Wednesday, April 17, 2024

An edgy, unsettling take on vanished women in Erin Kate Ryan's Quantum Girl Theory

“A missing girl rewrites an entire story the moment she disappears.”

A novel that’s been sitting in my NetGalley queue for too long, Erin Kate Ryan’s Quantum Girl Theory is speculative historical fiction with a vital message. “On December 1, 1946,” as the prologue outlines, “Paula Jean Welden put on a bright red parka, left her dorm, and...” vanished, leaving America to speculate on what happened to the pretty, blonde Bennington College sophomore. Did she have a terrible home life she wanted to flee? Did she leave the country and establish a new identity? Did she meet a violently abusive boyfriend? Was she kidnapped by a stranger and violently murdered?  There are multiple possibilities.

But this real-life case remains unsolved.

The main plotline occurs in Elizabethtown, North Carolina, in 1961. Disembarking after a bus trip, Mary Garrett has followed the trail of a poster offering a $7000 reward for information on the whereabouts of another missing girl named Polly Starking. Mary’s motives aren’t altruistic; she’s somewhat of an opportunistic scavenger, going from town to town offering help in finding lost women using her claimed clairvoyant abilities, collecting and living off the payments even when the women aren’t found alive. She has saved some girls, but not nearly enough of them.

The twist here is that Mary had been a missing person herself, the girl once known as Paula Jean. Mary’s unpredictable flashes of second sight began five years earlier and cause her tremendous anguish, since they grant her glimpses of people’s fearful lives and final moments.

Ryan excels at illustrating the unsettling atmosphere of this small town in the Jim Crow South in the early '60s: the Starking household, with its “cheerful yellow Formica table” and vague air of oppressive patriarchy; the pushy town sheriff and his lurking presence; and stories about two Black girls gone missing which Mary learns about, in unorthodox fashion, from Martha, the Black maid at the cheap motel where Mary stays. As Mary insinuates herself into the Starking family, she sees hints about Polly (who shares her own former nickname, “Paul”) and theorizes a connection between her and the other two girls, whose disappearances nobody cares about, aside from their families.

The author’s writing echoes with honesty about society’s lack of attention to troubled women, aside from the lurid fascination at their disappearance, and how race affects these perceptions. That and the North Carolina storyline, with its pervasive sense of dread, are the strongest parts of the book. However, Ryan intersperses these episodes with long chapters exploring alternate continuations of Paula Jean Welden’s story. Some people and motifs recur in these tales and in Mary’s: a bright red parka, a memorable wristwatch, another young woman Mary once knew. While author's purpose in showing these multiple timelines is understandable, the result is confusing and causes the momentum to slow. The ambiguous ending doesn’t help.

The novel’s Goodreads reviews aren’t stellar, with an overall rating of 2.91. I wouldn’t disagree, but for me that number works best as an average: four stars or more for the principal story, two or less for the “alternate history” spinouts. If the idea of this novel intrigues you, you may want to stick to the main plotline and skim or skip the rest.

Quantum Girl Theory was published by Random House in March 2022.

Friday, April 12, 2024

The Titanic Survivors Book Club offers a character-rich meditation on love, loss, and second chances

After you’ve narrowly avoided death in a notoriously tragic shipwreck, how do you approach your remaining days? For the memorable personalities in Schaffert’s (The Perfume Thief, 2021) exquisite novel, their chance survival encourages them to pursue their desires, but what if these yearnings conflict or remain unrequited?

Having opened a Parisian bookshop after his secret library of controversial volumes got him replaced as the Titanic’s librarian, or so he believes, Yorick convenes a book club for fellow eccentrics who also missed boarding the fatal voyage. While Yorick falls for Haze, an impoverished photographer, Haze grows romantically obsessed with part-Japanese candy heiress Zinnia.

Relations among this trio of beloved friends become complicated after Yorick reluctantly begins a Cyrano de Bergerac-style correspondence to Zinnia under Haze’s name. Then the Great War disrupts everyone’s lives.

Schaffert writes stylish, intelligent fiction that casts new light on familiar settings, and his appreciation for lush details feels so very Parisian. This isn’t a standard cozy novel about book clubs but rather an elegantly moody take on love, literature, and the indelible connections they create.

The Titanic Survivors Book Club (what a terrific concept!) was published by Doubleday on April 2. I wrote this review for the March 1st issue of Booklist.  If you've read Schaffert's novels before, you'll know they're focused on language, lush descriptions, and mood, and populated by interesting, offbeat characters. This is the third novel I've read of his, including The Swan Gondola and The Perfume Thief.

