Friday, December 14, 2018

The historical novels of Beverly Swerling (1941-2018)

I was saddened to learn, via her official page on Facebook, that author Beverly Swerling Martin had passed away on December 3rd. The four novels in her City series (City of Dreams, City of Glory, City of God, City of Promise) are enjoyable reads for anyone interested in exploring Manhattan's history in fiction; they follow the stories of several families from the 17th-century colonial period up through the late 19th century. 

I reviewed books 2 and 4 for Booklist and thought I'd reprint those reviews below. Each book works as a standalone. What I remember most is included in the last line of my City of Glory review: "The perfect antidote for readers who mistakenly believe American history is either boring or unromantic." At the time, while historical fiction was growing in popularity, American settings were still uncommon; they were perceived as dull in comparison to novels about glamorous royal courts. Swerling proved that assumption wrong.

For City of Glory:
In this smartly executed, highly entertaining sequel to City of Dreams (2001), Swerling continues tracing the physical, social, and moral development of Manhattan through the stories of the fictional Turner and Devrey families. Nearly all the action occurs over 10 days in mid-August 1814, a critical period during America’s “second war of independence.”

The numerous characters, all fascinating and distinct, include a brothel owner, a sly merchant prince, an Irish ship’s captain, and a devious young widow, not to mention John Jacob Astor himself. At their center is Joyful Patrick Turner, a multilingual trader, businessman, and ex-surgeon who sets out to preserve the family shipping company, save his country from secessionists, and win the hand of Manon Vionne, a jeweler’s lovely daughter, in the bargain.

As the characters scheme among themselves, hoping to leave their mark on the growing city, the plot fairly gallops along, and historical novel fans will relish the bountiful period details of old New York. The perfect antidote for readers who mistakenly believe American history is either boring or unromantic.
(written for Booklist, December 15, 2006)

For City of Promise:
In 1864, New York City overflows with opportunities for those with foresight, acumen, and ambition. Joshua Turner, the hero of the fourth entry in Swerling’s enormously diverting saga, fills the bill. Manhattan must expand upward, northward, and underground to accommodate its growing population and their housing and transportation needs, and Josh doesn’t let his wartime disability stand in his way.

His marriage to Mollie Brannigan, a Macy’s shopgirl and spinster niece of an Irish brothel-keeper, unexpectedly aids his transformation into a real estate mogul. She is a savvy businesswoman, as he discovers to his dismay. With his motley associates, he harnesses the strength of steel to construct multi-storey apartment buildings and entices middle-class residents to move in, but old enemies scheme to bring his family down.

With a fast-paced, complex plot showcasing opulent Fifth Avenue mansions, Wall Street pandemonium, deals both fair and underhanded, and the rising influence of ethnic gangs, Swerling expertly interlaces the stories of a Gilded Age couple and their magnificent city. Compulsive reading that informs and entertains.
(also written for Booklist, August 2011)

Swerling's most recent novel was a multi-period thriller spanning five centuries in England, Bristol House, and she wrote other historical sagas as Beverly Swerling or Beverly Byrne. Many of her older titles were re-released as ebooks. Read more about them at her website.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Undoing complicity: Up from Freedom by Wayne Grady, a saga of antebellum America

Drawing on research into his mixed-race family history, which he unexpectedly discovered as an adult, Grady evokes the complicated psychological terrain of antebellum America. He shows how simply living in this time and place forces everyone into a culture built around slavery’s existence, and how denying people agency causes harm regardless of intentions. Opening in 1848, the story follows farmer Virgil Moody as he tries to right a dreadful wrong and awakens to the mindset that prompted his original choice.

Born the son of a Georgia plantation owner, Moody had fled westward with a young enslaved woman, Annie, to save her from a cruel overseer. Along with the child Annie was carrying, they settled first in New Orleans and then along the Rio Brazos in Texas, where slavery had expanded following the recent war with Mexico. Moody abhors slavery, thinking of Annie and her son Lucas as his family, and is shocked to realize they feel differently. When Lucas falls in love with a young woman owned by a neighbor, devastating events occur, spurring Moody across the South and Midwest in search of Lucas.

Across these diverse landscapes and waterways, he encounters many well-realized characters, like a Quaker widow named Rachel and a sympathetic German-born store owner, Solomon Kästchen, who works with the Underground Railroad. “Indiana is, generally speaking, antislavery, but it is also antislave,” Kästchen tells him, succinctly illustrating people’s complicity in a system they are supposedly against.

Along the way, Moody grows increasingly fond of Tamsey Lewis, a freedwoman he meets along with her family. Their story, both heartrending and inspirational, culminates in a riveting courtroom scene. This is a timely novel about the deep roots of America’s racial divide, strong in the eloquent truth expressed in individual sentences and in its overall storytelling power.

Up from Freedom was published by Random House Canada in August 2018 (it's also sold in the US). I first reviewed it for November's Historical Novels Review, based on a NetGalley copy I'd requested. It's highly recommended for readers of Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad.  Read more about the author in an interview conducted by the CBC for his first novel, Emancipation Day, which is based on his father's story.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Enchanting storytelling: Diane Setterfield's Once Upon a River, set in Victorian England

Both a Victorian-set historical novel and a delicately rendered adult fairy tale, Diane Setterfield’s third novel sits easily in both spheres.

Not only is it a beautiful story, but it’s an ode to storytelling itself, one knowingly structured similarly to the river in its title. Beginning at an old inn alongside the Thames, in a small town upriver from London, the tale follows a sinuous path, splitting off into tributaries that visit nearby residents and places before they rejoin toward the end.

On the night of the winter solstice in the year 1887, an injured man carrying what seems to be an overlarge poppet – a doll in peasant clothing – bursts into the Swan, a pub where locals rehearse their storytelling prowess. To the surprise of the innkeeper and her large family, the doll is soon revealed to be a lifeless young girl of about four. Their surprise turns to shock when she revives, and word about this mysterious happening quickly spreads.

As if that wasn’t strange enough, three families claim the girl for their own. To Mrs. Helena Vaughan, the mute, blond-haired girl must be her daughter, who went missing three years earlier. For Rob Armstrong, who farms pigs with his beloved wife and large family, she could be the grandchild whose existence they just discovered. And for the parson’s middle-aged housekeeper, Lily White, the girl is her sister, Ann, who she lost long ago.

And so we have a related set of mysteries to uncover as the stories wind their way downstream. Which family does the girl belong to, and what happened to the other missing girls?

Within this partly historical, partly fey setting, many characters come to life. In addition to the revived girl, there’s innkeeper Margot Ockwell; her husband Joe, who has a kind of wasting sickness; and their only son and thirteenth child, Jonathan, who acts differently than other children. The ferryman Quietly, who’s rumored to travel between earth and the afterlife, is a figure of local myth.

