Thursday, December 31, 2015

Cora Harrison's A Shameful Murder, a superb mystery of 1920s Ireland

In this debut of a new series, Irish novelist Cora Harrison swiftly gets down to business, introducing her sleuth and murder victim with the first sentence: “It was Reverend Mother Aquinas who found the body of the dead girl.” Harrison’s long-running Burren Mysteries, set amid the rocky terrain of 16th-century western Ireland, proved her talent for evoking original settings beautifully, and this new venture is no different.

A Shameful Murder takes place in 1923 in the southwestern Irish coastal city of Cork, described in earlier times like “a Venice under a grey northern sky.” It was constructed on a marsh, and while the wealthy, of course, make their homes in the nearby hills, waters continue to emerge and flood the streets where Cork’s poorest residents live. Corpses washed up by floodwaters are common enough, sadly, even at the convent at St. Mary’s of the Isle.

More unusual in this case are the dead girl’s satin gown, belongings, and identity. After her less-than-distraught father identifies her, the Reverend Mother knows something’s not right. Tellingly, Angelina Fitzsimon would have received a significant inheritance if only she’d lived a few months longer.

The investigating sergeant from the newly formed civic guard, Patrick Cashman, happens to be the Reverend Mother’s former pupil, and they both dismiss the prevailing theory of suicide. Identifying with the young woman, “a girl from a privileged background like her own… a daughter of one of the rich merchant families of Cork,” Mother Aquinas decides to apply the intellectual skills granted her by God to finding answers.

What unfolds is a superbly crafted mystery that makes fine use of its locale and the diverse characters living there: the moneyed elite who attend the annual Merchants’ Ball, lecturers from the University College, and the energetic young people who fight for Ireland’s future by joining the illegal Republican Party.

There’s a delightful irony about the fact that, as a nun working amid Cork’s lower classes, the Reverend Mother is better versed in her world’s realities than most. A caring woman in her seventies, and of a practical frame of mind, she has the chops to see justice done. When she guesses one major clue before anyone else, she quietly revels in her triumph, and readers will too.

A Shameful Murder was published by Severn House in July ($28.95 hardcover, $14.49 Kindle, 256pp).  Thanks to the publisher for granting my access via NetGalley.  This is my last review for the year.  See you in 2016!

Monday, December 28, 2015

An unexpected Western adventure: This Godforsaken Place by Cinda Gault

This literary debut novel comprises the account of 22-year-old Abigail Peacock, a British woman who had accompanied her father to remote Wabigoon in northwestern Ontario, following his dream of finding adventure.

Now, in 1885, with her father ailing, Abigail writes about her loneliness and despair as she’s forced to take up his post as a schoolteacher, her own hopes abandoned in favor of an unwanted life of survival in a shack on the frontier. Then, at the local storeowner’s suggestion, she buys a Winchester rifle – which, in classic western fashion, becomes her first step along the road to perdition. Her attempts to teach herself to shoot lead to her entanglements with a half-dead outlaw, a Pinkerton agent, a large amount of cash, and finally a daring adventure of her own.

Abigail’s brash, dryly humorous voice makes her an engaging heroine, a woman with the potential to be a colorful western character, if she’d only admit it. Her descriptions of the mostly unpopulated landscape are starkly beautiful. She muses frequently about the plight of Métis leaders Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont, finding their stories fascinating after reading many newspaper accounts about them during her father’s illness. While educational, the frequent insertions of details on their lives feel puzzling, although they make more sense after one realizes that Dumont himself appears later on in the book. As for how Annie Oakley and a young man called Shea Wyatt get involved, that’s left for readers to find out.

There are really two separate novels here, an exciting western quest for justice and the somber tale of the Métis. Although they aren’t as well-integrated as they could be, Gault does an admirable job evoking the struggles to find one’s place in the rugged late 19th-century West.

This Godforsaken Place (great title and cover) was published by Brindle & Glass, a Canadian press, in September (trade pb, $15.95 or Can$17.95, 232pp).  This review first appeared in November's Historical Novels Review.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Vacation reading: Anna Romer's Lyrebird Hill, set in modern and turn-of-the-century rural Australia

If you celebrate Christmas, hope you had a nice holiday yesterday. I’ve been taking some time off for the break, and we didn’t travel anywhere for a change. Instead, I’ve been enjoying the quiet time at home and am catching up on reading, in particular titles that I’d bought but hadn’t had the chance to pick up.

One of these is Anna Romer’s Lyrebird Hill. Since I’d been neglecting the Australian Women Writers Challenge, it seemed like a good choice.

It’s a dual-period novel about two women, generations apart, and the gradual discovery of traumatic secrets from the past – and their impact on the present time. Yes, I know; this premise could be used to describe many novels. It’s become a common theme. You’ll find them compared to Kate Morton’s style, since she’s the most prominent and successful author in the field (and her characterizations and complex structures remain unsurpassed, imho).

Where Lyrebird Hill stands out are in the author’s obvious love for the wild landscapes of rural Australia – the descriptions of the local botany and terrain of northern New South Wales are worth reading at leisure – and her evocation of Australia’s traumatic past, specifically white settlers’ ruthless treatment of the Aboriginal peoples. Romer also successfully employs the same sleight-of-hand that all good mystery writers use. Although the beginning of both women’s segments unfolded as expected, several final revelations were startling. Since I’ve read a great many novels with parallel narratives and recognize their patterns, I love it when they can surprise me.

The protagonist of the earlier segment is Brenna Magavin, a young woman of nineteen living with her father and younger brother on an isolated, 3000-acre estate called Lyrebird Hill in 1898. She spends her days illustrating local flora and spending time with the Aborigines at their encampment on their property, despite continuing tensions and her aunt’s disapproval. Although Brenna makes a brave sacrifice to preserve their land, and her situation evokes empathy as it becomes steadily more dire, I admit I had trouble warming to her following one naïve, thoughtless act she commits.

Thirty-year-old bookshop owner Ruby Cardel, in the present day, is at a crossroads in life. She has an attractive boyfriend who writes bestselling self-help manuals, but suspects he’s cheating. When Ruby attends an exhibition of her estranged mother’s artwork, an elderly former neighbor who she meets there implies that her sister Jamie’s death, eighteen years earlier, was no accident. When Ruby decides to return to Lyrebird Hill, her childhood home, her amnesia from long ago slowly begins to lift.

While the douchebag boyfriend has become a trope – ditching him lets a heroine show her empowerment and opens the possibility of a new romance – Ruby’s gradual uncovering of her past, and her knowledge about herself, is emotionally involving. Her family relationships, specifically with her mother, are refreshingly absent of stereotype.

How the two plotlines come together appears later in the book, so I won’t reveal the details. Lyrebird Hill is worth seeking out, although it’s getting harder for American readers to do that. The audio version is at Amazon, but for the print, try; it’s not in stock at Fishpond anymore, even though the mass market paperback just came out in September. Other suggestions welcome.

Lyrebird Hill was published by Simon & Schuster Australia in 2014 (trade pb, 404pp), which is the copy I bought last year. The mass market pb is priced at A$19.99, or NZ$21.99.  This is my 4th entry for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Book review: Médicis Daughter: A Novel of Marguerite de Valois, by Sophie Perinot

When you’re the daughter of Catherine de Médicis, Queen Mother and de facto ruler of France, you do as you’re told. After you’re introduced to court life, you avoid imitating other women’s flirtations, since it’s behavior unbecoming of your status. You acquiesce to potential marriage arrangements, even if it means a union with an unstable Spanish prince, or your unrefined Protestant cousin, Henri of Navarre. You must spurn the advances of the attractive Duc de Guise, even though your youthful heart yearns for warmth and understanding.

