Friday, February 27, 2015

Looking at the 2015 Walter Scott Prize longlist

As has been reported in other sources, the longlist for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction has been revealed for the first time ever.  In past years, readers have gotten to see only the shortlist and the eventual winner. 

Per the BBC:  "Judges said this reflected the 40% increase in entries for the prize as well as the 'high quality of historical fiction' currently being published."  An excellent sign for the genre a 40% increase is significant.  In addition, now that the prize has reached its 6th year, knowledge about it has become even more widespread, and publishers are no doubt paying attention and submitting more titles than ever.

The longlist includes:

The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis (Holocaust in Germany)
The Temporary Gentleman by Sebastian Barry (20th-c Ireland and Africa)
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (17th-c Amsterdam)
The Lie by Helen Dunmore (WWI England)
Viper Wine by Hermione Eyre (17th-c England; out in April in the US)
In the Wolf's Mouth by Adam Foulds (North Africa and Sicily, WWII)
Mr Mac and Me by Esther Freud (1914 England)
Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut (India in 1912)
Wake by Anna Hope (1920s England)
The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth (11th-c England)
The Undertaking by Audrey Magee (WWII Germany)
A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie (WWI and after; Turkey, England, Peshawar)
The Architect's Apprentice by Elif Shafak (16th-c Istanbul; out in April in the US)
The Ten Thousand Things by John Spurling (14th-c China)
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (1922 London)

When I posted about the list on the Historical Novel Society's Facebook group on Tuesday, the reaction was enthusiastic about the award itself, mixed about the choices.  No one had read all of them, or close, which is to be expected.  The three I've read were books I enjoyed, for the most part, but I wouldn't put them on a favorites list.

Author Douglas Jackson noted on FB that the books were historical fiction of the literary sort, which is a good point.  Apart from The Miniaturist, they would seem to fit more closely with literary (elegantly written, character-centered, more slowly paced) historical fiction than with the "genre" variety. 

I've linked up my reviews of the three I'd read (I can thank Booklist for assigning the books to me).   Which ones have you read?  Feel free to leave links in the comments if you've reviewed them.  Which are you rooting for, if any?  Would you put any on your list of top reads for 2014/5?

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Tony Hays, Historical Mystery Writer: A Remembrance

I've occasionally noted the passing of other historical novelists on this site, but this post is different because it's a more personal remembrance and thus both easier to write (because there's so much that could be said) and much harder.

Historical mystery writer Tony Hays passed away suddenly a month ago, on January 25, 2015, from complications of diabetes while on vacation in Luxor, Egypt.  He'd been taking a short holiday from his job, which involved teaching English to Saudi airmen in Saudi Arabia for an American defense contractor. His obituary is online via the funeral home's website.

Among his other published works, Tony was the author of the Arthurian Mystery series, which includes four novels and one novella set in 5th-century Britain, and will have a new historical mystery, Shakespeare No More, appearing this September from Perseverance Press.  He was 57 and had plans to write many more novels.

I'll be writing a different profile, more focused on Tony's work, for August's Historical Novels Review, but that's still a while away, and I didn't want his passing to go unremarked here.

Tony was a big supporter of this blog and my two books and had appeared here several times.  I first interviewed him about books 1 and 2 of his Arthurian mysteries, The Killing Way and The Divine Sacrifice, back in 2010.  He had told me it was his favorite interview; I especially liked how it came out because it shows his sense of humor as well as his expertise on post-Roman Britain.  I reviewed his third book, The Beloved Dead, when it came out in early 2011, and he contributed a guest post on writing about well-known historical figures in 2012, when The Stolen Bride was published.

We became good friends over the past four years, chatting about our experiences with teaching and higher education (he'd taught English at universities and community colleges for 20+ years), the ups and downs of the publishing industry, his many active writing projects, and animal rescue, among other things.  He used to take in and rehabilitate former puppy mill dogs for the local animal shelter at his home in Savannah, Tennessee, and had many great stories to tell about how they were adjusting.

For more on his background, including his time as an intelligence operative in Kuwait (Tony loved traveling the world and led a fascinating life), read his interview with Publishers Weekly from 2012. He was always modest about his accomplishments, and although he was hugely knowledgeable about many historical eras, his manner was the opposite of intimidating.  He was generous with his time and knowledge and eager to help support newer writers.

