Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Review and interview: Megan Campisi's Sin Eater, a dark, folklore-infused mystery in an alternate Elizabethan England

Basing her setting closely on Elizabethan England, Campisi shapes a tale of folk customs, dark superstitions, and feminine power through the life of a young outcast who uncovers evidence of terrible injustice.

Jailed for stealing bread, 14-year-old May Owens is made to become a sin eater, hearing deathbed confessions and consuming ritual foods representing the person’s recited sins, thus taking them on herself. Wearing a locked brass collar marking her macabre profession, she finds herself shunned and forced into silence, aside from her appointed role.

When she spies a deer heart atop the coffin of the royal governess, Corliss Ashton, May realizes someone wants to blame Corliss for a transgression she hadn’t confessed to. May’s illiteracy and social isolation complicate her dangerous quest to unearth answers.

Her spunky humor and determination to assert her own value, even in a dead-end occupation at society’s nadir, make her a captivating heroine. Recommend this debut, an original melding of mystery and alternate history, to admirers of Karen Maitland’s folklore-infused medieval thrillers and Diane Setterfield’s Once Upon a River.


Megan Campisi's Sin Eater was published yesterday by Atria/Simon & Schuster. I wrote the review above for Booklist's 2/15 issue (reprinted with permission). I also had the opportunity to ask the author some questions. Thanks to her publicist for arranging for the Q&A below, and to Megan Campisi for her responses.

Do you recall where you first heard about the concept of a sin eater? What inspired you to choose this unusual role for your protagonist?

I don’t recall when I first heard about sin eaters, but I know that I was fascinated (I’m a history nerd). I was drawn in by the syncretism of the ritual (part Christian and part pagan), by the essential role played by a social pariah, and by how little we know about the custom and the people who practiced it. I knew I wanted to explore the point of view of a sin eater and a young one.

In the author’s note at the beginning, you mention the historical scaffolding for Sin Eater’s background, but that it’s “spun out of fantasy… this is not history, it’s fiction.” How did you decide how closely to stick to Elizabethan England, and how far to diverge from it?

For the story I envisioned to work, I knew the world needed to be syncretic too, part historical, part fictional. Sin eating couldn’t remain an eccentric post-mortem ritual (as it was historically), but needed to transform into a deep, necessary communion between two people that was woven into the fabric of everyday society. All the fictional elements grew from this beginning.

I’ve always enjoyed reading dark, atmospheric mysteries, this book included. What appealed to you about writing in this style?

I’m drawn to gritty, visceral stories where I’m transported by the sensory elements. As a writer, the only thing you can be sure you share with your reader is the experience of living in a human body, so I try to lean on physical elements in my storytelling.

Did you find it challenging, as a novelist, working with a narrator who was socially isolated, to the point of being forbidden from speaking?

Megan Campisi
(credit: Gates Hurand)
Absolutely! This was a huge challenge, but a welcome one. When I’m not writing, I teach physical theater, which is a branch of performance that considers physicality as a language and privileges visual storytelling over verbal. This background helped immensely in working out how to communicate information between characters and to the reader.

Much creative thought must have gone into developing the “compendium of diverse sins both large and small and their according foods” that guides the sin eaters’ menu, such as it is. Can you share any insights into how you came up with it?

I spent a lot of time reading through Tudor cookbooks! In selecting pairings of sins and foods, I grouped some by types of sins (for example, sins related to envy all involve cream) and some by onomatopoeia (to me, the sound of “gristle” fits its sin, wrath). I also intended for some pairings to feel whimsical. I wanted to recreate the experience one has when hearing a nursery rhyme from hundreds of years ago: there are elements that make sense and others that simply don’t because their meaning has been lost over time.

About the Author

Megan Campisi is a playwright, novelist, and teacher. Her plays have been performed in China, France, and the United States. She attended Yale University and the L’École International de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq. The author of Sin Eater, she lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her family. Visit her website at

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

On researching artist Agnes Pelton for The Pelton Papers, a guest post by Mari Coates

Today I'm pleased to welcome author Mari Coates, whose novel The Pelton Papers, published today by She Writes Press, delves into the life and artwork of early modernist painter Agnes Pelton (1881-1961).  

