Saturday, June 16, 2018

Victoria Glendinning's The Butcher's Daughter explores an ordinary woman's Tudor-era life

Most people in sixteenth-century England weren’t royalty or famous names, yet a focus on the well-known predominates in historical novels.

Evincing deep knowledge of Tudor-era society, award-winning biographer and writer Glendinning helps remedy this skewed perspective. She centers on a young woman left homeless after Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries and forced back into a world that slots women into tidy, repressive categories.

In 1535, the witty, curious Agnes Peppin is sent to Shaftesbury Abbey after bearing an illegitimate child and finds a home among the nuns. Agnes is literate, and as the abbess’ assistant she is in a prime place to see Thomas Cromwell’s destructive plans for England’s religious houses coming to fruition.

Glendinning’s psychologically astute novel shows how significant an upheaval this was. Monasteries and abbeys served as social safety nets and economic engines, and their residents’ heartbreak and confusion are palpable as the sanctuaries are dismantled.

Agnes’ sudden freedom, both a burden and an opportunity, sets her on an entertaining, picaresque journey toward self-fulfillment across England’s West Country. Through the experiences of Agnes and others, Glendinning thoughtfully explores womanhood’s many facets.

The Butcher's Daughter will be published by Overlook next week; I wrote this review for Booklist's 5/15 issue. For readers looking for more "Tudor fiction without the famous," this is one!

The cover at top left is the US edition, while the UK cover is at the bottom right.

Monday, June 11, 2018

A long-distance literary love story: Noon in Paris, Eight in Chicago by Douglas Cowie

French feminist writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir was best known for her masterwork, The Second Sex (1949); Nelson Algren was an award-winning American writer acclaimed for depicting working-class Chicago.

In a novel about the romance between these prominent literary figures, one might expect a thorough presentation of their intellectual lives, but Cowie’s approach is refreshingly different. With a fast-paced, down-to-earth, conversational style, he evokes their strong emotional and physical connection and their struggle to sustain it.

After getting Nelson’s number from a mutual friend, Simone phones him when she visits Chicago in 1947. They spend the evening visiting “the real city,” including the county jail, and end up in bed at his apartment. Over many transatlantic flights, foreign vacations, and letters flying across the globe, Cowie draws us into their psyches.

Nelson wants Simone to move in permanently, but her commitment to her long-time Parisian partner, Jean-Paul Sartre, precludes that. Ultimately, they face wrenching choices. Although the details are specific to this famous couple, the insights into how relationships flourish and wither are universal.

I wrote this review for Booklist, and it was published as an online review in March; the novel itself was published in May in the US by Myriad Editions (it was previously published in the UK). Cowie is an American fiction writer who is currently Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Adventures in flight: Chasing the Wind by C.C. Humphreys

Like its go-getter heroine, C. C. Humphreys’ newest historical thriller starts on the ground but quickly takes off. Pilot Roxy Loewen, fleeing from her father’s creditors and the man responsible for his death on a New York street in 1929, makes a grand exit from the scene – with some help from fellow aviator Amelia Earhart.

Seven years later, she’s running guns into British Somaliland alongside her German commie lover, Jocco Zomack, doing her part to support the Ethiopians’ war against the Italians. But even as Mussolini claims victory, there’s another battle right behind it. Roxy’s next mission: fly more guns into politically torn Madrid, pick up an original Bruegel painting, lift it out of the country, and deliver it to a buyer in Berlin, on behalf of Jocco’s art dealer father – all without Hermann Göring and his goons finding out.

A bold feat, but Roxy’s sure she can do it. The money’s good, too. But she hasn’t counted on the Nazis partnering with her arch-nemesis.

With Chasing the Wind, Humphreys, who has made many forays into 16th through 18th-century settings, successfully vaults ahead to the first decades of the 20th century, when the world was reacting to the stock market crash, eruptions into civil war, and the rising tide of fascism.

He shows that he's mastered the skill of combining fast-paced action with vibrant historical detail. As the story speeds along with Roxy’s daring schemes and hairsbreadth escapes, it also delves into the techniques of forging a centuries-old painting and flying a small aircraft. Readers also get to experience the tense atmosphere of the 1936 Berlin Olympics (“Sport and politics are not separate, not at all. This display is all about power,” Roxy aptly observes) and walk through the opulent interior landscapes of the Hindenburg on its final voyage.

Roxy’s a gal with moxie to spare, but she’s not superhuman; she often experiences setbacks. She’s tough but compassionate: as Jocco tells her, “I know you care more than you admit.” That sometimes gives her adversaries the advantage, but it also makes her a relatable, admirable character.

Granted, if you don’t take to wild adventures that just happen to swoop through some of the era’s most significant events, this may not be your book. But if you're tempted to try keeping up with Roxy, though, it's great fun; just hang on and enjoy the flight.

Chasing the Wind is published in Canada by Doubleday Canada, and in the US as an indie title (ebook). Thanks to Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for providing me with a Kindle copy. 

