for themselves, alone, while facing up to their pasts.

In 1901, Isabella Winterbourne's grief for her baby boy, who died three years earlier, is deemed excessive and unseemly by her husband and in-laws.  Over a century later, in 2011, Libby Slater can't publicly mourn her lover, Mark Winterbourne, because they had to keep their relationship hidden; he was married.  The third protagonist is Libby's estranged younger sister, Juliet. Although she has moved on in some ways from an old loss, although there's been no man in her life for many years.

Isabella's husband and Libby's lover are related, one being the great-great-uncle of the other, but otherwise there's no family connection between the women... although their stories are tied to the same picturesque seaside setting and through the resolution of a mystery dating from Isabella's time.

Isabella and her domineering husband Arthur, of the Winterbourne family of jewelers, are traveling from England to Australia to accompany a ceremonial mace gifted by Queen Victoria to the Australian Parliament in celebration of the country's federation  When their barque strikes a reef and breaks apart, leaving Isabella the only survivor, she rows herself ashore, gives herself a new identity, and plans to sell the gems from the mace to earn enough money to leave and find her sister in New York.

In alternating sections, Libby returns home to Lighthouse Bay after a 20-year absence, hoping to continue her life as a graphic designer and reconcile with her sister, Juliet.  The owner of a local B&B, Juliet has never forgiven Libby for something tragic that happened years ago.  To Lighthouse Bay's modern inhabitants, the lost treasure from the 1901 wreck of the Aurora has become a local legend.

Dual-period novels are all the rage now, and many of their authors generate suspense by moving swiftly between the two timelines; no sooner do we adjust to one character's story than we're jostled out of it and placed into the other era.  This isn't the case with Lighthouse Bay, and it makes for a smooth, engrossing journey.  Freeman gives her readers time to become intimately acquainted with Isabella's and Libby's experiences, letting us get familiar with each woman's personality and motivations before gently gliding, several chapters later, over to the other tale.

All three women make for sympathetic protagonists, although all have also made mistakes. Libby in particular has much to atone for: not just the rift with Juliet, but her past role as the "other woman."

Society life in each period is deftly sketched: the social strictures at the turn of the 20th century, which guide proper behavior and discourage cross-class liaisons; as well as the strength of community in the 21st century, as residents fight against the threat of resort developers who could destroy their peaceful small-town atmosphere.

There are several romantic subplots, although I won't spoil things by revealing the details.  Although tinted with melancholy, Lighthouse Bay is a satisfying and ultimately uplifting novel about the complexities of human relationships, artistic creativity, and how pain from the past must be acknowledged and addressed before it can be overcome.

Lighthouse Bay was published by Touchstone in April at $16, or $18.99 in Canada (trade pb, 416pp). Thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Book review and commentary: The Blood of Heaven, by Kent Wascom

Fueled by whiskey, vengeance, warped religiosity, and wild revolutionary zeal, a golden-haired ruffian and his two adopted brothers aim to fight their way to nation-building glory.  Wascom’s language, gorgeous, expressive, and raw, flawlessly matches his vision of the unruly southern frontier before it latched onto the United States.

The son of a Baptist preacher from Upper Louisiana, Angel Woolsack inherits his father’s biblical eloquence and violent tendencies and not only wields them with equal dexterity but liberally intertwines them. From Mississippi River flatboats to a Natchez whorehouse, his picaresque travels shape his mindset and introduce him to Samuel and Reuben Kemper, his partners in crime. His wife, Red Kate, a young woman carved from the same mold, is a similarly powerful presence.

For Angel, the West Florida territory, nominally ruled by the Spanish, is an opportunity to be grabbed, as are Aaron Burr’s dreams of forming an independent country. Seeing early nineteenth-century America through the eyes of an ambitious, trigger-happy renegade makes for an exhilarating yet brutal ride. Wascom imbues this underexplored era with visceral authenticity.


Kent Wascom's The Blood of Heaven was published today by Grove in hardcover at $25 (432pp).  I read it back in early March, and the review above was published in Booklist's annual historical fiction issue on April 15th. As I had just 175 words to work with (and I always make use of every single one), here are some more personal comments:

(1) If I were to divide books into two categories, the first being "my usual type of book" and the second being everything else, this one would fall into the latter group.  This is fine, and this is also why I like reviewing... it drags me out of my comfort zone.

(2) Every review copy comes with endorsements from other writers that trumpet its praises, we know that, but this one arrived with the most jaw-droppingly extraordinary blurbs I've read.  I found myself reading them over and over in fascination, mostly for the imagery they created.  Go ahead, take a look for yourself.

(3) Samuel and Reuben Kemper were real people; I hadn't heard of them before and am unlikely to forget them now.

(4) This is a novel I greatly admired for many reasons, but whether I enjoyed it is a more difficult question to answer.  In parts, I did; the language, for instance, and how perfectly it matched the main character, setting, and tone. (And this isn't something I especially look for, myself, but if you're one of those who reads novels in order to find friends... well, keep looking.)  The level of violence didn't appeal to me personally, but those who like their frontier fiction served authentically bloody and grim should grab this book immediately.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Contest winners and BEA historical fiction updates

Although it's been quiet here on the blog over the past week, I've been busy updating the list of Historical Fiction Picks at BEA as new information came out  Click on over to see the additions.  There are many items marked with the -new- designation, which makes the list almost twice as long as it was before.

Congratulations to the winners of two recent giveaways:

Sarah Kennedy's The Altarpiece will be going to Beth M.
Copies of Tony Hays' The Divine Sacrifice have gone out to Chris K. and Linda B.

Thanks to all who entered!

Monday, May 20, 2013

A Novel Bibliography: A Gallery of Royals and Nobles

I'm a longtime reader and collector of historical fiction with members of royal and noble families as major characters.  It's not so much the pomp and pageantry I enjoy reading about (although check out the glamorous gowns in the covers below...) but seeing how each character deals with power and responsibility and balances the needs of their people against their personal desires.  These authors place us front and center, letting us observe how their protagonists' actions shaped the history of their country.

Here I present a gallery of 27 novels fitting this description being published in 2013, ones I haven't previously covered this year (see also Patricia Bracewell's Shadow on the Crown, Sandra Byrd's Roses Have Thorns, and Anne Easter Smith's Royal Mistress).  Although they may not be royal or noble themselves, illegitimate children, hand-fasted wives, and royal mistresses are included in this list, too.  Undoubtedly I've been forgetful and left some obvious choices out; please let me know what I'm missing.

