Thursday, January 17, 2019

Espionage in full color: The Blue by Nancy Bilyeau, set in 18th-century England and France

“… Color is the next field of battle in the porcelain wars. He who is able to produce the most porcelain in this new revolutionary color of blue will control the market.”

As we learn in The Blue, the color blue surrounds us in the natural world – the sea and the sky, for example – but is surprisingly difficult to capture in physical form. The quest to create a chemically stable form of deep blue for use in art and textiles lasted for centuries. In the 1750s, when this story takes place, delicate porcelain creations are in great demand in high society. If porcelain designs could be painted with this new shade of blue, it would be a lucrative triumph for the firm to accomplish it first.

Nancy Bilyeau has taken a fascinating footnote from the annals of international commerce and transformed it into a captivating story of espionage, obsession, and love. A twenty-something resident of Spitalfields parish in late 1750s London, Genevieve Planché unexpectedly finds herself at the epicenter of the race to develop this elusive blue.

Genevieve is a woman of her time yet with enough feminine spunk to also give her viewpoint contemporary resonance. A descendant of French Huguenots who took refuge in England, she holds fast to her Protestant beliefs. She’s also a talented artist, but no one is willing to help her advance in her craft. Her late father’s cousin is a principal at the Derby Porcelain Works, but she fears that spending her days in the dreary act of painting porcelain would stifle her creativity.

However, an encounter with the debonair and sympathetic Sir Gabriel Courtenay creates a new opportunity: if Genevieve accepts the position at Derby, and secretly infiltrates the factory to discover the formula for blue from a chemist there, Sir Gabriel will help her establish an art career in distant Venice. Her employers are suspicious about possible French spies, but her mission proceeds as planned – until she meets the chemist himself, Thomas Sturbridge, who is the antithesis of the stodgy, self-absorbed scientist she expected.

Genevieve is a resourceful creation who proves capable of thinking with her head even when her heart is engaged. As the story twists and deepens, she must make tough decisions to ensure her safety. Along the way, readers experience the Huguenots’ delicate situation through her viewpoint. Even two centuries after the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the Huguenots have never forgotten the deadly persecution they faced. With England and France now engulfed in the Seven Years War, Genevieve – with her French name and heritage – must continually defend her loyalty to her birthplace of England, to her chagrin, and despite her revulsion for the French king.

Not only does The Blue cover fresh ground in a genre that often returns to the same well-trodden subjects, but it’s plain fun to read. Historical fiction readers are in for an exciting treat.

The Blue was published by Endeavour Quill in 2018; I read it from a personal purchase and coordinated the review to be published during the author's blog tour.

Giveaway: During the Blog Tour we will be giving away an eBook of The Blue by Nancy Bilyeau! To enter, please use the Gleam form below.

Giveaway Rules:
– Giveaway ends at 11:59pm EST on January 18th. 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.

The Blue

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Historical fiction cover trend for 2019: bold colors that pop!

In putting together another visual preview post for 2019, I came upon some historical novel covers with bright colors and designs that refuse to be ignored.  And then I found a few more.  Here are ten, below.  You can make almost a full rainbow with all of these.  What do you think - does the effect work on you?  Just the settings and the book's publishers are listed below... head on over to Goodreads for more.

A family saga set during the Depression-era Dust Bowl. Central Avenue, June 2019. [see on Goodreads]

A scientific race across Russia in 1914, at the time of a major solar eclipse. Grand Central, May 2019. [see on Goodreads]

A controversial art scandal involving Van Gogh's paintings, set in decadent and dangerous 1920s Berlin. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, July 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Glamour, passion, and coming of age in New York's exciting theater world in the 1940s. Riverhead, June 2019.  [see on Goodreads]

Historical fantasy involving aerial adventure in WWI France; second in a series.  Simon & Schuster, July 2019. [see on Goodreads]

The female divers of the Korean island of Jeju, spanning from the 1930s through 1950s. Scribner, March 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Two American sisters' lives, from the 1950s going forward. June 2019, Atria. [see on Goodreads]

Events from the life of future poet Elizabeth Bishop, during her time in Paris in 1937. Simon & Schuster, June 2019.  [see on Goodreads]

Espionage and scandal in the Bahamas in 1941, when the Duke and Duchess of Windsor are in residence there. William Morrow, July 2019.  [see on Goodreads]

An independent African American woman in small-town North Carolina, between 1941 and the 1980s.  Bloomsbury, June 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

Review of A Murder by Any Name by Suzanne M. Wolfe, first in an Elizabethan spy mystery series

London is drenched with atmosphere and deadly intrigue in this debut entry in a new Elizabethan mystery series.

