Monday, April 22, 2019

A royal Stuart scandal: The Poison Bed by Elizabeth Fremantle

How does one write a successful thriller about a well-known historical event, in which not only is the outcome known, but most characters once lived? This would seem an unusual challenge, but in The Poison Bed, Elizabeth Fremantle manages it by amping up the psychological tension and keeping readers in suspense about the true nature of her male and female leads.

In the early 17th century, the so-called Overbury Affair agitated the royal court of James I of England. While named after its victim, a minor English poet who met an untimely end in 1613, the scandal surrounding his death spiraled out, two years later, to ensnare prominent personalities, staining the court’s image.

As it begins, the two people at the center, a married couple, sit in separate cells in the Tower of London awaiting trial for Thomas Overbury’s murder. Frances Howard, a noted beauty, tells her story to her baby’s wet-nurse, while her husband Robert Carr shares his own perspective of what happened. The ultimate question: which of them was responsible?

A member of the notorious Howard family, Frances had first been wed to the Earl of Essex, while Robert, the king’s favorite, could use a wife of his own to hide the truth about his own affair with King James. Engineering the annulment of Frances’s marriage and her subsequent union to Robert is her great-uncle, the Earl of Northampton, who has plans to tie his family close to royal power. The couple themselves feel a surprising attraction to one another, but Thomas Overbury, Robert’s good friend and former mentor, stands in his way, since he thinks Frances is an immoral whore (he’s blunt about it, too).

The atmosphere is dark and claustrophobic throughout, as conveyed in the psychologically confining environment, with its glimpses of violence and practitioners of black magic. Fremantle effectively depicts the venal sexual politics of early Jacobean England, with nearly everyone vying for their own preferment at the cost of others. Readers may look in vain for anyone to admire; pity may be the best that one can do. The two accounts, by Robert and Frances, run in unison early on, but differences in their stories creep in. A twist partway through turns their situation on its head.

Personally, I found their personalities so unpleasant, apart from the nursemaid Nelly and the Carrs’ innocent baby--who isn’t named--that I found myself closing the book from time to time as a form of mental escape. There’s no denying the effectiveness of Fremantle’s approach to this toxic historical scandal, though.  It should appeal to those who enjoy The Girl on the Train-style thrillers.

The Poison Bed was published by Pegasus this month; in its UK edition, published by Michael Joseph, the author writes as E. C. Fremantle. Thanks to the publisher for sending me an ARC at my request.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Red Daughter by John Burnham Schwartz, a novel of Svetlana Alliluyeva, Stalin's only daughter

As in The Commoner (2008), modeled on Japan’s empress, Schwartz again demonstrates his adroitness at illustrating the troubled lives of high-profile twentieth-century women.

His new subject is Svetlana Alliluyeva, Stalin’s daughter, whose defection to the U.S. in 1967 drew international attention and furor. Schwartz has a personal connection, since his lawyer father brought Alliluyeva to America under CIA cover, but his personality and role have been fictionalized.

In Schwartz’s variation, in private journals left to her former lawyer, Peter Horvath, Svetlana details her itinerant life, attempts to become Americanized, and feels guilt over abandoning her adult children, whom she had hoped to liberate from her past. An unlikely correspondence leads her to an Arizona-based group of Frank Lloyd Wright acolytes whose repressive commune, ruled by Wright’s widow, feels very Russian.

Strong-willed and needy, Svetlana grows close to Peter, straining his relationship with his wife. What she doesn’t reveal is also illuminating; we learn almost nothing of her earlier marriages.

A perceptive exploration of identity, motherhood, and how one woman valiantly tried to shed the heavy mantle of her father’s infamous legacy.

I reviewed The Red Daughter for the March 1 issue of Booklist, and the novel will be published by Random House on April 29th.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Interview with Kris Waldherr, author of the Victorian gothic novel The Lost History of Dreams

Kris Waldherr's accomplished debut novel The Lost History of Dreams, set in Victorian times, is suffused with Gothic atmosphere while playing with genre tropes.  In 1850, Robert Highstead, a post-mortem photographer, is asked to transport the remains of a distant cousin, noted poet Hugh de Bonne, to the stained glass chapel in Shropshire where Hugh's beloved wife, Ada, had been laid to rest years before. Ada's niece Isabelle, however, proves unwilling to unlock the chapel to fulfill Hugh's last wishes unless Robert listens to her account of the couple's  tragic love story. Thus two intertwining storylines are unfurled, each heightening the experience of the other. Kris Waldherr is a talented visual artist, and her skills are reflected in the writing, with its subtle attention to detail and multilayered themes.  Hope you'll enjoy this interview, as well as the novel!


