Wednesday, February 01, 2023

Historical fiction award winners announced at the 2023 ALA LibLearnX conference

The 2023 Book and Media Award announcements from the American Library Association's LibLearnX conference in New Orleans were broadcast on Sunday afternoon, so I'm behind in getting this news posted.  It's been a busy week with a lot of meetings, and there are more to come.  I watched the ceremony via the Reference & User Services Association's Facebook page. Many adult-level historical novels received accolades.

Here are the details:

On the Reading List, the ALA's annual awards in eight genre fiction categories, the award for Historical Fiction award went to By Her Own Design by Piper Huguley, a biographical novel about Black designer Ann Lowe, who designed Jackie Kennedy's wedding gown, among other exquisite creations.


The Forty Elephants by Erin Bledsoe (1920s London, about an all-female criminal gang)
The Good Wife of Bath: A (Mostly) True Story by Karen Brooks (Chaucer's bawdy heroine reveals her story)
The Swift and the Harrier by Minette Walters (female-centered adventure during the English Civil War)
Two Storm Wood by Philip Gray (WWI thriller about a woman seeking her missing fiancé)

On the Listen List for excellence in audiobook narration:

The Bangalore Detectives Club by Harini Nagendra, narrated by Soneela Nankani. (mystery of 1920s Bangalore, India)
The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn, narrated by Saskia Maarleveld.  (thriller about a real-life Ukrainian woman who became a celebrated WWII sniper)
A Lady’s Guide to Fortune-Hunting by Sophie Irwin, narrated by Eleanor Tomlinson (aka Demelza from the most recent Poldark TV adaptation; this is a witty Regency romance)
Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins-Valdez, narrated by Lauren J. Daggett. (a terrible injustice perpetrated on Black girls in '70s Alabama, based on a true story)

On the Notable Books List are these two historical novels:

Horse by Geraldine Brooks (about a champion race horse, a painting, and racial injustice across time)
Trust by Hernan Diaz (four alternating tales create a puzzle set in 20th-century NYC)

Congrats to all the winners!

Friday, January 27, 2023

What we can learn about historical fiction reading (and reviewing) from an AI chatbot


Example book review from chatgpt

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been fascinated by ChatGPT, the artificial intelligence chatbot that responds to prompts in a conversational style which mimics human writing. Educators have raised concerns about students using it to plagiarize essays; technical writers (and others) are worried about an AI agent putting them out of work. The applications and ethical ramifications of this program are just beginning to be studied.

When it comes to requests for basic information on a topic, ChatGPT returns text that's logically organized, easily readable, and mostly accurate (it does make mistakes). It’s also scary fast. When I asked it to write a sonnet about historical fiction, the results were impressive but flawed. People on the Historical Novel Society’s Facebook group had an interesting mix of responses to it.

I wanted to explore the output created by ChatGPT so I could see its strengths and defects firsthand – and so I could better recognize AI-generated writing when I came across it in other circumstances. (There are new programs out there to detect whether content was written by a robot.) ChatGPT isn’t going away and will only improve over time, so it’s to our benefit to become familiar with its capabilities. So I prompted it with some requests to see what could be gleaned from the experience.

How good is ChatGPT at writing book reviews, I wondered. The system’s knowledge base ends with 2021, so this exercise won’t work for new releases, but I was curious what information it knew about older titles, and about historical fiction in general.

First, I asked it to write a sample book review for a novel about pilots during WWII (I didn’t specify a particular book). The result was:

Example 1:

Flyboys: A Novel of WWII by John Smith is a powerful and moving historical novel set during World War II. The story follows a group of young pilots as they train to become fighter pilots and then head off to fight in the Pacific Theater.

One of the strengths of this novel is the way it brings to life the personal stories of the pilots. Through their eyes, we see the horrors of war and the sacrifices they made for their country. Smith does an excellent job of capturing the camaraderie and sense of brotherhood that developed among the pilots, as well as the fear and uncertainty they faced on a daily basis.

