Monday, April 29, 2013

Book review and commentary: Naomi Alderman's The Liars' Gospel

Storytelling is the lying art; a tale can’t be separated from its teller’s motives. This premise underlies Alderman’s daring new novel, which—rather than repeating the laudatory accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—follows four individuals who interacted with Jesus (here called Yehoshuah) just before the Crucifixion.

His mother, Miryam, mourns him and his abandonment of his birth family; Iehuda can’t accept his charismatic friend’s intolerance for dissent and growing sense of entitlement and feels obligated to betray him. For Caiaphas, high priest of Jerusalem’s temple, subduing one rabble-rousing preacher is of lesser importance than appeasing Pontius Pilate and questioning his wife’s fidelity, while Bar-Avo (Barabbas) incites violence against his people’s oppressors.

Fabrications about Yehoshuah are spoken by many, whether to entertain, mislead, or provide comfort to others. Alderman presents an unabashedly Jewish perspective, and she re-creates first-century Judea, a land subjugated by tyrannical Rome, in intense, brutal detail. Religion and politics deeply intertwine in this profound work, which expresses blunt truths about leadership while exploring the healthy nature of debate about one’s faith.

The Liars' Gospel was published in March by Little, Brown (hb, $25.99, 320pp). Viking published it in the UK, and it's now out in paperback there (£8.99).  I covered this one for Booklist's Feb 15th issue.  Since then, I've been reading others' opinions about this novel, and since it reinterprets the life of Jesus, the reaction is about what I expected.  Some Christian readers find it "borderline blasphemous" (as one Amazon reviewer did), while for others, it will stimulate and enlighten as it presents a new perspective on a story well known to most of us.  Perhaps more than anything else, it exposes recorded history as the malleable, contentious, and biased thing that it is. I found it thought-provoking and very much worth reading.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

On Tanis Rideout's Above All Things, climbing mountains, and reader expectations

What a spectacular and heartrending novel.

Tanis Rideout's Above All Things proves how a talented writer can transform a reader's attitude toward a subject. George Mallory's expedition to Mt. Everest in 1924 hadn't ever been something I'd thought much about, or if I did, it rather frightened me.  I don't like heights, and although I love vacationing in the mountains and gazing at the gorgeous views, my preferred sight of them is from the bottom. 

Which is to say – I felt I would be the natural audience for precisely half of this book.  Above All Things interweaves the experiences of Mallory, on his third and final attempt to scale Everest, and that of his wife, Ruth, as she passes an ordinary day at her home in Cambridge, England, caring for their three children and barely holding things together in his absence.  Part domestic narrative from a woman's viewpoint, part energetic adventure.  What would life have been like for Ruth, being married to a man who loved her passionately but whose uncontrollable ambition kept driving him away and into danger?  That's what interested me the most.

To my surprise, I found myself absorbed by both accounts. I began reading with a knot in my stomach, dreading the novel's inevitable tragic ending, but it slowly unraveled as I became caught by the poignant love story and the particulars of the treacherous climb.  Even more, I've been googling for information on Everest and Mallory ever since I finished.

In 1924, ten years after the British were called to fight a war "for King and Country," George is asked to join one last Everest expedition, the invitation citing the same call to honor. He had made two previous (failed) attempts to the summit and had promised Ruth that he was through with the mountain, but he can't resist its pull, and the chance for personal, professional, and national glory if he succeeds.

Ruth's story uses first-person present tense, while George's is third-person past.  Both unfold with the same level of intimacy.  Each of them looks back on key moments from their life together, so their accounts frequently overlap and blend. 

Her life without him back home is a struggle, attempting to hide her intense fear while keeping up a normal family life and presenting a positive outlook to the reporters who badger her for information on George.  Through her viewpoint, her quiet strength emerges, as well as her resentment at being left behind – and her continued love for him, regardless of the outcome.

George's part of the tale is completely fascinating.  What an immense production it was for his team and the dozens of porters who dragged supplies for miles up the Himalayas. Then there was the multi-stage process for the climb to the peak, the brutally cold wind, the blistering sun, and the thin air which makes it hard to breathe and hinders mental clarity.  I felt like I was making the trek alongside them, step by perilous step.  

Also, this was the 1920s, when the use of canned oxygen was controversial while taking cigarette breaks en route was unquestioned!  With no path already mapped out, the climbers must rely on George to guide them.  "The ice shows you, if you know how to read it," he tells Sandy Irvine, one of his fellow explorers: "It's like a slow river."

Sandy's is the third viewpoint included, and it makes the novel all the richer – and all the more tragic.  Andrew "Sandy" Irvine is a 21-year-old Oxford student with minimal mountaineering experience, but he has youth and physical strength on his side.  He has an appealing boyish confidence and looks to George to lead them up and down Everest safely.  Sandy has left behind disappointed family members who don't understand his need to take the risk, as well as a messy love affair.  It takes time for him to grasp the true human cost of their endeavor, and his realization is a painful, pivotal moment.

The author takes some liberties with dates and characters. Although she comes clean about them in her note at the end, I found myself needing to unlearn some things after I was done.  Still, this didn't lessen the impact the book had on me.  Not just a gripping novel of high adventure, Above All Things also looks deep within to examine the forces that motivate us and drive us on, as well as the high price we can pay for the things we desire most.  I certainly recommend it to historical fiction readers, Everest buffs or not.

Above All Things was published by Viking Penguin (UK) in March at £12.99 (trade pb, 385pp, cover art at top).  It also appears in hardcover from Putnam/Amy Einhorn ($26.95) and from McClelland & Stewart in Canada (C$22.00).  For more background details, see also Tanis Rideout's earlier guest post about the artifacts she used in her research.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Book review: Equal of the Sun, by Anita Amirrezvani

Amirrezvani’s lush and tautly suspenseful followup to The Blood of Flowers (2007) is set in a treacherous sixteenth-century court. Her splendid heroine is ambitious, proud, and refuses to marry. A canny strategist dedicated to her country’s preservation, she is too confident of her abilities to let an incompetent man rule.

Unlike the faraway queen of a “less important Christian kingdom,” however, Princess Pari Khan Khanoom, favorite daughter of Iran’s late shah, can never claim the throne and must conceal herself behind a velvet curtain while advising the nobility.

When the half-brother whose reign she initially supports turns into a paranoid tyrant, Pari takes matters into her own hands. Javaher, a eunuch who knows harem affairs and male politics equally well, becomes her loyal advisor while seeking his father’s killer.

The cast is large, the surroundings elaborate and colorful as this unlikely pair forms a strong alliance amid the intense and often shocking drama. Historical novels can serve to highlight the accomplishments of overlooked historical women, and Pari is a most deserving subject.

This review was written for Booklist last July.  The paperback is out now from Scribner, with a new cover as above ($17, 464pp).  With the 175-word limit for reviews, not everything could be spelled out in full, so here are some additional points I thought I'd make for potential readers:

(1)  We could use more fiction with settings like this.
(2)  The cutthroat politics of Equal of the Sun make the court intrigue of The Other Boleyn Girl feel like a summer playground. 
(3)  This is the sort of historical novel that drops you right into a foreign culture without anything familiar to cling to.  It takes active work to make the mental adjustments, but once there, it's an immersive experience.  Think Cecelia Holland, Pauline Gedge, Michael Ennis, or Maurice Druon for comparisons.
(4)  See (1).