Researching artist Agnes Pelton for The Pelton Papers
Mari Coates

I come from a long line of history buffs, so embarking on the research to write The Pelton Papers was like slipping into a comfortable shirt. First, I read the excellent catalogue written by Michael Zakian—Agnes Pelton: Poet of Nature—for the first ever retrospective of Pelton, where I first saw her abstracts. I had grown up with several of Pelton’s beautiful realistic paintings—portraits of my grandparents and my mother and uncle as children, a pair of desert scenes, and a stunning view of Pelton’s Long Island windmill studio.

The catalogue was a brilliantly concise 100-page summary of her life, and at every turn I found myself wanting to know more. The Peltons had been neighbors of my grandfather in Brooklyn from the 1890s to the 1910s. Because he was himself artistic, being an amateur photographer, and also, like Agnes, often in frail health, their friendship endured. I found a letter of his in which he mentions her.

Besides being a history buff, I am also someone who is profoundly affected by place. So immediately upon reading about Agnes, I started seeking out where she had been. Brooklyn, for instance, where I located her house on Pacific Street. And the Pratt Institute, where she’d studied with Arthur Wesley Dow, himself a giant who changed the way art was taught and instilled in Pelton (and his other students, such as Georgia O’Keeffe) a love of modernism. At Pratt I got a feel for the building, which seemed to shimmer with its illustrious past.

The catalogue noted Agnes’s Cathedral City address, and my wife and I took a trip down there to have a look. The shanty-like structure we found was clearly nothing like Agnes’s studio, which could be seen in a photo in the catalogue. We assumed it had been destroyed to make room for temporary housing. Later we would learn (from Ann Japenga’s website that renovators had changed the house to face the opposite street.

author Mari Coates
(photo: Lynn Shepodd)
Other excursions: a week in Taos, New Mexico, where we marveled at the light and the sense of the sacred infused in the very ground itself. And where we toured Mabel Dodge’s home, where Agnes was a visitor while it was being built. We had been to Italy, so reading about Agnes’s year in Rome allowed me to mentally revisit places she must have seen, such as Florence.

But of course there were books—on her family’s great scandal (known as the Beecher-Tilton affair); wonderful books on the Armory Show of 1913; books about the people she encountered, like the influencers John Quinn and Mabel Dodge Luhan, and artists such as Raymond Jonson, who with Emil Bisstram started the Transcendental Painting Group.

And then there were Agnes’s actual papers, which I was able to see through arrangement with our local art museum. I waited a considerable time before availing myself of that resource. I was completely in the thrall of the voice that was telling me Agnes’s story, laying it out for me as clearly as whispering in my ear. I was terrified that Agnes’s actual voice as found in her journals was entirely, shockingly, different from my version. When I finally ventured into the world of microfilm, to my enormous relief it seemed so close to mine as to be seamless. So, I think now that Agnes herself was truly whispering in my ear.


Mari Coates lives in San Francisco, where, before joining University of California Press as a senior editor, she was an arts writer and theater critic. Her regular column appeared in the SF Weekly with additional profiles and features appearing in the San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Monthly, Advocate, and other news outlets. Her stories have been published in the literary journals HLLQ and Eclipse, and she is grateful for residencies at I-Park, Ragdale, and Hypatia-in-the-Woods, which allowed her to develop and complete The Pelton Papers. She holds degrees from Connecticut College and the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. Find her online at

Saturday, April 04, 2020

Miss Austen by Gill Hornby, a novel of Cassandra Austen and her family's legacy

The subject of Gill Hornby’s book may not fit your initial guess. Cassandra Austen was the eldest sister in her large family, and it was she who was known as “Miss Austen” in her lifetime. Indeed, she outlived her beloved Jane by more than twenty-five years.

Miss Austen is a gently understated story told with delicate formality and abundant wit, as you’d expect from any Austen-focused novel. In 1840, Cassandra leaves her cottage at Chawton to visit the vicarage at Kintbury, a place that would have been her home if her fiancé Tom Fowle hadn’t died young. The Fowles are longtime family friends, and Tom’s sister-in-law, Eliza, had been a close confidante of both Austen sisters. With an eye to preserving Jane’s reputation and keeping her secrets private, Cassandra needs to find and destroy the letters they exchanged with Eliza before anyone else sees them and (horrors) thinks about publishing them.

Isabella Fowle, Tom’s sister, is being made to vacate Kintbury, her family residence for nearly a century, to make room for a new vicar, and she and her watchful servant are busy with packing and moving out. Cassandra’s visit isn’t convenient, and she knows it, but she feels desperate. Though her mind is still intact at 67, Cassandra feigns occasional senility to get her way, which creates amusing scenes.