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I love the Gothic themes and haunted Victorian atmosphere of The Lost History of Dreams. Where does your interest in Gothic literature originate?

It’s hard to recall ever not being fascinated by the Gothic—I was that precocious kid sneaking into the adult section of the library. I’d read the nineteenth century greats, like the Brontes and Victor Hugo, as well as contemporary authors such as Victoria Holt and Daphne du Maurier. Growing up in suburban New Jersey, I yearned for a life on the moors where I’d live in an old house crammed with secrets and ghosts. I was obsessed with the sheer romanticism of it all, especially if there were ghosts involved. The irony is I now live in an old house that’s had its share of ghostly visitations. In particular, there’s a spot on the stairway that seems to be a draw. Members of my family have caught glimpses of shadowy figures there—even our cat seems to sense something. That written, the longer we’ve lived in this house, the quieter they’ve become.

Isabelle tells Robert that while the public venerates Hugh and his poetry, “no one knows about Ada” – and she later reveals the details of a life that’s been hidden from view. It all reads smoothly, but how challenging was this story-within-a-story approach to conceptualize and write?

I’m glad the story-within-a-story reads smoothly because it was incredibly tricky to write! I especially struggled to keep one story from overpowering the other—I spent a lot of time editing for this alone!

I knew from the beginning I wanted The Lost History of Dreams to have a nested story structure akin to novels such as The Thirteenth Tale and Possession. But how to go about writing it? After several experiments, I ended up writing each storyline separately, then combining them into one document using Scrivener. One storyline is written in a close third person, the second in a more omniscient point of view that occasionally breaks the fourth wall. On top of that, I included letters and poems, which were intended to add another layer of commentary, if you will. Finally, I revised the novel for pacing, plot, and tension—I needed to have each storyline hand off to each other in a way that felt organic. I also made a spreadsheet diagramming the the two timelines, to keep all the details straight. When I printed out the spreadsheet, it filled the length of my large worktable!

I was also curious if Ada’s character was modeled on anyone from history. Are there any historical women, muses or partners to their more famous 19th-century husbands, that you feel deserve to be better known?

Ada wasn’t modeled directly on anyone, though her character was definitely informed by Gothic tropes, primarily the one of the orphaned heiress at risk. That written, I couldn’t resist giving Ada the same first name as Ada Lovecraft, Lord Byron’s brilliant mathematician daughter—the name was a wink at Hugh’s Byronesque qualities. As for historical women who deserve to be better known, there are so many! If we’re talking nineteenth century muses and wives, off the top of my head I’d love more people to learn about Elizabeth Siddal’s poetry and paintings, and Jane Morris’s brilliance as a needlewoman. Both remain better known as Pre-Raphaelite adjuncts to Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris than they do as artists in their own right.

Where did you come across the concept of eye portraits and then decide to include them in the novel?

Eye portraits, aka Lover’s Eye jewelry, were fashionable in the 17th and 18th centuries with couples having secret affairs. It was a way to wear a physical representation of your beloved while keeping your involvement on the low down—most people can’t identify who someone is from only an eye. I first learned of eye portraits from an exhibition catalogue a friend had out on her coffee table. I was instantly intrigued by their beauty and history, and knew I had to somehow work them into The Lost History of Dreams. I hadn’t expected an eye portrait to end up on my book cover as a design element, but I’m delighted it did!

During your research trips to England, were there any facts or topics you learned about that you might not have discovered otherwise?

For me, research travel is an essential part of my creative process. I can’t really write in depth until I’ve personally experienced the landscape and architecture surrounding my characters. I especially love walking in their footsteps, getting those sense memories.I was glad to visit Herne Bay, a seaside resort Ada and Hugh visit during their courtship. I’d assumed Herne Bay had a sand beach, but turns out it’s quite rocky—very different from what I’d envisioned even after studying period photographs. I was also surprised by how the water seemed less oceanic than I’d thought, and how close various landmarks were to each other. Herne Bay wasn’t very glamorous, to be honest—more like the Jersey shore than the Cote d’Azur.

