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.

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.

Monday, March 09, 2020

More historical fiction award news! Walter Scott Prize longlist and Langum Prize honorees

I've said before that I look forward to the announcement of the Walter Scott Prize longlist more than the ultimate winner: more new books to be introduced to. And aren't these covers beautiful?  Below are the 12 on the longlist for the 2020 prize. Most are from the UK editions, while some are from their US counterparts.  US editions exist for the majority of the books.


Read more about the longlist at the Walter Scott Prize site, including their plot and setting details: medieval England, 1940s Singapore, colonial South Africa, 20th-century Palestine, and more.  Look for the shortlist next month.

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And on the American historical fiction front, the 2019 Langum American Historical Fiction Prize winner and two finalists were revealed yesterday.

Watershed by Mark Barr (Hub City, 2019), the author's debut novel, takes place in small-town Tennessee during the Depression and "is an immersive historical experience, a pitch-perfect evocation of a time, a place, and a culture," reads the award announcement.

The two finalists for the Langum Prize are Ann Weisgarber's The Glovemaker, set in the Utah territory in the 1880s, and Stephanie Marie Thornton's American Princess, biographical fiction about Alice Roosevelt Longworth.

Congratulations to all the honorees!

Saturday, March 07, 2020

Bits and pieces of historical fiction news: HNSA and RNA awards, the upcoming Mantel, and lists of genre favorites

Big news from the Historical Novel Society's Australasian chapter: The HNSA has announced the ARA Historical Novel Prize 2020.  "With prize money of $30,000," reads the announcement, "the new ARA Historical Novel Prize gives Australian and New Zealand historical novelists the chance to be recognised in a class of their own, with the most significant prize purse for any genre-based prize in Australasia." The ARA Group is the principal partner.

Novels published between January 1, 2019, and June 30, 2020 are eligible, and the prize uses the definition of historical fiction from the Historical Novel Society. A longlist and shortlist will be announced later this year, with the winner to be selected this November. For more details on rules and eligibility, see the link above.

This will be a great opportunity for historical novelists in Aus and NZ, and for the genre as a whole.

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Also, from the main branch of the Historical Novel Society, registration for the 2020 conference in Durham, UK, this September is now open. Keynote speakers are Pat Barker, Graeme Macrae Burnet, Julie Cohen, and Emma Darwin.

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In the UK, the winners of the Romantic Novelists' Association's 2020 Romantic Novel Awards were announced on March 2. Among the works of historical fiction which garnered prizes:

- The Forgotten Village by Lorna Cook, a multi-period novel (WWII & present day), won the Katie Fforde Debut Romantic Novel Award.

- Jenni Fletcher's Miss Amelia's Mistletoe Marquess, a Victorian romance, won the the Libertà Books Shorter Romantic Novel Award.

- Winner of the Romantic Saga award was Tania Crosse's The Street of Broken Dreams, set in London and south-east England in 1945.

Natasha Lester's The French Photographer, set during WWII, won the Goldsboro Books Historical Romantic Novel Award.  In the US, this book has the title The Paris Orphan.

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With the imminent release of the concluding volume of Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, the media has been focusing its gaze on the historical fiction genre.

From the BBC's History Extra: nine excellent historical novels, as chosen by historians. I haven't heard of a couple of these; jump over to the link to read more about the books and the historians who selected them.

Last week, the New York Times published a piece on seven great young adult historical novels, a diverse list with both new releases and recent classics.

From the Guardian on February 29th: Beyond Mantel: the historical novels everyone must read. The works described and celebrated here are works of literary historical fiction.

And from Publishers Weekly, an interview by John Maher with Mantel herself, with some terrific quotes.

On her subject of Thomas Cromwell: "There’s so much we will never know, and what attracts me as a novelist is the combination of documented fact—the heavily-inked paper—and what’s missing and unknown—the white space."

And on history and the past, what she wishes more readers would realize: "The past has to be respected and valued for its own sake. It is not a rehearsal for the present, and its people are not us in a primitive form."

Monday, March 02, 2020

Re-Creating the 1960s and '70s in Bells for Eli, an essay by Susan Beckham Zurenda

Welcome to Susan Beckham Zurenda, who is stopping by with a post about weaving cultural elements from the 1960s-70s into the backdrop of her historical novel Bells for Eli, which is published today by Mercer University Press.