Above all, you must stay loyal to your family. While you’re an unmarried woman under their protection, there’s no opting out.

Told in an unobtrusive present tense, Médicis Daughter follows Marguerite de Valois, youngest sister of France’s Charles IX, and the difficult path she traverses over a ten-year period, beginning with her childhood in the year 1562. During this time, the setting swirls with dark undercurrents as France is torn apart by religious wars between the ruling Catholics and those they term heretics, the Protestant Huguenots.

Marguerite makes some unwise decisions, but hers is a constrained life, and it understandably takes time for her to awaken to the reality of her situation and figure out where to place her trust. There’s as much political scheming, secret romance, and family dysfunction as any fan of royal fiction could want as Marguerite comes of age at the French court, slowly becoming less of an observer and more of a participant.

Given all the intrigue that surrounds Marguerite, her story could have been an over-the-top drama-fest, but Perinot keeps the atmosphere tightly controlled, which increases the level of tension. This suits the time and place. Character is key here, and the combination of Marguerite’s personality and circumstances makes her a complex individual indeed.

Perinot excels at illustrating the nuances of interpersonal relationships, and those she depicts – and their transformations over time – are worth beholding. These include Marguerite’s interactions with her next oldest brother, the Duc d’Anjou; with her would-be lover, the Duc de Guise; and with the King of Navarre, the cousin she finally agrees to marry. All of these men, incidentally, are named Henri, although this doesn’t cause confusion. Instead, Perinot plays upon this historical fact to craft some revelatory character-defining moments.

As one can guess from the title, the mother-daughter relationship sits at the heart of the book, and this is handled with finesse. Catherine de Médicis, who inspires both awe and fear, is a powerful antagonist. To round out her character, she’s granted moments of vulnerability, ones that hint at her deep-rooted motivations at the same time.

The novel’s ending, culminating at the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, is both devastating and magnificent, with Marguerite courageously taking a stand. At this point, Marguerite’s life is far from over, but the decision to conclude the novel here makes for an extremely satisfying character arc.

Médicis Daughter: A Novel of Marguerite de Valois was published by Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin's Press, this month (hardcover, $26.99/C$31.50, 369pp).  Thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Bits and pieces

I have a few longer posts here as drafts, but nothing completed yet. Even though events are slowing down on campus, December 15th is the reviewers' deadline for the Historical Novels Review, so my inbox is overfull and demanding attention.  In the meanwhile, here are links to some sites worth perusing.

The Historical Novel Society's guide to forthcoming historical novels for 2016 is getting longer all the time, with listings available through next August.  It's compiled by me (for US titles) and Sarah Cuthbertson (UK titles).  Also, the HNS guide to upcoming children's and YA titles for 2016 is even longer; Fiona Sheppard is its editor.

"The novel was coming along quite well, until I got to the ­foreskins." Take a read through Geraldine Brooks' December 11th article for the New York Times, in which she speaks about the process for writing The Secret Chord, which is set 3000 years ago. And how refreshing to hear a novelist state outright, in a newspaper, that "I write historical fiction."

Does winning a Goodreads Choice award create more awareness and influence sales?  The Goodreads blog talks about this issue, with Kristin Hannah's The Nightingale, the 2015 winner in historical fiction, as an example.

For those who love romantic historical epics like The Thorn Birds, the Heroes & Heartbreakers blog has many reading suggestions.  Check out the comments, too.

Parade Magazine has a roundup of historical novels in their 2015 holiday gift guide.

More reviews and previews will be coming up soon!

Friday, December 11, 2015

Dictator by Robert Harris: the courageous life and continuing relevance of Marcus Tullius Cicero

Following Imperium (2006) and Conspirata (2010), Harris offers this thrilling final volume of his trilogy about Cicero, ancient Rome’s most skilled orator. The novel opens as Cicero is forced into exile in 58 BCE, following the Catiline conspiracy. His story will powerfully stir the heart and mind, for it presents the coda to a life lived with intelligence and courage.

A fierce defender of the Roman republic and the rule of law, Cicero struggles to promote his principles amid marital discord and increasingly volatile political circumstances. He’s flawed but entirely human as he makes several disastrous mistakes and is obliged to make compromises to serve a greater goal.

As before, his thoughts and exploits are rendered via the lucid narration of Tiro, his loyal secretary. Spanning 15 years, Tiro’s account covers significant ground, from the breakdown of the First Triumvirate through the civil war between Caesar and Pompey, Caesar’s dictatorship, and the blood-soaked chaos after his assassination. The cast is extensive, but the plotting is brisk, and Harris never loses sight of his themes' or his protagonist’s relevance for today.

Dictator will be published by Knopf on January 12th (hardcover, 416pp, $26.95).  This review first appeared in the 12/15 issue of Booklist, which went online today.  I hadn't read either of the first two books in the series, though always meant to get to them; fortunately, this third in the trilogy stood alone just fine.  If you're an admirer of Colleen McCullough's Masters of Rome series, you'll want to put this on your list as well.  The British publisher is Hutchinson, and the second book is called Lustrum in the UK. 

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Book Review: Stephanie Thornton's The Conqueror's Wife

From an early age, Thessalonike of Macedon learns that the world is cruel, unfair, and not created for the likes of her – or anyone of the female sex. Still, despite the strictures placed upon them, she and the two other women who narrate The Conqueror’s Wife aren’t content to stay in the shadows and let the men in their lives direct their future.

In her fourth novel to bring women from ancient times back into the spotlight, Stephanie Thornton follows a similar pattern to her earlier The Tiger Queens, about the female supporters of Genghis Khan who ensured his legacy. Here, the warrior in question is Alexander the Great, who ruled over an enormous land empire in the 4th century BC, spreading from Greece to Persia to south Asia and beyond, by means of military conquest.

Besides Thessalonike, Alexander’s half-sister, who learns to fight while staying behind at home, the female viewpoints are those of Drypetis, the plain, outspoken younger daughter of King Darius of Persia, who becomes one of his captives after her father’s defeat; and Roxana of Balkh, a beautiful minor noblewoman who uses all her wiles to escape a bad family situation and seize power of her own.

Also included is the perspective of Hephaestion, Alexander’s boyhood companion, general, and occasional lover, who knows him better than anyone but sometimes fails to temper his excesses.  Given Alexander's personality, it isn't likely anyone could. Hephaestion’s is a valuable viewpoint to have, since it brings readers front and center into Alexander’s army campaigns and victories, plus the athletic games held afterward in celebration.

Unlike Genghis Khan (Temujin) in Tiger Queens, Alexander has a more elusive presence on the page here; but this is probably wise. As the narrative makes clear, getting close to him is risky, and Thornton doesn’t downplay the price that Alexander’s enemies and allies pay for being in thrall to his ambitions. Undeniably brutal in places, deeply romantic in others, the novel is well-paced as it covers significant ground, both geographical and emotional. (One minor issue: the love-hate relationships between two pairs of would-be lovers felt rather similar.)

