Saturday, May 21, 2016

Grace by Natashia Deón, an affecting novel of freedom and motherhood in the antebellum South

Given the chance, Naomi, a 17-year-old slave in rural Alabama in 1848, would have named her daughter Grace, but she is shot and killed moments after giving birth. In her gripping debut novel, Deón, awarded a PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellowship, among other honors, dramatizes alliances formed by women in a violent place and time with adroit characterizations, a powerful narrative voice, and the propulsive plotting of a suspense novel.

Kept lingering in the afterlife through her love for her daughter, Josey, Naomi tells the story in two intertwined strands. One traces her earlier life via flashbacks, covering her flight to Georgia after a deadly confrontation, her rescue by a female brothel owner with her own secretive past, and her falling in love with a white gambler. In the other, Naomi follows blonde, light-skinned Josey as she grows up before, during, and after emancipation, which hardly brings the liberty the former slaves hope for.

Naomi’s unique situation is movingly evoked: she offers Josey tender maternal advice, which goes unheard, and is unable to protect her from painful realities. Deón stays in control of her complex material, from its clever parallel structure to the women’s psychological reactions to relentless tension. Readers will ache for these strong characters and yearn for them to find freedom and peace.

Grace is officially published by Counterpoint in June (hardcover, $25, 400pp), but Amazon has copies in stock now.  This starred review first appeared in Booklist's April 15th issue.  I was pleased to see, later on, that Kirkus and Publishers Weekly had also published starred reviews.  This is a book that has important things to say about the American past, and it deserves widespread attention.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Accuracy in historical fiction: a guest post by Ashley Sweeney, author of Eliza Waite

In today's guest post, author Ashley Sweeney expands upon a topic familiar to historical fiction writers and readers: getting the facts right.  I'll be posting a review of her debut novel, Eliza Waite, in the near future.


Accuracy in Historical Fiction
Ashley Sweeney

In children’s literature, if a frog and a monkey wear striped pajamas and go on vacation to the moon, we think nothing of it. But give Jean Valjean a cellphone or Jane Eyre a Corvette and poof! Our credibility’s shot.

author Ashley Sweeney
(credit: Karen Mullen Photography)
Back when I was a newbie reporter at a rural weekly newspaper, the Five W’s: Who/What/When/Where/Why ruled first paragraphs. The thinking behind a formulaic style of writing is that if stories must be shortened due to space limitations, all the facts still appear in the story.

And our editor drilled into our heads: Check your facts. And you better get them right. Period.

In literature, authors have the luxury of spreading out details, at times feeding them crumb-by-crumb to readers. All elements are not weighed equally. In character-driven plots, Who or What is vital. In murder mysteries, Why, and its partner How, reigns. Historical fiction draws heavily on Where and When; setting identifies time, place, and mood of the narrative.

And what’s paramount for authors of historical fiction: we can’t make mistakes. We have to check our facts and get them right. Period.

In writing Eliza Waite, I was constantly fact-checking myself. Did matchsticks exist in the late 19th century? Who was president of the U.S. in 1890s? What was the major source of news in the San Juan Islands and Skagway, Alaska at the turn of the last century?

Where did women go for female hysteria treatments? When was The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde published? Why did tens of thousands of men and women drop out of their lives to search for elusive gold in the Klondike?

And how did women cook and bake without any modern conveniences?

I amassed more than 100 books on various subjects pertinent to the era and turned to librarians, historians, museum curators, authors, and storytellers to fill in holes. Of course the Internet was a constant companion.

I encountered surprises while researching, including the fact that Skagway was electrified before most of the United States. A.F. Eastman founded Skagway Electric Light Company in the fall of 1897. Within months, Alaska Electric Light and Power Company, which traced its roots to 1893 Juneau, appeared in Skagway in competition. By the summer of 1898 at the height of the Klondike Gold Rush, the companies dueled for customers and Skagway’s streetlights, hotels, and businesses were illuminated.