In order:

An alternate history of the Tudors (Ballantine, May)
Bess of Hardwick, Countess of Shrewsbury (Berkley, July)
Eleanor of Aquitaine, first in a new trilogy (Sphere, June)

Cleopatra Selene, Queen of Mauretania, last in a trilogy (NAL, Dec)
Philip IV of France, 1st in classic series (HarperCollins, Mar)
Audrey Malte, illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII (Gallery, Sept)

Catherine of Aragon (St. Martin's, Oct)
Katherine Parr (Simon & Schuster, Aug)
Lady Godiva, wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia (William Morrow, July)

Queen Jezebel (David C. Cook, May)
Elizabeth I Spymaster Chronicles, book 2 (St. Martin's Griffin, July)
Elizabeth of York, queen to Henry VII (Touchstone, Aug)

Marie Antoinette, book 3 in trilogy (Ballantine, Sept)
Elizabeth Tudor as sleuth, 3rd in series (Five Star, June)
Catherine de Valois, Henry V's queen, follows Agincourt Bride (Harper UK, Oct)

Yolande of Aragon, Duchess of Anjou (Constable, Oct)
Elizabeth I & Mary Q of Scots; 5th in Thornleigh saga (Kensington, May)
Alternate history of the Romanovs (St. Martin's Griffin, Oct)

Elizabeth I, Robert Dudley, and singer Lucy Morgan (Berkley, Feb)
Croesus, King of Lydia in the 6th century BC (Atlantic UK, Apr)
Mary Robinson, mistress to the future George IV (Severn House, June)

Edith Swan-Neck, handfasted wife of Harold II (Accent, May)
Katherine de Valois, queen of Henry V (MIRA UK, Mar)
Magda Lupescu, mistress of Carol II of Romania (Severn House, Aug)

Katherine and Mary Grey, Tudor heiresses (Kensington, June)
Prince Jayavar of the Khmer Empire in 12th-c Cambodia (NAL, Feb)
Theodora, Empress of Byzantium (NAL, July)

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Book review: The Bookman's Tale: A Novel of Obsession, by Charlie Lovett

Lovett’s enjoyable homage to books and bookishness opens, fittingly, in that literary magnet known as Hay-on-Wye in Wales. In 1995, Peter Byerly, an American book dealer, is living in Oxfordshire after the death of his beloved wife, Amanda. She had served as the link between her shy husband and the social world he dreaded, and now, depressed and lonely, he buries himself in his career. When he finds a Victorian watercolor bearing Amanda’s likeness tucked into an old bookshop volume about Shakespearean forgeries, Peter gets pulled into solving two interrelated mysteries: learning more about the mysterious woman, and finding indisputable proof of the identity of England’s greatest playwright.

The narrative jumps between Peter’s investigation and his touching romance with Amanda in the 1980s, which unfolds in a North Carolina university library. In intervening segments, the plot also dramatizes the lives of the successive owners of a long-lost text, Robert Greene’s Pandosto, which inspired one of Shakespeare’s last plays. The boisterousness of London’s Southwark is shown to good effect in the story of Bartholomew Harbottle, a bookseller who counts many Elizabethan dramatists as his drinking buddies. Not all of the subsequent historical scenes are as interesting; although it’s critical to the puzzle, the final tale of Victorian rivalries feels slightly superficial in comparison. However, anyone who loves literature should like seeing how a book’s provenance comes to life.

Tomb-robbing, blackmail, family secrets, and murder all play a part in this complex work, and with the help of some fortunate coincidences, the pieces all lock together. Lovett, a former antiquarian book dealer, obviously knows his stuff, and his readers will get a fun education in the rare book trade. With its comfortable style, The Bookman’s Tale is more charming than suspenseful, but just as one would hope for with a novel about books, it’s a pleasure to read.

The Bookman's Tale will appear on May 28th from Viking ($27.95/C$29.50, hb, 352pp).  Alma Books publishes it in the UK in July (£7.99). This was one I chose to cover for May's Historical Novels Review.  It was just picked as the latest title in the Barnes & Noble Recommends program, so expect to see a lot of it at your local B&N.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Nuns and Mothers: A guest post by Sarah Kennedy, author of the Altarpiece (plus giveaway)

Sarah Kennedy, author of The Altarpiece, is here at the blog today with a thoughtful essay about the concept of motherhood in Renaissance convents.  Her main character, Catherine Havens, is a nun in remote northern Yorkshire during a perilous time: Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries.  Catherine and a fellow sister come under suspicion when their priory's altarpiece disappears. 

The Altarpiece (Knox Robinson, March 2013, $25.99) is the first novel in the Crown and Cross series.  We have a giveaway opportunity at the end as well (for US readers).


Nuns and Mothers
Sarah Kennedy

When I created Catherine Havens, the main character of The Altarpiece, I made her parentage uncertain. She’s lived her whole life in the convent, under the eyes of the prioress, Christina, and the oldest nun, Veronica. I wanted Catherine’s life to be woman-centered as a way of rethinking the roles of parents in Renaissance Europe.

Most Early Modern women were governed by their fathers and husbands, but life in the convent could be the exception. We sometimes think of convent life as constrained, and of course it was controlled and demanding. But in addition to providing (1) an escape from unwanted marriage, (2) some safety from contagious disease, (3) an opportunity for education beyond the traditional female accomplishments of sewing and music, and (4) positions of real power, nunneries made the mother the primary parent.

The Father was still present, but God the Father was in heaven rather than the next room. Every convent required the services of at least one priest, but he neither lived within their walls nor oversaw much of the daily administration. The Husband of these “brides of Christ” was also in heaven and was always perfect, mild, and loving.

But the Mother? The second parent in the secular world, she was dominant in the convent in the figure of the abbess or the prioress. In heaven, the Mother of God was a compassionate and accessible figure. If God dealt punishment to sinners, Mary might be petitioned to intervene on behalf of His suffering children. Even Jesus was seen as a mother, most famously by the mystic Julian of Norwich. In my convent, the titular altarpiece features an image of Mary, and this would not have been unusual. Catherine has, as she says, “prayed under Her eyes” all of her life. It should be no surprise, then, that Catherine believes that she can make decisions about her beliefs and her desires without consulting a father.

Some abbesses no doubt took advantage of their power (Hildegard of Bingen was notoriously cruel to novices and lay sisters), but a good Mother had more influence than anyone else in the convent. Not every nun could aspire to her authority, but the precedent was there, and women did find expressions of their creative, political, and personal ambitions through the female hierarchy of the pre-Reformation convents, as Catherine does in her work as a healer and a compiler of medical books.

The critic Joan Kelly, back in 1977, provocatively asked whether women had a Renaissance. She concluded that while men were exploring the “new learning,” Protestant women were relegated to secondary positions—with no respectable alternative. Husbands were recast as domestic religious authorities in the place of priests. Unmarried women were condemned, as Shakespeare’s Beatrice says, to “lead apes in hell.”

And this is, in part, why the notion of the Mother is so important to my nun. She’s Mother of God and living woman, model of power and learning. The ideal Protestant mother soon became the “angel in the house”: submissive, selfless, and silent. She was perfectly secondary, which, of course, no real woman is. What I wanted to recreate was a complex, true set of Mothers who work and love and, yes, sin as all of us do, even in the house of God.


Credit: Sarah Kennedy
Sarah Kennedy is a professor of English at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia and the author of seven books of poems.

She holds a PhD in Renaissance Literature and an MFA in Creative Writing.

Sarah has received grants from both the National Endowment for the Arts and the Virginia Commission for the Arts and is currently a contributing editor for Shenandoah.