Monday, April 08, 2024

A gallery of fifteen intriguing historical novels out in spring 2024

It's been too long since I've done a showcase featuring books for the current season, which will be a terrific one for historical fiction. Here are fifteen (I had trouble cutting down the number!) recent and upcoming novels incorporating a variety of settings; I chose them partly because they feature locales, topics, and/or characters that stood out as original.

Central Asia, 2500 BCE: the narrative of a woman of the Sauromatae who grew into her people's leader, and whose life was defined by the struggle between matriarchal and patriarchal culture. Regal House, May 2024.

Small-town 18th century Massachusetts: the growing romantic bond between two married men, a minister and a physician, and how the controversy affects them and their families. Riverhead, March 2024.

1825 Scandinavia: a gothic novel of coming of age, folklore, family legacy, and witchcraft involving a local pastor’s two daughter on a remote northern island. Grove, May 2024.

Early 20th-century El Paso, Texas: the unlikely marriage between immigrants from Mexico and China who fight for their place in an unwelcoming land. Flowersong Press, May 2024.

19th-century Louisville, Kentucky: a religious home for unmarried mothers centers a tale about women’s desire for agency over their own lives. Vintage, March 2024.

1715 Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and at sea: a star-crossed love story and pirate adventure set in the decades following the Salem Witch Trials, based on historical people. Kensington, April 2024.

1950s Bombay, India: twin sisters, both with different artistic talents, strike out on different paths in a world that doesn’t respect women’s choices for their own lives. University of Nebraska Press, March 2024.

The 17th-century Caribbean: the story of how a Haitian-French woman rose to become an infamous pirate captain, based on a legend. Atria, April 2024.

1720s Paris and Louisiana: a group of young Frenchwomen travel from La Salpêtrière hospital in Paris to help populate the French colony in the New World. Harper, March 2024.

19th-century Europe and America: The story of Jewish-born women’s rights advocate Ernestine Rose, based on the author’s original research. Onslow Press, March 2024.

Late 18th-century Virginia: scandal follows a wealthy young woman rumored to have given birth to her sister’s husband’s child. Lume, May 2024.

WWI-era British Columbia: a young woman of Japanese heritage gets caught up in conflicts between the area’s white and Japanese loggers in the beautiful Queen Charlotte Islands. Caitlin Press, March 2024.

1850s Santa Fe: a nurse who journeys to New Mexico Territory finds adventure, magnificent beauty, and secrets amidst the region’s close-knit residents. Ballantine, April 2024.

1830s Nova Scotia: this Gothic, queer retelling of the “Selkie Wife” folktale involves a country midwife and the mysterious neighbor she’s drawn to. Dell, April 2024.

1940s Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and elsewhere: two childhood friends’ lives diverge and reunite over a period of decades. Tin House, April 2024.

Tuesday, April 02, 2024

After the Massacre, a guest post by Lora Chilton, author of 1666: A Novel

Thanks to author Lora Chilton for the guest post on writing a novel about her ancestral heritage, which focuses on an important yet little-known aspect of American history.


After the Massacre
by Lora Chilton

I learned about my Indigenous heritage in my late forties when my father revealed his Patawomeck ancestry to my siblings and me. He had been cautioned since early childhood to never tell anyone he was an “Indian” due to the threat of being kicked out of school and other penalties that had been codified when the Virginia government passed the Racial Integrity Act of 1924. He was born in 1935, a time when the “paper genocide” effectively erased the Indigenous tribes in Virginia.

My father’s pride in finally sharing his heritage opened up a whole new understanding of his life and our family. As I embraced this newfound piece of my identity, I read every article, every book, every document I could find about the Patawomeck, my ancestors who had lived along the Potomac Creek in Virginia since before the 16th century. In 2007 my curiosity was piqued even further when Chief Two Eagles Green spoke at our family reunion and shared the oral tradition stories about the survival of the tribe after the men were massacred and the women sold into slavery in the summer of 1666.

Colonial documents record the chilling words that called for the decimation of the Patawomeck tribe to “prosecute them with war to their utter destruction.... and dispose of the women and goods.” Tribal oral tradition tells that the women were sold into slavery and shipped to Barbados to work on sugar cane plantations. Tradition maintains that two or three women were able to escape and miraculously return to Virginia, thus ensuring the survival of the tribe to this very day.

While their names had been lost to time, I began to feel their story needed to be told, to honor their bravery and that of the tribe.

