Tuesday, June 28, 2011


I finally had a chance to look at some of the photos we took on vacation (almost 600 - sometimes the whole digital photography thing is not a good idea.)

So here is a smattering. Rather than Notre Dame's gargoyles or the Eiffel Tower which are so much more impressive in real life than in our photos, here are some of our favorite memories:

This is the view from our left bank apartment:
The kids both say Versailles was the best day. There was a special exhibition of thrones going on while we were there and it was packed inside the palace. We could barely shuffle our way through. But outside was gorgeous. It was also Ascension Day, a holiday, so they turned on the fountains in the gardens in the afternoon. A special treat.
The Orange Grove
The Fountain of Apollo

My husband's favorite spot was the catacombs. That's a popular one. It took us three tries to get there on time in a manageable place on line so we could actually get in. But it was worth it.

Finally, I think my favorite was the Tower of John the Fearless. It was out of the way, not at all crowded, steeped with history, and fascinating. (And on the way out, they gave us candy.)

Notice all the sunny blue skies. We didn't have quite such good fortune in Venice. But Venice is so incredibly gorgeous we still took pictures. I'll post some of them in a bit.

Monday, June 27, 2011

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

My book group met Saturday night. We ate fondue, drank wine, and discussed our latest historical novel, The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. Is there any part of that that doesn't sound wonderful?

This was my first Kingsolver book. Kingsolver is another of those must-read authors for me that I keep intending to read but don't seem to get to. That list is so dauntingly long, there's no good place to start. Luckily, this book was elected our book club's choice. Just the push I needed.

The fictional narrator, Harrison Shepherd, is the son of a minor American beaurocrat and a Mexican woman with big dreams but a narrow vision. "Harry" is forced from a young age to learn to survive on his own, scraping his way on the fringes of society. He's a loner who tries not to draw too much attention to himself. He is enamored of words and stays sane by recording the details of his life and the world around him in a series of notebooks. The book uses these notebooks (and a fictional secretary/archivist/friend) to provide a curious blend of third person-diary memoir. In such skilled hands, this technique works surprisingly well.

Harry grows up in Mexico. As he reaches young adulthood, he finds work with the great Mexican painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. He is with them when they provide asylum to Trotsky, and later, Harry goes to work for this famous exile. Harry is more or less apolitical. Or claims to be. He's simply a cook, a secretary, and a secret novelist.

As historical events unfold, Harry has to leave Mexico. He moves to the United States where he blossoms into a writer, a phenomenally successful one. But the success of his art draws public attention to him as a person. This ends up causing trouble Harry never foresaw.

The Lacuna is an extraordinary book. The fictional characters are woven into history in a completely believable way, so real and compelling they leap off the page. Kingsolver's use of language is beautiful. Although it's a long book, it flies by.

So, we swirled our crusty bread in smooth thick cheese, washed it down with Riesling, and sang Kingsolver's praises. Not a bad way to spend a Saturday night.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

MAILBOX MONDAY: A bonanza of historical fiction

So I'm a little late getting this post together. Mailbox Monday is being hosted by The Bluestocking Guide this week/month. Next week it will switch, so check for details to participate. Mailbox Monday is a gathering place for book bloggers to share their new acquisitions and another way for book bloggers to get to know one another.

These are the books I brought home from the Historical Novel Society conference last weekend.

Books that I purchased and had signed were:
1. Great Maria by Cecelia Holland. (Yes, I've already read it and have my own tattered, treasured copy. But I didn't have a signed copy and this is one of my all-time favorite books by one of my favorite authors. I had to make room in my suitcase for it.)
2. The Queen of Last Hopes by Susan Higginbotham. (I loved The Stolen Crown so I'm looking forward to reading this one.)
3. By Fire, By Water by Mitchell James Kaplan (Has been getting awesome reviews and the author is a super nice guy.)

