Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue, a multifaceted literary mystery of 1876 San Francisco

Donoghue flawlessly combines literary eloquence and vigorous plotting in her first full-fledged mystery, a work as original and multifaceted as its young murder victim.

During the scorching summer of 1876, Jenny Bonnet, an enigmatic cross-dressing bicyclist who traps frogs for San Francisco’s restaurants, meets her death in a railroad saloon on the city’s outskirts. Exotic dancer Blanche Beunon, a French immigrant living in Chinatown, thinks she knows who shot her friend and why, but has no leverage to prove it and doesn’t know if she herself was the intended target. A compulsive pleasure-seeker estranged from her “fancy man,” Blanche searches desperately for her missing son while pursuing justice for Jenny, but finds her two goals sit in conflict.

In language spiced with musical interludes and raunchy French slang, Donoghue brings to teeming life the nasty, naughty side of this ethnically diverse metropolis, with its brothels, gaming halls, smallpox-infested boardinghouses, and rampant child abuse. Most of her seedy, damaged characters really lived, and she not only posits a clever solution to a historical crime that was never adequately solved but also crafts around Blanche and Jenny an engrossing and suspenseful tale about moral growth, unlikely friendship, and breaking free from the past.

Frog Music will be published on March 27th by Little, Brown ($27 hb/$12.99 e-book, 416pp). This review first appeared in Booklist's 2/1/14 issue.

Some other notes:

- This is the third starred review (out of four total) I've written so far this year.  2014 has been shaping up well for historical fiction, but we knew that!

- The surname "Bonnet" is pronounced to reflect its French origins ("bonnay"), not like the head covering.

- Jenny Bonnet's backstory as recounted here is taken straight from history.  As Donoghue writes in an author Q&A in the back of the ARC:  "One journalist kindly alerted me to the fact that there was a hoax in my Wikipedia entry, a claim that I was writing about 'the murder of a cross-dressing frog-catcher!' - and was abashed when I told him it was true."

I went googling around for info on this unusual woman after finishing the novel and found this news bit in the May 23, 1874 issue of Common Sense: A Journal of Live Ideas, a city weekly:  "A young woman named Jenny Bonnet was arrested in San Francisco a few days since, on a charge of misdemeanor in wearing male attire. She stated that she had been herding sheep in San Mateo county in the garb in which she was arrested, which she put on to enable her to get such employment.  She was locked up in the city prison."

A letter to the editor by "E. Hughes," published the following week, defended Jenny and praised her determination to "follow out her ideas of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in her own way...  Is life to sink to one dull, dead level, ruled over by the august respectabilities of our metropolitan police?  If women want to herd sheep, why should they not do so?"

If any of this intrigues you, why not pick up the book when it comes out a month from now.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Sixties: The New Frontier for Historical Fiction, a guest post by Richard Sharp

Over the time that I've been involved with the genre, I've seen the vibrant, socially complex 1960s gradually slide into the definition of historical fiction.  For this reason—and also because I was born at the tail end of the decade and am becoming "historical" myself—the subject of today's post intrigues me immensely.  In the following essay, novelist Richard Sharp puts the Sixties in perspective as an important historical setting and also as an attractive venue for both novelists and their readers to explore.


The Sixties: The New Frontier for Historical Fiction
Richard Sharp

I received a flattering review recently, and others like it, saying I had “written the novel that many of us baby boomers wanted to write and the rest have been hoping to find.” The subject was a historical novel set in the Sixties. Readers who lived through this period, Boomers and their predecessors, as well as descendants curious as to why their elders were so crazy, seem eager for good fiction on this era. That is, fiction that goes beyond war stories, “groovy” and conspiracy theories. This is an appeal to satisfy that pent-up demand.

Historical novel writers, I call your attention to a new subject matter. Are you attracted to an era of history that is poorly understood and which you might like to clarify for a new generation of readers? Are you intrigued by the primitive violence of a past age? Do the strange cultures of passing civilizations appeal? Or the roots of our unfinished business in gender, sexual and racial tolerance? Or the rhythms of distant drums? Or the natural remedies and mysticism passed down by gurus and charlatans? Do you feel the romance of Camelot?

Then awaken to a new sub-genre in historical fiction: The Sixties. By the common definition that historical fiction must be at least fifty years ago, we have just celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington and the fiftieth memorial of the assassination of President John Kennedy. Remembrances of the other seminal events of that era are falling into history like so many autumn leaves. And those that lived through that era are passing into history along with them.

