Saturday, July 11, 2020

The First Emma by Camille di Maio, historical fiction about a successful Texas businesswoman

By all accounts, Emma Koehler was an extraordinary woman. A prominent figure in the history of San Antonio, Texas, she was a German immigrant who ran the city’s Pearl Brewery, succeeding her late husband Otto in the role; she used her ingenuity to reinvent the business during Prohibition and keep it afloat during the Depression.

It’s fair to say that she wouldn’t have attained such success if her personal life had been less traumatic. Following a traffic accident that left her a semi-invalid, Otto took her two German-born nurses – both also named Emma – as his mistresses, installing them in their own house, and one of them murdered him in 1914.

In Camille di Maio’s fifth novel, young Baltimore native Mabel Hartley is hired in 1943 to take down the elderly Emma Koehler’s memoirs. The two women’s interactions create an intriguing dynamic: while beer is Emma’s lifeblood, Mabel avoids alcohol after seeing how it destroyed her father’s life. Mabel is a realistic character for her time, but her storyline lacks conflict. Her developing romance with Emma’s nephew, Erik, is sweet but has few surprises, and his presence in her life feels too convenient.

Emma’s story has more drama and bite – with the outline above, how could it not? Leaving her siblings behind to marry Otto at seventeen and move with him to San Antonio, Emma quickly discovers his workaholic nature. She also learns that to escape her loneliness, she must educate herself and meet Otto on his own ground: the brewery.

The lurid prologue depicting Otto’s murder feels somewhat misleading for the rest of the book, which isn’t a thriller. Comparatively few historical novels focus on successful businesswomen, however, and Emma Koehler is a deserving subject. Her position and attitude combine to create an admirable character that readers will root for.

The First Emma was published by Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing, and I'd reviewed it for May's Historical Novels Review from NetGalley.

Fun fact: the elegant and historic Hotel Emma in San Antonio, which was named after Emma Koehler, was the site of Pearl's Brewhouse starting in the late 19th century.

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Dawn Empress by Faith L. Justice introduces a powerful woman from the 5th-century Eastern Roman Empire

“You may not be able to pass laws or lead armies,” Princess Pulcheria’s religious tutor tells her as a child, “but the love of the people is no small thing. That power, used wisely… can be just as effective in ruling.”

History abounds with accomplished women whose stories have undeservedly been forgotten. Aelia Pulcheria Augusta is among them, and I hadn’t so much as heard her name until a few weeks ago, when a blog tour invitation appeared in my inbox.

A strong political force in the fifth-century Eastern Roman Empire, Pulcheria guided her younger brother, Theodosius II, during his minority and served as his influential advisor – on and off – through his decades-long reign. With Dawn Empress, second in a series about the Theodosian imperial women, Faith L. Justice gathers up the known facts about Pulcheria and offers a well-rounded, human portrait of this accomplished woman.

The story follows Pulcheria from her youth at the imperial court in Constantinople through the end of her life, with the chapter headings noting the year and place. Pulcheria is intelligent, pious, and frequently stubborn, a combination that doesn't endear her to her brother Theo’s advisors, who want her safely married and out of the picture. Pulcheria has other plans, though. She mingles with the common people, demonstrates charity toward them, and cleverly finds a way to bring honor to the Church and simultaneously remain by her brother’s side. She also persuades her two younger sisters to follow her example.

Pulcheria isn’t always a comfortable heroine. Her judgmental nature and forthrightness are off-putting (just ask her aunt, Galla Placidia), her jealousy of Theo’s wife Athenais gets her into trouble, and she sometimes missteps when it comes to Theo, too. But when it comes to ruling prudently and identifying threats to the realm, her heart is in the right place. With the Huns and other “barbarians” advancing on Rome, and Theo falling under the influence of unsuitable people, Pulcheria can’t let her guard down. The Roman Empire at this time was a hot spot for ecclesiastical heresies, and the author navigates a clear path through these theological disputes without overburdening the reader. Some character names (Anthemius, Asclepiodotus, Olympiodorus, and more) are a mouthful, but the character list helps keep track of who’s who.

It’s a recommended read for historical fiction old-timers who enjoyed the works of Gillian Bradshaw, and for anyone seeking out fresh subjects in historical fiction about world rulers or influential women.

Dawn Empress was published by Raggedy Moon Books on May 31 in hardcover, paperback, and ebook, and I reviewed it from a NetGalley copy.

Friday, July 03, 2020

Bits and pieces of historical fiction news

A new roundup of news from the historical fiction world. I've been swamped with getting oriented to a new library management system at work, so some of these updates are a bit delayed.

Back on June 12th, Christine Dwyer Hickey's The Narrow Land was named as the 2020 winner of the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.  Set on Cape Cod in 1950, it focuses on the shifting relationship between artists Jo and Edward Hopper.  Then, just over a week later, the novel was selected as the inaugural recipient of the Dalkey Literary Award's Book of the YearThe Narrow Land, published by Atlantic Books in the UK, doesn't have a US publisher but is available to US readers on Kindle.

