Saturday, June 15, 2024

All We Were Promised portrays three Black women's friendship and hopes for freedom in 1830s Philadelphia

Lattimore’s debut exudes originality in its characters, plot situations, and especially in its well-chosen setting of 1830s Philadelphia, “the self-proclaimed cradle of liberty,” a landmark American city whose grand ideals of freedom and brotherly love fall short for its Black residents. The opening scene makes plain this philosophical struggle. As Charlotte Walker and Nell Gardner attend a speech by prominent abolitionist Robert Purvis in Washington Square Park, white men’s resentment agitates a violent mob.

The young women’s worlds rarely intersect; their friendship is an exception. Nell’s family are well-to-do Black elites who have been free for generations, while Charlotte had escaped a Maryland plantation with her father four years earlier, a fact she keeps hidden. Charlotte is forced to serve as housemaid to her ambitious father while he passes for white and establishes an upscale woodworking business.

Charlotte gradually opens Nell’s eyes to the hypocritical limitations of the Philadelphia Female Antislavery Society that Nell belongs to, since it hesitates to take action to help runaway slaves, even as these needs become immediate. Charlotte had left her younger friend Evie behind when she fled Maryland, and when Evie arrives in Philadelphia with her enslaver, the self-absorbed Missus Kate, Charlotte risks having her cover blown.

The viewpoint nimbly switches among the three lead characters, and pre-Civil War Philadelphia arises fully formed on the page with its diverse residential neighborhoods, public spaces, and a moral edifice whose structure is continually tested. The storyline keeps readers guessing on how everyone’s relationships will evolve under the weight of secrets: not just the women’s friendships, but also Nell’s potential romance with a family friend and Charlotte’s strained bond with her father/boss, who refuses to acknowledge their past. A few too-modern word choices stand out (“slow-walked”), but this is an altogether absorbing, thought-provoking story.

Ashton Lattimore's All We Were Promised was published by Ballantine in April; I reviewed it initially for May's Historical Novels Review.

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

These 24 novels showcase the popularity, diversity, and vibrancy of today's Gothic historical fiction

Gothic historical fiction has exploded in popularity, a trend I couldn’t be happier about. I’ve been reading gothic novels since grade school, with favorites including Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, Katheryn Kimbrough, and Barbara Michaels. In the standard plotline, a sheltered young woman arrives at a mansion in a remote corner of England, often to work as a governess, and finds herself engulfed in secrets and danger, ones revolving around the forbiddingly handsome master of the house. 

In the 1970s and '80s, "gothic” was often synonymous with “romantic suspense,” but while the secretive atmosphere and mystery subplots remain, today’s gothics may or may not have happily-ever-after endings. What you’re more likely to find, along with a strong message of feminine agency, are women who find the strength to save themselves. In terms of characters and settings, the offerings today are considerably more diverse than those of yesteryear. To add unpredictability and additional suspense, their writers switch up the standard gothic tropes in intriguing ways. Key titles in this subgenre include Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic, Kate Morton’s sagas, Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, and Sarah Penner’s feminist gothic mysteries.

Below are two dozen gothic historicals appearing in 2024. I started out with a list of twelve and kept finding more, and I’m sure there are plenty I’ve left out.  Which ones will be added to your wishlist?

Jess Armstrong’s The Secret of the Three Fates (Minotaur, Dec.) introduces American Ruby Vaughn, in her second fiction outing, to seances along the Scottish border after WWI. The Book of Witching by C. J. Cooke (HarperCollins UK, Oct.) offers another original Gothic setting in its tale of two imperiled women in the present day and the 16th-century Orkney Islands. Moving ahead to the 1930s, Polly Crosby’s gothic mystery The House of Fever (HQ, Aug.) is set in a tuberculosis sanitorium. Pandora author Susan Stokes-Chapman’s second novel The Shadow Key (Harper Perennial, Sept; also Harvill Secker, Apr.) features a male protagonist, a physician encountering secrets on a remote estate in rural 18th-century Wales. Lizzie Pook’s Maude Horton’s Glorious Revenge (Picador, Feb.) has a woman investigating her sister’s Arctic disappearance in Victorian London, while religious repression and sexism intermingle in Paulette Kennedy’s The Devil and Mrs. Davenport (Lake Union, Mar.), with a housewife in 1950s Missouri unexpectedly receiving messages from beyond the grave.