The fact that Skagway was electrified allowed my protagonist—a baker at Skagway’s The Moonstone Café—to marvel over the new-fangled invention.

What wonders will this new electric invention open up? It won’t be long before kitchens are electrified! Electric lights! Electric mixers! Maybe even electric ovens!

But imagine if I had my protagonist driving a Jeep or arriving in Alaska by air in 1898 rather than by steamship from Seattle. I’d certainly get bad reviews or be booted out of historical novel associations. Or worse. I might be tarred and feathered. Or—heaven forbid!—put in the stocks.

Ashley Sweeney is the author of Eliza Waite, published in May 2016 by She Writes Press.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Reporting back on the historical fiction at #BEA2016 in Chicago

I'm just back from BEA in Chicago, which was convenient for me; it's a 3-hour drive, so it didn't involve the usual flight and mailing of books back home.  I had a good time and met up with many friends, librarian colleagues, publisher contacts, and my editor at Booklist.  However, the show was noticeably smaller.  Many publishers, both large and small, decided not to exhibit this year, and the level of energy didn't seem as high.  Some of the booths felt cramped, with little room to move around if someone else was there browsing. These days, having a BEA outside of NYC has its consequences.

I went representing the Historical Novels Review and picked up a number of galleys (and some finished books) that will end up in reviewers' hands.  Others, the signed copies in particular, I got just for me!  Because I had a plan of which historical novels would be available when, I did my best to stick to it and mostly succeeded, although I didn't make it to events late in the day.  Standing on carpeted concrete for an entire day doesn't agree with my back, and by mid-afternoon, I was exhausted.

Here are some piles that I brought back with me.  Rather than repeat myself, I'll link back to the guide to historical novels at BEA 2016 because blurbs for the majority can be found there.  There were some nice surprises, too, books I didn't expect would be there.  Details below on those.

Beth Powning's A Measure of Light (Penguin Canada, March) is biographical fiction about 17th-century Quaker Mary Dyer, who repeatedly defied Puritan authorities.
Kerri Maniscalco's Stalking Jack the Ripper is YA gothic horror, about a lord's daughter with an interest in forensic medicine.  It's out in Sept. from Jimmy Patterson, James Patterson's new children's imprint with Hachette.
These aren't historical fiction but looked interesting:  The Crypt Thief by Mark Pryor is a crime novel set in modern-day Paris, and Robert Olen Butler's Perfume River deals with the aftermath of Vietnam. Daryl W. Bullock's Florence Foster-Jenkins (Overlook) is nonfiction about the world's worst singer, soon to be portrayed in film by Meryl Streep.  Mad Enchantment by Ross King is nonfiction about Monet's painting of the water lilies toward the end of his life.

In this pile, Louis Carmain's Guano (Coach House, Oct. 2015) is a novel about Peruvian independence and lustful adventures in the year 1862.
Taylor Brown's The River of Kings (St. Martin's, March 2017), which was a nice find since it isn't on Amazon yet, is set around the area of Fort Caroline, an early French settlement in 16th century Florida, both centuries ago and in modern periods.
Terry Roberts' That Bright Land (Turner, June) is described as a "southern Gothic thriller" set during the Civil War.
In the Mouth of the Tiger by Derek Emerson-Elliott and Lynette Silver (Sally Milner Publishing, Feb 2015) isn't one I'd come across before.  It's about a young Russian woman's adventures in Singapore and Malaya around the WWII years.  The publisher is Australian.
And Dinitia Smith's The Honeymoon delves into George Eliot's surprising later-in-life marriage and subsequent honeymoon in 1880 Venice.

I picked up some of these at the Friday afternoon speed dating session for librarians, booksellers, and book group leaders, and it was my 3rd year attending this session.  It's one of my favorite events of the show, so I'm kind of upset that I mistakenly left the handout on the table.  Hopefully it will be posted later.

