Wednesday, June 20, 2018

A suitable job for a woman? A guest post by Kate Braithwaite, author of The Road to Newgate

Today I have a guest post from Kate Braithwaite, whose new novel, The Road to Newgate, will be one you'll want to read if you're intrigued by 17th-century England. Its subject, the Popish Plot, doesn't get a lot of play in historical fiction, so this was new territory for me. I found myself placed in the thick of the suspenseful drama alongside Nat Thompson, his wife Anne, and their friend William Smith (more on them below). How does one bring down an odious, immoral man who's managed to sway public opinion about the righteousness of his cause?  It's a dangerous prospect - Titus Oates seems to have the law on his side as well - with no guarantee of success. Anne Thompson alternates narrating the story with Nat and William, and Kate's post illuminates the lives and roles of women in Restoration England.

There's a giveaway opportunity at the end, too, for US readers. Welcome, Kate!

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A Suitable Job for a Woman?
Kate Braithwaite

Were there any women in the 17th century?”

This is a question that historian Antonia Fraser was asked by a male friend when she told him that her next book would be The Weaker Vessel: Women’s Lot in Seventeenth Century England. Of course it’s tongue in cheek, yet how many famous Stuart women spring to mind? There was Nell Gwynn, of course, Charles II’s mistress, orange-seller and actress. And Aphra Behn, playwright, poet and one the first Englishwomen to earn a living writing. But how many more? Given that our historical sources were written about men, by men, it can be a challenge for a historical novelist to create a strong, believable female character - true to the period, but not a Royal mistress or a talented author. The subject of my second novel, the 17th century Popish Plot in Restoration England, is full of drama and incident, but in the text books, pamphlets and trial transcripts it’s male-dominated drama. The women are missing.

The Road to Newgate is about Titus Oates, a preacher, who causes uproar in London in 1678 with wild stories of a Catholic plot to assassinate Charles II. Barricades go up in the streets, prominent Catholic Lords and priests are arrested and fake news and bigotry dominate the public consciousness. When Sir Edmund Godfrey, a Protestant magistrate linked to Oates, is found dead in a ditch and the plot stories were deemed to be true, only a brave and resilient journalist, Nat Thompson, wants to chase down the truth about Oates – at great personal cost.

These costs involve Nat’s close friends Henry Broome and William Smith, as well as his wife, Anne. Henry is a bookseller and publisher, a father-figure to Nat, a much younger man. William is a schoolteacher, quiet, sensitive and with a secret he is afraid to share with Nat and Anne. And then there is Anne. In early drafts of the story, she was little more than his wife, a character with no real agency, story arc or importance to the plot, other than making her busy husband feel guilty about leaving her at home while he is busy at work. In a contemporary story, Anne would have education, training, her own bank accounts, transport, perhaps money from her own family or a better paying job than Nat does. But the life of a seventeenth-century wife was very different. A married woman at that time belonged to her husband. Anything she owned prior to her marriage transferred to him. Husbands had the right to discipline their wives and no wife could give evidence in court against her husband. Widows had more freedom and independence but The Road to Newgate is about a married couple and whether that marriage survives in a time of tumult. Anne’s options seemed limited.

Scratch the surface, however, and it’s no surprise that women were not just silent or complicit in their forced domestication. Then, as now, not all women wanted to stay at home to raise children, launder, clean or cook. Not all working women were content to be servants or seamstresses. In the course of my research I learned that women as well as men engaged in the explosion of pamphlet writing and journalism during the Restoration. Take this example, published anonymously, by a woman complaining about the amount of time that men were spending in the popular coffee shops of the day. Published in 1674, The Women’s Petition against Coffee declared that men were neglecting their family duty because of the hours they spent talking, arguing and drinking coffee. They were in danger of becoming worse gossips than women and worst of all, excessive coffee was having a dampening effect on their ardour. “Never,” it reads, “did Men wear greater breeches, or carry less in them of any Mettle whatsoever.”

Source: EC65.A100.674w, Houghton Library, Harvard University
(via Wikimedia Commons)

Anne’s character – stubborn, loving, intelligent but a little naive – would never have written a document like that one, but the inspiration for a way for her to develop within the story was linked to the world of pamphlets and opinion that her husband is so engaged with. An idea fell into my lap when I was researching the printing business. Although women could not be apprentices in the print shop, a key duty of a wife in the seventeenth century was to support her husband. Women could and did learn to run printing operations, for example Anne Baldwin, the wife of Richard Baldwin, the printer of the London Mercury, who helped her husband in all aspects of his business. Widows commonly took over print shops when their husbands died. To do so effectively, they must have been working in the trade for some time.

Here then, was the perfect opportunity for Anne to spread her wings and take charge of her own fate. Although with a proud husband determined to provide for her and Henry, his printer, less than impressed by Nat’s hasty marriage to her, Anne would still have some challenges to overcome.

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Kate Braithwaite was born and grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland. Her first novel, Charlatan, was longlisted for the Mslexia New Novel Award and the Historical Novel Society Award.

The Road to Newgate, a story of lies, love and bigotry in 17th century London, will be published by Crooked Cat Books on July 16th. Kate lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and three children.

For more information, please see The Road to Newgate on Amazon.  Visit the author on her website, on Twitter, or on Facebook.

And for a giveaway opportunity for US readers:



The author is offering a giveaway of a signed paperback copy of The Road to Newgate along with a handmade book (pictured above). For a chance to win, please fill out the entry form below; deadline Wednesday, June 27th. US readers only.  One entry per household, and void where prohibited. Good luck to all!


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.

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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.

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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.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Russia in Historical Fiction: A Journey of Sorrow and Strength, a guest post from Mary Anne Lewis

Today I have a guest essay by a fellow blogger, Mary Anne Lewis of Magic of History, which is a terrific new site focusing on reviews of historical fiction and history in books and on screen. There are a few novels mentioned below which were new to me, and I hope you'll find some worth adding to your own TBRs, too.

