Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Make Me a City by Jonathan Carr, an eclectic fictional portrait of 19th-century Chicago

Carr’s intricately woven debut evokes the history of nineteenth-century Chicago while showcasing important but little-known historical figures and fictional people from different walks of life who contribute to its development.

The chronologically arranged chapters vary in style, from straightforward narrative to spot-on pastiches of news articles and diaries to excerpts from a compiled “alternative history” text whose contents are cleverly self-referential.

In 1800, Jean Baptiste Pointe de Sable, a trader of part-African descent and the marshy land’s first nonindigenous resident, plays a fateful chess game. Other significant characters include schoolteacher Eliza Chappell Porter, developer John Stephen Wright, and engineer Ellis Chesbrough. Their and their descendants’ lives are full of incident, including the Battle of Fort Dearborn and the Great Chicago Fire. While their personalities are colorfully rendered, the depictions of Native Americans aren’t terribly nuanced.

More eclectic than Micheneresque, the novel nonetheless offers a strong sense of place. Ambition, injustice, and opportunity all play roles as Chicago expands outward and upward. Over time, the disparate stories, which span the entire century, intersect in delightfully unexpected ways.

I reviewed Make Me a City for Booklist's March 1 issue, and it's published today by Henry Holt. I had some caveats but was glad to learn more about early Chicago's lesser-known movers and shakers. All of the people named in the review are historical figures, and they mingle with an array of fictional characters.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Book review: American Princess: A Novel of First Daughter Alice Roosevelt, by Stephanie Marie Thornton

In a novel about a famous presidential daughter who was one of the leading political wits of 20th-century America, the heroine’s narrative voice is critical. Fortunately, in American Princess, author Stephanie Marie Thornton channels Alice Roosevelt’s vibrant, opinionated, sometimes caustic disposition in a thoroughly convincing way, maintaining it across 400-plus pages.

The woman called “Princess Alice” by the Washington scene, and whose occupation was listed as “gadfly” on her death certificate, was born in 1884, the only daughter of Theodore Roosevelt and his first wife, Alice Lee, who died two days after her birth. In addition to evoking her firecracker spirit, the novel explores young Alice’s quest for her father’s affection and approval. She feels he slights her in favor of her younger half-siblings since she reminds him too much of her beautiful, gray-eyed mother (her impression isn’t wrong).

Thornton takes up Alice’s life starting in 1901, as her father takes up the mantle of William McKinley’s presidency after his assassination, and as Roosevelt’s large blended family moves into the White House. Alice’s outsize personality manifests itself in outrageous antics early on: carting a garter snake named “Emily Spinach” in her handbag, for instance, and interrupting her father’s meeting to talk about her society debut. While she never loses her brashness, she transforms into a political force of her own, soaking up knowledge to bolster her father’s (and, later, her brother’s) political career.

For Alice, the personal and political always intertwine, and as such, the story offers both abundant details on both 20th-century American politics and a strong emotional heart. As a young woman, Alice finds it hard to find true friends, and she faces even tougher internal conflict after falling in love with prominent congressman Nick Longworth, marrying him, and worrying about his possible infidelities. The novel also serves as a reminder that while history relies on facts and dates, it’s stories about people that bring it alive. Readers having only a vague idea of the Teapot Dome scandal will get a firsthand impression of how it affected Alice’s family (and how cousins Franklin and Eleanor later used it to further their ambitions), while getting new perspectives on the future President Taft – aka “Uncle Will,” her father’s affable Secretary of War. While accompanying him on his diplomatic mission to Asia in 1905, Alice – by then a global celebrity – steals the show.

Despite occasional tensions, Alice’s love for her family remains paramount, and scenes at the beginning and end with her beloved granddaughter, Joanna, bring the story full circle. Throughout, Alice is an entertaining, irreverent guide to the events in her dramatic, nearly-century-long life.

American Princess was published on Tuesday by Berkley; thanks to the publisher for sending me a print ARC.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

A Women's History Month gallery: 10 new and upcoming novels about historical women's lives

In celebration of Women's History Month, and the focus on fiction from small and independent publishers on this blog during March, here are 10 recent and upcoming novels about women from history: biographical novels, as they're often called.