It was rare for a day or two to go by without a short note or reply from himhe wrote such lively and interesting emails and he often sent me stuff to read and comment on.  Although I don't normally look at unpublished manuscripts, I was pleased to have been an early reader for Tony's soon-to-be-published historical crime novel, set in the Jacobean era.  It's a terrific book, and he was thrilled about its upcoming publication.  I only wish Tony was able to see it in print.

In the course of our conversations, Tony had given me travel suggestions (when my husband Mark and I visited Glastonbury, England, in fall 2011, we stayed at a great B&B he recommended) and helped me out with advice a number of other times.  We met in person at two of the Historical Novel Society conferences and had planned to meet up last July when I was in Nashville for an HNS chapter meeting; he was going to take me around to see The Hermitage and other local sites.  Unfortunately, he had a home repair emergency come up and couldn't make it, so we put it off until a later date.

News of Tony's unexpected death came as a terrible shock. After never getting a reply to my last email, I checked his Facebook page expecting to see vacation pictures and found instead many recent tributes from family and friends, mourning him and celebrating his life.  It's been hard to process that he's no longer there at the other end of the keyboard, excited about a new topic for a novel or checking in from one of his travels.

While he left this world much too soon, I'm grateful for his friendship, support, and the many hours of entertaining reading his novels provided me.  I hope new readers will continue to discover them, too.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Book review: The Siege Winter, by Ariana Franklin and Samantha Norman

Franklin’s final novel, skillfully completed by her daughter after her death, recounts two young women’s courage during a dark, chaotic era.

As civil war devastates mid–twelfth century England, Maud, the 16-year-old chatelaine of Kenniford, weds a boorish older man to save her people. Raped and discarded, Em, a peasant girl from the Cambridgeshire fens, is rescued by an aging mercenary and becomes an expert archer under his tutelage. Their stories converge as Matilda, the previous king’s heir, escapes her rival, King Stephen, and seeks shelter at Kenniford.

The event-filled plotline includes themes of vengeance and coming-of-age, a hint of romance, and a mystery about a piece of parchment that Em’s attacker will kill to repossess. Her slow recovery from emotional trauma is especially touching.

The cheeky wit and precise descriptions that were Franklin’s hallmarks are as sharp as ever, and the major characters are delightfully human. The book also has a genuine feel for medieval life and times. This unique collaboration is a worthy conclusion to one remarkable career and a promising beginning to another.

This review first appeared in Booklist's January 1st issue.  The Siege Winter is published by Morrow this week in hardcover ($25.99, 352pp) and as an ebook.  In the UK, the book is titled Winter Siege.

I've reviewed several of Ariana Franklin's (aka Diana Norman) books previously on this blog - Fitzempress' Law, her first novel from 1980, and King of the Last Days, which is about as hard to find.  My favorite, though, is Shores of Darkness, historical suspense-adventure set during the time of Queen Anne.  It's an outstanding romp through the late Stuart era.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Spotlight on the historical fiction of Lake Union and some self-published success stories

Today I'm shining a spotlight on Amazon Publishing's Lake Union imprint, which publishes historical and contemporary fiction along with selected nonfiction.  Over the past few months, the number of self-published historical novels being picked up by Lake Union for re-release caught my attention.  The folks in Editorial there are clearly paying attention to sales and reviews for indie novels on Amazon and carefully choosing high-quality titles to acquire for reissue.  The process typically involves editorial revisions as well as a cover redesign.

(Lake Union acquires many original titles, too, including I Am Livia by Phyllis T. Smith, who was interviewed here a year ago.)

Here's a look at some of these formerly self-pubbed titles with their cover makeovers.  A few of these  have featured on this site previously. It's great to see many historical novels getting wider distribution and attention in this way, and I love the broad range of periods and subjects represented. 

The story of Rose Wilder Lane, daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and the collaboration that produced the Little House books.  This was one of my favorites of 2013 (see my earlier review).  The new release date is March 17th, 2015.

A woman is secretly trained by her father in painting in 14th-century Tuscany.  The new edition with this beautiful cover was published in December 2014.

A young midwife in 1775 Boston becomes a spy for the patriot cause and discovers a conspiracy against her good friend Abigail Adams and her family.  The new edition is out on April 7th, 2015.  Jodi Daynard guest posted here in 2013 about her in-depth research into the period.

Here's longtime historical novelist Colin Falconer's story of Isabella of France and her troubled marriage to Edward II of England, which sets her on the path to political rebellion.  New edition out April 21, 2015.

In this decades-spanning saga set in the antebellum South, a strong bond develops between a privileged young woman and the enslaved woman who was her wet nurse.  The revised edition was out in August 2014.

