Mailbox Monday

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Another Monday, Another Mailbox!! This is a feature where we all share with each other the yummy books that showed up at our doors! WARNING: Mailbox Mondays can lead to extreme envy and GINORMOUS wishlists!!

Mailbox Monday is hosted by Marcia at The Printed Page, but for the month of February MM is on tour and hosted by Library of Clean Reads.

I've decided to participate in Mailbox Monday once a month now! It had gotten to the point where I was buying TOO many books and expending too much effort writing these posts. It just makes more sense to group everything together and look at my book-acquiring habits over the longer term.

                                                   I received two review copies in the mail:
                                       Check out my review and my interview with the author!

                                                      I'm hoping to get to this one soon!

From eBay, and Amazon purchases, I received:
                  I bought both volumes of Gail Godwin's writing diaries (first volume not pictured here).
I read an excerpt in a writing magazine and appreciated the opportunity to see a young writer working out practical issues of craft and work-life balance.
                     The one book on my list that I really wanted but didn't receive for Christmas.
I'm about 200 pages in and wondering when the story is really going to kick into high gear!

My used bookstore purchases:
What is it about non-profit bookstores? In DC, Books for America is far and away the best used bookstore. In Maryland, Montgomery County Friends of the Library store can't be beat! I picked up every single one of these books for $2 each!

                 My goal is to eventually collect the entire Best American Essays series from 1986 on.

                                               A highly-praised novel about the Iranian revolution.

I have reason to believe that I will be needing this in a few weeks! More info to follow!

In college, I studied Jones' fantastic book of short stories about life in    Washington, DC and I've heard very good things about this post-Civil War novel.

Well, that's my January in book-acquiring. How was your month/week?

Interview with C.W. Gortner

Historical Fiction Notebook is pleased to welcome C.W. Gortner to talk about the recent release of his book, The Tudor Secret!

1. First off, can you give us a little bit of background on how you came to write The Tudor Secret? Why is it being reissued now?

I wrote The Tudor Secret in between my other biographical novels and first self-published it under the title of The Secret Lion. My biographical novel manuscripts had been rejected in New York so many times, I wanted to try my hand at something different. Coincidentally, while doing research for a possible Tudor-era novel, I came across information about Elizabeth I’s espionage system. It sparked my interest; when I delved further, I became fascinated with this idea of an ordinary man who unwittingly carries a terrible secret and becomes the intimate spy for Elizabeth. The book has been re-issued with a thorough edit and new scenes, because I eventually sold my first two biographical novels, The Last Queen and The Confessions of Catherine de Medici, to Ballantine Books, which prompted my agent to think there might be interest in my Tudor spy series. I’m fortunate that my editor at St Martin’s Press loved the idea and my UK publisher Hodder & Stoughton followed. Though I still intend to write biographical novels, the Elizabeth I Spymaster Chronicles gives me an opportunity to explore the excitement and drama of the Tudor period through a fictional protagonist who interacts with real-life people and events.

2. As I mentioned in my review, The Tudor Secret brought me back to the years when I devoured historical mysteries. Do you have any recommendations on good historical suspense titles that will keep all of us occupied until the second book in your Spymaster Chronicles arrives?

I’m a big fan of C.J. Sansom’s mystery series featuring the lawyer Matthew Shardlake, which take place in Henry VIII’s reign. I also greatly admire Rory Clements’s John Shakespeare series, set in the waning years of Elizabeth I’s reign; and C.J. Parrish’s Giordano Bruno books. Going back in time, Tony Hays’s Arthurian series is marvelously gritty and fun, as are the Mistress of Art of Death books by the late Ariana Franklin, set in the medieval era.

3. I noticed that in your Author's Afterword for The Tudor Secret you thanked your mother for giving you your first historical novel. Can you share the title with us? What did you initially find so interesting about historical fiction?

My mom gave me a copy of Jean Plaidy’s Murder Most Royal , sparking a lifelong obsession with the Tudors. I initially fell in love with historical fiction because it brought the past to life for me in a sensory way. The genre provided me with the means to time-travel and experience for myself the sights, smells, and sounds of a time long gone.