In a welcome switch, there’s no stereotypical insularity in the riverside English communities. Rita Sunday, once a foundling from a distant town, finds her nursing skills welcomed at the Swan. Full of scientific curiosity, she looks for explanations for why the girl had appeared to be dead. Helena’s husband is a native New Zealander, and while Rob Armstrong’s appearance (he’s black) initially alarms people, his kindness and noble bearing assuage their concerns.

All of their backstories are revealed at the right moment while the plot winds back and forth.  The language echoes the novel’s quasi-mythic atmosphere. Settle down into this enchanted corner of the literary world and linger a while, listening to a good, satisfying well told.

Once Upon a River was published yesterday by Atria in hardcover.  Thanks to the publisher for an Edelweiss copy; after I'd requested one, I was given the opportunity to participate in the blog tour, so I jumped right on.

With the tour comes a giveaway: Win 1 of 5 prize bundles of one finished copy of Once Upon a River and one Once Upon a River bookmark! Contest is open until 12/24.  Enter via the Rafflecopter below.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Monday, December 03, 2018

interview with Carrie Callaghan, author of A Light of Her Own, a novel about artist Judith Leyster

In today's hyperactive world, it's a pleasure to read a historical novel that carefully draws you into the very different atmosphere of nearly four centuries ago. At the center of Carrie Callaghan's debut are two young women in 1630s Haarlem: Judith Leyster, a talented painter who became the first of her sex to belong to the city's artists' guild, and her art master's daughter and friend, Maria de Grebber, whose Catholicism sets her apart.  Carrie's A Light of Her Own was published by Amberjack in November, and for her blog tour, I had the opportunity to ask her some questions about her characters, themes, and inspiration.

Why do you enjoy re-interpreting the lives of historical women in fiction?

Women’s stories have often been obscured or forgotten by history. For about two hundred years, no one knew Judith Leyster’s paintings had been painted by a woman, much less her. By reclaiming those stories and interpreting them for a modern audience, I hope I’m helping today’s readers think about all the challenges women have faced and overcome throughout time. And hopefully that’s inspiring.

What made you decide to tell the story from the viewpoints of both Judith Leyster and Maria de Grebber?

This story started as an exploration into ambition and dedication. I realized quickly that for Judith to break through societal barriers, she probably had to make some sacrifices. I wanted to showcase the impact on her two closest relationships – her friend and her brother – and I liked the idea of focusing on the friendship. (An earlier draft did have Abraham’s perspective too, actually.)

How did you fill in the blanks in re-creating Judith’s life?

There are many blanks in Judith’s life. We have her baptism, marriage, and death records, as well as some legal documents and real estate transactions, but not much more than that. Given all the questions, I kept returning to her paintings. If you look at that amazing self-portrait, you see a bold, confident woman who is nonetheless trying to impress you, which suggests some vulnerability. I tried to channel that woman.

I always enjoy how good historical novels can depict the similarities we share with people living long ago as well as their differences from us, and you’ve definitely accomplished this in A Light of Her Own. Maria’s perspective – including her religiosity and sense of self-sacrifice – can feel particularly foreign to a modern reader. How did you delve into her mindset?

author Carrie Callaghan
I wanted to explore a character who had a lot of personal and religious pressure but few options to find forgiveness. Maria is very self-aware, so she notices every temptation to evil that flickers across her mind and every personal short-falling, but she also doesn’t have a support network to help her understand those failings. Her mother died when she was young, her father is distracted, and she has no other friends, because of the social restrictions of the time. Her religion is important to her, but it was illegal to openly practice at the time, so she didn’t have easy access to spiritual succor. It was hard!

In addition to the larger theme of women’s agency at a restrictive time, I appreciated all of the finer domestic details that made the setting feel real, like the hand-painted blue and white tiles around the floor of a house, baked goods of the period, and so forth. How did you research this aspect of the novel?

I had an excellent book that provided a lot of daily-life details, and then I also had the pleasure of scrutinizing all those beautiful paintings we have from the 17th century. I love seeing and writing details, so the world-building was one of the most fun aspects for me.

As you immersed yourself in the customs and society during the Dutch Golden Age, did you find anything that surprised you? Did you have any favorite discoveries?

Research is so delightful partly because it is a never-ending process of surprise. My favorite discoveries were the ones that illuminated how the embroidery around human life has changed over the years – how daffodils meant grief for a youthful death, or how napkins were viewed as a French affectation – but the deepest human emotions are unchanged. Those commonalities are why I love historical fiction. We get to learn all the varieties of human behavior in our similar yet unique worlds.

Since you’re both a book reviewer and a mentor to other novelists, you have a unique perspective on the publication and writing process. Do you feel your additional experience with the industry has been helpful and/or insightful for your role as an author? 

Absolutely. Writing and publishing are hard and deeply subjective. I appreciate the effort that people put into getting art out into the world, and I’m grateful to be part of a community that values stories and reading.

Thanks, Carrie!


Carrie Callaghan is a writer living in Maryland with her spouse, two young children, and two ridiculous cats. Her short fiction has appeared in Weave Magazine, The MacGuffin, Silk Road, Floodwall, and elsewhere. Carrie is also an editor and contributor with the Washington Independent Review of Books. She has a Master’s of Arts in International Affairs from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and a bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

For more information, please visit Carrie Callaghan’s website and blog. You can also connect with her on Twitter and Goodreads.

During the blog tour for A Light of Her Own, we will be giving away 2 signed hardcovers of A Light of Her Own! To enter, please see the Gleam form below.

Giveaway Rules:

– Giveaway ends at 11:59pm EST on December 7th. 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.

A Light of Her Own

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Family traditions and women's hidden histories: Cathy Lamb's No Place I'd Rather Be

Cathy Lamb’s No Place I’d Rather Be is a multi-period saga that leans more heavily on the contemporary side of things, so it can work as a gateway for readers wanting to dip their toe into the historical fiction world. It intermingles the themes of cooking, family heritage, and strong women – and how broken bonds are relinked.

In 2011, Olivia Martindale returns to Kalulell (a small city modeled on Kalispell), Montana, after a two-year absence spurred by the breakdown of her marriage, for reasons not revealed until later in the book. Accompanying her are two girls, Stephi and Lucy, she hopes to adopt once their abusive, drug-addicted mother’s parental rights are terminated. All three are quickly swept up into Olivia’s family baking traditions (what they call “Martindale Cake Therapy”).

The Martindale women are tough and independent, and each has struggled to get where she is. There’s sister Chloe, a widowed paramedic whose teenage son, Kyle (a terrific character), has Asperger’s; mother Mary Beth, a divorced surgeon who encourages (in a lovingly pushy way) Stephi and Lucy’s interest in medicine; and her kind grandmother Gisela, a traditional healer and former nurse who works with Mary Beth in a family clinic.