The time is the 1570s. The body of Lady Cecily Carew, an innocent young lady-in-waiting to the queen, is found spread across the high altar of Whitehall’s Chapel Royal, her limbs arranged as if in effigy. The Honorable Nicholas (Nick) Holt, brother to the Earl of Blackwell and clandestine agent for spymaster Robert Cecil, sees political motivation in the terrible crime, since sweet, trusting Cecily would have had no enemies.

Both he and Queen Elizabeth realize that either the Catholics or the Puritans could try to use the sacrilegious nature of the murder to discredit her and throw her reign into chaos. With the assistance of two friends, a Jewish brother and sister who saved his life in Spain, and the protection of his shaggy companion, an Irish wolfhound named Hector, Nick must sort out truth from lies to root out a killer. One immediate clue is an unusual love note found clutched in Cecily’s hand; its tone is more clinical than affectionate.

Nick is a genial, compassionate sort with the capability to move among different strata in society, from the royal court with its oily toadies to the squalid lanes of Bankside, which gives him an advantage. In addition to his noble birth, he’s the proprietor of a tavern, the Black Sheep, which serves to hide his role as undercover spy. The way he goes about his investigation is typical for a mystery of this sort – interviewing different parties as new clues are unveiled – but Wolfe does a good job keeping the culprit (or culprits) concealed until the end. This is the type of historical mystery that lets you sink into the historical setting, though anyone ambling down the street should be attuned to possible surprises from above (gardez loo!).

The stakes are high, not only for Nick, a former Catholic, but also for his physician friends Eli and Rivkah, since anti-Jewish paranoia is rampant. (On that note, anyone knowing their names would be aware of their religion; they can't exactly blend in.) I’m guessing romantic intrigue will play a bigger role in future books. While Nick has a regular bedmate in brothel owner Kat, Rivkah’s beauty and kindness attract him.

Wolfe lightens the mood periodically through gleeful evocation of the era’s repellent odors and colorful curses, of which Elizabeth herself is a master (she “swore like a dosshouse toper” – terms worth the time to look up and note for future use). The author admits that her depiction of the Virgin Queen’s disdain for bathing is exaggerated for comedic effect, but hers isn’t an unflattering portrait overall. Elizabeth is craftily intelligent, and Nick knows never to underestimate her.

In all, it’s well-wrought Tudor entertainment; I’ll be back for book two.

Suzanne M. Wolfe's A Murder by Any Name was published by Crooked Lane in October; thanks to the author for supplying a copy for the blog tour via Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.  See also my earlier review for the author's The Confessions of X, which was a fabulous read set in a completely different period (the 4th century).

During the tour, we will be giving away 3 hardcover copies of A Murder By Any Name! To enter, please use the Gleam form below.

Giveaway Rules:

– Giveaway ends at 11:59pm EST on January 17th. 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 Murder By Any Name

Sunday, January 06, 2019

A dark American heritage: Kent Wascom's The New Inheritors, part of his Gulf Coast quartet

The third in a projected quartet, following Secessia (2015), Wascom’s latest literary saga is his strongest yet. Spanning the years 1890 to 1961, it focuses on two lovers and offers a skillful intermingling of character and place.

After surviving a bizarre, peripatetic Florida childhood, young Isaac is adopted by a caring Mississippi couple. Later, as a reclusive artist, he grows enraptured by Kemper Woolsack, a shipping heiress. However, the coming world war and her brothers’ mutual animosity (Angel is secretly gay; Red is a vicious criminal) disrupt their peaceful lives.

Whether describing the Gulf Coast’s lush vegetation or acts of sudden brutality, Wascom’s writing burns with a raw, elemental power. The story encompasses the era’s white privilege and anti-immigrant stances, letting readers make the contemporary connections, while pondering what it means to be American.

In an inspired move, The Blood of Heaven (2013), the first in Wascom’s series and a Woolsack ancestor's wild, dark narrative, has become his descendants’ origin myth. It all leads to a potent question: Can a family, or country, ever escape the violence in its blood?

The New Inheritors was published in 2018 by Grove; I reviewed it for Booklist last year.  I reviewed The Blood of Heaven back in 2013 (see the link for some additional comments, too).  As a sidenote: I'm not fond of this cover, which seems very generic.