From the arena at Aigai in Macedon, where Alexander’s fate is set in motion, to the opulent throne room of Persepolis, abundant in both wealth and in misfortune, the story places readers into the midst of Alexander’s world. It’s highly recommended for readers who like their historical fiction colorful, vigorous, and populated by tough women who lived life at full volume.

The Conqueror's Wife is published by NAL this month (trade pb, 496pp, $15.00).  This review is part of a blog tour with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours; thanks to the author for providing me with an ARC.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Sun, sand, and secrets: Summer at Hideaway Key by Barbara Davis

Since the themes and cover for the previous book reviewed here were pretty dark, here's one with a more summery setting.  That said, it does tackle serious issues.

For the core of her third novel, Barbara Davis takes a staple of historical women’s fiction – the discovery of an old diary – and grafts around it an engrossing story about sibling jealousy, the difficult path to self-discovery, and the importance of understanding the past and taking chances on the future.

In 1995, following her father’s death, wealthy fashion designer Lily St. Claire is surprised to discover he left her a beach house, Sand Pearl Cottage, on the small island of Hideaway Key on the Gulf Coast of Florida. The house once belonged to Lily’s beautiful lookalike aunt, Lily-Mae Boyle, the long-estranged older sister of Lily’s mother, Caroline. Determined to learn more about her family, despite her mother’s firm disapproval, Lily takes up residence in the cottage, sorts through her late aunt’s belongings, and makes connections with many of the locals – including her nearest neighbor, Dean Landry, a hunky architect whose friendly overtures she doesn’t fully trust: he wants to buy her cottage and tear it down for a new building project.

Beginning in 1953, Lily-Mae’s journal reveals the story of her difficult adolescence and the adult decisions that led to her renown as a cover model and, much later, her dying alone in her bed at Hideaway Key. With a heartfelt tone revealed through her rural Tennessee twang, Lily-Mae tells how her Mama abandoned her and Caroline at a poor farm after their money ran out. Lily-Mae’s resolve to do whatever it takes to protect her younger sister, even to her own detriment, instills in Caroline a resentment that festers throughout their lives.

Both tales are flawlessly interwoven, each enhancing the plot and themes revealed in the other, and they exert a similar emotional pull. The ending is perfect – have some tissues ready – and the glorious depictions of the Florida beaches will satisfy anyone who’s ever dreamed of an idyllic tropical haven.

Summer at Hideaway Key was published by NAL Accent in August ($16.00/C$20.00, trade pb, 386pp).  This review first appeared in November's Historical Novels Review.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

The dark side of the Middle Ages: Dana Chamblee Carpenter's Bohemian Gospel

The averted eyes, the signs of the cross, the looks of awe and fear...

Mouse is an unusual name for a young woman in 13th-century Bohemia, but then she's far from ordinary.  She's intelligent and literate in several languages, yet unbaptized and forbidden to attend Mass.  All are uncommon for her time.  Raised in Teplá Abbey without a mother or father, she grows up knowing she has special talents – healing, for one – and is about to discover how far her power extends, a journey that takes her into the darkest realms of her world and of the human spirit.  

At fourteen, Mouse saves the life of Ottakar, the Younger King of Bohemia, when he's brought to the abbey, gravely wounded by an arrow.  The two form an immediate connection that endures despite their vast differences in social status and the danger they find themselves in – him, because a traitor wants to kill him, and her, because her supernatural abilities and closeness to the king elicit others' enmity.  And her quest to discover more about her personal history proves to be the most treacherous path of all.

Bohemian Gospel is a strong debut, a historical fantasy novel taking place in a setting few readers will recognize or be comfortable in, which works to its advantage.  The supernatural focus was much more prominent than I expected, given the publisher's blurb; this is far from a traditional historical novel.

The brutal court politics, full of bloody betrayals and deadly familial rivalries, call to mind the setting for Maurice Druon's Accursed Kings series.  Ottakar comes to be known as the Golden and Iron King, which itself gives a hint at the book's atmosphere.  I appreciated how period folklore was woven into the storyline (soul cakes, anyone?); likewise, the firm grip held by the church on regulating people's behavior.

Despite this, individual members of the clergy see something in Mouse worth protecting, which makes a refreshing change from stereotype.  Father Lucas, her longtime mentor, calls her an andílek, or angel, and risks much to keep her alive and safe. 

This made for an ideal read for All Hallows Eve, with its creepy suspense and unexpected-yet-apropos ending, but it should work well for any other time, especially if you'd like to take a stroll on the dark side of history.  It was published on 11/16 by Pegasus ($25.95, hardcover, 367pp).  Thanks to the publisher for sending me an ARC at my request.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

An eventful Victorian holiday abroad: Anne Perry's A Christmas Escape

Since we've moved past Black Friday, and the Christmas countdown has officially begun, I thought this would be a good time to focus on a historical novel that evokes the season.  Don't expect a traditional cozy celebration here, though, for there's danger afoot.

Perry’s thirteenth holiday novella takes a sojourn from her familiar realm of Victorian England over to the small Italian island of Stromboli, in the Tyrrhenian Sea. The steep mountainous landscape is picturesque and the weather temperate, even in early December, and Charles Latterly aims to spend a few weeks pulling his thoughts together after his wife’s recent death.

However, despite the beautiful locale and the scrumptious meals prepared by the hostelry’s owner, his stay is extremely volatile. First, most of the other guests – a vibrant teenager and her great-uncle, a grumpy man and his troubled wife, the colonel who tries to save her from potential abuse, and a famous novelist – knew each other from back home and don’t all get along. Also, the volcano sitting atop the village shows signs of reawakening.

There’s a lot of suspense and character development packed into this relatively short work. After one of the guests is found dead – a murder disguised as an accident – Charles realizes the suspect pool is very limited and seeks to find a motive. His growing fatherly rapport with the young woman, Candace Finbar, brings out a new side to his nature. Between knowing that a murderer is nearby and the danger posed by falling lava bombs, the atmosphere is incredibly tense. The notion of a “Christmas escape” turns out to have an unexpected double meaning.

Charles, of course, is the brother of Hester (Latterly) Monk, heroine of Perry’s Monk detective series. Charles has a recurrent secondary role in those novels, and is such an intriguing character here that he deserves the chance to take the lead once again.

A Christmas Escape was published by Ballantine this month in hardcover ($18.00, 158pp).  That's a bit steep for a novella, but the price is heavily discounted online.  This review first appeared in November's Historical Novels Review.  Although this is the first of Perry's short holiday releases that I've read, I'll be back for more; it made for a pleasant break in between lengthier reads.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

An interview with Nicola Cornick about her new time-slip novel, House of Shadows

Time-slip novels are one of my favorite genres, so when presented with the opportunity to interview Nicola Cornick about House of Shadows, I quickly said yes.  She's known for her well-researched historical romances, so her newest novel is a departure, and a very successful one.

House of Shadows intertwines the stories of characters from three historical periods: Elizabeth Stuart, the "Winter Queen" of Bohemia, and her supporter/champion, William Craven, in the 17th century; Lavinia Flyte, a 19th-century courtesan; and a modern-day woman, Holly Ansell, desperate to locate her brother, Ben, after he suddenly goes missing.  Connecting all three of these strands are Ashdown House, a Dutch-style country house in Oxfordshire, and two objects with dark magical powers, a pearl and a jewelled mirror.  