Their personalities are oversize, and their dialogue sometimes over-the-top, but this story has a strong heart and manages to balance their eccentricities with a much more serious side. During a rainstorm at the family home, Olivia rushes up to the attic and rescues a taped-up old trunk from water damage. Within it, she discovers artifacts from Gisela’s past: a wedding dress, a 1940s nurse’s uniform, a menorah, and a singed, stained cookbook filled with handwritten recipes in several languages and old drawings. Gisela had never spoken of her parents or family in the Old Country, since their history clearly caused her pain. The stories of Gisela's own mother and grandmother, dating back to the 1890s along the outskirts of Odessa, are interspersed. As Olivia slowly uncovers what her grandmother endured seven decades earlier, can she also reconnect with her estranged, seemingly perfect husband?

For those who enjoy relationship-focused novels with a lot of sass and a dash of history, this book is a good choice to curl up with on a chilly autumn afternoon.

No Place I'd Rather Be was published by Kensington in 2017.  Thanks to the author for the review copy.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

A visual preview of the winter 2018-19 season in historical fiction

The winter season is nearly upon us!  What historical novels are you looking forward to over the next few months?  Here are a dozen that caught my attention. What they offer: less familiar settings, new perspectives, and/or intriguing characters.  I haven't read any of these yet but am looking forward to them all.

The story of two women, a child, a difficult journey, and the aftermath of war, set in Spain and southern France at the end of WWII.  Now this is an eye-catching cover. Lake Union, February 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Secrets surround the marshy English landscape where a 10-year old girl arrives in 1939 to meet the couple who will adopt her. Her father's rescue of a downed German airman spurs a chain of events that haunt her, decades later, as an old woman. Readers in the UK can find it under the title Call of the Curlew. Tin House, January 2019. [see on Goodreads]

A new novel set to reveal a little-known story about America's first president: his relationship with his first love, Mary Philipse, and how it affected his views going forward.  St. Martin's, February 2019. [see on Goodreads]

The author's second novel takes place in colonial Malaysia in the 1930s, focusing on an apprentice dressmaker working in a dance hall, a houseboy with an unusual task, and what happens when their paths collide. Flatiron, February 2019. [see on Goodreads]

This literary saga promises intrigue surrounding glass designer Tiffany and his opulent mansions, his gardener's family, and repercussions of past choices spiraling down from 1916 over the next century.  Sarah Crichton Books/FSG, February 2019.  [see on Goodreads]

The 17th century continues to be fertile ground for new fiction. The witch trials of early 17th-century England sit at the backdrop of this debut, in which two young women - a wife desperate for a child, and a midwife accused of witchcraft - join together amid desperate circumstances.  MIRA (US/Canada), Zaffre (UK), February 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Bartolomeo Scappi was a historical figure, a famed chef in Renaissance Italy. In King's second novel (after Feast of Sorrow, also on a culinary subject), Scappi's nephew, Giovanni, searches for secrets in his late uncle's past. Atria, February 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Knowing his days are numbered, a consumptive attorney teams up with an ex-soldier to track a killer in late 18th-century Stockholm. The author's surname, Swedish for "night and day," indicates he's a descendant of one of Sweden's oldest noble families. [see on Goodreads]

There's been considerable buzz about this literary debut, which isn't the first to reveal the story of model/photographer Lee Miller in the 20th century, but the author's style and language are receiving accolades. Little, Brown, February 2019. [see on Goodreads]

The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo

A historical mystery set in Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy's Egypt, as she asks her friend to investigate her spy's recent murder; first in a new series. Head of Zeus, December 2018. [see on Goodreads]

The story of Cherokee America Singer (called "Check"), a farmer and mother of five in the Cherokee Nation West of 1875, and the family dramas and culture clashes that involve her and her community.  Western fiction from a perspective not seen enough in the genre.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, February 2019. [see on Goodreads]

A Mormon woman, living in a remote town along a canyon floor in Utah, finds her life turned upside down when a stranger requests her help. Weisgarber's novels always show mastery of setting and character development. Skyhorse, February 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Friday, November 23, 2018

Supriya Kelkar's debut novel Ahimsa: the Indian independence movement through young eyes

It’s impressive how much cultural and historical detail Supriya Kelkar has worked into her debut novel without sacrificing pacing. Ahimsa moves along quickly, its title referring to the principle of non-violent resistance promoted by Gandhi during India’s struggle for independence from Britain.

In 1942, Shailaja Joshi, a young wife and mother, heeds Gandhi’s request that a member of each Indian family should take part in their country’s freedom movement. She has the support of her husband, and quits her job working for a British officer, although the elderly uncle who lives with the family feels her efforts will ultimately be futile. However, the action is seen not from Shailaja’s viewpoint but that of her ten-year-old daughter, Anjali.

While Ahimsa is geared toward middle-grade readers, it can be appreciated by older readers as well, adults included. I didn’t feel like any of the language or concepts were oversimplified. The novel covers a dramatic and traumatic time in India’s history, with tensions rising between India and Britain, between Hindus and Muslims, within India’s rigid caste system, and between the courageous people who seek change and those who resist it just as strongly. It’s remarkable how well these serious conflicts are articulated within a book for young readers.

The story follows Anjali as she adjusts her perceptions while her world and family transform in front of her. She doesn’t understand when her mother burns their gorgeously colored, British-made saris, instead making them wear plainer, homespun cotton khadis because they’re locally woven. Through her mother, Anjali also has her eyes opened to the living situation of her family’s toilet-cleaner, Mohan, a boy who was forced into that role simply for being born into the lowest caste.

Both Anjali and Shailaja make mistakes in their approach to change. In keeping with reality, Kelkar doesn’t present the adults as having all the answers. This new era in India is a learning experience for the entire family, and there are universal lessons worth absorbing, too, like the need to respect and use the name that a group prefers to call themselves (for example: Dalits for Mohan’s caste, rather than the insulting term Untouchables or Gandhi’s term for them, Harijan). Anjali’s best friend is a Muslim boy, Irfaan, and the plot also demonstrates how their close relationship is affected when Hindu-Muslim riots break out in their town.

The two-page glossary at the end could easily have been expanded, but overall this is an engaging novel based on the experiences of the author’s great-grandmother (Shailaja in the story). For historical fiction readers and librarians interested in experiencing India's history through young eyes, or adding an #ownvoices story to their collection, Ahimsa would be a good choice.

Ahimsa was published by Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low, in 2017; I received a copy through LibraryThing's FirstReads program earlier this year.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

New England Gothic: The Witch of Willow Hall

Tapping into recent interests in Gothic fiction, Fox’s uneven debut focuses on the middle daughter of a wealthy New England family who doesn’t realize she inherited a talent for witchcraft. As a child in 1812 Boston, Lydia Montrose unsuspectingly calls upon her latent powers to take revenge against a cruel neighbor boy. Nine years later, she and her family are forced to leave the city following rumors of her older sister Catherine’s shocking conduct.

