Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Two new and substantial historical novel reissues: Zemindar and Csardas

Reissues can bring new life and many new readers to older, classic novels.  Both Valerie Fitzgerald's Zemindar (1981) and Diane Pearson's Csardas (1975) were bestsellers in their day: massive, sweeping epics set during volatile historical eras.  Both have been compared to Gone with the Wind in terms of their scope and the quality of their storytelling.

Zemindar, a novel of adventure and romance set against the backdrop of a troubled 1850s India, won the Historical Novel Prize in Memory of Georgette Heyer as an unpublished manuscript and was published by The Bodley Head shortly thereafter.  When I was pulling together a list of the prize's winners in 2010, I wrote that it was a "prime candidate for reissue."  Zemindar, the author's only novel, was based on her grandmother's experiences during the Sepoy Mutiny.

Csardas, named after a traditional Hungarian folk dance, tells the story of two aristocratic Hungarian sisters whose lives and fortunes change dramatically during the two world wars.  Pearson, who has been writing since 1967, was president of the UK's Romantic Novelists Association for 25 years.

Both Zemindar and Csardas were reissued by the UK publisher Head of Zeus in trade paperback in 2014.  Check out the gorgeous new packaging!  My copy of the 1985 mass market paperback of Zemindar (which is in great condition but has teeny tiny print) stands in the background.

I'm looking forward to reading them both and would welcome the thoughts of anyone who's already read them. At the moment, American readers will have to order them from elsewhere, but I'll update you if there's more news on that score.  I'll provide some links here because there are multiple out of print editions on bookseller sites, which can make it hard to find the new ones.  Here are the UK buying options for Zemindar and Csardas on Head of Zeus's page (both are £15.00).  At other sites, such as and, I recommend searching by ISBN to find the right ones:  9781781857519 (Csardas), or 9781781859544 (Zemindar).

All of the books in the pic above were personal purchases.

Valerie Fitzgerald, who's in her 80s and living in Ottawa, recently gave an interview with the Ottawa Citizen in celebration of the re-release, speaking about her childhood in India, her writing career, and her thoughts looking back on Zemindar 34 years later. 

Since I'd written about Zemindar previously on the blog, her grandson's wife recently got in touch to tell me about the new edition, the newspaper interview, and another interview that Valerie Fitzgerald would be doing with CBC Radio.  That interview aired yesterday afternoon and is available at the CBC site.  It's 13 minutes long, and I found it completely fascinating to hear her discuss her life, the background to the book, some fun stories about the industry, and why she never wrote another novel.  I highly recommend taking the time to listen to it.

Monday, January 26, 2015

An interview with Gary Inbinder, author of The Devil in Montmartre

Today I'm hosting an interview with novelist Gary Inbinder.  His third novel The Devil in Montmartre,  released last month, brings readers into the bustling fine art scene and dark underworld of Paris in 1889.  As the city is flooded with tourists during the Universal Exposition, Inspector Achille Lefebvre, a young but highly regarded member of the Sûreté, investigates the murder of a young woman who danced the Can-Can at the Moulin Rouge.


The Devil in Montmartre stands well on its own, but one of your protagonists, the talented artist Marcia Brownlow – probably my favorite character – also featured in The Flower to the Painter. What made you decide to bring Marcia back for an encore appearance?

Marcia Brownlow is one of my favorite characters. After I finished The Flower to the Painter I had the idea of using her, and some of the other characters, in another novel. A fin de siècle Paris setting appealed to me, as did the idea of a murder mystery with references to Jack the Ripper.

The action in the novel unfolds through many different viewpoints. How difficult of a process was it to piece together and structure the novel in this way? 

I had used a first person narrative in earlier novels, but I found the single perspective too limiting for this particular story. On the other hand, using multiple first person narrators seemed too complicated and potentially confusing. So, I struck a balance by using a third person narrative with multiple points of view. Once I got into it, it seemed to flow quite naturally.

I’d love to know more about your research into Montmartre in 1889, since I felt fully immersed in the setting. Based on the depth of detail, I’m guessing you know French and have spent time walking around Paris in person, though please correct me if I’m wrong!