Monday, April 22, 2013

Writing a WWII Novel: A guest post by Ruth Francisco

Ruth Francisco, author of the WWII-era novel Camp Sunshine, is my guest at Reading the Past today. She has written her post in the form of a Q&A, discussing her research into the period, why the Florida Panhandle caught her attention as a setting, how she creates her characters, and why she chose to publish on Amazon Kindle after years of writing for large New York publishers.  Welcome, Ruth!

Writing a WWII novel 
Ruth Francisco  

Ruth Francisco worked in the film industry for 15 years before selling her first novel Confessions of a Deathmaiden to Warner Books in 2003, followed by Good Morning, Darkness, which was selected by Publishers Weekly as one of the ten best mysteries of 2004, and The Secret Memoirs of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

She now has nine novels, including the bestseller Amsterdam 2012, published as ebooks. She currently lives in Florida. 

Tell us about your novel.

Camp Sunshine is based on the true story of Camp Gordon Johnston, a WWII amphibious training camp on Florida's desolate Gulf coast.

Here, twenty thousand young recruits test themselves to the limit in love and combat; politicos and tycoons offer aid with one eye to profit; women patrol the coast on horseback, looking for German subs; a postmaster's daughter, the only child on base, inspires thousands with her radio broadcasts; and a determined woman bravely holds together her family and the emotional soul of the camp.

But when Commanding Officer, Major Occam Goodwin, discovers a murdered black family deep in the forest, he must dance delicately around military politics, and a race war that threatens the entire war effort. Amid tragedy and betrayal, victory and terror, the fate of the soldiers and their country hangs perilously in the balance, as each endeavors to find his destiny.

What's the most important thing in writing an historical novel as opposed to other fiction?

In a word, research. I did an incredible amount of research for this novel. The vastness of my ignorance when it came to WWII military history was epic, so I had to do epic amounts of reading. I interviewed WWII vets. I visited WWII museums, especially photo archives. I watched WWII Army training films. Camp Gordon Johnston had a newspaper written by the troops, called The Amphibian, and I spent a month reading every issue on microfiche.

Black troops, Camp Gordon Johnston
Research can surprise you and can lead you in new directions. In my research, I learned of the Double V campaign, which was an African-American civil rights movement intent on integrating the armed services during WWII. I'd never heard of it, and found it fascinating. Suddenly, I found myself with a subplot, which added depth to the novel. It made the story important.

When writing historical fiction, how free can you be with historical fact? It is fiction, after all.

Certain things you can't mess with. Big events. You can't have the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 8, 1940. If your characters talk about the song “White Christmas” in 1942, you better be sure that it was written by then. Your readers are smarter than you are. They know more history. They make sport of catching oxymorons.

With lesser known events you can use “artistic license,” especially for little-known historic characters. For instance, I read that two twelve-year-old girls ran a radio station out of Panama City for WWII pilots in training. So I had my postmaster's daughter do the same thing, although the “real” postmaster's daughter was not a DJ. I changed the names of some of the officers who ran the camp because I wanted to involve them in a crime. You can make an historic character a murderer, but you have to be careful. It has to make sense.

In other words, with minor characters, motivations, thoughts, and feelings—let your imagination run wild. Historic events, details—stick to the facts.

Do you have any “tricks” for historical novel writing?

I study photos. I study the clothes and hairstyles. I try to imagine what the people are thinking in the picture, what came before the picture was taken, what came after. When I wrote The Secret Memoirs of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, I wrote almost exclusively from pictures. For instance, the famous picture of Jackie leaving the White House for the inaugural ball—I started with the event, then had her remember all the events that led up to that moment. One picture was an entire chapter.

In this book, I was particularly captured by the photos of WWII training maneuvers, and tried to imagine how an eighteen-year-old boy would react to having bombs explode all around him, waist-high in a swamp, stepping on creepy-crawly creatures. How frightened he must've been. There's a picture of civilian women sewing uniforms for the soldiers, and I get such a sense of dedication and sacrifice—so alien to our culture.

I also read a lot of fiction from the era, which is loads of fun, attentive to jargon, word usage, and attitudes. I listened to a lot of WWII era radio, G.I. Jill, Command Performance, all those great WWII shows. I also studied the pop culture of the era, the songs and dances.

You cannot assume people in another era would behave as you might to a situation.

I recall seeing the 1982 film The Return of Martin Guerre, set in 16th-century France, how tense and wild the people seemed, and it struck me profoundly—if you lived in an environment where you were constantly challenged, constantly on guard for a knife, constantly suspicious, constantly hungry, of course it would make you different. Writers often get caught with their characters having the same values and feelings of contemporary people. But people are different. The lines they will not cross. Their values. Their expectations. You have to use all the resources available to put yourself there. Imagine with all five senses, how things smelled and tasted.

Why did you add a mystery element to an historical novel?

The reason I tend to stick to the mystery/thriller genre, even when I'm writing an historical novel, is that I think it really helps to focus storytelling. A mystery demands a certain pacing. It demands parceling out of clues and information. It forces you to reveal character through action. I feel it really helps me as a writer to have a structured genre.

Where did you get the idea for your WWII story?

When I first drove to the Florida Panhandle from Los Angeles five years ago, I was smitten by the unspoiled beauty of the place. Thousands of Monarch butterflies flitted around my car as I drove down to Alligator Point. The first morning I woke to mullet jumping in the canal and screeching great blue herons. I looked out the window and saw snowy egrets and bald eagles. White squirrels jumping between branches of the pine trees. I had to write about this area.

One day I met a fisherman throwing a cast net into the water and asked him to show me how. We got to talking. When he heard I was a writer, he told me a local story about several dozen soldiers who lost their lives during a WWII training exercise while at Camp Gordon Johnston, how the tragedy was covered up.

Camp Gordon Johnston

So a few weeks later, I visited the WWII museum in Carrabelle, Florida and started doing research and interviewing people. I got completely sucked into the research, spending hours in the museum reading old newspapers. Everything fascinated me—especially the newspaper advertisements—from girdles to hair tonic. I started interviewing locals. Everyone had something to add.

I got overloaded with info, and had to step back for a few years. It wasn't until I interviewed Vivian Hess, who had been a little girl on the Camp Gordon Johnston Army base, that I felt I had a hook. Her stories were enchanting, and I felt I had to tell the story.

How do you keep a book character-driven when you have historical events that have to be covered? 

You almost have to approach your characters as if you were an actor, imaging how you would feel, how you would react to historical events.

Despite all the WWII coverage, Camp Sunshine is definitely character-driven—told from the voices of an officer, a soldier, a little girl, and the wife of the postmaster. However, there were some factual events—like the drowning of dozens of soldiers in a training incident—that I had to include in the plot. And there were other historical elements I wanted to include, like the Black Regiments, and the Higgins crafts. It was hard, but extremely enjoyable to figure a way to integrate them into the story.