The historical details and the three intertwined storylines (it would be hard to pick a favorite) made for a rich reading experience, and there's a good amount of romance and unpredictable mystery to keep the pages turning.  You can see an image of Ashdown on the novel's cover. 

How did you first get involved with volunteering and serving as a tour guide at Ashdown House?

I had lived near Ashdown House for almost 10 years before I became involved with working as a tour guide there. I’d driven past the estate so many times and was intrigued by the little white house hidden away in the wood. I wondered about its history. But I was working full time and never seemed to be free when it was open. Then I gave up my day job to write and was looking around for some volunteering work to do. I saw an advertisement for guides to take visitors around Ashdown House and it seemed the perfect opportunity, almost as though it had been meant!

I enjoyed visiting Ashdown and the countryside surrounding it via the novel. Do you have any favorite aspects of the house or grounds to explore, or to tell people about?

Thank you, I am so glad that the book conveyed some of the beauty of the house and its landscape! There are so many things about Ashdown that I love to explore and to tell visitors about. The roof platform is magnificent and gives panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. It’s worth visiting for that view alone! The village of Ashdown is a hidden gem with Victorian Gothic-style stables and the original laundry and farmhouse. There’s so much to see in the woods as well including the old holloways, the sunken tracks along which the drovers used to take their animals up to graze on the high Downs. It’s an ancient and mysterious landscape.

One of your characters comments that the Winter Queen isn’t well-known in Britain, despite being James I’s daughter. Why do you think this is?

I think that Elizabeth of Bohemia isn’t well known in Britain probably because she spent so little of her life here. In Germany and Holland, where she lived for over 40 years, she is famous and there are all sorts of legends about her. Although she was a prominent figure in European culture and politics in the early 17th century it was seen as peripheral to what was happening in England. Plus she was a woman and to a certain extent I think her role has been written out of history.

The dedication to House of Shadows mentions your obsession with Ashdown and with William Craven. What about his life and character impresses you the most?

It is William Craven’s unswerving loyalty and honour that impresses me the most, I think. At a time when many men changed allegiance depending on the political situation he was utterly steadfast in his devotion to the Stuart cause. I admire that sort of integrity.

Did you have the opportunity to do research on site in Europe, in the places where Elizabeth Stuart and her husband once lived?

author Nicola Cornick
Yes! One of the most exciting things about writing the book was the research and the fact that I was able to visit both Heidelberg, where Elizabeth and Frederick lived when they were first married, and also The Hague. Although the Wassenaer Hof in The Hague is no longer standing it was possible to visit some houses of a similar era to get a real feel for the style of architecture and the interiors. I also found online a virtual recreation of Elizabeth and Frederick’s hunting lodge at Rhenen, which was fabulous!

The two items which come to have dark powers, the Sistrin pearl and the Italian jewelled mirror – I’m assuming that both are fictional, but are they based on any real items, or on some aspect of Rosicrucian symbolism (or both)?

The mirror was a completely fictional creation but the Sistrin pearl is based on a real jewel. One day a jewellery specialist came to Ashdown to look at the pearls that feature in some of the portraits. She identified one particularly fine drop pearl as being in the Royal Collection and told me that Elizabeth of Bohemia had inherited it from her grandmother, Mary Queen of Scots. It is called the Bretherin and is said to be cursed. She also told me some other wonderful stories about the jewellery in the portraits. It was a gift for an author!

I did a lot of research into 17th century Rosicrucianism for the story as well since Elizabeth, Frederick and William Craven were all said to have been involved with the Knights of the Rosy Cross. Curiously, though, it is Ashdown House itself that bears the most striking resemblance to Rosicrucian symbolism. The cupola on the roof looks exactly like images of the “invisible Rosicrucian College” dating from the early 17th century.

The story of early 19th-century courtesan Lavinia Flyte felt very real (I even googled her name to see if she’d been an actual person!). Did anyone inspire her story?

Lavinia’s story came from another aspect of Craven family history. The first Earl of Craven of the Second Creation was the first lover of the notorious Regency courtesan Hariette Wilson, who gave him a pretty scathing write up in her memoirs. That was the seed for the idea of Lavinia and her diary. Jane Austen, a relative by marriage of the Earl, disapproved of the fact that Craven’s charm hid a want of moral character. She is said to have based the character of Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility on him.

Structuring this novel must have been incredibly complex! Had you planned from the beginning to include three time-period strands, rather than the more usual two?

I’m not a planner when I write so I didn’t set out to write three time period strands, rather they evolved as I went along. I began with the intention of writing Elizabeth and William’s story and I thought I would need a contemporary strand as well in which to unravel the historical mystery. Then Lavinia popped up and was very real to me, hence the first person sections from her memoirs.

That said, I did find the structure hugely complex and am only writing a dual timeline for my next book!

What about the time-slip genre appeals to you? Do you have any favorite time-slips that inspired your own writing?

I have always loved the timeslip genre and can trace the appeal back to when I first started reading it as a teenager: A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley and Astercote by Penelope Lively were my childhood favourites, leading to Green Darkness and The House on the Strand. These days I particularly love Susanna Kearsley’s fabulous time slip novels and anything by Barbara Erskine, the Queen of the genre!


House of Shadows was published by Harlequin MIRA UK this month (£7.99, paperback, 476pp).  UK and international readers (US included) can obtain copies at Book Depository.   For more information, visit the author's website at; she's also a contributor to the popular Word Wenches blog.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

A visual preview of American historical fiction for 2016

There was a time, a mere decade ago, when historical fiction set in the United States was considered unfashionable.  Compared to their more glamorous British and European cousins, these books were dismissed as dreary and unexciting by many editors, agents, and readers.   Fortunately, this isn't the case any more; American settings are flourishing.  Here are 15 upcoming historical novels, all set to be published in 2016, that use American political and social history as a backdrop.

The close friendship and clandestine romantic relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and AP reporter Lorena Hickok, which spans thirty years.  Albert's previous biographical novel, A Wilder Rose, was one of my favorites of 2013.  Persevero Press, February 2016.

A literary love story set during the last year of the Civil War, featuring a young Irishman and a woman from the South who travel across the ravaged landscape of Georgia, fleeing bounty hunters.  It's being mentioned in the same breath as Cold Mountain.  St. Martin's, January 2016.

The story of a pioneer family in frontier Ohio at the time of Johnny Appleseed; Chevalier's second American-set historical novel after The Last Runaway.  Viking, March 2016.

An epic about Martha "Patsy" Jefferson, oldest daughter of one of the Founding Fathers, and guardian of his controversial legacy.  William Morrow, March 2016.

This sequel to The Kitchen House, a favorite read of mine from five years ago, is also a standalone novel that begins in Virginia in 1830, and features a young man passing as white whose secret threatens to be revealed.  Simon & Schuster, April 2016.

The setting of Harrigan's newest historical novel sits close to home for me: Springfield, Illinois, in the 1830s and '40s, as a young Abraham Lincoln comes into his own.  Knopf, February 2016.

How much did Mary Surratt know about the plans for Lincoln's assassination?  Susan Higginbotham's first novel set in the U.S. examines her story, basing her novel on primary sources.  Sourcebooks Landmark, March 2016.

