Book reviews: the good, the bad, the ugly … and the wonderful

Book reviews: the good, the bad, the ugly … and the wonderful

A good review can leave a writer depressed if it’s obvious the reviewer hadn’t read the book. Even rave reviews can be frustrating if there isn’t one quotable line. And then, of course, there are the “condemn with faint praise” reviews. Worse is the despair of not having any reviews at all.

It’s hard not to get emotional!

But then there are the supremely gratifying reviews by readers who get it. Nothing could be finer.

I felt this way about the review of The Game of Hope by Grace O’Connell in Canada’s publishing magazine, Quill & Quire. There are a number of quotable quotes, but this is my favourite:

Gulland has built a career writing historical fiction for adults, including a bestselling trilogy about Joséphine Bonaparte (Hortense’s mother). Her pitch-perfect balance of lush period details and character-driven narrative shines again in The Game of Hope.

I love this too:

In Gulland’s hands, Hortense’s life and history, as dramatic as it is, never overwhelm her character. Her friendships, her music, and her mother remain steady anchors. Even with Joséphine and Napoleon as supporting characters – ones so historically charged that they could easily take over a narrative – the story remains firmly Hortense’s.

What’s especially nice about this is that the reviewer understood some of the challenges of writing biographical historical fiction, likely because she is an author herself. :-)

The terrors of publication

The terrors of publication

Because I publish only every four or five years, in spite of my best intentions — in spite of being at my desk virtually every day for hours! — I forget how fraught the publication process is.

The first sign of “nerves” is going into a tizzy over the cover. I virtually never go into tizzies, but this almost always happens over a cover! And then into a tizzy again over the jacket copy: is it ever just right? And then there are the discovered typos that must be corrected right up until the hour before the book, my baby, hits the press. (I imagine this as a violent collision, not a birth — how strange is that?)

And then: a long, long moment of silence (please, as for a memorial). The book is in print. My job is done.

Ha. Not quite. What’s to come is the scariest part, and that’s the worry, the thoughts of all the ways in which The Novel could have been better. (For it continues to live in motion in my mind.)

The memory of how rushed writing it had been at the end, and how — no doubt — readers will be disappointed. It will be beautiful to behold, I know — such a lovely cover now! — but will it enchant?

Enchantment does not come easy, especially these days.

And then, among the early reviews, I read:

I enjoyed this book so much that I’ve read it twice already!

This is from “Leslie U,” whom I do not know. I want to print this sentence on a banner and pin it over my desk. (Maybe I will.) It’s what I aspire to!

I breathe. Maybe it’s going to be all right. There will be readers who like The Game of Hope. Not everyone, I know, but some.

Leslie U goes on to say:

Being a fan of the Josephine B. Trilogy, I have been anticipating this novel from Ms. Gulland. Her tale about the life of Josephine’s teenaged daughter Hortense and her recovery in the wake of the French Revolution is both realistic and poignant. Roommates, letters home, teenage crushes and innocence brought it to life for me. I especially enjoyed the way the Lenormand Cards were woven throughout the novel. I’ve purchased a deck to play the Game of Hope myself!

Ah, the wonderful Game Of Hope. I often cast those cards as I was writing Hortense’s story.

Maybe I should cast them now, ask: How are you doing, Hortense?

{Photo at the top is by Bank Phrom on Unsplash.}


Mad Men and the review swirl

I’m going to be brief here, because I want to watch “Mad Men.”  :-)

Too, I’ve been reading OVERWHELMED; Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time by Brigid Schulte.

The cover says it all:

Over images

Leisure is important! 

But before I escape into the worlds of Don and Betty, I want to say that I’ve returned to writing (gearing down from promotion-land), and it’s such a pleasure. 

Also to mention that today was an excellent day for reviews of THE SHADOW QUEEN. 

Reading an issue of Renaissance, I came upon a glowing review. It’s not on-line, but here’s the concluding sentence:

This book is a treasure for any lover of literary historical fiction.

The second is from the Pittsburg Examiner, which concluded:

The Shadow Queen will prove to be one of the top historical fiction novels in 2014 because of interesting characters, a unique story, and such attention to detail and research. This is a walk back in time you don’t want to miss!

