Saturday, December 31, 2011

A New England trip - with books, of course

I've been finding it difficult to get back to blogging after nearly two weeks without posting anything. This end-of-year post contains some history, some books, and a good many pictures.  (My husband Mark was the photographer.)

Both our semesters having wrapped up, Mark and I took off for New England on December 22nd for a short trip to visit family and see some literary and historical venues.  We made our first photo stop at my favorite used bookstore, the Niantic Book Barn along the Connecticut coastline.

They have three stores, two annexes in downtown Niantic and the main store about a mile west of town.  The latter is comprised of a number of barns and outbuildings full of reasonably priced books. 

If you're anywhere in the area, make your way to this store, pronto, and bring your wish lists because they have about 500,000 books in stock at any given time.  A good deal of the fiction is either outdoors under awnings or in unheated (or unevenly heated) barns, so I wore my winter coat and gloves.  Definitely worth it, though.

They must have some locals who trade in recent purchases or review copies regularly, because this is what I ended up with, below.  (The top two are actually UK sagas about WWII given to me by my father, but they made it in the picture too, along with my photogenic orange kitty, Oliver.  My 4-ft TBR pile(s) at far left.)

Nearly all of these are historical mysteries with the exception of Mackenzie Ford's Gifts of War, which is a romance of sorts set during WWI.  Coincidentally I found the newly published sequel to Miss Dimple Disappears, which I reviewed not long ago.  Mignon Ballard's Miss Dimple Rallies to the Cause is another WWII cozy mystery set in Georgia.

I finished Philip Gooden's The Salisbury Manuscript on the plane trip home.  First in a series, it's a historical mystery set in the cathedral town of Salisbury in the 1870s.  A young London-based lawyer, Tom Ansell, is sent to retrieve the unpublished memoir written by a local clergyman's late father and spirit it away for safekeeping.  Seems the contents are rather racy and potentially embarrassing.

To Tom's unpleasant surprise, he finds himself a suspect in the canon's murder, and that mystery intertwines with archaeological discoveries from the region and odd goings-on among the townspeople.  Although he's somewhat colorless in contrast to the eccentrics he meets, his sarcastic sense of humor is visible to those who read carefully, and his lively girlfriend, a would-be sensation novelist on the lookout for new material, keeps the amusement level high.  It's a good choice for those who enjoy mysteries of the traditional British sort, and I do.

After more family visits, it was off to Boston's North Shore, where we stopped in Salem for two nights.  This is one of the best examples of a historic New England town common I've seen.

This enormous park sits in the center of the city, and a number of houses and stores face it from all directions.  Lots of pastels in alternating hues.  I bet you need special permission to paint your house a new color here.

Next we have a statue of Roger Conant, Salem's founder (and my 10th great-grandfather).  He stands across from Salem Common, looking dour and Puritan-like in his cloak.

Because of Conant's proximity to the building below, many tourists believe he had something to do with the witch trials, but he died over a decade before that.

Ah, the Salem Witch Museum.  It was 40 degrees the day we spent in Salem, which meant we didn't see many tourists on the streets even though the hotel was busy.  Later we found out why.  They were all at this prime attraction at the same time we were.  We should have read the Yelp reviews beforehand, because the presentation we saw was pretty hokey.  Mood lighting, life-size dioramas, and an over-the-top (but well-researched) soundtrack dramatize the events of the Salem witch trials.  Kids might like it, but we didn't think it was worth $9 apiece.

Next was a historic house I wish we'd taken a tour of - we'd hoped to get to one of the evening lantern tours, but I read the schedule incorrectly, and by the time I figured that out, it was too late.  This is the House of the Seven Gables made famous by Nathaniel Hawthorne in his novel of the same name.

By all accounts, it's well worth a visit, so I hope we'll be able to come back here next time we're in the area.  I put a copy of the novel in my B&N cart, too.

To all of my readers: Thanks for visiting and commenting - I appreciate your taking the time to stop by here. Hope you have a wonderful New Year, with plenty of good historical reading for 2012!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Book review and giveaway: Mercury's Rise, by Ann Parker

It takes a strong woman to survive in a late 19th-century mining town, serving up drinks and keeping the peace among the customers of her Western saloon. It takes an even stronger woman to hide her independent nature beneath a façade of feminine delicacy when circumstances demand it. In this fourth entry in the Silver Rush mystery series, Inez Stannert proves she’s up to the challenge.

In the summer of 1880, Inez leaves Leadville and the Silver Queen behind to reunite with her two-year-old son, William, who had been living with her sister, Harmony, out East for the sake of his health. While taking a stagecoach ride to their meeting point at the trendy spa town of Manitou, one of Inez's fellow passengers dies a sudden and messy death after drinking his wife’s prescription tonic.

Mrs. Pace refuses to believe a heart attack killed her husband, but her concerns are downplayed by the Mountain Springs House’s resident doctor and the local marshal. She begs Inez to help her uncover the truth, but in this world of high society elegance, medical quackery, and shady real estate dealings, truth is in even shorter supply than the whiskey Inez craves.

As always, Ann Parker fleshes out her characters and settings beyond the historical mystery subplot. Inez is caught between her desire to help another woman and her complicated family problems. Her long-absent husband, Mark, reappears and worms his way back into her life, to her disgust – and just in time to challenge their divorce. Young William no longer knows her, and while Inez gets reacquainted with her sister and child, Harmony’s husband pursues a risky investment. As for where all of this leaves Inez's relationship with her clergyman loverwell, Inez doesn't know either.

This volume will have longtime readers traveling to a new part of Colorado: the Pikes Peak region, which includes the dramatic red rock formations at the Garden of the Gods. But as Inez discovers, ironically so, Manitou is even more of a man’s world than rough-and-tumble Leadville was. A murderer may still be at large, but in order to win at this dangerous game, Inez must find a man to play her hand for her.

Between the hotel owners, its medical staff, Inez’s busybody aunt, and Inez’s charming gambler of a husband, Mercury’s Rise has a wealth of strong personalities, ones you won't have met in Western fiction before. Parker retains control of her story, however, and doesn’t let them steal the show from Inez. Determined, smart, and brave, she also shows a vulnerable side she won’t let herself acknowledge.

The storyline is complex and well detailed, with many moving parts; the scene occasionally loops back to Inez’s time in Leadville, so read the chapter headings carefully to see where you are. The natural wonders of the mountain backdrop, the foul-tasting mineral waters, and the many people desperately in search of a tuberculosis cure combine to create a setting that's richly described from many angles. It all makes for an excellent novel that’s well worth diving into.


Mercury's Rise was published by Poisoned Pen Press in November at $24.95/hardback or $14.95/trade pb ($31.95 or $18.95 in Canada).  Thanks to the author, I have a brand new and signed copy available to give away to an interested blog reader. Fill out the form below for your chance to win (open worldwide). Deadline Monday, January 3rd.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

New review of Diana Gabaldon's The Scottish Prisoner

My review of Diana Gabaldon's The Scottish Prisoner ran in yesterday's Globe and Mail.  Here's the link if you'd like to read my take on it.  The book's #1 on their hardcover fiction bestseller list, for the second week in a row.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Pope Joan TV miniseries premieres tomorrow

A heads-up that Pope Joan, the film based upon Donna Woolfolk Cross's bestselling historical novel about a legendary woman from Dark Age Germany, will be broadcast as a two-part TV miniseries on the REELZ channel in the US.

The first showing is on December 18th & 19th at 8-10pm EST; there appears to be a second showing of each episode later on both evenings, starting at 11pm EST.  Check with your local TV schedule to confirm!

I'll be watching it for sure.  We switched over to satellite TV from cable earlier this year, and we actually get that station.

