Saturday, November 28, 2020

The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah, her forthcoming epic about women's strength during the Dust Bowl

With this emotionally charged epic of Dust Bowl-era Texas and its dramatic aftermath, the prolific Hannah has added another outstanding novel to her popular repertoire. 

In 1921, Elsa Wolcott is a tall, bookish woman of 25 whose soul is stifled by her superficial parents. By 1934, after marrying Rafe Martinelli, a young Italian Catholic who was the first man to show her affection, Elsa is a mother of two who has found a home on her beloved in-laws’ farm. Severe drought and terrible dust storms affect everyone in this proud family, and they are all forced to make tough choices. 

This wide-ranging saga ticks all the boxes for deeply satisfying historical fiction. Elsa is an achingly real character whose sense of self-worth slowly emerges through trying circumstances, and her shifting relationship with her rebellious daughter, Loreda, is particularly moving. Hannah brings the impact of the environmental devastation on the Great Plains down to a personal level with ample period-appropriate details and reactions, showing how people’s love for their land made them reluctant to leave. 

The storytelling is propulsive, and the contemporary relevance of the novel’s themes—for example, how outsiders are unfairly blamed for economic inequities—provides additional depth in this rich, rewarding read about family ties, perseverance, and women’s friendships and fortitude.

The Four Winds will be published by St. Martin's Press in February 2021. I'd reviewed it from an Edelweiss e-copy for Booklist's 10/15/20 issue.  Hannah's earlier historical novel, The Nightingale, was the historical fiction category winner in the Goodreads Choice awards for 2015 (I haven't read it yet, so no spoilers, please!).  Will you be reading this one, and which among her works is your favorite so far?  Happy to hear your recommendations.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Twelve upcoming historical novels for 2021 that aren't set during WWII

Here's the first in a series of previews of upcoming 2021 releases. As you've no doubt noticed, publishers' interest in World War II as a historical fiction setting continues unabated. I've been keeping an eye on current publishing deals, and the trend looks to last through 2022 at least. For readers who prefer earlier settings, or who enjoy focusing on a wide variety of eras, this post is for you.  These dozen titles will be appearing from US publishers in the first half of next year. Links go to the books' Goodreads pages.

Hope Adams' first novel Dangerous Women (Berkley, Feb.) follows 180 Englishwomen on a convict ship to Van Diemen's Land (modern Tasmania) in 1841. Along the way, they assemble a giant quilt, an artifact that can be viewed today, and evade a potential murderer on board. The setting for Melanie Benjamin's The Children's Blizzard (Delacorte, Feb.) is the Dakota Territory in January 1888. Young people and their teachers were in school as a sudden blizzard hit, leaving them with tough decisions to make. Moving to an earlier period than his usual, Chris Bohjalian's Hour of the Witch (Doubleday, Apr.) delves into the life of a young Puritan woman in 1660s Boston who's desperate to end her violent marriage. And for her debut, Wild Women and the Blues (Kensington, Mar.), Denny S. Bryce intertwines the stories of a chorus girl in Jazz Age-Chicago and a modern film student who interviews her decades later, when she's 110 years old.



Incorporating another pulled-from-history subject, Patti Callahan (Becoming Mrs. Lewis) focuses on the sinking of the steamship Pulaski in 1838, a family affected by the tragedy, and a contemporary professor researching the topic, in her Surviving Savannah (Berkley, Mar). Ben Hopkins' Cathedral (Europa, Jan.) looks tailor-made for Ken Follett fans, with its subject the bustling community surrounding the construction of a Gothic cathedral in 13th-century Germany. When Stars Rain Down by Angela Jackson-Brown (Thomas Nelson, Apr.) takes us to small-town, Depression-era Georgia with the story of a young Black woman coming of age during a time when the KKK is wreaking havoc in her community. Sadeqa Johnson's Yellow Wife (Simon & Schuster, Jan.), set in the mid-19th century, recounts the tale of a young woman hoping to be granted her freedom but who finds herself returned to slavery and working in a notorious Virginia jail (based on a true story).