Sarah will publish a series of novels with Knox Robinson centering around the sixteenth century closure of the monasteries and convents of England by King Henry VIII.  Visit her website at

For a chance to win a copy of The Altarpiece (to be mailed out by the author's publicist), please fill out the form below.  Open to US readers.  The winner will be selected by the random number generator at; deadline Friday, May 24th.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Book review: Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, by Therese Anne Fowler

An intimate portrait of a flamboyantly public marriage, Z imagines Zelda Fitzgerald’s voice in this exhilarating account of a life lived in decadent, full color. During the Jazz Age, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald personified the era’s reckless abandon. Their decades-long love story played out in New York and Europe as they attended parties, spent wads of cash, and fought their inner demons and each other as they struggled to create art of their own. Their union derailed into excessive drinking (his), mental illness (hers), and mutual accusations of thwarted ambition. It’s clear from the beginning that the momentum could never have lasted, but the telling makes for great escapism.

Zelda narrates her own tale, beginning as an uninhibited Alabama teenager and moving through her marriage to an ambitious, as-yet-unknown writer, their years of notoriety, the birth of daughter Scottie, and their final tragic decline. Perhaps Fowler has filed some edges off the real Zelda’s personality to make her more sympathetic, but her daring and confidence still leap from the page.

The characterization avoids stereotypes, and all the name-dropping is done with purpose. Their social circle includes H. L. Mencken, Cole Porter, and Ernest Hemingway, the latter an attention-seeking “extra-manly man” whose complicated relationship with both Fitzgeralds is envisioned brilliantly (and controversially, no doubt). No major segments of their marriage are omitted, but the plot has a constant forward motion that ensures the reading is never dull.

The novel deftly explores the uneasy intersections between literature and real life, with Zelda embodying the brashness and style of Scott’s flapper heroines, and Zelda’s uphill battle for artistic acceptance is convincing and heartfelt. To earn them more money, her published writings were often credited at least partially to him, which she was deeply conflicted about – understandably so. With her engrossing novel about an unconventional heroine, Fowler makes a persuasive case that Zelda deserves to stand in her own spotlight.

This review was written up for May's Historical Novels Review, which was a spur-of-the-moment decision.  I had gotten a galley from a Shelf Awareness ad and picked it up after finishing several rather intense literary novels. I was eager to learn more about Zelda and be entertained. Then I got sucked into the story, and after determining that HNR hadn't gotten a copy of the book yet, I figured I should review it.

Therese Anne Fowler's Z was published by St. Martin's Press in April ($25.99/C$29.99, hb, 375pp).

Monday, May 13, 2013

Why Nadya—but not Wallis? A guest post by Kat Meads, author of For You, Madam Lenin

Why do some subjects lend themselves well to fictional treatment while others don't?  This, of course, is a question that all novelists must work out for themselves.  Kat Meads is visiting the blog today with an essay that explores this complex issue and provides insight into her own decision-making process.

Kat's novel For You, Madam Lenin examines the life of Nadya Krupskaya, a Bolshevik revolutionary who married her fellow comrade Vladimir Lenin.  Reviewing for the Historical Novels Review, Elena Maria Vidal wrote:  "Kat Meads' exquisite prose brings to life one of the most determined and enigmatic women in history in a story which exemplifies with irony, pathos and dark humor that there is no tragedy like a Russian tragedy."  For You, Madam Lenin recently took home a silver medal in the IPPY Awards and was a finalist for the ForeWord Book of the Year. 


Why Nadya—but not Wallis? 
Kat Meads

I spent eight years and then some researching, writing, revising and publishing For You, Madam Lenin (Livingston Press, 2012), a novel whose principal characters are Nadya Krupskaya and her mother, Yelizaveta (not the more famous fellow they hung about with). The novel I spent three years researching, outlining, starting, stopping and brooding over was supposed to feature Wallis Warfield Spencer Simpson Windsor, a woman who became, in the course of her lifetime, a personage at least as famous as the fellow who renounced the throne on her behalf.

Which made and makes me wonder: did degree of real-life famousness turn out to be a deciding factor in which character I kept with, which novel I finished and which I scuttled?

A story too well known, too familiar, resisting fictional recast?

Makes sense.

Because if the historical record has already revealed the secrets, exposed the dark corners, filled in the missing blanks, there would be—would have to be—fewer mysteries going in, less need to invent, less incentive, one might say, for the fictioneer to whip up fiction.

Did Wallis Windsor’s universal notoriety ultimately put me off my own project?

I don’t think it helped.

In retrospect, I honestly don’t think it did.

Prior to starting in on Madam Lenin, I do remember this motivator: write a “bigger” novel. Bigger in terms of page count, character count, narrative scope, narrative time. My previous novels’ timeframes were fairly limited. The Invented Life of Kitty Duncan covers twenty years, give or take; Sleep, a few months; when the dust finally settles, a few weeks. Madam Lenin’s plot is driven by 50-odd years of turbulent Russian history and peopled by three times as many characters as my usual fictional cast. It’s a book that starts in the 1890s, that takes place in countries not my own, a book about revolution(s). Revolutions are not solitary affairs. Anytime I wanted a break from writing about Nadya K, I could write about Inessa Armand, Nadya’s comrade and rival for Lenin’s affections. Or about Fanny Kaplan, the woman accused of shooting Lenin in 1918. Or about the tsarina. Or, or, or. In the Wallis novel as conceived, Wallis was front and center, dominating every page.

Did I lose faith in that singular focus, grow tired of the company of the self-absorbed Wallis?

Maybe so.

The writer James Houston once told me: “One of the things young writers don’t understand is that you have to enjoy your own company. You have to be okay with being alone at your desk for long stretches of time.”

I’d add to that you have to be okay with spending long stretches with your characters. You don’t have to like them, but they do have to hold your interest. Because if they don’t hold your interest, what chance do they have of holding a reader’s?

No chance is the definitive answer to that.

When I sift through the whys of my original attraction to Nadya Krupskaya and Wallis Warfield as characters, the list turns up a few similarities, a few stark differences. Nadya Krupskaya was a politically radical, politically committed female, young and old. Wallis Warfield was a Southerner turned duchess, petrified of poverty, young and old. Both were intent on changing something: Nadya, a country; Wallis, the uncertain nature of her own future. Both women were exceedingly skilled at holding grudges. Both, young and younger, had lost their fathers, an absence that intensified their relationships with their mothers. I have long written about mothers and daughters. I am Southern. And yet I was only able to go the distance with the Russian mother/daughter pair, not my regional affiliates.

Was it a matter of perseverance, determination, grit and grind? If I’d kept pushing my Wallis idea, would I eventually have figured out a way to write my unwritten novel?


More importantly: would I have been satisfied with the result?

More doubtful still.

Even now, when I think of Wallis Warfield Windsor, I recall what others have written about her—not my ideas, my notion of spin. I was never able to make/remake Wallis into “my” character, my “creature.” Wallis resisted my manipulations. She stubbornly remained Wallis, a woman in history.

Nadya Krupskaya?

The flesh and blood NK who inspired the novel?

She’s gone. Utterly displaced and replaced by NK The Character in my head. Ask me anything about NK The Character, and I’ll answer promptly. Ask one of those “Did that really happen?” questions and I’m likely to hem and haw. Because, frankly, I can no longer easily remember what is true and what I invented. The same applies to Russian Revolution specifics. Once upon a time, I could do fair justice to Edmund Wilson’s account of the Bolsheviks’ reception at Finland Station; now I’m a For You, Madam Lenin expert, period.