There are early writings from explorers in the 1600s who first encountered the Patawomeck and other Virginia tribes, noting their observations about food, hunting, dress and some of the language. Very little information about the lives of the Indigenous women was written, but there were mentions here and there about the culture and daily routines. As I imagined what their lives might have looked like, I also felt the lost language and traditional names should be used, in an effort to reclaim what had been erased. When the pandemic struck, the Patawomeck began offering language classes via zoom, providing an opportunity for tribal members to study and learn the words of our ancestors. I embraced the moment and took the children’s classes, along with my granddaughters.

Told in first person, 1666: A Novel tells the story of Ah’SaWei (Golden Fawn) and NePa’WeXo (Shining Moon), as they recall their peaceful life before the massacre, even as the tension from the English invaders they call TasSanTasSas, which means "Strangers," is building. After the massacre and the voyage on the slave ship, their experiences diverge when they arrive in Barbados and are sold to different plantations.

Barbados in the 1660s was a decadent mixing bowl of people from all over the world: those seeking refuge from persecution, others looking for opportunities to create wealth generated by the production of sugar or those folks who were enslaved and forced to labor in the sugar fields. A British colony since 1627, “Little England,” as the island was called, had a thriving Jewish community and a sizable Quaker contingent, in addition to African, North and South American slaves and other European settlers.
author Lora Chilton

When a brief window opened during the COVID pandemic, I went to Barbados to continue researching what the lives of my Patawomeck ancestors might have entailed as slaves on this foreign island. The Barbados of today is an independent nation, with an economy built primarily on tourism. There are several plantations open for tours and remnants of the ubiquitous windmills that powered the sugar production by grinding the cane into juice that was then boiled and refined. The Nidhe Israel Synagogue and Museum was a treasure trove of information about the island in the 1660s. During excavation in 2008, the original mikvah, built between 1650 and 1654, was discovered. As I stepped into the cold water of that ancient sacred bath, as I walked down Quaker Street, now called Tudor Street, where so many of the Friends did business, as I stood in “Amen Alley” behind the Cathedral of Saint Michael where the slaves had to stand outside the building to worship; I imagined how these new sights, sounds and smells impacted the lives of Ah’SaWei and NePa’WeXo. How did they process these unusual religious practices? Did they like the food? Did they have friends? I wanted to find their words, using their voices, to express the wonder and horror of all they were experiencing but also to express the deep longing to escape not just slavery but the island and to return home.

The story of the Patawomeck survival was known within the tribe for generations but mostly unknown to the rest of the world. I felt obligated to write and share the story of these women, to celebrate their bravery and fortitude that in part made the existence of the Patawomeck tribe a reality in 2024.


Author Lora Chilton is a member of the Patawomeck Indian Tribe of Virginia. She has worked as a registered nurse, a small business owner, an elected official, a non-profit executive and a writer. 1666: A Novel is her second work of historical fiction and is published April 2, 2024 by Sibylline Press, a publishing house dedicated to publishing the brilliant work of women over 50. The novel is available wherever books are sold. To purchase the book online, visit or

Thursday, March 28, 2024

What the Mountains Remember whisks readers to the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains with a tale of romance and self-discovery

During a week-long stay amid the mountainous beauty of Asheville, North Carolina, a young woman caught between two worlds must confront her hidden past and decide what she really wants in Joy Callaway's lushly rendered, character-centered historical novel.

It should be a dream excursion. In April 1913, Belle Newbold, stepdaughter of the gas magnate she calls Papa Shipley, accompanies family members on one of the highly publicized road trips Henry Ford makes with his friends and fellow “Vagabonds” to various points of interest across America. In this ultimate form of glamping – these scenes had me agog at the sumptuous luxury of the late Gilded Age – the group stays in tents, tended by servants who oversee their hair and elegant wardrobe and cook gourmet meals.

But for Belle, the trip spells potential danger, since she hasn’t seen mountains since she fled West Virginia. Her late father was an ordinary coal miner, not a manager, a fact her mother forbids her to reveal for fear the disclosure would plunge them into poverty again.

Also, seeing how distraught her mother was at her father’s death in a mine collapse, Belle seeks stability over love in her own marriage, one she hopes to her find in her arranged union with Papa Shipley’s family friend Worth Delafield, who owns the campsite land in Asheville. She puzzles, though, why Worth – a kind, handsome, considerate man – would agree to such a marriage himself.