The novel also explores the moral and ethical dilemmas that the pilots faced, including the question of whether or not to shoot down enemy pilots who have bailed out of their planes. The characters are well-developed and feel authentic to the time period. The main protagonist, a young pilot named Jack, is a relatable and sympathetic character who the reader can't help but root for.

The novel is also historically accurate and provides a great deal of information about the air battles that took place during World War II, which makes it a great novel for readers who are interested in the history of WWII and the role of pilots in the war.

The writing is engaging and evocative, and the pacing of the novel keeps the reader on the edge of their seat. The ending is bittersweet, but it leaves the reader with a sense of the human cost of war.

Overall, "Flyboys: A Novel of WWII" is a must-read for fans of historical fiction and World War II enthusiasts. It is well-written, well-researched, and filled with relatable characters and a compelling storyline that will keep readers engaged until the very end. It is a highly recommended novel for anyone interested in the history of WWII, the role of pilots, and the human cost of war.

--

Does this sound like a novel you’d want to read? Or maybe you’ve already read something very close to it?

Since I gave it a generic request, it provided a generic review. Still, it picked up on a basic plotline for a book with this focus, reflected these common elements within the review (the fact that many are stories of camaraderie and coming-of-age journeys for their male protagonist), and provided commentary on positive qualities readers expect to find in historical fiction. That is: well-developed and authentic characters, historical accuracy, a moving and powerful storyline, and interesting background details.

Next – several days later – I asked ChatGPT for a review on a novel about a young woman growing up in medieval England. The result named a specific book, but the plotline doesn't fit that book, aside from getting the era right.

Example 2:

The Rose of York: Love and War is a captivating historical novel set in medieval England during the Wars of the Roses. The story follows the life of a young woman named Rose as she navigates the complexities of medieval society, from her childhood in a small village to her eventual rise as a powerful and influential woman.

One of the strengths of this novel is the way it brings to life the rich and complex world of medieval England. The author does an excellent job of capturing the political and social landscape of the time, from the power struggles between the different noble houses to the everyday lives of the common people. The novel also explores the role of women in medieval society and how Rose's determination and strength of character allows her to transcend the limitations placed on her as a woman.

The characters are well-developed and feel authentic to the time period. The main protagonist, Rose, is a strong and relatable character who the reader can't help but root for. The love story that develops throughout the novel is also engaging and adds an emotional depth to the story.

The writing is evocative, and the pacing of the novel keeps the reader engaged throughout. The ending is satisfying and leaves the reader with a sense of the human cost of war and the strength of the human spirit.

Overall, "The Rose of York: Love and War" is a must-read for fans of historical fiction. It is well-written, well-researched, and filled with richly drawn characters and a compelling storyline that will keep readers engaged until the very end. It is a highly recommended novel for anyone interested in the Middle Ages, the Wars of the Roses, and the role of women in history.

--

This second review has elements worth noting. It draws on tropes for women’s fiction set in medieval times (the heroine’s personal growth journey, how she reacts to the restrictions placed on women in past eras, and the fact that there’s a love story – not mentioned at all in the sample review about WWII pilots). Taken together with the first review, we see how these AI-generated reviews are structured. The underlined sections show the text repeated in both reviews. It seems there’s an underlying template that ChatGPT is following, while filling in the blanks with material appropriate to the subject and era.

Thirdly, I requested a critical review of a WWII novel. (I initially asked for a snarky review, just for fun, but it tsked at me and told me it wouldn’t do that.)

Example 3:

The War Diaries: A Novel of WWII by John Doe is a historical novel set during the Second World War. The story follows a group of soldiers as they fight their way through Europe, and the struggles they face both on and off the battlefield.

One of the weaknesses of this novel is that it lacks historical accuracy. There are several inaccuracies in the descriptions of battles and settings, which undermines the credibility of the story. Additionally, the characters are not well-developed, and their actions and motivations are not always clear.

The author's writing style is also problematic. The dialogue is often clunky and unrealistic, and the author's attempts at humor fall flat. The pacing of the novel is also uneven, with long stretches of slow-moving action interspersed with brief bursts of action.