How do your characters “come” to you? How closely are they based on real characters or people you know? 

The character Vivian Thatcher is based on my interviews with Vivian Hess, the real postmaster's daughter. Yet, as I wrote about her, the character separated herself from the real person, becoming increasingly impish and inventive. I wanted Major Goodwin to be a man of absolute integrity, but as I wrote him, he took on depth, becoming a man of great sorrow and great compassion. Vivian's mother was somewhat based on my own mother, but soon she became this incredibly strong woman who'd made great sacrifices, yet still yearned to be adventurous and free.

In my experience, you have a vision for your characters, but then, as the story unfolds, they become their own person. Some take on characteristics of friends and family. The imagination works from what it knows. It is a little odd. Like giving birth to children—you don't really know how they'll turn out. Inevitably, they turn out more interesting than you could possibly imagine.

What do you hope your readers come away with after reading your book? 

I hope readers will feel as if they’ve time-traveled back to 1943. They'll hear the big band music and blues, and sense the incredible vitality of the whole country pulling together for the war effort. It inspires me how selfless people were. When I started the research, I didn't know that the Civil Rights Movement had its beginnings in WWII with soldiers agitating for an integrated military. I didn't know about jook joints. I didn't know about how the industrial war complex manipulated the war effort, how it all affected race relations in the South. So I hope readers will be as fascinated as I was with the history, as well as being entertained with the antics of the characters.

You have been traditionally published by two big publishers. Why did you decide to publish directly to Kindle?

I got started publishing on Kindle several years ago. My publisher turned down my fourth book, Amsterdam 2012, which was highly controversial. The fatwa against Salman Rushdie and his publishers was still fresh in their minds. So I published to Kindle and sold 1000 books the first weekend. I suddenly realized how quickly the whole publishing industry was changing.

At one time, agents discouraged writers from publishing on Kindle, thinking it would prevent the book from getting sold to a traditional publisher. But that is no longer true (Fifty Shades of Grey case in point). Traditional publishers now routinely offer contracts to people who have published ebooks. I no longer have patience to wait for my agent to sell a book. That can take six months. Then a year to get published once you sign a contract.

But if you published an ebook, you are selling books in a day. You are getting responses from readers. You can make changes based on those responses, if you want to. You have an open dialogue with your readers. They become part of the writing process, part of the storytelling process, in an almost traditional way—as if they were sitting around a campfire, reacting to your story. I love this. And if the book gets picked up by a DTB publisher, I will have a better book.

Anything else you'd like to add?

Maybe a few words for new writers.

Don’t wait for an agent. Don’t wait for a publisher. I am a huge advocate for Kindle publishing both for new writers and established writers. You can immediately make some money from your writing, which makes you feel like a writer. You get immediate feedback from readers, which is exciting, improves your work, and makes you realize that, yes, you are writing for an audience. You can make changes on your published material. Traditional publishing is on its way out: it is no longer economically sustainable for publishers; it is too slow to respond to the marketplace; and people are more mobile than ever—they don’t want to lug around a library of books every time they move.

Simply put, Kindle writing is the future of writing: exciting, dynamic, and very likely more profitable for writers. It makes literature suddenly relevant to readers in a new way.


Camp Sunshine is available on Amazon Kindle at $3.99.  Visit the author on Twitter at @kayakruthie and on Facebook.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Bestselling historical novels of 2012

This annual look at the bestselling historical novels in the U.S. from the past year is online a little late.  Publishers Weekly's Facts & Figures issue, which listed the hottest-selling titles from 2012, was published on March 18th.  The subtitle of Daisy Maryles' compilation for hardcovers is "Familiar names dominate, but units continue to erode."  In other words, we're seeing many of the same authors on the list, but fewer print editions are being sold... whereas for e-books, sales have exploded.

The usual disclaimer-y preface applies.  Books with hardcover domestic print sales over 100K were included in PW's list; publishers were asked to take returns into account through 2/15, but these figures weren't often available at the time.

Here are the historical novels that made it on the list.  See also my previous posts on this topic from 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008 and 2007.

Among the top 15, there's only one historical novel:

#7  Ken Follett, Winter of the World, at 400,000+ copies.

Other mega-popular titles:  J.K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy was at #1 with 1.3 million copies sold.  We also have the usual suspects like James Patterson and John Grisham, plus other mysteries and thrillers, including Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl at #3.

Other historical novels with 100K+ hardcover copies sold, in descending order of sales:

Deborah Harkness, Shadow of Night (at 170,000+ copies)
Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies
Dennis Lehane, Live By Night
Amor Towles, Rules of Civility
Ayana Mathis, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
M.L. Stedman, The Light Between Oceans
Clive Cussler and Justin Scott, The Thief: An Isaac Bell Adventure
Ian McEwan, Sweet Tooth
Jeffrey Archer, Sins of the Father
Christopher Moore, Sacre Bleu

Most of these are continuing volumes in popular series, or new releases from previously bestselling authors.  PW notes that Rules of Civility and The Light Between Oceans are debut novels with "glowing reviews and impressive sales."  So is Twelve Tribes of Hattie, which was also, of course, an Oprah book club pick; note also that it came out on December 6th, so we may see it on next year's list, too.  Sweet Tooth is set in 1972, so not everyone will call it historical fiction, but it was promoted as such by the publisher.

Which ones have you read?  Alas, for me, only Winter of the World so far... my review is here.

Looking at the paperback bestsellers, George R.R. Martin dominates the mass market list, and no historicals are listed in this short section.  Mass market isn't a popular format for the genre.  Among trade paperbacks, we have Seth Grahame-Smith's Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter at 300K+ copies, then Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus, Paula McLain's The Paris Wife, Daisy Goodwin's The American Heiress, Kathleen Grissom's The Kitchen House (wonderful book; so glad to see this one succeed), The Dovekeepers, Rules of Civility again, in its pb edition, and a few more.  PW observes that the Fifty Shades books sold over 29 million copies (yes, 29 million copies) in trade paper, and over 15 million as e-books.  Nothing else comes close.

For e-book sales among historicals:  Stephen King's 11/22/63 and Kathryn Stockett's The Help are high up there with 400K+ copies apiece, plus some familiar faces: longtime book club favorite Water for Elephants, that vampire hunter again, Ken Follett, M.L. Stedman, and many other titles from the print lists. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Amy Brill's The Movement of Stars, about a female astronomer in 1840s Nantucket

Amy Brill has loosely tethered her fictional protagonist to the life story of Maria Mitchell, America’s first “lady astronomer,” though Hannah Gardner Price is very much her own person. Like her literary sisters from Cape Cod and the Islands – Sena Jeter Naslund’s Una Spenser, Geraldine Brooks’ Bethia Mayfield, and all of Sally Gunning’s historical heroines – Hannah is an intelligent, singular woman who bends the conventions of her time.

With a deep sensitivity to character and place, The Movement of Stars reveals her story. It is a luminously written novel about connections, both scientific and emotional, and how the people around us can either limit or expand our world.

