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Historical Fiction
Six authors bring to life overlapping stories of patricians and slaves, warriors and politicians, villains and heroes who cross each others' path during Pompeii's fiery end.
Caught in the deadly world of the Renaissance's most notorious family, three outsiders must decide if they will flee the dangerous dream of power.
The Borgia family begins its legendary rise, chronicled by an innocent girl who finds herself drawn into their dangerous web.
The lives of an ambitious soldier, a patrician heiress and a future emperor fatefully intersect.
The Year of Four Emperors - and four very different women struggling to survive
A brilliant and paranoid Emperor, a wary and passionate slave girl – who will survive?

Ave Historia: An irreverent look at historical fiction today: books trends, historical tidbits, and random tangents

Top Ten Books Of 2013

December 12, 2013

Tags: christmas, top ten list

In compliance with federal law, which apparently states that all book bloggers must post a “Top Ten Books I Read This Year!” list on their blogs in December, I'm giving you mine—and in time to help you complete your holiday shopping! Because nothing fits better in a stocking than a book. Here are my recommendations, the best books I read in 2013 (though not all were published this year) and just who you should buy them for . . .


1. “Longbourn” by Jo Baker. Jane Austen meets “Downton Abbey”--this is the story of the mostly-silent servants who make their way through the Bennet house in Pride & Prejudice—and this is their story, not Elizabeth and Darcy's, which is what makes it refreshing. Housemaid Sarah wants to do something with her life besides empty chamber pots and scrub petticoats, and that's far more important to her than who any of the Bennet girls marry. But like Elizabeth, Sarah has her choice between a charming unreliable suitor and a silent passionate one, and like Elizabeth, Sarah will take her chance at happiness into her own hands. Buy for: your Janeite bestie, the one whose “Pride & Prejudice” blu-ray skips automatically to Colin Firth climbing out of the pond. The descriptions of Regency housework alone will keep her from ever sighing again “I wish I was born back then!”

2. “Eleanor and Park” by Rainbow Rowell. One of the sweetest and tenderest stories about young love I have ever read; good enough to touch even a cynical heart like mine. The plot couldn't be simpler: two brainy sixteen-year-olds with variously screwed-up home lives meet on a school bus and fall in love. The genius is in the details: the awkward pauses, the fragility of emotions, the pitch-perfect dialogue of smart kids who can throw around words like “phylum” and discourse on Shakespeare, but then get flustered and only mutter “God!” Buy for: that awkward teenager in your life, be it a younger sister or a teenage son. They will read this book thinking “This is my life.”

3. “The Pagan Lord” by Bernard Cornwell. The latest installment in the Saxon Stories, with the always entertaining shield-wall adventures of cranky Viking-trained hero Uhtred as he kills enemies, insults priests, and strides around being the colossus that he is. Cornwell never fails to entertain, and this one is fabulous blood-and-battle fun. Buy for: your husband, who you recently got hooked on the Uhtred books during a long car ride, and who has been plowing through them ever since with a feverish gleam in his eye like a heroin addict (ahem).

4. “The Secret of the Glass” by Donna Russo Morin. My favorite book from one of my favorite writer friends. The nice thing about Donna's historical heroines is that they always have something on their minds besides their love life—and Renaissance gal Sophia might have a Tom Brady look-alike sending her passionate glances, but this girl already has her hands full running her dying father's glassblowing business, and knowing it will be scooped out of her hands as soon as he dies because of course, women can't run glassblowing businesses. Rarely has the helplessness of historical women at the hands of society been so well explored; I spent much of this book in a fit of outrage on Sophia's behalf. Buy for: your feminist cubicle mate, who will realize all over again that women today might be saddled with the GOP, but we've still got it a lot better than our historical counterparts.

5. “BZRK Reloaded” by Michael Grant. I'm a born Luddite who can break a computer just by walking past it, so if you'd told me I'd be this riveted by a YA thriller about nanobot technology, I'd have laughed in your face. But Grant's tale of the Hallmark company trying to enslave the minds of humanity and the teenage hackers who try to stop them is hard-edged and riveting. Light YA this ain't; Grant pulls no punches in depicting a covert revolution where death, enslavement, and madness are right around around the corner for all concerned. Buy for: the office nerd you drew for Secret Santa. Sit back and enjoy the fun as he becomes paranoid—“I know I've got bots on me, I just KNOW it!!”