One aspect I found especially memorable was the beauty and mystery of the chapel called “Ada’s Folly,” especially the stained-glass windows. How did you come up with the design of the chapel?

Strangely enough, the initial inspiration for Ada’s Folly was a newspaper article about a Paris apartment that hadn’t been opened in seventy years. For some reason, this led to my imagining a glass chapel in the woods that had been locked since its creation; I wondered what might be found inside. From there, I read about Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill and other architectural follies. In terms of the design for Ada’s Folly, I was inspired by a photograph of an abandoned chapel in a French forest taken by Romain Veillon; the photograph served as my computer desktop while I wrote Lost History. I also read about neo-Gothic stained glass of the nineteenth century and the history of French stained glass after the Revolution, which is a fascinating story onto itself.

What do you enjoy most about writing historical fiction?

I love the world building that’s involved in writing historical fiction, how richly immersive can be. Though I’m fascinated by all the details, I’m especially intrigued by how history influences character and visa versa. I also love exploring the social constraints of a period, which spurs ideas for plot and character. Sometimes when I’ve finished work for the day, it’s a shock to turn from the nineteenth century back to contemporary Brooklyn!

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The Lost History of Dreams by Kris Waldherr (Atria; April 9, 2019), is a story about a post-mortem photographer who unearths dark secrets of the past that may hold the key to his future, in the gothic tradition of Wuthering Heights and The Thirteenth Tale. Waldherr effortlessly spins a sweeping, atmospheric gothic mystery about love and loss that blurs the line between the past and the present, truth and fiction, and life and death.

Kris Waldherr is an award-winning author, illustrator, and designer. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society, and her fiction has been awarded with fellowships by the Virginia Center of the Creative Arts and a reading grant by Poets & Writers. Kris Waldherr works and lives in Brooklyn in a Victorian-era house with her husband, the anthropologist-curator Thomas Ross Miller, and their young daughter.  Visit her website at http://www.kriswaldherrbooks.com.

Monday, April 08, 2019

Interview with Edith Maxwell, author of Charity's Burden, a Quaker Midwife mystery set in 1889 Massachusetts

Edith Maxwell is an Agatha-nominated mystery writer with several current series, both contemporary and historical. Charity's Burden, published this week by Midnight Ink, is her latest entry in the Quaker Midwife mysteries; it takes place in Amesbury, Massachusetts, in the winter of 1889. Like the author herself, midwife and sleuth Rose Carroll is a member of the Society of Friends. In this book, Rose looks into the suspicious death of a young mother, perhaps from an illegal abortion. If you'd enjoy spending time in historical small-town New England in the company of a compassionate woman, while picking up details on female health care and Quaker beliefs and practices at the time, this novel is worth investigating. Let me add one more thing that attracted me to the story: the heroine wears spectacles!  I was glad to get the opportunity to ask the author a few questions.

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Although it’s the fourth in a series, Charity’s Burden stands well on its own. What do you particularly enjoy about writing historical mysteries in a series, and what are the challenges?

Thank you! I always try to make the books accessible to those who haven’t read the preceding installments. In every book, I address a different issue of the times, which entails a new set of research questions. As with my contemporary series, the cast of core actors stays constant but new characters emerge, in the service of the story as well as of the theme of that book. In this book, Madame Restante and Doctor Wallace are both unique to the issue of birth control in 1889.

I liked Rose a lot. She’s a young, single woman with a gentle outward demeanor, but she can be very direct, and she doesn’t take nonsense from anyone. How did you develop her personality?

I am so pleased you like her. I do, too. I based her quiet demeanor and physical traits (tall, dark haired, slim) on a midwife who helped with my first son’s birth thirty-two years ago. Her personality evolved in Delivering the Truth, the first book in the series, and continues to. I want her to be forthright and courageous even as she’s a good listener and caregiver. Above all, she doesn’t abide injustice.