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Russia in Historical Fiction: A Journey of Sorrow and Strength
Mary Anne Lewis

From the icy winter steppe to the towering palaces in St. Petersburg, Russia never fails to enchant as the setting for a historical novel. While there are many novels from numerous eras set in Russia, it generally isn’t considered as popular as, say, books set in the Tudor era, or the first half of the twentieth century. Perhaps it’s the fact that Russia has such a repressive, bloody history, or that the Russian people tend toward a dark temperament because of all they’ve endured. Or, perhaps, it’s the lack of novels emanating from Russia since the Soviets took over in 1917.

For all of these reasons, the novelists who tackle Russia are a brave lot. It’s a huge country that’s hard to get to. Traveling the land has never been easy. The language is difficult. And, few nations have experienced the political machinations and bloody regime changes that Russia has. It’s difficult to keep the history straight, partially because there’s so much of it, and so much of it is so hard to believe.

Even readers need courage to consume Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Their books aren’t necessarily difficult, but they are sometimes hard to finish. Current day authors have also written about Russia, from the time of Ivan the Terrible to Catherine the Great to the Romanovs to World War II.

If you want to experience Russia of the old days, begin with Anna Karenina. It’s a tragedy, but also a reflection of what happens when infidelity impacts a Russian marriage and family in the nineteenth century. It’s the story of a young woman, Anna, who decides to leave her husband for the infamous Count Vronsky. Anna Karenina is perhaps the best book to showcase the Russian personality, long before the tsar was deposed and the Soviets took over.

 Some would like to go back even further, to the reign of Catherine the Great. Many excellent non-fiction books deal with this topic, such as Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie. One novel that stands out is The Winter Palace, a novel of Catherine the Great by Eva Stachniak. It’s written from the perspective of Varvara, a serving girl who becomes a spy in the Winter Palace. She’s trusted by Catherine the Great, but the two can’t truly be said to be friends. Catherine’s life contains so many highs and lows that a book about her can’t help but be exciting.

Another book that takes place approximately at the same time is Push Not the River, by James Conroyd Martin. It’s the beginning of a trilogy about the wars fought for Polish independence in the latter part of the eighteenth century. Much of the book takes place in Poland, which was part of Russia on and off for many years. The book is supposedly based on a young girl’s diary from the period. Filled with scandals, the book has a soap opera quality about it, but when I wrote a review on Amazon and said that, the author responded to note all of it was in the diary. But books two and three come from his own imagination.

Now to move forward to the end of the Romanov dynasty. Again, numerous books have been written to detail this period. Most people interested in history know about the assassination of the tsar and the tsarina, their four daughters and their hemophiliac son. All their remains have been recovered, and DNA tests show that indeed, all seven were in two graves.

A couple of books I’ll mention aren’t necessarily among the best books about the tragedy, but I enjoyed them. The first is The Passion of Marie Romanov. Written by a Russian, Laura Rose, it’s a rather preposterous story of how third daughter Marie loses her virginity the night before she is murdered. Again, it’s supposedly based on diaries and letters, this time from the Romanov family. Unlikely or not, it’s very readable and imaginative.

 The second book, Anastasia, by Colin Falconer, is set in the 1920s, when rumors were rife that the youngest daughter of the tsar had survived the slaughter. This is another “light” book which can’t be taken seriously. It’s about a woman who claims to be Anastasia and how others try to discover the truth. Colin Falconer has written more than forty books about a variety of historical locales and has a big fan base.

Another book set in the immediate aftermath of the assassinations is White Road, A Russian Odyssey, 1919-1923, by Olga Ilyin. I loved it. Technically, this isn’t fiction, but rather the story of a young woman caught up in the Bolshevik Revolution, written more than sixty years after the fact. The woman who wrote it lived it. She describes how she fled through Siberia in the midst of a Russian winter with her infant son, all because her husband was an officer in the White Army, which lost to Lenin and the Bolsheviks. She was a member of the gentry, and her book is filled with inspiration and hope. She also details her grief at Russia losing its great artists: its authors and musicians after the revolution, something I had never considered before.

Moving forward to World War II, I’ll recommend a book that’s part of a great series by the recently deceased author Philip Kerr. It’s A Man Without Breath, about intrepid German detective Bernie Gunther. While he isn’t a Nazi, he is sent to Russia in 1943 to investigate the murder of Polish troops, and manages to escape certain death in a labor camp. While most of the series is set in Germany, this book shows that the Nazis weren’t the only cruel ones in the conflict.

I’ll mention one more book in a more modern setting. It’s Stalina, by Emily Rubin, the story of a Russian woman who travels to the United States after the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. While she wants a new life, she’s conflicted. She used to be a chemist in her homeland, but now she’s working in a seedy hotel. Again, it’s a great portrait of a Russian character.

All these books are dark, at least a little. But they open a vista into a mysterious land and the people who have called it home.

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Mary Anne Lewis is a former journalist, a historical fiction fan, and the blog mistress of http://magicofhistory.com.  Once, long ago, she worked in a library.

Monday, May 21, 2018

I Was Anastasia, a novel of identity, hope, and a long-enduring Romanov mystery

The mystery about the fate of Grand Duchess Anastasia, youngest daughter of Russia’s imperial family, has officially been resolved, but the subject still exerts fascination. Was she murdered alongside her parents and siblings after the Russian Revolution, or did she survive?

Incorporating themes of identity and hope, Lawhon’s novel intertwines two strands: one following Anastasia up to that horrific night in 1918 and another about Anna Anderson, whose unwavering claims to be Anastasia inspired and confounded her contemporaries. Anastasia’s story, evoking her youthful spirit, becomes increasingly tense as her world grows dangerously constrained, while Anna’s story unfolds in snapshots flipping backward in time from 1970.