6. “Wool” by Hugh Howey. I devoured this post-apocalyptic doorstopper in a matter of days, unable to look away from Howey's compulsively readable and utterly horrifying vision of a future where humanity lives in underground silos—but what's really outside those silos? And the heroine, a tough as nails mechanic, is just a delight from start to finish. Buy for: your garage mechanic uncle. He'll be tickled to read a story where the mechanic saves humanity from destruction, rather than some covert ops James Bond type.

7. “The Queen's Pawn” by Christy English. Don't be fooled by the quietness of this historical novel that mostly takes place in the cushioned spaces of a queen's medieval solar—this is a nail-biting examination of female power-play in an era where women weren't supposed to have any power. Eleanor of Aquitaine takes one half of the narrative, and facing her as protege and eventual rival is Princess Alais of France who Eleanor raises as future wife to Richard the Lionheart, but who will strike out on her own in a grab for Eleanor's throne and Eleanor's husband. But this is no cat-fight story of two women fighting over a man—Eleanor's fierce pride in Alais never wavers even when Alais moves against her, and Alais's love and respect for Eleanor proves a beacon when her ambitions begin to falter. Buy for: your mother, because this is a mother-daughter story unlike any you've ever read.

8. “Kristin Lavransdatter” by Sigrid Unset. A riveting trilogy set in medieval Norway, following a headstrong girl, her feckless but charming husband, her many sons, and the richly-textured community in which they live. Astounding that 800 pages of a woman obsessing about sin could be so flat-out absorbing, but then again, it's a classic for a reason. Buy for: that niece who's backpacking to Norway to see the Northern Lights. Be prepared for a puzzled email about why she missed the Northern Lights because she was too wrapped up in a medieval Norwegian girl obsessing about sin.

9. “Cuckoo's Calling” by J.K. Rowling. Mas respect for Rowling, who didn't coast on the success of Harry Potter but struck out into other genres—first adult contemporary with “Casual Vacancy,” and then even more brilliantly into crime with “Cuckoo's Calling.” This is old-fashioned noir at its best: a brilliant down-on-his-luck detective and his sweet-as-cream Gal Friday negotiating the seedy glamor of the high fashion industry as they try to discover why a supermodel plunged to her death from a locked apartment. Buy for: your dad, who loves the crime shows but wishes they'd move away from the damn evidence labs and the DNA stuff, and go back to the Colombo model of Detective Who Just Asks Questions.

10. “One Dog and His Boy” by Eva Ibbotson. Ibbotson's last delightful comic romp in a long career. Here she gives us a lonely little rich boy whose parents can't see why he's upset when the dog they've rented for one weekend just to give him "the dog experience" has to be returned. Hal refuses to accept this, and takes off with the dog. Adventures ensue, and Ibbotson's trademark humor lifts her prose a cut above, such as when a fiery little Pekinese reflects, "There is absolutely nothing wrong with old ladies, but when your ancestors have been bred to ride on the saddle of the Emperor when he gallops off to war, you do not feel like being told you are an itsy-bitsy little doggie, aren't you." Buy for: that person in your life who needs a little comfort food for the soul. Maybe that's you—because the stream of disasters from the daily news or your latest Gillian Flynn binge is leaving you depressed, then this is the book to cheer you up.

Merry Christmas!

How Authors Become Friends, and Why You Should Buy Stephanie Dray's “Daughters of the Nile"

December 3, 2013

Tags: Stephanie dray, daughters of the nile

I always face a bit of a dilemma whenever an author friend's book is released. On the one hand, I want to pimp the hell out of their book because I want it to do well. On the other hand, I know that if I do that, there's a decent chance people won't believe me when I say “This book is awesome!” because “She's just saying that because her friend wrote it.”

No.

My friend Stephanie Dray has a book out today called "Daughters of the Nile," and yes, I'm going to pimp the hell out of it. And in the interests of full disclosure, you get the full story of this author friendship so that you understand why I am telling you to buy this book, and why I am not just saying that because she's my friend.