Two admissions. First, I had two years of college French. I can still read French fairly well, but I wouldn't attempt to write or speak it. Second, my knowledge of 1889 Paris is dependent on imagination and years of reading histories and period literature, studying old photographs, paintings, drawings, maps and so forth. Of course, for months prior to writing The Devil in Montmartre, I added to my knowledge with additional research.

Your detective, Achille Lefebvre, is well-respected by his fellow detectives and known even in less reputable circles to be a trustworthy fellow. He’s not just an admirable character, though, but a likeable one. How did you come up with his personality? Will we be seeing more of him in future books?

I'm glad you liked Achille. I particularly enjoyed writing his scenes and dialogue. He combines traits of my favorite fictional detectives, including Simenon's Maigret and Sherlock Holmes. However, I tried to "humanize" him by focusing on his domestic life, especially his relationship with his wife, little daughter, and difficult mother-in-law. As for future books, there's a sequel in the works but it's a bit premature to say anything more about it.

Achille runs into some resistance when he advocates for the use of fingerprinting as an aid in solving crimes. Why was this viewed as such a radical development?

At the time, no major police force had used fingerprinting for identification purposes. However, the English anthropologist, Sir Francis Galton, published his system for fingerprint identification in the late 1880s, something I mention in the novel. In 1892, Juan Vucetich, a Croatian detective working for the Argentine police, made the first positive identification of fingerprints in a criminal case. Vucetich based his identification and classification system on Galton's writings, but it took more than a decade before police departments worldwide adopted it.

Interestingly, Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, anticipated the use of a fingerprint to solve a crime in a chapter of Life on the Mississippi (1883) and he revisited the subject in The Tragedy of Puddn'head Wilson (1894).

Your three novels convey some of the same themes – artistic creation, for one – and are set in historical times, but are a bit different genre-wise. What prompted your move into historical crime?

I'm a retired lawyer, I've had some experience working with law enforcement, and I'm partial to good historical fiction and classic crime novels. The historical mystery/crime genre offered a good vehicle in which to express my varied interests, and I just decided it was the right time to give it a try.

What originally inspired your interest in French art during the late 19th century? Do you have any favorite painters, post-Impressionist or otherwise?

I grew up with art. My late brother was a fine artist and art teacher, and my older sister majored in Art History and did some of her post graduate work at The Sorbonne. As I recall, among the first books that caught my attention when I was learning to read—or perhaps even before I could read—was a set of illustrated biographies of the painters, including Manet, Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec. My parents took me to the Art Institute of Chicago when I was very young. The paintings fascinated me, and the museum has a fine collection of French Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings, including Seurat's A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.

In addition, I saw the films Lust for Life, the story of Van Gogh with Kirk Douglas, and John Huston's version of Moulin Rouge with Jose Ferrer as Toulouse-Lautrec. These have remained favorites, which I've returned to over the years. As a result, I have many sources to draw upon when visualizing scenes for my novels.


Gary Inbinder's The Devil in Montmartre was published by Pegasus Crime in December (hardcover, $25.95, 256pp).  Visit the author's blog at

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Greer Macallister's The Magician's Lie, an involving tale of deception, female agency, and fin-de-siècle magic

A while back, in the comments I made following my review of Timothy Schaffert’s The Swan Gondola, I confessed that I don’t usually go for novels about circuses and fairs and things of that nature. Although I loved that particular book.

Then I read and reviewed Rosie Thomas’ The Illusionists, about a troupe of magicians in Victorian London, and enjoyed that one, too.

Now, when presented with a 3rd recent historical novel about magic and magicians, I had no qualms about picking it up, and I’m very glad I did. The storyline grabbed me from the first paragraph, and the pacing and narrative tension remained strong through the end. Although I had correctly guessed part of the conclusion, other aspects were a surprise.

Guess it’s time for me to revisit my reading preferences at least in terms of magicians.  (I still don't like circuses.)

Set amid the alluring world of stage magic at the turn of the 20th century, Greer Macallister’s The Magician’s Lie is a novel about reality and illusion, love and betrayal, wealth and destitution, confidence and fear, truth and deception – and how quickly one can transform into the other.