Seeing all these piles, and having some deadlines looming, I'd better get back to reading.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Ambition and deception: Rare Objects by Kathleen Tessaro, set in Depression-era Boston

Maeve Fanning, an educated young Irish American in Depression-era Boston, wants to move forward in life, and aims high. When she gets wind of a sales job at an exclusive antique shop, she bleaches her red tresses to disguise her heritage, calls herself May (“with a y”), and finagles her way into the position. There, under the guidance of the store’s English co-owner, who appreciates her ingenuity, she learns how to gear her pitch to its eccentric, wealthy customers.

However, there’s a problem. Maeve has a scandalous past, one that her mother, a respectable widow, doesn’t know about. During a recent stint in New York City, Maeve worked as a dancer-for-hire, drank too much bootleg gin, and ended up somewhere she can’t ever mention. Just when she’s getting used to her reinvented self, her past surfaces unexpectedly in the form of Diana Van der Laar.

A socialite whose family fortune comes from South African diamonds, Diana may seem like Maeve’s polar opposite, but they become friends, both women concealing the socially unacceptable parts of their lives out of necessity. But Diana is more complex and damaged than Maeve knows, and the deeper Maeve gets into her world, the more she risks losing sight of her goals.

This gutsy, absorbing story about self-deception and belonging is remarkable in its honesty. The settings exude authenticity, both the scenes of immigrant family life in Boston’s North End and upper-crust society parties, which never go as perfectly as its organizers hope.

The story bounces around time-wise in the beginning, and more details on Maeve’s future plans would have been nice. The wanting more of a novel, though, that’s a good sign. Tessaro is a natural storyteller, and her story goes where it needs to without being predictable. The result is a compelling tale that reads like real life.

Rare Objects was published by Harper in hardcover in April ($25.99, 400pp).   The British publisher is Harper UK.  This review appeared in May's Historical Novels Review; I had downloaded an e-galley via Edelweiss over the holidays last year, read the first few pages, and got quickly drawn into the story.

Monday, May 09, 2016

California’s Golden Age of Winemaking, an essay by Kristen Harnisch

In my review of The California Wife, I mentioned being intrigued by Kristen Harnisch's depiction of the characters' winemaking business; you don't often get to see the inner workings of the wine trade depicted in historical fiction.  In today's guest post, she takes us to northern California in the late 19th century, introducing us to the industry pioneers, the techniques they used to make their businesses thrive, and the hardships they endured along the way.


California’s Golden Age of Winemaking
By Kristen Harnisch, 
author of The Vintner’s Daughter and The California Wife

Most wine lovers are familiar with the Judgment of Paris, the competition arranged forty years ago by wine expert Steven Spurrier between the best French and California wines. In a blind tasting in 1976, France’s foremost wine experts declared two upstart California wines superior to renowned French bottlings from Bordeaux and Burgundy. This event—so colorfully portrayed in the 2008 movie Bottle Shock—established Napa Valley as one of the world’s greatest winemaking regions. What is not commonly known is that the golden age of winemaking in northern California started during the nineteenth century on the heels of the Gold Rush and was in full swing before the dawn of Prohibition.

Regusci historic Occidental winery (est. 1878)

While living in the San Francisco Bay Area and traveling in the Loire Valley of France, I was struck by the beauty of the vineyards and intrigued by how generations of families had battled blight, mildew, rot, and pests to produce fine wines. These vintners approach their work with a centuries-old blend of passion, persistence, art and science. Their dedication sparked the idea for my series about the ambitions of two French-born vintners to establish an American winemaking dynasty at the turn of the twentieth century and set me on a new path of discovery.