When Cassandra finds a stash of letters, she pounces on and conceals them; their correspondence (imaginatively re-created by Hornby) takes her back to her and Jane’s earlier life, when they were young women pondering their futures. “I must admit we are a quite splendidly dull bunch, to whom nothing of interest occurred,” she tells Isabella, while knowing the letters will reveal otherwise. Some details, though, are so unexpected that they make Cassandra consider what legacy she, herself, wants to leave behind.

Hornby nicely evokes common Austen themes, such as women’s dependence on their male relatives – a serious fact they can never forget – and the close bonds of sisterhood. On the latter note, Cassandra sees Isabella, a single woman of forty she’s known all her life, as a kindred spirit. As such, she doesn’t understand why Isabella doesn’t want to move in with her own sisters – “Her sisters were her future; single women have only each other… It was something else to be accomplished before she left here.” Sharing reminiscences, they seem so alike otherwise, even sharing a dryly humorous disdain of Sir Walter Scott’s novels, with their “many, many words in them,” as Isabella explains: “They seem to take up too much of everybody’s time.”

No knowledge of Jane Austen’s life or works is prerequisite to reading this novel, while those who are already fans will want to dive in. Although Jane has a pivotal role, Cassandra takes the spotlight, and Hornby persuasively imagines the circumstances that shaped both women’s lives and decisions.

Miss Austen will be published by Flatiron Books on April 7th in the US.  Thanks to the publisher for providing me with an e-galley.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

The Everlasting by Katy Simpson Smith, a multi-era portrait of the Eternal City

Strikingly original in its construction and settings, Smith’s novel interleaves four periods in Roman history with eight parts; the eras move back in time and then repeat.

An American aquatic biologist considers an extramarital affair with an Italian woman during a semester abroad and, while there, experiences disturbing neurological symptoms. Giulia de’ Medici, a sixteenth-century noblewoman of part-African descent, conceals an illegitimate pregnancy.

In gruesomely effective segments, Felix, the late ninth-century keeper of his monastery’s putridarium, or crypt, observes the decomposition of his former brethren while remembering his traumatic youth. Lastly, Prisca, a pubescent girl (and future martyr) in 165 CE, has unique personal reasons for embracing Christianity. She and Giulia are historical figures worth discovering.

Compared to the others, the modern era’s prose feels self-consciously literary, and its research less well-integrated; the earliest-set stories offer the strongest emotional resonance. The four are also linked through a small fishhook figuring in each. Together, they create a robustly earthy, strangely entrancing portrait of the Eternal City as the protagonists cope with the yearnings and frailties of the flesh.

The Everlasting was published by Harper this week; I reviewed it for Booklist's 12/1/19 issue.  What do you think of the colorful cover?

Some other comments: Wikipedia has more information on Giulia de' Medici, a historical figure who was new to me. You can also read more in a 2001 article at the Washington Post, focusing on a portrait of Giulia as a child, presumed to be the first in Europe to depict a girl of African descent.

St. Prisca was a child martyr in early Rome, and the church known as Santa Prisca is devoted to her memory. This church figures strongly in The Everlasting.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Code Name Hélène by Ariel Lawhon, a novel about real-life WWII heroine Nancy Wake

Lawhon’s magnificent fourth novel dramatizes the valor of a gutsy, real-life woman molded by war, sacrifice, and love.

In February 1944, sporting her trademark red lipstick, Nancy Wake parachutes into the French countryside on a Special Operations Executive mission to organize, fund, arm, and train the Maquis, bands of local resistance fighters, in preparation for D-Day. Back in 1936, with increasing dangers posed by Hitler, Nancy is a determined Australian expat journalist embarking on a tantalizing romance with handsome industrialist Henri Fiocca.

As these separate time lines move forward, they play off one another masterfully, pivoting at just the right moment to augment tension. Lawhon carries us into the heart of the French resistance, with the beautiful Auvergne region covertly transformed into a gritty battleground, and into the mind of a badass heroine with uncanny instincts who takes on the Nazis and men’s arrogant sexism with uncommon bravado.

With her infectious laugh and occasionally profane dialogue, Nancy’s fighting spirit shines through her propulsive narrative, and her comrades-in-arms are well-rendered secondary characters. Her journey to becoming a fierce, powerful leader is as emotionally stirring as her growing bond with Henri. Even long after the last page is turned, this astonishing story of Wake’s accomplishments will hold readers in its grip.

