Thursday, August 16, 2018

Cometh the Hour by Annie Whitehead, a novel of war, religion, love, and family in 7th-century Britain

With a careful hand and keen appreciation for the era’s material culture, Annie Whitehead, the inaugural winner of the HWA Dorothy Dunnett Short Story Competition, depicts five tumultuous decades in early medieval Britain. In her third novel, she puts a human face on the Game of Thrones-style drama involving the kingdoms of Deira, Bernicia, Mercia, and East Anglia.

The story spans from 604 AD – when the devious Aylfrith of Bernicia attacks neighboring Deira, abducting the king’s sister, Acha, and sending her other brother, Edwin, into exile – up through the Battle of the Winwaed in the year 655. Every personage once lived.

The family tree and dramatis personae prove critical, since there are many characters, viewpoints, and relationships to track. The action sometimes feels episodic, and some significant historical events aren’t shown firsthand, but subsequent scenes make it clear what happened.

The battle scenes, seen from close-up, are fierce and forceful. “War is for men, but it is the women who suffer,” states one newly-made widow, all too correctly, and Whitehead devotes significant attention to the women, including peace-weaver brides, mothers, abbesses, and loyal wives set aside after their husbands tire of them.

Among the most sympathetic portrayals are kind-hearted Carinna (Cwenburh), a princess of Mercia, and Derwena, whose love-match with Carinna’s cousin, Penda, helps hold their large family together. Then there’s Queen Bertana of East Anglia, whose scenes are brief but memorable. Her reaction to her husband Redwald’s religious conversion is a hoot!

Penda of Mercia, a pagan in an increasingly Christianized land, emerges as the strongest hero. Alliances frequently shift, with motivations changing over time, and the story demonstrates how overzealous ambition can warp one’s nature. As a result, not all characters retain readers’ sympathy throughout, and the transitions are skillfully done. A solid choice for fans of the period.

Cometh the Hour was published in 2017 by FeedARead; I reviewed it for August's Historical Novels Review. Since it's labeled as book 1 of the Tales of the Iclingas (the name of the Mercian dynasty from the period), I'm guessing that means there's more to come, which is good news.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Beneath an Indian Sky by Renita D'Silva, a multi-period saga set in England and India

Author D’Silva transports readers to her native India in a new multi-period novel exploring her frequent themes of difficult family dynamics and the limited choices open to the country’s daughters.

In 1936, Mary Brigham, raised in her aunt and uncle’s London home, is preparing her debutante season and planning to be presented at court. An atypical historical novel heroine, she dreams only of marrying well and raising a family—at least until an old friend of her late parents alludes to their lives in India and a terrible tragedy she can’t recall.

Chapters set eleven years earlier introduce Sita, a girl from a wealthy Indian household, and show how her unusual childhood friendship with Mary developed. In the beginning, both Mary and Sita are equally sympathetic: Mary for her sorrowful past and determination to face up to it, and Sita because she can never attain her parents’ approval.

Despite some confusing aspects of their juxtaposed narratives—the girls’ ages aren’t mentioned, for one—the novel smoothly depicts their transformations into adulthood. Sita ends up marrying a prince and moving into his opulent palace, where her mother-in-law makes her life miserable. Years later, what happens at Mary and Sita’s reunion twists their lives irrevocably and leads to a devastating secret left for Sita’s granddaughter, Priya, to uncover decades later. Priya, a modern documentary filmmaker depressed over her husband’s infidelity, plays an unfortunately small role, although her presence serves to bring the earlier stories full circle.

The plot gets over-the-top dramatic toward the end, and colonial Indian politics remain mostly in the background. Also, too many women have the tendency to faint when confronted with bad news. Still, readers desiring a satisfying excursion to a land of jasmine breezes and delicious cuisine may wish to follow the story and indulge in all the lush atmospheric details.

Beneath an Indian Sky was published by Bookouture in 2018; I read it from a NetGalley copy and wrote this review for August's Historical Novels Review.  D'Silva has written a number of family sagas, many of which have historical elements, including A Daughter's Courage (which I reviewed last year).

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Susan Spann's Trial on Mount Koya, a Shinobi mystery of 16th-century Japan

One might expect a Shingon Buddhist temple to be a peaceful site of sanctuary, but the opposite holds true in the atmospheric sixth novel of Susan Spann’s Shinobi Mysteries.

