Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Back from the Historical Novel Society conference

Just noticed this is my 800th post!

I returned late Tuesday night from the 5th North American HNS conference in St. Petersburg, Florida.  The weather was sunny and beautiful (if very muggy) every day, the Vinoy Renaissance hotel was absolutely gorgeous, my room was large and quiet, the hotel staff were attentive and helpful, and the panels I attended were all professionally run and informative.  My sparkly sandals even cooperated; I made it through without bandaids.  This was my first time there as a regular attendee rather than an organizer (many people came up to me so say how relaxed I looked!) so I had time to catch up with old friends and meet up with many others I'd only communicated with online.  These conferences really are all about the people, after all -- making connections with fellow HF nerds that endure long after we're all back home.

Because I find it hard to keep up with online stuff while the conference is on, I didn't tweet or FB very much and also didn't take many photos (the one above is a scene of the ocean inlet across the street from the Vinoy).  For a great compilation of photos that also tells a story of conference happenings, let me refer you over to the Storify site put together by Audra of Unabridged Chick.

I leave tomorrow for ALA in Chicago and am working the late shift tonight, so things are kind of crazy around here, but I thought I'd post some info on the panels I attended and some other highlights of the conference:
  • Anne Perry's inspirational Friday night guest of honor speech emphasized the role of story in historical fiction and the need to make these works emotionally resonant. And she spoke for over half an hour without any notes!  Wow.  A wonderful way to start off the event.
  • Early on Saturday morning, I attended the first agent/editor panel session, which turned out to be a Q&A for aspiring writers.  This may seem an unusual choice for someone like me who doesn't write fiction, but I like hearing what things are like on the other side of the table.Advice from agent Stephanie Cabot: Each book in a series should stand alone, and in the case of a trilogy, don't end book 1 with a cliffhanger.  Agent Helen Heller mentioned "the Tudors have been overfished" although this depends on the quality of the work in question; she also advised authors writing query letters not to start with a provocative question about the plot, but simply to say what the book  is about and about themselves.  Agent Diana Fox said that trends can make a novel easier to sell, but the writing is what matters most. From agent Greg Johnson: a series can benefit both authors and readers and save authors time in creating backstory.  Small press editor Jean Huets focuses on American settings and is looking for new voices in this area.  This was the only panel where I took notes, so this is rather long!
  • Susan Spann ably moderated a panel of historical mystery writers with settings as diverse as 19th and 20th-c South America (Annamaria Alfieri), Victorian England (Anne Perry), 1st-c Jerusalem (Frederick Ramsay), and Judith Rock (17th-c France). Susan's debut, Claws of the Cat, comes out next month and features a ninja detective and a Jesuit solving mysteries in 16th-c Japan.  I loved the variety showcased here.
  • Christopher (C.W.) Gortner's lunch speech, focusing on community and how HNS had helped him along his publishing journey, set the perfect tone for the conference.
  • "To Trump or Trumpet the History Police" - Will historical purists come out to get you if you fudge the facts?  The conclusion was: sometimes they will!  The authors (Stephanie Cowell, Christy English, Margaret George, Anne Easter Smith, with CW Gortner moderating) had a lively discussion/debate about historical accuracy  vs. the importance of creating a good story.  Each has condensed a timeline to some degree or eliminated unneeded characters for the sake of the story they wanted to tell.
  • "Virtual Salon: The Historical Fiction Blog" - a great intro to the many purposes for a blog in the historical fiction world, whether they're written by authors or reviewers/readers.  There was a lot of positive buzz surrounding this panel.  Speakers were Deborah Swift, Amy Bruno, Heather Rieseck, and Heather Webb, moderated by Julianne Douglas.
  • The "Off the Beaten Path" workshop with bloggers & authors Julie Rose, Heather Domin, Audra Friend, and Andrea Connell was a treat for readers (like me) who seek out less common settings and types of characters in their historical novels. Check out their page of info with publishing & reviewing trends as well as their lengthy reading list.
  • Gillian Bagwell did a smashing job in her role as Joan, Lady Rivers emceeing the costume pageant, and Teralyn Pilgrim, as a pregnant vestal virgin, was an obvious choice for winning "most authentic historical costume."  I hope her on-stage interview with Lady Rivers was taped!  I was very tired by that point and didn't stay for most of the late-night sex scene readings, but was entertained by Margaret George's reading from her Autobiography of Henry VIII.
  • On Sunday morning I went to just two sessions, one author presentation and another with "cold reads" of unpublished manuscripts.  In the former, Susanna Kearsley gave advice on how to flesh out historical characters' backstories and discover new connections between them using genealogical research.  As a sidenote, I last saw Susanna at the last ever BookExpo Canada in 2008, when I was probably the only American in attendance.  After she signed a copy of The Winter Sea for me, I asked her if her new books would be published in the US at some point.  At the time, US publishers felt the stories were "too quiet" and weren't interested.  Now her novels, out from Sourcebooks, are bestsellers, which is great.  Goes to show that sometimes the industry has no clue.
I wish I'd gotten to more sessions; choosing was very difficult!  What I valued even more were the many conversations I'd had with other attendees in the lobby, at the receptions, and over meals. Shout-outs to the late Thursday night dinner crowd at Fresco's on the waterfront; my library school buddy Vicki (we graduated almost 20 years ago); all the HNR reviewers and HNS members I chatted with; the blogger lunch group on Sunday with Audra, Heather, and Meg; and the fabulous members and organizers of the new Great Lakes HNS Chapter. The gathering ended on a high note with a group excursion (Alison, Jessica, Marie, Meg, and myself) to a robot-themed sushi place on Sunday night and drinks out on the veranda.  Later we watched as a bus of VIP types (later revealed to be a certain Toronto baseball team) climb out of their bus and walk into the hotel.  I have no photos; even if I'd wanted them, the hotel had signs up about that...