I was thrilled to get a goody bag packed with these books:

Queen by Right by Anne Easter Smith
The Summer Garden by Paullina Simons
Mistress of Rome by Kate Quinn
Noah's Wife by T.K. Thorne

And that was absolutely all I could cram into my luggage. So as soon as I got home I ordered:
The King's Mistress by Emma Campion  and
Like Mayflies in a Stream by Shauna Roberts

I can't seem to make my TBR pile get any smaller!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

GOLDEN OLDIES: Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

I love the Back-to-the-Classics challenge because it’s making me read books that have been hanging out at the back of my TBR list forever, just waiting for some sort of deadline to move them to the front. The latest example is Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. I’ve tried reading this before, but never got past the first few pages before being distracted by something else. I had it in mind that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was an important book, but not necessarily a good book. Going in, I anticipated something long, old-fashioned, and preachy. So I figured an airplane ride to Europe was the perfect setting for tackling it. Since we had a mandate to travel light, I downloaded it onto my new Nook. I was all set.

Although overall, the novel was the anti-slavery treatise I knew it would be, it was very different from what I expected. Uncle Tom’s Cabin follows the trials and tribulations of several slaves. The first to be introduced are living not on a plantation in the deep south but in a city in Kentucky. The first owners we meet are not cruel; in fact, the mistress is a God-fearing woman whose sympathies lie with the slaves. But the master is in economic distress and, to his dismay, he must sell one of his most devoted, trustworthy slaves, Uncle Tom. Not only that, but the man who wants to buy Tom also wants to buy an entertaining young child named Harry. This sets the wheels in motion. Eliza is Harry’s mother. She overhears the plans to sell him and therefore has no choice but to escape. (Her husband, a brilliant, hard-working young man who is owned elsewhere in the city had already decided to run away from his harsh master.) They meet up and begin a harrowing flight to Canada.

Uncle Tom, meanwhile, chooses a different path. He understands that if he is not sold the remaining slaves will suffer the consequences. Tom is a deeply religious man who is certain that God will watch over him. He goes with the slave trader.

For awhile, things go well for Tom. On the boat south, he meets a young girl named Eva. Eva is Christian charity personified. Eva asks her father to buy Tom. He takes up his new life with Eva’s family in New Orleans. Although he misses his own wife and children, life with Eva’s family is not a particular hardship. But there is constant uncertainty in the life of a slave. Eva’s father is a cynic and a reluctant slave owner. And Eva is a sickly child. When she dies, the future becomes even more precarious. However, her father understands Eva’s wishes and Tom is promised his freedom. But then, Eva’s father unexpectedly dies. The slaves are sold off.

Tom falls into the hands of Simon Legree. Legree is a cruel and bitter man. He hates Tom because Tom is good. Legree grows more and more determined to break his new slave, no matter the consequences, but Tom’s spirit will not be broken.

Throughout the story, Stowe demonstrates the cruelty and indignity of slavery. Even when masters are "kind," slavery is cruel. The writing is preachy and some of the events are melodramatic; however, the story is nevertheless captivating. I’ve summarized only the barest bones of the plot. Other characters swarm on and off the pages, demonstrating all the various ways in which humans are flawed, but also showing their strengths. I found myself drawn in to the story. I wanted to know how all the loose ends would be tied up, even for the minor characters.

Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of vague praise of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I realized I’d formed an opinion of the book without ever reading it. Now I can better understand why the book had such a tremendous impact on the antebellum world. And I have to revise my own opinion. It’s an important book AND a good book.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Historical Novel Society Conference- 2011

Advance warning – This post is longer than my usual. It’s a report on the conference and an advertisement for the one to be held in 2013.

I’ve been to three of the four North American Historical Novel Society conferences, and I hope to be able to attend many more. What a treat!

First, San Diego had gorgeous weather. How lovely it was to escape the heat and humidity of Louisville, emerging into the warm, sunny Southern California climate. The hotel was less than ten minutes from the airport by shuttle. Exhausted as I am by my recent traveling, I was thrilled with the convenience. The organizers did a fantastic job.

We jumped right into a cocktail reception followed by a dinner banquet. Harry Turtledove was our entertaining Keynote speaker. Afterward, C.C. Humphreys moderated a panel of readers who entertained the audience with fight scenes from their novels. I confess I slipped out before that started. The three hour time zone difference hit me. And my panel was going to be early the next morning.