Set in 1565, this entry brings her protagonists – the shinobi assassin Hiro Hattori and the Jesuit priest whose life he's pledged to protect, Father Mateo – to the remote summit of Mount Koya. Hiro has been sent by his cousin, a master ninja, to carry a directive to a spy who’s been living there as a priest. Having left their housekeeper Ana behind at a nyonindo (women’s hall), since females aren’t allowed to enter the sacred precincts atop the mountain, they approach the temple and are welcomed by the very man, Ringa, that Hiro hopes to find.

However, shortly after Hiro communicates his message to Ringa, a brutal snowstorm enshrouds the temple, forming the right conditions for a locked room-style mystery. Then, later that night, Ringa is discovered horribly murdered. Subsequent deaths follow at regular intervals, with the bodies posed as Buddhist judges of the afterlife. Creepily, the personalities of the late priests seem to resemble those particular Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. The small population at the temple is quickly dwindling, with the perpetrator clearly among them – and if the pattern holds true, Father Mateo could be next.

While Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None is the story’s inspiration, the author spins the basic outline into a mystery specific to her chosen cast and setting, making it a very clever homage indeed. There are a multitude of priests of diverse ages, talents, and backgrounds. As is often the case with many characters introduced at once, their personalities take a bit to settle in, but their particular perspectives emerge in time. On site as well are a mysterious pilgrim and his son, and as outsiders, they fall under suspicion.

The growing friendship between Hiro and Father Mateo is a highlight. Consumed by revenge and loss after his lover’s death in the previous book, Hiro isn’t able to acknowledge how much this affects his judgment, but Father Mateo provides support and sage advice. Cat lovers will appreciate the prominence and entertaining personality of Hiro’s cat, Gato, in this entry, too.

What puzzles the detective pair is not only the bizarre nature of the murders, but also the motive. Perhaps it derives from an internal power struggle, or it could be a madman’s work. As the stakes get higher, the suspense level rises. Fortunately, Spann plays fair with her readers, since -- as it turns out  -- the clues are present from the outset. Readers may be tempted to reread from the beginning, noting how well the mystery was constructed.

Trial on Mount Koya was published in July by Seventh Street. Thanks to the publisher and Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for the e-galley copy via Edelweiss.

During the Blog Tour, five copies of Trial on Mount Koya are up for grabs.  Note that because this is the last stop on the tour, the deadline is tonight. To enter, please enter via the Gleam form below. Good luck!

Giveaway Rules
– Giveaway ends at 11:59pm EST on August 8th. You must be 18 or older to enter.
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Trial on Mount Koya

Monday, August 06, 2018

The Sea Queen by Linnea Hartsuyker, a tale of Viking-era Norway

The “sea queen” is Svanhild Eysteinsdotter, a strong-willed woman with a difficult path ahead. In ninth-century Norway, six years after events in The Half-Drowned King (2017), Svanhild loves the seafaring life she led with her husband, the raider Solvi, but knows her intellectually-minded son’s needs take priority.

Alongside their marital strife, Solvi pursues revenge against Harald, Norway’s king. He’s not alone. Throughout the country and elsewhere, disaffected exiles and noblemen resentful of Harald’s taxes rise up against him. Svanhild’s brother, Ragnvald, king of Sogn, is Harald’s loyal man, and as pockets of rebellion join forces, helping Harald achieve a united Norway becomes increasingly dangerous.

Although less action-oriented than its predecessor, this second in the Golden Wolf Saga captures the era’s warlike atmosphere, where blood-feuds last generations; an early incident of stark brutality haunts Ragnvald long afterward. Through her multi-faceted characters, Hartsuyker adeptly evokes female alliances, the complications of love and passion, and vengeance both terrible and triumphant. She juggles many subplots and settings effectively, with scenes moving from Norway’s harsh, picturesque coast to sulfurous Iceland and Dublin’s muddy harbor.

The Sea Queen will be published by Harper on August 14th. I wrote this review for Booklist's August issue. I also reviewed the first book last year and look forward to reading the final installment, The Golden Wolf, next summer.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

The Haunts of London: Jeri Westerson's medieval mystery The Deepest Grave

In his entertaining 11th adventure, Crispin Guest, known throughout late 14th-century London as the Tracker, has his hands full with two perplexing cases.

