Monday, December 24, 2007

My 2007 Favorites

Happy New Year!
Thanks for helping me launch this blog and for sticking around to read it. I've had a lot of fun with it. I started out with the personal mission that I wanted to feature writers whose books I've read and liked; to my surprise, some of the writers I ended up interviewing found me, instead. It's been an honor to feature their voices. Whether the writer is a woman or a man, published by a large commercial house or an independent, one thing stood out for me: historical fiction writers are some of the most dedicated and passionate people I know.

This also means I stuck to my 2007 resolution, which was to read more than I did in 2006. I managed to finish 34 books this year, 2 more than last year. Some books I reviewed for the Historical Novel Reviews; others, I read for this blog, and others for pure entertainment. I'm not including research books in my resolution, because I'm always doing research and I tend to read from an assortment of different books. While I usually finish almost all the non-fiction I tackle for research, it's done hapharzardly, as I careen from 16th century fashion accessories to buildings to family dynasties and politics, sometimes all within the same day.

Anyway, 2007 ended up being a terrific reading year for me, so I decided to compile my favorite 12 books for the year. This list doesn't include books featured on this blog; while they're also favorites, I wanted to highlight books I haven't mentioned. This list also isn't exclusive to books published in 2007. Hopefully, you'll find something new and exciting here. Also, please feel free to share any book you read in 2007 that kept you up at night, made you miss your bus stop, or consumed an entire afternoon of your life before you knew it. If you can, include a URL, too. As you may have noticed, I'm always on the look-out for new books to buy! And here's to reading more in 2008.


1) C.J. Samson, SOVEREIGN

I'm a huge fan of the Matthew Shardlake mysteries, and in this third installment we're taken on progress to York, where Matthew must contend not only with the chaos of a royal progress but also the protection of a dangerous political prisoner. There are no anachronisms here: Shardlake's world is claustrophobic, treacherous and at times terribly cruel -- a Tudor England rarely depicted in fiction. Available in hardcover.

2) Patrick McGrath, MARTHA PEAKE

This haunting, gothic tale set during the American Revolution kept me up well into the night. Through the story of a young man facing an eerie legacy, we learn of the legendary Martha Peake, her eccentric, tormented father, and unexpected journey to the American colonies, where she finds herself immersed in the struggle for independence, both outwardly and in her spirit. Available in trade edition.

3) Judith Merkle Riley, THE WATER DEVIL

The conclusion to her bestselling Margaret of Ashbury trilogy was first released in Germany, and it took more than fifteen years to be finally published here - but it was well worth the wait. With her trademark wit and sparkling prose, Ms Merkle Riley launches the resourceful Margaret and her family on a tumultuous, dysfunctional visit to her husband's familial manor, where supernatural events collide into human foibles, often with darkly humorous, spine-chilling results. Available in trade edition.

4) Michelle Lovric, THE FLOATING BOOK

The story of the first printer to set up shop in Venice is only one velvet layer in this evocative novel set in Venice in the 16th century; through the story of a vengeful woman, a poetic printer and the girl who loves him, Ms Lovric combines breathtaking lyricism with an ambitious storyline filled with delicate word gems. Available in hardcover and trade editions.

5 - 8) Pauline Gedge, THE LORD OF THE TWO LANDS Trilogy

THE HIPPOTAMUS MARSH, THE OASIS, and THE HORUS ROAD are three novels that comprise Ms Gedge's epic reconstruction of the Egyptian princes' revolt against the invading Hyskos, which led to the founding of the 18th Dynasty, arguably the most famous of ancient Egypt. This is taut, compelling storytelling; while more military in theme than her other books, Gedge's uncanny ability to immersh you in the fascinating details of a vanished world without resorting to anachronisim is a wonder in of itself. The trilogy is best read in order. Available in hardcover and trade editions.