I've been waiting to see this film for two years.  Mark and I were in Germany when it debuted - the photo at left, taken at the Nuremberg train station, was one of many on display throughout the city.  However, the film being shown wasn't the original English-language version (added: the one being shown tomorrow and Monday) but one dubbed into German for German audiences.  My facility with the language wouldn't have been sufficiently good to follow along, alas.

See more at the REELZ website for the film or the author's home page.  If you miss this one, there's an encore presentation on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Final shortlist announced for 2011 Langum Prize

Five historical novels published in 2011 have made the shortlist for this year's David J. Langum Sr. Prize in American Historical Fiction.  They are, in alphabetical order by author:

1) John M. Archer, After the Rain: A Novel of War and Coming Home (Gettysburg, PA: Ten Roads Publishing, 2011), which takes a psychological perspective on the Civil War, as seen from the viewpoint of a Union army line officer.

2) Geraldine Brooks, Caleb’s Crossing (New York: Viking, 2011), set in 1660s Martha's Vineyard and Cambridge, Massachusetts, and centering on the friendship between a minister's daughter and a young man of the Wampanoag tribe. [read my review]

3) Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic (New York: Knopf, 2011), a short literary novel describing the experiences of Japanese "picture brides" sent to marry Japanese men, mostly farm laborers, working in the US in the early 20th century.

4) Pamela Schoenewaldt, When We Were Strangers: A Novel (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), in which a young seamstress leaves her Italian mountain village to make a new life for herself in 1880s America.  [read my review]

5) Susan Vreeland, Clara and Mr. Tiffany (New York: Random House, 2011), about Clara Driscoll, Louis Comfort Tiffany's chief designer at his New York glass studio in the 1890s.

From the press release: "The winner of the 2011 David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Historical Fiction will be selected from one of these five books. However, still other books will be discussed in the Director’s Mention category. This year the small and often regional presses have issued an unusually large number of high quality books in American historical fiction. Several of these should be discussed and honored, even if only one, After the Rain discussed above, made it onto the formal short list."

For longer descriptions of all five nominees, and for more details on the prize itself, visit the Langum Charitable Trust website. The Trust also welcomes readers' comments on these books on their Facebook page.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A voyage up north with Norma MacMillan's The Maquinna Line

I'm not sure where I first came across The Maquinna Line.  It may have been while browsing, or I could have spotted it on a website dedicated to Hollywood personalities.  Norma MacMillan's family saga has an unusual story behind it.  Called the author's "lost novel," the manuscript was pulled out of a closet a few years after her death in 2001.  Her husband and friends worked to find it a publisher, and it finally appeared in print last year.

MacMillan, a noted actress in her day, was known for her role as the voice of Casper the Friendly Ghost.  Folks from my generation may be more apt to recognize the name of her daughter, Alison Arngrim, famous for playing that nasty wench Nellie Oleson on Little House on the Prairie.

Ms. Arngrim wrote the foreword to her mother's book, describing her enthusiasm for writing, the times she left LA on mysterious research trips to the wilds of Nootka Island, and the subject of the book itself, which she found dark, peculiar, and a little disturbing.  There are a few shocking moments, but I didn't find the tone or focus significantly different than other historical sagas I've read.

Fortunately, the novel stands well on its own without the celebrity association.  The Maquinna Line is a classic generational saga in the tradition of James Michener and Edward Rutherfurd.  It has a good sense of place and history, though its greatest focus is on its characters and how the social strictures of the time pressure them and determine their choices.  Their lives turn out differently than they plan, and their trials and misfortunes make for very entertaining reading.

The main narrative begins in 1910 and continues through the end of WWII, and occasional flashbacks bring us back to earlier periods.  Vancouver Island during the Edwardian era offers a mix of cultures, all well represented in the tale.  An Icelandic entrepreneur opens a fancy hotel on a private island, promotes it as a tourist attraction, and raises his daughter there.  An upwardly mobile couple brings an Indian chief's daughter, a descendant of the 18th-century Chief Maquinna, to live with them as their maid; her cold yet exotic beauty proves irresistible to the area's young men.  And an adolescent boy commits a moral transgression he doesn't fully understand, one which destroys the peace in his socially conscious family.

Victoria, British Columbia, at the southern tip of Vancouver Island, is the drama's centerpiece, though it also branches out to include a lumber camp and Moachat village up north as well as other outposts.  As the novel implies, the description of the city and its people as Victorian suits them in more than one way (they're called "more English than England").

Norma MacMillan clearly had a passion for the place where she grew up, and she transformed it into a novel I kept wanting to come back to. It packs a lot of story into 276 pages.

The Maquinna Line was published by TouchWood Editions in trade paperback at $19.95 - same price in Canada and the US.  For non-Canadians, it's available at a discount on both versions of Amazon, should you so choose.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Book review: Chasing the Nightbird, by Krista Russell

Krista Russell's debut novel is a brisk middle-grade adventure that features an appealingly scrappy hero determined to choose his own path in life.

The Nightbird is the whaling ship where Lucky Valera, an orphan of nearly fourteen, grew up and on which he was looking forward to sailing as a full-fledged crew member. Then the half-brother he never knew existed, Fernando Fortuna, kidnaps him from the New Bedford docks. Since Lucky is under age, Fortuna sets himself up as Lucky's guardian and forces him to toil alongside him at the local mill, claiming Lucky's wages as well as his own.

Amid the brutal pace of the factory, with cotton fibers so thick in the air it's hard to breathe, Lucky befriends a fugitive slave, Daniel. (Given his difficult path to safety, Daniel reveals his personal history to Lucky a little too easily.) Lucky's acquaintance with Emmeline, a Quaker ship captain's daughter, leads to a plan: she'll help him escape on her father's ship if he agrees to help her in the abolitionist movement. This is a challenge he feels he's up to, even though he doesn't trust landlubbers.

Russell achieves a difficult balance, preserving the saltiness of the lingo while keeping the story fairly clean for the intended audience. Lucky's used to being around sailors, and readers will snicker when his mouth gets him into trouble.  There is some violence, though it's not out of place for the period or characters.

New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1851 is a racially mixed society, and Lucky's cultural background adds to the story's complexity. A teenager of Cape Verdean heritage, he loves the Island food served by the boardinghouse landlady.  Lucky is a free person of color who doesn't see himself as similar to the former African slaves living in the city, but not everyone views things as he does.

The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act has just passed, amid controversy, and posters on the streets warn fugitives to watch out for bounty hunters. When Lucky realizes the trauma that Daniel faces if he's returned back South, his work toward abolition becomes more than lip service, and his moral journey is handled without it feeling like a lesson.

This book should be a hit for young people and librarians across southeastern New England. There don't appear to be any other historical novels about Cape Verdean Americans available, for one.  Its appeal is more than regional, though, as it presents an important slice of American history in an exciting and convincing way.

Chasing the Nightbird was published in June by Peachtree in hardcover ($15.95, 200pp).

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A look at Leaving Van Gogh, by Carol Wallace

One of the pleasures of writing this blog is having publishers mail me books they think I might enjoy.  Carol Wallace's Leaving Van Gogh was one of these; it arrived unexpectedly in my mailbox at work sometime in May.  Unfortunately, with my crazy schedule I didn't manage to get to it until now, but I'm glad I finally did.

Leaving Van Gogh fits into that growing category of literary novels that imagine artists' personalities and the background behind the creation of their masterpieces.  Dr. Paul Gachet, the physician caring for Vincent van Gogh at the time of his death, reminisces about his professional relationship with his patient and how it grew into a friendship during the seventy days Vincent spent at Auvers-sur-Oise, a small farming town northwest of Paris, in the summer of 1890.

Even if Van Gogh did hijack a narrative that was meant to focus on Dr. Gachet and the provenance of his art collection, as Wallace said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Gachet is equally well developed as a character.  "I cared deeply about medical problems, but what I wanted to talk about was art," he explains at the beginning.  Reasonable, humane, sympathetic, and fascinated by the human mind, Gachet is also an amateur painter who had befriended Cézanne and Pissarro and accepted paintings from them in exchange for medical help.  It's through Pissarro that Gachet is introduced to art dealer Theo van Gogh, who asks him to oversee the care of his brilliant but mentally troubled brother, Vincent, who was recently released from an asylum in Provence.