The first is rather grisly: Father Bulthius of St. Modwen’s asks him to investigate the “demon’s march” of corpses from the graveyard. The dead are supposedly unearthing themselves and dragging their coffins around after dark. Crispin can hardly believe it until he visits the parish church and sees a shadowy figure carrying a heavy object, and then the empty grave. Something mysterious is clearly afoot. His apprentice, Jack Tucker, a devout lad, is too creeped out to be enthusiastic about their venture but dutifully follows where his master leads.

In the second instance, Crispin receives a note from an old lover, Philippa Walcote, who’s now a prosperous mercer’s wife. Her seven-year-old son, Christopher, is accused of murdering his father’s neighbor and competitor; even worse, the boy confessed to the crime. With nowhere else to turn, Philippa requests Crispin’s help.

The novel offers a compelling balance of situations and emotions. There are some hilarious moments spurred by Jack’s reluctance to go skulking about amongst the graves (who can blame him?). Crispin, a disgraced knight and longtime bachelor, also broods a bit about his unusual household. Jack and his wife, Isabel, are living at Crispin’s place and are expecting their first child imminently, and Crispin is sort-of-but-not-quite a member of Jack’s growing family. Both his home life, and meeting Philippa and her son, leave Crispin pondering what might have been.

Westerson wonderfully evokes the streets, taverns, and other haunts of medieval London, when the city’s outskirts were still rural, as well as period mentalities (among other mysteries, a religious relic appears to have a mind of its own). Crispin’s backstory is woven in so well that newcomers won’t feel lost, either.

The Deepest Grave is published today by Severn House; thanks to the publisher for NetGalley access. I reviewed the novel for August's Historical Novels Review.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Interview with Lisa Jensen, author of the historical fairy-tale retelling Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge

Lisa Jensen, who I'd spoken with in 2014 about her historical fantasy Alias Hook, has returned to the literary scene with another new twist on a familiar story. The original fairy tale upon which Beast is based should be apparent from the title, but this isn't the familiar Beauty and the Beast story we all know; tweaking the perspective makes all the difference. Opening long before "Beauty" comes on the scene, Beast is seen through the eyes of a young chambermaid, Lucie. Soon after she comes to work at Château Beaumont, home of the handsome chevalier Jean-Loup, a terrible event spurs her to take revenge — resulting in dramatic transformations involving Lucie, the cruel Jean-Loup, and a beautiful young woman named Rose. The story is set in early 17th-century Burgundy, France, and is geared toward mature YAs and up.  Please read on!

Your previous novel Alias Hook took a new look at the story of Peter Pan, while Beast reworks the traditional Beauty and the Beast fairy tale in new and creative ways. What appeals to you about recasting old stories in a different light?

It usually arises out of my dissatisfaction with the original, and my craving as an author to rewrite it! I always found Captain Hook far more interesting than Peter Pan, so in Alias Hook, I wanted to explore what it must be like for a grown man to be trapped eternally in a world run by beastly little boys.

In the same way, I always adored the Beast character in Beauty and the Beast. But the moment all thinking women dread is when the magnificent, noble Beast turns into a bland, boring handsome prince in the end. Beast does all the work of wooing Beauty. It's Beast she falls in love with. Why should the Prince get the girl?

I thought Beast, in all his soulfulness and sensitivity, deserved to be the hero in his own tale.

While Beast is set in France’s Burgundy region during the reign of “Henri Quatre,” it also successfully conveys the timeless nature of the fairy-tale realm. How and why did you choose the historical period?

Beauty-and-Beast tales (and many other so-called Animal Bridegroom tales) have been around at least since the Greeks. But this particular fairy tale is very French in origin. The first version to be written down was by a French authoress, Mme. de Villeneuve, and published in 1740. It was a bit long and rambling, but the essence of the story was there. A shorter, streamlined adaptation was published by another Frenchwoman, Mme. de Beaumont, in 1757. This is the version of the tale we recognize today.

I had spent some time in the Burgundy region of France, so that was the area I picked. I discovered that everything in rural France looks like a fairy tale, even today! And I decided to use the Henri Quatre period (short window though it was), ca. 1600, because I wanted my book to take place at least 100 years before those other published editions. I think of mine as the origin story from which all future versions of this tale might have evolved.

How did you research the historical setting and locale?

Backwards! I started out with the date, working backwards from the publication dates of those first two version of the story. Then I studied up on what was going on in France around that time. Eh, voila — Henri the Fourth, quite an interesting character in his own right. I decided that my Prince character, Jean-Loup, Chevalier de Beaumont, had earned his knighthood fighting with Henri, then the Prince of Navarre, against the Spanish invaders. And since I was already familiar with the villages and churches of Burgundy, that's where I chose to place the enchanted chateau.