Hannah is an admirable character who’s difficult to warm to, at first. Unwed at age 24 in the year 1845, she keeps her personal feelings under control – except when it comes to the wondrous sights in the night sky she observes from her roof walk in Nantucket Town. Her Quaker community values women’s education, and she has already surpassed what her father Nathaniel, a former astronomer turned banker, can teach her.

Using her Dollond telescope, Hannah hopes to discover a comet, which will not only vindicate her pursuits but could earn her a medal from the King of Denmark, which could fund future research and let her become self-supporting. Otherwise, she will have to move with her father to his future wife’s home in Philadelphia or find someone convenient to marry. She doesn’t like either option, and her predicament is painful and heartfelt: “The idea that she had always been powerless over her own future, but not realized it, was excruciating.” Hannah has been so occupied with stargazing that she has miscalculated her own future… but that’s nothing compared with what’s to come.

When the dark-skinned Azorean second-mate of a whaling vessel, Isaac Martin, asks her for instruction in navigation to improve his skill (and therefore his lot in life), Hannah takes him on as a pupil. Their association and growing closeness cause a disturbance that threatens her continued acceptance by her fellow Quakers. One scene in which Hannah lets Isaac guide her imagination is moving and powerfully rendered, and when she begins to question the ideals she was brought up to believe, the plot intensifies and really begins to take off.

With loving devotion to detail, Brill paints a vibrant picture of Nantucket and Quaker life in the mid-19th century: the seaside buildings, the bonnets and drab colors worn by believers, the plain speech with which they address each other, and their remoteness from the mainland – and how communication between scientists was slowed but not hindered by physical distance. Hannah has colleagues at Harvard, family friends who encourage her efforts, and it’s rewarding to see the mutual support system that lets her thrive.

Within her own town, though, people aren’t as understanding. Her status as a junior librarian and amateur astronomer is respected, if considered eccentric for an unmarried woman. However, while Quakers abhor slavery and favor manumission, their tolerance for the influence of outsiders, especially those of another race, has limits. One of the novel’s most strongly evoked themes involves the point at which industrious self-reliance becomes close-mindedness and xenophobia. “Socializing with the world’s people was grounds for disownment from Meeting these days,” Brill writes of Hannah and Isaac. “How had they strayed so far off course?”

Struggling within an atmosphere of social repression, Hannah stands fast, and her hesitancy to act on occasion makes her seem more real. The members of her family are equally as well defined, and the author’s prose is lyrical and poignant, the one distraction being repeated use of the same nautical metaphors. The novel’s finale suits the times as well as the personality of its complex, spirited protagonist. This breathtaking debut about the mysteries of the heavens and the heart honors the perseverance of trailblazing women everywhere.

The Movement of Stars was published today, April 18th, by Riverhead (hb, $27.95, 380pp).  Penguin will publish it in the UK on May 9th (pb, £7.99).  The review copy was provided by the publisher for LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Giveaway opportunity: The Divine Sacrifice by Anthony Hays (UK edition)

Today I'm offering up two signed copies of the UK edition of Anthony Hays' The Divine Sacrifice, the second volume in his Arthurian Mystery series (each one can stand alone).

The Divine Sacrifice takes Malgwyn ap Cuneglas, a former soldier now in the service of King Arthur, to the fabled Ynys-witrin, otherwise known as Glastonbury.  Here he looks into the suspicious death of an elderly monk, and meanwhile the priest later to be known as St. Patrick has just arrived at the abbey to investigate rumors of Pelagian heresy.

I had done an interview with Tony for my blog back in 2010, when the US edition of The Divine Sacrifice was first published.  When he mentioned the possibility of a giveaway for the newly released UK edition, I said sure!  It was published by Atlantic Books in paperback on April 3rd (£7.99, pb, 304pp).

Note: This opportunity is open to readers in the US; the author will be mailing the books out to the winners, and will sign them if desired.  Please fill out the form for a chance to win.  Deadline Friday, April 26th.  Good luck!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Book review: Shadow on the Crown, by Patricia Bracewell

Shadow on the Crown may be Patricia Bracewell's debut, but the writing is that of an accomplished author with a skilled use of language and fine sense of dramatic timing. She uses both to outstanding effect in her story of Emma of Normandy, a courageous young woman charged with an impossible task. At only fifteen in the year 1001, Emma is chosen over her sickly elder sister to become the “peaceweaver” bride of Æthelred II, King of England.

“The politics of marriage appeared to be every bit as complicated as the politics of kings,” Emma thinks, and she’s absolutely right. She is meant to cement an alliance between King Æthelred and her brother Richard, Duke of Normandy, in their mutual defense against the Danes, but Richard doesn’t intend to keep his end of the bargain. Even more, Emma’s intended husband is a much older man with seven living sons who mistrusts everyone and remains tormented by his martyred brother’s death.

The author incorporates a shrewd use of perspective.  Emma’s youth, resilience, and strength of will are revealed from her standpoint; at the same time, sensual noblewoman Elgiva of Northampton, one of her rivals, jealously observes how Emma's political savvy and genuine nature earn her the devotion of England’s clergy and commoners. Emma is a bright vision in a grim, unsettling world, and her remarkable journey to maturity and power progresses credibly.

While he isn’t really admirable or even likeable, Æthelred’s character makes for a fascinating study of guilt and motivation. The fourth viewpoint comes from Æthelred’s eldest son, Athelstan – there are many similar names here, but the people are easily distinguishable within the story’s context – a young man who can’t ever win with his father and who finds himself drawn to Emma (and vice versa).

The novel presents a panoramic view of the times that's full of memorable images of dwellings and landscapes, from the intricately carved oak beams at the royal court at Winchester to the Danes’ brutal siege of Exeter, an event that serves as the catalyst for much of the later action. Unlike many other novels about English royalty, too, this one gives readers a welcome glimpse of the countryside far from London. Occasional excerpts from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a major source for the historical backdrop, add texture to the overall picture.

Shadow on the Crown gets my unqualified recommendation, and it’s clear by the end that Emma’s story has only begun. The otherworldly foretelling imagined in the prologue hasn’t yet come true, for one, but even knowing the basics of the history, I can’t wait to see how these four characters’ entangled stories will play out.

Shadow on the Crown was published in February by Viking (hb, $27.95 or $29.50 Can, 416pp). HarperCollins UK will publish it in June (hb, £14.99, 432pp).

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Looking at historical novels published by century, and more

Happy Saturday, and happy National Library Week!  Hope you're having a good weekend.  I'm glad the snowy season is finally behind us.  Green is starting to appear on the lower trees in our backyard woods, and the daffodils in our front yard are in full bloom.

Over the past few days I've been putting together an analysis of the historical novels for adults covered in the last year's worth of the Historical Novels Review -- which is 911 titles in all.  The magazine organizes its reviews primarily by century.  Which centuries and eras were the most popular?  Jump on over to the Historical Novel Society website to see the results... they may surprise you.  Do the time periods that publishers are offering reflect what you like to read?