Surely, you say, the contemporary writers of that era have dissected those times in non-fiction and fiction alike. Many have written about the Vietnam conflict—true. Of the struggle for racial equality—true. Of the counterculture of drugs and rock and roll. Of the sexual revolution and her sister, feminism. Also true. But these are the threads from which the Sixties were woven, they are not, separately, the fabric of those times, and novelists have yet to create a substantial array of fine tapestry from that fabric.

Why is that? Perhaps it is partly because the turmoil of the decade tore the society apart and also because our interpretation of that era became so remarkably political—the stuff of every Presidential election from Kennedy’s Camelot through George W. Bush. Barack Obama, born in 1961, is the first American President too young to have participated in the Vietnam War or have avoided it, to have visited Woodstock or not, to have learned of Selma or Kent State on live television, to have looked on Bond girls as feminists, or any of those things.

Many now remember Vietnam as the Baby Boom war and the counterculture as the Boomers’ great misadventure. By any objective standard, neither is true. The common definitions now in use place the Baby Boom from 1946-1965, the so-called “Silent Generation” approximately two decades before that and (thanks to Tom Brokaw), the “Greatest Generation” another twenty years or so earlier. To have been subject to the draft or experienced the summer of love, a young man in the Sixties would have had to be born in the first eight years of the Boom (before 1954) or the last decade of the preceding generation. So part of the lack of focus on the Sixties themselves may well be that the era does not fit well with the pseudo-scientific generational mythology we have come to rely on. Add to that the uncomfortable fact that the political, military, and even socio-cultural leadership of those years were from the semi-deified Greatest Generation (and would remain so through much of the Reagan Administration), and you have a formula for denial. But LBJ, Nixon and Carter were as much that generation as JFK. For better or ill, no one generation was responsible for the Sixties. But that does not excuse a failure to come to terms with it in either non-fiction or novels.

As I began writing two novels dealing with this period, The Duke Don’t Dance and Crystal Ships, it became clear to me that, the era was even more complex than I remembered as a confused voyager through those years. This was confirmed recently by the realization that at least two dozen major colleges (no doubt an understatement) are now teaching courses on the political/social/cultural history of the Sixties. Academics have even invented a new term for the period: “the long Sixties.” The term recognizes that some critical changes defining the period began in the late Fifties and that a large number of issues lingered well into the Seventies, at least as far as the fall of Saigon in 1975.

Today the Soviet Union has dissolved and we have had Nine-eleven, two Iraq wars and Afghanistan separating us from the trauma of the Sixties. Perhaps the time has at last arrived when both the academics and novelists can display some perspective on this era—that we don’t have to write about just the threads, but can talk about the fabric and even create something beautiful from that fabric.

For Crystal Ships, I started with the background music of the era, providing a personal soundtrack in the back of my head as I constructed the saga, aiding my recall of the writings we read back then and the performing arts that we watched. (The title itself recalls Jim Morrison’s “The Crystal Ship” and the Irish legend behind it, but serves as a metaphor for the fragile idealism of the period.) Pre-boomers wrote and performed the great music of the era. The boomers disseminated and preserved it and current generations still listen to it every day. The music was more of a unifying force for the period than a divisive one (despite some geezer complaints) and also provides a link to the present. For those reasons, I tried to immerse the reader in music and other cultural references to capture more of the spirit of the era. Other writers will find other devices.

I’m proud to have added a volume to a sparsely filled shelf of novels that attempt to portray the Sixties in all its diversity. Still my perspective is limited by what I understood of the actions, point of view and emotional reactions to those difficult years in my own social milieu. Those of different backgrounds will have other experiences that merit expression in the form of historical novels. JFK once said of the space program we do these things “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” True also of recapturing the Sixties, but there are many shelves to fill.


Richard Sharp grew up a Colorado farm boy, later was educated at Harvard and Princeton, and began his career in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. He subsequently worked as a development consultant in some four dozen countries.