Servants can make insightful narrators; they can observe everything around them while their behavior and feelings often go unobserved by people from the upper classes. At what point during the writing process did you realize that Lucie the chambermaid, rather than Beauty/Rose, had to be the heroine for the story you wanted to tell?

My idea was always to create a heroine worthy of Beast, another woman on the scene who had the sense to fall in love with Beast as he was. So it couldn't be the Beauty character, who is so willing to forget the Beast she says she loves and waltz off with the Prince, a complete stranger! And I always knew the story would be told from Lucie's viewpoint, my protagonist, as we watch her evolve from lowly servant into heroine.

In my story, Beauty (Rose) is more like the antagonist. When she comes to the chateau, the traditional fairy tale plot kicks in. Her appearance interrupts the relationship beginning to develop between Lucie and Beast, and when Lucie realizes Rose has the power to break the spell that created Beast — that Lucie might lose him forever — she'll do anything to try and stop it!

Not to give too much away, but some of the action is seen from the viewpoint of a candlestick. How easy/fun, or how complicated, was it to place her in locations where she could see what was happening?

It was a challenge, but it was also fun! This character narrates the story, in and out of human form, so I had to keep that voice consistently strong from page to page — even during the time the character is inanimate. And the sheer necessity of moving the character around to comment on the action led to some serendipitous moments — as when the silver candlestick is stolen, prompting Beast's enraged reaction! Why does Beast get so angry when the old man plucks a rose from his garden? Now we know!

What was the experience like in writing your first book for a younger audience?

Originally, I wrote this book for adults. I wanted some distance from the fairy tale we all think we remember from childhood, to create a new perspective, a new way of looking at the story. But, as it turned out, a YA editor fell in love with the book and bought it for Candlewick Press. We spent two years editing it to make it age-appropriate (my editor, the intrepid Kaylan Adair, is very thorough). But be warned: there are still so many ways my book is not the Disney Version!

Thanks very much, Lisa!

Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge was published this month in hardcover and ebook by Candlewick Press.

Monday, July 23, 2018

An uneasy inheritance: Rahna Reiko Rizzuto's Shadow Child, set in mid-20th-century America and Japan (plus US/Can giveaway)

Rahna Reiko Rizzuto’s second novel has a terrific opening – a small masterpiece of plot and atmosphere – that elicits many questions. The mystery surrounding their answers unspools over the course of this multi-layered, moody, occasionally meandering work.

Sometime in the early 1970s, Hanako (Hana) Swanson returns late to her barren NYC apartment. She expects to find her twin sister, Keiko (Kei), from whom she’s been estranged for six years, waiting for her. Kei had insisted on flying to see Hana, saying she needed to give her a promised inheritance from their mother. What Hana finds, though, is her sister lying in the bathtub, unconscious and bruised. This makes Hana remember seeing a shadowy man in the lobby, someone who did a double-take upon seeing her. Who was he, and was he Kei's attacker?

The sisters had grown up together in a remote Hawaiian village. Hana was known as the good, responsible one, while Kei was the rebel. Their loving mother, Miya, was prone to odd fevers and episodes of mental instability, while their stepfather, Arnie, proved a steadying influence. The girls, whose mirror-image, “hapa haole” (part-white) appearance sets them apart, were once very close, but their interests diverged, and then a tragic incident involving a cave broke their bond for good.

While desperate to learn what happened to her sister, Hana fears revisiting the past. She tells of bearing physical and mental scars testifying to the trauma she suffered.

The plot vibrates with tension throughout. Rizzuto increases the suspense by interspersing Hana’s segments, in which she remembers her unusual childhood, with those of a newlywed named Lillie in California beginning in 1942. Abandoned as a baby, and raised by white parents, Lillie is an American of Japanese ancestry who has just married Donald, a man of similar heritage.

Lillie's dreams of starting married life on the East Coast are set aside when Donald insists that they join his parents in Los Angeles. In the days after Pearl Harbor, however, anyone of Japanese appearance falls under suspicion by the government, and even by former neighbors and friends. “She was a Jap now,” Lillie thinks, and her sudden realization feels piercing: “She’d become an enemy alien, when she had always only been herself.” Not knowing how to speak Japanese, and restricted from travel, Lillie feels trapped.