A beautiful maid of honor at Henry VIII's court tries to avert the unwelcome advances of a notorious philanderer by asking the king himself for help.  New edition was released January 2015.

In 406 BC, a young Roman woman marries an Etruscan nobleman to secure a truce between their warring cities. When the political ties between Rome and the Etruscan city of Veii break down, Caecilia has a difficult choice to make.  New edition out April 28, 2015.

Originally published by Pier 9/Murdoch Books in Australia, the book was later self-published on Kindle and print in the US... and subsequently acquired by Lake Union (along with the next two in the series).  Read my reviews of The Wedding Shroud and book 2, The Golden Dice, as well as Elisabeth's guest post on feminine power in Etruscan society.


In addition to the titles above, Libbie Hawker's Tidewater (about Pocahontas; May 17th reissue) and Carol Bodensteiner's Go Away Home (a woman's coming of age, set on the WWI home front in Iowa; June reissue) were picked up by Lake Union, but their new cover art isn't online yet.  As Lavender Ironside, Libbie Hawker has written a series of Egyptian-set novels, beginning with The Sekhmet Bed (which I reviewed in 2012).   Read more about Lake Union's acquisition of Go Away Home at Jenny Quinlan's Historical Editorial blog.

If I'm missing any others, please mention them in the comments.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Review of Fiercombe Manor by Kate Riordan, a dual-period gothic saga

An isolated house allegedly filled with ghostly presences. Two women mired in restrictive social circumstances and linked over a generation. Secrets from the past reawakened years later. Atmospheric and resonant with emotion, Kate Riordan’s saga has many elements of the traditional gothic novel but is in other ways a refreshing departure.

Fiercombe Manor in Gloucestershire, a Tudor-era dwelling crafted of golden stone, sits at the base of a valley “so steep that it’s like an amphitheatre.” As Alice Eveleigh wanders the grounds and gets to know her temporary home during the languid summer of 1933, her observations form an inviting travelogue of this hidden corner of the Cotswolds.

Left pregnant after a brief affair with a married man, Alice is forced by her parents to leave London to stay with her mother’s old friend, Edith Jelphs, the housekeeper at Fiercombe, until the baby is born – after which it will be taken away and brought to an orphanage. Away from her mother’s disapproval, Alice thrives in her new environment, though her pretense of being a widow proves to be tiring. Mrs. Jelphs is kindly but cautiously watchful, more so as Alice begins quietly uncovering a local mystery.

A previous mistress of the estate, Lady Elizabeth Stanton was a dark-haired beauty who lived in nearby Stanton House in the late 19th century and who was pressured to produce a son.  Why was Stanton House dismantled, and what became of Elizabeth and her daughter Isabel?

Hints of tragedy, inherited madness, and restrictions placed upon women wind through this dual-period novel, but while it offers occasional frissons of suspense, it lacks the terrifying menace typically found in the genre. The pacing is leisurely, and despite a past that holds overwhelming sadness, Fiercombe is a lovely setting in which to linger. If you google “Owlpen Manor,” the place that inspired it, you can visualize its charm.

Fiercombe Manor will be published by Harper tomorrow in hardcover ($26.99, 416pp).  The UK title is The Girl in the Photograph.  Thanks to the publisher for enabling access via Edelweiss.  This review first appeared in February's Historical Novels Review.

This is Kate Riordan's second novel; the first, Birdcage Walk, is a murder mystery based on a real-life Edwardian crime.  It's available in the US on Kindle for a mere $2.99, so I snapped it up.

And here's a pic of Owlpen Manor, to save you the extra step of googling.  I would love to visit this beautiful place in person. Its website is here, and the owners even offer holiday cottages (very tempting!).

Owlpen Manor at front right, Holy Cross Church in background. 
© Copyright Derek Harper, licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Book review: The Secrets of Sir Richard Kenworthy, by Julia Quinn

Sir Richard Kenworthy has some big secrets – does he ever. For his own private reasons, he travels south from Yorkshire to London to convince some eligible young lady to wed him at short notice. Quinn’s impressive romance, set in the post-Regency era, details the unusual courtship of Richard and Miss Iris Smythe-Smith both before and after his motives are revealed.

The fourth of five daughters, Iris is a sensible woman who doesn’t attract attention, so she’s puzzled but quietly pleased when Richard asks to call on her. He’s handsome and kind, but what’s the hurry to get married? When he deliberately steals a kiss from her in sight of her aunt, he forces her hand – and when Iris learns his true purpose, her anger is justified.