I appreciated all the detail on women’s health care and contraception in late 19th-century America, from techniques for “family spacing” to the subtly coded messaging in newspaper ads to the dangers of “mechanical abortion” at the time. How did you research this? Were there any interesting or surprising things you discovered that you weren’t able to include?

I read Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth Century America by Janet Farrell Brodie and took lots of notes. I also read My Notorious Life by Kate Manning, a novel based on the life of Madame Restell, a nineteenth-century midwife and provider of abortions in New York City. She was the inspiration for my Madame Restante. I had not known of the highly restrictive Comstock Laws before I researched Charity’s Burden, laws which made even talking about preventing pregnancy a federal crime. I know many details I learned didn’t get into the book, but I was glad I could include a mention of the “water cure” method of avoiding pregnancy. Not sure how effective that one was.

What has the experience been like in setting a historical mystery in the town where you live? Are there geographic aspects of Amesbury that haven’t changed much over the past century and more?

I love living in Amesbury, a city full of history, and walking the streets every day. I imagine setting scenes in the brick mill building near Rose’s house (which is my own home), on Main Street near Pattens Pond, or in front of an impressive mansard-roof house. I own digital versions of aerial maps drawn in 1880 and 1890, which come with churches, public buildings, businesses, and even homes labeled by name. I can zoom in and check whether a particular edifice was built by 1890, what certain places looked like, and where a hospital or school was located. I’ve used real business names in the books.

The Powow River flows right through Amesbury and drops about 90 feet in elevation over a quarter mile, making it a perfect place to harness water energy over the last few centuries. Some of the earlier millraces are gone, but nearly all of the original tall brick mill buildings remain downtown, repurposed into shops, restaurants, yoga studios, and offices. The Powow eventually drains into the wide Merrimack River. The Lowell Boat Shop on the Merrimack has been operating continually since the 1600s, making sturdy and graceful dories.

Can you tell I love my town and the setting for the Quaker Midwife Mysteries? I’m delighted Quaker Midwife Mystery #4 is out, and I am happy to announce the series is moving over to Beyond the Page Publishing. Look for Judge Thee Not to release this fall! There will be at least two more in the series after that.

Good news - thanks very much for taking the time to answer my questions!

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Book blurb: When Charity Skells dies in winter of 1889 from an apparent early miscarriage, Quaker midwife Rose Carroll wonders about the copious amount of blood. She learns Charity’s husband appears to be up to no good with a young woman, a mysterious Madame Restante appears to offer illegal abortions and herbal birth control, and a disgraced physician in town does the same. Rose once again works with police detective Kevin Donovan to solve the case before another life is taken.

Bio: Edith Maxwell writes the Quaker Midwife Mysteries, the Local Foods Mysteries, and award-winning short crime fiction. As Maddie Day she writes the Country Store Mysteries and the Cozy Capers Book Group Mysteries. Maxwell, with seventeen novels in print and four more completed, has been nominated for an Agatha Award six times. She lives north of Boston with her beau and two elderly cats, and gardens and cooks when she isn’t killing people on the page or wasting time on Facebook. Please find her at edithmaxwell.com, on Instagram, and at the Wicked Authors blog.

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

An uncommon 19th-century marriage: Thomas and Beal in the Midi by Christopher Tilghman

Third in his acclaimed Mason saga, Tilghman’s (The Right-Hand Shore, 2012) beautifully contemplative novel observes his protagonists’ uncommon marriage, showing how each must come into his and her own separately before they can flourish as a couple.

In 1892, since their union is frowned upon in Maryland, Thomas Bayly and his African American bride, Beal, arrive in France to begin a new life together, leaving behind their disapproving families and his substantial inheritance.

Amid Paris’s upper-class art crowd, the sheltered, 19-year-old Beal attracts rival portraitists and the romantic advances of a Senegalese diplomat, while Thomas meets a comely Irish librarian while researching future prospects. He settles on winemaking and purchases an estate in the Languedoc, which obliges Beal to abandon her newly cosmopolitan lifestyle to follow him.

Alongside Beal and Thomas and their skillfully delineated journeys to maturity, many secondary characters also stand out, including a kindly nun and a difficult Jewish painter with unique insight into Beal’s state of mind. Belle Époque Paris and the southern French countryside are described exquisitely, as is the rich terroir that shapes the human heart.

