Thursday, February 14, 2019

The Song Peddler of the Pont Neuf by Laura Lebow, a mystery of 1788 Paris

Paul Gastebois, a “confidential inquirer” in Paris of 1788, usually avoids taking on missing person cases. “People in Paris are lost all the time, sometimes on purpose,” he says. Still, he can’t resist the challenge of finding Gaspard Bricon, an elderly man who spent his days singing and selling copies of his songs on the Pont Neuf, the city’s oldest bridge.

One of Gaspard’s good friends is worried, and Paul feels touched by his concern. Besides, Paul’s well-paying gig of tailing a rich young Austrian diplomat around Paris for the police is pretty dull, and this new case fires up his curiosity. His search takes him to Gaspard’s lodgings, where a piece of crumpled parchment leads him to assume the song peddler was involved in high-level political blackmail.

The author’s skillful plotting keeps readers guessing as the mystery expands and transforms during Paul’s investigations through many Parisian neighborhoods. Our detective’s background is equally interesting; his younger sister Aimée is an apprentice seamstress, his brother is a churchman, and Paul had evaded his late father’s plans for him to join the butcher’s trade, preferring a career independent of the guilds (and smelly animal carcasses).

Lebow sets her series opener not in the popular French Revolutionary era but the less familiar time beforehand, and she incorporates the details to good effect. Louis XVI has agreed to convene the Estates General for the first time in over 170 years, and the commoners—who have grown more numerous and prosperous—place their hopes in finance minister Jacques Necker for fair representation and tax reform. Despite some people’s guarded optimism, there’s a fierce underground trade in scurrilous pamphlets, and Paul gets enmeshed in learning more about that risky business, too. Multifaceted characters, abundant local color, and dashes of wit (one of Paul’s disguises is laugh-out-loud funny) add to the appeal of this diverting mystery.

The Song Peddler of the Pont Neuf was published by Settocento Press in 2018; I reviewed it for February's Historical Novels Review.  Fortunately, it appears to be first in a new series.  The author's debut novel, The Figaro Murders, also stands out for its well-depicted original setting of 1780s Vienna.

Monday, February 11, 2019

A gallery of forthcoming 2019 historical novels set before the 20th century

What I've been finding lately: new historical novels set earlier than the 20th century are getting to be rare beasts. WWII (and to a lesser degree, WWI) is still trending, and fiction evoking the 1950s and '60s is blossoming, too. One advantage of 20th-century settings is that they can seem modern enough to hook in contemporary fiction readers, thus reaching a wide audience beyond the historical fiction crowd.  But what about readers who enjoy, even prefer, an earlier time frame?  This post is for you. 

Here are ten upcoming historical releases, with US publication dates in the first half of 2019, and set at least 119 years in the past.  (Also note: small press and indie novels do a great job of covering pre-20th century eras.  As in past years, I'll be doing a special focus on them in March.)


The Irishman's Daughter by V S Alexander

A young woman and her farming family face hardship during Ireland's Great Hunger in 1845 County Mayo.  Kensington, Feb 26th. [see on Goodreads]


The Almanack by Martine Bailey

In looking into the mystery of her mother's drowning death, a young woman in 18th-century England discovers curious notes she'd left in her almanack.  Severn House, May. [see on Goodreads]

Courting Mr Lincoln by Louis Bayard

A literary portrait of the young Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois, in the 1840s, seen through the eyes of his future wife, Mary Todd, and his best friend, Joshua Speed.  Algonquin, April. [see on Goodreads]


An Unconditional Freedom by Alyssa Cole

The third book in Cole's award-winning Loyal League series follows a newly freed Black man, an enterprising young woman, and their dangerous lives as covert spies for the Union during the Civil War. Kensington, February 29. [see on Goodreads]


The Parting Glass by Gina Marie Guadgnino

Mary Ballard, a lady's maid to wealthy Charlotte Walden in 1820s New York City, holds many secrets, including her Irish heritage and her secret passion for her mistress.  Atria, March. [see on Goodreads]


Woman 99 by Greer Macallister

A young woman in late 19th-century San Francisco goes undercover in an insane asylum to rescue her sister, who their parents had unjustly placed there.  Sourcebooks, March. [see on Goodreads]


The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse

Heading further back in time, Kate Mosse's newest epic, set in mid-16th-century France during its religious wars, opens as a young woman receives a mysterious note. Minotaur, June. [see on Goodreads]

Blackberry and Wild Rose by Sonia Velton

This debut features two ambitious young women in the Spitalfields district of mid-18th-century London, where Huguenot silk-weavers ply their trade and seek to perfect their designs.  Blackstone, May. [see on Goodreads]