And so another HNS conference has wrapped up.  Congrats to Vanitha Sankaran and the rest of the board of directors for a job well done.  I'm already looking forward to London in September 2014.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Book review: Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown

The premise of Eli Brown's second novel grabbed my attention; it promised an entertaining mashup of pirate action and haute cuisine, with an assortment of quirky characters thrown in for good measure.  A foodie adventure at sea.  Certainly not anything I'd read before.  Experienced chefs know that the mingling of contrasting flavors can result in the most delicious dishes, and such is the case with the aptly-titled Cinnamon and Gunpowder.

(And once you read it, you'll understand why recipe metaphors are hard to resist.)

Owen Wedgwood's culinary skills are famed throughout England.  A "cook for gentlemen and ladies of highest station," he works for Lord Ramsey, chairman of the Pendleton Trading Company, a shipping firm pursuing the tea trade in distant India and China.

One fateful afternoon in 1819, after preparing a mouthwatering feast for Ramsey and his colleagues, he sees his employer murdered before his eyes. The perpetrator is Mad Hannah Mabbot, the flame-haired pirate queen whose fearsome deeds have made her a notorious name on the high seas.

Captain Mabbot kidnaps our narrator, installs him in grimy quarters aboard the Flying Rose, and presents her demands. He must prepare a gourmet meal for her every Sunday, never repeating the same dish twice or else.  The ship's pantry hold is pretty meager, so while Mabbot and her loyal crew head out in pursuit of the thieving Brass Fox while being chased by the dangerous privateer Laroche, "Wedge" is forced to improvise his creations, all the while trying to devise his escape.

Needless to say, Wedge is miserable, and he notes all his thoughts in a logbook he conceals in his cabin. "I'll say here that I do hate ships," he writes. "When conversations occasionally turn nautical, I have found that there are always herbs that need drying or cheeses to press."

Fortunately, he proves up to the task. The dishes he prepares are drool-worthy: potato-breaded whitefish in shrimp sauce over saffron rice and rum-poached figs stuffed with blue cheese, for example.  (Well, for the most part; I regretted the fate of the homing pigeons.)  The gastronomic delicacies, combined with Wedge's dryly humorous, eloquently written journal entries, make the novel well worth diving into.

The highlight, though, is Captain Mabbot herself.  She's a spectacular character.  Her methods are ruthless and brutal, yes, but as Wedge discovers, to his great surprise, she's an intelligent conversationalist with deeply felt reasons behind her actions.

The secondary characters are a colorful lot, from the burly first lieutenant Mr. Apples, an avid knitter, to Joshua, the mute cabin boy who becomes Wedge's very capable assistant. The swashbuckling plot is swiftly paced and firmly situated in its backdrop of British imperialism, with readers seeing each spoke of the "tea-opium-slave wheel" as it turns.