Eleanor of Aquitaine is the Plantagenet poster girl and I'm not often drawn to books about her simply because I've read so many. Ms Ball's novel lanquished for years after it sold before her publisher decided to release it; who knows why it sat for so long, because Ball's take on a young, impetuous Eleanor who's a little pagan in her outlook on life is unexpectedly original. Combine it with a facility for description, and you've got a book worth reading, even if you think you know everything about this charismatic queen. Available in hardcover and trade editions.

8) Patricia Finney, GLORIANA'S TORCH

The conclusion to her trilogy featuring the tormented spymaster Becket and his posse of friends is as compulsively readable, and graphically accurate, as the previous two books. Here, Becket finds himself tracking a munitions plot that may lead to a Spanish attack on England, even as his friend Simon is captured as a spy by the Inquisition and chained to one of the Invincible Armada's galleys. The depiction of the Spanish point of view is rare, and the events surprise, even if the Armada's attack on England is an oft-told tale. Available in hardcover and trade editions.

9 - 12) Alice Borchardt, WOLF Trilogy

Alice Borchardt's death in 2007 was a loss to the historical / fantasy realm. I've had THE SILVER WOLF, NIGHT OF THE WOLF and THE WOLF KING in hardcover for years, but they got buried under subsequent purchases. When I finally unearthed them, I found Ms Borchardt's writing is lush and surprisingly unsentimental, and her tale of shapeshifters in Rome and France during the Dark Ages thrilled me without sacrificing historical detail. For me, these books strike that elusive balance between historical fiction, romance, and the supernatural. The trilogy is best read in order. Available in mass market paperback.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

"Signed, Mata Hari" Contest at Loaded

Hi all,
Quick note to let you know that Kelly Hewitt over at has a new contest. Five lucky readers will win signed copies of Yannick Murphy's new historical novel, Signed, Mata Hari.

The deadline for the contest is December 30, 2007, so check it out. She's also featuring an very interesting interview with the author of the book. Go to:

Monday, December 3, 2007

Interview with Thomas Quinn, author of THE LION OF ST MARK and SWORD OF VENICE

Thomas Quinn's The Venetians Trilogy published by Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin's Press, has two books thus far: THE LION OF ST MARK (2005. 336 pgs. 978-0312319083) which introduces us to two feuding mercantile families in 15th century Venice who face a far more dangerous threat: the advancing Ottoman Turks. In his new release, SWORD OF VENICE (2007. 304 pgs.978-0312319106) the story deepens as sons take up their fathers' hatreds and internecine wars threaten Venice's stability, both from within and without. Intrigue, harrowing battle and intelligent drama combine in one of the most glorious of Italy's cities during her most vulnerable moment in history. This is high adventure that echoes the swashbuckling works of Dumas and C.S. Forester, from a talented writer who has clearly done his research.

Thomas Quinn was born in Newark, NJ, and is a Cornell graduate. After a long career with Procter & Gamble in sales and marketing, he became president of an Irish Dairy Board U.S. subsidiary and later was vice president of sales for both Warner-Lambert and CIGNA Healthcare. He now writes full time and lives in West Chester, PA. The Lion of St. Mark was selected as an “Editor’s Choice” by Frank Wilson, book editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer. The second book in the series, The Sword of Venice, was released on December 10, 2007. He is currently working on his third book which will be published in January 2009. To learn more about him his books and his research, please visit Thomas at:

1. Congratulations on the publication of SWORD OF VENICE, the second novel in your exciting Venetians Trilogy, following 2005’s THE LION OF ST. MARK. It's a pleasure to have you with us. The Venetians series is an adventure-filled, adrenaline-charged look at Venetian Republic when it found itself at the height of its power in the 1400s and facing imminent threat from the Ottoman Turks, who had overtaken Constantinople. What inspired you to write about this vital, complex period on history?