The premise is thus. In Waterloo, Iowa, one evening in 1905, hours after the renowned female magician known as the Amazing Arden performs a unique variation on her controversial “Halved Man” trick, the bloodied body of a man – her husband – is found stuffed into a smashed wooden container beneath the stage. Had she killed him before the crowd as part of her act? Seizing the opportunity, Virgil Holt, a down-on-his-luck police officer from the nearby town of Janesville, catches the beautiful young woman during her planned escape and carts her into the station for questioning.

Arden claims not to know that anyone was murdered, but Holt doesn’t believe her. She insists he’ll be killing her if he doesn’t let her go. Not convinced, but willing to listen, he handcuffs her wrists to a chair to prevent her from fleeing and demands to know the truth.

And so she spins a tale about her life and career that takes her from Tennessee farm country to the vaudeville circuit and on to national fame as a brilliant and daring performer. (There’s plenty more, but I won’t be giving it away.) Is it fact or fancy or some of each? Either way, her story is so diverting that it’s easy to forget the author behind the curtain.

Edgy and exciting, The Magician’s Lie is a fast-moving historical novel that I would also recommend as a “gateway book” for introducing historical fiction to newcomers. Arden’s voice is fresh, appealing, and (seemingly) sympathetic. Without overburdening them with details, Macallister offers readers many informative new tidbits, such as the inner workings of specific magic tricks. She also presents the life of an itinerant performer in the late 19th century from an unusual viewpoint: that of a woman.

In the “conversation with the author” at the end (please save it until later if you plan to read the book!), Macallister says that since she was new to historical fiction, the writing process took about five years from initial idea to final draft. It may have required a lot of time and effort, but I think she got the difficult balance of fact and fiction pretty much right.

The Magician’s Lie is published by Sourcebooks Landmark this month (312pp, $23.99 hardcover, $9.60 on Kindle). It was on the LibraryReads list for January. I picked it up as an ARC at the publisher’s BEA booth last summer.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Historical fiction at ALA Midwinter: galleys, authors, signings

I've been an American Library Association member for 20 years, but this year will be the first time I'll be attending ALA Midwinter.  The conference will be held in Chicago on January 30 - February 3, so it's relatively close by.  I'm looking forward to catching up with other librarians, cruising the exhibit hall, and reviewing job seekers' resumes in the Placement Center.  Needless to say I'm hoping for decent weather.

Here's what I've managed to gather together as far as historical novels and novelists present at the show.  Sources include Library Journal, publisher announcements, and the ALA Midwinter site.

~Galleys available~

Barbara Hoffert of Library Journal has already put together an amazing galley guide for Midwinter, so I'm not going to copy over all of the relevant HF info; just click on over to visit the LJ site.  The guide is very detailed and lists settings for most of the historical novels being given away at publishers' booths, so you should be able to pick them out easily.

I have a number of galleys already thanks to publishers, Booklist, and Edelweiss, but just a few of the others I'm particularly eager about are:  Shona Patel's Flame Tree Road (MIRA, June), set in late 19th-century India, which she says on her FB page is about Dadamoshai, Layla's grandfather from Teatime for the Firefly; Jami Attenberg's Saint Mazie (Grand Central, June), set in NYC's Lower East Side during the Jazz Age; Anna Freeman's The Fair Fight (Riverhead, April), female boxers in 18th-c England (have heard great reports about it); and Susanna Kearsley's A Desperate Fortune (Sourcebooks, April), another Scottish-set romantic timeslip.

~Author appearances and signings~

Elizabeth Berg, The Dream Lover
French novelist George Sand looks back on her long, eventful, controversial life.
Monday 2/2, United for Libraries Gala Author Tea, 2-4pm, Hilton Chicago, Williford Room.  Tickets required; check for prices and details.

Elizabeth Blackwell, While Beauty Slept
A retelling of "Sleeping Beauty" set in a kingdom based on medieval Europe.
Saturday 1/31, author appearance 11:00 am–12:00 pm, Pop Top Science Fiction/Fantasy Panel, McCormick Place West; signing 2:00-3:00 pm, Penguin booth 4823.

C. W. Gortner, Mademoiselle Chanel
Imagines the life of iconic 20th-century designer Coco Chanel.
Sunday 2/1, signing 9-10am, HarperCollins booth 4526; also 2/1, author appearance 10-11am, "stories of women pursuing their destiny," Pop Top Stage, McCormick Place West.