The initial concept delivers, but the best part is that the reading experience offers much more than that.  Comedic, thoughtful, and touchingly romantic all at once, Cinnamon and Gunpowder is a pirate adventure like no other.  Even the most stubborn landlubbers will want to climb on board.

Cinnamon and Gunpowder was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in June at $26.00/$30.00 in Canada (hardcover, 318pp). Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy at my request.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

For the TBR Pile Challenge: Rose Tremain, Music & Silence

UK edition (1999)
Entry in the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge: #3 out of 12

Years on TBR: 13 or so

Edition owned: London: Chatto & Windus, 1999 (hb, 454pp)

Back in February, I declared my intention to review one book from the TBR Pile Challenge each month during 2013.  Obviously, this hasn't happened, but I'm doing my best to catch up!

As implied by the title, Music and Silence is a novel of contrasts.  Tremain uses delicate, almost ethereal language to evoke her themes of intense passion, obsession, and longing.  Heated affairs play out during the cold, desolate winters of northern Europe, and the gentle heroine vies against the malign forces at court and in her own family.

So many readers have told me that this is one of their favorite novels, so I turned the first page prepared to be impressed, but with slight trepidation (would I agree?). I quickly learned that Music and Silence demands a quiet frame of mind.  It's not tolerant of distractions, and if you try to read it while other things are going on in the background, you'll need to tune them out first. It took me a few chapters to realize this.

The royal court of 1620s-30s Denmark isn't one that figures in other historical novels I've heard of, and Tremain has so thoroughly claimed this setting and its major players for her own that no other author is likely to try.

US edition (2000)
It opens in 1629, as English lutenist Peter Claire arrives at the Danish court to take up a post in Christian IV's royal orchestra. After coming to terms with the king's odd demand that the musicians play in a frigid cellar, so that the sound will waft up mysteriously to the audience on the upper level, he contends with Christian's other expectations (he reminds the king of a long-dead childhood friend). He also forms an attachment to Emilia Tilsen, one of the ladies of Kirsten Munk, the king's morganatic second wife.

The progression of Peter and Emilia's tender romance forms the novel's centerpiece, but it also encompasses many other stories about love: Emilia's close bond with her young brother Marcus, Christian's pursuit of the adulterous Kirsten, and dowager queen Sofie's love for her money. There's also a subplot about Peter's plain sister Charlotte, back in England, and the fiancé nobody expected her to have; I found this story especially moving.

None of these, however, is as compelling to read about as Kirsten's love for herself.

Kirsten Munk by Jacob van Doordt
Kirsten writes journal entries in sections labeled "Kirsten: From Her Private Papers," and Tremain's depiction of this character is a command performance.  Kirsten is lustful, deceitful, and completely self-absorbed. She thinks endlessly about her bedroom acrobatics with her lover, a German count named Otto Ludwig; she hates children; and she cares not at all for her husband.

For her birthday, Christian gives her a gold statue in his image, and even her disgust is mixed with lasciviousness.

I didn't ask for yet another likeness of my ageing husband. I asked for gold. Now I will have to pretend to love and worship the Statue and put it in a prominent place et cetera for fear of causing offence, when I would prefer to take it to the Royal Mint and melt it into an ingot which I would enjoy caressing with my hands and feet, and even take into my bed sometimes to feel solid gold against my cheek or laid between my thighs.

Kirsten's one saving grace would be her affection for Emilia, were it not for the fact that Emilia is the only person who tolerates her, and so Kirsten connives to keep her and Peter apart.  Kirsten pours all her wicked thoughts onto the page in a completely uninhibited way. She believes she deserves the reader's undivided attention, and she gets it.

Tormented by thoughts of Kirsten with her German lover, Christian reflects on his "quiet and orderly" married life with his queen and first bride, Anna Catherine of Brandenburg, who died in 1612.  Here, as elsewhere, the writing truly glows:

Christian IV by Peeter Isaacsz
In the darkness of the palace at Hadersleben, the skin of the young Queen's face had a luminous white sheen to it. No more light fell onto it than onto the other than onto the other faces, yet it stood out very plainly and Christian found himself wondering whether, in the very pitch of night, with the curtains of the bed drawn round them, he would turn and see this shining moonstone next to him on the pillow.