Safe to say: for me to claim to know a novel inside out, upside down, sideways and aslant, that novel has to exist.

And that, at least, the Madam does.

She does exist.

For You, Madam Lenin was published by Livingston Press of the University of West Alabama in October 2012 ($19.99, trade pb, 283pp).  Find it on Goodreads and on Amazon.  Visit Kat Meads' website at

Friday, May 10, 2013

Historical fiction picks at BEA 2013

Update:  This post was last updated May 25th with new info from Library Journal's fabulous BEA Galley and Signing Guide, compiled by Barbara Hoffert.  Previously updated May 22nd with Random House's BEA schedule and earlier with Kirkus Reviews' BEA Issue and Publishers Lunch's Buzz Books 2013 guide.  New entries are marked with ~new~. 

Here we are with our annual look at the historical novels being promoted at BEA in a few weeks.  There are a lot of them for 2013 this isn't always the case and I'm writing this post with deep envy because I won't be there myself (sob!).  I'll be attending HNS and ALA, though, and figured two conferences in the same month was my limit.  I hope the publishers will be saving some of these galleys for the library crowd in late June...

This post will be updated when new listings are posted at the BEA site and if/when Library Journal's galley guide is released, so watch this space.  For now, I'm basing my listings on the BEA Show Planner, which is its usual cumbersome self, and the "galleys to grab" articles and ads in the 4/29 Publishers Weekly.  I've added blurbs, booth numbers, stuff like that.  For authors with historical novels at BEA who I neglected to include, please leave a note in the comments or drop me an email.  As always, I recommend cross-checking these dates/times with the BEA site or your program book before hitting the show to avoid possible disappointment.

For those of you who will be at BEA, have a great time!

~Galleys to Grab~

Algonquin (booth 839)
Lee Smith, Guests on Earth - literary fiction about a young woman in a '30s North Carolina mental institution, where she meets Zelda Fitzgerald. Oct.

Bellevue Literary Press (booth 1105B)
Melissa Pritchard, Palmerino - literary fiction about Vernon Lee (nee Violet Paget), supernatural fiction writer, set a century ago and today.  Jan '14.

Counterpoint (booth 1335)
Lily Brett, Lola Bensky - an  Australian rock journalist hits the London music scene in 1967.  Sept.

Farrar Straus & Giroux (booth 1557)
Nicola Griffith, Hild - literary biographical novel of St. Hilda of Whitby in 7th-century England, from a multi-award winning writer.  Nov.

~new~ Grove/Atlantic (booth 1321)
Robert Olen Butler, The Star of Istanbul - "a Christopher Marlowe Cobb thriller" (in the same series as his The Hot Country) set during WWI.

Hachette (booth 1829)
Hannah Kent, Burial Rites - literary fiction surrounding a woman accused of murder in 1829 Iceland; debut novel based on a true story.  Little, Brown, Sept.
Kathleen Kent, The Outcasts - a woman on the run in the 19th-century West, from the author of The Heretic's Daughter and The Traitor's Wife/The Wolves of Andover.  Little, Brown, Oct.
~new~ Leila Meacham, Somerset - multigenerational saga set in Texas, prequel to Roses.  Grand Central, Nov.
~new~ Kim Stanley Robinson, Shaman - a young man's coming of age and a tale of prehistoric life 30,000 years ago.  Orbit, Sept.
C.J. Sansom, Dominion - alternate history set in the 1950s in which the Nazis rule Britain. Mulholland, Jan '14.
~new~ Rachel Urquhart, The Visionist - a teenage girl seeks refuge in a Shaker community in the 1840s.  Little Brown, Jan '14.
~new~ Daniel Woodrell, The Maid's Version - a deadly dance hall fire in 1929 Missouri and its long-term repercussions. Little, Brown, Sept.

Harlequin (booth 1238-39)
Loretta Nyhan and Suzanne Hayes, I'll Be Seeing You - epistolary WWII novel. May.
Shona Patel, Teatime for the Firefly - love story set amid India's tea plantations in the '40s.  Sept.

HarperCollins (booth 2038-39)
Amy Tan, The Valley of Amazement - three generations of women, from 19th-century San Francisco to turn-of-the-century Shanghai and after.  Tan will be speaking at the Library Journal Day of Dialog.  Nov.
Simon Van Booy, The Illusion of Separateness - one man's act of mercy during WWII changes many lives.  June.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (booth 1657)
Oliver Poetzsch, The Ludwig Conspiracy - modern mystery surrounding Ludwig, the late 19th-century "mad king" of Bavaria. Sept.

Milkweed (booth 1333A)
Larry Watson, Let Him Go - literary fiction set in 1952 North Dakota; a  retired sheriff and his wife go after their missing grandson.  Sept.

Other Press (booth 2839) - galleys are limited, so go early!
~new~ John Boyne, This House is Haunted - classic 19th-century English ghost story.  Oct.
~new~  John Milliken Thompson, Love and Lament - literary fiction set in post-Civil War North Carolina. See details on his signing below.
~new~ Sam Toperoff, Lillian and Dash - imagines the 30-year affair between Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman.  July.

Overlook (booth 1509)
Andrew Rosenheim, The Little Tokyo Informant -WWII thriller set just before Pearl Harbor.  Sept.

Penguin (booth 1520-21)
~new~ Jillian Cantor, Margot - literary alternate history imagining that Anne Frank's sister, Margot, survived the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and came to America.  Giveaways Thursday and Friday at 2pm.
~new~ Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things - a sweeping epic about a female botanist in 19th-century America and beyond.  Viking, Oct.  She will be doing a BEA signing (Friday at 2pm).  Giveaways on Thursday and Friday mornings at 9am.
Sarah Jio, Morning Glory - dual-period mystery set in a Seattle houseboat community in 1959 and today.  Plume, Dec. 

Random House (booth 2739) - Most of these authors will be signing at BEA.  See section below for times.
Jo Baker, Longbourn - a reimagining of Pride & Prejudice from the servants' viewpoint. Knopf, Oct.
Rhidian Brook, The Aftermath - literary fiction about British-German relations set in a defeated Hamburg, Germany, after WWII.  Knopf, Sept.
Jamie Ford, Songs of Willow Frost - mother-son story in 1920s & Depression-era Seattle.  Ballantine, Sept. 
~new~ Diana Gabaldon, pre-pub booklet with first seven chapters of Written in My Own Heart's Blood.  Giveaway June 1st.
Nancy Horan, Under the Wide and Starry Sky - Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife, from the author of the bestselling Loving Frank.  Ballantine, Jan '14.
~new~ Jonathan Lethem, Dissident Gardens - "an epic yet intimate family saga about three generations of all-American radicals."  Doubleday, Sept.
Colum McCann, Transatlantic - three transatlantic crossings, spanning two centuries, linked by three women.  Random House, June.
~new~ Hanya Yanigihara, The People in the Trees - anthropological adventure and its tragic aftereffects as cultures clash in 1950s Micronesia.  Doubleday, Sept.

St. Martin's Press (booth 1556-57)
~new~ Diane Chamberlain, Necessary Lies - on a small North Carolina tobacco farm 50 years ago, long-held family secrets begin to erupt.  Sept.