The question of identity, which sits at the novel’s heart, is an issue that all three women struggle with. How do society’s views affect who you are? If you grow up as the mirror image of someone else, how can your individuality flourish? In the case of Lillie and her daughters, how has Lillie’s traumatic past manifested itself in Hana and Kei, and what is Hana withholding from her narrative? It’s always clear that Lillie and Miya are the same person, and the reason for her transformation, and the identity of the twins’ father, is resolved in a realistic way by the end.

The settings are as vividly rendered as the characters’ psychologies: impersonal and crowded New York City, a small-town Hawaii untouched by tourism, the internment camp at Manzanar, and places darker still, following Lillie’s arrival in unfamiliar Japan. The chapters told from the viewpoint of “Koko” (both girls together, using a nickname created from their own names) are confusing, but effective all the same.

Recommended as a unique look at sisterhood, the aftermath of trauma, and the careful path these women travel to find healing and acceptance.

Shadow Child was published by Grand Central/Hachette in May; I received an ARC from a Shelf Awareness giveaway.

Thanks to the publisher, I have the opportunity to offer a giveaway for readers in the US and Canada: two hardcover copies are up for grabs. Please fill out the form below for a chance to win. One entry per household; void where prohibited. Deadline Sunday, July 29.

Update: The giveaway is over.  Congrats to Canadian readers Linda and Judith!  Your books are on the way.

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Russian Revolution, as seen through 12 historical novels

This year (tomorrow, to be exact) marks a century since the execution of Russia's tsar, Nicholas II, and his family in 1918, following the Russian Revolution. Novels set during this tense, violent, chaotic period continue to fascinate for their depictions of a country's history, up-close and wrenchingly personal, during a time of great change. Following are a dozen works of historical fiction set during the period, both new/upcoming and older. Their viewpoints range from Romanov family members and aristocrats whose opulent world falls apart, to ordinary Russians empowered by revolutionary fervor, to men and women simply trying to survive the times as best they can.  Listed below the cover are the perspective each book conveys.

Leonka Sednyov was the kitchen boy who fled from the Romanov family's house of captivity in Ekaterinburg and was one of the last to see them alive; a multi-period mystery. Viking, 2003. [see on Goodreads]

Katya Vogt, a young woman from a Mennonite farming family on the Russian steppes, sees the social order in the country torn apart. Milkweed, 2004. [see on Goodreads]

St. Petersburg's chief police investigator looks into a couple's brutal murder in winter 1917, during the last days of imperial Russia and the immediate lead-up to the revolution. Doubleday, 2003. [see on Goodreads]

This upcoming novel centers on sisters Militza and Anastasia, both Princesses of Montenegro, who are fascinated by the occult and are responsible for bringing Rasputin into the imperial family's circle. Head of Zeus, Aug 2018; also to be published by HarperCollins in the US, Jan. 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Marina Makarova, daughter of a bourgeois St. Petersburg family, falls in love with a Bolshevik poet and observes (and takes part in) many other dramatic events of the time. Little, Brown, 2017. [see on Goodreads] [see my review]

Follett incorporates a variety of viewpoints in this blockbuster epic of WWI and the Russian Revolution: aristocrats, soldiers, ordinary workers, and many more. [see on Goodreads] [see my review]

Grand Duchess Olga, eldest daughter of Nicholas and Alexandra, falls in love with a soldier (a fictional episode) in the days preceding her family's downfall.  Out of print and first published in the 1970s, but worth seeking out. [see on Goodreads]

Maria Feodorovna, who became the mother of Nicholas II, narrates her tumultuous life story, from her youth as a Danish princess through her marriage to the imperial heir and the fall of the Romanov dynasty. Ballantine, July 2018. [see on Goodreads]

Gerty Freely, a young woman in Edwardian England, travels to Moscow to become a middle-class family's governess and gets caught up in the upheaval as the country descends into revolution.  Faber, 2016. [see on Goodreads]

Grand Duchess Anastasia and Anna Anderson, who claimed Anastasia's identity, are the two protagonists (or sole protagonist?) of this multi-stranded historical thriller with the themes of identity and hope. Doubleday, March 2018. [see on Goodreads]

In 1916, Sashenka Zeitlin, an impressionable teenager from a well-off Jewish family, leaves her parents' beliefs behind and joins the Bolshevik movement as a spy, a decision with severe repercussions decades later. Simon & Schuster, 2008. [see on Goodreads]

Mathilde Kschessinska, the petite star of the Russian Imperial Ballet who became mistress to the last tsar, Nicholas II, looks back on her life at age 99.  FSG, 2010. [see my review] [see on Goodreads]

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Charles Finch's The Woman in the Water, a prequel to his long-running Victorian detective series

In this engrossing prequel to the Charles Lenox mysteries, set in 1850, Finch’s amiable aristocratic hero is not yet the distinguished Parliamentarian and private detective who will feature in ten more full-length novels. He has the same brilliantly deductive mind that will serve him well in the future but, as a 23-year-old Oxford grad, he lacks maturity and life experience and is wise enough to know it.