The suspense hinges on the reader’s unfamiliarity with the real history, and John Boyne’s The House of Special Purpose (2013), also about Anastasia, handles the dual-chronology structure more smoothly. However, Anna’s narrative, involving institutionalizations, glamorous excursions, legal battles, and meetings with people who want to support, exploit, or debunk her, compels with its many contrasts.

Recommended mainly for readers unacquainted with this twentieth-century mystery or anyone interested in Anna Anderson’s troubled life.

This short review first appeared in Booklist's February 1 issue, and the novel (which I read last November as an ARC) was published by Doubleday in March. Some additional notes:

- For my review of The House of Special Purpose, see my post Russian History, a Mystery, and a Reviewer's Dilemma, from 2013.  My sentiments remain, and from that you may understand my thoughts about the chronological structure of I Was Anastasia (I'm not revealing anything about the conclusions drawn in either one, though).  The structure also resembles that in the film Memento, which the author cites. I haven't seen the movie but may have to now!

- There's a lengthy author's note at the end that says "spoilers abound below" and goes on to explain and reveal various things, as author's notes do. It addresses potential readers, assuming they won't know the real history. I was surprised by this (the revelations about Anastasia were fairly big news when they appeared). Given that, I found it odd that knowledge of Grand Duchess Anastasia's fate was a hindrance to appreciating the book in full.

- I've read other reviews since I submitted mine, and it's been very well received by many readers who hadn't known Anastasia's story beforehand, and some who did.  So I'll leave it to you to read it and make up your own mind about it.

Friday, May 18, 2018

“THE REAL VALUE OF THIS BOOK”: How the Sears Catalogue Shaped My Novel, a guest post by Ellen Notbohm

Over the years, I've referred many library patrons to the Sears catalog replicas in our reference collection for insight into daily life in the early 20th century. And so I was pleased when Ellen Notbohm proposed to write a post detailing how she'd used one of these catalogs in the research process for her debut historical novel, The River by Starlight, which is set in turn-of-the-century Montana and based on real-life events.  Please read on for more, and welcome, Ellen!

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“THE REAL VALUE OF THIS BOOK”:
How the Sears Catalogue Shaped My Novel
Ellen Notbohm

How much research is enough? Writers of historical fiction know the dilemma well. We fall in love with our characters and want to know them as intimately as we can. What did their environment look like, smell like, feel like? What did they eat, wear, have in their homes? What were the tools of their trade, how did they conduct business, spend leisure time, celebrate holidays, doctor themselves and their families?

Researching my historical novel The River by Starlight involved six cross-country trips. Close to 100 books and numerous notebooks bulging with documents and newspaper clippings cram a seven-foot bookcase in my office. But as delightful karma would have it, the book I consulted more than any other, the one I dog-eared with use, cost me all of $1.50.



I found the 1902 Sears Catalogue on a lonely back table at a used book sale. As much an anthropology lesson as any textbook, author Cleveland Amory called it “a view of the American scene at the turn of the century with an excitement and accuracy that would defy the most eminent historian.”

“THE REAL VALUE OF THIS BOOK IS PLAINLY SHOWN IN EVERY PRICE QUOTATION” blares the front cover. From the Sears catalogue I learned what everything from thimbles to pianos cost, what they looked like, how many choices there were. What men, women and children wore in every imaginable situation, what size range was available (“Fat men usually experience much difficulty getting a shirt in the right shape.”). How credit worked. How it all reflected the larger economic picture of the country.

Details from the catalogue colored my descriptions of home furnishings, tools and weapons, toiletries and potions. Stoves and washing machines, hay loaders and hobby horses, paint and fabric colors. I acquired some rusty artifacts of homestead life and was able to see what they looked originally.

I wrote a frisky scene giving an intimate look at the layers of societally-required undergarments my female lead, Annie, dares to forego on a sweltering summer day. There’s a charged scene wherein you can all but smell the “overpowering cloud of Le Muguet” enveloping the town’s queen busybody. A gorgeous tortoise shell hair comb becomes an heirloom and a pair of “ugly cloth-top lace-ups” leads to disaster. We see and feel the fabrics used in a prostitute’s costume, a child’s nightgown, a wedding quilt, a funeral shroud, the garish handkerchief of the queen snoop’s informant.

It was exhilarating to slather on such details throughout the story. But how much is enough? Alas, much was lost to the delete button, “cool research,” as more than one editor called it, that didn’t move the story forward. An example: the reader knows Annie and her sister Jenny shared glasses of lemonade out on Jenny’s porch. But they don’t get to see the original version of the scene: Annie sticking a pinkie through a door screen (“handsomer than the cut shows”), opening Jenny’s refrigerator (nope, Sears didn’t call it an icebox) and pouring the lemonade into ruby-stained tumblers while Jenny finishes up her work with a white cedar dash butter churn (“peculiarly adapted for milk and butter purposes”) and puts the butter into brass-locked molds (“securing the utmost possible rigidity”).

But writing those kinds of details helped me experience the world in which my characters lived, and empathize with its beauties and challenges. Even when deleted, the details remained embedded in the story by virtue of how they influenced the thoughts, dialogue and deeds of the characters.

A battered old cast-off catalogue—$1.50. Creating a richly faceted portrait of another time—priceless.

~

Ellen Notbohm
(credit: Andie Petkus Photography)
An internationally renowned author, Ellen Notbohm’s work has informed and delighted millions in more than twenty languages. Writing from her experiences raising children with autism and ADHD, her perennially popular Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew has been an autism bestseller since 2005. In addition to her four award-winning books on autism, Ellen’s articles, columns and posts on such diverse subjects as history, genealogy, baseball, writing, and community affairs have appeared in major publications and captured audiences on every continent. Her article collection for Ancestry magazine (2005 – 2010) related stories both poignant and uplifting gathered during extensive research for her long-awaited debut novel, The River by Starlight, published in May 2018. A lifelong resident of Oregon, Ellen is an avid genealogist, knitter, reader, beachcomber, and thrift store hound who has never knowingly walked by a used bookstore without going in and dropping coin.


Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Ain't Misbehavin' by Jennifer Lamont Leo, a sweet 1920s-era love story

Dot Rodgers and Charlie Corrigan are sweethearts, though their personalities are very different. It’s 1928 in Chicago, and fun-loving Dot wants to live it up, donning a sparkling frock for a downtown New Year’s Eve party, where she’ll spend time with old friends, chat with the musicians, and maybe get a lead on a future singing gig.

Dot’s grateful for her job selling hats at Marshall Field’s – after her father kicked her out, she needs to make her own way in the world – but loves the thrill of performing for a crowd. Charlie, however, prefers cozy small-town life to glittery social gatherings, especially when they involve illegal liquor and loud people of questionable morals.

A war veteran and churchgoer who helps run a dry goods store, he’s quiet and conservative; he also senses the underlying discontent the partygoers try to hide. Plus, he has other plans for the evening that involve offering his girl a diamond ring. However, although they love one another, both grow convinced they don’t belong in each other’s world.

Leo confidently sets her spirited inspirational romance during Chicago’s exuberant Jazz Age. She brings a full complement of 1920s-era slang to her portrait of this dynamic era, when investments were soaring, the latest fancy roadsters had heaters, and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre was shaking up local news. The story skips along while also tackling serious issues, like women’s need for independence and the importance of judging people on their own merits.

Dot’s experience of religion is colored by her estranged preacher father’s hypocrisy, but with the help of Dorothy L. Sayers (who wrote books about theology in addition to detective stories -- that was new to me), she gets a new perspective on her spiritual life. The novel’s faith-based elements are lightly interwoven into the plot.

Dot’s and Charlie’s love story endures many ups and downs, and they sometimes make decisions that feel too hasty, but both are good people at heart. Since this is a romance, a happy outcome is assured, and subplots involving Charlie’s old flame, Italian gangsters, and the lead-up to Black Friday add color and drama to this sweet tale.


Jennifer Lamont Leo's Ain't Misbehavin' was published by Smitten Historical Romance in March. Thanks to the author and Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for providing me with a review copy. There's also a tour-wide giveaway:

During the Blog Tour we will be giving away two signed copies and two eBooks of Ain’t Misbehavin’ AND an Ain’t Misbehavin’ Compact Mirror! To enter, please enter via the Gleam form below.

Giveaway Rules
– Giveaway ends at 11:59pm EST on May 18th. You must be 18 or older to enter.
– Giveaway is open to US & Canada residents only.
– Only one entry per household.
– All giveaway entrants agree to be honest and not cheat the systems; any suspect of fraud is decided upon by blog/site owner and the sponsor, and entrants may be disqualified at our discretion.
– Winner has 48 hours to claim prize or new winner is chosen.

Ain't Misbehavin'

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Immersive Research for Historical Fiction Writing, a guest post by Jacqueline Friedland, author of Trouble the Water

Today I'm welcoming Jacqueline Friedland, author of Trouble the Water (SparkPress, May), who's contributed an essay about researching the historical atmosphere of the pre-Civil War South.

~

Immersive Research for Historical Fiction Writing
Jacqueline Friedland

It’s difficult to be immune to the intrigue of the old South, the plantation lifestyle, the hoop skirts and debutante balls, unparalleled opulence juxtaposed with the astonishing horrors of American slavery. I struggle to digest the perversity of a government-sanctioned system of slavery, but I am utterly seduced by the heroics of those who refused to sit idly by, those who risked their own lives to fight for the freedom of others and that which they knew was right. I chose to write my first novel about the antebellum South in order to showcase the human compassion and bravery that was a bright light during this dark era, and I knew I would have to dive headfirst into the 1800s if I wanted to get it right.

My foundation in the history of the American South was fair at the outset, as I had majored in United States Culture and Literature during college. I devised a plan to deepen my understanding of the time period through a form of immersion. As a lover of books, I did what I always do when I have questions: I began reading. I read every novel I could get my hands on that had a plot based in any Southern state in the years preceding the American Civil War, from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind to Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, and everything in between. Some of the most useful were Mudbound by Hillary Jordan, The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom, The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, and Jubilee by Margaret Walker, to name just a few.

I read one novel after another after another, and then mentally synthesized all this fiction, which allowed me to develop a broader sense for the atmosphere of the antebellum South. Feeling that I had strengthened my foundation, I then moved onto drier non-fiction and primary sources about the specific issues on which I aimed to focus. I read many accounts documenting the Underground Railroad, the life of various abolitionists, and political strife over slavery. I also read first-hand slave narratives, including accounts of escapes and attempted escapes. I scoured books about William Lloyd Garrison and other notable abolitionists of the time. I particularly enjoyed All on Fire by Henry Mayer, which was not only informative, but immensely readable.

After this intense reading tour, I finally felt prepared to begin my novel, which takes place between the years 1842-1853 and delves into not only the horrors of slavery, but also heroic attempts to subvert the “peculiar institution”. Of course, additional questions arose as I wrote. How fast does a horse travel? How long does it take to cross the Atlantic by steamship? When did the steamship become a common mode of transportation anyway? For these questions, I can say thank goodness for local libraries and even google.

Perhaps the most useful part of my research was the professor in my writing program who understood my tendency to get lost in details, to become thoroughly engrossed in interesting tidbits about the time period, even if those details had absolutely nothing to do with my book. This professor said to me, knowing the years I had already devoted to learning my era, “Stop it. Enough. Just write your story already.” So I did.