Hoover's second novel, following The Quickening, is likewise set in the U.S. Midwest, and deals with the aftermath of the mysterious disappearance of two German-American sisters during the WWI years.  Black Cat, March 2016.

Re-introducing a girl formerly held captive by the Kiowa to white culture proves a traumatic experience, as Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd discovers when he's asked to transport her to relatives in post-Civil War Texas.  William Morrow, April 2016.

The close friendship between Isabella Stewart Gardner, society doyenne in Gilded Age Boston, and noted painter John Singer Sargent.  Harper, July 2016.

The story of an African-American musician, from his birth in WWI-era Georgia to his musical career in Harlem, his travels overseas, and his imprisonment with his best friend in Buchenwald.  The author's website says the main character, Harlan, is based on her paternal grandfather.  Akashic, May 2016.

Known for her lively epics spanning centuries of Texas life, Meacham offers a new 600-page novel centering on a wealthy heiress and a farm boy whose destinies intertwine in early 20th-century Texas. Grand Central, April 2016.

The story of two women's friendship in Golden Age Hollywood, and their adventures and desires in a glittering world where dreams can come true or falter.  NAL, January 2016.

A woman seeking to reinvent herself in the raw, ambitious world of miners and fortune-seekers in 1898 Alaska finds her past catching up with her. She Writes Press, May 2016.

The latest in Thorland's Renegades of the Revolution series brings readers to New York in 1778, and to a young woman of Dutch extraction who takes the side of the rebels.  NAL, March 2016.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Phillip Margulies' Belle Cora: an American Moll Flanders tells all

One expects certain things from a tell-all memoir. Juicy, scandalous details. Brash, larger-than-life personalities. A dramatic story that offers (or purports to offer) an intimate perspective on high-profile events.

Phillip Margulies' Belle Cora offers all this and more. Although this 600-page tome is actually a novel, not a real autobiography, its genesis was a real-life woman about whom little is known, an infamous madam from San Francisco's Gold Rush days. (Cora was her surname, which she obtained after marrying prominent gambler Charles Cora, legitimizing their longtime relationship. Or so the story goes.)

In addition, the writing quality elevates the novel above the dishy fare you might expect. Belle – or Arabella Godwin, Harriet Knowles, or one of the other names she assumes – has an educated mind and uses it. She narrates her riches-to-rags-to-riches (etc.) saga in a witty voice that combines the wisdom gained through a lifetime of hard-won experience with her observations on whatever segment of her life she’s relating.

Here’s the premise: following the devastating San Francisco earthquake of 1906, respected dowager Mrs. Frances Andersen decides to reveal the truth of her personal history, to the embarrassment of her heirs. It spans over 70 years, from a childhood of privilege in New York City’s Bowling Green neighborhood to her forced relocation to her resentful aunt’s farm near the Finger Lakes, her stint as a mill girl, her transformation into a high-class parlor house girl, then the shipboard voyage to California, heeding the call of adventure and riches.

Trouble arrives in the form of Belle’s cousin, Agnes, who becomes her perpetual rival and enemy – as does anyone falling into the category of “Good Christian Woman.” Throughout her life, Belle constantly veers between the paths of virtue and notoriety, the former while in pursuit of her true love, Jeptha Talbot, and the latter because it brings her wealth and power she can’t achieve otherwise. Reinventing herself becomes a forte, and so does illusion, both necessary in a scandalous profession where, she says, “we went to bed under the pretense that a forbidden romance was moving forward at impossible speed.”

The era’s social history is well detailed, from the peculiar Millerite movement (and its Great Disappointment) to the chaos of 1850s San Francisco, with its Vigilance Committees stockpiling power against the municipal government. The narrative bogs down in explaining all the details about the inner workings of city politics, but the aspects dealing with Belle’s emotional entanglements proceed at a cracking pace. Belle emerges triumphant, an American Moll Flanders who survives everything life throws at her and, in the end, has learned how to live, and to tell her story, without shame.

Belle Cora was published by Doubleday (hb) and Anchor (trade pb), with the latter appearing in October 2014 ($16.95, 608pp).  I requested this via NetGalley some time ago and am embarrassed to have only gotten to it now; it's definitely worth the read.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Book review: Along the Infinite Sea by Beatriz Williams

Two heroines – one beautiful and innocent, the other beautiful and jaded – share the stage in Williams’ cinematic novel, which wraps up her trilogy about the upper-class Schuyler sisters. Left pregnant by a prominent (and married) senator, Pepper Schuyler has traveled south to Palm Beach in 1966 to sell the vintage Mercedes roadster she’s spent the summer helping to restore. She hopes the money – an astounding $300K – will help her establish a new life away from her relatives and her ex-lover, who wants to pressure her into an abortion.

To the surprise of the world-weary, cynical Pepper, the buyer takes interest in her situation. Annabelle Dommerich, a mysterious widow of European extraction, claims to have personal experience with Pepper’s predicament, and she also knows the car intimately well. “Twenty-eight years ago, I drove from my life across the German border inside that car, and I left a piece of my heart inside her,” Annabelle tells her.

Her story, which unfolds alongside Pepper’s, is the more gripping of the two. In 1935, Annabelle de Créouville, aged nineteen, spends the summer at her father’s villa along the gorgeous Côte d’Azur. There she falls in love with Stefan Silverman, a wounded Jewish man her brother asks her to help (which she does, unquestioningly). Playing out amidst the sun-dappled islands of the French Riviera, their affair is divinely romantic, but Annabelle is kept ignorant of the intrigue surrounding Stefan’s presence. We know from the beginning about Annabelle’s eventual marriage to Johann von Kleist, a baron and high-ranking Nazi, but, in tantalizing fashion, Williams keeps us guessing about the man with whom she escaped to America.

With its multiple twists, clever dialogue, and well-balanced blend of romance and thrilling adventure, the novel is smart and sexy escapist reading. It cries out for a film treatment.

Along the Infinite Sea was published by Putnam on November 3rd ($26.95/C$32.95, hardcover, 456pp).  This review first appeared in November's Historical Novels Review.  If you missed the first two books in the series, they're The Secret Life of Violet Grant and Tiny Little Thing.  I recommend them all, and you don't need to read them in order (although I did).

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Place, time, and memory: Lucy Foley's The Book of Lost and Found

Spanning most of the 20th century, The Book of Lost and Found is the sort of sweeping multi-period saga I seek out, one that promises to carry me away on a journey of discovery along with the characters.

In 1986, Kate Darling is a 27-year-old photographer still mourning her mother, June, a celebrated ballerina; the two had been exceptionally close. After the subsequent death of June’s adoptive mother, Evie, Kate is shaken to learn that Evie had withheld information about June’s birth mother. An exquisite decades-old sketch of a beautiful dark-haired woman with a striking resemblance to June leads Kate to renowned artist Thomas Stafford, now an elderly widower living on Corsica.

Intervening sections reveal the tale of a long-ago love that transformed Tom’s life. He and Alice Eversley, born into different social classes, become friends as children, when their families vacation on Cornwall during the lazy summer of 1913. They meet again at an English house party in 1928. Although separated due to life circumstances, neither forgets the other.