His rural roots have inspired two 19th-century historical novels and his later life, two Cold War era sagas. Self-published to date through the CreateSpace publishing platform, his well-reviewed and prizewinning tales are available through his website at

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Trieste by Daša Drndić, an unsparing look at the Holocaust in Italy and its aftermath

Just as the river Soča wends through northeastern Italy, bearing witness to everything it touches, Trieste roams through the tragic array of Jewish experiences during the region’s Nazi occupation. It centers on Haya Tedeschi, an elderly woman whose son, fathered by an SS officer, had been stolen away as part of the Lebensborn breeding program. During her relentless search for him, Haya revisits her family’s lives over generations and collects artifacts about the atrocities—from photos, songs, and testimonies from war-crime trials to heartbreaking stories that have waited too long to be heard.

Drndić has assembled an angry scrapbook of searing memories, horror, and loss. For the Holocaust’s victims, there is no hope; for its perpetrators, there is no punishment. Trieste’s originality lies not just in its structure and forceful, unflinching imagery—translator Elias-Bursać deserves acclaim as well—but also in how it brings the lingering effects of the Nazis’ merciless racial policies forward into the present. Here the past doesn’t lie dormant and forgotten but is a cancer that can poison us from within.


Trieste was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in January ($27, hardcover, 368pp); MacLehose Press is the UK publisher.  Ellen Elias-Bursać's masterful translation from Drndić's original Croatian is a work of art in itself.  In 2013, Trieste won the Independent Foreign Fiction Readers' Prize, which honors both the author and the translator.  This review first appeared in Booklist's November 15th issue.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Book review: The Traitor's Wife, by Allison Pataki

Allison Pataki employs an engaging, light style for her debut novel, which reveals the role Benedict Arnold's wife played in his treason during the American Revolution.

Eighteen-year-old Peggy Shippen, the favorite youngest daughter of a Philadelphia judge, has golden curls, a pretty face, a quick wit, and an insatiable desire for life's finer things. The most popular belle in local society, Peggy adores the handsome redcoats occupying her city, especially army officer John André, and connives to keep him close.

But when British troops evacuate Philly in June 1778, and new military commander Benedict Arnold declares martial law, Peggy uses all her wiles to attract the burly major-general and establish herself as a fervent patriot especially if it means that luxurious goods left behind by the British will be given to her as gifts. Prone to tantrums when plans don't go her way, Peggy is that rare creature who can get away with screaming in ALL CAPS without it seeming exaggerated.

Wisely, Pataki doesn't put readers into the head of this willful, selfish woman. Instead, we can sit back and watch her entertaining antics through the eyes of her new maid, Clara Bell. Although grateful for her position in the Shippen household and dedicated to her job, Clara quietly believes in the American ideals of liberty and self-determination. As Peggy and Arnold's courtship gains ground, Clara sees Peggy encourage his resentment over the poor treatment and slights he received from the Continental Congress, who refuse to repay the debts Arnold incurred on the army's behalf.

Treated more kindly by Arnold than her mistress, though compelled to serve them both, Clara becomes an unwilling party to their plans as Peggy persuades her disillusioned husband to switch sides, with the secret assistance of her old flame, John André.

With her stirring plot about, well, a stirring plot, Pataki proves herself adept at distilling these complex historical circumstances into an easy-to-read fictionalized story. The Traitor's Wife reads much more quickly than its nearly 500-page length suggests. She provides visually appealing scene-setting details on the Shippens' upper-class Philadelphia household and looks beyond the famous figures to portray the less privileged lives of their servants. Although relegated to the sidelines in Peggy's view, Clara experiences her own touching love story and grows in inner strength over time.

The basics of the story are anchored in history, but there are some mistakes in the details. There was no "genteel British accent" in the late 18th century, for example the colonists and British would have sounded about the same back then and it feels odd to have Clara reflect on "all these years" she spent at Peggy's beck and call when the entire book spans 1778 to 1780.

Still, Pataki is a talented writer with a bright future in historical fiction; she successfully revives this centuries-old tale of deceit, manipulation, and lost honor and makes it feel fresh. Those who mistakenly believe American-set historical fiction is dreary and unexciting will likely find themselves changing their minds.

The Traitor's Wife was published on February 11th by Howard/Simon & Schuster ($14.99/$16.99 in Canada, trade pb, 457pp + notes). Thanks to the publisher for sending me an ARC.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Book review: The Silent Tide, by Rachel Hore

Two career-driven women in London’s competitive publishing industry over sixty years apart feature in Rachel Hore’s comfortably overstuffed saga, which has light touches of romance and a haunting mystery linking the eras. In the dramatic prologue, Isabel awakens alone to a flooded house in East Suffolk of 1953 and, with no rescue source nearby, is soon swept away into the waters of the cold North Sea. The story of how this sad situation came about unfolds in the remaining pages.