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Re-Creating the 1960s and '70s in Bells for Eli
Susan Beckham Zurenda

Who recalls eating Moon Pies in the sun with chocolate dripping down your fingers at the local swimming pool while the Eagle landed on the moon’s Tranquility Base? Or junior high parties where black lights made your teeth glow green while Agent Orange laid waste to jungles in Vietnam? Or making out at drive-in movies in high school while hippies gathered for love-ins at Golden Gate Park? This was my era, a contradictory time teetering between devotion to 1950s conventional values and the “do what you feel” '60s and '70s.

In my novel Bells for Eli, the town and settings are largely imagined, but based on the time and locale of my own youth. My main characters Delia Green and her first cousin Eli Winfield live in the fictitious small town of Green Branch, South Carolina, during this momentous period. Their joys, sorrows, conflicts, and decisions are deeply affected by this time and place.

Against this background, the novel is inspired by a tragic accident my own first cousin suffered as a toddler in the late 1950s. Similar to Eli, my cousin drank from a Coca-Cola bottle filled with Red Devil Lye, a chemical with properties like helium my uncle used to inflate balloons for my cousin’s birthday party. Like Eli, my cousin survived, but his life forever changed.

The cousins in Bells for Eli become unusually close during childhood and adolescence, partly because they live across the street from one another but more because of Eli’s accident. As Eli encounters bullying schoolmates who don’t understand and mock his disfigurement and frailty, Delia becomes his best friend, defender, and his love. In adolescence, the relationship blossoms into an intimacy that cannot be, for they know to love one’s cousin in that way is taboo.

If you’re a Boomer like me, or even if you’re not, you likely think of the 1960s—loosely beginning around 1963 with Kennedy’s assassination and ending around 1974 with Watergate—as a period of rebellion and social change. The era was defined by the counterculture and social revolution involving music, drugs, dress, sexuality, and formality, and the relaxation of social taboos concerning race and gender.

Yet amid this extreme social flux, the small-town South of the 1960s and '70s largely remained an insular time and place. The parents had grown up as children of the Great Depression and wanted their kids to have more. With the US the world’s leading industrial power after WWII, and government support for education, home loans, and a booming economy, achieving the American Dream was a given in the middle to upper middle-class small-town South. A time I well remember.

The '60s activists—culturally significant as they were—occupied the margins of American society. The mainstream in my South Carolina town conducted their business as usual: climbing the career ladder, driving their kids to school, eating dinner together at the same time every evening, living the American Dream of home ownership, nuclear family, and social prestige.

As '60s children, Eli and Delia (like me) are Baby Boomers—the largest single generation until that point in American history. Boomers tremendously affected popular culture and sought to define their identities in numerous ways, particularly through music. And though Delia’s and Eli’s musical tastes sometimes intersect in the songs portrayed in Bells for Eli, their differing preferences contrast the status quo in their small town, and the counterculture’s nonconformity.

Emerging from 1950s rock and roll that celebrated young love and freedom (think Bill Haley and His Comets’ anthem for rebellion in “Rock Around the Clock,” and Elvis’ gyrating hips censored on the Ed Sullivan Show), 1960s music split into several genres, one major divide between soft and hard rock. Exhibiting his rebelliousness, Eli gravitates toward hard rock’s emphasis on overt masculinity and sexuality. Led Zeppelin, The Who, and The Grateful Dead typify his taste.

Unlike her cousin, Delia’s music reflects a more conservative bias. She’s attracted to the soft rock of Three Dog Night and The Temptations, and even admits liking Bubble Gum music, a subgenre highlighting innocuous themes like sunshine, toys, and sugary foods.

Still, Delia isn’t completely content, not like her friend Nealy, secure the way things are. Delia desires independence, beginning in grammar school when she chooses a career outfit for her Barbie, not a house dress and apron like her mother wears. Delia has no notion of the coming Women’s Liberation Movement, but she knows herself.