Simon & Schuster (booth 2638-39)
Lynn Cullen, Mrs. Poe - on Frances Osgood's affair with the famed writer.  Gallery, Sept.
Thomas Keneally, Daughters of Mars - Australian nurses in WWI Europe.  Atria, Sept.
Kate Manning, My Notorious Life - a controversial midwife in 19th-century NYC.  Scribner, Sept.
~new~ Jayne Anne Phillips, Quiet Dell - literary crime novel about a Depression-era con man that preyed on widows, based on a true story. Scribner, Oct.
Indu Sundaresan, The Mountain of Light - epic novel about diamond hunters in Victorian India.  Atria, Oct.

Soho (booth 2847)
~new~ James R. Benn, A Blind Goddess - latest in the WWII mystery series featuring Billy Boyle. Sept.

Sourcebooks (booth 829)
Charles Belfoure, The Paris Architect - an architect reluctantly helps hide Jews from the Nazis in occupied Paris.  Oct. ~new~ Galley giveaway time: Thursday at noon.

W.W. Norton (booth 1920-21)
P.S. Duffy, The Cartographer of No Man's Land - literary fiction about a family divided by WWI, set in Nova Scotia and France.  Liveright, Nov.
~new~ Charles Palliser, Rustication - Gothic epic set in 1863 England.  Nov.

~Author Signings~

Note: Table signings are in the traditional autographing area in the back of the exhibit hall.  Booth signings are at the publishers' booths in the main exhibit area.

Thursday, May 30th

Kathleen Kent, The Outcasts - see above under Little, Brown. (table 1)
~new~ Nancy Horan, Under the Wide and Starry Sky - see above under Random House. (booth 2739)

Noon-12:30pm (table 15)
Simon Van Booy, The Illusion of Separateness - see above under HarperCollins.

~new~ Noon-1pm (booth 2739)
Dennis McFarland, Nostalgia - literary Civil War novel.

1-1:30pm (table 2)
Annapurna Potluri, The Grammarian - a French linguist travels to 1911 India and runs into a cultural divide.  See my review.  Feb '13 (already out).

1-2pm (table 14)
Sarah Jio, The Last Camellia - dual-period mystery (WWII and modern day) surrounding a rare flower found on an English country estate.  Plume, May.

~new~1:30pm-2:30pm (booth 2739)
Jonathan Lethem, Dissident Gardens - see above under Random House.

~new~ 3-3:30pm (booth 2893)
John MillikenThompson, Love and Lament - literary fiction set in post-Civil War North Carolina.  Other Press, June.

3-4pm (table 7)
Shona Patel, Teatime for the Firefly - see above under Harlequin.

Friday, May 31st

9-10am (booth 2739, Random House)
~new~ Rhidian Brook, The Aftermath - see above under Random House.
~new~ Jo Baker, Longbourn - ditto

10-10:30am (table 15)
Philipp Meyer, The Son -"An epic, multigenerational saga of power, blood, and land" beginning in 19th-century Texas.  Ecco, June.

~new~ Shona Patel, Teatime for the Firefly - see above under Harlequin. (booth 1238-39, Harlequin)
~new~ Jamie Ford, Songs of Willow Frost - see above under Random House.  (booth 2739, Random House)

10:30am (booth 839, Algonquin)
Lee Smith, Guests on Earth - see above.

Elizabeth Wein, Rose Under Fire - the companion novel to Code Name Verity.  Not just for YAs.  Disney-Hyperion, Sept. (table 4)
Maile Meloy, The Apprentices, sequel to The Apothecary, which was YA fiction set in Cold War London.  Putnam, June. (table 21)

11:30am (booth 1321, Grove/Atlantic)
Kent Wascom, The Blood of Heaven - literary epic of the southern frontier in the early 19th century.  June.

1-2pm (table 3)
Larry Watson, Let Him Go - see above under Milkweed.

1:45pm (booth 2551)
~new~ Lyndsay Faye, The Gods of Gotham and Seven for a Secret, both from Putnam, at the Mystery Writers of America booth.

Jack Gantos, From Norvelt to Nowhere - sequel to his Newbery-winning Dead End in Norvelt.  YA.  FSG, Sept.  (table 23)
Kirby Larson, Duke - WWII story about a boy and his dog. Ages 8 and up. Scholastic, Aug. (table 16)
~new~ Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things - at Penguin booth (1520-21).

~new~ Nicola Griffith, Hild - see above under Farrar Straus & Giroux.  (booth 1557, FSG)

2:30-3pm (table 9)
M.J. Rose, Seduction - multi-period suspense involving Victor Hugo's lost journal.  MIRA, May.

3pm-4pm (table 16)
Eliot Pattison, Bone Rattler - historical mystery set aboard a prison ship bound for the American colonies. Counterpoint (this has been out for a while; I wonder if this is the correct title).

Saturday, June 1st

10am (booth 1509, Algonquin)
Peter Quinn, Dry Bones - literary WWII thriller about an ill-fated OSS mission into the heart of the Eastern front.

~new~ 11:30am-12:30pm (booth 2739, Random House)
Diana Gabaldon, Written in My Own Heart's Blood - see above under Random House (reportedly pre-pub booklet with first seven chapters)

~new~ 12-1pm (booth 2739, Random House)
Colum McCann, Transatlantic - see above under publisher.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

An interview with Anne Easter Smith, author of Royal Mistress

Historical novelist Anne Easter Smith is passionate about her chosen era: the 15th-century Wars of the Roses.  Whether you're reading one of her novels or speaking with her for an interview, as here, it's easy to get caught up in her enthusiasm.  Her newest biographical novel Royal Mistress introduces readers to Elizabeth "Jane" Shore, a beautiful and spirited silk merchant's daughter who becomes Edward IV's last and favorite mistress.

In true epic fashion, Anne interweaves the viewpoints not only of Jane but of many others in the royal circle to give readers a wide-ranging look at these characters and the tumultuous times they lived through.  Jane is a determined survivor whose good-hearted nature captures the heart of several high-ranking men and also makes her a fun and sympathetic heroine to follow on her adventures.  With Royal Mistress just published, I took the opportunity to ask Anne some questions about her characters, the history, and the writing process. 

This is your 5th historical novel set during the Wars of the Roses, and you're obviously very comfortable with the period and its major players. As you were writing Royal Mistress, did you find your characters even ones you've written about before were still able to surprise you?

They always do, thank goodness, or I would be bored writing about them! In Royal Mistress it was Richard of Gloucester "my Richard" I call him who surprised me. I had to see him through Jane’s eyes, and he was not very kind to Jane for his own rational reasons, although others saw it differently. William Hastings also surprised me, because though I knew he was always loyal to Edward, I had always found him rather pompous and certainly lecherous. He ended up being the most genuine in his love for Jane.

On account of his impotence, Jane attempts to secure an annulment from her husband William Shore through the church. While a valid option, this must have been an unusual step for a woman of her era to take. How unusual was it? Are there other examples you can point to?