Of course I’m smiling!

Now to the on-going saga of Don and Betty …  

Highlights of my Shadow Queen book tour & blog hop … so far

actual NYTBR!

{Ad for The Shadow Queen in the New York Times Review of Books!}

Publication swirl: ups, downs, ups! A book tour entails a heady combination of fatigue and exhilaration. The challenge is not to come down with a cold. (Grrrrr.) Plus snow (!) today in Toronto, which I hope doesn’t affect the turnout at the reading tonight at A Novel Spot in Etobicoke.

My task today is to prepare for the talk/reading—my first full-on one. I never take this type of thing lightly. I think I have it basically plotted out, but I’ve not timed or honed it. That’s going to take time.

Plus, I need to get my talk printed out. This is surprisingly difficult on the road. I’m tempted to get a travel printer—but this would add to my already overly-bloated luggage.

Some guest blog posts I’ve written on my Blog Hop Tour:

Getting around to it—on why I became a writer, for Meg Waite Clayton’s blog.

Interview with Margaret Donsbach on (Margaret asks great questions.)

The Page 69 Test: I love page 69 of The Shadow Queen. I plan to use this scene in my talk tonight.

What I’m reading now: Are you a Penelope Fitzgerald fan? I am!

I was pleased with this review from The Free-Lance Star: Real life characters inhabit intriguing story, which concludes: “A remarkably different and very interesting historical read.”

There have been some excellent reviews on that please me very much.

Highlights from the tour so far: 

• The woman in North Vancouver who named her daughter Josephine after reading the Trilogy. She had a beautiful book her daughter had made a drawing in, and she asked me to sign the page opposite. I wish I had taken a photo.

2014-03-13 14.31.44

• Moderator Jen Sookfong Lee at the “Enlivening the Past” panel in North Vancouver asking me if I’d brought my clown nose. (No, of course not—but it does  make me wonder if I could pull off a reading wearing it. Doubtful!)

• Dinner in North Vancouver with writers Mary Novik and Roberta Rich. Shop-talk pals!

• The best highlight from tour so far: seeing my daughter and her wonderful family in Toronto. The wee-ones are growing!

My top 5 fiction titles for 2013: virginal and not

Because I am writing a Young Adult novel, I continue to read and very much enjoy them. Such a treat!

Eleanor & Park

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. This is a wonderful Young Adult novel, very tender, very innocent, and utterly real.

Rowell’s newest Fangirl, is also getting rave reviews, and I’ve just started to read it. She’s an amazing writer. Treat a teen, but read her yourself!


Studio Saint-Ex by Ania Szado. For fans of The Little Prince, this is a special treat, but frankly, most everyone loves this novel. (All the members of my picky-prickly book club, for example.)

I had the honour to “blurb” it, and here is a short version: “… an elegantly alluring and poignant love story. … Spare and beautifully-crafted, the novel vividly evokes the world of fashion design and the French ex-pat community in New York during WWII. In a word: magnifique!” 

I am sure that there is a reader on your gift list who will love getting this novel. Plus, such a gorgeous cover!


Blood & Beauty by Sarah Dunant. This is a masterpiece of biographical historical fiction, in my view.


Maidenhead by Tamara Faith Berger; I bought this book because it was on last year’s 10-best-of-the-year list by Quill & Quire. (Their lists are always unique and worthy.) I also read it because the main character is a teen, and I’m writing about a teen now: research, right? Well, not exactly. It’s a shocking novel about a girl who is lured into the sex trade—explicit, beautifully written, utterly convincing.


Rather strange to go from Maidenhead to: Pride and Prejudice: An Annotated Edition by Jane Austen and Patricia Meyer Spacks, but such is the Reading Life.

For Austen fans, this annotated and visually lush edition is simply wonderful. There is a wealth of historical information in the annotations and illustrations—fantastic for a historical novelist working in that era (i.e. moi).

These are only five of a very long list! It was hard culling it down. For a list of novels I absolutely admire: see “my bookstore.”