They take up residence in Willow Hall, a large mansion in the distant town of New Oldbury, where her father, investor in a local mill, hopes to make a fresh start. Lydia is close to her eight-year-old sister Emeline, and while they enjoy wandering the countryside, spiteful Catherine chafes at her forced isolation. As Lydia develops an interest in John Barrett, her father’s handsome business partner, Catherine’s jealousy asserts itself while she simultaneously flirts with John’s friend. Meanwhile, supernatural happenings at Willow Hall, which only Lydia can see, hint at its tragic past.

The story’s premise – a young woman coming to terms with abilities passed down from an accused Salem witch – is a clever one. Because the scenes focusing on this aspect are particularly strong, they should have been given greater prominence over the romance and toxic family drama. Fox is particularly skilled at conveying the creepy atmosphere when the dead emerge into the world of the living.

The secondary characters, including Lydia’s mother and father, feel rather thin, and the early industrial New England setting could have been more sharply evoked through the characters’ actions and dialogue. The Montrose daughters’ attention to social proprieties comes and goes; maybe their odd conduct could be chalked up to lax parenting. Fans of historical horror may want to read the novel regardless, especially if they enjoyed Louisa Morgan’s A Secret History of Witches.

I reviewed this novel for November's Historical Novels Review. The Witch of Willow Hall was published by Graydon House in October. Judging by the Goodreads reviews, I'm in the minority with my reaction.

Monday, November 12, 2018

A septet of recent & upcoming historical novels, all with the number seven

This doesn't qualify to be a trend, but it's a curious recent phenomenon. The number seven figures prominently in classical history, mythology, and literature; it's thought of as a particularly lucky or magical number.  So perhaps it's no surprise that authors are channeling its power within their fiction.  Here are — of course — seven historical novels, all published in 2017 or after, which share this number in their titles (or series). How I came upon this interesting commonality is something you might call sevendipity. After finding the Grames novel on Edelweiss last week, its title reminded me of another, and then another... there are a few that I think readers will have trouble keeping straight!

Seven fictional tales set in the same historical worlds as Gabaldon's Outlander stories set in the 18th century and later; two are original to this book. Delacorte, 2017. [see on Goodreads]

The story of Stella Fortuna, a young woman in early 20th-century Italy who seems unusually accident-prone, and her long, complicated relationship with her sister, both in Italy and America over the next century. Ecco, forthcoming May 2019. [see on Goodreads]

A moving historical novel set aboard the Lusitania during WWI and based partly on family history. HarperCollins, 2017. [see on Goodreads]

Part of James's Desperate Duchesses series of Georgian- and Regency-set historical romances, this entry focuses on an earl's son in need of a governess for his siblings, and an aristocratic woman who runs a governess agency  Avon, 2017. [see on Goodreads]

A young woman tapped to write an aging film star's biography is drawn into her stories of the lost world of 1950s Hollywood and all of her past marriages. Atria, 2017. [see on Goodreads]

This is the fifth and latest in Riley's Seven Sisters series (the first book had the title The Seven Sisters) about a group of women, adopted by the same man as babies, who leave for adventures around the world in search of their birth heritage. Their family stories take readers back to the early 20th century. Atria, forthcoming February 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Set around a 1920s country house party, this unusual murder mystery features a protagonist who inhabits the body of different characters and is forced to relive events of the fateful day of Evelyn's death until he solves the crime.  Sourcebooks, 2018. [see on Goodreads]

Friday, November 09, 2018

Great Lakes Gothic: Wendy Webb's Daughters of the Lake

Wendy Webb’s newest Gothic novel is partly a paranormal time-slip with occasional ghosts and spooky happenings. It’s also a multi-period saga about doomed lovers and a long-unsolved mystery full of atmospheric Great Lakes folklore. If any of these elements appeal, dive right in!

Present day: the body of an auburn-haired young woman wearing a vintage nightgown is released by Lake Superior, a baby clutched in her cold arms. Kate Granger reacts badly to the discovery, since she’s been having dreams from the woman’s viewpoint. After traveling to the tourist town of Wharton, where her cousin Simon has transformed their wealthy great-grandfather’s mansion into a B&B, Kate learns the mystery has followed her there.

As Kate recovers from a broken marriage, Simon’s caring attitude helps ground her; so does Nick Adams, a handsome African-American cop. An alternating thread follows Addie Cassatt, the young woman from the lake, from her unusual birth circumstances in 1889 to her loving marriage and tragic last days. Addie’s ancestors had close ties with the lake, which somehow protected them. A similar thread of destiny links Addie to Jess Stewart, a boy who saves her life.

I rarely read novels straight through in a day, but – pardon the watery descriptions – the fluid writing swept me into its wake, keeping me reading even when thought I knew where the story led. The plot moves from present to past and back, sometimes popping unexpectedly into minor characters’ viewpoints, but the transitions are smooth.

Highlights include the realistic dialogue, warmhearted characters (especially Simon), and depictions of early 20th-century Midwestern architecture, social happenings, and attitudes. How many old mysteries arise from the fact that our 19th-century forebears were reluctant to air their personal woes? That historical sentiment rings absolutely true. The story isn’t out-and-out terrifying like Webb’s earlier Gothics, but it’s still an engrossing supernatural tale.

Daughters of the Lake was published by Lake Union on November 1; it's currently the #1 bestseller in Amazon's Gothic Fiction category. I reviewed it for November's Historical Novels Review.

Sunday, November 04, 2018

The Monastery Murders by E. M. Powell, a deadly excursion to 12th-century Yorkshire

The second outing for the talented detective team of Aelred Barling, royal clerk to Henry II, and his assistant Hugo Stanton is full of chilling atmosphere, both literal and figurative. At the request of Ranulf de Glanville, Justiciar of England in 1177 AD, both are sent north from London, a ten days’ ride in darkest winter, to the remote Cistercian house of Fairmore Abbey in Yorkshire. On Christmas Eve, the mild-mannered sacrist, Brother Cuthbert, was found murdered in a pretty horrific way.

Abbot Philip, who’d known Barling during their youthful studies in Paris, requests his help specifically. While Stanton’s an easygoing sort who enjoys ale, convivial gatherings, and women, Barling is a straitlaced fellow who prefers time at his writing desk. When it comes to their feelings about this mission, though, they’re in agreement: neither wants to go.

When they arrive at the monastery, which is nestled deep into a rocky valley, they discover the place in turmoil, although few openly admit it. Tension spills out from multiple avenues. The older monks chafe at Philip’s election to his current role, the lay brothers resent being treated like mindless workhorses, and many feel uncomfortable breaking their vows of silence to respond to outsiders’ questions. Then a second murder occurs, and another. Each is creatively gruesome.

This strongly plotted mystery is definitely not a cozy! The thawing relationship between Barling and Stanton, already begun after their joint success in The King’s Justice, helps lighten their increasingly heavy investigative burden. Barling sees it as his duty to impart periodic lessons that Stanton hates, but they acknowledge the other’s strengths and gifts. The final outcome, which arrives after a high body count, depends on their bond of mutual trust and is gratifying in that sense, and others.