Wallace places us into Gachet's shoes as he observes Vincent, the man and the artist.  Van Gogh shows up unceremoniously on Gachet's doorstep, unwashed and ragged and overly thin, and proceeds to transform the quiet lives of Gachet and his two young-adult children with his zest for art.  We see Vincent's intensity, the full-body technique with which he applies color to canvas, and the uncanny confidence that lets him believe his work will be remembered a century down the road.  This is a wonderful novel to read for those who want to feel involved in the actual process of painting.

At the same time, Vincent remains apart from the people closest to him and seems unaware of the effect he has on them. This includes his devoted brother Theo, whose support of Vincent is draining him financially, as well as Gachet's agreeable daughter, Marguerite, who had never thought of herself as pretty until Vincent paints her at the piano.

It makes for a curious mix, and an irresistible project for Gachet, who starts out sure that the peace of the Auvers countryside, with its chestnut trees and vast wheat fields, is just what Vincent needs to cure him of his malady.  He's wrong. Not only is artistic technique in transition at the time, from realism to Impressionism, but medicine sits at a turning point that proves frustrating for its practitioners.  Not even experts can cure what they call "hysteria," if that's even what ails Vincent during his raving, near-violent episodes.  Gachet doesn't know, and the tragedy is that he is no more able to save Vincent or his brother, an obvious syphilitic, than he could his wife, Blanche, who had died of consumption fifteen years earlier.

Through its interpretations of both Gachet and his patient, Leaving Van Gogh is an affecting portrait of courage in the face of helplessness, one well worth reading for insight into the creative process at its highest and lowest points.

This is the author's first historical novel, and she provides a detailed author's note explaining what was fact vs. invention.  Although I didn't realize this when I first picked the book up, I've been reading Carol Wallace's work for some time; she is also the co-author (among other things) of The Official Preppy Handbook, which got passed around my middle school in the early '80s, and To Marry an English Lord, a dishy, informative account of American heiresses' marital successes and foibles in the Gilded Age and Edwardian eras.

Carol Wallace's Leaving Van Gogh was published by Spiegel & Grau (Random House) in April at $25.00 / $28.95 in Canada (hardcover, 268pp).

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Women at War: A Novel Bibliography, part 2

Here's the second half of my annotated bibliography of new/forthcoming historical novels featuring the women of World War II.  Is anyone doubting now that this is a trend? Here is part 1 if you missed it.

Below are a dozen titles: sagas, literary fiction, mainstream historicals and more.  Many of these books contain parallel narratives that show the connections between the 1940s and the present.

Today, of course, is the 70th anniversary of the attack of Pearl Harbor, the event that led to America's entry into World War II.  All of these titles have US publishers, and they portray the wartime experiences of women (and men) on both the American home front and overseas in Britain and Europe.

Alison's Orange Prize-shortlisted debut novel focuses on eight-year-old Anna Sands, whose coming-of-age story runs up against the undercurrents of a Yorkshire couple's relationship when she is evacuated from London just before the Blitz.  Washington Square, July 2011.

Bradford, a writer of bestselling sagas, stays true to form with a multi-period story about long-hidden family secrets.  A modern-day filmmaker discovers a shocking letter that sends her on a quest to Istanbul to discover the truth about her late, beloved grandmother, Gabriele, and the role she played during the war.  St. Martin's, April 2012.

The title of Howard's second novel refers not to noir fiction but to the experiences of black immigrants in World War II Paris. From their home in Montmartre during the summer of 1944, native Martiniquaise Marie-Therese Brillard gingerly pursues a new romance while her two adult children get caught up in the joy sweeping the city after the German occupation ends.  AmazonEncore, September 2011.

In this novel that moves back and forth between the present and the past, two attorneys in present-day Germany fall in love while preparing the defense of a man accused of war crimes... who claims the key to his exoneration lies in a timepiece last seen decades ago.  Doubleday, July 2011.

Lauren O'Farrell, a modern woman who recovers lost works of art looted by the Nazis, meets up with an elderly Manhattanite whose mother was rumored to be a Nazi collaborator, but whose life - as well as her daughter's - was much more complex than that.  Review forthcoming. Berkley, October 2011.

In 1980, an American airline pilot returns to France to find the members of the Resistance who rescued him after he was shot down over Occupied France - in particular a teenage girl who wore a blue beret.  Mason based her literary novel on her late father-in-law's wartime experiences.  Random House, June 2011.

A magazine reporter in modern-day Texas interviews an elderly baker for a Christmas-themed piece and finds herself drawn into the woman's dark, complicated tale of her life in Germany during WWII.  Crown, January 2012.

I wrote about McMorris's upcoming WWII novel Bridge of Scarlet Leaves in my previous post.  Letters from Home was her debut, based upon her grandparents' letters during the war. Three Chicago-area roommates discover life doesn't turn out as planned, especially when one young woman's correspondence with an American soldier turns romantic. Kensington, March 2011.

Niven's previous novel, Velva Jean Learns to Drive, was one of my favorite books of 2009 - great story, great characters, great narrative voice. This sequel sees Velva Jean leaving the Tennessee mountains and her stifling marriage to follow her dream of singing at the Grand Ole Opry in 1941.  Then the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, and the older brother she adores gives her a flying lesson.  Plume, September 2011.

You can't quite make this out on the cover, but this traditional British saga is being compared to Downton Abbey and Kate Morton's novels - so I'm there. In 1938, a young upper-class Jewish woman leaves Vienna before war breaks out and becomes a parlor maid on a large Dorset estate, which causes some major adjustments (and leads to unexpected romance). The UK title was The Novel in the Viola.  Plume, December 2011.

I didn't have the cover art for this one last time, but it's since been posted on Amazon.  Giovanna, a young woman in 1940s Tuscany, comes of age during the war as she falls in love with a Jewish member of Italy's partisan army. The author will be stopping by with a guest post in February.  Berkley, Feb. 2012.

Sister Bernard, an elderly nun in contemporary France, is forced to rejoin the wider community when her convent closes - which brings back memories of her passionate wartime affair with a German soldier.  Penguin, January 2012.

Monday, December 05, 2011

The Woman at the Well - giveaway winners

Congratulations to the three winners of Ann Chamberlin's The Woman at the Well:

Tinney Heath
Julie K. Rose

I drew the entries on Saturday morning with the help of the random number generator at  I'll be in touch via email and hope you will enjoy the book!  Thanks also to Ann for providing a copy for me to read and extra copies for the giveaway as well.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

A look at Mignon F. Ballard's Miss Dimple Disappears

After compiling my first list of recent novels on women in WWII, I was happy to discover this additional one in a pile of newly arrived review copies.  I felt compelled to pick it up and read it right then.

Miss Dimple Disappears is a historical mystery set in the small town of Elderberry, Georgia, nearly a year after Pearl Harbor.  Nearly all of the town's young men have left to fight overseas, except for Jesse Dean Greeson, whose vision impairment is a liability, and handsome Hugh Brumlow, who held back from enlisting to take care of his overbearing mother and her (invented) medical problems.

The plot centers on the women teachers of the Elderberry Grammar School.  Miss Dimple Kilpatrick has been a fixture in the first-grade classroom for 40 years and is beloved by students and teachers alike.  Indeed, many of her colleagues are former pupils.

Right before Thanksgiving, the school custodian is discovered dead in an upstairs storage room, victim of an apparent heart attack or stroke.  Then Miss Dimple never comes back from her early morning constitutional the following day.  The principal and police chief are deflecting queries about both crimes, and even Miss Dimple's brother near Atlanta seems oddly nonchalant about her disappearance.