Escaping an unhappy home life, 19-year-old Isabel Barber arrives in London in 1948 and lands a job as a clerk at a small publisher. She loves her work and her first big project, editing the debut novel of talented newcomer Hugh Morton. This draws her into close company with its much older author, whose charm she finds hard to resist.

Her modern counterpart is Emily Gordon, an up-and-coming editor at London-based Parchment Press. In the course of acquiring the first authorized biography of Morton, a distinguished literary figure, Emily becomes intrigued by the shadowy Isabel, whose name is found inscribed in one of Morton’s early books. Maybe it was Isabel, not his widow Jacqueline, who inspired the heroine in The Silent Tide, the bestselling epic that made him famous?

Ambitious women in similar occupations, Emily and Isabel don’t feel distinct enough in the early chapters. However, as Hugh and Isabel’s relationship develops, and mysterious packages containing Isabel’s writings begin turning up at Emily’s office, their personalities solidify, and their stories become hard to set aside. The novel is particularly affecting in its portrayal of the difficulties working women faced in the post-war era, and of the hidden secrets that can lie, seemingly dormant, within families and marriages. The last hundred pages had me on the edge of my seat and more than made up for the slowish start.

The Silent Tide was published by Simon & Schuster UK in 2013 (£7.99, pb, 514pp). Sorry, there isn't a US edition yet.  I reviewed it from a personal copy for the Historical Novels Review's February issue

Thursday, February 13, 2014

A historical fiction cover art matchup, US vs. UK

Two weeks ago, Becky at the excellent readers' advisory blog RA for All mentioned the side-by-side cover design analysis of popular novels in their US & UK editions from The Millions.  I posted the link on the Historical Novel Society's Facebook page, which has members from both countries.  There were many historical novels featured in the tournament, and much discussion ensued.  More than a few readers stated that none of the covers in the analysis appealed to them much or would prompt them to pick up the books.  I had to agree.

So I thought I might repeat the comparison idea but change the focus.  Rather than looking at the literary heavy-hitters of 2013, I'm including cover pairs for all historical novels I could find that (1) were published in either January or February and (2) had editions in both countries. Overall, compared to the books in The Millions piece, these designs are less avant-garde and more typical of the historical fiction genre, yet there are still some striking examples and some noticeable differences.  I'll provide my reactions below, but I'd love to hear which ones you prefer, and why.

In these examples, the US cover is on the left, the UK on the right.

The setting: Viking-age England.  These are nearly identical, aside from the zoomed-in approach in the UK edition, the fonts, and the placement of the author's name and book title.  I'm going with the UK edition here simply because, call me superficial, I like the font used for the author's name better.

The setting: Elizabethan England.  Having read The Tudor Conspiracy, I'm choosing the UK edition here, too; it gives a much better sense of the historical atmosphere and heightens the fact that this is a mystery-thriller.  It gets me curious about what's in the packet of letters the protagonist is walking away from.

The setting:  Georgian England.  The US version emphasizes the woman's-period-piece aspect, while the UK design, combined with the elegant font of the title, playfully hints at a woman's subtle act of disobedience.  I like it.

The setting: London, 1920s.  I'm not sure which I prefer, the original painting of the US edition, or the UK edition with its eye-catching colors and close-but-staggered placement of the title and author.  Even if the woman reminds me of the US edition of Tyringham Park, below.

Setting: the late 19th century, in Europe, America, and the South Seas.  For me, the US edition wins by a mile, not just because it features a representation of one of the title characters, but because it conveys both the brightness and shadows in the relationship between Robert Louis and Fanny Stevenson.  The tropical scene with its rainbow background doesn't work for me at all.

Setting: antebellum South Carolina.  Invention of Wings is the newest Oprah pick, so there's perhaps less need for an enticing cover to draw readers in. I find the US interpretation rather generic and self-helpy.  Its UK counterpart has some ornate flourishes to take up all of the (literal) white space, and the background colors don't entice me, but otherwise I like it for its visual interpretation of the novel's plot, setting, and themes.

Setting:  pre-WWI England.  The woman on the US cover has a look of Lady Mary from Downton, doesn't she?  The attempted tie-in with the TV series is obvious, but it's also thoughtful and elegant in how it conveys the era.  It makes for a gorgeous package.  The UK cover just says "women's fiction" to me, but since I haven't read the novel yet, it may be more appropriate than it first appears.