Some notes:

Thomas and Beal in the Midi is published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux this week; I reviewed it for the 3/15/19 issue of Booklist.  The other books in the Mason saga are Mason's Retreat (1996) and The Right-Hand Shore (2012), and I've only read the last two, but I believe they can be read in any order.

While this entry takes place in the 1890s, the first book is set much later, during the Great Depression, and The Right-Hand Shore takes place in both the 1920s, during the last years of Thomas's sister Mary, and the 1850s, during the youth of Mary, Thomas, Beal, and her brother. A focus on race and class, and a strong sense of place, permeates through each of the narratives, particularly the rural countryside of Maryland's eastern shore and France's Languedoc region, in addition to the art scene of 1890s Paris in this newest novel.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

The 2018 Langum Prize in American Historical Fiction - Winner and Finalist

The news recently arrived about the historical novels honored via the Langum Prize in American Historical Fiction, so without further ado...

Louisa Hall's Trinity (Ecco, 2018) is the winner of the 2018 Prize.  

From the press release:  "The novel explores Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, through his interactions with seven imagined characters from 1943 to 1966. Speaking in 'testimonials,' the characters concentrate more on their own lives despite the major world events unfolding around them...  Excellent historical fiction has the power to reveal emotional truths that history cannot, and Trinity does just that through its ingenious form and compelling prose."

And the finalist for 2018 is The Verdun Affair by Nick Dybek (Scribner, 2018).

From the press release:  "Set in Verdun, France and Bologna, Italy in the aftermath of World War I (with a small portion in 1950s Hollywood, California), the chief protagonists are American. A young man works gathering up bones from the former Verdun battlefield for an ossuary when a young woman arrives in search of information about her husband who was reported missing in action... The book is well-written and a page turner. It has numerous elements of interest: a tender affair, the entry of a competing male, a dreadful description of Verdun following the battle, the mysterious amnesiac and the efforts to restore his memory or otherwise identify him, the chaos in Bologna incident to the early years of the Mussolini movement, and the pervasive effects of a significant mistruth spoken by one of the principal characters."

Congratulations to both authors.  I haven't read either book yet, but am looking forward to it!

The Langum Prize celebrates the "best book in American historical fiction that is both excellent fiction and excellent history."  For more information, please see the Langum Charitable Trust website.  

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

The Latecomers by Helen Klein Ross, an American country-house saga with a difference

With understated elegance, The Latecomers braids many coming-of-age stories into one. First, we have Brighid “Bridey” Molloy, an Irish teenager whose fiancé dies on the ship from Liverpool in 1908, leaving her alone, and pregnant, in bustling New York City.

Then there’s Sarah Hollingworth, the privileged daughter of a Connecticut brass-works owner, who becomes Bridey’s employer. Vincent is Sarah’s adopted son, and his view of his world, as he grows from childhood to adolescence and beyond, is realistically evoked as well. These three lives, and others, are linked over generations through a large house and the two secrets it holds.

The story also brilliantly depicts the coming-of-age of the 20th century as new technologies are introduced. The plot moves smoothly across this large swath of time. The book’s first part opens in 1927, at the deathbed of Sarah’s father, Benjamin Hollingworth, as the family doctor quietly drops the late patriarch’s medicine bottle into a hole in the wall of Hollingwood, his elegant estate in small-town northwestern Connecticut. This mysterious act has shocking ramifications that come to light much later.

The novel is a stellar example of how deep, carefully woven research can re-create the world of yesteryear. From old-fashioned pastimes like marbles and Lionel trains, to the wonders of electric lighting, to Vincent’s terrified reaction to seeing Birth of a Nation, the early 20th-century setting feels real. The social mores of each era, such as American-style upstairs-downstairs relations and anti-Irish prejudice, are presented through the characters’ actions and inner lives. And all this without any famous names in the cast (President Taft nearly visits Hollingwood, but his plans take a last-minute detour).

While The Latecomers fits nicely into the country-house saga mold, it doesn’t focus primarily on the suspenseful revelation of secrets. Instead it explores, with great wisdom, the heartfelt reasons why people choose to keep them.

The Latecomers was published in 2018 by Little, Brown, and I reviewed it initially for February's Historical Novels Review.  I like the elegant cover, too.