Fourth grade teacher Charlie Carr and her colleague Annie know something is amiss, though, and Miss Dimple's students are worried.  One imaginative young boy reports that he sees German spies at the playground, and insists he saw someone kidnap Miss Dimple from a street corner, but nobody will believe him.

While Charlie works through her feelings for Hugh - she's awfully fond of him but hesitates to call it love - she and Annie do some of their own investigating, as do her mother and Aunt Lou.  Miss Dimple, shut up in a dingy basement, makes her own efforts toward her rescue, too.  She is a delight.  Forced to eat horrid food, and left with nothing to read but bland romance novels, she makes clever requests of her masked captor and leaves clues for people to find her.

Mignon Ballard gently re-creates this not-so-distant time with nostalgia and realism.  Women save waste fat from their kitchens to produce glycerin for the war effort, switchboard operator Florence McCrary eavesdrops on private conversations (and everyone knows it), and families hang blue stars in their windows to honor their sons away at war.  Nobody wants to see the messenger boy arrive on his black bicycle, for he brings telegrams with the most devastating news possible.

There are a lot of townspeople to keep track of, and the plot can be quite leisurely, but overall this is a nicely-put-together cozy mystery that delivers an ample amount of suspense at just the right time.

Miss Dimple Disappears was published in trade paperback by Minotaur in October at $14.99 (262pp). It's first in a series, and the sequel, Miss Dimple Rallies to the Cause, was published in hardcover last week.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Book review: Caleb's Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks

My review of Caleb's Crossing was published in Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper on August 6th.  For some reason it was never posted online, so I have no link to the original, but this is the version as it appeared in print. (The headline was their choice, and I like it.)

Moving Heathen and Earth in New England

The title of Caleb's Crossing refers to two related happenings: a young Wampanoag man's journey to the Massachusetts mainland from his home on Martha's Vineyard, and his gradual assumption of English ways. His story is filtered through the narration of Bethia Mayfield, a minister's daughter.

The two meet by chance when she is 12. Her friendship with the youth she calls Caleb blossoms as they talk about their daily lives and religious beliefs - all of which Bethia hides from her father and brother.

Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks (March, in 2005) situates her riveting tale of cross-cultural exploration in Puritan America on a few slim facts. In 1665, Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard. His letter to his English benefactors, reproduced on the novel's endpapers, is especially remarkable; it was written in Latin.

"Listening, not speaking, has been my way," writes Bethia, a perceptive and careful chronicler of their lives, an intellectual in a society that believes women are capable of domestic duty and not much else. She also has a shameful secret. She finds Caleb's heathen faith too appealing for her own good. Although she repents, she is Puritan enough to think she's damned, having caused her mother's death with her desire for "forbidden fruit."

When Bethia's father discovers the extent of Caleb's knowledge, he decides to instruct him further in the Gospel and the classics, as any good Calvinist missionary would. Caleb sees a way of improving his people's lot and comes to live with the Mayfields, which leads to a spiritual battle of sorts between Mayfield and Caleb's uncle, the pawaaw (religious leader) of the Wampanoag.

Caleb's and Bethia's paths take them from Martha's Vineyard to Cambridge. Both sets of surroundings are superbly evoked through Bethia's admittedly biased viewpoint. The island is an isolated haven of sun-dappled beaches and swirling mists, a paradise on Earth despite the tenuousness of life there. In contrast, she finds Cambridge an "unlovely town" that reeks of animals and too many people, and whose closely constructed houses don't let her spirit breathe. What is the purpose of progress, she wonders, if you have to leave your true self behind?

Bethia's account has an early American formality, with just enough period syntax to feel authentic (and enough old-fashioned usage of "loose," instead of "lose," to drive a copy editor mad). Terms like "friggling" and "cackhanded" aren't exactly everyday lingo, but the prose falls on the ear in a natural way.

As always, Brooks treads the dividing line between literary and popular fiction with confidence. Her work is strongly plotted, full of twists and surprises: life-changing disappointments, sudden opportunities, unexpected crossroads. The language is as fresh and crisp as the salt-tinged air, and her characters are, for the most part, ripened to their fullest potential. The one exception is Caleb himself. We get to know his personality and mettle, but he is kept at a distance. There are times - fortunately rare - when he reads more as symbol than flesh and blood.

In fact, the novel is much more Bethia's than his. She is one of Brooks's most rounded creations; her character, unlike Caleb's, is completely fictional. Bethia is no feisty anachronism but a woman of her era, and her yearning to achieve more than society grants her is achingly real.

Higher education has changed over time; students aren't expected to converse in Latin, and they can't pay for their tuition with sacks of grain. Still, the intellectual craving expressed by these 17th-century characters comes through clearly to our modern mindsets. This is a brilliantly composed novel full of wit, spiritual contemplation and the deep love of learning. At the same time, Caleb's Crossing makes us feel the full impact of what these people went through to bring their dreams to fruition.


Caleb's Crossing was published by Viking in May at $26.95 in the US, or $31.00 in Canada (hardcover, 301pp).

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Harem winners

A quick note to announce that the winners of Colin Falconer's Harem are Sarah Other Librarian and Meg at A Bookish Affair.  Congratulations - I'll be in touch with you via email!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

An interview with Ann Chamberlin, author of The Woman at the Well - plus giveaway

I'm so pleased to bring you this interview with internationally bestselling author Ann Chamberlin.  Ann's historical novels span a wide range of settings, from ancient Israel to medieval France to the harems of the 16th- and 17th-century Ottoman Empire.  Her latest book, The Woman at the Well, is an epic literary work that will introduce most readers to a new and unfamiliar place: 7th-century Arabia during the first years of Islam and the time slightly before.

The novel opens at the house of the turpentine sellers in Tadmor, Syria, in the year 643 AD.  A blue-eyed orphan named Rayah studies her Koran while simultaneously feeling the first glimmerings of the power she inherited from her female ancestors, strong women who worshipped the goddess of the evening star, Al-Uzza, and led their tribes through the Arabian desert.

This is also the story of Rayah's mother, Sitt Sameh, who has hidden her true identity for too long; her grandmother, Bint Zura, a young woman who finds a sacred camel; and her great-grandmother, Umm Taghlib, who is cast out of her tribe for being a kahinah, or witch.  Many of the era's women bear the names of their male relations, though they also have hidden names of their own.  The male viewpoint is introduced via the tale of Khalid ibn al-Walid, the Prophet Muhammad's most famous general, who reveals his past history to a eunuch scribe and searches for a connection to his long-lost daughter, Sitt Sameh.

The Woman at the Well is a deep and involving multi-generational novel about a fascinating land in the midst of religious and cultural transformation.  From the Kirkus review:  "Chamberlin beautifully captures the depth of Rayah's awakening to her heritage, emotionally and spiritually... impeccable research and haunting, poetic language create a lush tale to be lingered over and savored."

The Woman at the Well was published in July by Epigraph Press at $27.00 in hardcover, $16.95 in trade paperback, or $9.99 as an e-book (378pp).  Please read to the end for a giveaway opportunity, too.

You write that you spent thirty years working on The Woman at the Well. Why did you feel this was a story that needed to be told? How did the novel deepen or transform over this time?

Thirty years ago, no one had heard of Salman Rushdie. Kamran Pasha and Sherry Jones had not written their books about the women of early Islam. In fact, no one seemed to have Islam, the religion of close to a quarter of the world's population, on their radar screen. I have a rejection note (a yellow Post-It) I keep pinned above my computer that says, "Dear Ann, Why Islam? Thanks but no thanks." I did not think this ignorance was a good thing. I still don't.