The cast list isn’t solely male, and the presence of women in this highly regulated masculine environment creates disarray that’s first entertaining, and later dangerous. Hints at secrets about Barling’s past, which he’d rather not think about, contribute another intrigue-filled layer. Sometimes later volumes in a mystery series reveal the truth about earlier whodunits, but fortunately this isn't the case here.  Readers who haven’t picked up book one, which I also recommend, won't discover any clues about how that mystery was resolved.

The Monastery Murders is published by Thomas & Mercer, Amazon's crime/thriller imprint, in September.  Thanks to the author (who I'd interviewed about book one, The King's Justice) for sending me a NetGalley widget.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Splendor Before the Dark, the conclusion to Margaret George's saga of Emperor Nero's life

“You had the courage to be openly yourself . . . to be an artist in spite of ridicule and opposition,” says one woman to Emperor Nero, simultaneously describing his charismatic appeal and tragic flaw.

Covering his tumultuous last four years, George’s invigorating sequel to The Confessions of Young Nero​ (2017) opens in AD 64 with Rome’s Great Fire. Although he wasn’t there when it started, and assists refugees afterward, rumors imply otherwise.

His architectural designs for rebuilding the city are dazzling but drain the treasury. Despite his political naïveté and other faults, Nero’s narrative voice never fails to captivate because of his full-throated appreciation for art and life in general.

He cherishes his inner circle, including his beloved wife, Poppaea, while others betray him. He achieves his dream of competitive chariot racing, and Greece’s scenic wonders are gloriously brought into view as he brings a large entourage there for an extended tour of the sacred games, to the Senate’s dismay. Although Nero acknowledges the competing aspects of his complicated nature, he fails to balance them.

George’s nuanced, well-researched character study depicts his candid inner self and how the performance of his short life played out on the Roman Empire’s vast stage. It succeeds admirably in persuading readers to reconsider their impressions of the infamous Nero.

The Splendor Before the Dark will be published next week by Berkley; I wrote this starred review for Booklist's October 1 issue. It's almost 600pp long, and the first book was over 500pp, but they move quickly and will whisk you into Nero's captivating world. The book's title is perfect, too.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Children of God by Lars Petter Sveen, an unusual look at New Testament times

The first English-language release by Norwegian best-seller and prize-winner Sveen contains interconnected stories set in New Testament times. Both historical fiction and allegory, the book is insightful in both contexts. It focuses primarily on ordinary people on society’s edges—prostitutes, thieves, the lost and suffering—although Jesus and other biblical figures appear and interact with them.

In the shocking initial tale, Roman soldiers follow King Herod’s orders to kill Bethlehem’s infant boys but question their mission’s morality. A blind, elderly man persuades them otherwise; he shows up to sow discord in many other stories. A healing miracle occurs, but its effect later slips. Two sisters’ lives take dramatic turns, and the Samaritan woman is seen from a new viewpoint.

The blind stranger’s statements (e.g., “I’m what stays in the shadows while the light falls elsewhere”) become repetitive, but the stories’ consistent message speaks to the insidiousness of evil and self-doubt. While reflecting individuals’ long-ago struggles for faith, autonomy, and survival, Sveen’s linked stories also have significant modern relevance that reaches a powerful crescendo by the book’s end.

Children of God, translated into English by Guy Puzey, is published this month by Graywolf in trade paperback and ebook.  This review first appeared in Booklist's 10/15 issue. For a different (and lengthier) perspective, it was also reviewed in this past weekend's New York Times.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Hard times: Laurie Loewenstein's Death of a Rainmaker, a mystery set in Dust Bowl Oklahoma

When times turn desperate, tensions rise, and people start seeking an outlet for their suffering. In this sense, the Depression-era Dust Bowl feels like a classic setting for a murder mystery, although surprisingly few authors have taken advantage of it.

Here, just like in her first novel, Unmentionables, Laurie Loewenstein offers vivid storytelling and a fine eye for evoking small-town life in America’s heartland.

In August 1935, it’s been 240 days since the last rainfall, and the leading citizens of Vermillion, Oklahoma, the seat of Jackson County, seek out hope where they can find it. Roland Coombs arrives in town with promising testimonials to his skills in enticing clouds to let loose their precious drops of water. But less than a day after he shoots shells packed with TNT into the heavens, his body is found in the alley next to the Jewel Movie House, lying under a pile of dirt after an intense dust storm.

The need to solve the crime creates difficulties for longtime sheriff Temple Jennings, who’s up for re-election shortly. He’s also under pressure to start foreclosure proceedings against the Fullers, a hardworking farm couple who’d tried hard to make a go of their land but failed, thanks to the weather. When circumstances lead Temple to pinpoint Carmine, a young man from the nearby CCC camp, as the rainmaker’s murderer, the decision raises unease in those closest to him.

The novel excels in depicting characters and relationships. Temple and his wife, Etha, are devoted to one another, but Etha sees qualities of her late son in Carmine and has reason to believe him innocent. Having lost a child, Etha is horrified by stories of families forcing their older children to leave home since they can’t feed them any more. Then there’s Temple’s deputy, Ed McCance, an earnest former CCCer who doesn’t want the organization’s name tarnished. Just when you think the plot is heading in one direction, the crime’s resolution comes as a surprise.

There are some quirky local traditions, such as the “rarely used” (per Etha) small jail cell in a corner of the Jenningses’ kitchen, and a host of personalities depicted without stereotype, including Chester Benton, the blind and dapper theater owner disgruntled by how the murder leads to lost sales.

The atmosphere of Dust Bowl Oklahoma seeps through the pages, and the descriptions of these tough times become yet stronger when they're made personal: the “worn and brittle” men inhabiting a once-prosperous rooming house, a former destination for westward dreamers, and a family’s daisy-patterned china, the plates they ate on every day, now “nothing more than secondhand plates to some stranger, wiped clean of meaning.”

Death of a Rainmaker was published by Kaylie Jones Books this month; thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Review of The Game of Hope by Sandra Gulland, a novel about Hortense de Beauharnais, Napoleon's stepdaughter

“The key to survival is flexibility.” These words of wisdom, spoken by the drawing instructor at Maîtresse Campan’s boarding school for girls, prove prescient for his pupil, Hortense de Beauharnais. At the beginning of Gulland’s elegantly written young adult novel, set in France in 1798, Hortense is just fifteen. She and her cousin Ém and close friend Adèle (called Mouse), Maîtresse Campan’s niece, form a tightly knit threesome. They attend their lessons and look after the school’s younger charges. However, their mutually supportive group is still part of the larger world, and Gulland carefully presents the historical backdrop as Hortense would have experienced it.