Hedy Lamarr, Hollywood screen star and underrated scientist. Sourcebooks, March 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Berthe Morisot, who follows her dreams of becoming an artist in 19th-century Paris. Regal House, March 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Harriet Tubman, the renowned American abolitionist and "conductor" along the Underground Railroad.  Arcade, May 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Sofonisba Anguissola, the accomplished Renaissance-era painter.  Bagwyn Books, January 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Elizabeth Stuart, known as the "Winter Queen" of Bohemia, daughter of James I of England and ancestress to today's British royal family. ECW Press, June 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Makeda, the legendary Queen of Sheba. Blank Slate, April 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Lulu Hurst, late 19th-century vaudevillian and stage magician known as the "Georgia Wonder." Hub City Press, May 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Sarah Jacob, a 12-year-old Welsh girl who supposedly lived without food in the mid-19th century.  Bellevue Literary, May 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Maile, a Hawaiian chief's daughter who marries John Harbottle, Captain Cook's translator, in the late 18th century. Shadow Mountain, April 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Lady Virginia Courtauld, an Italian-born glamorous, rule-breaking, progressive socialite in 1950s Rhodesia. Bloomsbury, August 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Interview with Gina Marie Guadagnino about her debut novel, The Parting Glass, set in 1830s NYC

Gina Marie Guadagnino's debut novel, The Parting Glass, grabbed my attention immediately. After downloading the e-galley, I'd intended to skim the first few pages to get a sense of the plotline before picking it up again later, but the voice and storyline were so intriguing that I found myself reading it straight through immediately. Set in 1830s New York City, it's narrated by Mary Ballard, a lady's maid with several secrets.  She's an Irish Catholic immigrant whose real name is Maire O’Farren, and her twin brother, Seanin, works as a groom on the same property. Maire reluctantly conceals Seanin's clandestine affair with her upper-class mistress, the beautiful Charlotte Walden, all the while wishing that she herself was the object of Charlotte's desire. During her time off, Maire embarks on her own affair with a prostitute she meets in an Irish tavern. The fast-moving story richly evokes the little-explored world of the Irish working class in early New York while delving into period-appropriate issues also relevant for our own time.  The Parting Glass is published today by Atria/Simon & Schuster.  Thanks to the author for answering my interview questions!

I’m an academic librarian, and so it was great to read that you also work in academia, and that your office is within NYU’s library. I can’t resist asking: what are some ways in which library research contributed to your writing of The Parting Glass?

I love working in a library building, and am definitely a familiar sight at the circulation desk during my lunch breaks. Library research was absolutely instrumental to the composition of The Parting Glass. Through my access to the various collections at Bobst Library, I was able to read first-person accounts of Irish servants working in New York in the 19th century, see maps and find property records for the townhouses on Washington Square North, find source texts detailing Irish secret societies, and read many analyses of New York society in the 1830s. In addition to books, I had access to a number of online databases and journals through my library subscription. And while this has nothing to do with research, I appreciate having access to so many quiet study rooms and lounges in which I can write!

Most novels that I’ve read about the lives of Irish immigrants in America center on the period of the Great Hunger or later in the 19th century, but the era in which you’re writing about is equally fascinating. Why was this an exciting period for you to explore?

The 1830s were an interesting time for the Irish in America, in that it saw the importation of various secret societies to the New World. Various secret societies, largely working for social justice against English and Anglo-Irish landlords by committing agrarian violence, had been flourishing in Ireland since late 17th century. By the 1830s, there were enough Irish Catholics in America that some of these societies had begun to flourish on American soil. I found rich storytelling inspiration in those early years for which there is less documentary evidence; I felt I could take more creative liberties.

I also wanted to explore a point in the history of the Irish diaspora where there was greater integration and collaboration with other ethnic groups than there tended to be during the immigration of the 1840s. This period also represented the height of the era in which New York Society was based around the northern part of Greenwich Village and Washington Square, and it was particularly important to me, as a homesick New Yorker when I began writing this novel, to set the story in the place I missed the most. The conflation of these priorities drew me to explore the late 1830s.

I really enjoyed the depiction of the lives of the working class, including servants, in early NYC. Why did this population interest you?

Many of the classics of English and American literature center on the lives of the leisure class, or on the struggles of those living beyond their means in genteel poverty. While there are notable exceptions (Dickens’ street urchins and mudlarks spring to mind) exploring the underclass of society, I was always struck by the fact that the Dashwood ladies open Sense and Sensibility discussing how many servants they can afford in their reduced circumstances, and even while bewailing how dreadful it is to be poor, the March sisters are still supported by their stalwart (Irish) servant Hannah in Little Women. The heroines of 19th-century fiction so often bemoan the constraints that society has placed upon them; they must make advantageous marriages if they hope to achieve economic comfort. But clearly, behind the scenes, other women were lighting those heroine’s fires and dressing their hair and brewing their tea, obviously dependent on their own labor for financial security.

author Gina Marie Guadagnino
(credit: L. M. Pane)
I kept gravitating toward the idea that, in a way, working-class women experienced more freedom and personal autonomy than their upper-class counterparts. Without the constraints of maintaining one’s social reputation, working-class women had the capacity to make decisions that ranged far beyond who to marry, and, for the creative and ambitious, there were opportunities to break out of the restrictions imposed by an inherently classist society. I wanted my book to focus on members of the immigrant working class who were taking advantage of the opportunities of the New World to remake their lives in their own image. I wanted to show the undercarriage of the gilded world: all the gears and cogs that kept the status quo possible. It was the marriage of these ideas that led me to write The Parting Glass.