Mitchell James Kaplan's third novel, Rhapsody (Gallery, Mar.) centers on the decade-long affair between composers George Gershwin and Kay Swift in the 1920s-30s.  In the Palace of Flowers by Victoria Princewill (Cassava Republic, Feb.) takes place in the royal court of Iran in the 1890s, with two enslaved people as its protagonists. (The UK release date was this August.)  Mary Sharratt's historical novels are always excellent, and I'm looking forward to Revelations (HMH, Apr.), her take on English mystics Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe in the 15th century. Lastly, Leaving Coy's Hill by Katherine A. Sherbrooke (Pegasus, May) is another work of biographical fiction, illuminating the life of Lucy Stone, a 19th-century American orator and abolitionist.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Millicent Glenn's Last Wish by Tori Whitaker, a multi-period novel about family secrets and family ties

Tori Whitaker is an avid reader of novels that juggle past and present-day timelines, highlighting worthy examples on social media and penning a feature article on multi-period fiction (Historical Novels Review, Issue 83). In her debut, she demonstrates mastery of this popular historical fiction format herself. 

Her heroine is Millicent Glenn, a spry widow of 90 who readers will come to care for right away. Family means everything to Millie, so when her daughter Jane moves back home to Cincinnati in 2015, and granddaughter Kelsey announces her pregnancy, she couldn’t be happier. Millie’s relationship with Jane is strained, and she knows that to repair it, she must find the courage to reveal a traumatic time from the Glenns’ past and hope for Jane’s forgiveness.

Back in mid-century Ohio, Millie is a former tenement girl of German heritage newly married to her sweetheart, Dennis Glenn. Remembering her mother’s admonishment to earn her own income, she’s excited to help Dennis spread the word about his prefab home dealership. When she becomes pregnant after years of trying, they feel their prayers are answered. Millie’s dreams of a large family never materialize, though, for a terrible reason that becomes a secret too painful to reveal.

Both timelines are equally gripping, and the shifts between them keep the suspense level high. Whitaker notices the small details that make the 1950s Midwest feel tangible, such as metal milk-delivery boxes, radio soap operas, and two-tone Chevrolets. In addition to nostalgic elements of vintage d├ęcor and pastimes, though, the story illustrates the weight of expectations women faced, pressured to be perfect wives and mothers while seeing their career hopes stifled. Millie can’t even open a savings account without Dennis’s permission (sadly, historically accurate). This tenderly written, fast-moving tale of marriage, women’s friendships, and family reconciliation is satisfying and extremely moving.

Millicent Glenn's Last Wish was published by Lake Union in October 2020. There are over 8000 ratings on Amazon, which is pretty amazing; the novel was chosen for their First Reads program over the summer, which got it into many readers' hands early. I reviewed it from a PDF for November's Historical Novels Review.

If you're interested in dual-timeline novels, Tori Whitaker's article "Multi-Period Novels: The Keys to Weaving Together Two Stories from Different Time Periods" will be worth reading. She describes several plot patterns used in these stories and interviews authors Chanel Cleeton, Jane Johnson, James Carroll, and Ariel Lawhon about their writing.  The other day, the author announced a deal for her upcoming book, another multi-generational novel set in Prohibition-era Detroit and modern Kentucky. I await it eagerly.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

The Tainted by Cauvery Madhavan, a novel of Ireland, India, and their intersecting histories

Madhavan describes an era long gone which continues to make an impact. An Indian-born writer who has lived in Ireland for over thirty years, she conveys her extensive familiarity with both countries’ histories and how they intersected. The first half of this thought-provoking novel opens in 1920, as Private Michael Flaherty settles into life in the Indian hill town of Nandagiri along with his regiment, the Royal Irish Kildare Rangers.