It’s been a mere four years since the Reign of Terror, in which many French aristocrats were executed via guillotine. Hortense’s father was one of them, and she suffers terrible nightmares and worries that she played a role in his death. Her ebullient mother, Rose, now married to General Bonaparte, has been obliged to reinvent herself as well; she now goes by Josephine, Bonaparte’s preferred name for her. Hortense’s brother Eugène is serving with Bonaparte in Egypt, and she writes him heartfelt letters that she’s unable to send. And then there’s her classmate Annunziata, Bonaparte’s rude younger sister, who suddenly decides to call herself Caroline.

Hortense’s lively and warm nature makes her an appealing narrator, and although more colorful personalities threaten to outshine her, she holds her own. Her coming of age and the accompanying shifts in her relationships are among the book’s highlights. While Josephine writes to her daughter that “we’re more like the best of friends,” she also counsels her that “it’s wise not to linger” in an unmarried state, since “a girl quickly loses her bloom.” This is difficult advice for a romantically-inclined teenager to hear, especially when she has a crush on a handsome, older officer.

Over the course of the book, Hortense gains greater perspective on the stepfather she disdains, the father she adored but barely knew, and even her challenging schoolmate, Caroline. Her frequent exclamations (aie!) and parenthetical asides sometimes make her seem younger than her age. That said, the novel strikes the right balance between Hortense’s youthful innocence and the tense uncertainty of the era. It creates a convincing portrait of a young woman learning about her world, navigating through limited choices, and fulfilling her ambitions as much as she’s able.

The Game of Hope was published by Viking Books for Young Readers in June (384pp, hardcover and ebook); I read it from a personal copy. This review forms part of the author's blog tour with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.

During the Blog Tour, we will be giving away a copy of The Game of Hope to one lucky reader! To enter, please enter via the Gleam form below.

Giveaway Rules:

– Giveaway ends at 11:59pm EST on October 22nd. You must be 18 or older to enter.
– Giveaway is open to US 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.  Good luck!

Game of Hope

Monday, October 15, 2018

Interview with Margaret Porter, author of Beautiful Invention: A Novel of Hedy Lamarr

Margaret Porter's new novel Beautiful Invention reveals, in lively and convincing fashion, the complicated life of Hedy Lamarr: Austrian-born screen star, film producer, wartime fundraiser, and talented inventor. While she was best known as a glamour girl, the results of her scientific collaboration with composer George Antheil are credited as a precursor to today's Bluetooth technology. I'm happy to offer an interview today with Margaret, and I'd like to thank her for answering my questions and sending me a copy of the book, which is being launched in the US today.

What convinced you to write a novel based on Hedy Lamarr, and what aspects about her do you admire the most?

The desire to write about Hedy resulted from various alignments and serendipities. Not many years after her death, I was doing an internet search for some '30s and '40s film stars—her near contemporaries—and kept hitting articles about her newly publicized technological achievement. At the time, I filed it in the back of my mind as merely “interesting” and “surprising” and “unexpected.”

Then, in 2010, two biographies of her were published—one by Ruth Barton and the other by Michael Shearer. The following year came Hedy’s Folly by Richard Rhodes, primarily about her invention of frequency-hopping and spread-spectrum technology. I still remember hearing the author’s interview on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show. At the time, my focus was 17th- and 18th-century England, but gradually I considered starting a novel about Hedy Lamarr, if only to challenge myself.

The time period seemed so far outside my familiarity zone. Yet I had studied cinema history extensively during my graduate film studies, and after earning my degree I continued reading about related subjects just for pleasure. And I’ve always been a TCM addict. When I was unable to decide which competing 17th or 18th century subject to pursue, Hedy slipped in and co-opted my attention. It helped having two fine biographies of her, and many other explorations of her life and career—these were a great foundation. But Beautiful Invention is largely based on my own primary research, and there was so, so much background material to utilize.

Beautiful Invention shows that Hedy Lamarr had a thoroughly eventful life in the public eye, beginning when she was just sixteen. I enjoyed your depiction of the many facets of her life, her scientific accomplishments, and her need and desire to continually reinvent herself. How did you decide what aspects to depict on the page, and which to skim over or leave out? 

The filtering process was probably my greatest challenge. Earlier drafts contained more of her life in Austria, because that was the most unfamiliar aspect of her life to most people—apart from her hobby of inventing. And then I found that different periods of her life fit rather neatly into a three-part structure. She starred in so many films, therefore I had to pick and choose which roles were important in the overall trajectory of her career, and where the primary focus should be her complex personal life. Early on I decided to conclude on an ambiguously positive note, while at the same time foreshadowing her next reinvention. I had no intention of pursuing her into her post-Hollywood life. It was so tortured, as anyone who viewed the Bombshell documentary is aware.

In the afterword, you described having learned about Hedy at a young age, since your father had thought highly of her. How did your impressions of Hedy change as you delved into her story and researched it more thoroughly?

When I began the novel, I thought of her chiefly as a beautiful actress with a brilliantly creative brain. I couldn’t help being impressed by her curiosity, her intellect, and her determination. I discovered how mercurial she was, and how very enigmatic she could be in her relationships. Because Hedy was a collection of contradictions, I wanted to be very intentional in clarifying motivations at decision points in the story.

Her ethnic background was one of the reasons she needed to leave Austria when she did. But she never admitted that all her grandparents were Jewish, not even to her own children. Hitler was aware, and it was no secret in Europe—yet during her years of greatest prominence, hardly any American press accounts mentioned it. She regarded her beauty as a curse, and hated that people’s expectations of her were based wholly on the way she looked. But she needed to capitalize on her appeal in order to make a living. She was a down-to-earth homebody but professionally ambitious.

Hedy Lamarr, publicity photo for The Heavenly Body (1944)

The glamour girl image that MGM projected was uncomfortable for her, and she had to sustained it to survive and thrive within the studio system. She wanted to excel at acting but found movie making tedious. She longed to commit to a true soul mate, but fell in love too easily and married too hastily. More than once.

I enjoyed the nuanced depiction of Hedy’s marriage to Fritz Mandl, although her life with him definitely wasn’t easy. I found it interesting that they stayed in contact years later. How did you gain insight into their relationship?

Fritz is also an enigma. To a very great degree, he acted from unalloyed self-interest. I regard his continued contact with Hedy as an artifact of his controlling and possessive nature: “Once mine, forever mine.” But maintaining his connection to the world’s most famous film star was also very convenient for him. After his association with the Nazi regime in Germany became widely known, he would have wanted to salvage his reputation. And I suspect Hedy was grateful to him, in a way, for expanding her horizons beyond the theatre through their social life.

There’s no doubt she met interesting and prominent people during that marriage. At the same time, she was very frustrated and unhappy—who wouldn’t be? But one notable aspect of her character was an ability to move beyond the past and live almost wholly in the present. She prided herself on remaining friends with Fritz, although she probably didn’t expect to in the worst moments of their marriage. Based on the evidence, their parting was more mutual and possibly more amicable than MGM wanted people to believe. The studio had a vested interest in covering over the Mandl taint.