Also, as more fall catalogs appear, I've been adding titles to the HNS's list of forthcoming books for 2013.

It's going to be a slow weekend here, which is fine by me.  I'm halfway through Tanis Rideout's Above All Things and hope to have a review up soon.  Other than that, I'm working on getting an entry ready for my campus's annual Edible Book Festival on Monday.  I'm not convinced it will win a prize, but it's worth a shot!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Book review: The Ashford Affair, by Lauren Willig

I'm so glad the days of the sweeping generational saga are back. Downton Abbey and Kate Morton both deserve credit for this, and I couldn't be more pleased; my personal reading tastes have become fashionable at last!

The Ashford Affair is a departure for Lauren Willig in some ways but not in others. While leaving Napoleonic spies behind, she incorporates the same smart dialogue and multiple-time format in her newest book, which follows the lives of two women over 70 years apart who are linked through family ties and secrets. I sped through it in just under two days, regretting the intervening time when I had to go to work and sleep.

The heroines are Addie Gillecote, who arrives at Ashford Park, a grand English country house, in 1906 as an orphaned poor relation; and her granddaughter, Clementine Evans, a workaholic attorney in New York City in 1999. Clemmie's high-pressure legal career has resulted in a broken engagement and has made her late for her Granny Addie's 99th birthday party, to her mother's dismay.

Within the book's first chapter, a tantalizing genealogical problem presents itself. Clemmie also gets her first hint about a long-held family mystery when her grandmother, her mind drifting with old age or overmedication, calls her by an unfamiliar name. She becomes curious about the reason why and receives help in her quest from her aunt's stepson, Jon, a university professor with whom she shares witty quips (and memories of a weekend in Rome years ago that they've agreed not to talk about).

From the outset, the plot darts quickly among several eras and locales, forcing readers to trust the author to reveal each piece of her tale in its appropriate time. Fortunately the novel's structure is sound and easy to grasp.

Addie's changing relationship with her sophisticated cousin Bea sits at the center of the earlier storyline. Bea befriends Addie as a child and shelters her from the snippy remarks of her mother, Lady Ashford, who had opened her house to Addie only reluctantly. The two girls grow up together in a glittering prewar era of debutante balls and instruction in the social graces. But by 1926, when Addie arrives in Nairobi to stay with Bea and her husband Frederick on their coffee plantation, their closeness has become awkward... and it has everything to do with the as-yet-unknown past she shared with Frederick.

All of this takes place within the first few chapters, and I won't say more about what occurs. The background behind these situations is revealed bit by bit, and the telling held my attention throughout. The ending is fabulous, also, going one step above what I expected.

Historical fiction readers will likely take greater interest in Addie's story than Clemmie's, and not only because the earlier time period is intrinsically fascinating. These characters are moving through events that shaped the modern world, and the author illustrates how World War I shifted priorities and ruined lives, even those of the individuals fortunate enough to survive. The action sweeps from upscale Jazz-Age London soirees to the red dust and intense heat of Kenya; it succeeds at providing a wide-angle look at the times while tracing one woman's personal journey.

In addition, for me Addie was the more likeable and admirable character, doing her best with the lot she'd been given. Clemmie, while obviously a brilliant career woman, needs more than just a nudge to have her eyes opened to what truly matters in life, and with her frenetic schedule, it's no wonder she was unable to sustain a romantic relationship.

The Ashford Affair is billed as "bringing an Out of Africa feel to a Downton Abbey cast of characters," which is valid to some extent. I would have liked to have seen more of Addie's later life in Kenya, in addition to the nostalgic photographs which Clemmie comes across decades later, although maybe it's fitting that some aspects of the past remain elusive. As a saga, I found it very satisfying overall, and I'd certainly recommend it to anyone interested in the WWI and post-Edwardian eras.

Thanks to the publisher for providing an ARC as a FirstReads giveaway on Goodreads (this review was first published there in January). The Ashford Affair was published by St. Martin's Press on April 9th ($24.99, hb, 352pp).

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Boer War: Britain's Vietnam, a guest post by T.D. Griggs

T.D. (Tim) Griggs has written up an insightful post about the last days of empire, comparing Britain in the late 1800s with America in the next century.  Tim's most recent novel, Distant Thunder, is an epic love story set against the politically troubled, class-conscious backdrop of India, England, and the Sudan in late Victorian times.  The paperback edition appeared from Orion in January (£7.99, 464pp). Welcome, Tim!

The Boer War: Britain's Vietnam
T.D. Griggs

What a time the 1890s must have been if you were British.

Britain was the world’s sole superpower. It controlled, directly or indirectly, something like one-third of the world’s population and land area. Most international trade was carried in British ships, and much of it consisted of British manufactures. British language and culture was hugely influential, and in many parts of the world overwhelmed local cultures, especially among the educated elites. 

In the 1960s, the United States occupied a remarkably similar position. Its de facto empire spread across Asia, Africa and South America. America’s colourful, vibrant, open culture was the envy of people the world over, especially the young, who imitated it energetically.

At the height of their powers, however, both these great nations lived in fear that their dominance was threatened. There had been warning signs. In the Crimean War of the 1850s, and the Zulu Wars twenty years later, Britain suffered serious reverses which exposed the failings of its much vaunted military power. In the 1950s the Americans had the same chastening experience in the brutal Korean War.

Both superpowers survived. But neither was to last.

For the United States, the turning point was to come with Vietnam in the 1960s. As a technological and nuclear superpower the US came up against an untrained adversary who fought with simple weapons, and didn’t know when they were beaten.

For Britain it was the South African War of 1899-1902. The Boers had virtually no formal military training, refused to obey the rules of conventional warfare, and were as elusive, as mobile, and as dedicated as the Viet Cong sixty years later.

Both great powers were humbled in their turn. Both lost tens of thousands of men. And neither was victorious. North Vietnam survived as a Communist state, despite all the Americans could throw at it, and the Boer republics regained their independence within a very few years and achieved virtually everything they had been fighting for. That included systematic repression of the black population, which the British had specifically promised to resist.

After Vietnam the United States never regained its sense of manifest destiny. Public opinion was never again wholeheartedly behind military adventures, and the country’s leaders were never again wholly trusted.

The Boer War had the same effect on the British. The hysterical celebrations which greeted the relief of Mafeking in mid-1900 (‘Mother may I go and maffick, tear about and hinder traffic?’) mark by their very violence the end of the old certainties. They exhibit a desperate need to cling to a set of values which was already passing.

The death of Queen Victoria just seven months later put the seal on this. The British appear to have understood instinctively that the end of the Victorian era inevitably meant the end of their own glorious century.

The more thoughtful of British commentators had seen this coming even before war broke out. Kipling’s poem Recessional was written for Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee but it might just as well have been penned for her funeral. 

Far called, our navies melt away; 
On dune and headland sinks the fire.
Lo! All our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre
The poem’s refrain, Lest we forget, is nowadays invoked as an elegy for the fallen. In fact Recessional is an exhortation to the British to be humble in the face of their inevitable decline. Meanwhile, popular British novels of the 1890s, by writers like Le Queux and Childers and Romer, spoke of invasion threats and subversion by evil geniuses. The overall message was: the end is nigh.

