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.

Thursday, May 09, 2024

Bits and pieces of historical fiction news: awards, reviews, and more

A short roundup of recent news about historical novels and their authors.

Jayne Anne Phillips' Night Watch, set in rural West Virginia during and after the US Civil War, was named the winner for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction on May 6th. I had reviewed it last year, and it's nice to see a historical novel get such a prestigious honor.  The announcement in Publishers Lunch (can't link to it as it's behind a paywall) mentioned that up until now, Night Watch had sold fewer than 4000 hardcover copies, a modest number.  Safe to say that many libraries and individual readers will be adding it to their collections now.  It was also longlisted for the National Book Award. The Washington Post review, by Wendy Smith, which called it "beautiful, mournful," is very positive (with one quibble that I happen to agree with). Dwight Garner's New York Times review is decidedly less so. The literary style won't appeal to everyone, but in reading multiple reviews, you can get a sense of whether a novel will suit your tastes or not. Then, if you want to read more about authors and reviews, I recommend Jennifer Weiner's Substack post on the topic, "Revenge of the Panned."

The 2024 Walter Scott Prize shortlist is out, with six historical novels under contention:

The New Life by Tom Crewe (Chatto & Windus/Scribner)
Hungry Ghosts by Kevin Jared Hosein (Bloomsbury/Ecco)
My Father's House by Joseph O’Connor (Harvill Secker/Europa)
In the Upper Country by Kai Thomas (Viking Canada/Viking US/John Murray)
Absolutely and Forever by Rose Tremain (Chatto & Windus/no US edition)
The House of Doors by Tan Twan Eng (Canongate/Bloomsbury US)

I've added the US publishers if they exist. The only one I've read so far is In the Upper Country, centering on an Underground Railroad hub in what's now Ontario in 1859, and my takeaway was "while [it] isn’t an effortless read, it makes an original and valuable contribution to the historical fiction genre." The winner will be announced on June 13th.

The category shortlists for the Historical Novel Society's First Chapters competition were announced on Monday. This award is for the first three chapters of an unpublished historical fiction work.

Bestselling historical crime writer C. J. Sansom passed away on April 27th after a lengthy illness, and his fans, peers, and publisher have been posting their remembrances. Among the most moving is that written by his friend Rear Admiral John Lippiett, Chief Executive of the Mary Rose Trust, speaking about how he came to meet the author and read his works, and his personal experience with Sansom's thorough research into Tudor politics and life over the course of his novels.

On her Substack, Alina Adams shares details about sales and earnings for her newest historical novelMy Mother's Secret: A Novel of the Jewish Autonomous Region, which came out with the micro-press History Through Fiction. This will be an informative post not just for readers curious about the historical fiction market, but also (and especially) for authors interested in publishing with smaller presses and wanting to know what to expect. Spoiler alert: the total sales numbers have been very good.

Saturday, May 04, 2024

Kelly E. Hill's A Home for Friendless Women is based on original research into Victorian-era Louisville

Kelly E. Hill’s debut reads like a living, breathing scrapbook about the women from the titular Home, a religious organization from late 19th-century Louisville, Kentucky, that took in unwed pregnant women, attempting to instill them with godly virtues while persuading them to discard their “sinful” ways. Of course, what constitutes sin is in the beholder’s eye, and the line between the oppressed and their female oppressors often hinges on an unfortunate quirk of fate.

In 1878, a brilliant former Oberlin College student named Ruth arrives at the Home after an unknown man sexually assaults her in the campus museum – a place where women students were permitted to clean but not use the microscopes. With nowhere else to go, Ruth puts up with the founders’ obnoxious moralizing, but shocking events have her worrying about the other girls and their babies.

Eleven years later, we hear from the witty Belle Queeney, who left the brothel several blocks away after she fell pregnant. Belle’s tireless work ethic threatens to make the other “inmates” look bad, but she knows her worth even if society calls her a fallen woman. Belle dreams of reuniting with her lover, Rose, who has gone missing.