Setting:  the late 19th century.  Having read this novel, I feel the US cover is perfect, with its deep green color and evocation of the haunting mystery around which it centers.  Plus, the ship's name is in italics, as it should be. In comparison, the image on the UK cover is too plain and faded to be effective; at first glance I didn't spot the ship in the background.

Setting: upper-crust early 20th-century Ireland.  Both of these work for the novel (which I've read) although I feel the UK version is less generic and more accurate to the storyline.  The title character is a troubled young woman whose problems weigh her down, so her expression fits.  And it's always a plus to see a woman's full figure rather than the headless/faceless look.

Setting:  South Africa, 1919.  Both evoke the African setting and are gorgeous for different reasons, although the UK version acknowledges not just one but both protagonists (a white Irish expatriate and the black daughter of her housemaid, whom she befriends) and reflects the storyline more precisely.  I have copies of both editions and am not sure I want to give up either one.

Setting: the Aleutian Islands, WWII.  I love the US cover, which would persuade me to pick it up immediately to discover the meaning of the title and image.  I understand the effect the UK cover was trying to get at, but the two faces within the bird seems awkward and strange to me.

Setting: New York State during the frozen winter of 1897.  Both work very well, and the red lettering in both is apt.  The UK version emphasizes the novel's action and its thriller aspect, and the font is an even darker, bloodier red, so it's my choice as most appropriate even though I find the US version more visually appealing.

What do you think?  Which are your favorites?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Book review: Girl on the Golden Coin, by Marci Jefferson

Reading Marci Jefferson’s debut novel is like stepping into a Restoration-era painting, one full of elegant lines and deep, rich colors. 

Girl on the Golden Coin delves into the life story of Frances Stuart, a poor relation of the English royal family who hasn’t garnered as much attention from novelists as her flashier contemporaries at Charles II’s licentious court.

Her story begins in France, where she and other royalist exiles were living during the English Civil War. By 1661, King Charles has been restored to his throne, and Frances has become the good friend and lady-in-waiting to Madame, an English princess who married the Sun King’s younger brother, who prefers his male favorites to his wife. Gifted with a pure, ethereal beauty, Frances attracts the attention of Louis XIV of France himself, who offers her his heart and offers to make her his mistress.

Frances’ personal values make her a sympathetic character, and a rarity at Fontainebleau Palace. When she turns King Louis down, she receives her marching orders: cross the channel to England, entice Charles II into her bed, and persuade him to ally with France – and nudge him toward Catholicism. If she fails, a devastating secret involving her family’s heritage may come to light, throwing her family into disfavor and ruining her and her sister’s hopes for good marriages.

Over at London’s Whitehall Palace, Charles II warmly welcomes his distant cousin, and after she takes her place as maid of honor to his Portuguese queen, the atmosphere swirls with intrigue. As Frances and the king grow close, courtiers petition her to act on their behalf, and his official mistress Lady Castlemaine strikes out in jealousy. Frances must keep many goals in careful balance, following the wishes of King Louis and keeping her virtue while acknowledging her own desires.

That she manages to navigate treacherous waters while safeguarding her family’s interests and retaining the king’s respect is a testament to her strength of character. Charles II, likewise, is depicted as strong-minded and lusty yet appealingly vulnerable – a side of him that few but Frances ever get to see. Because the story is told from Frances’ viewpoint, the larger political arena, involving the tenuous ties between France and England and possible war with the Dutch, remains in the background, but readers can see how these forces shape everyone's actions.

The prose, full of richly described attire and furnishings, acknowledges readers’ intelligence with deliciously subtle conversations among the many players. There’s no need to be daunted by the large cast list at the beginning, since everyone’s personality and position comes into clear focus. Fans of high-stakes court intrigue should be more than satisfied with this tale about a Scotswoman of honor and courage.

Girl on the Golden Coin is published today by St. Martin's Press in hardcover ($25.99, 336pp). Thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy.

Friday, February 07, 2014

The Secrets She Carried by Barbara Davis, a multi-period tale of family ties and family secrets

Barbara Davis’ debut opens with an attention-grabbing prologue. In 1940, Henry Gavin, owner of a large North Carolina tobacco plantation, brings his daughter Maggie to see the final resting place of his wife’s maid, Adele, who was buried high on a distant ridge. Speaking from beyond the grave, Adele sorrowfully tells readers she was Maggie’s real mother but that Henry’s wife raised Maggie as her own.