First thing Saturday morning, I spoke on a panel "Adult versus Young Adult Fiction" moderated by Gina Iorio. My fellow panelists were C.C. Humphreys, Pamela Bauer Mueller, and Dori Jones Yang. We covered topics such as why write young adult fiction and who is reading it, censorship, marketing to young adults and pitching to agents. It was a lot of fun and we had great questions and feedback from the audience.

Still, I was a bit relieved when my speaking part was over. Now I could relax and soak in the rest of the conference!

There were so many great panels, I wish I could have gone to them all. But there were generally four different panels running at once, so I had to choose.

I attended a talk on Historical Fiction and the Fantastic. Mary Sharratt, Cecelia Holland, C.C. Humphreys, and Shauna Roberts discussed the incorporation of fantasy elements into historical fiction. How does an author make it work? Does it add or take away from historical fiction? (While my personal preference is straight H.F., one of my favorite books of all time is Mists of Avalon – filled with fantasy. So sometimes it does add to the book and work very well!) And I couldn’t pass up the chance to hear Cecelia Holland speak.

Next I listened to Mary Sharratt, Susanne Dunlap, Margaret George, C.W. Gortner, and Vanitha Sankaran discussing the pros and cons of writing historical fiction about Marquee Names. Are they really necessary for launching a book and attracting an audience?

Our lunchtime keynote speaker was Jennifer Weltz from the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency. It’s always fascinating to hear an agent’s take on the industry. It’s also nice when an agent expresses her love for historical fiction. After her address, an editors’ panel (Jennifer Weltz, Deni Dietz, Shana Drehs, Heather Lazare, and Charles Spicer) talked to the crowd about selling historical fiction. Unfortunately, there is no magical secret key. But it was interesting to get their various takes on what they are interested in seeing and what is easiest to sell. I was particularly heartened to hear one editor suggest that male protagonists might be making a comeback. I love women’s fiction, but I do miss those sweeping epics centered on the men who made history.

Saturday night, Cecelia Holland gave the keynote address at dinner. She gave a short but inspiring talk. Since she is one of my writing idols, I was thrilled just to be in the same room. I’m not normally a celebrity-hound, but I do stand in awe of this writer.

After dinner, we were treated to a historical costume fashion show, narrated by Valerie Sokol. The costumes were stunning.

The Saturday Night Sex Scene Readings closed the evening, moderated by Diana Gabaldon. This has become one of the favorite events at the HNS conference. But, once again, I was too wiped out to stay for the whole thing. If the next conference is in the east, I’ll be less of a wimp.

Only two more panels on Sunday morning. The first was on how to use internet resources to do historical research– and how to incorporate the research into your novel. (As well as how to leave research out of it.) This panel was presented by Jay Dixon, Sarah Mallory, and Barbara Sedlock. They gave us a wealth of information. It was a beautiful presentation.

And finally, Frederick Ramsey, Margaret George, Cecelia Holland, Joyce Elson Moore, and Susan Vreeland spoke on Writing Biographical Fiction: How Much Fiction, How Much Fact? Since my own book is biographical fiction, I wanted to hear the different viewpoints from the speakers and from the audience. Again, the speakers did a great job and generated a lively audience discussion.

More than just the panels, the conference provided an opportunity to socialize with other HF writers, both published authors and aspiring authors. I had a wonderful time getting to know my fellow historical fiction devotees.

The next conference will be in 2013. Here are some tips if you decide to join us:

1. Bring a bigger suitcase than you think you’ll need. The goody bag was chock-full of books. And there is a bookseller on site so you can purchase books to be signed by all those authors present whose books sound too interesting to pass up. There were a few books I just could not buy because I’d have no way to get them home. I bought them when I got home. I’m not much of an autograph collector, but it still would have been nice to have them signed while I was there.

2. Bring a camera. Unless your cell phone camera is decent. Mine isn’t. And now I have no photo documentation of that wonderful weekend!

3. Go to the social functions. Meet people. Everyone is approachable, friendly, and eager to talk about their books and yours.

4. Relax and have fun. It isn't all about pitching your book. If that's all you're there for, you'll be stressed and disappointed. There are so many great books out there. Drink them in!