~

Jacqueline Friedland holds a BA from the University of Pennsylvania and a JD from NYU Law School. She practiced as an attorney in New York before returning to school to receive her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. She lives in New York with her husband, four children, and a tiny dog. Trouble the Water is her first novel. (author photo credit: Rebecca Weiss Photography.)

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Article note: Interview with Mindy Tarquini and Susan Meissner about their novels on the Spanish Flu


This year marks the centennial of the 1918-19 influenza pandemic; my library will be offering an exhibit program about this global public health disaster in the fall. There have been a number of historical novels published about the "Spanish flu" recently (which was nicknamed such, even though it didn't originate or hit hardest in Spain).  I'll put together a list of them for a future post.

For May's Historical Novels Review, I got the idea to interview two authors, Mindy Tarquini and Susan Meissner, who both set their novels in the historical American city of Philadelphia at the time.  Other than a similarity of location and topic, the books are pretty different, and their characters probably wouldn't have known one another.

This article is now posted on the Historical Novel Society's website. Please click the link to read it: Philadelphia, 1918: Susan Meissner and Mindy Tarquini discuss their new novels.

Thanks very much to both authors for answering my interview questions!

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Review of Alison Weir's Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen, book three in the Six Tudor Queens series

Jane Seymour, the queen who bore Henry VIII’s longed-for son and died shortly afterward, left little behind in period sources, and popular history stereotypes her as meek and plain. Best-selling Weir’s impressive novel shows why Jane deserves renewed attention. Without any dull moments, Weir illustrates Jane's unlikely journey from country knight’s daughter to queen of England.

To evade the domestic scandal stemming from her brother’s unhappy marriage, the devout, sympathetic Jane comes to court as one of Katherine of Aragon’s maids of honor. This third volume in Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series offers new angles on its earlier subjects: Katherine, aging, resolute, and losing influence, yet kind to her ladies; and sharp-tongued Anne Boleyn, whose religious beliefs Jane finds dangerous.

A woman of principle, Jane courageously holds her own among prominent court personalities, no easy feat. Later, as Anne’s influence wanes, Jane intelligently navigates a path amid a surprising romantic pursuit by King Henry, whose love and generosity initially overshadow his crueler side, and her family’s ambitions.

From the richly appointed decor to the religious tenor of the time, the historical ambiance is first-rate. With her standout novel in the crowded Tudor fiction field, Weir keeps the tension high, breathing new life into a familiar tale and making us wish for a different ending.

This starred review was published in Booklist's latest historical fiction issue (4/15/18).  Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen will be published next week by Ballantine in hardcover and ebook (576pp).  I think this is the best in the series so far. One theme of this book is: don't underestimate the quiet ones. Jane is a terrific character, and her story is well worth reading even if you think you've had enough of all things Tudor.

Also: the fourth volume in the series, about Anne of Cleves, has a title and a cover on Goodreads (it's still early, so it's not clear if they're final). I really like them both -- it's a great way of presenting her in a new light from the get-go -- and hope I get the chance to review the book next year.

Monday, May 07, 2018

Interview with Susan McDuffie, author of The Death of a Falcon, a mystery of 14th-century Scotland, plus US giveaway

Susan McDuffie's entertaining latest Muirteach MacPhee mystery, The Death of a Falcon, brings readers to Scotland in 1375, as our protagonist and his wife, Mariota, a talented healer, pay a visit to Edinburgh Castle. While helping his superior with political negotiations, Muirteach finds himself enmeshed in a murder mystery as well as unexpected court drama which affects him personally. I was glad to get the opportunity to ask Susan some questions about her book... please read on!

What appeals to you about writing historical mysteries?

Thanks so much for hosting me on Reading the Past, Sarah. It’s such a treat to be here with you today!

I’d always been a voracious reader of historical fiction but never thought much about writing until my thirties, when I made a trip to the paperback book exchange to de-stress after a difficult day of work. I found some Harlequin romances (this was back in the 80s) and thought how easy it would be to write a book and get rich and famous! Was I ever mistaken. I first tried a historical romance (still unpublished) and also wrote a couple of Regencies, which were great fun. I guess I thought romance would be easier to write than mysteries. Eventually, however, I realized that the old chestnut is true, “You must write what you love to read.” I am not an avid romance reader, but I do love historical mysteries.

I think the sense of justice restored at the end of a mystery is comforting, while the historical aspect of it cushions it a bit, and takes the same old tired motives we hear about each night in the evening news—greed, anger, revenge, lust—back into the past bit, somehow cushioning things. It’s a little easier to deal with the cruelty of humanity when they are wearing historic costumes, and it all happened 600 years ago. Long ago and far away.

Another thing that fascinates me about historical fiction is trying to really get into the heads and psyches and attitudes of people in the past. How was medieval justice different? How did people view justice differently?

The Death of a Falcon takes place during a fascinating but less familiar time in Scottish history, with its bustling trade routes to southern Europe and the Norse lands, the Orkneys under Norway’s control, and Robert II’s lively, multilingual court. How did you choose 14th-century Scotland, or how did the era choose you?

The era pretty much chose me. When I was initially developing the idea for this mystery series, I realized I wanted to set it during the Lordship of the Isles, which lasted from about 1350 to 1498. It was a fairly settled time in western Scotland, less chaotic that the couple of hundred years afterwards, when the power vacuum caused by the end of the Lordship contributed to all the horrible clan feuding of that era. I thought, it would be fun era to visit in my fiction, and an opportunity to explore that less well-known period.