4. Back in the 90s, when I was a teenager and reading ONLY historical fiction it definitely wasn't popular or even thought of as its own genre - I remember hunting for Jean Plaidy titles in the romance section! Now many bookstores have their own sections for HF and many HF authors are well known in popular publishing. How do you account for this change? Do you think that even now HF gets enough respect?

I remember those days, too! I was submitting my work and all my rejections invariably carried the message that historical fiction was dead. I think a few things turned it around: first, because the genre had been so discounted, there was a wealth of new material to publish and these new titles started to generate new readers, who discovered how much historical fiction could offer. This has been followed closely by renewed interest in the genre by moviemakers, who have given us a whole new set of visionary looks at the past, from Gladiator to Elizabeth to Showtime’s The Tudors.

I think the genre is building respect; major prizes have been awarded recently to works classified as historical fiction and more writers are turning to the genre as a way to explore the tumult of today’s world through the prism of the past. The best historical fiction, in my opinion, isn’t necessarily the most factual: it’s the stories that help us make better sense of who we are and how we got here.

5. Your fantastic blog "Historical Boys" makes a point of welcoming men AND women to your books and to the world of historical fiction. Why is HF so aggressively marketed to women? How can more men be encouraged to read historical fiction?

I believe that historical fiction has for many years wrongly been classified as a subgenre of romantic fiction. However, there is romantic fiction with a historical setting and historical fiction with romantic elements: these are not the same thing. Today, women make up 70% of the book-buying public and romance readers in particular are avid book buyers; it only makes sense from a publishing standpoint to market historical fiction to this demographic. I also think many historical fiction readers appreciate the personal, emotional stories behind the history and, as we all know, society tends to pigeonhole women as emotional and men as physical. So, we get male historical fiction authors who write ‘adventure’ and women historical fiction authors who write ‘personal.’ However, this is not cut-and-dry. I’ve read plenty of gory battle scenes coming from a woman’s pen and sensitive moments from a man’s. But the marketing does get in the way, to a certain extent, which is frustrating because often behind that frock on the cover lies a great story.

I think more men will read the genre as it continues to gain popularity, though I’m not sure the twain will necessarily meet. Plenty of male historical fiction authors are doing quite well sales-wise, appealing to a male demographic. My intent with my blog was to open the door and say: “Look, there is something in this genre for everyone.” 

6. I think a lot of us HF readers are familiar with romantic portrayals of Robert Dudley and his relationship with Elizabeth I. Can you tell us more about your characterization of Robert Dudley in The Tudor Secret?

Ah, yes. Well, I was aware while writing the novel that some readers might be surprised by my characterization of Robert. The first thing I’d want to say is The Tudor Secret is the first book in a planned series, so just as every other character evolves, so will Robert—though perhaps not necessarily in the way others have described him. While I believe that Elizabeth did in fact love Robert Dudley and that he, in his way, loved her, I don’t think it was as easy as all that. The romantic moulding of their relationship stems in great part from its longevity and posterity’s need to provide Elizabeth in her epic solitude with a devoted companion. But Robert’s own actions show him to be more complex than we allow, and I think he was motivated, at least in his initial years, by ambition, like every other man of his class. He was the son of a powerful family known for its rapacity; he wasn’t inclined to be gracious to inferiors or sacrifice his sense of entitlement.

In my book, Robert is still young, privileged, and hell-bent in his resolve to succeed. I think this most likely is who he was, until fate brought down his family and he learned the hard way what the price of his ambition might entail. Nevertheless, as anyone who’s studied Elizabeth and Robert knows, it didn’t stop him. This was not a simple relationship.

 7. I'm always interested in the writing process for HF authors. The Tudor Secret has been reissued and I've seen you mention on your blog that you added a scene between your main character and Elizabeth. Why did you choose to add that scene?