In truth it wasn’t very nigh at that stage, but it was certainly approaching, and the British sensed it clearly enough.

What the USA really lost after Vietnam, and what Britain lost after the Boer War, was not military or economic supremacy, but moral ascendancy confidence in their mission to rule.

Neither empire was ever to regain it.


T.D.Griggs writes: I was born in London, but have so far lived on four continents and have dual British and Australian nationality. I’ve worked variously as a journalist, industrial editor, and proprietor of a successful communications consultancy interspersed with spells as a truck driver, barman and volunteer firefighter before becoming a full-time novelist fifteen years ago. That seems like the kind of varied and colourful background a novelist ought to have, and it sometimes surprises me, looking back, that it’s actually all true.

My first novel, Redemption Blues, a contemporary crime drama was a million-seller, and has just been re-edited and re-released. This is the first time it has appeared as an e-book, and the first time US readers will get the chance to see it, so I’m hoping for a whole new audience for it. That book was followed by a story written under my one-time pen-name of Tom Macaulay, The Warning Bell (Orion Books, 2010), a tense father-son drama set in the present but looking back to a World War Two mystery.

Distant Thunder (Orion Books, 2013) is my first venture into pure historical fiction. Set in the 1890s, it tells the story of two young lovers whose lives are caught up in the cruel machinery of the British Empire at its zenith, but just as the whole edifice is beginning to totter. The tale draws on my lifelong interest in the Victorian era, with all its glamour, confidence, adventure, and brutality, and has some I hope interesting things to say about imperialism.

These days I live in Oxford, within sight of the dreaming spires, with my Australian wife Jenny and half a black Labrador dog called James (the neighbours own the other half). Check out my website and follow me on twitter @TDGRIGGS1.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Imagining Airenchester in The Raven’s Seal: A Guest Post by Andrei Baltakmens

In writing historical fiction, novelists must re-create the living world of the past using the tools at their disposal.  In his historical mystery The Raven's Seal, Andrei Baltakmens takes these world-building techniques to a new level, imagining the 18th-century cathedral city of Airenchester and constructing and populating it from the ground up.  Within the following detailed essay, Andrei explains the choices he made.  The Raven's Seal, called "a superb mystery with vibrant characters" by the Historical Novels Review, was recently named a finalist in ForeWord Reviews' Book of the Year Awards in the historical fiction category.  It was published by Top Five Books in November 2012 ($14.00, trade pb, 416pp).


Imagining Airenchester in The Raven's Seal
Andrei Baltakmens

I preface my novel The Raven’s Seal with an epigraph from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. “With cities, it is as with dreams,” writes Calvino, “everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire, or its reverse, a fear.” I kept this quote with me for a long time, simply because it suggests a wonderful connection between cities, fictional cities, puzzles and mystery.  Invisible Cities is, among other things, a reimagining of one city: Venice. It shows how fiction gives us a multitude of ways to imagine a city so that we can see our relationship with our own cities anew, and to my mind the best historical fiction also allows us to reflect on and revise our relationship with our own times. The Raven’s Seal, as a historical mystery, was written primarily to engage and entertain, but it is through the city that I created as the setting for the story, as much as the prison that was to be the locus of the mystery, that I wanted to suggest some of the social themes that give a novel depth and resonance beyond the turns of its plot.

But why create an imaginary city when the most familiar examples of the eighteenth-century prison (such as Newgate, Kings Bench, or the Marshalsea) were in London? In the first place, I felt that London and Newgate were perhaps too familiar; astute readers, versed in the politics and events of the era, would be looking too closely for real-world correspondences and details that would distract from or obstruct the pace of the mystery. I took inspiration, as usual, from Dickens in this, since Dickens set his first murder mystery, the unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood, in the fictional cathedral town of Cloisterham, where the details of the plot and locales would be under his control. Like Dickens, I wanted the power to create an atmosphere of mystery and move my characters on a stage of my own design, and hence Airenchester (my own cathedral city) was founded. And like the Bellstrom Gaol, which I could fill with incidents and character, Airenchester became a place I could populate myself. It took on its own life and peculiarities, while also reflecting some of the most interesting elements of the period of the novel.

Certainly, the eighteenth century, the beginning of the modern period broadly understood, holds enormous interest for any writer. One thing my research into early-modern crime and the birth of the prison revealed was that the eighteenth century, rather than being sedately Georgian and orderly, was a period of significant social upheaval in Europe, due to changes in population, changes in agriculture and the growth of industrialisation, changes in crime and punishment, and critical changes at the core of society, in work and the acquisition of wealth, and in the rapidly widening gulf between the wealthy and the poor. The upper-classes rose on the tides of empire and capital, while the dispossessed saw their livelihoods removed, as cottage industry collapsed and the old systems of communal ownership were dispensed with. This last movement, the enclosures by which common lands were expropriated, legally or otherwise, by the wealthy, was something I was only able to refer to in passing as part of a broader conspiracy in my novel, but we tend to overlook how radical and far-reaching this change was. Today, when governments and lobbyists plan the privatisation of state assets and programs, or our DVDs become unplayable in different regions, governments and corporations are retreading the old path of the enclosures movement.

This background developed slowly through research and writing. Airenchester did not appear at once but accumulated. The prison, the notorious Bellstrom Gaol, materialised first, brooding on a hill, in my mind’s eye somewhat like Edinburgh Castle (though the Old Tolbooth, Edinburgh’s medieval prison described by Sir Walter Scott in The Heart of Midlothian was also at the back of my mind). But who had an eye on the Bellstrom? To show how the ruling classes of Airenchester had separated themselves from crime and poverty, as they had in London, I created the upper-class quarter of Haught, on its own hill opposite the prison and the slums that sheltered beneath it. There had to be a river, of course, like London, and like the city of Christchurch in New Zealand where I grew up (Christchurch, now sadly damaged by a series of earthquakes, is often described as the most English city in New Zealand). More neighbourhoods, roads, rookeries, twisting lanes, bridges, taverns, counting-houses, businesses, and thieves’ dives appeared along the river as the story grew. The physical conditions of the city also call out the people. For example, like all cities of the era, the streets were entirely dark at nightfall, necessitating link-boys with torches to light the way and the largely symbolic watchmen to monitor vagrants and disorder. Then there came the clerks and merchants, rakes, footpads and harlots to fill those streets. It is still astonishing to me that the city formed by imagination and the needs of a narrative attained enough coherence that a skilled illustrator (Jeffery Mathison) could make a workable map of the places I described.

All this would be simple stage dressing if this imaginary city could not suggest something of the real historical conditions of the time and, by extension, give the reader some pause for reflection. The sharp divisions between lower-class and upper-class in Airenchester, the desperation of the slums and the proliferation of crime, the indifference of authority to suffering and the inequalities and corruption that haunt the society of Airenchester are real issues that persist today. The broader availability of credit in the eighteenth century, the growth of financial speculation and the “bubbles” and financial collapses that these precipitated—all features of the society of Airenchester—became eerily relevant during the global financial crisis. Airenchester is also the site of a mystery wrapped up in a gaol at the core of the city. The clues to that mystery are not, by design, hard to uncover, but they point everywhere. Uncovering the mystery shows, I hope, something unexpected about Airenchester, and the patterns of power and crime that define it. I hope that readers will look for these echoes, the rebus that conceals both desire and fear, in my imaginary city.