The abiding tone in Music and Silence one of melancholy, which reminded me in places of Tremain's Merivel.  Christian uses music to calm his spirit during his endless search for perfection which he rarely finds.  In addition to his marital problems, Denmark is suffering economically, with failed mining ventures and a near-empty treasury.  The darkness, though, is embedded with many bright spots: music, love, and hope for the future.

If asked to choose between the two Tremain novels I'd read, I'd have to say I prefer Merivel, for the entertaining company of the man himself, but I thoroughly enjoyed Music and Silence, too, both for its language and style and for the depictions of its excellent cast of characters.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

The Writer's Uncanny Valley: A guest post by Ania Szado, author of Studio Saint-Ex

Ania Szado, author of Studio Saint-Ex (reviewed here on Tuesday), has written an original guest post about the interface between fact and fiction which takes a completely new approach to the subject.  We have a giveaway opportunity at the end, too, for US and Canadian readers.


In robotics, there's a hypothesis called "uncanny valley." It says that although we're comfortable with robots that don't look at all like real people, we get creeped out when an android's features and movements are close to (but not exact replicas of) those of a human being. While researching and writing Studio Saint-Ex, I found myself thinking about a parallel in the creation of historical fiction: presenting brazen deviations from the truth can be easier to stomach than slight variations on reality.

In Studio Saint-Ex, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry writes The Little Prince in 1940s New York while involved with two determined, creative women—only one of whom existed in real life. Did I cringe as I created a fictional lover for Saint-Exupéry? Actually, no. It was a bold departure, but I felt comfortable. Like the robot that looks robotic, there was no pretence that the character Mignonne was a re-creation of someone real.

What got under my skin were the small discrepancies that research unearthed, elements that troubled me because (like those slightly unrefined androids) they seemed vaguely off, not quite aligned with what I had believed to be true. I'd been certain, for example, that WWII garments were uninspired and uptight... but here was real-life designer Valentina (in a book by Kohle Yohannan) astounding my eye with some of the most luxurious, sensual, and inspired fashions I'd ever seen, and in the very place and time period of Studio Saint-Ex. Could I give the same aesthetic to designer Mig? It was justifiable. Provable. But how to make it believable?

Ania Szado (credit: Joyce Ravid)
If I were a roboticist, I'd perfect my android further. The hypothesis says we start feeling receptive and empathetic again once the robot has been meticulously refined and crafted to appear entirely like a human being.

I gritted my teeth and set out to make Mig feel indisputably real, to push through the valley of discomfort into the welcome realm of suspended disbelief.

Here's my three-stage version of the writer's uncanny valley: (a) feeling good that we've started, unconcerned that our characters are still more wooden than human; (b) growing nauseous—the more we research and refine our characters, the more we see where our efforts are failing in a million tiny, excruciating ways; (c) crawling out of that dark hole into the glorious sense that we know them—those fully realized, deeply felt people who populate our pages—as well as we know ourselves.


Interested in your own copy of Studio Saint-Ex?  Please fill out the form below; deadline Friday, June 14th.  The winner will be selected via a random drawing with the help of  This giveaway is open to US and Canadian readers.  Good luck!

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

The passion of design, the design of passion: A review of Ania Szado's Studio Saint-Ex, set in 1940s NYC

An aspiring clothing designer becomes enmeshed in an unusual triangle in Ania Szado’s debut, a star-studded and alluring literary novel set amid the budding fashion scene in 1940s New York City.

Fluent in French due to her family’s expatriate background, 22-year-old Mignonne Lachapelle, the fictional heroine, is asked to help aviator and writer extraordinaire Antoine de St-Exupéry, a family friend, improve his English. Desperate to help with the war effort, “Saint-Ex” has been grounded against his wishes and longs to return to France and fight for his country.

Their tutoring sessions turn passionate quickly, but Mignonne gets caught in the middle when Consuelo, Antoine’s vain and high-maintenance Salvadoran wife, expresses interest in the line produced by the studio where Mignonne is an assistant. Meanwhile, Antoine struggles to write the children’s fable that will earn him lasting acclaim. The St-Exupérys are estranged, more on his part than hers; Consuelo wants him back and uses her wiles on Mignonne as a lure to draw him toward her. Within this complex entangling of ambition and desire, each of the trio fights to grasp what they want most.