Jane Shore, late 18th-century portrait
You are right. It was very unusual, and because there is no record that Jane and William were submitted to “the test,” we believe Edward may have smoothed the way for Jane. However, the record shows that Jane did appeal to the church for an annulment and it was granted three months later. Even though it might seem women had no rights back then, their marriage vows did entitle them to an expectation of marital intimacy and the chance of motherhood. The test for impotence I mentioned is detailed in the 12th-century lawbook written by Thomas of Chobham that was still consulted, and requires that a certain number of wise matrons surround a couple’s bed and watch while the wife tries to arouse her husband. If the effort proves futile, then the wife is given the go-ahead to petition the church for the annulment.

Jane takes pride in her status as a freewoman of the City of London. What privileges or rights would this have entitled her to?

I’m borrowing information that I found during a visit to the wonderful Museum of London. If you haven’t discovered it yet, you should!

“Freemen, or women, in London were were a privileged class; it is estimated that only about 1 in 4 of London men was a freeman. You became a freeman either by being born to parents who were one, by completing a trade apprenticeship, through paying a sum of money or, if you were a woman, by marrying a freeman. The rights of freemen and women included setting up a shop or running a business within the City.”

I also found that one of the privileges was they could choose where they were imprisoned.

Jane is good-hearted, loving, sensual, witty, and beautiful, and she doesn't make unreasonable demands on King Edward. She's known throughout London for using her position to help the less fortunate, and she does her best to stay away from politics and the queen! Would you consider her an ideal royal mistress, or is there such a thing?

I would say she was an ideal mistress. She was not “kept” at the palace and so the queen did not have to face her rival every day, as was common with other kings’ mistresses. We are told she was not demanding, and unlike Alice Perrers, who was Edward III’s long-time mistress, she did not get given land or estates. I was confused by a review in the Historical Novels Review that called her “infamous,” which is a word that connotes “despicable, wicked, dishonorable” to me. Jane was none of those. Every single description that has come down to us of her is that she was kindhearted, pleasant, never harmed anyone and showed great humility during her penance. I thought I had conveyed those characteristics in the book, but perhaps I’m wrong!

"The Penance of Jane Shore" by William Blake (c1780)
The period expressions scattered throughout the novel added a lot of color, like the exclamation "By Christ's nails!" or even the word "wagtail" as an uncomplimentary way of describing Jane. What are some of your favorites?

I like using old-fashioned words as well as turning sentences around so they sound more period. I enjoy being transported back into another world myself when I read historicals, and I think dialogue can help effect this. The old use of “aye” and “nay,” which we don’t use today (unless you’re in Scotland!); and words like “heed,” “addle,” “spawn” and “monstrous” come to mind as some we don’t use in our everyday language anymore. A couple of my favorites, which I confess to borrowing from Shakespeare are “bum-bailey” for a jerk, “clack-dish” and clatterer” for a chatterbox or gossip, and your above-mentioned “wagtail.” (I know Shakespeare is 16th century, but as there was very little written down in vernacular English before the famous Elizabethan playwrights, I feel many of those words were already used long before they wrote their plays down.)

Sophie Vandersand is Jane's good friend, and they help each other out on several occasions. How did you go about inventing Sophie's character and background?

Funny you should ask! To support the Newburyport Historical Society, I agreed to donate an auction item to name a character after the high bidder in my next book. My only condition was that the name had to fit in with 15th century London life. In other words, someone named Tiffany Wolinski or Cindy Wu would not do! The woman who won the item asked that instead of using her that I name a character after her six-year-old granddaughter Sophia Van Der Sande. In the 14th and 15th centuries, London had a sizeable community of Flemish weavers, who arrived with their craft to take advantage of the English wool trade. So I researched where many of those weavers would have lived and worked and gave her a more anglicized name, which after a century of living in London, would have been plausible. Et voila, Sophia or Sophie Vandersand was born.

Royal Mistress loops in many viewpoints in addition to Jane's, from her lovers and husbands to Richard III and even George of Clarence, drinking himself into oblivion just before his ignominious death in a wine barrel. Are there any whose scenes you enjoyed writing the most, or which were more difficult to conceptualize than others?

Richard III
Golly, you ask in-depth questions! Yes, the scene in the Tower the day that Richard of Gloucester called Hastings to task for “treachery” was the hardest. I had to see it from Hastings’s point of view, who considered himself innocent, and from Richard’s who was convinced he was guilty. Both were being true to themselves in my opinion, but the outcome was heartbreaking for me to write even though I understood Richard’s motivation. (Enough of spoilers; don’t forget you have already read the book, Sarah!)

Thanks, Anne that should give readers a hint about a scene to anticipate!  Things have been quite busy for you writing-wise, with five novels published since 2006.  I'm curious to learn how your writing process has changed since publication of A Rose for the Crown.

I realize I had no idea what I was doing when I wrote Rose! I have since learned about structure, themes, motifs, etc. etc. and how to sequence big scenes and where the climax should be! Sounds simple, right, but I had never had a formal writing class in my life (other than learning grammar at British boarding school), so I’ve come a long way, baby! Funnily enough, however, I get more letters saying that Rose is still their favorite of my books.

Thanks for hosting me today, Sarah.

Thanks again, Anne, for taking the time to answer my questions!


Royal Mistress was published by Touchstone/Simon & Schuster in May at $16.00, or $18.99 in Canada (trade pb, 489pp, including glossary, author's note, and discussion questions).  Visit Anne Easter Smith's website at , which includes an entertaining blog entry in which the author interviews her main character.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Bits and pieces

Just a short round-up of news bits from various sources...

The 7th edition of Genreflecting: A Guide to Popular Reading Interests was published by ABC-CLIO in late April.  It can be considered a standard reference work for readers' advisory work in general and for discovering the appeal of fiction and nonfiction genres and individual books within them.  I was pleased to be asked to write the historical fiction chapter (this was my project for the past two summers).  My Historical Fiction II book was published in 2009, and this new chapter supplements it by discussing new titles and trends in historicals.  Many other genres are likewise covered, of course, from crime, thrillers, and westerns to mainstream fiction, fantasy, horror, and nonfiction as well as other popular interests like urban fiction and graphic novels.  Cynthia Orr and Diana Tixier Herald are the editors.  Find more at the publisher's website.

A new batch of historical fiction reviews went online at the Historical Novel Society website on May 1st, both mainstream/small press and indie titles.  There are over 300 in all.  Have fun browsing!

Also in the Historical Novels Review's May issue, and available for all to view:  Bethany Latham's insightful cover story on trends and preferences in historical fiction cover art, which has quotes from both publishers and readers on this perennially fascinating subject.  Guess which types of covers stood out the most. Also online is "The Ghosts of Wartime Past," my interview with Simone St. James about An Inquiry Into Love and Death, her newest 1920s-era Gothic novel.

Finally, while you're over at the HNS website, don't forget to check out the spring issue of The Historian, the journal of the Historical Association (UK), which is entirely about historical fiction. It's online in full, complete with articles by Lindsey Davis on "true history," coverage of Downton Abbey, cover designs for children's historicals, and HNS founder/publisher Richard Lee's perspective on the British market for historical fiction.