Overall, "The War Diaries: A Novel of WWII" falls short in providing a credible and engaging story. The lack of historical accuracy and the poor writing style make it hard for the reader to fully immerse in the story. It's not a bad book, but it's not a must-read for fans of historical fiction set during WWII, and readers might want to look for other options.

--

Again, we can learn more about reader expectations from this review of a fictional novel. (ChatGPT made up the title and author.) It’s a coherently organized review that shows multiple reasons why a historical novel can fail to resonate with readers.

Lastly, I got out of generic mode and asked: Can you write a book review for All the Light We Cannot See? Surely it would do better with a highly acclaimed, bestselling historical novel.

Example 4:

"All The Light We Cannot See" is a historical fiction novel written by Anthony Doerr. The novel takes place in Europe during World War II and follows the parallel stories of two main characters: Marie-Laure, a blind French girl, and Werner, a German boy. The story is beautifully written, with a powerful and evocative prose that draws the reader into the characters' lives and experiences.

The novel is about the impact of war on the lives of ordinary people, and how it can change them. The author does an excellent job of capturing the fear, uncertainty, and hope that people felt during the war. Doerr's descriptions of the war-torn cities and the devastation caused by bombing are particularly powerful, and they help to convey the scale of the destruction and suffering caused by the war.

The author also explores themes of love, family, and sacrifice, with the characters learning to overcome their fears and biases. The relationship between Marie-Laure and Werner is particularly well-done, as the author explores the different paths their lives take, and how they are ultimately brought together.

The author's writing style is evocative, poetic and he is able to create a powerful atmosphere, it is a book that is not only informative but also emotionally engaging. The book is a beautifully written, thought-provoking novel that is sure to stay with the reader long after they have finished reading it.

Overall, "All the Light We Cannot See" is a must-read for fans of historical fiction, war literature, and for anyone who is interested in exploring the human experience during one of the most devastating conflicts in human history.

--

So what do you think?

On the plus side, it’s structured like a standard book review, and if you’ve read the novel (and I have), you’ll notice it gets some things right. It’s mostly grammatically correct, too.

But as a review of Doerr’s novel, which has been analyzed in detail in many corners of the web, it’s bland and superficial. Not only does it lack style and artistry – typical in AI-generated text – but there’s almost no information about the characters, plot, or setting. When I read reviews, I appreciate perceptive examples of what worked well, what didn’t, and why, preferably with originality of expression. This review reads like someone ran out of time and was phoning it in, or that they briefly glanced at the publisher’s blurb but didn’t actually read the book. Also, despite its emphasis on themes, it doesn’t really capture what All the Light We Cannot See is about.

I’ve repeated this same prompt multiple times, with only a slight variation in the AI responses.

In writing reviews, I know how tempting it can be to fall back on clichés and familiar phrases. Everyone uses them to some degree, and they can pass unnoticed if the reviewer points out specific examples and demonstrates original insight. The reviews written by the chatbot, especially in the fourth entry, focus on historical fiction tropes while omitting details on an author’s unique accomplishments. Would any of the AI-generated reviews convince you to read the book described (if it existed)?

In the end – and thanks for reading this lengthy post – we can learn numerous things from these AI-written reviews, but the takeaways have more to do with genre and reviewing conventions than the books themselves. I welcome additional thoughts, as well as details on your own explorations with this new tool.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

Laurie Lico Albanese's Hester imagines an origin story for The Scarlet Letter's heroine

In 1829, seamstress Isobel Gamble, just nineteen, leaves Glasgow with her apothecary husband, Edward, planning to make a new start in America after coming close to ruin due to Edward’s opium addiction. Newly arrived at the harbor of Salem, Massachusetts, Isobel spies a tall man in a flowing black cloak who piques her interest with his proud bearing and air of mystery.

He is Nathaniel Hathorne, an up-and-coming writer seeking to escape his family’s past; his ancestor was John Hathorne, a judge at the notorious witchcraft trials who never repented of his role. (Nathaniel changed the spelling of his surname later.) Isobel herself has a scandalous ancestry. She descends from a 17th-century Scotswoman who confessed to witchcraft. Isobel also conceals her ability to perceive sounds and letters as colors, a phenomenon now called synesthesia.