While the premise feels a bit over-the-top, this novel is rooted in the conventions of its time, when one careless decision could mean social ruin. Both gentle yet witty, Richard and Iris are a well-matched pair. Quinn also accomplishes the near-impossible by redeeming Richard’s character in the eyes of Iris and the reader and by crafting a believable reconciliation.

There are some lovely descriptions of the Yorkshire countryside, and fans of the series (this is book #4) can look forward to more terrible music from the Smythe-Smith string quartet.

Here's a special feature for Valentine's Day: my first review of a historical romance here.  If you've read this novel, what did you think?  According to other reviews I've read, Richard is one of Quinn's more controversial heroes; you'll have to read the novel to see exactly why.

I wrote this review for February's Historical Novels Review; thanks to the publisher for granting me access via Edelweiss.  The Secrets of Sir Richard Kenworthy was published by Avon in 2015 (384pp, $7.99 / $9.99 Can).  The UK publisher is Piatkus (£8.99).  It was named to the LibraryReads list for February.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Charles Todd's A Fine Summer's Day, an Ian Rutledge prequel set in pre-WWI England

This 17th novel in the Ian Rutledge mystery series follows the successful pattern used in many of the previous books. An inspector at Scotland Yard, Rutledge puts considerable mileage on his motorcar, driving all over England interviewing villagers while cunningly assembling clues to track down a killer. His presence is alternately welcomed and resented by the local police, and his wits prove to be as sharp as ever. The difference? This entry turns back the clock six years, just prior to the wartime service that will leave him a haunted, shell-shocked veteran.

In this prequel set in June 1914, Rutledge is just 23, a young policeman with a bright future in the Yard – if he can endure the Chief Superintendent’s antipathy. He’s naïve when it comes to women, though. Newly engaged, he thinks his pretty fiancée Jean Gordon will make him happy, while his sister and friends are doubtful. When he gets called to investigate a hanging in Yorkshire, he finds himself befuddled. The dead man was a successful furniture maker with no known enemies. Before long, Rutledge is assigned to investigate two other murders in different corners of the country, and the victims have similarly unblemished reputations.

Readers are shown the perpetrator at the beginning, but even after Rutledge figures things out, there’s still plenty of mystery left. The story becomes an exciting cat-and-mouse thriller as he pursues his man while determining the “how” and the “why.” Tension and atmosphere are added via Britain’s increasing slide towards war, Jean’s pressure on him to enlist, and his need to clear an innocent man before it’s too late. Despite one outlandish coincidence, this is a suspenseful mystery that grips one’s attention until the end.

A Fine Summer's Day was published in January by William Morrow in hardcover ($25.99 or Can$33.50, 352pp).  This review first appeared in February's Historical Novels Review.

Some other notes:

- If you haven't already noticed, the "elegant country house" cover is on its way to becoming as prevalent as the "headless woman" cover.  This doesn't indicate, in either case, that the books are all the same or even close to similar style-wise, though. 

- Yes, this is 17th in a series, but because it's a prequel, you can read it first without any trouble.  (I'm not one who needs to read series books in order, but I know others prefer to do that.)  I've read many books in the Ian Rutledge series so far, including #1, 15, and 16, but not all of them yet.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Lawrence Hill's bestselling The Book of Negroes, coming to American TV in mid-February

Hill’s third novel, a Canadian bestseller, is a masterful example of historical storytelling, one both heartbreaking and hopeful.

When slavers wrest 11-year-old Aminata Diallo from her West African village in 1745, she vows to remember everything. After enduring the harrowing Middle Passage, she becomes the property of a South Carolina indigo farmer whose overseer notes her intelligence and secretly teaches her to read.

Whether keeping books for a Jewish businessman in Revolutionary-era Manhattan, documenting her fellow Black Loyalists before their transport to Nova Scotia (reflecting Hill’s original title, The Book of Negroes), or joining the British colony of Freetown, Sierra Leone, Aminata retains her self-respect. Throughout her life, she holds tightly to the idea of freedom for everyone forced into slavery, and to her love for the African husband from whom she’s constantly separated.

By the time Aminata journeys to London in 1802 as a symbol of the abolitionist movement, readers will have witnessed the dehumanizing slave trade from inside and out. An unforgettable epic, seen through the eyes of a sharply realized, indomitable heroine.