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Historical Novel Society Conference - 2011

I'm off for San Diego! (And barely over my jet lag from Europe. This is not my usual life!)

I've been eagerly anticipating this years HNS conference. Some of my favorite historical novelists will be there. It's a great way to meet other authors and learn about upcoming historical fiction.

This year, I'll be one of the panelists. I'll be speaking on Adult vs. Young Adult Fiction tomorrow morning, along with C.C. Humphreys, Pamela Bauer Mueller, and Dori Jones Yang. Gina Iorio is our moderator. It should be a lively discussion.

I expect to have a haul of books to report for Mailbox Monday!

Monday, June 13, 2011

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: Mary, Queen of France, by Jean Plaidy

We're still in the process of downloading and organizing our trip pictures, but I hope to post a few over the next week or so -- trying to prolong the memory as long as I can.

This weekend I'll be at the Historical Novel Society Conference in San Diego (more travel than I'm used to. Things just worked out this way. So I'll have lots to report on that, too.)

Now, back to book blogging:

Although I know I was introduced to Victoria Holt/Jean Plaidy many years ago, I don’t recall what books I read– there are so many! In preparation for my trip, I downloaded a few e-books for myself and my kids onto my new Nook, one of which was Mary, Queen of France, by Jean Plaidy.

This is the story of Mary Tudor, the youngest sister of Henry VIII, who was briefly wed to the aged King Louis of France. She was beautiful, vivacious, and used to having her own way. But her heart’s desire was to marry her brother’s closest friend, a man whose blood was not royal, Charles Branson. An impossibility? Don’t underestimate Mary.

She and Charles were both pawns of the king. Charles married twice early on, each time increasing his wealth and stature. Knowing the danger of getting involved with the princess, he was fearful of Henry’s wrath. Although Charles loved Mary, he didn’t have her confidence or fire. Initially, Mary felt certain she could circumvent her duty. Indeed, she managed to escape her first unwanted betrothal, due to political machinations going on around her. But she could not escape marriage to the king of France. She could only do what she could, short of actual murder, to hasten his demise.

The Tudors are an unlovable bunch, as are many of the scheming and ambitious nobles in their sphere. Mary, Queen of France is told from multiple perspectives. The narrative is somewhat jumpy, both because of the shifting points of view and its uneven chronology, but it does do a good job of presenting a complete picture of what Mary had to contend with before she could find happiness with Charles. I enjoyed being introduced to each of the characters and learning their place in history. However, I never really found myself pulling for Mary- a champion sulker. Selfish and self-centered, she was so certain that everyone loved her, even Charles – though he was willing enough to marry elsewhere to protect and advance his own interests – that nothing mattered to her but reaching her goal. No one else and nothing else were ever as important as her personal happiness. It made her a fairly one dimensional character, emotionally immature and not as interesting as if she had considered other peoples’ feelings or the consequences of her actions.

Nevertheless, this is an interesting take on a piece of the Tudor story. A quick, fun read, but for me, an emotionally superficial one.

Sunday, June 12, 2011


I've gone missing for the past couple weeks because my family and I went on our long-anticipated European vacation. Actually, we only went to two cities in Europe: Paris and Venice. We spent 8 days in Paris, then flew to Venice for 3 days, then back to the Paris airport and home.

It was one of the best vacations we've ever had.

We had perfect weather in Paris (an unusual occurrence for our family vacations) and packed in an incredible amount of sightseeing. What an awesome city. It was surprisingly manageable (thanks to the extremely efficient metro) for all its bustle and crowd. We had tons to see but managed to get to most of our "must see" list.

And Venice is so completely different from anything else with its mazes of canals and tiny streets. The beautiful old buildings had us gaping and sighing. Unfortunately, the weather turned on us in Venice, so we got wet whenever we went out, but we still had a great time.

I did get some reading done on the plane rides, but not as much reading as I usually do on vacations. We never stopped moving! Reviews to come include my next Back to the Classics challenge- I finally read Uncle Tom's Cabin. And maybe I'll let you know how I'm adapting to my Nook, purchased for the trip.