Did you find that your background as an actress informed your perspective on Hedy’s life?

Most definitely. This is my fourth novel with a performer as a heroine, and I do draw on my experience as necessary. Stardom—in films, or on the stage—is a common teenage dream, one that Hedy and I shared. I’ve spent years of my life, since childhood, in the theatre, and from my teens I was on location with feature films or television shows. Unlike Hedy, I never had the pressure of carrying a film, and its profitability certainly did not depend on my efforts as an extra! I felt an especially close kinship with her when she ventured into producing, because that’s the path I eventually followed. I would like to have focused on that brief chapter of her career more than I was able to in this book.

author Margaret Porter
Your last two novels have moved in the new direction of biographical fiction. What appeals to you about writing novels based on historical figures?

Biographical fiction was my destiny. In my youth, those were the types of novels I read and re-read and most wanted to write. As an adult reader, I followed the same pattern. Within a few years of finishing graduate school, my first novel was published as a Regency romance, and eventually I was writing longer, more complex books, extremely fact-based. I got distracted from fiction by an ambitious attempt at a literary biography. While intensely researching my subject, the light dawned. “What was I thinking? Here’s my long-awaited opportunity to write a biographical novel!”

That individual generated so much speculation and unsatisfied curiosity, despite my deep immersion in the historical record, and I needed my imagination to fill the gaps. And to supply the deeply personal details and motivations and reactions that are inevitably unavailable to the researcher. For me, that’s what exerts so strong and irresistible an appeal. But at that time I wasn’t entirely clear on the scope of the plot, or its structure, the character arc. So I decided to clear my head by exploring an intriguing but obscure 17th century couple rooted in my own family tree . . . which resulted in A Pledge of Better Times. The next four planned projects also feature real people of the past—though none as famous as Hedy Lamarr!


MARGARET PORTER is the award-winning, bestselling author of Beautiful Invention: A Novel of Hedy Lamarr and twelve other historical novels for U.S. and foreign-language publishers. She studied British history in the U.K. and afterwards worked professionally in theatre, film, and television. Margaret returns annually to Great Britain and Europe to research her novels. She and her husband live in New England with their dogs, dividing their time between an architecturally unique book-filled house in a small city and a waterfront cottage located on one of the region’s largest lakes. More information is available at her website,

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

The Queen's Promise: a panoramic view of the early English Civil War years

Vantrease’s long-awaited return to the historical fiction scene showcases her painstaking attention to characterization and period atmosphere. Opening with a prologue depicting the execution of Charles I’s advisor Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, in 1641, the novel follows a wide array of individuals as tensions between the king and Parliament erupt into civil war.

In 1642, Queen Henrietta Maria, detested by England’s people for her extravagances and fervent Catholicism, travels abroad to deliver the 10-year-old Princess Mary to her future husband and convince the Dutch to buy England’s crown jewels. She has promised to help finance her husband’s battles and return to her younger children, but her words may be as empty as those of her husband, who had vowed to save his friend Strafford.

Meanwhile, young Prince Henry and Princess Elizabeth are quietly taken into the care of Lucy Hay, Countess of Carlisle—Strafford’s former lover, Henrietta’s sometime friend, and current lover of Parliamentary leader John Pym.

Lucy, a courtier who was one of the era’s most intriguing personalities, tended to serve both sides simultaneously when it suited her purposes. In Vantrease’s portrayal, this doesn’t demonstrate fickleness on her part but a unique blend of survival instinct and human compassion.

Although Henrietta and Lucy are the ostensible protagonists, the narrative splits into many different strands that take a long time to form into a cohesive story. The chapters with Caroline Pendleton, wife of a wool merchant turned knight, succeed in evoking the desperate plight of women left alone during wartime. Others focus on James Whittier, a nobleman, printer, and one-time highwayman whose path crosses Caroline’s.

While their stories are interesting when taken individually, the overlarge cast makes the novel lose focus. And so the Broken Kingdom series has a fairly slow start; hopefully Part Two will draw all the stories together more tightly.

Brenda Rickman Vantrease's The Queen's Promise was published by Severn House in August. Book 2, A Far Horizon, will be out next February.  This review first appeared in the Historical Novels Review's August 2018 issue.

Friday, October 05, 2018

Edward Carey's Little, a witty, macabre epic about the woman who became Madame Tussaud

Carey presents an immensely creative epic that follows a poor orphan’s rise to become the famous Madame Tussaud.

Born in 1761, and nicknamed “Little” for her petite size, Anne Marie Grosholtz becomes the unpaid apprentice of her late mother’s odd, nervous employer, Dr. Curtius. After fleeing to Paris, they join forces with a redoubtable widow and her son. Their skills with wax attract attention, leading to their unusual museum and Marie’s invitation to tutor Princesse Elisabeth at Versailles.

At a time of rampant social disparities, the museum becomes a great equalizer: a place where royalty, poets, and notorious murderers—that is, their sculpted stand-ins—can be viewed up close, and ordinary people can participate in a lottery to be models themselves.

Mingling a sense of playfulness with macabre history, Carey depicts the excesses of wealth and violence during the French Revolution through the eyes of a talented woman who lived through it and survived. The oddball characters and gothic eccentricities evoke Tim Burton’s work, but without any fantastical elements; the reality is sufficiently strange on its own.

Carey shows how the seemingly absurd, like royal servants lodging in cupboards and artisans forced to re-create newly executed people’s heads in wax, becomes shockingly routine. The unique perspective, witty narrative voice, and clever illustrations make for an irresistible read.

I wrote this starred review for Booklist's September issue.  Little will be published later this month by Riverhead in the US. Aardvark Bureau published it in the UK this week.

The question of whether there are fantastical elements in the book (see the review at Kirkus) seems up for debate; it depends on whether you believe that some of the objects Marie encounters are actually sentient, or if her perceptions are due to her unique view of the world. I chose the latter, and appreciate how it was written to be read either way.

Also, having read and loved Michelle Moran's Madame Tussaud (see my earlier review), I wondered how similar a read Little would be.  My conclusion: other than being based on the same person and circumstances, they're very different in approach and tone.  It's worth reading both!

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Reading the Past appearing on Tall Poppy Writers' #bloomblogweek

This week is blogger appreciation week on Bloom, the Facebook group for Tall Poppy Writers, a team of 42 female authors who've banded together to meet readers and promote philanthropic projects. I'm grateful to Janie Chang, author of literary fiction set in 20th-century China, for inviting me to participate and contribute a post, and thanks to the rest of the group for their support!  I've been a member of the FB group for the last month and have been enjoying the conversations and camaraderie.

Please stop by the group this week for appearances from me and other book bloggers.  We'll all be posting about our sites and hosting a giveaway.  In my case, I'll be offering three copies of Janie's bestselling novel Dragon Springs Road, contributed by the author, as well as a copy of Frances de Pontes Peebles' The Air You Breathe, which was one of my favorites of 2018 so far.