The title of Anna Noyes’ The Blue Maiden (Grove, Apr.) refers to an uninhabited Scandinavian island, one reputed to be the site of devil worshippers; a family on a neighboring island in the 19th century, descended from an accused witch, remains haunted by its legacy. Laura Purcell’s name should be familiar to fans of gothics; Moonstone (Magpie, May), her first YA, is a supernatural romance with LGBTQ rep set in the early 19th century. Del Sandeen’s fiction debut This Cursed House (Berkley, Oct), described as Southern gothic horror, has a Black woman from 1960s Chicago relocating to New Orleans to work for a family that’s been cursed. Kuchenga Shenjé’s The Library Thief (Hanover Square, May; also Sphere, Apr.) another debut, follows a Jamaican-born young woman in Victorian England who uncovers secrets in an estate’s private collection of rare books. Heading back to 16th-century Hungary, Sonia Velton’s The Nightingale’s Castle (Harper Perennial, July; also Abacus, May), looks into the notorious legend of “Blood Countess” Erzsébet Báthory. James Wade’s Hollow Out the Dark (Blackstone, Aug.), described as gothic adventure set in Depression-era Texas, has a WWI vet diving into dangerous situations and secrets.

Traditional gothic plots are infused with unique twists in all of these novels. In Kelsey James’ Secrets of Rose Briar Hall (Kensington, June), set in Gilded Age New York, a wealthy young wife awakens to a mystery and amnesia the night after a large society party. Nineteenth-century Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) follows Amara, a demon-priest’s daughter, as she tries to clear her father’s name in the dark supernatural tale Island Witch by Amanda Jayatissa (Berkley, Feb.). In 1860s Paris, two estranged sisters stage a haunting to scam a secretive family and pay their bills, but their attempted fraud backfires in Carmella Lowkis’s Spitting Gold (Atria, May). Elizabeth Macneal’s The Burial Plot (Picador UK, June), set in early Victorian England, also focuses on a pair of fraudsters, one of whom flees a risky situation by posing as a lady’s maid in a house full of secrets.  Hester Musson’s The Beholders (Fourth Estate, Jan.), her debut, involves a maid in Victorian England who unearths secrets about the mysterious household residents. In Regency-era Nova Scotia, Emeline, the protagonist in B. R. Myers’ The Third Wife of Faraday House (William Morrow, Aug.), discovers a surprise when she arrives at her prospective husband’s seaside manor: her predecessor is still alive.

Some more terrific settings in this batch! House of Shades by Lianne Dillsworth (Harper, July; also Hutchinson Heinemann, May) has the title character, a Black woman doctor, on a risky mission in 1830s London that threatens to reveal long-held mysteries. Chanel Cleeton takes a gothic turn in her latest, The House on Biscayne Bay (Berkley, Apr.), following two women decades apart who live at a glamorous mansion in south Florida. Donyae Coles’ debut, Midnight Rooms (Amistad, July), sees orphaned mixed-race heroine Orabella marrying a wealthy man she barely knows in 1840 England.  The Silence Factory by Bridget Collins (William Morrow, Aug.; also The Borough Press, May), best known for The Binding, is multi-period suspense about surprising discoveries made on a Greek island in the 1820s. Secrets and spirits from the Russian Revolution percolate into the 1920s in Olesya Salnikova Gilmore’s second novel, The Haunting of Moscow House (Berkley, Sept.), while Barbara Havelocke’s Estella’s Revenge (Canelo Hera, May) retells Great Expectations from the viewpoint of Miss Havisham’s daughter.

Thursday, June 06, 2024

Secrets abound in 1920s London in Marty Wingate's newest cozy mystery

Kudos to Marty Wingate for writing an engaging cozy mystery whose solution is a clever and unpredictable puzzle. A Body at the Dance Hall is third in a series featuring the perky, adventurous Miss Mabel Canning, who takes assignments with the Useful Women agency in 1922 London – private investigation is her specialty – while quietly investigating murders.

When Mabel gets approached about a posh gig as companion to a wealthy young American woman newly arrived in London, she looks forward to livening up her dull January by showing her charge around town. But Roxanne Arkwright, eighteen-year-old daughter of a British industrialist and his Chicago-based first wife, appears to be a high-maintenance handful.

Then, on the pair’s evening out at the Hammersmith Palais de Danse, Mabel garbed in slinky knee-length blue chiffon velvet, our sleuth gets locked in the hall’s larder by a fellow detective hired by the Arkwrights to watch Roxanne. An hour later, after Mabel is freed by an old contact at Scotland Yard, she finds the young man lying dead, and Roxanne frantic with worry about her.

The mystery plot gets deliciously complicated as it changes from having no real suspects at all, since the motive for the crime isn’t clear, to nearly everyone being a suspect. Secrets are afoot! Wingate scatters red herrings hither and thither until the perpetrator comes into surprising focus, and the book’s revelations don’t end there.

This volume stands alone perfectly, with only light allusions to Mabel’s two previous outings. The fashions and hairstyles are fabulous, the historical atmosphere lively, and the characters a fun mix, including Gladys, the friendly terrier owned by Mabel’s beau, Park Winstone. (Better naming consistency would be great; he’s called Park and Winstone equally frequently.) But let’s see more of Mabel and her fellow Useful Women, please.