Living in a flat on London’s St. James’s Square, Lenox and his valet, Graham, spend their days clipping crime-related articles from newspapers and seeking patterns that may lead to an initial case. He gets his break after spying a pretentious letter to the editor from a writer bragging about committing the perfect crime. When Lenox spots connections others don’t, and links the letter to the month-old discovery of a woman’s body from a waterlogged trunk, Scotland Yard finally starts paying attention.

This novel offers many pleasures, not least of which is the opportunity to puzzle out the solution to this intricate mystery alongside Lenox. Although as a baronet’s second son, he’s a privileged sort who has no material wants, he swiftly gains the reader’s sympathy. Aside from a few close friends, his social circle thinks he’s crazy for wanting to pursue a career at all, while experienced policemen joke about the “young inspector” and his sidekick valet (it doesn’t help that Lenox pronounces that word with a hard “t”). Lenox is also desperately in love with a female friend, and realized this much too late.

Gently wry humor emerges through Lenox’s banter with Graham, and in how he evades his redoubtable housekeeper’s lengthy to-do list. On the serious side, Lenox faces devastating family news and the emotional impact of a real-life murder investigation. Both newcomers and series regulars should find themselves drawn in.

The Woman in the Water was published by Minotaur, the mystery imprint of St. Martin's Press, in February; I reviewed it for May's Historical Novels Review.

The nice thing about prequels to lengthy series (this is the 1st or 11th, depending on how you look at it) is that if you prefer to read in chronological order, you can easily start here. I've reviewed a number of other books in the series, as follows, plus the author contributed a guest post, When Did the Victorians Drink Their Tea?, back in 2014.

Gone Before Christmas, a mystery short story (2017)
Home By Nightfall (2015)
The Laws of Murder (2014)

Macmillan's website says Finch's upcoming mystery, The Vanishing Man, will be the 2nd in a prequel trilogy. I can't wait.

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Frances McNamara's Death at the Selig Studios, a mystery set amid Chicago's early film industry

The show must go on, as the saying goes – and the “film people” in McNamara’s seventh Emily Cabot mystery take this to extremes, to the heroine’s bafflement.

In this entry, set in 1909, Emily is in her thirties, a married mother of two and lecturer at the University of Chicago. Series regulars, like her friends Detective Whitbread and policeman “Fitz” Fitzgibbons, play major roles, as do the colorful personalities involved with the Selig Polyscope Company, a prominent American motion picture studio at the time. Emily gets drawn into their orbit after learning that her younger brother Alden, to her shock and dismay, is accused of shooting a man to death on the set. Almost as bad, in Emily’s eyes, is that he’d quietly left his job at the Tribune to pen scripts for “Colonel” Selig.

The plot rattles along nicely and is a fine introduction to the film industry’s little-known Windy City roots. While trying to teach her old-enough-to-know-better brother about responsibility and extricate him from a murder charge, Emily and her star-struck children get up close and personal (sometimes too much) with the “pantomimists,” their romantic predicaments, and the secrets they try to hide. The victim, Mr. Hyde, was a censor, and both Chicago’s mayor and Col. Selig seem to want to downplay the crime – the investigations may hold up production – which incenses Emily.

Fictional characters mingle with real-life silent film actors, and since many of the latter are no longer famous names, readers may not realize which is which until they read the helpful afterword. Along the way, Emily visits the sets of The Wizard of Oz, in its earliest surviving version, and two wildlife adventure flicks with real lions and leopards (animal lovers should be alerted about one distressing scene).

There’s a multitude of suspects and no obvious perpetrator; this mystery gets the job done. The only drawback is Emily's attitude. The film-industry setting means she’s out of her element (as the author’s afterword admits): as a progressive social reformer, she has zero appreciation for celluloid “fakery.” She’s occasionally rude to her friends and abrupt with family members, and her overall mood is grumpy. Hopefully by the next volume, her planned vacation to Woods Hole will have restored her good spirits.