With this big secret revealed up front, how many surprises can the narrative hold? Quite a few, as it happens. This compulsively readable saga spans five generations of women and presents new mysteries at every turn.

In 2013, Leslie Nichols returns to her Carolina hometown after thirty years’ absence. Her grandmother Maggie had died a year earlier, and Leslie needs to claim her inheritance at last. She clashes at first with Maggie’s caretaker and friend, the ruggedly handsome Jay Davenport, who was left the other half of Peak Plantation.

Fortunately, Leslie sheds her big city arrogance quickly and agrees to partner with Jay in his winemaking venture. As their romance develops, Leslie combs through old papers and photos, including one of a mysterious grave, and becomes consumed by uncovering old secrets. In scenes set back in the ´30s, Adele reveals her difficult role as a companion to Susanne Gavin, an insufferable snob despondent after multiple miscarriages, and her love for Susanne’s morally upright husband, Henry.

Davis has a gift for developing flawed characters and their emotionally wrenching dilemmas. The small-town setting, full of gossip and prejudice in the Depression years, feels realistic. In laying the past to rest, Leslie must also address the problem of her drug-addict father, whose role in her mother’s death was never explained. All of these elements are woven into a very satisfying tale, but one loose thread is left dangling. A sequel would be welcome.

The Secrets She Carried was published in 2013 by NAL Accent ($15.00, 384pp).  I wrote this review as an online exclusive for February's Historical Novels Review, based on a personal purchase; I bought the e-book not realizing the story had a historical thread and decided to review it after that.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Mary-Rose MacColl's In Falling Snow, a thoughtful multi-period novel of war, family, love, and memory

Readers are spoiled for choice with new historical novels set during WWI. Most offer similar themes: navigating the era’s shifting social patterns, how its pointless loss affected generations, and how valor springs from impossible circumstances. Fortunately, each one that I’ve read offers a unique perspective. What distinguishes Mary-Rose MacColl’s international bestseller In Falling Snow are its realistic portrayal of human relationships and focus on women in medicine, in particular its inspiring depiction of the self-sacrificing wartime heroism of the women of France’s Royaumont Abbey.

The narrative has a three-part structure, with two sections flowing effortlessly into one another as Iris Crane’s mind drifts from present to past in old age. In 1914, having failed to stop her 15-year-old brother Tom from enlisting, Iris leaves Australia for Europe to bring him home to their worried father. She gets distracted from her mission after discovering her nurse’s skills are needed at Royaumont, a run-down Cistercian abbey north of Paris that’s being established as a field hospital. Working alongside its industrious chief physician Frances Ivens and hard-edged ambulance driver Violet Heron, Iris finds her calling. For her and its wounded soldiers, the capable medical sisterhood there makes Royaumont a secluded haven in the midst of horror.

Much later, in 1970s Brisbane, an invitation to a reunion reminds Iris of the leaden sense of guilt she’s carried since the war, the full reasons for which are carefully, if somewhat predictably, revealed. In a separate thread, Iris’ granddaughter Grace, an obstetrician in a nearly all-male field, struggles to reconcile her ambitions with her perfectionism and her family’s needs. Although I’m not normally drawn to modern medical dramas, I found Grace’s story gripping. The Royaumont segments are more leisurely paced, but they are immersive nonetheless. Just like Iris, I found myself drawn in and reluctant to leave.

In Falling Snow was published last August by Penguin ($16.00, trade paperback, 454pp). It's also out in the UK (by Allison & Busby), Canada (Penguin Canada), and Australia (Allen & Unwin), the author's home country.  This review also appears in February's Historical Novels Review.  I'm home on a snow day the university is closed so this was a natural choice to pick for today's review.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Frances Brody's Murder in the Afternoon, an intelligent mystery set in 1920s Yorkshire

Frances Brody's Murder in the Afternoon successfully melds the British historical saga and the traditional crime novel.  The plot and characters reflect the era: the socially turbulent 1920s, when working men fought for fair treatment, liberated career women met with patronizing attitudes, and people across England struggled to emerge from the Great War's long shadow.