Code Name Hélène will be published next Tuesday by Doubleday in the US. I wrote this starred review for Booklist's 3/15 issue, and it was their review of the day today.

Interested in reading it for yourself?  I have a new, unread ARC I'd be happy to send to another reader (US only).  Please enter via the form below for a chance to win the copy. If you prefer an ebook, I'll gift it to you via Amazon.  Deadline Tuesday March 31.

Update: The giveaway period has ended. Congrats to Tammy S!  Hope you'll enjoy the book, and thanks to everyone who entered.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

The Ghost of Madison Avenue by Nancy Bilyeau, a historical novella set in a fascinating NYC library

Diverse locales of old New York are the setting for Bilyeau’s atmospheric novella, which takes place in 1912, in the days leading up to Christmas, but it can be read and enjoyed at any time of year. Helen O’Neill, an Irish American widow of thirty-five, is nervous to start her new position as a restorer in J. P. Morgan’s personal library. Her supervisor, the brilliant Belle da Costa Greene, has exacting standards, and what if Helen were to meet the famous financial titan in person?

For those who haven’t visited the Morgan Library and Museum—I haven’t, though plan to do so—reading this story feels like getting an exclusive private tour of the site, as it looked over a century ago, alongside Helen. With its secret staircases, ornate bookshelves and balconies, and elaborately painted high ceilings, it’s a fabulous place to envision. Helen lives comfortably with her brother’s family in a clapboard house in the Bronx’s Morrisania neighborhood and is agog at her new workplace. She’s puzzled, though, when she spies a young woman in an old-fashioned dress and hairstyle on the street outside; the snow doesn’t seem to touch her. Helen also feels a lingering sadness about her late husband, who died some time earlier, and neither she nor her family feels she’s likely to marry again.

All the characters are poignantly human, and their social and cultural backgrounds add rich shadings to their actions. The warmhearted theme of second chances is well balanced with the mysteriousness of the woman’s identity, which Helen gets in trouble trying to uncover. Add a touch of Irish magic to the plot—Helen’s unusual dexterity with her hands reminded her late mother and husband of the aes sidhe—and you have an entrancing ghost story with a touching message.

The Ghost of Madison Avenue is a digital original novella available from Amazon; I reviewed it from a personal copy and included it in February's Historical Novels Review.

Also read my reviews of two earlier books by Nancy Bilyeau: The Blue and Dreamland.

Friday, March 13, 2020

A Fall of Shadows by Nancy Herriman, a historical mystery set in the Elizabethan-era countryside

Bess Ellyott is a widowed herbalist in late-Elizabethan Wiltshire. As historical fiction readers will foresee, this means she’s an easy target for suspicion when misfortunes befall her neighbors. Her brother Robert’s status as a prosperous merchant provides protection, as does the friendship of Constable Kit Harwoode, but Bess also has a stubborn curiosity that gets her into trouble.

One autumn evening while Robert’s away in London, two odd events take place, and Bess finds herself entangled in determining what happened. A traveling actor and playwright is found stabbed to death atop a druid’s mound just outside the village, and a young woman collapses near Bess’s back gate after suffering an apparent miscarriage.

A drunk vagrant is quickly arrested in the actor’s murder, but Kit finds that solution much too convenient. The suspects are numerous, from the man’s jealous fellow players to enemies he’d made after returning to town; the dead man had been a local farmer’s son who left to make his fortune on the stage. Bess uncovers a possible connection between the two incidents, too.

In this second of the Bess Ellyott mysteries, Herriman has taken admirable care in re-creating her characters’ historical world, from the folk beliefs and accoutrements of the period to the Shakespearean-flavored dialogue. The plot is that of a classic English village mystery, with characters from various walks of life mingling, gossiping, and creating dramas among themselves.

As a relative newcomer to town, Bess really should know better than to be so forthright about asking questions – her approach isn’t subtle – and she has substantial unfinished business from the first book that new series readers may stumble over. This entry is still recommended for the historical atmosphere alone, especially for Tudorphiles wanting time away from the royal court and its usual personalities.

A Fall of Shadows was published by Crooked Lane in 2019; I reviewed it from NetGalley for February's Historical Novels Review. Searcher of the Dead is the title of book 1 in this ongoing series.