When Edward leaves immediately on another sea voyage, Isobel must rely on her own enterprise in a town where the Scots, Irish, and Black people share the same low social rung. She and Nat form an easy friendship that develops into an intoxicating mutual enchantment.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1841,
portrait by  Charles Osgood (from the
Peabody Essex Museum)
The name “Hester” is mentioned only toward the end, but if you’re versed in early American literature, you’ll sense where the plot and this relationship will lead. For those who never read The Scarlet Letter in English class, no worries; while the novel imagines its inspiration, it works well independently.

Isobel narrates her tale, with periodic drop-in segments about her ancestor, Isobel Gowdie, and others accused of witchcraft. While they add historical context, their presence isn’t strictly necessary since the main plot has its own strong tension.

Calling a historical novel a “richly woven tapestry” has become a cliché, yet Hester fits this phrase much better than most. Its pages are awash with color, through the visual effects of Isobel’s synesthesia and in descriptions of her swift, careful embroidery – a beautiful skill that saves her life more than once. (As a former cross-stitcher, reading Hester left me wanting to pick up a needle, thread, and fabric again.)

Salem itself is a most intriguing place full of contrasts: cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic, Puritan-influenced, unwelcoming to outsiders, and with a shameful history that weighs on the descendants of  the accused and their accusers from 1692. Within the book, you’ll find the theme of women’s supportive networks, as well as the repercussions when they fail. Isobel’s closest neighbor is a free Black woman, the brusque Mercy, who also seems to be hiding something. This subplot grows more intense over the course of the book. Secrets may be a burden, but they’re also essential for survival in this provocative and haunting story.

Hester was published by St. Martin's Press in October 2022. I read it from Edelweiss; my library also has a copy in the Best Sellers collection.

Thursday, January 19, 2023

This Other Eden by Paul Harding exposes the shameful history of Maine's Malaga Island

A superb achievement, Pulitzer Prize-winner Harding’s (Enon, 2013) third novel fictionalizes a shameful true episode from American history. In 1912, the mixed-race residents of Malaga Island off Maine’s coast, people living there for generations, were forcibly removed for reasons of “public health” and tourism development. The pseudoscience of eugenics lay behind the decision.

In Harding’s version, Esther Honey is the matriarch of a poor, close-knit family of African and Irish descent; other residents on Apple Island include the Lark family, the McDermott sisters, their Penobscot foster children, and eccentric carpenter Zachary Hand to God Proverbs.

When retired schoolteacher Matthew Diamond arrives to preach and educate the island’s young people, he recognizes his prejudice but finds several gifted pupils, including 15-year-old, light-skinned Ethan Honey, a talented artist. Events spiral downward when a committee from the Governor’s Council takes notice and comes to investigate. The injustice they impose feels infuriating.

Harding combines an engrossing plot with deft characterizations and alluring language deeply attuned to nature’s artistry. The biblical parallels, which naturally align with the characters’ circumstances, add depth and enhance the universality of the themes.

Readers must gingerly parse some winding, near-paragraph-long sentences, but this gorgeously limned portrait about family bonds, the loss of innocence, the insidious effects of racism, and the innate worthiness of individual lives will resonate long afterward.

This Other Eden was one of the best novels I read in 2022, and it will be published next week by W.W. Norton. I wrote this review for Booklist's December 1st issue.

For more background on Malaga Island along with photographs, please see the article The Shameful Story of Malaga Island by historian William David Barry, published in Down East magazine in November 1980.  Also, per Wikipedia:  "On April 7, 2010, Maine legislators finally issued an official statement of regret for the Malaga incident, but did so without notifying descendants and other stakeholders either before or after the fact. The 'public' apology didn't become known to the public until nearly four months later, when an article appeared in a monthly magazine, Down East, which also procured a statement of regret by Governor John Baldacci." 