A Body at the Dance Hall was published by Bookouture in April, and I'd reviewed it from NetGalley for May's Historical Novels Review. The two previous books are A Body on the Doorstep and A Body at the Séance, but you don't need to read them first.  I wish more historical mystery authors would make the effort to have their books stand alone, since it makes it so much easier for new readers. And since there weren't any spoilers, I went back and got copies of the first two.

Thursday, May 30, 2024

The Passionate Tudor by Alison Weir depicts the complicated, ultimately tragic life of Queen Mary I

Mary I, England’s first true queen regnant, isn’t generally recognized for her admirable steadfastness, like her mother Catherine of Aragon, or her canny survival instinct, like her half-sister, Elizabeth I, although she exhibited both these qualities. Instead, due to her zealous persecution of Protestants, the sobriquet "Bloody Mary" clings to her. Her actions make her a challenging fiction subject, but Tudor expert Weir (The King’s Pleasure, 2023) dexterously humanizes this polarizing figure.

Following a cosseted childhood as Henry VIII’s elder daughter, Mary gets sidelined during her father’s pursuit of Anne Boleyn and break with Rome. Mary’s health suffers during many stressful years, and Weir casts a sympathetic light on Mary as she endures demotion and disinheritance, relying on her supporters and Catholic faith. But following her triumphant coronation, her marriage to Philip of Spain and cruel religious intolerance make her extremely unpopular.

Weir aptly demonstrates how politics and personal relationships intermix via Elizabeth’s transformation, in Mary’s eyes, from beloved sister to dangerous rival. Mary’s passionate spirit, which is stubbornly and tragically misdirected, comes alive via Weir’s thorough approach.

The Passionate Tudor was published by Ballantine (US/Canada) this week, and by Hodder Headline in the UK on May 9, under the title Mary I: Queen of Sorrows.  I wrote this review for the April 15th issue of Booklist.

This is the third novel in a loose trilogy following three generations of Tudors: Henry VIII (The King's Pleasure) and his mother (The Last White Rose) and eldest daughter. Other historical novelists have written about Mary I, but none very recently.  Suzannah Dunn's The Queen's Sorrow appeared in 2009, likewise Julianne Lee's Her Mother's Daughter, both at a time when Tudor fiction was in vogue. Having finished this series, I'm curious to see what Alison Weir will write next.

Saturday, May 25, 2024

Historical fiction trendspotting: Sail the world with these recent and upcoming pirate novels

Ahoy there! Has anyone else noticed the number of historical fiction about pirates appearing lately? There are enough of them to warrant some notice. Besides the exciting storylines, another attractive angle to these books is that they're anchored in historical settings you don't often see.  Many of them deal with female pirates: some completely fictional, others based in legend. Below are eight that came out in the past year or so.  Looking ahead to the future, you'll see more, including Ariel Lawhon's next novel The Pirate Queen, about 16th-century Irish chieftain Grace O'Malley; and Rachel Rueckert's The Determined, about Anne Bonny and Mary Read, which is out from Kensington in 2025.

The Ballad of Jacquotte Delahaye by Briony Cameron
Briony Cameron's debut novel is based on the legend of Jacquotte Delahaye, a biracial woman of color from Saint-Domingue who reportedly became a pirate captain in the 17th-century Caribbean.  Atria, June 2024.

The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi by Shannon Chakraborty
Immerse yourself in the political and cultural world of the Indian Ocean in the 12th century, full of bustling international trade and dangerous threats, in Chakraborty's historical fantasy novel. First in a series, it sees the title character—a widow, mother, and former pirate—tempted into one more adventure at sea.  Harper Voyager, February 2023.

Deep as the Sky, Red as the Sea by Rita Chang-Eppig
The South China Sea in the 19th century is the setting for this debut about a pirate queen of legend, Shek Yeung, and the risks she takes to solidify power in a patriarchal world. Bloomsbury, May 2023.

Saltblood by Francesca de Tores
De Tores (who also writes as Francesca Haig) dives into the life story of Mary Read, who recounts her adventurous life, from her childhood, when she was raised as a boy, through her later years as a notorious pirate.  Bloomsbury UK, April 2024.

A True Account by Katherine Howe
Howe (The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane) writes an exciting tale about Hannah Masury, an indentured servant who flees 18th-century Boston and dons a disguise as a cabin boy about a pirate ship. In a parallel timeline, a 1930s-era researcher uncovers Hannah's story. Henry Holt, November 2023.

The Ghost Ship by Kate Mosse
Part three in her Joubert Family Chronicles, Mosse's The Ghost Ship tells a story about a vessel of secrets, romance, and piracy that moves from Europe to the Barbary Coast in the 1620s. Minotaur, July 2023.