Marci Jefferson, Enchantress of Paris
Fiction about Marie Mancini in the court of the Sun King.
Friday 1/30, signing 5:30-7pm, Macmillan booth 4613.

Renee Rosen, What the Lady Wants
Subtitled "a novel of Marshall Field and the Gilded Age."
Saturday 1/31, signing 1-2pm, Penguin booth 2823; Monday 2/2, 10-11am, author appearance at Pop Top Local Author Panel, McCormick Place West.

Mary Doria Russell, Epitaph
Novel of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday in the Old West.
Monday 2/2, signing 11am-noon, HarperCollins booth 4526.

What galleys are you looking forward to the most, and what else am I missing?  I know Chicago's not known as a hot spot in January, but even so, this seems like a short list.  Please leave a comment if you know of other signings or author appearances. The list is correct as far as I'm aware, but suggestions for corrections/changes are very welcome. 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Book review, with notes: Kate Alcott's A Touch of Stardust

Alcott should entrance large audiences with her stellar historical novel, which follows fictional Indiana native Julie Crawford after she moves to Los Angeles in 1938 to become a screenwriter. Readers expecting a rehash of a familiar plotline, however—that of a young hopeful becoming disillusioned by the emptiness beneath Hollywood’s glitzy veneer—will find something more nuanced and substantive.

Working as an assistant to exuberant blonde actress Carole Lombard, who hails from her hometown, Julie gets pulled into the activity surrounding the filming of Gone with the Wind, costarring Clark Gable, the still-married man Carole loves (and vice versa). On and off the set, considerable drama unfolds; all the actors and crew are subjected to the single-minded vision of its controlling producer, David Selznick.

Both Carole and diminutive brunette Vivien Leigh light up the page in their scenes, and Julie’s story line holds its own alongside theirs. As she sheds her midwestern naïveté and works hard on a screenplay in her free time, her romance with a Jewish assistant producer draws in themes of prejudice and hypocrisy.

The briskly paced narrative captivates as it lets readers view the creation of silver-screen magic, and it’s also a terrific tribute to the industry pioneers, like screenwriter Frances Marion, who helped others jump-start their dreams.


A Touch of Stardust will be published by Doubleday next month ($25, hardcover, 304pp).  I wrote this starred review for Booklist's November 15th issue.  Some additional notes:

- "Kate Alcott" is a pseudonym for veteran novelist and journalist Patricia O'Brien, and this is the only novel of hers written under this name that I've read (the first, a breakout hit, was The Dressmaker).

- However, I thoroughly enjoyed her earlier novel written as O'Brien, Harriet & Isabella, about the relationship between 19th-century sisters Harriet Beecher Stowe and Isabella Beecher Hooker as they revisit the adultery trial of their brother, charismatic preacher Henry Ward Beecher.  Apparently this book didn't perform well sales-wise, which eventually led to her adoption of a pseudonym, but I suspect that had less to do with the quality of the story than the fact that the Beecher family are no longer household names.  I love this period in American history, though, and highly recommend this underrated novel.  I interviewed O'Brien about Harriet & Isabella here back in 2008.

- In addition to everything I mentioned in the review, Alcott also smoothly intertwines a secondary thread involving the African-American actors (Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen) in GWTW, particularly their conflict between the breakout opportunity the film was for them and the demeaning roles they played.  Although they were respected as professionals by their fellow actors, this wasn't the case everywhere.  In the novel, as in history, Clark Gable was outraged and outspoken on their behalf when they experienced instances of segregation on set and at the time of the film's premiere.

- The cover design has changed since the ARC; the final one, above, is an improvement in my opinion.  Very classy.

A Touch of Stardust is one of 10 titles on the February 2015 LibraryReads list.  These are the top 10 reads for a given month selected by public library staff members across the U.S. (as an academic librarian, unfortunately I can't participate in this initiative, but I enjoy seeing what this group comes up with).  I've read three of the ten for February and will be posting reviews of the remaining two (The Siege Winter and The Secrets of Sir Richard Kenworthy) shortly.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The 2014 Langum Prize for American Historical Fiction: Winner and Honorees

The winner of the 2014 David J. Langum, Sr. Prize for American Historical Fiction is Kimberly Elkins' What Is Visible (Twelve, 2014).