While assisting the local priest with Sunday Mass preparations, Michael meets Rose Twomey, a pretty Anglo-Indian who serves as the lady’s maid to the wife of his commanding officer, Colonel Aylmer. In her diary, Rose shares her feelings about Michael, her role in the Aylmer family, and her longing for Ireland, which she considers her true homeland. Her naivete is heartbreaking, for readers know that even with her elegant handwriting, fair skin, and her utter rejection of her Indian heritage, she’ll never be accepted into Irish society. When Michael and his fellow soldiers get word about the atrocities committed by the Black and Tans during the Irish war for independence, they take drastic action that affects his relationship with Rose.

The novel’s second half is even better. In 1982, Richard Aylmer, the colonel’s grandson, travels to Nandagiri for a photography project, and the friendships he establishes allow for open cross-cultural dialogue about the region’s complicated history. A key contributor to the discourse, May Twomey, Rose’s granddaughter, wryly observes Anglo-Indians’ misplaced sense of nostalgia for the days of the Raj: “We’re tainted – we were never white enough then and will never be brown enough now.” She’s a terrific character, a woman with a clear-eyed view of the past and present. The story offers a lot to unpack about colonialism and social belonging and is recommended for its insights and thoughtful writing.

The Tainted was published by Hope Road in 2020, and I reviewed it from a purchased copy for November's Historical Novels Review.  

The Royal Irish Kildare Rangers are based on the historical Connaught Rangers. As I learned on Twitter afterward, on November 3rd, 2020, the Embassy of Ireland in New Delhi hosted a virtual conference with Jawaharlal Nehru University entitled India, Ireland, and World War I: The Connaught Rangers 1920 Mutiny and its Socio-Political Dimensions. Author Cauvery Madhavan was a featured speaker, discussing the historical background to The Tainted and how she wove it into her story. The archived presentation is available on Facebook. Her session begins around the three-hour, 29-minute mark (3:29:00). Having just finished the novel, I found it absolutely fascinating.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

The Flame Within by Liz Harris, an English family saga set between the wars

The pages turn swiftly in The Flame Within, second in Liz Harris’s Linford Saga. Rather than a sequel to The Dark Horizon, it works as a companion volume, revealing the full story of a secondary character: Alice Foster Linford, aunt-by-marriage of the first book’s protagonists.

In the prologue, set in Belsize Park, London, in 1923, Alice takes a new position as companion to an elderly woman while debating how to win back her estranged husband, Thomas Linford, whom she had somehow wronged. The scene then reverts to 1904, with young Alice growing up in the small Lancashire town of Waterfoot. 

Wanting a future beyond mill or factory work, Alice aims to lose her local accent and improve her education. Life interferes with her plans, though, until her training with the British Red Cross, and the outbreak of war, introduce her to Thomas, youngest son of a prominent family of suburban London builders. After suffering injuries in France, Thomas, who uses a wheelchair and prosthetic leg, has difficulty adjusting to life at home. A patient, caring woman, Alice becomes worn down by her formerly cheerful husband’s moodiness and jealousy and the restrictions he imposes on her.

For readers of The Dark Horizon, some of the plot in the middle will be familiar, but the new angle enhances the earlier picture. (The book will also read well on its own.) Joseph Linford, head of the family firm, remains a daunting figure, but because he likes and approves of Alice, his nefarious side doesn’t emerge here. Harris deftly interweaves many social issues of the day, including how wartime trauma can affect a marriage, legal issues affecting women, and the difficulties of crossing class lines. Alice is a sympathetic heroine who makes realistic choices for a woman in her position. Without giving spoilers, the conclusion is very satisfying.

The Flame Within was published by Heywood Press in October, and I first reviewed it for November's Historical Novels Review.  If you missed reading The Dark Horizon, I posted a review last month. I'm curious to see who Liz Harris's next protagonist will be as the series continues.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Dark Tides continues Philippa Gregory's Fairmile saga in 17th-century England and America

Gregory continues her Fairmile saga, following the atmospheric Tidelands (2019), by casting a broad arc spanning the Old and New Worlds and adding a mysterious, disruptive new character. 