After 9/11, my son got me to take Arabic classes with him at a local Muslim school. This is how I deal with crisis, with ignorance. I educate myself through my stories, and I wanted my question answered, "What were people thinking at the time of the Prophet Muhammad?" Not that I'm suggesting they were simple-minded people or anything. I never think people in the past were stupider than we are. Usually I think the opposite, when I get to know them. It's just that, such world-changing events cannot help but have affected people at that time to their very core. Like events to do with Islam have done in our time.

Recent events have deepened my story. So has the suggestion someone gave me "to tell the women's stories." Hard as it may be to believe, first drafts only had Khalid's version of the tale. I guess I thought there wasn't enough of women in the history even to reconstruct a tale. My astute critiquer was right, especially since that has been the course of my writing, to tell women's stories that are usually ignored. And there's plenty to work with, for a novelist.

If it's true that winners write the history, as Sitt Sameh tells Rayah (with gentle sarcasm, I felt) in the novel, how were you able to look beyond long-held traditions to learn the hidden stories of people from pre-Islamic Arabia?

There's quite a lot of interest in pre-Islamic Arabia among Arab historians, even though many would call it the Time of Ignorance and dismiss it. Like some young Americans would dismiss time before the computer as irrelevant. Victorians Brits who were trying to rule the place also had an interest. Especially since the publication in the 1970's of Patricia Crone and Michael Cook's radical rewriting called Hagarism, there's been a resurgence of interest in the West. Where did Muhammad come from, this time called Ignorance? All these historians were trying to answer that.

I had a very powerful experience during ten days I camped with the Bedouin in the Sinai (also during the 70s). I fell in love with these people and the way they deal with one of the most inhospitable environments on earth. When what we know of pre-Islamic history failed me, I fell back on the anthropology of the Bedouin.

I should also mention that the University of Utah Dr. Aziz Atiya Middle East Library, where I work part time, is one of the most important collections in the world, especially of early Islamic papyrus. I get to rub shoulders with scholars in this field every day, and I am indebted to them.

In the opening scene, Rayah discovers her power when she brings her young cousin back to life. This isn't your first instance of crossing historical fiction with elements of the fantastic. Why was it important for you to start the book this way? What can fantasy bring to historical fiction?

Rayah's arc is a struggle to decide what to do with her own power which goes back to her mothers in a world where the new religion is trying to supplant everything that went before, where Muhammad was the Seal of the Prophets and his successors are trying to pull an ever-increasing empire in by the hearts and minds. This has always been a pivotal question for me having grown up in a Mormon world where the words haunting a young woman's mind were condemned as evil if they countered the words of a living prophet.

To my mind, a historical novelist fails to capture the period if that period believed in magic, jinn, fairies or whatever and this sort of stuff doesn't happen or couldn't happen to her characters. Passages in the Quran concerning jinn would indicate you couldn't be a good Muslim if you didn't believe in these beings of fire. Like the reader of certain passages in the Torah couldn't believe that book if he didn't believe in witches, and that they shouldn't be allowed to live.

Besides, I don't think you can sit around a campfire in a desert night or see a mirage shimmering across the horizon and not believe in powerful spirits.

Much of your fiction writing centers on the Middle East. How did your interest in this place develop?

My Mormon upbringing, again. I found I couldn't deal with our own prophets, patriarchy, polygamy and deserts. I was too close, my fiction "too bitter" as one critique said. Trying to understand my surroundings, I studied Hebrew. My first trip to the Holy Land full of pious zeal ran into those ten days in the Sinai, into Arabic and another far-from-perfect world built on idealism. So one book led to another as I stumbled into one fascinating corner after another on one trip after another.

The Woman at the Well has many memorable characters, both historical and fictional. Khalid ibn al-Walid will be the best known, yet for many Western readers, your novel may be the first introduction to him. How did you address this issue as you developed his character?

The ever-present struggle against the data dump. Clavell's Shogun remains a great example of how to introduce the modern reader to a strange worlddrop a very modern, or at least more familiar, character into your strange world. Everything has to be explained to the stranger in a strange land. Without resorting to a time machine as part of the plot, I couldn't do that. Even a 7th-century Roman would have a world too strange and in need of explanation in need of explanation to my reader. Personally, I like the first-person narrative, and I like this bit I stumbled on where Khalid tells his tale to a scribe not of his world. And then the scribe gets to tell it to Rayah and her mother and her mother Sitt Sameh gets to put her own spin on it. So there are multiple chances to sneak in explanations.

The novel has several examples of parents and children who have lost their connections with one another - it's not your usual type of family story. Why did you choose this as one of your themes?

One of my tropes is that Islamlike most new religions (early Christianity, Protestantism, Mormonism) even non-religious movements like Marxism for examplebegan first as an attempt to pry apart the existing power structurewhich meant a strong clan system. If you believe, you have a great excuse, even commandment, to leave your stifling family ties for this new community in the making. Islam went on to depend on government by trained slaves in the Mamluk and Ottoman empires, men ripped from all family. Khalid attempted this, but finds in old age his attempts are futile. He wishes for the family he neglected, and Islam in the form of his cousin Omar ibn al-Khattub the caliph and new/old strictures on women really hasn't escaped. The United States continues to have this tension between wanting a free individual, but then expecting family values unsupported by government to raise children, care for the sick and elderly, etc.

Besides, the novel is the narrative form for the individual alienated from the world, the hero on a quest away from home and family.

The scenario of a man meeting a woman at a well can be found in both the Old and New Testaments. What about this theme resonated with you?

Returning to sources of spiritual enlightenment. Every day. Like a woman has to go for water every day. And wells are few and far between in the desert. Knowledge of where they are and how to approach them is a matter of life and death.

Where did you first come across pre-Islamic poetry, and why has it captured your attention to such a degree?

Poetry still has a big place in Middle Eastern society, from Rumi on. A generally illiterate society that condemns representational art and which is so focused on the Holy Word would naturally resort to this art form. Early Muslim historians themselves took quite an interest in recording this poetry. Once they got over the beginning concerns that poets and poetry detracted from the Quran, they were interested in gleaning these snippets especially when they clarified the language of the Quran or Islam's rise. Any attempt to recreate pre-Islamic Arabia is dependent on these verses, and I found them early in my research. I want to cite several collections I depended on: AJ Arberry's Seven Odes, Charles Lyall's Translations of Ancient Arabic Poetry, and Michael Sells' Desert Tracings.

I've had people shrug and tell me, "Well, something must have been lost in translation," but to me the images evoke the world of the desert so powerfully. And the poet's usual formatwe usually have only male poets' verses, although there are some women poets recordedwas to begin by evoking a lost love.


And for your chance to win a copy... 

 I'd like to thank Ann for taking the time to answer my questions in such depth.  We have three copies of The Woman at the Well available for giveaway.  To enter the contest, please leave a comment on this post (include your email if it's not in your profile or on your blog).  This giveaway is open to all blog readers worldwide; deadline Friday, December 2nd.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Séance in Sepia giveaway winner

... take two.  After waiting a week with no response from the initial winner, I've decided to start over and draw another name for the signed copy of Michelle Black's Séance in Sepia.  (If you enter contests, you have to give me a way to contact you, especially if you don't read this site regularly.  Just sayin'...)

But without further ado, the book will be going to Rachel Wallen!  Congratulations - I'll drop you a line to obtain your mailing address, and I hope you'll enjoy reading it.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Guest post from Colin Falconer (with giveaway):
The Harem

Historical fiction writer Colin Falconer is stopping by today with a detailed essay about the historical reality behind the myth of the harem.  His novel Harem (which appeared in the US as The Sultan's Harem), a love story between Suleiman the Magnificent and his concubine Russelana, has just been re-released in Kindle format.  Please read on... there's an opportunity to win a copy of the e-version at the end of this post.

The Harem

The myth of the Harem has always loomed large in western imagination. Is it really the ultimate male fantasy? Or was reality a little less than sublime behind the Sublime Porte?