From CrimeReads, Mariah Fredericks and Jess Montgomery, who write historical mysteries set in the early 20th century for Minotaur, have a discussion on balancing historical settings and modern themes.

For writers of Christian fiction with novels published in 2019, there's a new book prize open to submissions through July 15th: the Angel Book Award, with historical fiction as one of the categories.

Readers of the Wall Street Journal name their favorite historical fiction through the ages. This is paywalled so I can't read it at the WSJ site (I had to read it through a library subscription), but maybe you can?

From School Library Journal: a diverse list of 16 YA novels that re-envision history.

Philippa Gregory's upcoming novel Dark Tides, which follows after Tidelands, takes place partly in 17th-century New England. At Masslive, you can watch a video she filmed after her on-site visit to Hadley, Massachusetts.

And on the subject of historical fiction on film, I'll be spending tonight watching Hamilton on screen. Happy 4th tomorrow to American readers of this blog!

Monday, June 29, 2020

A Perfect Explanation by Eleanor Anstruther, a riveting historical novel about a dysfunctional aristocratic family

Anstruther’s debut centers on a shocking truth from her family history. Her paternal grandmother Enid Campbell, descendant of the Earls of Argyll, sold her younger son Ian to her sister for £500, following Enid’s divorce and bitter custody battle. Having received her father’s permission to tell his story, and infusing it with details from public court records and private sources, the author brings us into her characters’ thoughts with unvarnished candor and lays bare their flaws alongside the burdens and cruelties of aristocratic life.

The novel volleys between the 1920s and 1964, with Enid in a Hampstead nursing home before a prospective family reunion with her daughter and Ian, who she hasn’t seen since she gave him up 25 years earlier. Here she ponders a “perfect explanation” for her life choices, some of which were outside her control.

Emotionally cold, Enid is impossible to like, which makes being within her head uncomfortable. However, as we learn about the context behind her terrible decisions, we come to deeply empathize. After her older brother’s death at Gallipoli, and her sister Joan a confirmed “spinster” (who lived with her lesbian partner), Enid’s mother pushes her to provide an heir. Married to Douglas Anstruther, a man she comes to detest, Enid produces a boy and a girl, but her son Fagus’s physical challenges make him a deficient option in their view, and she feels pressured to try again.

Enraptured by religion, particularly Christian Science, Enid never wanted to marry or be a mother; the inside perspective of her descent into postpartum depression, which spurs her to abandon her family, feels wrenching. We also experience the views of Finetta, Enid’s daughter, yet another victim of a broken system that neglects its female children’s mental health and values money above all. This eye-opening novel is moving and psychologically shrewd throughout.

A Perfect Explanation was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in February, and by Salt (in the UK) last year. I read it from NetGalley and reviewed it for the Historical Novels Review's May issue.

For more background on the facts behind the story, the Daily Mail published an interview with the author, published when the novel came out in the UK in 2019.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

The Library of Legends by Janie Chang, a real and mystical journey set in war-torn 1937 China

A university is more than a group of buildings. It encompasses the breadth of the knowledge of its faculty, staff, and students, as well as the information held in its extensive collections. These resources will remain active and vibrant even when the buildings are inaccessible.

All this came to mind while reading Janie Chang’s The Library of Legends, after the past three months of remote work and online education. The historical situation depicted in the novel is completely different than the coronavirus pandemic, of course, but these same themes are echoed.

In 1937, with the Chinese city of Nanking under attack by Japanese bombs during the Second Sino-Japanese War, the administration of Minghua University decides to evacuate the campus and relocate to Chengdu, an inland city over a thousand miles west. Among the people making the long trek on foot are Hu Lian, a 19-year-old scholarship student; Liu Shaoming (Shao), a handsome upperclassman she admires; and his servant Sparrow Chen, a young woman who’s more than she seems.

To preserve their country’s priceless cultural heritage, the dean, Dr. Kang, asks each student to carry a volume of the Library of Legends, a centuries-old encyclopedia that records Chinese myths and folklore. They read them along the way, enhancing their worldview while attending academic lessons in formal classrooms, where and when they can, and in group lectures as they walk.

While most of the story takes place during the journey, it’s far from a standard road adventure. The interactions among the travelers drive the story. Mingling elements of ancient myths with a realistic wartime setting that transverses central China, The Library of Legends is a thoughtful literary novel with a strong, multifaceted plot based in history (the author’s father and uncle were student refugees like Lian and Shao). The group, self-dubbed “Minghua 123” for the number in their convoy, encounters dangers from above – Japanese aerial attacks – alongside travel hardships and threats from within.

Already concerned about her mother, who is traveling alone to Shanghai, Lian is blackmailed into spying on her fellow students by someone who knows her family’s secret. She also worries that Shao will be persuaded by an attractive classmate into attending Communist meetings. Enriching the novel further, divine beings from the Library of Legends, some disguised as mortals, become awakened, and some play roles in the ongoing events.

Original and unpredictable, The Library of Legends is an enlightening tale of arduous determination, romance, and family heritage that’s also rich in cultural details. (Of note: the publisher's blurb reveals parts of the plot you may want to discover for yourself.  Just a heads up if you prefer being surprised.)