The author, biking in Napa
Researching vineyard life in the late 1800s was exciting. Visiting a Loire Valley vineyard and touring historic Napa vineyards by bike and on foot were delightful. I snapped photos of ripening grape clusters, scribbled down notes about historic wineries, sifted the rough, porous clay loam through my fingers, and, of course, sampled the wines! I also delved into French and California history books, read years of nineteenth-century trade papers, consulted a master winemaker, and reviewed old maps and photographs at The Napa County Historical Society. Although I had a vague outline for the novels, my research fueled the stories for The Vintner’s Daughter and The California Wife.

The pioneers and economics of the wine trade in the late 1800s provided a treasure-trove of historical drama for the backdrop of the series. Many who came to California for the gold stayed for the rich soil and climate, so perfect for farming sheep, cows, fruit and vegetables. The first northern California winemakers—notables such as Jacob Schram, Charles Krug, Gustave Niebaum, Georges De Latour, Jacob and Frederick Beringer, the Nichelini family and the founders of the Italian-Swiss Colony in Asti—cultivated the first vineyards and the goal that one day their wines would compete with the finest French and European vintages. Chinese laborers, featured in my first novel, formed the backbone of the viticultural industry of California. After they helped build the railways, they found new work picking, pruning and digging cellars out of limestone with their pickaxes.

Caves dug by the Chinese in the 1870s

Late in the century, as suspicion and racial hatred toward the Chinese grew, Italian and other European immigrant day laborers replaced them in the fields.

As the century progressed, California women traded their kitchen chores for important roles in family-owned winemaking businesses. In 1886, after her husband’s suicide, Josephine Tyschon finished the Tyschon Winery (now the site of Freemark Abbey) and opened with a capacity of 30,000 gallons. She cultivated 55 acres of zinfandel, reisling and burgundy grapes. Her neighbor, Hannah Weinberger, also took over her family’s winery, with a capacity of 90,000 gallons, after her husband’s death. Weinberger won a silver medal at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris for her wine, and was the only woman in California to bring home this prestigious award that year. The strength and determination of Sara Thibault, the heroine of my novels, was drawn from these pioneering women.

Edge of Carneros Vines

Just as California wines started to gain global recognition, catastrophe struck. When the phylloxera—a louse that kills grape vines by sucking them dry of nutrients—hit California in the late 1880s, it laid waste to sixty percent of the Napa vineyards. The less hardy gentleman farmers, who’d purchased vineyards for the prestige of making one’s own wines, abandoned their farms and returned to San Francisco. The natives and more savvy newcomers (like my character Philippe Lemieux) took advantage of the cheap land, replanted with phylloxera-resistant rootstock, and grew bumper crops of grapes within five to seven years.

By the late 1890s, after having suffered through the ravages of the phylloxera, California vintners were determined to protect and bolster their wine industry with scientific innovation and creative ways to brand their wines. Most vintners now preferred gravity-flow wineries, invented in the 1870s, to move the grapes through the winemaking process using gravity instead of hoses. In place of head-trained vines, farmers now planted trellis-trained vines, which allowed for the best balance of sun, shading and air circulation through the vines—and yielded far more grapes.

Veraison (the onset of ripening) of pinot noir grapes in June

As the railway systems improved, vintners shipped their wines to other parts of California and the United States, they opted for the more expensive bottles instead of barrels. Barrels did not offer the advantage of brand identification, and thirsty railway men had been known to drink the wine inside and replace it with water or vinegar. As the supply of wine and eastern demand for it increased, large entities like the California Wine Association refused to pay the grape growers their asking price, and this sparked tensions amid grape growers, who could no longer afford the sky-high labor costs. These price wars drove the price of California wine down, and some of the smaller operations out of business. The largest growers, many who provided sacramental wine to the Catholic Church, also negotiated their own contracts with wine dealers, and found unique ways to thrive during the price wars at the end of the century.

Intertwining this rich era of winemaking with the story of my characters Sara Thibault and Philippe Lemieux was a true joy. Winemaking, I’ve discovered, is very similar to novel writing: it is an exercise in passion, patience and perseverance! Cheers!