For more about Tall Poppy Writers, please visit their site at Here are links to my earlier reviews of novels by authors in the group:

Julie Cantrell, Into the Free, set in Depression-era Mississippi
Susan Meissner, As Bright as Heaven, set during the 1918 flu epidemic in Philadelphia
Weina Dai Randel, The Moon in the Palace, about Empress Wu in 7th-century China
Aimie K. Runyan, Daughters of the Night Sky, about the "Night Witches" of WWII, and Promised to the Crown and Duty to the Crown, about the New France settlement of 17th-century Quebec.

Hope to see you online on Facebook!

Monday, September 24, 2018

Love Is Blind by William Boyd, a globe-spanning journey of passion and danger

Moving from Edinburgh in 1894 to the far-flung Andaman Islands in 1906, and smoothly landing in various European cities in between, Boyd’s (Sweet Caress, 2015) affecting novel follows a young Scotsman’s ardent pursuit of a woman and its treacherous consequences.

An appealing though naive protagonist, Brodie Moncur has perfect pitch, a gift he uses as an accomplished piano tuner. He agrees to help manage a Parisian piano showroom, but he hates leaving his siblings behind with their controlling preacher father in their rural village.

Brodie’s quest for a sponsorship arrangement for his employer’s business introduces him to the celebrated pianist John Kilbarron, his shifty brother, Malachi, and John’s mistress, Russian soprano Lika Blum; they all accompany Kilbarron on his concert tours. Brodie falls hard for Lika, which leads to clandestine meetings, a high-stress lifestyle, and, eventually, much worse.

Their relationship feels more like erotic passion than love, but the novel hauntingly depicts how strong emotions can skew one’s perceptions. Boyd beautifully paints the settings and the moods they evoke while sending readers on Brodie’s adventurous, troublesome, and transformative journey.

This review first appeared in Booklist's September 15th issue. Love Is Blind will be published by Knopf on October 9th.  In the UK, it was published by Viking on September 20th.  This is the first novel by Boyd that I've read. While it was a smoothly written and engaging read, the characters' emotions felt a bit distant in places.  If you've read any earlier novels of his, which ones would you recommend?

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Love Song: Frankfort, Michigan, an essay by Lee Zacharias, author of Across the Great Lake

It can be a magical experience to read historical fiction that captures the essence of a place from long ago. In today's guest post, Lee Zacharias writes eloquently about the setting for her new novel and the reasons why she chose it. Coincidentally, Frankfort happens to be a place where I've traveled many times; I look forward to revisiting it by reading Across the Great Lake, which is published today by the University of Wisconsin Press.


Love Song: Frankfort, Michigan
Lee Zacharias

In many ways my new novel, Across the Great Lake, is a love song to a time and place. The setting is more than backdrop. It is the long-lost beloved, the place my narrator Fern yearns for. In fact, the novel began with place; I knew the setting before I knew any of the characters or their stories, that beautiful northwestern Michigan town with its shady streets, gracious old houses, Lake Michigan's crystal-clear water, the pristine beach, steep bluff beyond, most of all the haunting call of the foghorn, now long gone.

But it would be wrong to say I invented the characters simply to populate the novel. They and their stories grew out of that place, just as we are all formed, one way or another, by the places we come from. As Eudora Welty said in her essay "Place in Fiction," it does far more than "furnish a plausible abode for the novel's world of feeling," it "is the ground conductor of all the currents of emotion and belief and moral conviction..." Location serves to make the characters real.

My narrator, Fern, behaves the way she does and feels the way she feels, because of where she comes from, high on a hill above the loveliest of lovely streets in a town that sits on the opposite side of its harbor from what was still in the 1930s the industrial hub of Benzie County, the infinitely less lovely village of Elberta that is home to the apprentice deckhand, Alv, and many of the other sailors. The Frankfort of my novel is the domain of officers, Elberta the realm of iron workers, switch operators, and ordinary sea men.

I visited Frankfort once as a girl, a girl who grew up at the southern end of the lake, among the steel mills and oil refineries of Indiana's Calumet region. No one swam at our beach, which was often littered with dead alewives. The water was polluted. And so when I saw Frankfort I thought it was the most beautiful place I had ever been. To live there would be like living inside a sunlit picture post card.

Lighthouse, Frankfort, Michigan (photo: Mark Johnson)

My reality was a sky dreary with smoke from the mills, a treeless lower middle class street lined with the cramped tract houses that had replaced the fouled prairie. I fell in love with Frankfort because I recognized Elberta, its railyard and asphalt tanks near the beach that stored petroleum products from a refinery no more than ten miles from my house, those tanks that gave the village a distinctive gassy odor. Our feelings about place are as much a part of us as the color of our eyes or shape of our toes, and I hated where I lived and longed to escape.

And so when I was twelve Frankfort became the locus of my other life, the fantasy I wished to live instead of the all-too-real world that seemed to drag out the sentence of childhood and adolescence that bound me to Hammond. In Frankfort I would be able to walk wherever I wanted to go. In Hammond I played in the school band, and every time the director called an evening rehearsal I had to ask for a ride from my father, who always let me know what at inconvenience it was. In Frankfort, I would be one of the teens playing volleyball on the beach instead the awkward pubescent ridiculed by the neighborhood boys. In Frankfort I would be free, not just of Hammond but of myself. Such, I imagined, is the power of place.

And yet Fern is no princess in my fairy tale other life. Tragic things happen to her. She is responsible for another. Though she belongs to a class my teenaged self aspired to, her unconscious sense of privilege contributes to the harm that will haunt the rest of her years, that will transform a lively, adventurous little girl into a woman incapable of fully engaging with her adult life. For her childhood is synonymous with the place that exile denies her. She yearns for Frankfort because it is hers. And as I wrote I yearned with her, but the reason I yearned for Frankfort and the lake my own father once sailed was because they had never been mine. The only way I could claim any part of them was to inhabit her, to write her story as if it were memoir.


photo credit: Traci Arney
Lee Zacharias is the author of a collection of short stories, Helping Muriel Make It Through the Night; three novels, Across the Great Lake, Lessons, and At Random; and a collection of personal essays, The Only Sounds We Make. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the North Carolina Arts Council, North Carolina's Sir Walter Raleigh Award, Southern Humanities Review's Theodore Christian Hoepfner Award, Prairie Schooner's Glenna Luschei Award, and a Silver Medal in Creative Nonfiction from the Independent Publisher Book Awards (the IPPYs).

Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous journals and been recognized by The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Essay, which reprinted her essay "Buzzards" in its 2008 edition. She taught at the University of Arkansas, Princeton University, and the University of North Carolina Greensboro, where she is Emerita Professor of English, as well as many conferences, most recently the Wildacres Writers Workshop. Find her online at