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Past v. Present: The Challenges of a Historical Thriller. an essay by Terrence McCauley

In today's post, author Terrence McCauley, who writes novels set in the past and others in the present-day, describes the appeal and challenges of writing fiction set in 1930s NYC.


Past v. Present: 
The Challenges of a Historical Thriller
Terrence McCauley

As a writer, I always look for new ways to challenge myself. I never want to keep writing the same story over and over again. I don’t think the audience want to read the same kind of story, either. That’s one of the many reasons why I love setting my stories in different time periods. For example, my University series (Sympathy for the Devil, A Murder of Crows, A Conspiracy of Ravens) are all modern day techno-thrillers with plenty of action and technology to help me keep the pace moving.

Historical fiction does not allow me that luxury. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. Writing about 1930s New York affords me another set of challenges I wholeheartedly embrace. My Charlie Doherty novels (The Devil Dogs of Belleau Wood, Slow Burn, and now The Fairfax Incident) are different from any other kind of story I tell. I write them in the first person from Charlie’s perspective because I want the reader to get a sense of what he’s experiencing as he’s experiencing it. I don’t give myself the ability to use the third person omniscient narrator because I’m afraid of getting too far ahead in the story. I have a reason for that.

When writing about a bygone era, it’s very easy for the writer to slip into something I call the "dreaded data dump," an unfortunate place where the author is anxious to demonstrate how much research he or she did on the era by packing the story with historically accurate facts. These data dumps are usually long sections that might be interesting to read, but often kill the momentum of the story. By only allowing myself to use the first person voice, I can constantly yet subtly remind the reader of the time and setting of the novel. I can either talk about the grand mansions and packed streets of Old New York, or I can have Charlie mention them as he’s moving from one location to the other on his way to cracking the case. People tend to skip over passages that are too long, and that means death to a writer and a story.

My books may be set in the past, but they’re being read by a modern audience who have all of the distractions of the day. Emails, texts, social media are all at the reader’s fingertips, especially if they’re reading on a tablet or smartphone. The last thing I want them to do is leave Charlie’s world to glance at what’s happening right now.

Getting a modern reader to relate to the 1930s is also a challenge that must be overcome. Some pick up a book like mine expecting to read a hats-and-gats drama with tough private detectives, gun molls and wise-cracking gangsters. That’s why I try to make my characters more believable by showing the people of that era are very relatable to the people of today. Many of my characters are survivors. They’ve lived through the horrors of the First World War, the boozy glamour of the Roaring Twenties and are now suffering through the horrible hangover of the beginning stages of the Great Depression. Times are bad and promise to get worse. But rather than tell the reader all of that, I have chosen to relate that story from Charlie’s point of view. He’s as world-weary as the next guy, but he doesn’t fall into the same categories of similar characters who have come before him. He isn’t idealistic, he doesn’t follow a code and he’s not above shoving someone aside to grab a quick buck. He’s a product of his time; a former detective who had made plenty of money during the corrupt Tammany Hall era, but finds himself pushed aside by the Reform movement sweeping the day. I don’t tell the reader any of this. I show them through Charlie’s internal dialogue and actions. I find this makes it easier for the reader to understand the time by seeing it all through Charlie’s eyes.

author Terrence McCauley
Another challenge about writing about the past is overcoming modern biases about the actions and opinions of characters from another age. For example, I didn’t include a female detective in Fairfax because, quite frankly, there weren’t many female detectives back then. Sure, there were a few, but not enough to make one’s inclusion in my story seem realistic. Doing so would have been jarring and, as I said earlier, the last thing I want to do is pull the reader’s eyes off the page. That also doesn’t mean I make all the women in my books flappers or house fraus, either. Instead, the women in Fairfax and my other 1930s books are strong and influential in their own way. In Prohibition, for example, Alice may seem weak, but she exudes a lot of influence over the enforcer Terry Quinn. In Fairfax, I don’t think anyone would want to find themselves across the bargaining table from the formidable matriarch Mrs. Fairfax. And one of the main villains in the book doesn’t pick up a Tommy gun and begin firing. She is far more powerful by using her intelligence and cunning to serve her cause.

All of the devices and themes I mention here serve one purpose: to do everything I can to get the reader to buy in to the story. People read historical fiction for a lot of reasons. One reason I read it is to lose myself in a time that I might know something about, but wish to read about it in a fictionalized setting. My goal in writing Fairfax and my other 1930s novels is to introduce the reader to a time that’s not all unlike our own. A time where civil unrest and political paranoia runs rampant. A time when people worked hard and did what they had to do to survive. And to show them a protagonist who is far from a hero, but does the best he can with who he is.

The more things change, the more they seem to stay the same.


Terrence McCauley's The Fairfax Incident is published today by Polis Books.

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Katherine Kovacic's The Portrait of Molly Dean, a multi-period Australian thriller about a real-life unsolved murder

“Lane & Co. think they have a portrait of a pretty but unknown girl by an unknown artist. However, I am planning to buy a portrait by Colin Colahan of a girl who became famous for being the victim in one of Melbourne’s most sensational murders; a murder that has never been solved. Her name is Molly Dean.”