Sunday, January 15, 2023

Through a Darkening Glass by R. S. Maxwell, a gothic-tinged mystery set in 1940s Lancashire

In summer 1940, Ruth Gladstone, an English literature student at Girton College, Cambridge, evacuates with her grandmother to the Lancashire village of Martynsborough after an unexploded bomb lands on the campus. While staying with her great-aunt Vera, from whom her Gran (Edith) had been estranged for years, Ruth gets pressed into dreary administrative work and delves into a local ghost story – which she glimpses firsthand.

A young woman garbed in white has been seen lurking around the fields and lanes, calling to mind a tragedy from 30 years before, when a woman’s body was seen floating in a lime-kiln pond on the grounds of Wolstenholme Park, a crumbling old manor.

The story begins as everyone’s already on edge from potential German bombings and amps up the tension with a gothic subplot. Furthermore, Ruth’s seeking an exit strategy from an unwanted engagement to a soldier who writes her embarrassingly crude love letters from overseas, and she worries he’ll come home and expect an impromptu wedding. The stage is set for a tale where suspense and dread build from multiple directions.

What transpires, though, feels more atmospheric than spooky or horrifying; this ghost story is pretty low-key. There is some mystery about whether the white apparition is Elise, wife of Ruth’s coworker Malcolm, a Frenchwoman who became mute and dissociated from the world after a brain injury. From the villagers, depicted (with a few exceptions) as stereotypically insular, emerges the feeling that the evacuees in their midst have stirred up the wraith, but Ruth doesn’t buy that explanation.

On the hunt for a subject for her first novel, Ruth decides to research the history of the hauntings in Martynsborough, which goes over about as well as you’d think. With an occasionally brusque manner, Ruth sometimes feels closed-off and distant, although she does earn the reader's empathy. Her growing rapport with Malcolm makes for an awkward “forbidden romance” scenario, since his wife is very much alive, and it’s unclear how mentally present Elise is.

While all of the mystery threads (including the surprising reason behind Vera and Edith’s falling-out) are sufficient to hold interest, Through a Darkening Glass functions better as a portrait of country life during wartime, showing people’s day-to-day experiences and their adjustments to new circumstances as the war trundles on much longer than anyone expects or wants.

Through a Darkening Glass was published by Lake Union/Amazon Publishing in January 2023; I snagged it from NetGalley. It was also an Amazon First Reads pick last month.

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

All the historical novel titles you could ever need


Very recently, I've been noticing a trend in historical fiction titles. Have you seen this too?  One might say that they're... all over the place.

All the Pretty Places; All the Lost Places; All the Broken Places
Unlike a previous trend we've seen (The X's Wife, The X's Daughter), you often can't tell from the titles what or who the books are going to be about.

All our Shimmering Skies; All the Children Are Home; All the Lights Above UsMany titles seem symbolic of an overarching theme from the books. They provide a sense that the novels are going to be on the literary side, or that they have a purpose and meaning that go beyond entertainment.


All the Lights We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

My guess is that the historical novel above, Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, was the book that started this all off.  It had a rare combination of literary and commercial success: it won the Pulitzer Prize and the Carnegie Medal and was a Goodreads Choice Award winner (2014). You don't see that a lot.

All That Is Hidden; All the Blood We Share; All the Queen's Spies
The cover art can help provide more context, as well as the likely subgenre.  And sometimes there's a noun or two in the title that's helpful for potential readers, too.

All the Ways We Said Goodbye; All We Left Behind; All the White SpacesAre you getting an idea now about the number of these books out there?  Nearly all the books in this post have publication dates between 2021 and 2023.

All of You Every Single One; All the Seas of the World; All the Quiet PlacesThese titles do create a sense of mystery about what's inside.  (And here we have one more "places" title, to join the first three at the top of this post.)

All the Courage We Have Found; All the Little Hopes; All the Flowers of Paris
What do you think about this title trend?  Does it make you curious about the story?  The following two don't fit the exact pattern shown above, but they are close cousins.