The McDuffies, or MacFies, were the Keepers of the Records for the Lordship, which was a confederation of Scottish clans in the Highlands and Western Isles headed by the MacDonald. “Keeper of the Records” sounded very exotic and mysterious to me when I heard about it from my great-uncle and my father as a child. Actually, it might have been less exotic and more an accounting of who owed whom how many cattle, but I thought a role as the Keeper of the Records would give my sleuth plenty of leeway to travel and investigate things on behalf of the Lord of the Isles. The final result is Muirteach. So far he’s investigated in the Hebrides, and in Oxford. Now he and Mariota are in Edinburgh, at the Royal Court. I think he’s had enough of court life, though, by the end of The Death of a Falcon.

author Susan McDuffie
Muirteach and his wife, Mariota, go through some marital difficulties, and while Muirteach is the protagonist, I often found myself sympathizing with and rooting for Mariota. What was the experience like, writing from his viewpoint during this challenging time?

Muirteach is a somewhat flawed character, perhaps more so in this book. When I first began writing the series I envisioned a fairly simple character arc over time with increasing wisdom and maturity, less drinking (he’s a bit of a lush in A Mass for the Dead, the first in the series). However, this book represents three steps backwards for him. When I was writing this I was reading Game of Thrones, and thinking, “Oh I really need to work on my plotting; my plots are far too predictable,” so maybe perhaps some of the credit, or blame, goes to George R. R. Martin. I wanted to break out from the typical predictable hero and ending.

In this book Muirteach also winds up repeating some of the less functional patterns of his father. Don’t we see that in families all the time? We’re all pretty flawed, really, and I like reading and writing complex characters. Although I do believe one of the reasons people like to read mysteries is that sense of justice restored at the end. I grew a bit worried, writing this book, that people would get so frustrated with Muirteach they would throw the book at the wall.

Have you gotten to travel to the places you write about in Scotland?

I have been to most of the places I’ve written about. I particularly loved the Western Isles. I need to go back soon; it’s been far too long!

Muirteach is amused and befuddled by the royal court at Edinburgh, especially the fashions. How did you research this aspect of Scottish culture?

It can be tricky researching Scottish dress before the 1600s. I’ve gone with the assumption that the Highlands and Islands had much in common with Irish fashion and culture of that era. One great resource for clothing is Old Irish and Highland Dress by H.F. McClintock. For the Lowlands, and the royal court, I’ve relied more on general medieval sources for fashion, style, and cuisine.

In the acknowledgments, you’d mentioned visiting the Santa Fe Raptor Center. What did you learn there about birds (and from Gandalf the hawk) that you might not have known otherwise?

Actually, the birds visited me, or visited my day job at a gallery in Santa Fe. During Indian Market the Raptor Center sometimes comes and sets up a display with a few of their friendlier birds in front of the shop. It’s always amazing to be in the presence of these other beings we humans share the planet with. Gandalf was a wonderful inspiration!

The idea of a lost medieval book is compelling, and a bit frustrating that it no longer exists! How did you first come across mention of the Inventio Fortunatae, and then decide to use it in your story?

I got so wonderfully sidetracked by research when writing this book. Initially I knew I wanted to include something about Prince Henry Sinclair, who may have visited North America around 1398 with the Venetian Zeno brothers. That led me to the book Irresistible North: From Venice to Greenland on the Trail of the Zen Brothers by Andrea di Robilant. But di Robilant’s view was that Henry Sinclair had only travelled to Iceland and Greenland. That led me down the Norse in Greenland rabbit-hole and I grew fascinated by their story. Where did they go?

One book that was a great reference was Erikson, Eskimos and Columbus: Medieval European Knowledge of America by James Robert Interline, and that particular book has a lot of information on the Inventio Fortunatae. The description of the giant lodestone at the North Pole, where indwelling currents sucked ships in and dashed them against the rocks, was incredibly compelling. Just imagining early exploration in this region is compelling, actually. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to find a copy of the Inventio someplace? Or even a bit of old parchment from it tucked into another binding? Or something! I guess we can always hope!

~


The Death of a Falcon by Susan McDuffie was published by Liafinn Press in paperback and ebook in March. This interview forms part of the author's blog tour, during which we will be giving away 5 paperback copies & 5 eBooks of The Death of a Falcon! To enter, please enter via the Gleam form below.

Giveaway Rules 

– Giveaway ends at 11:59pm EST on May 11th. You must be 18 or older to enter.
– Giveaway is open to US residents only.
– Only one entry per household.
– All giveaway entrants agree to be honest and not cheat the systems; any suspect of fraud is decided upon by blog/site owner and the sponsor, and entrants may be disqualified at our discretion.
– Winner has 48 hours to claim prize or new winner is chosen.

Death of a Falcon

Thursday, May 03, 2018

A Fist Around the Heart by Heather Chisvin, a multi-layered literary mystery spanning six decades of women's lives

This is such a surprising book, one filled with layers inside layers and new revelations at every turn. Moving back and forth from WWII-era New York and Winnipeg and a Russian shtetl in the 1880s, and many points in between, it doesn’t offer the chronological path of a standard historical novel. However, its flow feels natural, like the unspooling of memories from a remarkable life.

In 1942, Anna Grieve, a well-off career woman in her sixties and longtime Manhattan resident, has just put her older sister Esther on a train back to Winnipeg after an enjoyable, long-awaited visit. Following Esther’s arrival home on “If Day,” the date of a simulated Nazi invasion, Anna receives a call from a policeman that Esther is dead; she’d walked in front of a moving train, an apparent suicide. Esther, a widowed society matron, had had episodes of mental instability from childhood on—periods when she seemed tuned out from reality—although she’d seemed fine during her stay.

As Anna herself returns to Winnipeg for answers, a mystery unfolds, drawing in reminiscences of both women’s earlier lives. In 1881, when Anna was five and Esther ten, their frightened parents, fearing anti-Semitic retaliation after Tsar Alexander II’s assassination, sent the girls away from Russia with her mother’s aristocratic employers. On their transatlantic voyage, young Anna’s confusion is palpable. Despite a comfortable upbringing, with an adoptive father who respects her intelligence, Anna worries continuously about her fragile, ethereally beautiful sister.