From the judges' remarks in the press release:

"This novel lyrically revives a significant and intriguing figure in the history of disability. Laura Bridgman (d. 1889) was a celebrity in her lifetime. Stripped of sight, hearing, taste and smell by scarlet fever in her childhood, Bridgman served as a poster child for the Perkins School for the Blind and various intellectual causes such as phrenology and anti-Calvinism.

"What sets this novel apart is the author’s ability to imagine Laura Bridgman’s world and to give her a powerful narrative voice. With skill and compassion, Elkins portrays Bridgman as a complicated character whose strengths and flaws grow more complex as the story progresses. Historical details enrich the story, and the author deftly exposes the care and treatment of the disabled during the 1800s. This is American historical fiction at its best."

The 2014 Honorable Mention went to Catherine Bell's Rush of Shadows (Washington Writers’ Publishing House, 2014), a "sparsely but beautifully written novel" that focuses on farmers of Northern California’s Sacramento Valley and their encounters with the native Digger Indians in the 1850s.

From the judges' comments: "This is truly fresh material. The Trail of Tears is well-known, but Indian removals in California are relatively obscure. The characters are well-drawn and the descriptions vivid. A beautiful book."

Finally, Laila Lalami's The Moor's Account (Pantheon, 2014) was named as the Director's Mention for 2014.

"While The Moor's Account does not fully meet the requirements for the prize," the judges note, it is praised as an "extraordinary, pitch-perfect work of historical fiction about the Narváez expedition in Florida."

For more on the prize and the full announcement of this year's honorees, see the Langum Charitable Trust. To submit a novel for consideration, view the directions available at the site; the Trust has also issued guidelines used by their readers and selection committee, which authors should find useful as well. The prize is awarded annually to the "best book in American historical fiction that is both excellent fiction and excellent history."

Past years' winners include Gary Schanbacher's Crossing Purgatory, Ron Rash's The Cove, Julie Otsuka's The Buddha in the Attic, Ann Weisgarber's The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, Edward Rutherfurd's New York, and Kathleen Kent's The Heretic's Daughter.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Citizens Creek by Lalita Tademy, a little-known American story worth learning

Whether you read historical fiction to be educated, entertained, or both, Citizens Creek will get you squared away.

The title refers to a people rather than a place, just one of the many aspects of the novel that will make you think. It spans almost a century in the lives of Cow Tom and his granddaughter Rose, from his youth as a slave and hilis haya (healer) of cattle on an Upper Creek chief’s Alabama plantation through her later years as an Oklahoma rancher and family matriarch.

Their struggles and rise to prominence make for a classic American success story, and it’s especially inspiring because the characters are based on historical people. They deserve to be more widely known, and Tademy has done well in resurrecting them in her latest work of fiction.

In 1822, when he’s twelve years old, Cow Tom’s mentor, Old Turtle, tells him: “Owned by tribe’s not the same as tribe.” One of Cow Tom’s lifelong goals is to secure freedom and tribal citizenship for all people of African descent living within the Creek Nation. He has a talent for languages, which puts him in demand as a translator during the whites’ Indian wars and their harsh Removal policy, in which tribes living east of the Mississippi were displaced to lands in the West.

Cow Tom also remains determined to find his mother, who was stolen away by Seminoles when he was a child, and uses every possible opportunity on his assignments in Florida to locate her. His achievements on behalf of other African Creeks are impressive (I won’t spoil the details for those who don’t know them), but he also does some things he’s ashamed of. For Rose, being chosen years later as the recipient and bearer of his personal history is equally an honor and a burden.

This is the type of novel that’s best read slowly and carefully. Sometimes one chapter will follow closely upon another, while at other times they’re set years apart. The author’s admirable aim of covering such a wide stretch of years gives the book an episodic feel in places. There are so many people in it with interesting stories and backstories, though. Cow Tom’s wife Amy, for instance, is a smart, tough woman who could easily have starred in a novel herself.

In turning up slices of history unknown to most readers, Tademy has written a stirring work about endurance, liberty, family, and belonging. Cow Tom’s own words to Rose in the novel describe his journey best:

“From early, I had to aim higher than my name, an offhand thing tossed out to make it easier for someone to call me. The name fit, far as it went, but I was more than a tender of cows. I was a tender of words, and of people, and master of myself.”