The California Wife was published by HarperCollins Canada in February in trade paperback (C$22.99), and the US edition is published by She Writes Press ($17.95) this month. Visit the author's website at

Saturday, May 07, 2016

A return to historic Napa: Kristen Harnisch's The California Wife

Second in a series about a Franco-American winemaking family at the turn of the 20th century, The California Wife presents the next stage in life for its heroine and hero – as well as the next step in the development of their winemaking business. The Vintner’s Daughter (see earlier review) was an enjoyable romantic saga, and this new entry, which spans 1897 to 1906, is even more involving. Harnisch has hit her stride as a writer: the pacing never flags throughout this lengthy novel, and the many trials that Sara and Philippe Lemieux undergo, separately and together, add new layers to their character.

Sara and Philippe, whose families shared a painful history in France’s Loire Valley, get married and settle on their large California vineyard, planning to raise their orphaned nephew as their own. However, Sara’s desires are torn between making Eagle’s Run a success and her obligations toward her beloved vineyard back home. Competition among local winemakers is heating up; so is pressure from prohibitionists.

The story brings readers deeply into the economics of the wine industry – a unique historical fiction subject – as the couple negotiates prices, develops creative sales techniques, and secures buyers in Napa and elsewhere. Philippe’s role as primary supplier of sacramental wine to the local archdiocese causes grumblings, and that’s just one impediment to their financial goals.

Although their love remains strong, their married life is equally turbulent. Operating within a male-dominated field, Sara’s vast wine-growing experience is sometimes downplayed, and Philippe’s former mistress introduces a new complication to their happiness.

Later chapters draw in the viewpoint of Sara’s good friend, Marie Chevreau, an experienced midwife who aspires to become a surgeon – another ambitious woman whose presence complements the growing cast. Readers will enjoy being whisked back in time to Napa’s beginnings as a major wine-producing region, and the stage is set for future adventures with these warm-hearted, ambitious characters.

The California Wife was published by HarperCollins Canada in February in trade paperback (C$22.99), and the US edition is published by She Writes Press ($17.95) this month.  The review copy was sent to me by the Canadian publisher for review in February's Historical Novels Review.

On Monday, I'll have a guest post from the author about California's historic winemaking industry.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Book review: Chris Cleave's Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, plus giveaway

Loosely based on his grandparents’ WWII-era lives, Cleave’s (Gold, 2012; Little Bee, 2009) intensely felt new novel follows the soul-plumbing journeys of four young Londoners fighting their own personal battles as their world breaks apart.

They include aristocratic Mary North, who derives unexpected purpose from teaching city children after their more socially acceptable peers are evacuated to the countryside; her friend Hilda; Tom, Mary’s middle-class supervisor and lover; and his roommate, Alistair, a Royal Artillery officer.

Mary and Alistair’s mutual attraction complicates matters yet serves as a lifeline for them both. Just as transformative for Mary are her mentorship of an African American student, which almost everyone disapproves of, and her up-and-down relationship with Hilda, one shaped by their joint experiences and occasional jealousy.

Full of insight and memorably original phrasings, the story is leavened by sardonic humor, although the consistently high level of wit in the dialogue sometimes feels unrealistic. Cleave paints an emotion-filled portrait of a damaged city with its inequities amplified by war and of courageous individuals whose connections to one another make them stronger.

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven was published by Simon & Schuster in hardcover this week ($26, 432pp).  This review first appeared in Booklist's March 1st issue, and I covered it from an ARC provided by my editor.

Since then, the publisher has sent me a nice new hardcover copy, so I have an extra that I thought I'd give away to another blog reader.  Just fill out the form below if you're interested.  One entry per household, please; void where prohibited.  Deadline for entry Friday, March 13th.  I'll announce the winner here (and notify them) shortly thereafter.  Good luck!

Update:  The giveaway has ended.  Congratulations to Noreen!  Thanks to everyone who entered.