Anna is a woman of astonishing cour​age and hidden complexities. She forms friendships, has several love affairs, and participates in the early birth control movement alongside Margaret Sanger. Chisvin brings this setting alive with vibrant ease. One of Anna’s later travels feels a bit contrived, but this debut is a fine literary mystery with an insightful look at an unusual sisterly relationship.

A Fist Around the Heart (the title comes from a line in the novel) was published by Canada's Second Story Press in April.  I reviewed it for May's Historical Novels Review, based on a NetGalley copy.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Book review: Peculiar Savage Beauty by Jessica McCann, set in 1930s Kansas, plus US giveaway

Add Jessica McCann’s Peculiar Savage Beauty to the list of exceptional new historical novels featuring women making their mark in STEM.

Rosa Jean (RJ) Evans has just graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a geology master’s degree in 1934. Having secured a government job back in her hometown of Vanham, Kansas, a tiny farming community she left at age six after her parents died of influenza, RJ is preparing to purchase some land, set up a soil erosion experiment station, and convince local farmers – all men – to adopt conservation farming methods to help the soil revive. She has her work cut out for her.

The title comes from a passage from O Pioneers!, which also appears as the epigraph: “…the land wanted to be let alone, to preserve its own fierce strength, its peculiar, savage kind of beauty.” Willa Cather’s wise words echo strongly in McCann’s vivid descriptions of the Dust Bowl years on the Great Plains, and her themes relating to climatic disasters and the need for people to protect the environment.

author Jessica McCann
RJ proves an admirable, resourceful heroine from the outset, when she survives a dust storm while driving her truck solo from Wisconsin to Kansas. The harrowing experience also introduces her to her first friend, a stray dog she names Stormy. The other relationships RJ forms are just as heartwarming and meaningful. Woody Parker, a man about her age who we’d call autistic today, becomes her firm friend. Others label him as dim-witted, but RJ sees his thoughtfulness and brilliant artistic talents in the dust-paintings he creates in the storms’ aftermath, and he supports her when she runs into roadblocks.

Most of the local farmers don’t trust either “government bureaucrats” or women who claim to have knowledge they themselves don’t, when their families have been working the land for generations. There are rushes to judgment on all sides, and it’s rewarding to see characters slowly move beyond preconceptions to form understandings.

All the details on the setting bring readers back to the painful Dust Bowl years: the summer heat and never-ending drought, the mud accumulating in pipes and drinking water, the wires people strung on their property to lead them back home during a blinding storm, and the evening gatherings around the wireless for Roosevelt’s fireside chats. Excerpts from period songs add to the atmosphere (I had “Stormy Weather” playing in my head while reading), and McCann gets the cadence of the rural characters’ dialogue just right; they sound like my own Midwestern neighbors.

Although I wished for slightly more information on RJ’s earlier history, this is a compelling historical novel with a tangible sense of place. It never bends to stereotype, and its characters are well worth getting to know.

This review is the last stop on the novel's blog tour; thanks to Jessica McCann for sending me a copy at my request.  Peculiar Savage Beauty is published this month by Perspective Books in hardcover ($24) and as an ebook ($8.99).

~

5/8/18: Thanks to everyone who entered the giveaway, and congrats to Terry M.!

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Tudor fiction without the famous, part two

Do you love novels set in Tudor England but want to escape the royal court and/or look beyond the lives of famous personalities?  In 2015, I'd posted my initial list of Tudor fiction without the famous, and appreciated the suggestions left by everyone in the comments.  Here's another selection of Tudor-era novels that feature characters that go beyond the usual suspects.



Hartshorne has written a succession of popular time-slip novels, but The Cursed Wife is set wholly during Elizabethan times.  In 16th-century York, a woman who had a curse placed upon her as a child for causing another's death finds it hard to escape her past. Pan, March 2018. [see on Goodreads]



Agnes Peppin, a butcher's daughter from Dorset, gets sent to a nunnery after an indiscretion, later finding herself thrust into the world again after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. I'll be reviewing this novel shortly. Overlook, July 2018. [see on Goodreads]



This romantic novel set in the 1580s centers on a young widow, a lady-in-waiting to a noblewoman, who seeks a better match for herself than the elderly man her father chose for her. I've purchased a copy and hope to read it soon. Courante, March 2018. [see on Goodreads]



Karen Brooks' previous novel, The Brewer's Tale, delved into gender roles and society among the working classes in 15th-century England. It's worth seeking out (it's published only in Australia at the moment). Her newest moves ahead two centuries to Elizabethan times to tell the story of a young woman, an expert locksmith like her father, who gets drawn into spying for Francis Walsingham. Morrow, July 2018. [see on Goodreads]



Ken Follett's fans know what to expect from his work: an epic portrait of a place and time from the viewpoints of a varied cast of characters. His newest, third in the Kingsbridge series set in a fictional English town, takes place in 1558, as religious conflict sweeps through. Viking, 2017. [see on Goodreads]



Carol McGrath's newest novel, which can be read as a prequel to Wolf Hall, focuses on Elizabeth Williams, a prosperous widow who married Thomas Cromwell as her second husband. Taking place before Cromwell's rise to fame (and notoriety), it focuses on an independent woman and her life in a Tudor merchant household. Accent, 2017. [see my review] [see on Goodreads]



This is the debut of a new Elizabethan mystery series featuring Bess Ellyott, an herbalist from London who relocates to the countryside and follows the trail of her husband's murderer. Crooked Lane, March 2018. [see on Goodreads]

Monday, April 23, 2018

Lilly Sommers' The Dark Dream, an epic of the gold rush in 19th-century Australia

My house is full of older books I’d purchased at least a decade ago, but due to ongoing commitments, I rarely have time to read them. I was starting to feel guilty about this, though, so picked this one up after finishing my latest Booklist assignment.

