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.

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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