Several months back, blog reader Tracy Whittington dropped me a note about her new book, Claiming Your History, which is a guide to the many ways people can incorporate their love for history into their daily lives.  (This site is mentioned in it; I agree that reading historical fiction is a good way to do so!)  I downloaded a copy and thought it was a wonderfully creative source for ideas on how you can form deeper connections with your past, from creating genealogies and oral histories to preserving heirlooms and learning more about your ancestors' language and religion.  Tracy includes stories about her own family in it she has tried out many of the suggestions she provides and relevant web links.  For those interested, it's available on Kindle ($3.99), and you can read the table of contents via Amazon.

I'm just finishing up a marathon reviewing session (three books in three weeks!) and am slowly returning to the real world.  Next up on the blog, this Thursday, will be an interview with Anne Easter Smith about her new Wars of the Roses epic, Royal Mistress, which was released today.

Monday, May 06, 2013

An interview with Sandra Byrd, author of Roses Have Thorns

When I first heard about the subject of Roses Have Thorns, I knew I had to read it.  Elin von Snakenborg was a Swedish noblewoman who became a maid of honor to Elizabeth I and one of her closest confidantes.  She married William Parr, brother to Henry VIII's last queen, and became known as Helena, Marchioness of Northampton. (And there's much more; the novel doesn't end there.)  However, despite her prominent status at the Elizabethan court, Elin's story is little known and hasn't been told in fiction before.

Sandra Byrd's engrossing novel about Elin's life injects this familiar Tudor setting with freshness and vitality.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, and it even rekindled my longtime interest in fiction about royalty.  Not only does Roses Have Thorns offer a perspective on Queen Elizabeth that readers rarely see, but Elin's story is fascinating in itself.  I especially appreciated how the author brought to life the era's religious divisions, beliefs, and observances, which are critically important to the understanding of the historical period and characters.

I hope you'll enjoy the following interview, which shows her enthusiasm for the Elizabethan era as well as her delightful writing style.  Please join me in welcoming Sandra Byrd!

The opening scenes set in Stockholm, just before Elin leaves on her journey, made the unfamiliar setting come alive. What was your favorite part about researching Elin’s Swedish background? Were there any fascinating things you learned about it that didn’t make it into the novel?

Today, we think of the Swedes as mild mannered and socially progressive but in the era Elin lived in, they were more Viking than Ikea. Gustav Vasa, who was in power for nearly 40 years in the 16th century, took his country back from the Danes. He also "unmanned" a wedding guest who had sneaked into his daughter's bedroom, and then brutally beat her with his own fists. That daughter, Princess Cecelia, took Elin to England. King Erik, who had hoped to marry Elizabeth, was ultimately poisoned (apocryphally, in his pea soup) likely by his brothers. Both Gustav Vasa and Henry VIII referred to themselves as the Moses of their people, and I think they were alike in temperament and strength.

Elin's trip to England was much longer and was more arduous than I portrayed in the book. It took 10 months and included overland portions in freezing weather in order to evade the Danes. The women had a bit of Viking in them, too, or they could never had survived that harrowing trip.

One little bit of trivia that is touching, the planet group Karin is named after Karin Mansdottar, the mistress of (and later wife to) King Erik of this era.

I’ve read other historical novels on Elizabeth I that demonstrate her charm, intelligence, and power, and Roses Have Thorns shows these qualities very well, but I haven’t read many others that simultaneously emphasize her status as a woman alone, without any true peers. Did you find your opinions of her changing during the writing process?

I started thinking about this after a divorced friend told me that what she missed most from marriage was regular human touch. No one, literally or figuratively, could touch Elizabeth. It would have been a great breach of protocol and as she had no husband, children, parents or siblings who naturally would have been allowed to touch her, I began to sense what might have felt like a real loss to her.

She was not allowed to speak of her mother, something many women would naturally do, and to bring up her sister or brother would be to raise issues that were best left at rest. No one, really, had her back unless they were in it for something. She had no true friends; I wondered if that was one reason she dithered when dealing with Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary was one person who could have been her peer, under different circumstances. All of this helped me sense the tremendous loneliness that must have come with her position. It made personal sacrifice on behalf of her kingdom more poignant.

Author Sandra Byrd
Elin/Helena became very close to the Queen, married a well-known nobleman, and even served as chief mourner at Elizabeth’s funeral, yet her name isn’t very well known. Why do you think this is?

I can't properly express how thrilled I was to have uncovered Elin during my research on Kateryn Parr. I think the focus has been on Lettice Knollys for so long because it was a long-standing love triangle with Dudley, because she and Elizabeth were cousins and looked alike, and because it was complicated from all angles and for a long time. The human drama inherent in that makes for good book material. Perhaps Lettice overshadowed all others. I don't really know, otherwise, but a fresh name was a rewarding discovery for me and when her husband's history tied in so neatly with the end of Mary, Queen of Scots, I knew I'd found my girl.

Why do you especially enjoy writing about ladies in waiting at the Tudor court?

I've always said I want to know the woman behind the gown and the crown. One effective way to do that is through the eyes of a friend. A rival is naturally predisposed against the queen, a servant is too lowly to be everywhere the queen would be or be privy to secrets. A friend loves us just as we are, but doesn't ignore our difficulties or character flaws, either. I have always loved the Tudors. I've credited Jean Plaidy for being my gateway drug to all things British historical. She did such a marvelous job with her books, it's held my interest for a lifetime.

The era’s religious turmoil is a major theme in Roses Have Thorns, and quotations from Scripture are inserted at natural points in the storyline. This made the setting feel that much more vibrant and authentic to me. How do you strike a balance between exploring Christian themes and making the novel appealing to mainstream readers?

Religion is important to a great many people the world over, and it is absolutely a part of the legitimate context for many eras and settings. I'm not Jewish, but I loved The Chosen. Its themes and challenges resonate with me as a person.

Religious turmoil was thickly woven into the fabric of the Tudor era Henry VIII breaking with the church at Rome, a sharp turn toward Protestantism under Edward VI, a sharp turn toward Catholicism under Mary I, and then Elizabeth's via media. It influenced how people acted and the business of the kingdom for centuries. Faith of some kind of still important to many people.

Elizabeth prayed in many languages. She quoted scripture. I quoted her, quoting it. I feel that is different than my having an agenda, it's an understanding of her and of the women of the time, at least the ones I choose to explore. Because I spend hundreds of hours researching and writing on a topic, I choose the ones that interest me, which is often how historical women and Christian faith and power and relationships intersect. Hopefully, if I tell a good story, it will engage a wide group of people, Christian or not.

You mention in the Q&A at the end of the novel that you love reading Tudor fiction. It’s a popular era with readers, and I appreciated the fresh, lively perspective you brought to it. What other qualities do you look for when choosing Tudor-era novels to read? Also, given your experience as a writing coach, do you have any suggestions for writers looking to make their historical novels stand out?

I do look for historical accuracy, because if you've read widely enough in an era you know when something is wrong and it pulls you out of the story. At the same time, I challenge anyone to write 90,000 words on anything without making a mistake of some kind. Can't be done! Not only that, some of the things we think we "know" may themselves have come from questionable sources.

I want to love the heroine and the hero, but I want them to have to grow, too. I want both the facts and players that I know were there to be present (I read Tudor to read about Tudors, of course!) but I like to see something fresh and new, or a point of view I hadn't considered, but legitimately might.