My editor wanted a bit more of Elizabeth’s presence in the novel and as I worked on it, I realized I agreed. We needed that scene to give her and Brendan’s relationship more authenticity and weight. It’s a small scene, but an important one.

8. What was it like to go back to The Tudor Secret after the success of The Last Queen and The Confessions of Catherine De Medici?

Joyful! I loved writing this book when I first did it and I relished re-visiting it and fleshing out aspects of it with an experienced editor who appreciated my intention. The entire purpose behind The Tudor Secret is to offer a fresh perspective on a notoriously well-covered era and pay humble homage to the swashbuckling stories and mysteries of the past. I wanted to loosen the fetters of history and explore the ‘what if.’ I freely admit to traveling beyond evidence, to playing with imagination by placing an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances, where he must live by his wits if he is to survive. While I strived to stay true to what is known of the events and people involved, first and foremost this is the fictional tale of a secret spy who sacrifices everything to save a princess and discover the mystery of his birth. It’s precisely the kind of story that inspired me to want to be a writer and I sincerely hope readers will be entertained by the adventure.

Thanks for taking the time to talk!

Thank you so much for spending this time with me. To learn more about me and my work, please visit me at:

Review: The Tudor Secret

Saturday, February 5, 2011

 In 1553, England is a dangerous place to be. King Edward is on his deathbed. Vying for the crown are Elizabeth, her half sister Mary, and their cousin, Lady Jane Grey, who is manipulated by her powerful father-in-law. Into the midst of all this drama rides Brendan Prescott, a 20-year-old orphan raised by the servants at the Duke of Northumberland’s country home. Sent to court to serve the duke’s sons, one of his first tasks is to deliver a secret missive to Elizabeth. But Brendan is soon lured by Elizabeth’s protector, William Cecil, into working for Elizabeth instead, as Cecil promises to help Brendan decipher the mystery of his parentage. Amid crosses and double crosses, Brendan realizes he has to choose a side, for the issue of succession to the throne quickly becomes a matter of life and death—and not just for the potential monarch (from Booklist).

When I was in my teens, I went through a phase when all I read were historical mysteries - perhaps I went a bit too far because once I passed that phase I didn't return to them again until I picked up Tudor Secret! I was pleasantly reminded me of what made historical mysteries so much fun in the first place - do or die fast pacing and a little bit more historical wiggle room to imagine What if?

Secret definitely succeeds on these fronts. Having read Gortner's previous novels on Juana La Loca and Catherine De Medici I expected Secret (which was actually his first novel and is now being reprinted) to lag a bit in the pacing department. No problem there! This was a long work week for me and that usually translates into a nap on the Metro ride home - but I actually looked forward to pulling Secret out of my bag and disappearing into Gortner's vision of Tudor England.

I found the core "secret" and the way it tied into the succession of the Nine Days' Queen Lady Jane Grey very believable and creative. Why don't more authors tackle this time period? I've always been fascinated by the shift between young Protestant Edward VI to his sister, the Catholic Queen Mary. Gortner does a great job of capturing that uncertain time and all the double crosses and backup plans of the main players.

The main character, Brendan Prescott is likeable and convincingly changes from an innocent squire into an experienced spy in the short time span the book covers. I think many readers will particularly enjoy the depictions of the future Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley, the man she loves. Gortner has set up a tricky balancing act for himself - making Dudley a vile person (a take we rarely see in other Tudor novels) while still being charming enough to keep Elizabeth attracted to him. There were moments when I felt that Dudley was simply too vile and that there was no way that Elizabeth would continue to trust and even love him - but Secret makes a good case that their attraction draws its strength from Elizabeth's lonely childhood.

I do have one more minor quibble with the book - Brendan engages in his own romance. It's a sweet relationship and I look forward to seeing it develop further in future books in the series but it simply progressed far too quickly for believability's sake. That said, I will wait for the next book in a series that promises to be quite exciting and to offer a new perspective on the well-covered terrain of fictional Tudor England. Who knows? Maybe it'll even renew my long-dormant interest in historical mysteries!

Disclosure: This was a copy sent to me by the author for review purposes.