Before All the World; The World and All It HoldsAnd just to provide a bit more information about all these books, I'll list them all separately, below, along with the historical setting. The links go to Goodreads.

All the Pretty Places, Joy Callaway (Gilded Age New York)
All the Lost Places, Amanda Dykes (19th & 20th century Venice)
All the Broken Places, John Boyne (multi-period, present-day and WWII)
All Our Shimmering Skies, Trent Dalton (WWII Australia)
All the Children Are Home, Patry Francis (1950s-60s Massachusetts)
All the Lights Above Us, M. B. Henry (occupied France)
All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr (WWII France)
All That Is Hidden, Rhys Bowen and Clare Broyles (1907 NYC)
All the Blood We Share, Camilla Bruce (1870s Kansas)
All the Queen's Spies, Oliver Clements (Elizabethan England)
All the Ways We Said Goodbye, Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig, Karen White (France, multi-period)
All We Left Behind, Danielle R. Graham (WWII Canada)
All the White Spaces, Ally Wilkes (post-WWI Antarctica)
All of You Every Single One, Beatrice Hitchman (20th-century Vienna)
All the Seas of the World, Guy Gavriel Kay (an alternate Renaissance era)
All the Quiet Places, Brian Thomas Isaac (1950s British Columbia)
All the Courage We Have Found, Carly Schabowski (1940s France)
All the Little Hopes, Leah Weiss (WWII North Carolina)
All the Flowers in Paris, Sarah Jio (WWII Paris)
Before All the World, Moriel Rothman-Zecher (1930s Philadelphia)
The World and All It Holds, Aleksandar Hemon (WWI Europe and beyond)

Sunday, January 08, 2023

Set in Stone by Stela Brinzeanu, a novel of women's lives and the oppressive patriarchy of medieval Moldova

The publisher’s tagline for this debut novel caught my attention: “In medieval Moldova, two women from opposing backgrounds fall in love.” What a unique setting! The novel’s illustrated cover, with its folkloric elements, also drew me in. It suits the story well.

The timeframe is kept vague, and external political events don’t intrude at all. In her introduction, Stela Brinzeanu (a London-based writer who was born in Moldova) writes of being haunted by a troubling folktale she heard as a child and how she wanted to give a voice to silenced women. This tale does play a role in the novel, but it contains much more than a straightforward folktale retelling. No spoilers here, though.

The protagonists are Elina, a boyar’s (noble landowner) daughter, and Mira, a young peasant woman trained as a potter by her father. The pair have spotted each other at a distance at church occasionally, though their divergent social stations mean they live very different lives. Elina’s father, Boyar Constantin, hopes to change her legal status to that of a son so she can inherit his wealth and property; he also wants her to marry her unpleasant cousin. In exchange for securing her inheritance, the voivode (local warlord) wants Elina’s father to build him a church, but previous masons hired for the job said the land was cursed.

The young women first come face to face when Mira crafts a beautifully colorful jug and delivers it to Elina at her family manor. Their troubles begin shortly after that: Mira falls through the ice on her way home and is rescued by Rozalia, an old herbalist and healer who had been the maid of Elina’s late mother. Rozalia, who is feared as a witch (you can guess where this subplot is going), becomes a significant figure in both women’s lives. One overarching theme is the importance of looking past assumptions and stereotypes, not just about Rozalia but women in general, including Elina’s mother – who had her own secrets.

All is related through the author’s smooth, fast-paced style. For a novel about two women who fight so strenuously to be together, they fall in love instantly and have little on-the-page chemistry. Their individual struggles against patriarchal control feel much more visible and urgent. The trials Elina and Mira undergo are dark and brutal, providing a wide-ranging picture of how being born female at this place and time was no picnic. Strong points, though, for the author’s presentation of their culture, encompassing societal roles, healing practices, religion, food, and music and dance. The many Romanian terms usually make sense in context, plus there’s a glossary at the end. And Set in Stone does wrap up the story in a very satisfying way.

Set in Stone (a title which has several meanings) was published by Legend Press in August 2022; I read it from NetGalley.