Frances McNamara's Death at the Selig Studios is published by Allium Press of Chicago in May; thanks to the publisher for sending a copy at my request.

Here are my reviews of two earlier books in the series:

Death at Hull House, book one, set in 1893.
Death at Pullman, book two, set in 1894.

Monday, July 02, 2018

Interview with E.M. Powell, author of the medieval mystery The King's Justice - plus giveaway

E.M. Powell's latest work of historical crime, The King's Justice, takes place in a Yorkshire village in 1176, during Henry II's reign. Charged with solving a brutal murder are the traveling royal clerk Aelred Barling, who prides himself on his organization and efficiency, and his reluctant assistant, Hugo Stanton.  The local lord claims to have found the culprit, but Hugo isn't so sure. If you loved and still miss the medieval novels of Diana Norman/Ariana Franklin, you'll want to seek out this first in a new series. It combines a gritty murder mystery, unpredictable plotting, intriguing characters, and a wonderful dry wit. I'll be on board for book two, The Monastery Murders, which has a Sept 2018 release date.

Hugo Stanton made his first appearance in your initial series. What inspired you to create a more prominent role for him in The King’s Justice?

The original inspiration came from my publisher, Thomas & Mercer, who are the crime/thriller/mystery imprint of Amazon Publishing. I am extremely fortunate in that as well as working with me on current projects, they also take a great deal of time to discuss future ideas with me. They said that they loved the 12th century world I wrote in for my Fifth Knight medieval thriller novels and wondered if I had ever thought of doing a spin-off series. I hadn’t, but it was a tremendously exciting idea. They told me to go away and have a think and gave me the luxury of time to do so.

That ‘think’ consisted of a great deal of research to see if I could find something that would work for me as a writer as well as the many (wonderful!) people who buy and read my books. And I found the golden nugget. I found that King Henry II reformed the English legal system. He introduced a travelling law court, where his justices would travel the country, hearing cases where the most serious felonies had been committed: robbery, theft—and murder. The dates worked perfectly.

I then wrote up a list of every single character that had appeared in the Fifth Knight series. I had killed off quite a few but there was one stand-out candidate: Hugo Stanton, the young messenger who wasn’t at all a hero but who found the courage to step up when it really mattered.

The laid-back Stanton was teamed up with a new character, the prickly royal clerk, Aelred Barling. I had my pair of sleuths ready to go and investigate murder and mayhem, the first being the brutal murder of a village smith. Fortunately, my publisher really liked the product of my thinking and so The King's Justice was born.

The viewpoint alternates between Stanton and his superior, the clerk Aelred Barling, and their personalities are pretty different. How did you decide on this structure? Did you find either of them easier to work with as a character?

A historical crime novel is still a crime novel. That requires just as much attention as the historical side. Many crime and mystery novels are written in the first person, with one main investigator. While I’m very fond of Stanton, he isn’t an obvious hero. Neither would have he been important enough in medieval society to carry the full weight of the law. I needed a second sleuth who was. So I created the dry, fussy, procedurally-obsessed Aelred Barling. My personal preference is to write deep third person Point of View, and with these two I can switch back and forth. I mentioned being fond of Stanton, but I’m far fonder of Barling. I share many more traits with him—we both like our books, our quiet, our order, our peace and quiet. I suspect my nearest and dearest would say I’m just as irritable as him as well!

I admit I'm partial to Barling as well!  How do you get into the mindset of people living and working in 12th-century England?

The simple answer that every writer of historical fiction would give: research, research, research. We historical writers have to create a credible, believable world and part of that is the mindset of the characters who inhabit it. To get it right, it’s a case of months and months of research. Much of it is reading reliable academic work on the time period and offering up thanks for every knowledgeable historian who has chosen to publish a book that relates to my era. There’s also the joy of trudging through muddy fields to look at yet another 12th century castle, with the long-suffering family in tow.

It’s great that there are many fellow obsessives out there as well. I’ve had lots of contact with re-enactors, those wonderful folk who spend their time recreating 12th century life. They recreate weapons, food, clothing, you name it and are always willing to talk about it. Even better, I can get my hands on it, too.

author E.M. Powell
The novel delves deeply into the legal system and reforms of Henry II, showing them from multiple angles (in the initial scene with the ordeal in particular, the title seemed a bit ironic!). What fascinates you about this subject?