Seaborne by Nuala O'Connor
The swashbuckling tale of Anne (Coleman) Bonny, a young woman from Ireland's County Cork who  immigrates to America in the early 18th century with her family and turns to a life of the sea on a quest for freedom and adventure. New Island Books, April 2024.

If the Tide Turns by Rachel Rueckert
Based on the legend of pirate Samuel Bellamy, Rueckert's debut is an adventurous star-crossed love story about Sam, an orphaned sailor from Cape Cod, and the woman he loves, Maria Brown, whose affluent family refuses to entertain Sam as a suitor for her. Kensington, March 2024.

Saturday, May 18, 2024

Restoration-era intrigue and sisterhood in Nicola Cornick's multi-period The Other Gwyn Girl

Raise your hand if you realized royal mistress Nell Gwyn had an older sister. If not, you’re not alone. Nicola Cornick has a knack for taking interesting women from history’s sidelines, digging into the limited facts on their lives, and weaving them into compelling dual-narrative plots.

In this highly diverting romantic caper, Rose Gwyn has gotten herself in a muddle. It’s 1671, and she’s been languishing in London’s grimy Marshalsea Prison for six weeks after being arrested as an accessory to her highwayman husband John’s theft of the crown jewels. Pregnant and despondent – and illiterate – Rose asks her jailer to scribe a note to her sister Nell, theatrical darling and Charles II’s beloved, begging to be freed. Nell comes to her rescue but has motives beyond sibling affection. Perpetually worried about money after the sisters’ impoverished childhood, Nell had plans for the stolen jewels herself, but they have mysteriously disappeared.

The parallel narrative, set today, involves librarian Jess Yates, forced to relaunch her life after her fraudster ex-boyfriend’s deceptions. She lands in rural Berkshire, working as housekeeper for her sister Tavy, a celebrity influencer whose latest reality TV series follows the restoration of “Fortune Hall,” a manor where legends about the Gwyn family still circulate.

Compared with Rose’s Restoration-era tale of dangerous conspiracies and betrayals, Jess’s story could have felt lightweight and ignorable, and it’s to Cornick’s credit that it isn’t. With the help of Ethan, a historic building consultant, Jess begins exploring the house’s shadowy centuries-old history; fans of Lauren Belfer’s Ashton Hall will enjoy her research journey. One of the novel’s love stories develops too fast, a small flaw in a well-constructed tale of two independent women and the complexities of sisterhood. This story stands alone, but the author’s fans will note cameos of characters and places from her earlier novels.

The Other Gwyn Girl was published by the UK's Boldwood Books in March; I reviewed it initially for May's Historical Novels Review. For US readers, I just noticed that the book is 99 cents on Kindle (not sure how long this will last!), and Amazon Prime members can read it for free in their Prime library.

Monday, May 13, 2024

The Great Divide by Cristina Henríquez unites a diverse cast of people during the Panama Canal's construction

The Great Divide
is the epic novel of the Panama Canal’s construction you didn’t know you’d been missing. This major engineering feat of the early 20th century linked the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, making international shipping more efficient, but its excavation caused untold hardships for Panama’s people. With this event as a backdrop, Henríquez brings together a large cast whose lives are transformed by it.

Among them are Ada Bunting, an enterprising young Barbadian woman who stows away aboard a steamer to Panama, hoping to earn enough money there to pay for surgery for her ill sister back home. Omar Aquino, a fisherman’s son, seeks adventure and community in signing on as a laborer for the canal, but his decision provokes his father, who hates seeing his country torn up by outsiders, to give him the silent treatment. A caring woman with botanical expertise, Marian Oswald has accompanied her scientist husband, John, from Tennessee in support of his dream of eradicating malaria but finds herself isolated and lonely.

The viewpoint is deliberately inclusive and moves from familiar perspectives to new ones with ease, introducing characters like Ada’s proudly independent mother in Barbados; the fishmonger Joaquín and wife Valentina, whose childhood home at Gatún is the rumored site of a proposed dam; and the Oswalds’ cook, Antoinette, who sends funds back to her children in Antigua.

Henríquez’s style resembles Ken Follett’s in its smoothness and approachability, though her cast is more culturally diverse, the scope not as sprawling, and she avoids crazy coincidences in gathering the different threads together. The novel is a stellar example of how historical novels can bring lesser-known voices to the surface, emphasizing how every person has a story worth listening to.

The Great Divide appeared from Ecco/HarperCollins in March, and I'd reviewed it from an Edelweiss copy for the Historical Novels Review's May issue.  Fourth Estate is the UK publisher. The novel was a Read with Jenna book club pick. A Spanish-language edition, Entre Dos Aguas, translated by  Martha Celis-Mendoza, will be out in August.