The Harem dated back to the time when the Osmanli Turks were just nomads living on the wild plains of Anatolia. The idea was borrowed from the Persians, a convenience for warriors who were away from the tribe for long months at a time.

By the time the Osmanlis gave up the open plains and created their capital at Constantinople - which they renamed Stamboul - the Harem was no longer just a tent full of sex slaves. It had become an institution in itself, a rigid hierarchy with its own protocols and government.

The girls were either captured in war - mainly Christians from the Balkans - or were recruited from within the Empire itself. They were brought to the Harem at a young age and educated in palace protocols. Their only avenue for betterment and family was through the Sultan.

The first step on the ladder was to somehow find a way into his bed - not as easy as it seemed, for many of the Sultans tended to have favourites and did not do the rounds every night picking winners like a beauty pageant. The first step was to become gözde - lucky enough to catch the Sultan's eye and invited to his bed. If they were asked back often enough they became iqbal, a favourite, and would get their own apartment and slaves.

If the girl conceived a male child she then became kadin - and there were only a maximum of four. One of these four slave girls would become the mother of the next Sultan and thus became the Valide Sultan, head of the harem and the most powerful woman in the Ottoman Empire.

The stakes then were high. Yes, there were beautiful and sensuous women in the harem. Yes there were opulent surroundings. But it was no male paradise. This was a snakepit.

The descriptions of the old Stambouli harem paints a grim picture of a twilight world of dark panelled rooms where the sun seldom penentrated. Ancient grime coated the dusty lanterns and baroque mirrors, and sloe-eyed women with rubies in their hair glided like ghosts through the warren of corridors.

What must life have been like for such women, left in this gilded prison, ungratified and forgotten? Is there a chance some women might become bitter or even vengeful?

History says yes.

This outstanding example; during the eighteenth century some British soldiers in India conspired to break into a mughal's harem one night on the misguided belief that there were hordes of women inside who were just panting for a man. It didn't occur to them that these women might not feel warm and fuzzy to the gender that had enslaved and imprisoned them their whole lives.

The Mughal's personal guard spent the next morning picking up pieces of British soldier left lying around the haremlik. The women had torn them apart with their bare hands.

Which leads us to the story of Suleiman the Magnificent and his favourite, Hurrem. On the face of it, it was the perfect love story. He had the most beautiful women in the empire at his disposal - yet he chose just one. The remarkable Hurrem - it means 'Laughing One' - was the first concubine to legally marry an Ottoman Sultan and move into his palace - an astonishing break with tradition. He even retired his entire harem for her! It shows a total devotion and commitment - at least on Suleiman's part.

But what about her? Was the laughing one really laughing on the inside? Perhaps not.

She later conspired to have Suleiman order the death of his best friend and chief adviser Ibrahim, as well his son Mustapha, two of the most talented men in his administration. She then engineered her own son to succeed him; 'Selim the Sot' was an alcoholic and a lecher with few redeeming qualities. Indeed some scholars have even speculated that Suleiman's bloodline was broken. How ironic if the woman to break it had been the woman he devoted his life to!

Suleiman had more power and women than the Prime Minister of Italy. Yet this is what he wrote just before his death in 1566:

"What men call empire is worldwide strife and ceaseless war. In all the world the only joy lies in a hermit's rest."

His story is one of his time for all time. Beware of wanting everything. You just might get it.


Colin Falconer has been published widely in the UK, US and Europe and his books have been translated into seventeen languages. You can find him at his blog at or his web page at

HAREM is available on Amazon US or Amazon UK.

To enter to win one of two Kindle copies of HAREM, please leave a comment on this post - and include your email address if it's not readily available in your profile or on your blog/website.  Deadline Friday Nov 18th.  This contest is open to all.  Good luck!

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Women at War: A Novel Bibliography

I've been trying to pay attention to current trends in historical novels. For a long while, novels about women during World War II were out of fashion in the US, although wartime sagas have flourished overseas for some time. Male espionage thrillers and action-adventure fiction set during the war always found an audience, too, but there were considerably fewer novels about the feminine experience.

Over the last year and more, though, American readers have seen (and will see) a bumper crop of historical fiction on this subject.  Many of these books arrived in my mailbox for review, so I've been reading and learning about the war from many different angles.

The trend's benchmark titles - hugely popular bestsellers - include Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows' The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Sarah Blake's The Postmistress, Pam Jenoff's bestselling romantic thrillers, and Irène Némirovsky's Suite Française... can you think of other recent titles that fit?

The novels below all have US publication dates between April 2011 and April 2012.  These women are spies, nurses, office clerks, resistance leaders, and average citizens whose courage comes to the forefront when they're caught up in difficult times. The settings range from Czechoslovakia, Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain to California, Washington, DC, and the far-flung islands of the South Pacific.

Maria Dueñas, The Time In Between (Atria, Nov 2011).  In this international bestselling epic, a Spanish seamstress works undercover for the Allies during Spain's civil war and World War II.

Anna Funder, All That I Am (Harper, Feb 2012). This debut novel brings to life the heroic German women and men who took a stand against the Nazis in the 1930s; based on historical people.

Kate Furnivall, The White Pearl (Berkley, Mar 2012).  In 1941 Malaya, a bored plantation owner's wife finds her life upended when the Japanese invade.

Amanda Hodgkinson, 22 Britannia Road (Pamela Dorman, Apr 2011).  A Polish father, mother, and son struggle to reunite as a family in England following their devastating wartime experiences.

Sarah Jio, The Bungalow (Plume, Dec 2011).  A young woman in the Army Nurse Corps on Bora-Bora in 1942 begins an affair with a mysterious soldier.

Margaret Leroy, The Soldier's Wife (Hyperion, July 2011).  Fans of Shaffer/Barrows can return to Guernsey in this tale of a housewife who falls for a soldier in the occupying German army - which leads to some tough decisions.

Susan Elia MacNeal, Mr. Churchill's Secretary (Bantam, April 2012).  A debut historical mystery starring Maggie Hope, the newest typist at 10 Downing Street in 1940, who discovers that her position brings her innumerable opportunities as well as the potential for life-threatening danger. 

Kristina McMorris, Bridge of Scarlet Leaves (Kensington, Mar 2012).  The author follows up her epistolary WWII-era romantic novel, Letters from Home, with the story of a violinist who marries a Japanese man and voluntarily accompanies him when he's forced into an internment camp in 1941.

Alison Pick, Far to Go (Harper Perennial, Apr 2011).  This Booker-longlisted novel is a saga about a Jewish Czechoslovakian family who flee their country with their governess after the Nazis invade.

Alyson Richman, The Lost Wife (Berkley, Sept. 2011).  Two young lovers in pre-war Prague are separated after the Nazi invasion, and their memories of each other help them survive until they're reunited by chance many decades later.

Sarah R. Shaber, Louise's War (Severn House, Aug. 2011).  In this historical mystery, Louise, a young widow who's the newest clerk in the Office of Strategic Services in 1942 Washington, DC, sees an opportunity to help an old friend flee occupied France.

Lynn Sheene, The Last Time I Saw Paris (Berkley, May 2011).  A naive New York socialite arrives in Paris during the Occupation and gets drawn into the resistance movement.

Also, the cover art for this one isn't final yet, but Margaret Wurtele's The Golden Hour (Berkley, Feb. 2012) details the coming-of-age of a young Tuscan woman who falls in love with a Jewish member of the partisan army.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Book review: Sarah Kernochan's Jane Was Here

Novels about reincarnation don't take up a large category.  The dual scenarios - past and present - can help these works branch out to a wider readership, though, and historical events can impose on present-day happenings more directly than they can in a straightforward historical novel. That's one reason I like them.

As you can surmise from the cover art, Sarah Kernochan's Jane Was Here takes the form of a supernatural thriller.  When a young woman calling herself Jane arrives in the glass factory town of Graynier, Massachusetts, everyone whose life she touches finds their life transformed in some way.  Jane has memories of Graynier and says she's lived there before, though it no longer looks quite the way she remembers.