I'm developing a session called Historical Novelist as Curator: What to Put In, What to Leave Out. I think that's one of the biggest tricks for historical novels. Enough of the right details to bring your readers there, but not so many that it sands the book's gears. I try to remember that an historical novel is a novel, noun, historical being the modifier. Although whatever historical details I include need to be right, the story has to come first.

Did you get a chance to visit any more sights relating to Helena’s life while visiting England last autumn for the Historical Novel Society conference?

I did visit Hampshire, and so was able to see Hurst Castle, which was great fun. I was so, so close to visiting Longford, but my English friends told me that it's privately owned and that I wouldn't be able to see it from any vantage point. It was thrilling to know I was very close though, and in the same area that Helena would have ridden. Each time I visit England, it's a kind of pilgrimage for me.

Thank you for having me, Sarah!

Thanks, Sandra, for taking the time to answer my questions!  Best wishes for continued success with your novels.


Roses Have Thorns was published by Simon & Schuster's Howard Books in April at $14.99 (trade pb, 336pp).  Sandra's previous Tudor-set novels are To Die For: A Novel of Anne Boleyn, and The Secret Keeper: A Novel of Kateryn Parr.  Visit her website at  This interview is a stop on the author's tour with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Book review: Circles of Time, by Phillip Rock

This second volume in Rock’s engrossing trilogy (after The Passing Bells) about the titled Grevilles of Abingdon Pryory in Surrey sees them, their relatives, and friends attempting to restart their lives after WWI. It’s 1921, and Martin Rilke, the Countess of Stanmore’s nephew from Chicago, has just been named European bureau chief for an American news agency. He also faces a libel charge for his no-holds-barred book about brutality and incompetence on the front lines. His beautiful, widowed cousin Alexandra has returned to the family fold, amid her father’s strong disapproval over her marriage, and embarks on a romance with someone who would have been considered unsuitable ten years ago.

Times have changed – the previous order has crumbled – and even Lord Stanmore finally opens his eyes to the possibilities of the era. His perspective offers a bridge between the old and the new. But even during the joyous optimism of the Roaring ′20s, with its jazz bands, aeroplanes, and unrepressed sexuality, a cloud of melancholy lingers. These characters are the ones who survived, and the novel brings home the impossibility of their leaving the past behind. This truth echoes powerfully in the thread involving Charles, the eldest son, whose slow emergence from shell-shock is greeted with relief by his loved ones. The somber portrait of post-Versailles Germany toward the novel’s end shows more trouble yet to come.

Circles of Time is a true epic that flows effortlessly. Several poignant love stories are interwoven superbly with scenes of family drama, political strife in England and the Middle East, and depictions of the shifting mores that defined this energetic decade. It also reads as a potent anti-war novel, even with no battle scenes. Although it was first published over 30 years ago, and confidently evokes its setting, the prose exudes a crisp freshness that makes it seem like it was written yesterday. Not to be missed.

First published in 1981, The Passing Bells was reissued by William Morrow in January ($14.99, trade paperback, 425pp).  This review also appears in May's Historical Novels Review.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Guest post by Simon Acland: What was it really like on the First Crusade?

Simon Acland is stopping by today with an essay about primary source accounts of the First Crusade, the perspectives taken by each, and what we can learn from them.  Simon's first novel, The Waste Land, intertwines the adventures of Hugh de Verdon, a former monk turned knight journeying to the Holy Land on the First Crusade, with a humorous modern-day account of the squabbling Oxford professors who discover Hugh's manuscript and seek to turn it into a bestselling novel. Welcome, Simon!


What was it really like on the First Crusade?
by Simon Acland, author of The Waste Land

One of the challenges of writing about the First Crusade is imagining the details of everyday life at the end of the eleventh century. The period is really the tail end of the Dark Ages, and other than the Bayeux Tapestry there is almost no contemporary visual record of how people dressed or how soldiers fought, how far an army might travel in a day and what they might eat when they stopped. All of this has to be imagined. It is not really for the best part of another century that the picture becomes clearer, and by then customs have changed dramatically, not least because of the civilising impact on Europe of the contact made by the Crusaders with the far more advanced cultures of Byzantium and the Moslem world.

But because the First Crusade was such an extraordinary episode in history, there are many contemporary chronicles that relate the events that happened. These are mostly written by monks or priests who travelled with the leaders of the Crusade, and were charged by them with recording what happened. Of course these chroniclers were also charged with showing their individual lords and masters in a favourable light.

So there is the Gesta Francorum et aliorum Hierosolymytanorum (“The Deeds of the Franks and other Jerusalemers”), written around 1101 by a companion of Bohemond of Taranto. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the Gesta Francorum tends to show Bohemond in rather a good light. The Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres was probably started around the same time, but not completed until 1127/28, and because Fulcher travelled with Robert of Normandy, Stephen of Blois, Robert of Flanders, and later Baldwin of Boulogne, his perspective tends to be that of the Northern French. Raymond d’Aguilers’ Chronicle favours Raymond, Count of Toulouse, whose chaplain the author was (although his tone changes a bit after his apparent dismissal from this role towards the end of the Crusade!). And the Gesta Tancredi (“The Deeds of Tancred”) by Ranulph de Caen comes close to being a hagiography of Bohemond’s fiery nephew Tancred. Light is shed on the scene from different directions by Anna Comnena in The Alexiad, her history of her father, Byzantine Emperor Alexius I, because she encountered the Crusaders when they passed through Constantinople, and by Moslem historians such as Ibn al-Athir.

One thing that these accounts have in common is that they are not seeking to tell their readers what they already know. So there is little to be gleaned about the humdrum of everyday life from these documents. They relate extraordinary and unusual events, and for these they have provided much of the raw material for my novel The Waste Land. Some of the extreme events that appear in my book may seem exaggerated to modern readers, but they are there in the contemporary chronicles – newborn babies being abandoned on the way across the Anatolian desert in 1097 after the Battle of Dorylaeum, the cannibalism at the siege of Marrat-al-Numan in 1098, accounts of walking over the bodies of the dead after the siege of Antioch, the streets of Jerusalem running knee deep in blood in 1099. The First Crusade was unbelievably harsh. Some historians have estimated that 150,000 souls set out from various parts of Europe in 1096, and that three years later there were just 15,000 left to besiege Jerusalem. It is true that a few went home, like the disgraced Stephen of Blois, in his case only to be sent back to Outremer by his domineering wife Adela, daughter of William the Conqueror to redeem himself and die in 1102 at the second Battle of Ramleh. But based on these numbers, approaching nine out of ten of those who set off died along the way, in battle, of famine, or of plague.

This level of attrition is of course unthinkable in a modern army. But then Pope Urban II had made the Crusaders an offer that they could not refuse at the Council of Clermont, when he guaranteed them a place in heaven whether they made it to Jerusalem or died trying, and gave them carte blanche to behave however they wished on the way. Deus le volt!


Simon Acland worked as a venture capitalist for over 20 years and wrote several books on investing and leadership. The Waste Land is his first novel; it was published by Beaufort Books in March 2013 ($16.95 in pb or $9.99 on Kindle, 384pp). For more information, visit his website at