Television also provided Americans with accepted social patterns. Unlike music, however, few shows projected the antiestablishment. Not until 1967’s The Smothers Brothers’ political satire and 1968’s Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in—a play on the “love-ins” of hippie culture—did programming suggest the counterculture of civil rights and antiwar demonstrations. In the small-town South, people watching these shows often did so on the sly.

More often, television presented idealized white suburban family life. Happy housewife mothers, wise fathers, mischievous but not dangerously rebellious children were constants in shows like Leave it to Beaver, My Three Sons, and Andy of Mayberry. As in these programs, traditional family values, hospitality and proper behavior are expectations in 1960s Green Branch. Pretending life is good is a given, even if it isn’t.

Eli’s everyday family life is not the norm, but his mother knows how to make everything seem right. Mary Lily epitomizes graciousness and decorum, rarely confronting her husband’s alcoholic rants and violence. She is mostly passive toward Gene’s dysfunction, common for 1960s wives when divorce was rare, especially in the small-town South.

The frictions between expected conduct in that era’s South,  and the looming rebellion during Delia and Eli’s late adolescence, propel Bells for Eli toward its dramatic conclusion, when Delia discovers a shocking secret and truths about Eli she has never known.

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More about Bells for Eli (Mercer University Press; March 2, 2020):

First cousins Ellison (Eli) Winfield and Adeline (Delia) Green are meant to grow up happily and innocently across the street from one another amid the supposed wholesome values of small-town Green Branch, South Carolina, in the 1960s and 1970s. But Eli's tragic accident changes the trajectory of their lives and of those connected to them. As Eli struggles for acceptance in childhood, Delia passionately devotes herself to defending him. Both are determined to safeguard the other.
Susan Beckham Zurenda
(photo credit: Anna Beckham)

Bells for Eli is a lyrical and tender exploration of the coming of age relationship between cousins drawn together through tragedy in a love forbidden by social constraints and a family whose secrets must stay hidden. Susan Beckham Zurenda masterfully transports readers into a small Southern town where quiet, ordinary life becomes extraordinary.

About the author

Susan Beckham Zurenda taught college and high school English for many years and now works as a publicist for Magi Time Literary Publicity. A recipient of several regional awards for her fiction, including The South Carolina Fiction Project, The Alabama Writers Conclave First Novel Chapter, The Porter Fleming Literary Competition, and The Southern Writers Symposium, she has also published numerous stories and nonfiction pieces in literary journals. Zurenda lives in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Her website is https://www.susanzurenda.com.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Spying for the Tudor realm: Arthur Phillips' The King at the Edge of the World

On matters of religion, Elizabeth I famously said she didn’t desire to “make windows into men’s souls.” To preserve her Protestant realm and prevent future bloodshed, however, her intelligencers devise a scheme to do exactly that to her likely successor, Scotland’s James VI.

In Phillips’ (The Tragedy of Arthur, 2011) inventively multilayered novel, their chosen agent, Mahmoud Ezzedine, is a Muslim physician in the Ottoman ambassador’s contingent who was left behind in bleak England. In 1601, with Elizabeth old and ailing, Ezzedine is approached with a delicate proposal: determine whether James is at heart Protestant or Catholic, and he can rejoin his wife and son in Constantinople. Getting close to the Scots king isn’t easy, though.

Phillips crafts a believable late-Elizabethan backdrop laced with intrigue and juxtaposes it with a deep dive into the emotions of an intelligent man in exile from country, family, even a sense of hope. Evoked in exquisite language full of subtle shadings and theatrical references, the plot grows suspenseful, and readers will appreciate how it lets them grasp on their own where it leads.

Arthur Phillips' The King at the Edge of the World was published by Random House on February 11th.  I contributed this review for Booklist's January 1 issue.

Some other notes:
James VI, the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, was Elizabeth I's cousin twice removed, and history records that he succeeded her on England's throne in 1603 (as James I). Despite the prevalence of novels set in Elizabethan times, few delve into the details of the royal succession at the end of Elizabeth's life, George Garrett's classic The Succession (1983) is one, and this is another.  Phillips' novel takes a unique viewpoint compared to other Elizabethan-set fiction. I also greatly admire novels that take a subtle approach to historical suspense.

Read more in the reviews at the New York Times (by Dominic Dromgoole) and Washington Post (by Ron Charles).