The Library of Legends was published in May by William Morrow.  Read more about the novel's historical backdrop in the author's piece for Time Magazine: The Risky Journey that Saved One of China's Greatest Literary Treasures.

Monday, June 22, 2020

The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner, a delightful post-WWII exploration of Austen's legacy and themes

Natalie Jenner’s debut novel, which I had the opportunity to read via Edelweiss last fall, is now a Canadian bestseller, which doesn’t surprise in the least.  It ticks many boxes for the historical fiction genre, with its focus on the works of a beloved author and its post-WWII English setting – and its strong appeal to fans of book-club favorite The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.  

More than that, though, it’s an uplifting balm of a read about people working together to achieve a worthy common goal.

The gently charming story takes place in Chawton, the Hampshire village where Jane Austen lived at the end of her life. Beginning in autumn 1945, a group of individuals from various walks of life are drawn together to form a literary society to celebrate and preserve the memory of their favorite author.  

Among the lively cast are Hollywood actress Mimi Harrison, a longtime Austen devotee; pregnant war widow and former schoolteacher Adeline Grover; Dr. Benjamin Gray, Chawton’s longtime general practitioner; and shy farmer Adam Berwick, who was first introduced to Austen by Mimi on her visit to Chawton years beforehand. At this time, Chawton has no museum dedicated to its most famous resident, and the Great House and cottage owned by Austen’s family are in the hands of distant descendant James Knight, an elderly man not known for his generosity. His socially withdrawn daughter, Frances, knows his character all too well.  As such, the makeshift group’s need to serve as joint caretakers of Jane Austen’s legacy becomes pressing.

author Natalie Jenner
The characters have their own Austenesque dramas to attend to, as nearly all have endured thwarted romance or other emotional losses. While readers of Jane Austen's work will delight in spotting the parallels to individual novels, the novel can easily be enjoyed by newcomers as well.  The beautiful country setting of Chawton (population 337) makes for a lovely escape, too, and helps us remember how thoughtfulness and amity can be kindled in tranquil places.

The Jane Austen Society was published by St. Martin's Press in May in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook (narrated by actor Richard Armitage). 

This review is part of the author's blog tour; see Austenprose for their review and for the additional tour stops.

About the author:

Natalie Jenner is the debut author of The Jane Austen Society, a fictional telling of the start of the society in the 1940s in the village of Chawton, where Austen wrote or revised her major works. Born in England and raised in Canada, Natalie graduated from the University of Toronto with degrees in English Literature and Law and has worked for decades in the legal industry. She recently founded the independent bookstore Archetype Books in Oakville, Ontario, where she lives with her family and two rescue dogs.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Historical novels by Black authors: some recommendations

On June 14th, Amistad Press, the HarperCollins imprint for multicultural voices, began the #BlackoutBestsellerlist campaign on social media to lift up Black voices in the publishing industry and encourage readers to purchase two books by Black authors this week.  I'm participating in this initiative and would love to see other readers do so.  Read more about the background to the campaign at Publishers Weekly.

For those who enjoy reading historical fiction and discovering new writers and books, there's an abundance of choices available. The graphic below is just the tip of the iceberg, but here are a dozen that I've read and would recommend checking out. Mostly these are newish releases, but I couldn't resist including a few notable older titles I admire. More details and review links below.

Images in order:

Namwali Serpell, The Old Drift, a genre-defying epic of Zambian history.

Jeffrey Colvin, Africaville, a generational saga centered on a Black settlement in Nova Scotia.

Natashia Deon, Grace, an affecting novel of freedom and motherhood in the pre-Civil War South.

Ayesha Harruna Attah, The Hundred Wells of Salaga, about women's lives and internal slavery in 19th-century Ghana.

Beverly Jenkins, Tempest, historical romance set in the American West.

Rita Woods, Remembrance, about four women and a special place called Remembrance in pre-Civil War Ohio.

Sharon Ewell Foster, Abraham's Well, which focuses on the Black Cherokee along the Trail of Tears.

Maryse Condé, Victoire, My Mother's Mother, a fictionalized story of the author's light-skinned grandmother and her life in Guadaloupe.

Lalita Tademy, Citizens Creek, focusing on people of African descent in the Creek Nation.

Deborah Johnson, The Air Between Us, a saga set in 1960s small-town Mississippi.

Lawrence Hill, The Book of Negroes (also called Someone Knows My Name), a young woman's journey from Africa to enslavement in South Carolina to freedom up north.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad, the Pulitzer winner and Oprah pick that imagines the Underground Railroad's physical reality.

I also recommend Edward P. Jones' The Known World, Margaret Cezair-Thompson's The Pirate's Daughter, Piper Huguley's romantic fiction (especially the Home to Milford College series), Alice Randall's The Wind Done Gone, and other novels by Lalita Tademy and Beverly Jenkins.  For other ideas, see the list of Best Black Historical Fiction on Goodreads, though be aware that some of the titles there are not by Black writers.  

Please leave other recommendations in the comments.