Published by Arrow/Random House Australia in 1997, Lilly Sommers’ The Dark Dream is an epic historical adventure (of nearly 600 pages) set in the rough-and-tumble world of the Bendigo gold rush in 1852. It’s long out of print, although the style doesn’t feel dated at all, and the author is still actively writing historical novels; I have some of her latest books, written under her own name, Kaye Dobbie. I bought The Dark Dream online years ago after enjoying another novel of hers, The Bond, which I’d found in an American remainder bookstore.

The heroine goes by Ella Seaton, although her real name and identity are a mystery that unfolds throughout the book. She awakens with a painful head injury in the mud alongside Seaton’s Lagoon, not knowing who she is or why she’s there. A man rescues her and brings her to his friend Adam, a tinker on his way to the Bendigo goldfields. Adam calls her Cinderella – Ella for short – after finding a pair of discarded leather shoes nearby and seeing that they fit her.

Ella and Adam assume she was set upon by bushrangers and robbed. One of her fingers bears the mark of a ring, so they know she was married. As Adam cares for her during her recovery, they make their way via horse-drawn cart to the goldfields, tracing the route Ella may have originally followed, hoping someone can identify her. However, Adam has own secrets, dating back to his days as a California forty-niner. The dangers they face derive as much from Adam’s troubled past as Ella’s present situation: her lack of memory leaves her vulnerable to enemies she can’t anticipate.

Storylines involving amnesia can sometimes feel contrived, but to Sommers’ credit, her portrayal of Ella’s condition feels honest. Ella innately senses that she was gently born, and although she’s grateful for Adam’s help, she’s clearly uncomfortable with camping in the bush, the lack of cleanliness, and treating folks like Adam and his acquaintances as social equals. This allows for considerable character growth as the plot moves along. Flashes of Ella’s earlier life come to her in dreams she can’t recall after waking. I particularly liked the scene where she glimpses herself in a mirror for the first time, and fails to recognize herself immediately. My one problem with the storyline was Ella’s naïve assumption that returning to her husband should be her ultimate goal, even given evidence to the contrary.

I recommend the book for its exciting plot, slow-building romance, and depiction of the characters (some brave, some foolish, many disreputable) caught up in the Victorian gold rush. Anyone seeking The Dark Dream can find a cheap copy via Bookfinder. And maybe it will be re-released on Kindle some day.

This is my 2nd entry in the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2018.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Gateway to the Moon by Mary Morris, a historical epic about the crypto-Jews of New Mexico

Where do we come from?  Focusing on the crypto-Jews of the American Southwest and their European ancestors, Morris’ (The Jazz Palace, 2015) enthralling saga ponders this question in both a genealogical and astronomical sense.

Seeking extra spending money, 14-year-old Miguel Torres, an amateur stargazer from a tiny New Mexican town in 1992, takes a job babysitting the two young sons of Rachel Rothstein, a lonely, restless artist and doctor’s wife. Full of typical adolescent preoccupations, and curious about his place in the universe, Miguel tries to serve as a positive role model for the boys while noting the odd familiarity of the Rothsteins’ Jewish traditions.

A parallel plotline follows the story of Luis de Torres, a converso interpreter on Columbus’ first voyage forced to conceal his faith. Magnificent characters with complex psychologies, including adventurous entrepreneurs and several courageous women, populate this generational tale of the Sephardic diaspora. Their lives alternate between periods of relative peace and persecution, since the deadly Inquisition is ever vigilant.

Over time, memories of their Jewishness vanish, though some traditions endure. The descriptions of culinary specialties are especially divine.

The story glides effortlessly between viewpoints and vibrant settings ranging from Lisbon to Tangier, the Caribbean, and Mexico City. With prose as clear as the star-strewn night sky, Morris’ novel explores people’s hidden connections.

I wrote this (starred) review for Booklist's March 15th issue. This was my first time reading one of Mary Morris's novels.

Some other notes:

- The title, Gateway to the Moon, is the translation of Entrada de la Luna, the New Mexican town where Miguel lives.

- There's an academic society, the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies, geared toward "researching the history of crypto-Jewish and Sephardic communities around the world"; it has an associated journal.

- For other novels on this subject, see Daniella Levy's By Light of Hidden Candles and Kathryn Lasky's YA historical novel Blood Secret.

- Read more about the subject, the controversy, and the genetics at Smithsonian Magazine: "The 'Secret Jews' of San Luis Valley."

Monday, April 16, 2018

Review of Charles Frazier's Varina, about the Confederacy's unlikely first lady

What legacy befalls those who find themselves on history’s wrong side? Frazier’s (Nightwoods, 2011) fourth Southern historical novel centers on Varina Howell Davis, the unlikely first lady of the doomed Confederacy.

Its nonlinear structure roams across her tragic life’s vast landscape, from her girlhood as an impoverished Mississippi planter’s well-educated daughter to her strained marriage to the much-older Jefferson Davis to old age in a Saratoga Springs rest home. There, regular visits from James Blake, an African American man she’d taken in as a child, prompt her recollections.

Frazier crafts haunting scenes of her and her children’s flight from Richmond via wagon through the devastated South and her morphine-hazed, funereal view of her husband’s rain-soaked inauguration.

Intelligent, outspoken, and clear-sighted but yoked to an intransigent man, the real Varina (who is called “V” throughout) sometimes feels elusive. One wonders what she could have become under different circumstances.

In her conversations with James, she proclaims “the right side won” yet seems unable to fully grasp slavery’s ramifications. This powerful realization of its time also has significant meaning for ours.

Charles Frazier's Varina is published this month by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins. I wrote this review for Booklist's March 1 issue. Frazier is best known, of course, for Cold Mountain, a book I've yet to read (!). I enjoyed his Thirteen Moons, particularly the quality of writing, although I felt the protagonist's love interest wasn't fully three-dimensional.

For more information on the novel's background, read an interview with the author from the News & Observer (Raleigh, North Carolina).