Citizens Creek was published by Atria/Simon & Schuster in November ($26.00, hardcover, 432pp). Thanks to the publisher for granting me access via Edelweiss.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Etowah: Trade Center of the Mississippian Culture, a guest post by Kristin Gleeson

When Kristin Gleeson first mentioned her idea to contribute an essay about Etowah, I was intrigued and expressed interest in learning more.  Here she presents an introduction to it and other large American cities that flourished across the continent before the Europeans arrived.


Etowah: Trade Center of the Mississippian Culture
Kristin Gleeson

Twelfth-century America is the setting for a large portion of my novel, Along the Far Shores, which uses the legend of Prince Madog of Wales’ voyage to America as a framework for the plot. The legend puts Madog/Madoc in Mobile Bay and up along the Mississippian Valley, in Southeastern part of North America, an area and time period virtually unknown to most people.

Mention the Aztec, Maya and Inca, whose existence overlapped in this time, and so many images come to mind: pyramid temples, gold hoards, bloody sacrifices, elaborate sculptures and ball games where the losing sides were sacrificed. There is also the well-known story of the Aztec chief, Montezuma, who was captured and eventually killed by the Spaniards in the 15th century. Few people, however, would know about the Mississippian culture, which flourished for almost 900 years, c. 600-1500 A.D., and, like the more well-known Central and South American counterparts, had great urban centers, some of them more populous than any city of Europe at the time.

It was along the fertile valleys of the Mississippi and its tributaries that these cities arose. Ocmulgee, Etowah, Cahokia, Moundville and Spiro were some of the biggest cities. The region stretched from the Atlantic coast to Arkansas and Oklahoma and up as far as Wisconsin. A new strain of maize and later Mexican beans and squash supported this growing population that previously had been limited by dependence for food on game or fish that might be scarce in any given year. With a reliable food source, these communities were able to turn their attention to fashioning pottery, pipes, cups, jewelry, head ornaments of feathers and copper, wooden and stone sculptures, woven articles, cloth and copper products. The pipes, for example, used often for ceremonial purposes, were elaborately carved from materials like obsidian or bauxite into mythical figures such as Big Boy, the warrior priest dressed in a falcon costume, who also appeared on shells and copper plates. Or like the two sculpted marble figures, a man and a woman, nearly 3 feet tall found at Etowah.

Marble effigies from the Etowah Mound C, ca. 1375.  Source: Herb Roe via Wikimedia Commons

All these items Etowah and other cities traded along with raw commodities like obsidian, gold, silver and conch shells. Trade grew into important networks that linked much of the Midwest and East. Such links offered many chances for sharing and improving skills, acquiring or modifying languages, religious and cultural practices.

Etowah, located in north central Georgia, was one of the largest cities of the Mississippian culture, and its remains are still evident. Surrounded by a moat and a bastioned wooden palisade, it had six earthen mounds that loomed over the city. The three largest mounds were grouped around a large plaza, the most central one rising 61 feet with a base that covered about 3 acres. Its flattened top extended to about ¾ size of a football field and commanded an impressive view of the surrounding plain. A second plaza, paved with clay was to the east and had a ramp that extended from the plaza to the summit of the first mound.

A pic of the Etowah Mound Site in Cartersville, Ga.  Source: Herb Roe via Wikimedia Commons

In later centuries a small elite, The Nobles/Honored Men, lived on top of the mounds near to the all-important temple. Their houses were colorfully painted and decorated with elaborate designs and housed richly carved items. The commoners living in the plains below the nobles dubbed “the Stinkards.” The Great Sun was the leader and his relatives, known as Suns, held the city’s administrative positions. The political dominance of this elite group usually extended beyond the city to the surrounding areas, where lesser chiefs ruled small towns. All members of the region and the city were obligated to send tribute to the Great Sun periodically. Once the Great Sun died, this strong regional network often fragmented if there wasn’t a strong person to replace him.

Etowah and the other cities remained largely autonomous, but extensive economic and kin ties created far-flung alliances and rivalries so that the competition for power and prestige gradually intensified over the centuries. Ancestral obligations became more important, as did celebrations of successful harvests, hunts and warfare.