I was wondering if you could provide some insight into the Irish characters’ dialogue and how you re-created it–it feels relatable (and occasionally raunchy!) as well as appropriate to their social status and background. I especially appreciated the depiction of how Mary becomes adept at code-switching after learning how it can benefit her socially.

I have to confess that some of the less-savory language is anachronistic. Period appropriate cursing at the time would have consisted largely of blasphemy; sexual and scatological cursing is more of a 20th century development. I suppose that demonstrates how the types of language we consider shocking have evolved over time! The word “crikey,” a contraction meaning “Christ’s teeth” sounds almost quaint to the modern reader, though it would have been thought of as quite profane in the 19th century. I took the liberty of substituting more modern profanity in order to signal to modern readers that the characters were using seriously dirty language - crikey just wasn’t cutting it.

Conversely, there were some words and phrases that I used preserving their 19th century definitions, though they might have evolved over time. Liddie, for example, refers to herself as “a gay girl,” not because of her queer identity, but because this was a common way of referring to sex workers in the 19th century. To strike this balance, I relied on heavy use of the OED, and read numerous primary source accounts of the lives of Irish immigrants in 19th-century New York and Boston. While the resulting dialogue isn’t perfectly period accurate with its modern profanity, I believe it achieves my goal of replicating the overall aesthetic of 19th-century Hiberno-English speech patterns.

What appeals to you about writing historical fiction? Do you have any authors or novels in the genre that you especially admire?

History and historical fiction have always been a great love of mine. I have always been drawn to stories set in the past, whether it be the distant past or something more recent. I’ve already alluded to my attractions as a younger reader to 19th-century authors Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott, but I also cut my teeth on Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and the Bronte sisters. Oddly, I didn’t really get into historical fiction until after I was out of college. But well-researched, lushly rendered historical fiction will draw me in every time, and there are probably too many authors and novels I adore to list here.

Lyndsay Faye has a perfectly-tuned ear for period language and dialogue. Nicola Griffith does an incredible job of using meticulous research and bringing historical figures most vividly to life. Madeline Miller and Helene Wecker infuse mythology with historical settings to make the fantastic feel real. Sarah Waters and Emma Donoghue each have eyes for the grittiest bits of period detail to draw the reader in. Diane Setterfield draws from a breadth of viewpoints to render a holistic landscape as she world-builds. I could, of course, go on. I think we’re approaching something of a golden age for literary-caliber historical fiction - or perhaps that’s just my wishful thinking!


Gina Marie Guadagnino holds a BA in English from New York University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the New School. Her work has appeared in the Morris-Jumel Mansion Anthology of Fantasy and Paranormal Fiction, Mixed Up: Cocktail Recipes (and Flash Fiction) for the Discerning Drinker (and Reader). She lives in New York City with her family.  For more information, please visit www.GinaMarieGuadagnino.com.

Saturday, March 02, 2019

Radio Underground by Alison Littman, a suspenseful debut about the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and its aftermath

Based on actual Cold War letters, Littman’s fast-moving debut is infused with a simmering tension reflecting its setting: Budapest, Hungary, on the brink of revolution in 1956, and nine years later, when the secret police patrol the streets and any hints of dissidence are crushed. In the earlier timeline, Eszter Turján, wife of a loyal communist and mother of a teenage daughter, operates an underground newspaper, Realitás, and sneaks out at night to work with other freedom fighters.

“These kids, too young to know failure, didn’t understand their passion was no match for a government trained in killing hope,” she states plainly, and truthfully, about the student demonstrators demanding freedom. Even so, she’s determined to fan the flames of revolution to give the students a fighting chance, undertaking a drastic act involving Radio Free Europe that will shift history’s path.

In alternating segments set in 1965, Dora Turján reads people’s mail as a censor for the communist government. Eszter had neglected her daughter in favor of her political activities, and even after Eszter was carted away and imprisoned, Dora remains resentful. Littman succeeds in depicting the uneasy nuances of their mother-daughter relationship even though they rarely appear in the same scene. By intercepting odd letters in broken English from “Mike,” who writes to a DJ for Radio Free Europe and describes events from his life, Dora reads about the young man’s quest to escape Hungary. Through him, Dora obtains knowledge that leads back to her mother’s fate and forces her into a profound decision.