I decided to write about Venice after visiting the city ten years ago. Enchanted, I immediately began to search for a novel like The Count of Monte Cristo set there but couldn’t find one. After reading several histories, including John Julius Norwich’s A History of Venice, I decided to write the book I longed to read. I hope others will think I succeeded. Venice’s past is so rich I knew that if I could create an exciting tale set in these times of great peril for La Serenissima it would make a great read. I was also fascinated by the Ottoman Turks’ siege of Constantinople in 1453. It was truly a turning point for western civilization – a cataclysmic event with relevance for our modern times. That’s why I chose to begin the trilogy at that time.

2. Venice rose to power in a different way than other city-states in Italy. What kinds of challenges did you encounter while researching the city’s history? What surprising or interesting facts did you discover, if any, about Venice?

I suffered through the usual discrepancies in proper names although there has been a great deal written about Venice. My Italian is weak but I persevered. There is a great site which lists every battle during the condottiere wars in amazing detail which was a great help. Google Earth didn’t come online until after I wrote the first book but was a great help for the second. Perhaps the biggest challenge was to make the “historical black holes” seamless. For example, sources disagreed on whether a battle even occurred at the old Roman wall across the Isthmus of Corinth. I had very few details to go on. But then, that’s why it’s called historical fiction. I will state unequivocally, however, that all history in the books is as true and accurate as I could relate it. I’m a stickler about that sort of thing. I discovered that the Venetians were the inventors of many modern business and governmental concepts. You could make the case that in Venice mankind saw the first combination of representative government and capitalism in one state. The other amazing thing I found was that almost without fail, Venice managed to remain united in the face of her enemies – she never suffered from a “fifth column” like so many other states. That, more than anything enabled her to survive, unconquered, for 1,100 years.

3. The heart of your story is a deadly feud between two rival mercantile families—the House of Soranzo and the House of Ziani. Through them and the tumultuous events that envelop the protagonists as they struggle against each other while defending Venice against the Turks, we learn a great deal about Venice’s ruling system, as well as its class structure and the complexity of its trading ties. How did you go about creating your fictional families so that they would fit into this era? Can you tell us about any methods you employ to give your characters authenticity? If you had to choose, which character or characters became the one (s) you most enjoyed writing?

I created an excel spreadsheet listing popes, doges, principal characters, and all significant historical and plot twist events. These were all integrated with hundreds of notes gleaned from research about Venice, the Ottoman Empire and rival Italian city-states. I tried to weave fictional events in the families’ feud into the history and then season it with many interesting facts to make the books entertaining but also interesting. I chose a merchant (shipping) family and a banking family to show their interdependence in a capitalist system. Also, I was highly interested in showing that countrymen who don’t get along – even hate each other – if they’re smart, will cooperate to save their mutual hides when attacked by those who want to destroy them.

My favorite character was Seraglio. He represents that possibility we all encounter in our lives to make a lifelong friend, if only we can look past personal appearances and first impressions and allow that person to demonstrate their worth. What a better world it would be if we could all do as Antonio Ziani!

4. The Venetians series entwines personal and political elements into an intense, action-driven storyline that features both Turkish and Christian characters. Both cultures were equally determined to destroy each other in the name of religion and power, so how did you go about balancing the Christian and Muslim points of view? Were you at all concerned that your depiction of the clash between these two very different peoples might stir controversy? If so, did you make any difficult choices to ensure that the novel reflected historical reality?

I did give that a lot of thought. To each side, the other was the devil incarnate. First, I was determined to make the Turks smart – because they were. They were also much more unified that the Christian West, although not necessarily Venice. This gave them a tremendous advantage. However, I am a historian and history was not kind to the Turks. Their culture, like the tides, rose and then receded. The period of my book was a time of ascendency for the Ottoman Empire – they defeated Venice and seized her possessions in the Eastern Mediterranean. However, they were unable to achieve their primary goal – converting Europe to Islam. Their weakness was their extreme cruelty and obsession with enslaving their victims. The “debate” between Antonio Ziani and Abdullah Ali about the relative merits of their respective religions and cultures in chapter seven of The Lion of St. Mark was extremely difficult but highly satisfying to write.