The review above first appeared in Booklist's 10/15/2007 issue.  The book's U.S. edition was published by Norton under the title Someone Knows My Name. (For background on how that came about, read the author's piece in the Guardian, "Why I'm Not Allowed My Book Title.") And for the record, the "Book of Negroes" is an important historical document, one that lists the over 3000 black refugees who arrived in Nova Scotia following the American Revolution.

I had mentioned the original title in the review to honor the writer's choice and to alert readers that Someone Knows My Name and The Book of Negroes were the same book.

The Book of Negroes, which won the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, was selected for Canada Reads in 2013 and has become a modern classic.

Norton has re-released the novel in trade paperback (image at top left) to coincide with the American premiere of the six-part TV miniseries based on the book, which stars Cuba Gooding Jr., Jane Alexander, Louis Gossett, Jr., and Aunjanue Ellis as Aminata.  It will be shown on BET on February 16, 17, and 18; check your local listings for times.  My DVR is set to record it.  For the Canadian readers who have been watching it on CBC, what did you think?

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Mystery meets the Manhattan Project: Diane Fanning's Scandal in the Secret City

The high-security, covert area known as Oak Ridge, Tennessee – over 50,000 acres of land set aside by the U.S. government for the development of a nuclear bomb – has great potential as the setting for a historical mystery. Fanning’s intricate and smart new novel makes excellent use of the material.

Libby Clark, a recent UPenn grad with a master’s in analytical chemistry, is thrilled to get a job offer from Eastman Kodak since there aren’t many employers in 1942 who’d hire a female scientist. The utter secrecy under which she’s ordered to carry out her tasks turns sinister, though, when her former roommate’s sister is murdered.

Irene Nance was an easygoing young woman with an active love life. When Irene’s body is mysteriously moved (something the authorities deny doing), Libby suspects a cover-up but doesn’t know the reasons why. Having promised Irene’s family to seek justice for her, Libby gets stonewalled at every turn and takes a huge risk by pursuing an investigation. That’s on top of dealing with sexist remarks from coworkers with less technical knowledge than she has.

The timeline feels a little awkward in the beginning with its multiple-flashback structure, but this is a minor issue. The geographical layout and high-pressure atmosphere of Oak Ridge are re-created in extensive detail, as is the curious plight of its scientists, who are simultaneously proud of their work for the war effort and concerned about what they believe is their project’s end result.

Libby herself is a brave and admirable career woman, and seeing her in action, carefully hunting the truth while refusing to play down her expertise, makes for a very satisfying story. There are enough clues for readers to guess the killer well before Libby does, but even so, her appearance in future volumes in the series is eagerly awaited.

Scandal in the Secret City was published by Severn House in 2014 in hardcover ($28.95 or £19.99, 256pp).  Thanks to the publisher for approving my NetGalley access.  This review first appeared in February's Historical Novels Review.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Congratulations to the historical fiction winners of the 2015 ALA RUSA awards

I was in the audience when the winners of this year's book and media awards from the American Library Association's RUSA (Reference & User Services Association) were announced earlier tonight in Chicago.  Congratulations to all of the winning and short-listed authors! 

Because of this blog's focus, I'll specifically list just the winners that fit with the genre of historical fiction.

Among the 2015 selections for the Reading List, the year's best in genre fiction:

In Historical Fiction, the winner was Kate Forsyth's Bitter Greens (Thomas Dunne, 2014), a retelling of "Rapunzel" set in 17th-century France and a century earlier in Italy.  Read my interview with Kate, which was based on the original Australian edition.  It's great to see the novel receiving such acclaim in the US.

The Historical Fiction shortlist included Amy Belding Brown's Flight of the Sparrow (colonial New England); Nicola Griffith's Hild (Anglo-Saxon England); James Lee Burke's Wayfaring Stranger (1940s US); and Ariel Lawhon's The Wife, the Maid and the Mistress (Jazz Age Manhattan).

In Mystery, the winner was Ashley Weaver's Murder at the Brightwell (Minotaur, 2014), a Golden Age-style murder mystery set at a resort in '30s England.  Read my review from last fall.

On the Mystery shortlist was Bruce Holsinger's historical thriller A Burnable Book.

Among the 26 titles on ALA's list of Notable Books, a best-of list for adult readers, was Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See (WWII France) and Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North (WWII-era POWs in southeast Asia; the recent Booker Prize winner).

Congrats also to my Booklist editor, Brad Hooper, for winning the 2015 Louis Shores Award for book reviewing.  Very well deserved!