Some language feels too American (Eszter is often referred to as Dora’s “mom”), but the oppressive atmosphere is deftly handled through many affecting scenes, including one with a group of young people secretly gathered around a small radio and listening to Western music, dancing together, and feeling temporarily fearless.

Radio Underground was published by Last Syllable Books in November 2018, and I reviewed it (from an Edelweiss copy) for February's Historical Novels Review.

This is also the initial post this month in acknowledgment of the contributions of small and independent presses to a vibrant literary marketplace. Small Press Month had used to be a national celebration taking place in March, with official recognition and funding support. That, unfortunately, is no more, but we'll still be having a mini-celebration here on this blog. As in past years, I'll be dedicating some posts during March to historical fiction from small presses (these will be intermixed with some previously arranged posts on books from larger publishers).  Hope you'll enjoy following along.

Monday, February 25, 2019

The Huntress by Kate Quinn, a suspenseful historical novel about WWII's Night Witches and a quest for justice

Quinn follows up her breakout book, The Alice Network (2017), with an impressive historical novel sure to harness WWII-fiction fans’ attention. Each subplot in its triple-stranded structure thrums with tension that intensifies as they braid together.

By 1950, the public’s appetite for tracking war criminals has diminished, but British former war correspondent Ian Graham and his American partner still pursue this painstaking and honorable work. Their ultimate target is die Jägerin (the Huntress), an elusive Nazi murderess, and, for Ian, the mission is personal.

As they follow her trail, along with Nina Markova, the sole person to escape her clutches, Nina’s life story unfolds with tangible realism. A distinctly memorable, prickly, razor-wielding heroine, Nina flees remote Siberia in 1937 and trains as a pilot, eventually joining the sisterhood of female bombers known as the “Night Witches.” Lastly, in 1946 Boston, 17-year-old aspiring photographer Jordan McBride grows suspicious of her father’s elegant new Austrian wife.

The secondary characters, from Nina’s anti-Stalinist father to Jordan’s pilot boyfriend, feel three-dimensional, and the coldhearted Huntress is a complex villain. Laced with Russian folklore allusions and deliciously witty banter, Quinn’s tale refreshingly avoids contrived situations while portraying three touching, unpredictable love stories; the suspenseful quest for justice; and the courage involved in confronting one’s greatest fears.

Kate Quinn's The Huntress is published tomorrow by William Morrow.  I read it last October and reviewed it, as above, for Booklist's Nov 15th issue, giving it a starred review. There's been a lot of advance buzz about this novel, and it's justified, imho - I found the book difficult to put down.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Charles Finch's The Vanishing Man, a witty prequel to the Lenox mysteries set in Victorian England

In this second in a prequel trilogy to the Charles Lenox detective series (after The Woman in the Water), our protagonist, aged twenty-six, has had some success but struggles to be taken seriously as a private investigator—by his social circle and Scotland Yard, both. It’s June 1853, and Lenox knows solving a case for the Duke of Dorset could make his career.

His Grace wants Lenox to discover who stole a painting of his great-grandfather, the 14th duke, one in a series of portraits in his private study. Oddly, as the duke confides, the portrait alongside the missing one is the real treasure: it’s an oil painting of Shakespeare, done from life. Maybe the thief got it wrong. Getting entangled in the duke’s business leads to social disgrace—high-ranking noblemen are temperamental—and, eventually, to a much more serious case involving murder.

There’s something comforting about stepping into the viewpoint of a cultured Victorian gentleman who observes social niceties and feels a deep sense of integrity. If these values come into conflict, Lenox’s personal honor and justice regularly prevail. To hone his craft, Lenox becomes a student of life, visiting Bedlam to understand the criminal mind, and enlisting the help of an old sailor (a terrific character) with an aptitude for finding things. His dedication is admirable, since many of his peers look down on his pursuit of a vocation in “trade.” The novel is simultaneously a rich evocation of the Victorian class structure and a trenchant critique of it.

Historical crime novels with Shakespearean themes are hardly uncommon, and though the plot turns madcap in places, there’s enough novelty about this case to keep Lenox and readers on their toes. Amidst everything else going on, Lenox’s young cousin Lancelot is staying with him; while he’s an annoying little brat, some of his actions are comedy gold.

The Vanishing Man is published by Minotaur Books this week, and I reviewed it for February's Historical Novels Review. The Woman in the Water (which I reviewed last year) is the previous book in the series, and I've reviewed a few more of the ones set later in time, too.  It's safe to say I'll be reading the next in the series once it's out.