These attention-grabbing sentences summarize the opening of Kovacic’s terrific new crime novel. In 1999, Alex Clayton, an art dealer used to turning paintings over swiftly for profit, arrives at an auction house knowing more about a portrait’s backstory than anyone—or so she thinks. After her successful bid, she researches its subject, uncovers a web of mysteries, and needs to know even more.

Molly Dean, the dark-haired, brown-eyed woman gazing out from the canvas, was the artist’s lover, a schoolteacher and aspiring writer with a troubled home life. In 1930, she was brutally beaten on a dark suburban lane and died hours later. The prime suspect went free, without even a trial. With the help of her art restorer friend John, the Mulder to her Scully, Alex investigates the decades-old mystery. An alternating thread follows Molly’s path up to that fateful night.

This is Kovacic’s debut, and thriller writing is clearly her forte. Her art-infused story has relentless pacing, and Alex’s brash attitude and witty voice exert a strong pull. Molly’s sections are slower and more detailed, and the bohemian world she inhabits is more implied than present, but her determination inspires respect. She seeks to escape her coarse, abusive mother and achieve her literary dreams but lacks sufficient support.

Molly was a real person, and her shocking biography is just as the author describes. Fans of Jessie Burton’s The Muse and Josephine Pennicott’s multi-period gothics should seek it out.

The Portrait of Molly Dean was published by Echo, an imprint of Bonnier Australia, this year. I hadn't heard of it until I came across it as a Read Now title on NetGalley, and it was a worthy find. US-based readers can find the e-version for sale at Amazon for $9.99. I reviewed it originally for May's Historical Novels Review.  This is also my 3rd entry for this year's Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Kevin Powers' A Shout in the Ruins, a literary novel of the Civil War and its long aftermath

Some passages in Powers’ second novel (after The Yellow Birds) unfold with a fable’s tragic inevitability, while its specificity of setting and character, both strikingly described and original, will brand them into the reader’s consciousness. In his depiction of America’s heritage of racial trauma, he takes the long view, moving between Civil War–era Virginia and 120-plus years later.

Mystery surrounds the fate of Emily Reid Levallois, mistress of the Beauvais Plantation, near Richmond, after a devastating 1866 fire. Scenes detail her unhappy circumstances: due to terrible battlefield injuries, her father is unable to prevent his covetous, cruel neighbor, Antony Levallois, from wedding Emily. An enslaved couple, Rawls and Nurse, are brought together and torn apart amid this atmosphere.

In a linked tale beginning in 1956, George Seldom, a ninety-something African American, travels through the segregated South to his onetime North Carolina home while pondering the unknown circumstances that ensured his childhood survival. Beautifully formed sentences express unsettling truths about humanity, yet tendrils of hope emerge via stories showing how love and kindness can take root in seemingly barren earth.

A Shout in the Ruins was published in May by Little, Brown; I wrote this review for Booklist's 4/15 issue. This is one among a number of recent books I was assigned on the topic of the Civil War and race relations, which seems to be a current trend in historical fiction.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Swimming Between Worlds, Elaine Neil Orr's portrait of the Civil Rights era

Written with candor and compassion, Orr’s second novel takes place in the conservative South in 1959 with short flashbacks to her home country of Nigeria. Through the intertwining stories of Kate Monroe and Tacker Hart, she illustrates the challenges of unlearning ingrained racism and how immersion in a new culture can reveal problems in one’s own backyard.

Both viewpoint characters sit at a crossroads. Tacker, a former high school football star, is back in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, pondering his career path. During the year and a half he spent in Ibadan on an architectural design project, he’d become good friends with his Nigerian coworkers and soaked up the Yoruba culture. Following his dramatic firing for “going native,” he takes a job at home, managing his father’s grocery. Kate, his former classmate, finds herself alone after her parents’ death. While debating a photography career, she learns a family secret that upends her world. After meeting Tacker again, she finds him attractive yet somehow changed, and he’s drawn to the prickly Kate.

The third protagonist is Gaines Townson, a young black man who Tacker hires and befriends, and of whom Kate is initially suspicious due to his skin color. Through Gaines, Tacker gets introduced to the ongoing civil rights struggle. This is the era of sit-ins at Woolworth lunch counters, segregated swimming pools, sexist attitudes, and racist attacks on African-Americans—all sharply rendered (and some of which sadly hasn’t changed). Fortunately, Gaines is more than a vehicle for the others’ emotional growth; he’s a well-developed character with a rich family life and his own future plans.

Against this backdrop of social unrest, their relationships with one another unfold in a tentative, realistic manner, as each decides what’s most important. Orr’s gracefully written, character-centered tale, showing how beliefs are formed and transformed, is both original and memorable.

Swimming Between Worlds was published by Berkley in April.  I wrote this review for May's Historical Novels Review, based on a NetGalley copy. Elaine Neil Orr had contributed a guest post about her on-site research in Nigeria and North Carolina to the blog last month.