The Lost History of Dreams by Kris Waldherr

A Victorian gothic mystery set in the world of post-mortem photography, romantic poetry, ghosts, and lost love.  Atria, April. [see on Goodreads]


Anna of Kleve by Alison Weir

A new look at Henry VIII's fourth queen, and the newest in Weir's Six Tudor Queens series; the title refers to her as she would have called herself. Ballantine, May. [see on Goodreads]

Friday, February 08, 2019

The Valentine House by Emma Henderson, an Alpine family saga set in 20th-century France

The Valentine house, a wooden chalet overlooking the valley of Hext in the French Alps, is given the Greek name “Arete” (meaning excellence or virtue) by its owner, Sir Anthony Valentine, who built it in the 19th century. Sir Anthony loves the classics, and he also loves the Haute-Savoie region with a near-erotic passion evoked in his private journals. He and his large family travel to Arete to spend their summers, and local farmers greet their British eccentricities with a mix of fascination and resentment.

Their exploits are recounted through the eyes of a French teenager, Mathilde, who becomes a servant at Arete in 1914. A bright peasant girl, her narrative voice is sharp and self-aware. She knows she owes her position to her unattractiveness – Sir Anthony’s wife only hires “uglies,” supposedly to deter his wandering eye – but Mathilde cares “not a jot.”

She’s a delight to spend time with, as she observes the Valentines, befriending their granddaughter, Daisy, and accompanying them on hikes. During her duties, she comes upon a peculiar love letter whose impact she doesn’t recognize until six decades later.

The chapters set in 1976, told in the third person from the viewpoint of George, Daisy’s grandson, lack the liveliness of the earlier sections, but Mathilde carries the story there also. Now a stubborn widow in her seventies, she faces a tough decision. American developers seek a foothold in the region, and Mathilde’s son, Luc, takes their side – but Mathilde holds a secret that may deter his plan. The two timelines eventually join.

The family saga aspect is entertaining, if somewhat drawn out, but it’s a treat to spend time in this remote, beautiful area of France. Mathilde is a great character, and Francophiles will applaud when she cheekily carves a circumflex (arête means “sharp mountain ridge”) into the Valentine house’s written name.

The Valentine House was published by Sceptre (UK) in 2018; I reviewed it for the Historical Novels Review from a personal copy.  I bought it purely based on the historical setting, which turned out to be a good choice.

Monday, February 04, 2019

The Hundred Wells of Salaga examines women's lives and internal slavery in late 19th-c Ghana

Told with the poetic simplicity of a folk tale, but with the rich detail and scope of an epic, The Hundred Wells of Salaga is a memorable read about a little-known historical subject: indigenous slavery in pre-colonial Ghana, and how it affected the lives of two young women and their families. The lives of Aminah, a teenager from the village of Botu, and Wurche, the only daughter of a lesser chief of Kpembe, begin worlds and many miles apart, but their stories come together midway through.

Both heroines are proud and resilient, qualities that carry them through considerable personal turmoil. Aminah, who had used to spend her time daydreaming, selling maasa (millet porridge) to people on the caravan when it passed through Botu, and caring for her younger twin sisters, is taken captive by horsemen along with her siblings and forced to march far from home. The pain and loss she experiences along the way are addressed plainly.

Although she’s part of the Gonja royal family and is accordingly self-assured, Wurche also experiences a loss of freedom after she agrees to marry a prince of Dagbon to seal an alliance. After Wurche’s father sees an opening to seize power for himself, infighting among the Gonja people further destabilizes the twin towns of Kpembe and Salaga, which had already been thrown into chaos due to the disruption of the local kola nut trade.

In the late 19th century, Salaga, as we learn, is a center for intra-African trade of all kinds, including that of human beings. The novel’s title alludes to this fact; the water from Salaga’s many wells was used to wash the many slaves brought there for sale. In a Q&A at the end, Attah reveals that her great-great-grandmother had been enslaved and sold at the market at Salaga, but little else is known about her. Aminah’s story is the author’s imagined version of her life, while details about royal women such as Wurche are better documented.

Their journeys are recounted without cliché or stereotype, and the secondary characters are well-rounded also. These include Moro, a slave-trader who seeks a way out of the terrible business, and Helmut, a sympathetic German man. The novel also includes insightful detail on the land’s spoken languages, foods, and religions, including how Islam (which Wurche’s family observes) can be used to establish both order and control over women’s lives.

The novel is just 230 pages long, but it has the heft of a work of much greater length. I recommend it for its insight, smooth readability, and its power of bringing an important aspect of the history of the slave trade to light in fiction.

The Hundred Wells of Salaga is published tomorrow in the US by Other Press, with the beautiful cover art above; it was previously published in Nigeria by Cassava Republic.  Thanks to the publisher for sending me an ARC at my request.