“How could a mere few strokes of pen do that, exert such a pull of memory and emotion?” Foley’s elegiac tone suits her story about love, loss, and people’s connections to the past. Each locale is skillfully described, from the rocky Corsican coast, with its heady scent of herbs and salt, to the bohemian 1920s and, later, the terror of wartime France. While Alice is a brave, unselfish heroine, at times Kate feels immature in comparison. For example, I puzzled at her habit of wearing jeans and crumpled T-shirts for important meetings. The novel also jumped abruptly from one viewpoint to another in the later sections.

While imperfect, this debut novel has much to recommend it. Fans of Kimberley Freeman, Lucinda Riley, and Rachel Hore will want to look for it.

The Book of Lost and Found was published by Back Bay/Hachette in August ($14.99/C$17.99, pb, 432pp).  Previously, it was published by Harper UK.  I reviewed it for the Historical Novels Review's November issue.  Which cover do you like best?  The US design, at top left, is based on an actual photograph of the Corsican coastline, which amazed me.  What a view!

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Book review: Home By Nightfall by Charles Finch

It’s the autumn of 1876, and ten months after the events in The Laws of Murder, gentleman detective Charles Lenox finds his attention pulled in multiple directions. All of London is absorbed by the curious disappearance of a German pianist from the theatre where last performed. It appears at first to be a classic locked-room mystery, and Lenox knows that if his agency finds Herr Muller’s whereabouts, the public accolades they’ll receive will mean more business.

Family obligations take precedence, though. A responsible man who senses when he’s needed, Lenox opts to follow his older brother, Sir Edmund, back to Lenox House in Sussex, to keep him company after the untimely death of his beloved wife, Molly.

With its hallmarks of traditional English country life – the “lovely green springy Sussex turf," a centuries-old Saturday market, and the tall spire of St. James’s overlooking the town – Markethouse would be a calm respite from the fast-paced life in London, if not for some odd events. A local insurance salesman, hearing that Lenox is in town, reports seeing someone in his house and finding a disturbing figure drawn in chalk on his stoop. That’s not all, of course.  Events escalate from there.

Lenox’s upper-class upbringing gives his investigations a deliberate approach; one has the sense that he knows what he’s doing. The storyline incorporates gentle humor at appropriate times. So many townspeople congratulate Lenox on moving back to his childhood home for good that after a point, he charmingly decides to give up correcting them. As is his habit, Lenox decides to take charge, meeting a number of interesting townspeople: charwomen, the ultra-competent mayor, and an elderly woman who serves as the town’s institutional memory; all towns deserve to have such a resource!

In addition to the separate mysteries (it isn’t giving anything away to say that there aren’t any contrivances that intertwine them), the novel’s highlight is the insight it provides into the brothers’ close relationship: the terrible loss that Edmund internalizes, and the ways in which Lenox supports him at the most painful time of his life. These people truly care about one another, which makes it easy for readers to care for them as well.

Home By Nightfall, book 9 in the Charles Lenox mystery series, is published by Minotaur this week ($25.95/C$29.99, hb, 294pp).  Thanks to the publisher for approving my NetGalley access.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Race in historical fiction: a guest post by Libby Ware, author of Lum

Libby Ware, author of Lum (reviewed this past Sunday), is here today with an essay on an important but complex and sensitive topic in historical fiction: writing about race in historical times.


Race in Historical Fiction
By Libby Ware

As W. E. B. DuBois said, "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line." I’d like to add that the problem was central to the nineteenth century and still is in the twenty-first century, as well. The problem for white writers is how to accurately portray African American characters within the context of the times in which the novel is set. Three things that are hard are: dialect; terminology; and the strictures that white supremacy placed on whites and Blacks.

I do not like the use of dialect when used to misspell every other word, for example, “dem” for them, “I gwine” for I’m going, etc. I like to give a flavor of speech patterns, for example, using one colloquial word in a sentence or dropping a g off of a word, but not all words. And white Southerners have dialect, too, for example, “I’m fixin’ to go.” My book Lum is set in Appalachia in the 1930s, so I flavor all of the characters’ speech with words or sentences appropriate for the time. By researching diaries or novels written in the time period I’m writing about, I can get an idea of colloquialism to sprinkle into characters’ speech without going overboard.

A writer may need to use slurs as well as historically accurate names for other races. I hate the n-word, but since it was in use during the time I’m writing about, I used it when it suited the character and situation, as it does once or twice in my book. Another word that I can remember hearing when I was growing up is “nigra,” considered a slightly more genteel version of the n-word. I also used that word once or twice. Generally I used the term “colored.”

It is also important, but can be personally hard, to show how white supremacy is prevalent, even in sympathetic white characters. To write about a white person who always treats Black people equally in the time of slavery or Jim Crow is just not accurate. Degrees of individual racism existed, but remember that the whole of society was racist. Certainly some characters are less racist than others, but that line of division is still there.

One of the most informative books I have read was Growing up Jim Crow: How Black and White Southern Children Learned Race, by Jennifer Ritterhouse. The author points out how differently these two races learned about what is and isn’t permitted at the time of Jim Crow. White children were often told “it just isn’t done” or “they know their place.” Black children were taught that to act in a way that wasn’t sanctioned by white society is very dangerous. For example, often young Black and white children played together until a certain age. For Black children, caution was drilled into them. If a Black boy and a white boy rough-housed and the white child came home with a black eye, the Black boy could be punished by whites. An unspoken reason for taboos was often the underlying threat of interracial dating, or what was called “race mixing.” So, I had to make sure characters don’t cross those lines without showing either reprisal or the threat of punishment.

While I want to be accurate about the period we are portraying, I often have to write things that are not comfortable. But using language, attitudes, and social customs appropriate to the social mores of the time makes a novel more true to the time period.


Libby Ware is a native of West Virginia, and she feels most at home in the Appalachian mountains, although she has made her home in Atlanta, Georgia for more than 30 years. She is the owner of Toadlily Books, an antiquarian and collectible book business. Her short story, "The Circuit" (the beginning of LUM in slightly different form), was a finalist for the Poets and Writers Award for Georgia Writers, judged by Jennifer Egan. She is a member of Georgia Antiquarian Booksellers Association, the Atlanta Writers Club, and the Georgia Writers Association and is a fellow of The Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences. Visit her website at

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Isabel Allende's The Japanese Lover, a decades-spanning saga of passion and history

Themes of lasting passion, friendship, reflections in old age, and how people react to challenging circumstances all feature in Allende’s newest saga, which moves from modern San Francisco back to the traumatic WWII years. As always, her lively storytelling pulls readers into her characters’ lives immediately.

Irina Bazili, personal assistant to elderly designer Alma Belasco, suspects her employer has a lover. What else would explain her secretive excursions from her nursing home and the mysterious yellow envelopes arriving in Alma’s mail?

Intervening sections reveal the lifelong bond between Alma, a Polish Jewish refugee sent to live with California relatives in 1939, and Ichimei Fukuda, sensitive youngest son of her family’s gardener. Despite many separations over the years, their love remains strong.

Descriptions of the Fukudas’ forced internment at a Utah camp, where life continues behind barbed wire, create a memorable impression. Equally haunting is Irina’s painful backstory, which skillfully unfolds. Although not as complex or richly detailed as Allende’s earlier novels, the story has many heartfelt moments, and readers will be lining up for it.