Like Aelred Barling, I find the process of the law utterly fascinating, be that 12th century law or 21st century law. As for Henry’s imposition of law and order, it truly was a novelist’s gift. The King's Justice opens with men accused of a murder who are proclaiming their innocence in a murder case. Forget prosecution and defence lawyers. One way of establishing guilt was to make the accused face the ordeal of water. The accused was tied up and thrown into a pit filled with water. Said water had already been blessed. If the accused sank, they were innocent. If guilty, they floated. It was believed that God had judged them. And if guilty, they were taken from the water and hanged. The King’s punishment for thieves was to have a foot and a hand chopped off. I don’t think many of us today would see this as an acceptable system, but it worked for Henry. Thanks to his travelling justices, he could ensure that that system could reach every corner of his realm.

The story takes many twists that I found hard to predict, which was great. Just when I thought the solution was leaning in one direction, suddenly things changed. When you’re writing, do you know in advance how you want the resolution to come about, or do you find the storyline developing as you go?

Those words are music to a mystery writer’s ears: twists, turns and unpredictability are our Holy Grail! I do know of writers who set off with a story and see where it takes them. That approach has me hyperventilating. I’m a plotter, through and through. I have recently discovered Scrivener, which is simply the best writing tool that I have ever come across. One of the marvellous things about it is that I can write what is essentially two novels in one, which is really what a mystery is. The first is the story of the murderer(s): the Secret Plot. The second is the novel as readers read it on the page. That’s Stanton and Barling’s story, where they’re trying to solve the crime. Fortunately for me, they do!

Thanks very much for answering my questions!

The King's Justice is published in June 2018 by Thomas & Mercer/Amazon Publishing in paperback and ebook (288pp).

About the Author:

E.M. Powell’s historical thriller Fifth Knight novels have been #1 Amazon and Bild bestsellers. The King’s Justice is the first novel in her new Stanton and Barling medieval murder mystery series. She is a contributing editor to International Thriller Writers’ The Big Thrill magazine, blogs for English Historical Fiction Authors and is the social media manager for the Historical Novel Society. Born and raised in the Republic of Ireland into the family of Michael Collins (the legendary revolutionary and founder of the Irish Free State), she now lives in North-West England with her husband, daughter and a Facebook-friendly dog. Find out more by visiting You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.


During the Blog Tour we will be giving away 6 paperback copies of The King’s Justice! To enter, please enter via the Gleam form below.

Giveaway Rules:
– Giveaway ends at 11:59pm EST on July 13th. You must be 18 or older to enter.
– Giveaway is open INTERNATIONALLY.
– 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!

The King's Justice

Monday, June 25, 2018

Highland Sisters by Anne Douglas, an unpredictable Edwardian Scottish romantic saga

Set in the Scottish Highlands and Edinburgh as the Edwardian era winds down, Douglas’s concise yet engaging romantic novel follows a young woman’s path to fulfillment and illustrates the pain of unrequited love. Lorne Malcolm’s decision to run away with her employer’s son on her wedding morning shocks her older sister, Rosa, and devastates her fiancé, Daniel MacNeil. A housemaid in Inverness, Rosa can’t comprehend Lorne’s self-centeredness, especially since handsome Daniel is quite a catch. Some months later, when Daniel begins courting Rosa, she is thrilled but wary; in his proposal, he asks her to help him forget Lorne, which isn’t the most promising beginning.

They marry and move into a big-city tenement, and the story is sympathetic toward Rosa, left alone all day while Daniel works. Her pursuit of a job outside the home gives her purpose but adds complications to their marriage, since Daniel proves resistant, and she still isn’t certain of his love. The theme of women’s early 20th-century roles figures strongly. Despite some repetitive descriptions, the plotline is eventful and pleasingly unpredictable. Douglas evokes period mores through her characters’ personalities and actions: they may not discuss their feelings openly but yearn for happiness all the same.

Highland Sisters was published by Severn House in 2018. Anne Douglas is a bestselling Scottish novelist who has set many novels in Scotland in the early 20th century (this is the first I've read). I wrote this review for February's Historical Novels Review based on a NetGalley copy.

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!


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.


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!

Update, 6/28: The giveaway is over. Congrats to Sarah N, and thanks to all who entered!

Saturday, June 16, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 11, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 07, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sunday, June 03, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 31, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 28, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.


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.


Mary Anne Lewis is a former journalist, a historical fiction fan, and the blog mistress of  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.