After an outing to view the Grove Park Inn, an elaborate resort being built of locally sourced stone, Belle gets naturally drawn into the stories of those laboring on the project – and takes the opportunity to chronicle them when the opportunity presents itself.

All of the characters have interesting backstories that add intrigue to the unfolding plot. Belle and Worth’s growing bond follows a complicated path, since both are held back by secrets. Marie Austen Kipp, Belle’s troubled and attention-seeking step-cousin, develops into a credible antagonist without losing all the reader's empathy for her.

Callaway also draws in Asheville’s history as a mecca for tuberculosis patients due to its favorable climate, and entrepreneur Edwin Grove’s ambition to transform it into a major tourist destination. While moving toward a satisfying resolution for this atmospheric, romantic story, she shines light on the talented workmen and artisans who carried out the financiers’ glorious vision for the Grove Park Inn, which I’d love to view in person one day.

Sketch of the exterior of the Grove Park Inn by Fred Seely, 1912
Sketch of the exterior of the Grove Park Inn by Fred Seely, 1912
(via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

What the Mountains Remember is published by Harper Muse next week (April 2, 2024). My thanks to the publisher for sending me an ARC.

Monday, March 25, 2024

Celebrating my 18th blog anniversary with a historical fiction giveaway

It's a brighter than usual Monday this week, because today my blog is old enough to vote! I began actively blogging at Reading the Past on March 25, 2006, with a post about a presentation I'd given at the Public Library Association conference

Over the past 18 years, I've had 1852 posts, nearly 12,000 comments, and over 2.6 million pageviews. The most popular posts over this time have been:
  1. Ten new and upcoming historical novels I found interesting, for my 1000th blog post, from 2014
  2. Author Barbara J. Taylor's guest post about the Billy Sunday snowstorm, also from 2014
  3. Author C.W. Gortner's guest post about Marlene Dietrich, from 2016
  4. My thoughts on the similarities between two Pack Horse Librarian historical novels, from 2019
  5. The bestselling historical novels from 2012
Blogging is nowhere near as popular as it was back in the early years of this site, and I haven't had as much free time this year as I've had in the past, but I hope to continue for a while longer.

The Tower and A Wild and Heavenly Place

As a way of celebrating, I'm offering a giveaway of two historical novels I've recently reviewed here and received copies of in hardcover: Flora Carr's The Tower, about the year when Mary, Queen of Scots was confined, with her chamberwomen, in a tower in remote northern Scotland; and Robin Oliveira's A Wild and Heavenly Place, a romantic adventure/saga set in Scotland and the Pacific Northwest in the late 19th century. Links go to my earlier reviews.

This giveaway is open worldwide, though for winners not in the US or Canada, I'll likely arrange copies sent via Blackwell's rather than from me directly.

Good luck, and whether you're a new or longtime follower, thanks for reading and following along with my posts!

Update, 4/5: The giveaway has ended.  Congrats to Terry M and Nancy M.  Hope you enjoy the books, and thanks to everyone who entered!

Thursday, March 21, 2024

Finding Margaret Fuller by Allison Pataki evokes an unjustly overlooked American intellectual's life

Historical fiction can restore neglected figures to their rightful place in the public consciousness, and Pataki’s (The Magnificent Lives of Marjorie Post, 2022) sweepingly urgent, inspiring novel about the astonishing life of Margaret Fuller aims to do just that.

American feminist writer, Transcendentalist thinker, journal editor, foreign correspondent: Fuller was all of these and more, blasting through gender-based barriers insufficient to deter a woman of her intelligence and ambition. The prologue dramatizes her friends’ reaction to her tragic early death in a shipwreck in 1850, but while a sense of what-might-have-been permeates the story, readers will emerge with even greater amazement about her accomplishments.

Using first-person narrative, Margaret explores her relationships with Ralph Waldo Emerson and his circle in Concord, Massachusetts, enticingly described as a pastoral New England paradise blossoming with creative thought. Her itinerant quest for belonging is driven partly by financial insecurity.

From Nathaniel Hawthorne to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a vibrant cast of mid-nineteenth-century luminaries comes alive alongside Margaret, who follows her desire to create original works and take action. Her salon-style “Conversations” in Boston galvanize their female participants, and in faraway Italy, Margaret finds love, political purpose, and a spiritual home. An invigorating journey of a brilliant woman always striving to achieve her potential.

Allison Pataki's Finding Margaret Fuller was published by Ballantine on March 19th; I wrote this review for Booklist's Feb. 15th issue. The quote below from Poe is used as an epigraph to open the novel.