And in 1901, the founders’ daughter Minnie Davidson, now a fortyish wife and mother, uncovers a past scandal at the Home just in time for its 25th anniversary celebration. Their accounts appear chronologically, a technique that allows mysteries to build.

Delighting in research but never weighed down by it, Hill’s novel is based around cryptic mentions from the Home’s actual minute books (“Two women have been sent to City Hospital, one to Insane Asylum, one expelled”), transforming these long-silenced individuals into memorable characters, alongside primary source snippets and informative footnotes. Echoing with themes of human dignity, bodily autonomy, and the rights all women deserve, this wise and compassionate work is completely absorbing.

A Home for Friendless Women was published by Vintage in March, and I reviewed it for May's Historical Novels Review. This novel hasn't gotten the attention it deserves!  If not for a review in Booklist, I wouldn't have realized this book was available; afterward, I found it on NetGalley and requested it. And yes, there are footnotes. They often don't work well within historical novels, but I had no problem with them in this one.

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Judith Lindbergh's Akmaral evokes the uncommon life of a woman warrior from ancient times

Imagine a time, far distant from living memory, when nomadic clans roamed the vast grasslands of central Asia. They derive strength from the animals they rely upon for nourishment and transport, from their devout religious beliefs, and from the tight unity of their clans, in which their training as warriors in defense of their people is deeply engrained from birth. Then imagine that many of these warriors are women, fighting with their clan alongside the men.

This is the world of Judith Lindbergh’s Akmaral, a saga both lyrical and fierce that evokes the spirit of its heroine, a woman of the Sauromatae in the 5th century BCE, who unspools her story as her own life draws to a close. “I do not like battle,” she says. “Only know that a show of strength is required to keep the peace.” The Sauromatae were documented by Herodotus, and may have given rise to the legends of the Amazons.

By the time of her impending death, Akmaral has united many wandering clans into a large confederacy which claimed her as its leader, although she never sought power for herself. Her narrative, rooted in conflict and betrayal, effectively establishes its theme of the struggle for balance amid opposing forces. These tensions play out at different levels: the wars between the Sauromatae and the Scythians and their allies, who conduct raids against peaceful camps; the encroachment of the patriarchy on matriarchal culture; and individuals’ internal battles on whether to conform or rebel. Yet the story also exudes amazing beauty, as shown through its poetic writing and images of the verdant steppes through the seasons.

Akmaral, orphaned as a child, grows up believing, as an exiled older priestess told her parents, that she is destined for greatness. Like all young women, she learns the techniques of fighting on horseback, attracting the enmity and desire of Erzhan, a male warrior. Her aul (clan) takes three enemy captives following a brutal raid, and Akmaral feels drawn to one of them – a silent, fair-haired prisoner called Timor. Her decision to take him as a lover spurs dramatic changes within their society.

These were ruthless times, and Lindbergh shows how the Sauromatian culture makes the continuity of life dependent on violence. This is poignantly personified through the story of Marjan, Akmaral’s friend, a young woman desperately in love who isn’t allowed to take a lover and bear a child until she kills another man. The descriptive passages and insightful characterizations make this a novel to read slowly rather than rush through. And although Akmaral tells a story of war, it’s not a typical one, since it’s layered with the insights of a influential woman with tender vulnerabilities and self-doubts – qualities that ultimately make her story and life all the more heroic.

Akmaral will be published by Regal House on May 7th; thanks to the author's publicist for providing me with a copy.

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Megan Campisi's The Widow Spy imagines a female battle of wills in Civil War-era Washington, DC

Beginning on August 23, 1861, a consequential Civil War battle is being fought inside a well-appointed home in Washington, DC. On one side are former mill girl Kate Warne, Secret Service head Allan Pinkerton’s first female detective, and her fellow agents. On the other is socialite Rose Greenhow, a crafty widow credited with siphoning intelligence that won the Battle of Manassas for the Confederacy.

As Rose sits under house arrest with her youngest daughter, Kate must quickly locate her cipher key before the rebels discover Rose has been compromised. Their mental showdown feels increasingly taut as Kate attempts to soften the widow and exploit her weaknesses while concealing her own secrets, such as her Irish origins and forbidden attraction to her Black colleague.