Andrei Baltakmens was born in Christchurch, New Zealand. He has a Ph.D. in English literature, focused on Charles Dickens and Victorian urban mysteries. His first novel, The Battleship Regal, was published in New Zealand in 1996. He has published short fiction in various literary journals, including a story in the collection of emerging New Zealand male writers, Boys' Own Stories (2001).

For five years he lived in Ithaca, New York, where he was part of the professional staff of Cornell University. He is currently a graduate student in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, where he lives with his wife and son.

Friday, April 05, 2013

On E. A. Dineley's Regency saga, The Death of Lyndon Wilder and the Consequences Thereof

Upon opening the package containing E. A. Dineley's debut novel, I felt like clapping my hands in delight. Such a cute little book! It's a hardcover in miniature, just slightly larger than a mass market paperback. The cover leaves a period-appropriate impression; the designers have made it resemble an olde-timey manuscript printed on foxed paper. Eye-catching but not ostentatious. I liked it a lot.

The contents reflect the packaging. Nothing flashy or melodramatic, just solid, engrossing storytelling that kept me cheerfully entertained for not merely one but several afternoons. It's set confidently in the Regency era and in many ways reads like a novel written at that time.

A novel of manners both good and ill, The Death of Lyndon Wilder and the Consequences Thereof opens by plunging us into an atmosphere of mourning. The year is 1813, and the title character, the heir to Ridley in Wiltshire, has been killed by musket fire during the Napoleonic Wars. He leaves an orphaned nine-year-old daughter, distraught parents, and a younger brother who must, reluctantly, assume his place in the family.

Lyndon's mother, Lady Charles Wilder, a self-centered woman concerned about appearances, is particularly distressed because her husband had bought Lyndon a commission in a regiment inappropriate to his status, and this may have put him in harm's way. To raise the funds, her husband had had to cut down a large grove of oak trees on their property, and now their 5000-acre estate is starting to look shabby.

Lord Charles, a kindly elderly man who can't stand up to his wife, looks to his younger son, Thomas, a major in the Royal Horse Artillery, to solve their problems... if he can convince him to leave the military. Lady Charles, however, has never been close to Thomas. He serves as a sad reminder of the older son she adored and lost, and she's consoled only by the thought of Lyndon's heroic death.

The first 80 pages pass fairly calmly as we get to know the characters’ personalities and habits through their interactions. The plot takes a sharp step forward when Major Wilder arrives home at Ridley with unwelcome news, at least for his mother. Thomas had been named the primary beneficiary in his brother's will, and he also receives guardianship of his niece, Lottie. His mother is starved for information about Lyndon's last moments, but he can't give her what she needs.

What's more, Lyndon wasn’t a paragon of virtue... not by a long shot. Whatever his feelings toward his brother, Major Wilder is a decent, responsible man.  He knows he must prevent any dangerous revelations about Lyndon from coming out.
Here it stands next to a normal-sized
hardcover, for perspective.

The plot revolves around the relationships between members of the immediate family, other Wilder siblings living elsewhere, Lottie's youthful governess Anna Arbuthnot, and their neighbors the Kingstons – and how they adjust to life (if they do) in Lyndon's absence.

Miss Arbuthnot, a clergyman’s daughter considered unattractive with her red hair and freckles, grows to love her young charge.
During their mourning-related seclusion, she is drawn closely into the family drama, and Thomas appreciates the difficult position she’s in. The governess is “such a betwixt and between thing,” as Miss Arbuthnot writes to her father. It’s through her outsider’s viewpoint that we observe much of the goings-on.

This is a lively and comfortable read in which everyone acts according to character, except, well, when they don't – and that’s what keeps things interesting. Not everything is prim and proper, and Dineley adds periodic dashes of wit to the telling. When necessary, the tone is wise and gently biting (“Lady Charles was not pleased, but then she was not often pleased”) and sometimes hilariously funny. I admire how the author can size people up with one pointed description. "Mrs Kingston was certainly pretty, like a dove, all soft plumage and pouting bosom," she writes of the widow who had hoped to marry Lyndon and now sets her cap at Thomas.  It's clear Mrs Kingston doesn't have a chance.

Intelligent, curious Lottie's actions provide much humor; she has a way of getting what she wants and often forgets that personal remarks about people are considered rude. She and her good friend Horatio Kingston can get away with saying aloud what many adults around them can't.

Although the story rambles somewhat, it does so in a diverting way. The length (nearly 600 pages!) immersed me in the detail-rich environment and the daily lives of these memorable people. At the same time, the author illustrates the social inequities at the time, young people’s education, estate management in the Regency-era English countryside, the complexities of inheritance, and the destructive nature of excessive grief.

The jacket blurb calls the book “hauntingly written,” which may not be the best description. The mystery aspect – the secret about Lyndon Wilder – fades in and out of the plot until it comes back into focus at the very last, but readers may be so absorbed in the story that they don’t notice. The world feels so real and convincing that I have no doubt that the characters continued to exist after their story ended. If there’s a sequel, which I hope there is, I look forward to joining them again.

The Death of Lyndon Wilder and the Consequences Thereof was published by  Corsair, an imprint of the UK publisher Constable & Robinson, on March 7th, 2013, at £12.99 (hb, 584pp).

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Guest post from Jennifer Cody Epstein, author of The Gods of Heavenly Punishment

Today I'm very pleased to welcome Jennifer Cody Epstein, author of The Gods of Heavenly Punishment and The Painter from Shanghai.  She offers an insightful essay about what it's like to have her work marketed to a gender-specific audience and, among other things, how cover art for historical novels (one of my favorite topics) can influence readers' perceptions.  Please share your own thoughts on these issues in the comments!


“As a writer, would you say you push the boundaries of women’s literature?”

We were sitting in a hotel lounge in the lovely but rainy city of Bergen, where a journalist was interviewing me about my new book. The Gods of Heavenly Punishment (or When the Sky Fell, as my Norwegian publisher titled it—Norwegians, it seems, distrust religious references in titles) is a war novel, set against the blazing backdrop of the 1945 Tokyo firebombing. The story is told through the perspectives of five central characters: two female, three male.

“I don’t really see my work as exclusively ‘women’s’ literature,” I said, setting down my teacup. “Particularly this novel. I mean, I welcome women readers, obviously. But I wrote it to be read by both genders.”

My interviewer chewed her pen for a moment. “Well,” she said. “If you did write women’s literature, would you say you were pushing its boundaries?”