In 1670, Alinor Reekie and her daughter, Alys, reside in London, where Alinor practices herbalism and Alys runs a small wharf. Then Sir James Avery, Alinor’s faithless former lover, returns hoping to marry her, and Livia, her son Rob’s Italian wife, shows up with her baby, claiming that Rob drowned in Venice. Expressing disappointment in her in-laws’ low social status, Livia settles into their home and insinuates herself into the family business, and Alinor doesn’t trust her. 

In distant New England, Alinor’s brother, Ned, seeks peace as tension stirs between colonists and the Indians. His tale, while evocatively illustrating English-Native relations and the English Civil War’s far-reaching aftereffects, feels disconnected from the juicier story of uncovering exactly what Livia’s endgame is. 

Resolute and proud of her working-class heritage, Alinor remains enigmatically compelling. Answers arrive via an unexpected avenue as the plot heats up, with dramatic twists aplenty.

Dark Tides is published this month by Atria/Simon & Schuster; I reviewed it initially for the 10/15/20 issue of Booklist (reprinted with permission).  

I'd previously reviewed Tidelands last September. Comparing the two, I prefer Tidelands.  Livia is a character I found extremely irritating, although to be fair, Alinor feels the same (in other words, she's written that way). And I expected the stories set in New England and London to connect more than they did, but apart from letters and occasionally goods moving across the Atlantic, they're essentially separate.  I did appreciate the New World storyline, though, as it delves into an aspect of history rarely covered in historical fiction.

Thursday, November 05, 2020

The Evening and the Morning, Ken Follett's epic prequel to The Pillars of the Earth

Over a century before The Pillars of the Earth, the future English cathedral town of Kingsbridge is a mere hamlet with a stone church, ferry, alehouse, and a scattering of humble buildings. Follett’s supremely entertaining prequel centers on the locale known then as Dreng’s Ferry – named after a surly business owner – and the city of Shiring, while dramatizing their inhabitants’ interactions around the first millennium CE.

Three plucky protagonists have ambitious dreams that set them apart. Edgar, an illiterate boatbuilder with an engineer’s mind, loses his lover to a brutal Viking raid and works to raise his family out of poverty. Lady Ragna, the Count of Cherbourg’s daughter, leaves Normandy to marry her wealthy betrothed but is dismayed by her new life’s reality. And a monk, Brother Aldred, seeks to develop his abbey’s scriptorium and library into an educational beacon. However, with political influence held by a trio of wily brothers and their relatives, anyone stepping outside their societal role risks having their hopes, indeed their very lives, crushed. Wynstan, Bishop of Shiring, is a notably formidable nemesis.

Bursting with personality and detailed re-creations of daily life in historic England, this story is vintage Follett. Anyone who loved Pillars will want to scoop it right up. The characters, while belonging to their era, are recognizable types that make it easy to identify with or hiss at them. The momentum never flags, an impressive achievement in a tome that sprawls in length but not setting or time. Two pervasive themes are the corruption of power, and how average people have few choices. King Ethelred is a distant presence, and justice depends on leaders’ personalities and whims. Slave girls suffer particularly violent fates. It is frustrating to see our heroes’ plans so frequently thwarted, but one can’t help but read on, hoping for a better future – as the evocative title signifies.

The Evening and the Morning was published in the US by Viking in September.  The UK publisher is Macmillan.  I reviewed it from a NetGalley copy for November's Historical Novels Review.  At 928pp long, the e-version was easier on my wrists/hands, and the story moved quickly.  If you're feeling frazzled with all the election drama, rising Covid rates, and doomscrolling on social media, this book will make a good distraction. Hope you're all holding up OK during these stressful times.