5. Many people are fascinated by Venice and often see the city as a romantic, benign panorama of fading palazzos, canals, and gondolas. Your books offer a fascinating look at the city when it reveled in wealth and power. In her time, Venice was considered both a glory and a formidable foe when crossed. How did you go about recreating details of life in this period of time for your reader? What were the characteristics that defined a Venetian’s way of life?

I consulted many sources but most of all, I went there and spent time just walking around and breathing in the atmosphere. Venice, more than any other large city I know, retains a feel of the past. No cars, little noise, the aroma of the sea, fascinating people, and gorgeous architecture are unfettered by modernity. Venice is the largest museum in the world.

Business was Venice’s religion. This could explain their continual conflicts with the papacy. Venice also revered education (witness The University of Padua and scores of scuoli – the guilds that ensured Venice’s dominance in the trades). Three things were most important to defining their way of life: (1) Venice was obsessed with adhering to the rule of law, fearing corruption and subversion from within more than aggression by foreign invaders (2) In Venice, a man’s greatest achievement was to devote brave, loyal and honest service to the state. Government workers were the most, not the least, capable (3) Venice provided more opportunity/upward mobility than anywhere else on earth. Consequently, she could attract the most talented people to become citizens, fight in her army and navy and many provinces and towns treasured their dominance by Venice. She suffered few revolts. She welcomed the Jews when other states detested and mistreated them.

5. How do you think your novel speaks to today's reader, or how do the events you evoke resonate in today's world?

We could learn a lot from Venice; in my Author’s Note, in The Lion of St. Mark, I point out some similarities between La Serenissima, the world’ longest lasting republic, and America, the world’s most successful republic. Here are some things that Western democracies could learn from the Venetians:

(1) The Venetians demanded unswerving allegiance to the Republic – with no exceptions. They believed the greatest threat to their survival and freedom was from internal weakness and factionalism. By the way, Washington and Franklin warned of the same dangers.
(2) The Venetians were enthusiastically patriotic. They did not tolerate defeatism or acts that undermined their efforts to oppose their enemies – these were regarded as treasonous and punished severely.
(3) The Venetians trusted their government because the very best men were the government – just like in America when our founding fathers led our country.
(4) The Venetians saw the dangerous world for what it was, suffering no illusions. Good was good and evil was evil. There was no equivalency. They knew an enemy is emboldened by appeasement and that military, economic and diplomatic strength is the only real safeguard of freedom. They wrote the book before Machiavelli (1513: The Prince)
(5) The Venetians diligently passed down to each new generation an understanding and appreciation of what made Venice great; and a desire to preserve their republic and make it better. They also continuously improved their industry to make it the best in the world. They were proud resourceful innovators. Washington wrote that an uneducated electorate would lead to the death of the American democracy.
(6) The Venetians used every advantage they possessed to win; economic, military and diplomatic powers were frequently employed. They never fought with one hand tied behind their back. They worked hard to build alliances but when they were mortally threatened, then recognized, ultimately, that they were responsible for their own survival.

6. Please tell us about your next project.

I’m starting work on the third book in The Venetians Trilogy entitled Venice Stands Alone. It recounts the events that spelled the end of the Renaissance beginning with the discoveries of the New World (1492) and Da Gama’s all-sea route to India (1497) and French King Charles VIII’s invasion of Italy (1494). Specifically, the book recounts the disastrous war between Venice and virtually all of Europe, fighting against her as the papacy-led League of Cambrai (1509-1510). It was La Serenissima’s most valiant hour. It is also the point in history when war changed forever, from noblemen taking each other for ransom to wholesale slaughter at long range by artillery and shoulder-fired gunpowder weapons.

Thank you, Thomas. I'm looking forward to Book 3 in The Venetians Trilogy, as I'm sure are your many fans. To all you adventurous readers out there, please give Thomas's books a try. You won't be disappointed!