I suppressed a smile. This wasn't the first time I’d faced this label, “women’s literature.” But I still found it somewhat puzzling. Granted, my first novel, The Painter from Shanghai, was about a woman: Chinese prostitute-turned-post-Impressionist Pan Yuliang. Written third-person, present-tense and encompassing Asian history, art, travel and romance, it’s a story that arguably appeals largely to my gender. And while I hadn’t written it exclusively for fellow females, I also hadn’t argued with my publisher when they opted to market it that way, giving it a gorgeous but distinctly feminine cover (a woman’s profile, sepia-toned and deeply saturated with color) and presenting it as an ideal book-group pick. The truth is, I loved the cover. And their strategy was a very wise one, since the book indeed did well with book groups and sold decently in the States. It also sold in sixteen other countries under equally feminine-looking covers. Including Norway, where it became a bestseller.

So I’m not really complaining. Or at least, I know I shouldn’t be. After all, while men make up the bulk of fiction writers in the world, women are indisputably its biggest readers—something Ian McEwan noted a few years back after going to a park to give away thirty novels. As he reported in the Guardian, a full twenty-nine of those books were accepted by women—while all men but one (an unusually sensitive soul, it seems) declined. “When women stop reading, the novel will be dead,” he concluded. So if I had to choose one group to appeal to, it’d clearly be the ladies.

And yet it still sits a little strangely on me; this idea that I somehow read as more “womanly” than do my male counterparts—or even female ones who don’t get marketed the same way (think Jennifer Egan, Nicole Krauss, Gillian Flynn). After all, my literary influences are split pretty evenly between pink and blue. I love Toni Morrison, but no more than I love Nabokov. I’ve read as much Sarah Waters as I have Philip Roth. Or for that matter, Ian McEwan. In other words, I don’t really see myself as an overtly “womanly” reader.

I also realize, however, that being labeled a “woman’s writer” often goes hand-in-hand with another label about which I have less complex feelings: “historical fiction.” There is no doubt whatsoever that my last two novels are of that genre (I should know, since I spent years researching each of them). Strangely, though, when I first set out to write a historical novel I didn’t anticipate it pushing me towards one gender more than another. After all, history itself isn’t considered more female than male. If anything it’s the other way around (sic: history). And yet, do an Amazon search for “historical fiction” covers and the vast majority have women’s faces or bodies or accessories (jewelry, gloves, perfume bottles) on them. This is probably due to the fact that for a very long time, novels labeled “historical fiction” were often far heavier on fiction than on factual history. Many, in fact, were interchangeable with “romance” (e.g., bodice-ripper)—something my late grandmother’s bookshelves quite fully attested to.

I hasten to add that I have nothing against those sorts of novels. Indeed, growing up I loved nothing more than sneaking her monthly-delivered Harlequins into my bag, then reading them later with quivering excitement, in secret. But writing The Painter from Shanghai that wasn’t the genre that I had in mind. Sure, there’s sex in it—pretty good sex, from what I’m told. But what I really wanted to get at was the history—the amazing, rich, tumultuous history of Chinese politics and art, from the turn of the century through the Chinese Communist revolution. And again, I didn’t think that would appeal just to women. It’s also why I was slightly surprised when I saw the American cover for my new novel, The Gods of Heavenly Punishment. Emblazoned with Japanese-style flowers and a girl with a parasol, it was just as gorgeous as the cover of The Painter From Shanghai. And aesthetically, I loved it just as much. But I did ponder, briefly, about whether it was fully representative of my new novel, which is about both men and women, and about war.

In the end, though, I again went with the prevailing wisdom about how my novels should be marketed to our predominantly-female readership. And in the end, I’m very glad that I did. The book is so beautiful I teared up when I first held it—which is one of the best feelings any novelist can hope for. What’s more, everyone who sees the cover raves about it--men included. I’m also sure it leads many a perusing, potential reader to pick it up in bookstores, which, when it comes down to it, is what a great cover is really for. I will admit, though, that I laughed when I saw the Bergen newspaper piece, which came out a day after my interview. The title: “Women Writers Push the Boundaries of Women’s Literature.”

And there, front and center, was my novel.


Jennifer Cody Epstein's  The Gods of Heavenly Punishment was published in March 2013 by W.W. Norton ($26.95, hb, 382pp).   The Painter from Shanghai, her debut novel, is available in trade paperback, also from Norton ($14.95, 432pp).

For more details, including selected excerpts from The Gods of Heavenly Punishment, visit her website at

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Around the world with historical fiction: April releases

I got a little carried away with this post. So many covers, so many books!  But over the past few months, I kept coming across historical novels I wanted to read, and so many of them were set to appear in April.  It's not the cruellest month at all, not for historical fiction readers.  The diversity of historical settings struck me as well.  Take a look at the places they'll let us travel!

20th-c England ~ 1911 Russia ~ 1930s New Jersey

1845 Nantucket ~ Tudor England ~ 17th-century England

12th-c Constantinople ~ 1920s US & Europe ~ early 20th-c & modern Australia

Biblical times ~ an imagined Song Dynasty China ~ 19th-c New England

1960s small-town Minnesota ~ 1880 South Africa ~ 1940s England, France, India, Jamaica

1840s West Africa ~ 1920s Kenya ~ Paris through the ages

1890s California ~ Tudor and modern England ~ Restoration England

WWII England ~ 20th-c England and Kenya ~ Postwar Taiwan and U.S. West

Monday, April 01, 2013

Small Press Month - wrap-up and contest winners

Thanks to everyone who entered the giveaway for a small press historical novel.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading all your comments (and blogiversary wishes!) and learning what aspects of the blog you liked the most, too. There were a few things that several of you mentioned that I thought I'd summarize here:

- You've asked your library to buy books mentioned here, and they were willing to do so.  This is very cool all around.

- I got a lot of general feedback on authors' guest post contributions and the variety they offer.  Jodi Daynard's piece in particular was mentioned by many readers as a standout essay.

- The galleries with book previews are what I should do more of, it seems.  My site stats bear this out too.  I'm glad to hear that because I have a very large preview post forthcoming tomorrow. 

- The demise of Google Reader was mentioned by a few readers.  I'm depressed about it too; I've been using it for years to track blogs.  I've been playing around with alternatives (Feedly, Netvibes, etc.) and have found Bloglovin to be the most convenient for my needs.  I especially like that I get an email every evening with links to the day's new posts.  There's an easy way to migrate your posts from Google Reader over to Bloglovin, and once you're signed in, you can follow Reading the Past here.

- I was also happy to see the small press focus went over well and drew people's attention to novels they might otherwise have missed, as one reader said.  I'd set myself a goal to post every other day or so to keep the momentum going.  I'd especially like to acknowledge the authors who supplied guest essays providing their perspectives on the genre, and the publishers who sent review copies - thanks!

I'd actually had plans to review even more small press novels (I had a pile of them set aside in my living room) but as usual, I got caught up in things like work and other writing assignments.  I'll still be reviewing small press titles, of course, just mixed in with other reviews I've been saving up.  Will I do this next March too?  It's something I've been debating, but I have almost a year to think about it.

And now for the giveaway winners:

Tim G.

Congratulations!  I'll be in touch via email to get your addresses - and please browse through the last month's posts and let me know which book you'd like as your prize.