Although innocent in some ways, Mignonne transcends her expected ingénue role with her creativity and daring, and the finer technical points of dressmaking are captivating to read about. Szado makes the most of her setting: Manhattan in the troubled and exciting 1940s, when fabric restrictions were in place, yet Paris’s occupation by the Nazis gave Americans the chance to gain the upper hand in haute couture.

The language is tailored to each situation: snappy and pointed within the spoken exchanges, elsewhere as languid and elegant as silk draped against the body. The haunting images of war, tragic yet heart-stoppingly beautiful (“falling planes unfurling smoke like the most exuberant of bridal trains”), emphasize the novel's intermingled themes. The author also poses valid questions about artistic integrity and the purpose and value of fashion.

One minor drawback is that the different timeframes aren’t distinguished clearly. The 1940s segments are framed by Mignonne and Consuelo’s viewpoints as seen 25 years later. The women look back separately on their shared past as Expo ’67 in Montreal gets underway, with its “Man and his World” theme based upon Saint-Exupéry’s work.

Studio Saint-Ex is an imaginative blend of fact and fiction, and anyone curious about the history of fashion should consider picking it up. It really ought to come with a full-color portfolio, too. Mignonne’s creations sound divine.

Ania Szado's Studio Saint-Ex (perfect cover for the book, btw) is published today by Knopf in hardcover ($25.95, 368pp) and on Kindle ($12.99).  Viking Canada published it in April (C$30.00).

Saturday, June 01, 2013

John Boyne's This House is Haunted, an eerie Victorian tale of the supernatural

John Boyne applies his dependably fluid writing style to this eerie Victorian ghost story, which offers an unsettling—in a good way—blend of the conventional and the unexpected. Having enjoyed The House of Special Purpose earlier this year, I couldn't resist the opportunity to read his newest, This House is Haunted.

"I blame Charles Dickens for the death of my father," Eliza Caine begins.  In London in 1867, after her ailing father dies following a rainy excursion to hear Dickens read his spine-tingling new ghost story, Eliza is left alone and bereft. Overcome by grief and short on cash for the rent, she grabs the first opportunity she sees.

An "H Bennet" has advertised in the newspaper for a governess at Gaudlin Hall in Norfolk. Even knowing little about the environment or her employer, Eliza quits her job as a teacher for "small girls" and boards a train to the country.

In this and in other circumstances, Eliza presents an occasionally frustrating combination of determination and naiveté, one not uncommon to Gothic heroines. Her loyalty and inner strength make her a compassionate, sympathetic protagonist.

Compared to the smoke-filled, crowded city, the Norfolk countryside has plenty of fresh air and open space, but Gaudlin Hall is an imposing old mansion that would give anyone the creeps. The children of the house, the oddly precocious Isabella and her sweet but peculiar younger brother Eustace, have no adult supervision other than Eliza. Their family lawyer refuses to speak with her, local townspeople avoid her once they learn where she works, and the one servant she can find isn't talking. The mysterious “H Bennet” isn’t anywhere around, either.

On Eliza's first night at the house, a malevolent presence makes itself known. Whatever (or whoever) it is wants her gone. Even though she clings to rational explanations for her violent "accidents" past the point of plausibility, she's made of stern stuff and knows she must stay and protect her charges. As the hauntings continue and she meets with more woes, she musters up the courage to solve the mystery of Gaudlin Hall's past.

The storyline drew me in with its clear, logical prose and held me gripped with its escalating tension. Even the motivation behind the malice is well thought out: the supernatural occurrences have chillingly lucid reasoning behind them. The novel acknowledges Victorian preoccupations and sensibilities, from the dandy-horse Eliza rides into the village (and is forced off of by an unnatural gust of wind) to a stuffy old clerk’s condescending attitude towards women.

The archetypal setting and premise will be familiar ground to anyone who reads Gothics, and there are nods to several well-known novels within—I won’t say which. Maybe due to Eliza's confident narration, the novel never flat-out terrified me, but I appreciated the dramatic plotting and found myself startled by a few revelations. Boyne knows the precise moment to shake things up with a sudden, sharp surprise.

This House is Haunted was published by Doubleday UK in late April at £14.99 (hb, 304pp).  American readers can find it in bookstores this October (Other Press, $14.95, trade pb), and Doubleday Canada publishes it the same month ($24.95). Thanks to Doubleday UK for sending me a review copy.