Not everyone is keen on having Jane around, especially when food starts disappearing from people's houses. Brett Sampson is the exception.  A summer resident trying to reconnect with his son, he feels unexpectedly protective towards Jane and gives her a place to stay in his rented Victorian home (to his son's dismay).  The town floozy and a deceitful handyman get drawn into Jane's web after her sudden appearance in the middle of the road leads to a car accident.  The children of an Indian family who owns the local motel get entangled in the mix, too.

Brett starts researching who Jane really is, as well as who she claims to be. There are many subplots, but everything is sharply delineated amid the rising suspense.  As Jane slowly regains what seem to be memories of a tragic past life, she unwittingly sets in motion a plan to exact revenge on those who wronged her long ago.

By now you may be wondering about the book's historical aspect.  Without giving too much away: Part 2 reveals the intimate letters of an impressionable 19th-century young woman who pursues her avid interest in an odd sect and its charismatic representative.  "Gabriel Nation" is fictional, but with so many other peculiar religious revivals sprouting up in 1850s America, it fits right in.

Jane Was Here can be as quirky and eccentric as the people who inhabit its pages.  The author has obviously poured a lot of attention into her characters, although she seems to care for them more than they care for each other (they aren't exactly society's most upstanding citizens).  Jane's formality and propriety contrasts well with their careless lifestyles, though, and although I wasn't chilled by the creepy storyline, I followed it with great interest.  Readers who enjoyed Brunonia Barry's The Lace Reader and M. J. Rose's Reincarnationist series may want to give this one a close look, too.

Jane Was Here was published by Grey Swan Press in June at $24.95 (hb, 296pp).

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Giveaway opportunity: Michelle Black's Séance in Sepia

Thanks to author Michelle Black, I have a new giveaway for readers of the blog.  She will be offering a signed hardcover copy of Séance in Sepia, which I reviewed here on Sunday, to a randomly selected blog visitor.

To enter, please leave a comment on this blog post, or on the associated post on this site's Facebook page if you prefer.  Deadline is Friday, November 4th.  This giveaway is open to all.

Best of luck to all entrants!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Book review: Séance in Sepia, by Michelle Black

For her sixth historical novel, Michelle Black trades the vast landscapes of the historical and modern West for the social reforms and spiritualist beliefs of mid-19th century Chicago.

When Flynn Keirnan spies a mysterious old photo at an estate sale, she immediately offers to buy it, believing the proceeds will help her dad's struggling used book business. The sepia-toned image of an unconventional dark-haired woman and two men appears to be a “spirit photograph.” Back in the 1870s, séances were all the rage, as were photographers who claimed to be able to capture ghostly images on film.

Flynn lists the photo on eBay and sparks a bidding war. Startled, she does some research and learns about the trio’s association with the scandalous “Free Love Murders.” In 1875 Chicago, up-and-coming architect Alec Ingersoll was accused of killing the two people he loved most: Medora Lamb, his bohemian artist wife, and his best friend, Cameron Langley.  All three lived together in the same house, which caused rumors to fly.

As Flynn uncovers their stories, with the help of a cute attorney with a family connection to the murder trial, a second woman over a century earlier is following a similar path. In exchange for an exclusive jailhouse interview with Ingersoll for her radical paper, notorious feminist Victoria Woodhull agrees to conduct a séance to learn the truth about how Medora and Cam died. An outspoken lecturer and advocate for sexual freedom, Victoria finds her investigation has unexpected repercussions for her personal life. “Free love,” as it turns out, isn't so free after all.

The plot unfolds through a collection of scenes which include courtroom transcripts, journal entries, and straightforward narratives from both timelines. While some of them may seem tangentially related at first, all are cleverly drawn together just in time for a suspenseful finale. Along the way, the novel provides fascinating tidbits on episodes from 19th-century social history, from the unorthodox practices of New York’s Oneida Community to early photography techniques.

The best part of the novel, though, is in seeing how the complex relationships between the characters play out on the page. Michelle Black has a gift for crafting realistic dialogue that highlights their personalities. Her close attention to detail, from the opulence of the Palmer House hotel where Victoria takes up residence to the snappy banter of her modern protagonists, makes both settings feel equally real.

Michelle Black's Séance in Sepia was published on October 21st by Five Star at $25.95 (hardcover, 322pp).  Visit the author's website as well as her blog on the Victorian West.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Winner of The Countess...

Earlier this week I drew the winning entry for Rebecca Johns' The Countess... and then forgot to post it on the blog.  Oops - pardon my delay.  One paperback copy will be going out to lucky commenter #1 - Amy!  Congratulations, Amy, and I hope you'll enjoy the read.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

A look at The Ballad of Tom Dooley, by Sharyn McCrumb

Sharyn McCrumb’s series of Ballad novels about the strong-minded residents and the scenic beauty of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains usually make a point of debunking regional stereotypes. In its bleak and honest presentation of the roots of a local legend, The Ballad of Tom Dooley takes the opposite tack, showing many examples of why these stereotypes exist.

At the story’s center are Tom Dula, a scrawny Confederate veteran with a talent for the fiddle and not much else, and Ann Foster Melton, his dark-haired (and married) lover, the most beautiful and most self-absorbed woman in all of Wilkes County. When plain-faced Pauline Foster comes down the mountain in 1866, offering to work for her Cousin Ann as a servant while getting treatment for syphilis, she deliberately spreads around resentment, jealousy, and lies along with her disease. The twisted chain of events eventually leads to the stabbing death of Laura Foster, a drab waif of a girl who’s a distant cousin to both Ann and Pauline.

Living in these isolated mountains, nobody pays much attention to morality. Although Tom and Ann have been drawn to one another since childhood, neither is faithful or sees the need to be. James Melton, Ann’s husband, is too bewitched by her beauty to care about her affair. Left to care for her siblings after her mother's death, Laura sleeps around with many men, Tom included, because there’s nothing much better to do.

Zebulon Vance shares narration duties with Pauline, which provides some relief from her sociopathic viewpoint. In an attempt to bolster his legal career, he takes the case pro bono when Tom and Ann are jailed for Laura’s murder. The Confederate ex-governor of North Carolina, Vance is a former mountain boy himself, though he took a different path in life than his clients. Looking back on events 20 years later, he speaks several times about his opposition to secession, his status as a U.S. Senator, and his reasons for choosing the woman he married; while he may be the only one in the bunch with brains and decency, he comes across as a bit of a snob.

The novel’s sense of history is paramount, and McCrumb deftly evokes the violence that the end of the Civil War failed to suppress in the poverty-ridden Appalachians. However, with her primary narrator, Pauline, “not much moved by the beauty of nature,” the gorgeous depictions of the region normally expected from her work aren’t found to the same degree in this one.

A century of the folk process transformed this story into the classic murder ballad “Tom Dooley,” which was made famous by the Kingston Trio in 1958. That version pinned the crime on Tom, but he isn’t the perpetrator here – and the real killer shouldn’t come as a surprise. Although this is a novel about a crime, it’s not meant to be a mystery.

This scrupulously researched account gives a plausible scenario for how Laura Foster’s murder may have happened – the author’s note is generous and satisfying – and is worth reading for its re-creation of a real historical event. But with no reason to care about these lazy excuses for people, the promised tale of star-crossed romance just isn’t there. Finally, knowing the reality behind the legend, one can’t help but wonder if this sordid tragedy really deserved as much attention as it got. “That is the burden of this story,” Vance himself says in the beginning, and although McCrumb is a talented writer, not even she manages to overcome it.