The Japanese Lover is published today by Atria/Simon & Schuster ($28, hardcover, 321pp, or $24.99 ebook).  This review first appeared in Booklist's October 1st issue, in the High Demand section. The novel is is the top pick on the LibraryReads list for November.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Finding a place to belong: Libby Ware's Lum: A Novel, set in 1930s Appalachia

“There will always be a place for you, Lum." Her grandmother’s words echoed through her thoughts. But where? Like a broom in the corner – used, then put back?

Born with the 20th century, Miss Columbia Carson – known as Lum to all and sundry – has always been a misfit, both in her Shenandoah Valley town and within her own family. An intersex woman who does her best to hide her condition, Lum secretly collects trading cards of sideshow performers, recognizing them as kindred spirits. She’s a talented cook and good with little children, and by 1933, she’s moved on to caring for a second generation of relatives. She lives with her brother and his wife half the year, her cousin Margaret and her husband the other. Lum puts up with their demands, for what choice does she have? That is, until kindly neighbors and the coming of the Blue Ridge Parkway offer new possibilities.

Lum’s background is parceled out bit by bit, in chapters dating back to earlier points in time. Although this makes the narrative feel jumpy at first, it gradually fills in the picture about the circumstances that shaped her life. Ware writes sensitively of Lum’s childhood visit to the doctor, who discourages her from ever marrying, and the close relationship with her grandmother that endures despite the older woman’s refusal to acknowledge her differences. The social context of the times is finely sketched, too: the people’s Appalachian dialect, their personal pride and widespread poverty, and their wariness towards outsiders – both the dark-skinned “Melungeons” living up on the mountain, and Yankees from the government who want buy up their farms.

This compact novel is a treat for those who appreciate character-centered historical fiction. Lum’s courageous journey toward independence makes her a heroine worth rooting for, and readers will find themselves missing her company after the final page turns.

Lum: A Novel was published by She Writes Press on October 20th ($16.95 pb / $8.49 ebook, 214pp).  This review first appeared in the Historical Novel Society's indie reviews for November.  Libby Ware will be stopping by here on Thursday with a guest post on race in historical fiction.

Friday, October 30, 2015

An enduring friendship: Oscar Hijuelos' final novel, Twain and Stanley Enter Paradise

Chronicling the friendship between Welsh-born explorer Henry Morton Stanley and beloved American raconteur Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain), Hijuelos’ deeply researched final novel was completed just before he died, in 2013. Although this expansive look at the connection between two eminent nineteenth-century men may be a departure from his examinations of the immigrant experience, his gift for evoking his protagonists’ rich interior lives is on full display.

The novel shows a remarkable fidelity to historical voice. It’s told through a combination of formats, including straight narrative, letters, memoir, and diary entries—all invented, and convincingly so. Even Stanley’s “cabinet manuscript” about his and Samuel’s excursion to Cuba fits with the real man’s tendency to blur or exaggerate the truth.

From their initial meeting, aboard a Mississippi steamship, then moving through their stints on the lecture circuit, Stanley’s relationship with vivacious artist Dorothy Tennant, and their beautifully moving ruminations on mortality in their twilight years, their rapport survives several differences of opinion. Both come to loathe slavery but disagree about religion and the value of imperialism, particularly in Africa.

By observing them at many moments of vulnerability, readers gain insights into their makeup. Although the book feels unbalanced in places due to its unusual cobbled-together structure, it’s an extraordinary feat of imaginative historical re-creation.

Twain and Stanley Enter Paradise is published in November by Grand Central ($28 hb, $14.99 ebook, 480pp).  This starred review first appeared in Booklist's 9/15 issue.

Some other notes:

After working on it for more than a decade, Hijuelos had completed the manuscript and was in the process of revisions when he died suddenly.  His widow, author Lori Marie Carlson, worked with his editor to get the manuscript into its final version.  Read more at the New York Times: Hijuelos Novel to be Published Posthumously.

This book is one example of how a character doesn't necessarily have to be likable in order to be interesting to read about.  Samuel Clemens was the more appealing of the two, personally.  Although he was a fascinating character, I found many of Stanley's actions less than admirable.  That said, Stanley isn't depicted as willingly complicit in King Leopold's of Belgium's crimes against the Congolese people, as was claimed during his lifetime, and afterward.  Hijuelos takes a similar viewpoint to Tim Jeal in his award-winning reappraisal of the man, Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa's Greatest Explorer.  

Regarding Clemens, I'm looking forward to reading Lynn Cullen's Twain's End, which looks at the twilight years of his life, and his relationship with his secretary Isabel Lyon. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

A week of presentations

Last week was a bit busy around here.  In addition to the usual answering reference questions and teaching classes to introduce university students to library research I had opportunities to give two presentations of a different sort.

On Monday evening, at the university where I work, I spoke with the students of Dr. Fern Kory's graduate English seminar on youth media reviewing about the historical fiction genre, best practices in reviewing, and the differences between professional reviewing and blogging.  I've put those slides online for anyone interested in taking a look.  I cribbed from past presentations, so a few of the slides may be familiar.

It covered topics I think about and work with every day, as a reviews editor and reviewer, but rarely get the chance to speak about.  The students had good questions.

Then on Wednesday (my birthday!) I headed out to Peoria for the Illinois Library Association conference.  Two library colleagues, Janice Derr and Pam Ferrell, and I gave a presentation Thursday morning on readers' advisory in the academic library, with resources supporting academic libraries' establishment of popular reading collections.  For those slides, which are hosted in EIU's institutional repository, visit the link and click on the Download button.

New knowledge isn't all that I brought home from Peoria, though, since I caught a cold at the conference and have been lying low since, alternately resting and catching up with my overlarge NetGalley queue.  I'm determined to move my "reviewed" percentage a bit higher!

Monday, October 26, 2015

Dark River Melody: Voices from Old London Town, an essay by M.D. Murphy

Today M. D. Murphy is here with an essay about the inspiration for his atmospheric debut novel, Dark River Melody, which takes place amid the political and social struggles of Georgian London.


Dark River Melody: Voices from Old London Town
M. D. Murphy

The germ of Dark River Melody probably started at the British Library while researching for my PhD. I was writing a thesis on the radicalism of Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the 1790s, a turbulent period in England’s political history. Working my way through a mountain of old newspapers, pamphlets and various publications, I found myself being drawn into a world that was both captivating and abhorrent. I recall being struck by the brutality and oppressive mechanisms of the state against those who dared to speak out against the Church, Monarchy and Government. I was also stunned by the brutal way that the urban poor were punished for petty crimes.

I was supposed to be concentrating on my thesis but was constantly distracted by the moving human stories I encountered. I found myself frequently sidetracked to read a newspaper report or trial proceedings about a hanged thief, a transported prostitute, a drunk in the pillory. None of this was getting my PhD finished, but it was compulsive and impossible to ignore. Unconsciously, I had started to write Dark River Melody without putting ink to paper.

Some years after finishing my PhD, I began to write my novel. I chose Georgian London because I was passionate about the period and location. Much of the research for the novel was established from my previous studies, and I was born and lived in London for the first 38 years of my life. London in the 1790s, then, seemed the obvious place to start. Moreover, my research had left an indelible mark on my psyche – it uncovered a cityscape awash with opium dens, cellar brothels, public floggings and squalid street life – all of which I felt compelled to communicate.