In this third entry in an ongoing series, it's May of 1923, and thirtyish war widow and private investigator Kate Shackleton gets awakened at 4am by a woman who needs her help.  Mary Jane Armstrong's husband Ethan has disappeared from the quarry where he worked as a stonemason.  Their ten-year-old daughter Harriet says she found him lying dead in his hut after bringing him lunch the day before, but his body has vanished, and the local police don't believe her. 

Ethan, a charismatic leader, had been organizing a strike at the quarry; in addition, he and Mary Jane had argued just before he left for work. The blue slate sundial he'd been crafting for his boss is found crushed in pieces.  Did he smash it in revenge before abandoning his wife and family, or was he murdered? Clues to this complex puzzle are intricately woven into the story as Kate discovers a startling family connection to Mary Jane and encounters resistance from an unexpected place.

Kate has a quick, wry wit that makes her narrative a lot of fun to read.  "His eyebrows arched high enough to let a train of hostile thought pass," she says of an old-school police sergeant who's suspicious of female detectives. With her confident demeanor and gentle upbringing, Kate knows how to get things done, remaining aware of the "Yorkshire caution" she knows she'll find among the residents of Great Applewick. One minor distraction is her tendency to step back from what's happening and make present-tense observations; this takes some getting used to.

Because of Ethan's political activities, Kate's lover from Scotland Yard gets brought in, but it takes someone with Kate's brand of determination and sly thoroughness to crack the case with the help of some clever undercover work by her partner, Jim Sykes.  Brody's knowledge of the geography, housing, and speech patterns of working-class Northern England adds to the convincing atmosphere, as do her depictions of "country children."

Although two Kate Shackleton novels precede this one, Brody doesn't waste time getting readers up to speed with her characters.  The solutions to the earlier mysteries aren't revealed here, either, which should give those new to the series more to look forward to in her backlist.  As Frances McNeil, she has also written many novels set in and around her home city of Leeds; her Somewhere Behind the Morning won the HarperCollins Elizabeth Elgin Award for the Most Regionally Evocative Saga of the Millennium.

Murder in the Afternoon is published on February 11th by Minotaur in the US ($25.99/$29.99 in Canada, hardcover, 387pp). It's also available in the UK from Piatkus in paperback (£8.99), with the same gorgeous original artwork on the cover.  Thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Announcement and call for participants: An upcoming focus on small press historical novels

Last March, I ran a month-long focus on historical novels from small and independent presses in honor of Small Press Month, as a way of bringing more attention to the valuable contributions these presses make to a vibrant and diverse literary marketplace.  The official observance of this occasion no longer exists, but in this era of merger-mania in the publishing world, the roles that small presses play are more important than ever both for authors and their readers.

So I plan to continue with my observance of Small Press Month this coming March, even if this former national celebration is now quite a bit smaller.

You can help if you like, though by reading along, spreading the word, reviewing small press historicals on your blogs, and by contributing a guest essay if you so choose.

Here's what I have planned.  During March 2014, I'll be offering reviews, guest posts, and spotlights on historical novels from small and independent presses.  As I mentioned last year, definitions for this term can vary, but I'll be using it to include those publishers outside of the Big Six Five that are independently run and not part of large conglomerates.  These publishers may or may not have large marketing budgets, and I hope to draw attention to worthy historical novels that readers may otherwise miss.

I'll be putting together showcases of small press historical novels, similar to those from last year, in four different categories:  US small presses (no specific focus), historical mysteries, university presses, and international small presses.

In addition, I have some reviews of exciting small press titles to post, and a few guest essays have already been scheduled.  I asked my husband to create a special graphic for my site, and you can see what he came up with above (isn't it purty?).  I'd love to be able to post something new every other day, at least, so here's an opportunity.

If you're an author with a historical novel out from a traditional small press (or if you work at a small press which publishes historical fiction) and you'd like to contribute a guest post during March, drop me a line (sarah at readingthepast dot com) with potential ideas.  If you're curious to read past contributions from guest writers, you can find a long selection of them here.  Giveaway offers are welcome, too, but I prefer to run these in conjunction with guest posts and not on their own.

If you're a blogger interested in reviewing a small press title or two (or more) on your own site during March, it would be great to have some company.  If there's any interest, I'll set up a Mr. Linky where you can link up your reviews later on.

Finally, since my 8th blogiversary is coming up in late March, I'll do as I did last year and offer a contest of some sort.

So, stay tuned and look out for more on Small Press Month in a month from now!