The Ballad of Tom Dooley was published by St. Martin's Press in September at $24.99 ($28.99 in Canada) in hardcover.  The ARC was sent to me as part of LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Giveaway opportunity: Rebecca Johns' The Countess

Thanks to the Crown Publishing Group, I have the opportunity to offer a giveaway of Rebecca Johns' The Countess, biographical fiction about Erzsébet Báthory.  It's newly out in trade paperback from Broadway ($15, 304pp).

The Countess was a surprise hit for me when I read and reviewed it here last November.  Erzsébet Báthory was the 16th-century Hungarian noblewoman for whom the term "bloodbath" could have been coinedrumors had it that she killed hundreds of her female servants and bathed in their bloodbut Johns' novel is more of a creepy exploration of her psyche than a gory recounting of her supposed exploits. Read it and see how much you believe of her first-person story.

One copy is up for grabs.  Please leave a comment on this post to enter; deadline Monday, October 17th, so that you should hopefully have it in time for Halloween.  This giveaway is open to US and Canadian residents.  Good luck to all!

Monday, October 03, 2011

Book review: Death of Kings, by Bernard Cornwell

“It was Yule, 898, and someone was trying to kill me.
I would kill them instead.”

Uhtred of Bebbanburg, the Saxon-born, Danish-raised warrior who has reluctantly become a fighter for Alfred of Wessex, is back in this sixth volume of the Saxon Stories. With his usual blend of confidence, physical strength, and gleeful sarcasm at the ready, he recounts a critical period in the making of England – and his involvement therein.

King Alfred is finally dying. The Danes lie in wait, eager to invade and tear apart the Christian realm he worked so hard to build. Uncertainty and suspicion are present from the outset, an effect that nicely mirrors the soon-to-be-fractured state of the kingdom. After foiling a murder attempt at his winter residence up north, Uhtred must return to duty when Alfred asks him to negotiate a treaty with King Eohric of East Anglia. The meeting place seems oddly chosen, and Uhtred smells something fishy.

Uhtred has grown to admire Alfred over time, but he doesn’t feel the same loyalty toward Alfred’s heir, the ætheling Edward. Not only does Edward mistrust him, but Uhtred knows he will have a hard time convincing him that peace-making isn’t the way to create a united Saxon country. Treachery and lies abound, not just from the enemy Danes but also from a rival claimant to the throne. While he faces Alfred’s slow but impending demise as well as numerous threats to his own safety, Uhtred makes up his mind about his ultimate goal – and how he will attain it.

If this were purely an adrenaline-based saga, Death of Kings would be an impressively entertaining read. The strategies are laid out clearly, and the action is brutal and vigorous. Cornwell excels at depicting the “battle-joy” that comes over Uhtred as he prepares to face down a deadly foe. Even pacifists may find themselves caught up in the moment!  The historical background is solid and vividly described, with authentic place names giving the setting a realistic feel.

Some of Uhtred’s choices are wickedly clever, and they have his enemies running in frustrated circles. He delights in causing trouble, which makes for hilarious scenes. His taunting of the Danes at Snotengaham is meant solely to enhance his already fearsome reputation. He also has an excellent sense of how to annoy the ubiquitous priests who believe that victory can be won by prayer.

Death of Kings encompasses more than military encounters, however, and we experience a full range of emotions along with Uhtred: the assurance with which he leads his trusted men, the solemnity of his king’s final moments, and the tenderness and pride Uhtred has for Æthelflaed, Alfred’s daughter, whom he loves dearly. And while he always greets the possibility of war with eager anticipation, his encounter with a pagan sorceress in her otherworldly lair makes him shake in his boots. The consummate skill with which Cornwell evokes every aspect of Uhtred’s story and character transforms an already exciting book into a truly outstanding one.

Death of Kings is published in October by HarperCollins UK at £18.99 (hardcover, 335pp).  It will appear in the US next January from Harper at $25.99 (and good luck waiting that long).

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Guest post from Monika Schröder: Obituaries, Advertisements, and War Bulletins...

Today's guest post from Monika Schröder speaks to the historical background of her novel My Brother's Shadow, reviewed here on Tuesday.  How did her archival research with Berlin newspapers inform her work, and how did she consult these primary sources while living half a world away?  As a librarian who likes helping researchers with requests for older material, I found her essay especially enjoyable.

Obituaries, Advertisements, and War Bulletins – How Reading Berlin Newspapers from the Fall of 1918 helped me write My Brother's Shadow, by Monika Schröder

My new novel of historical fiction, My Brother's Shadow (Frances Foster Books/Farrar Straus Giroux, September, 2011), is set in Berlin 1918 during the last months of World War One. The book explores how war and the political transition following WWI affected regular people and children in particular.

From reading secondary sources I had gained basic information about the situation among German civilians, but I needed to find more details of daily life in Berlin. A few excerpts of the Berliner Tageblatt and Morgenpost were available online, but most of those consisted of the front pages announcing important events such as the Kaiser’s abdication or the armistice. I didn’t find any searchable database that would give me access to the original Berlin newspapers of the year 1918.

When I contacted the German Newspaper Archive in Berlin, I learned that the digitization of most of the papers I was interested in had not been completed. The nice lady at the front desk invited me to visit the archive, explained which subway stop to get off and how much it would cost to make copies. I told her that I lived in New Delhi and wouldn’t be able to come personally to the archive until the following summer.

But I needed those papers right away. I must have sounded desperate as she connected me to the director of the archive to whom I explained my predicament. I expected a tart ‘no’; instead he told me that the archive had finished digitizing through the end of 1919 the Vossische Zeitung, an important liberal paper, published in Berlin. That was good news!

But when he asked how I could get to access the Vossische Zeitung from October 1918 to January 1919 he told me that they were not available online yet.

Now so close to my goal I was not ready to give up. “If you have them in digital format,” I said. “Could you burn them onto a CD and send them to me?"

After a pause, he said, “That would be very expensive.”

“How much?” I asked.

I won’t disclose the sum. Let’s just say he was right in his cost estimation, but I ordered them right away and three weeks later I was delighted to receive a package in the mail with the digitized editions of the Vossische Zeitung from October 14, 1918 to January 20, 1919.

I loved reading the newspaper. The official war report was printed daily on the front page, usually under an upbeat headline. But by the middle of October a discerning reader could see that the army leadership slowly began to disclose more and more of the German Army’s dismal situation. The paper also printed obituaries. Every day numerous black framed notices informed the reader of the death of a young Karl or Friedrich who died “in honor of the fatherland” in France, Russia or Belgium.

I also studied the advertisements, which were very interesting and revealing. Due to the British blockade of the German harbors, Germany experienced severe food shortages. By 1918 many raw materials like coffee or cocoa were not available, and the lack of these products forced Germans to be inventive. Many “ersatz” (replacement) products were advertised. For example, I found an ad offering a class for housewives who wanted to learn how to make coffee from chicory and other ingredients. There were also numerous official calls for the collection of raw materials, such as metal, rubber, and cardboard. Others asked children to bring cherry and plum pits for a “Make Oil from Fruit Pits” campaign.

Commercial ads also illustrated the changing role of women in the war economy following the shortage of men. Traditionally considered the “weaker gender,” women now were drafted to work in ammunition factories and conducted streetcars, and delivered milk and mail or moved heavy equipment as the woman in the following advertisement.

I was so fascinated by what I had read that the newspaper became an important part in the story. As an apprentice in a print shop of a Berlin newspaper, Moritz, the main character, reads the headlines of the paper he just helped print and thereby informs the readers of the state of affairs in Germany, October 1918. On the first page of the novel Moritz studies an official war report, knowing that the government is not allowing the truth to come out. He then meets Herr Goldman, a journalist who works for the paper and who takes a liking to Moritz and ultimately helps him to fulfill his dream to become a reporter like himself. When Moritz is sent out to report on an illegal demonstration he sees his mother among the speakers. He witnesses the police disturb the meeting, disperse the crowd and arrest the leaders. What happened to Moritz’s mother? Read My Brother's Shadow to find out.