Stephanie and I are both Berkley Books authors, but we lived on opposite sides of the country and had never met. She had a book about Cleopatra's daughter coming out, called “Lily of the Nile” - and she'd apparently read and enjoyed my book “Mistress of Rome,” so she asked her editor if I might consider reading “Lily” for a cover quote. My editor asked me (the deadline was tight), I said “Sure, I read fast, send it over.” And the book apparently vanished in a puff of smoke from the Berkley mail-stream, disappeared into the ether, and reappeared forty-eight hours later in exactly the same place, faintly singed and smelling of brimstone and definitely NOT in my hands. By then it was too late for a cover quote, even if they'd re-mailed it. So I didn't blurb “Lily of the Nile,” and Stephanie was merely told “Yeah, the quote's not happening.” She later told me she plunged into a gloomy “Kate Quinn hates my book!” funk, and ate a pint of gelato for dinner.

But I read “Lily of the Nile” when it hit the shelves, and I liked it. The heroine was smart, and I love a smart heroine. She was just a teenager, but this was no YA chick moping about her love triangle; Stephanie had made Selene the survivor's-guilt-ridden heir to the complicated legacy of Cleopatra and Mark Antony: bitter, damaged, ambitious, devious, and proud. I liked that even better. So I dropped Stephanie an email about how much I'd enjoyed the book, and told the story of the post-office snafu, and she jumped on that and asked if I might blurb the second Selene book. I read “Song of the Nile,” and I liked it even better. Selene had grown up into a vengeful, passionate, seductive, scheming priestess-queen, and if that weren't enough, she had the world's creepiest love-hate relationship with Emperor Augustus (who “I, Claudius” fans will have a VERY hard time identifying as affable Brian Blessed from the mini-series). So I was happy to write a cover quote for “Song of the Nile,” and when the hubby and I moved out to Maryland a year or so later—Stephanie's state of residence—she took me out for a thank-you lunch.

Authors are always a little nervous on meeting each other in person. “I liked your books so much—what if I don't like you?” Or “I like you a lot, but I've tried your books and I just hate them . . . what do I say?” So Stephanie and I eyed each other over the napkins at an Indian restaurant with a certain unease at first, but that wore off fast. Because we'd both read and genuinely enjoyed each other's books before either meeting in person or ever needing a favor like a cover quote out of each other, and that's a good place to start. Soon enough we were gabbing it up about Isis worship, Emperor Augustus, Latin profanity, Bernard Cornwell, crazy Amazon reviews, and everything else under the sun. Lunch turned into coffee turned into a Barnes & Noble run, and it was the start of a beautiful friendship. (Stephanie blogged her own version of our meeting here, and I will state for the record that I don't drive that fast, and we were nowhere near being arrested, and I said the exact same thing to the cops.)

Fast-forward a couple of years, and Stephanie is now one of the best author friends I've got. We get together on book launch days, and forcibly stop each other from checking our Amazon Sales Rankings. We've complained about sales trends, crazy hate-mail, and headless-heroine covers. We missed a plane flight at 1am, coming back from the Historical Novel Society conference, and like a pair of Roman empresses we planned evisceration and crucifixion for the hapless cretins of United Airways who caused the screw-up. We've bitched about one-star reviews. We have a running joke about hippos that never gets old.

I was there at Ground Zero when Stephanie wrote “Daughters of the Nile,” the concluding book to her trilogy about Cleopatra Selene. I talked her off a ledge when she was convinced she couldn't write a metaphor anymore. I commiserated about an early version of her cover, which we called “Troll of the Nile” because Selene looked like a hunchback. I beta-read her rough draft: “This scene in the reeds is swoon-worthy! But your epilogue needs work; what about this . . .”

“Daughters of the Nile” is out in stores today, and I feel like a proud auntie. I want to see which of those three different endings Stephanie put in (I voted for Version #2, when the panicked “Which of these is the best???” email went out 12 hours before deadline). I've read this book in rough-draft form, and even without the final polishing it's since received, I can tell you it's dark, mesmerizing historical fiction: the final gut-wrenching act in the twisted car-wreck of a relationship between Selene and her mentor-suitor-madman Emperor Augustus. There's tragedy to punch you in the gut, and tenderness to make you cry, and moments that will just plain prickle your hair. I'm taking Stephanie out to lunch today, and after lunch we're heading to B&N so I can buy my copy of “Daughters of the Nile.”

And I tell you with zero fake “I'm supporting my friend” enthusiasm that you should buy it, too.