And what a city London is for capturing the imagination. Its grand buildings, cobbled streets, secluded courtyards and dark alleyways are a gift to any writer. Dividing the metropolis is the greatest gift of all – the river. The Thames has a bewitching presence in the capital, one that cannot be ignored. Writers from all periods have been drawn to it – Wordsworth was enthralled by the view from Westminster Bridge; T. S. Eliot saw the river as a focal point for human dejection; Ray Davies juxtaposed the “dirty old river” with the paradise of a “Waterloo Sunset”. I thought the river would bring atmosphere to the novel, a mixture of power, beauty and menace; it is the unconscious backbone of the tale.

In Dark River Melody I wanted to tell the story of those early radicals whose struggle played a role in the liberties that we share today: the right to vote, the building of the trade unions, women’s rights, the welfare state and so on. However, the early drafts of the novel were not overtly political and had more to do with encapsulating the social conditions of the period. I wanted to bring the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of Georgian London to the page. I wanted the reader to get a palpable sense of the capital in all its terrible glory, its poetic squalor.

As I went through the drafting process, I came to see there was an important historical narrative here that needed to be told: that of the pamphlet wars of the 1790s. The French Revolution had an immeasurable impact on social change in England. This sparked a debate between the renouncers and supporters of the Revolution, which was played out in the form of battling pamphlets. The Revolution gave impetus to the English reform movement who now had a paradigm for social change at home. As the decade progressed, at war with France and in fear of invasion, the authorities clamped down on reforming activity and insurrection, driving it underground. England had become a dangerous place for radicals who were often hounded by the law or hunted by Church and King mobs.

While the subject of the pamphlet wars had been extensively covered by academics, it hadn’t reached the popular imagination. Fiction then, seemed a more accessible vehicle to bring the story to the public consciousness. To authenticate the fiction I brought in historical figures, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Joseph Johnson, Mary Wollstonecraft and John Thelwall. They help to locate the novel within the precise period, and add historical credibility to my story and characters. Their inclusion is also a fun way of celebrating those radical figures that I so admire – for their bravery in the face of danger, for their commitment to free speech and equal rights.

While I can account for some aspects of why and how I began the novel, there is also a creative element that cannot be rationalized. Looking back and saying it was this or that, is only part of the picture, a need to find expression for something that is ultimately beyond me, and can never be known. But there is one thing I do remember … on a rainy day, seated at my desk in a dimly lit attic, three magic words came to me. From where they came I shall never know – Dark River Melody – they whispered, as if a spirit had spoken from old London town.


M. D. Murphy comes from the London-Irish community. He has a PhD in English Literature from Lancaster University. His academic essays have been published in The Coleridge Bulletin and Romanticism. His poetry has appeared in many publications, including Staple and Poetry Ireland Review. Dark River Melody (Cutting Edge Press, 2015) is his first novel.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Dolores Gordon-Smith's After the Exhibition, a mystery of art, blackmail, and secrets

Set in England in the mid-1920s, this complicated maze of a mystery is full of promising leads, frustrating dead ends, and puzzles wrapped in puzzles. It has the most eventful plot I’ve seen for a novel of its length. To use a period metaphor, at times it feels like a phonograph record played at double the proper speed.

To her credit, though, the author carefully tracks every little strand of the plot and ties the threads up tidily in the end. After finishing, I skimmed through the novel again, noticing on a second time around how well the clues had been laid.

Keeping true to form for a traditional British mystery, the village of Whimbrell Heath in Surrey is populated by eccentric characters – whose personalities, it must be said, outshine the series detectives. Who are: Major Jack Haldean, a famous crime writer, and his friend Bill Rackham, Chief Inspector at Scotland Yard. They stumble upon odd happenings in London while attending an exhibition of church art, an event one would expect to be rather calm and dull. Not so much.

Employees of Lythewell and Askern, a firm specializing in ecclesiastical artwork and furnishings, have traveled up from Whimbrell Heath to participate. Bill’s an old wartime buddy of Colin Askern, son of one of the owners, while Jack finds himself more intrigued by attractive Betty Wingate, Colin’s friend and Lythewell’s niece.

When a woman selling flags for charity passes out in shock on the street, crying out “Art!”, they help her and write it off as a peculiar event. Then things turn even stranger. The next day, when Betty approaches Bill and Jack, claiming that an Italian lady was murdered in her cottage back home, they’re compelled to investigate. Betty’s upset, since Colin and other villagers dismiss her as hysterical: the body she saw has vanished.

Jack and Bill make a good team, and their easygoing banter livens things up, though more backstory – this is the 8th in the series – would have helped me know them better. But with revelations of blackmail, jealousy, overlarge egos, and rumors of hidden treasure, there was more than enough to hold my attention as one stunning revelation after another came to light.

After the Exhibition was published by Severn House in 2014 ($28.95 hb, $13.99 ebook, 240pp).  Thanks to the publisher for the NetGalley download; I'm slowly working my way through my NetGalley queue!

Sunday, October 18, 2015

New and forthcoming historical novels: intriguing book titles

We've often discussed cover art here, specifically the techniques that publishers use to attract readers to historical novels.  Today I'm turning my attention to book titles.  Authors, editors, and marketing professionals spend a lot of time deciding on what books should be called.  It's not uncommon for titles to be changed between the time of manuscript submission and final publication, either. 

Here are 12 new and upcoming books with titles that caught my attention and made me curious about what's inside.  Which historical novels have the most memorable titles as far as you're concerned?

The King of Rock and Roll?  Guess again. The 6th volume in Gary Corby's historical mystery series set in the ancient Greek world moves over to Egypt in the company of not-yet-famous historian Herodotus.  Soho Crime, May 2016.

An intriguing title for this biographical novel about the controversial founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger, who sacrificed much to champion women's sexual equality.  Harper, March 2016.

The subtitle reveals this novel's subject: a young woman of Renaissance Italy who was pushed into prominence and notoriety due to her status as the Pope's daughter.  Ballantine, February 2016.

A debut novel spanning 70 years, and focusing on a love triangle between an American couple a rabbi and his wife and a German refugee.  HarperPerennial, February 2016.

Hite's third novel set on Black Mountain in western North Carolina is a story of women, family heritage, and ghosts set between the Depression and the 1960s.  Mercer University Press, September 2015.

Alice James, sister to William and Henry, shares her family's wit and appetite for gossip.  By 1889, she's bedridden with an unknown illness but still manages to stay involved in events of the day. Counterpoint, September 2015.

Fans of King's long-running suspense series about Sherlock Holmes and his partner Mary Russell may feel nervous after reading this novel's title.  Bantam, April 2016.

A terrific title (and stark, creepy cover) for McCrumb's newest Ballad Novel, centering on a female sheriff in rural Tennessee during the Depression and based on a famous public execution.  Atria, May 2016.

This literary multi-period novel links a modern-day Czech historian with an anarchist from '20s Europe who attempted to assassinate a prominent businessman.  Bellevue Literary Press, May 2016.

The first book in Robb's new mystery series, set in 14th-century York, stars a young widow who runs a guesthouse which is occasionally used for illicit purposes.  Pegasus, May 2016.

Romano-Lax's third novel delves into the ambitious personalities and behaviorist research of two prominent early 20th-century psychologists and their controversial studies of children.  Expect to be enlightened and disturbed.  Soho, March 2016.

St. James is known for her post-WWI English ghost stories. The heroine of her fifth book is a young widow who slowly uncovers her late husband's dark secrets.  NAL, April 2016.