The characters are richly layered and the mid-nineteenth-century atmosphere completely tangible. Campisi (Sin Eater, 2020) makes an exciting return to historical fiction with a new tale of moral quandaries and the hidden talents of women as Kate revisits episodes from her traumatic past and ponders what type of person she wants to become.

The Widow Spy was published by Atria/Simon & Schuster on April 9th; I wrote this review for Booklist's April 15th issue. 

Above: Rose O'Neal Greenhow with her youngest daughter and namesake, "Little" Rose, at the Old Capitol Prison, Washington, D.C., 1862 (public domain).

Kate Warne, also, is a historical figure, with little definitively known about her earlier life before she joined the Pinkertons. She also stars as the central character in Greer Macallister's historical novel Girl in Disguise (2017).  

Unlike Megan Campisi's first novel, The Widow Spy is mainstream historical fiction, not alternate history. Read also my review of Sin Eater and interview with the author about her debut, from 2020.

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

An edgy, unsettling take on vanished women in Erin Kate Ryan's Quantum Girl Theory

“A missing girl rewrites an entire story the moment she disappears.”

A novel that’s been sitting in my NetGalley queue for too long, Erin Kate Ryan’s Quantum Girl Theory is speculative historical fiction with a vital message. “On December 1, 1946,” as the prologue outlines, “Paula Jean Welden put on a bright red parka, left her dorm, and...” vanished, leaving America to speculate on what happened to the pretty, blonde Bennington College sophomore. Did she have a terrible home life she wanted to flee? Did she leave the country and establish a new identity? Did she meet a violently abusive boyfriend? Was she kidnapped by a stranger and violently murdered?  There are multiple possibilities.

But this real-life case remains unsolved.

The main plotline occurs in Elizabethtown, North Carolina, in 1961. Disembarking after a bus trip, Mary Garrett has followed the trail of a poster offering a $7000 reward for information on the whereabouts of another missing girl named Polly Starking. Mary’s motives aren’t altruistic; she’s somewhat of an opportunistic scavenger, going from town to town offering help in finding lost women using her claimed clairvoyant abilities, collecting and living off the payments even when the women aren’t found alive. She has saved some girls, but not nearly enough of them.

The twist here is that Mary had been a missing person herself, the girl once known as Paula Jean. Mary’s unpredictable flashes of second sight began five years earlier and cause her tremendous anguish, since they grant her glimpses of people’s fearful lives and final moments.

Ryan excels at illustrating the unsettling atmosphere of this small town in the Jim Crow South in the early '60s: the Starking household, with its “cheerful yellow Formica table” and vague air of oppressive patriarchy; the pushy town sheriff and his lurking presence; and stories about two Black girls gone missing which Mary learns about, in unorthodox fashion, from Martha, the Black maid at the cheap motel where Mary stays. As Mary insinuates herself into the Starking family, she sees hints about Polly (who shares her own former nickname, “Paul”) and theorizes a connection between her and the other two girls, whose disappearances nobody cares about, aside from their families.

The author’s writing echoes with honesty about society’s lack of attention to troubled women, aside from the lurid fascination at their disappearance, and how race affects these perceptions. That and the North Carolina storyline, with its pervasive sense of dread, are the strongest parts of the book. However, Ryan intersperses these episodes with long chapters exploring alternate continuations of Paula Jean Welden’s story. Some people and motifs recur in these tales and in Mary’s: a bright red parka, a memorable wristwatch, another young woman Mary once knew. While author's purpose in showing these multiple timelines is understandable, the result is confusing and causes the momentum to slow. The ambiguous ending doesn’t help.

The novel’s Goodreads reviews aren’t stellar, with an overall rating of 2.91. I wouldn’t disagree, but for me that number works best as an average: four stars or more for the principal story, two or less for the “alternate history” spinouts. If the idea of this novel intrigues you, you may want to stick to the main plotline and skim or skip the rest.

Quantum Girl Theory was published by Random House in March 2022.