Daughters of the Nile slide


From critically acclaimed historical fantasy author, Stephanie Dray comes the long-awaited new tale based on the true story of Cleopatra's daughter.


After years of abuse as the emperor’s captive in Rome, Cleopatra Selene has found a safe harbor. No longer the pitiful orphaned daughter of the despised Egyptian Whore, the twenty year old is now the most powerful queen in the empire, ruling over the kingdom of Mauretania—an exotic land of enchanting possibility where she intends to revive her dynasty. With her husband, King Juba II and the magic of Isis that is her birthright, Selene brings prosperity and peace to a kingdom thirsty for both. But when Augustus Caesar jealously demands that Selene’s children be given over to him to be fostered in Rome, she’s drawn back into the web of imperial plots and intrigues that she vowed to leave behind. Determined and resourceful, Selene must shield her loved ones from the emperor’s wrath, all while vying with ruthless rivals like King Herod. Can she find a way to overcome the threat to her marriage, her kingdom, her family, and her faith? Or will she be the last of her line?


Read the Reviews


"A stirring story of a proud, beautiful, intelligent woman whom a 21st century reader can empathize with. Dray's crisp, lush prose brings Selene and her world to life." ~RT Book Reviews


"The boldest, and most brilliant story arc Dray has penned..." ~Modge Podge Reviews


"If you love historical fiction and magical realism, these books are for you." ~A Bookish Affair


Read an Excerpt


Below me, six black Egyptian cobras dance on their tails, swaying. I watch their scaled hoods spread wide like the uraeus on the crown of Egypt. Even from this height, I'm paralyzed by the sight of the asps, their forked tongues flickering out between deadly fangs. I don't notice that I'm gripping the balustrade until my knuckles have gone white, all my effort concentrated upon not swooning and falling to my death.

And I would swoon if I were not so filled with rage. Someone has arranged for this. Someone who knows what haunts me. Someone who wants to send me a message and make this occasion a moment of dread. My husband, the king must know it, for he calls down, "That's enough. We've seen enough of the snake charmer!"

There is commotion below, some upset at having displeased us. Then Chryssa hisses, "Who could think it a good idea to honor the daughter of Cleopatra by coaxing asps from baskets of figs?"

The story the world tells of my mother's suicide is that she cheated the emperor of his conquest by plunging her hand into a basket where a venomous serpent lay in wait. A legend only, some say, for the serpent was never found. But I was there. I brought her that basket. She was the one bitten but the poison lingers in my blood to this day. I can still remember the scent of figs in my nostrils, lush and sweet. The dark god Anubis was embroidered into the woven reeds of the basket, the weight of death heavy in my arms. I can still see my mother reach her hand into that basket, surrendering her life so that her children might go on without her. And I have gone on without her.

I have survived too much to be terrorized by the emperor's agents or whoever else is responsible for this.

If it is a message, a warning from my enemies, I have already allowed them too much of a victory by showing any reaction at all. So I adopt as serene a mask as possible. My daughter blinks her big blue eyes, seeing past my facade. "Are you frightened, Mother? They cannot bite us from there. The snakes are very far away."

I get my legs under me, bitterness on my tongue. "Oh, but they're never far enough away."

###


Daughters of the Nile cover



Available now in print and e-book!


Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Kobo | Powells | IndieBound | Goodreads




Available now in print and e-book!


Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Kobo | Powells | IndieBound | Goodreads






Stephanie Dray Headshot


STEPHANIE DRAY is a bestselling, multi-published, award-winning author of historical women’s fiction and fantasy set in the ancient world. Her critically acclaimed historical series about Cleopatra’s daughter has been translated into more than six different languages, was nominated for a RITA Award and won the Golden Leaf. Her focus on Ptolemaic Egypt and Augustan Age Rome has given her a unique perspective on the consequences of Egypt's ancient clash with Rome, both in terms of the still-extant tensions between East and West as well as the worldwide decline of female-oriented religion. Before she wrote novels, Stephanie was a lawyer, a game designer, and a teacher. Now she uses the transformative power of magic realism to illuminate the stories of women in history and inspire the young women of today. She remains fascinated by all things Roman or Egyptian and has-to the consternation of her devoted husband-collected a house full of cats and ancient artifacts.