Other rituals, like ball games, became increasingly important and had deep religious connections. It is possible these ball games may have been the origin of the popular Boskita and Chunkey played in parts of the Southeast in later times. Boskita was like an earlier form of lacrosse with up to 60 players on each side, with up to five squads. Players carried two sticks shaped somewhat like a tennis rackets strung with deer hide thongs. The field was nearly a quarter of a mile long with a goal at each end formed by two uprights and a crossbar. Chunkey, on the other hand, was played with a disk, 3 to 6 inches in diameter, made from stone. These ball games appear to have had various meanings, some of them representing man and the cosmos.

With the arrival of De Soto and other Europeans in the 1500s, disease and disorder overtook the Mississippian cities that weren’t already in decline and decimated the population. There were too few people to construct massive earthworks, host elaborate rituals and celebrations or pay tribute to an exalted leader on the scale of previous time periods. Smaller bands and communities survived and eked their living to the best of their ability while only remnants of rituals and crafts remained.


Originally from Philadelphia, Kristin Gleeson lives in Ireland, in the West Cork Gaeltacht, where she teaches art classes, plays harp, sings in an Irish choir and runs two book clubs for the village library. She combines her love of myths with her harp playing and performed as a professional harper/storyteller at events in Britain, America and Ireland. She holds a Masters in Library Science and a Ph.D. in history, and for a time was an administrator of a national archives, library and museum in America. Her newest novel, Along the Far Shores, was published in November by An Tig Beag ($12.99 pb, $2.99 ebook).

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Galápagos Regained by James Morrow, a satirical romp through 19th-century South America

Morrow’s newest cheerfully provocative epic stars the intrepid Chloe Bathurst, who takes a job as Charles Darwin’s assistant zookeeper after getting fired from the Victorian theater. To raise cash to free her indebted father from the workhouse, she decides to enter the Shelley Society’s lucrative contest, which aims to settle the “pesky God question” for good.

When her employer declines to use his unpublished evolutionary theory to grab the winnings for himself, Chloe secretly copies his treatise, secures funding and a ship, and heads for the Galápagos isles to gather evidence for his Tree of Life. As she and her eccentric fellow travelers descend into the Amazon jungle while traversing South America, they encounter many obstacles.

The lofty narrative tone lends period authenticity, and there are some great comic moments as the characters undergo crises of faith. Fans of quest adventures may find the pacing exasperatingly sluggish, as the plot often gets buried under numerous details and digressions. For those fascinated by the meeting point between theology and science, though, it should be a rewarding expedition.

Galápagos Regained was published this week in hardcover by St. Martin's (496pp, $27.99).  This review first appeared in Booklist's December 15th issue.

Some notes:

- I loved James Morrow's The Last Witchfinder, which (like this one) is a picaresque adventure novel about a woman's quest. It's set in Restoration England and 18th-century America and takes on the themes of bigotry and superstition during the age of witch-hunting.  From the first sentence ("May I speak candidly, fleshling, one rational creature to another, myself a book and you a reader?" it's narrated by the Principia Mathematica, you see), I was captured by the writing, humor, and originality.  Definitely recommended.  I reviewed it for Booklist in 2006; it was my first starred review for them.

- Galápagos Regained started out promisingly for me as well.  The scenes on Darwin's estate in England are terrific, and the author's wit is as sharp and clever as always, but other parts were, well, simply too long and detailed.  Reviews are mixed; Kirkus wasn't keen, Library Journal loved it, and Publishers Weekly admired its sense of fun but also said it was overlong.  I cautiously recommend it and would be interested to hear what others think, if you decide to read it.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Book review: Tessa Arlen's Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman

Combining the pleasurable dramas of the English country house novel and the richly detailed, tense atmosphere of a historical mystery, this involving debut features the unusual detective partnership between an aristocrat and her housekeeper. That said, the Countess of Montfort and Mrs. Jackson are not exactly BFFs. Tessa Arlen is too attuned to early 20th-century class distinctions to let that happen. When asked by her desperate employer to observe conversations below stairs at Iyntwood and report back, Mrs. Jackson is appalled, but her allegiance to the family she serves prods her along.

The murder victim of the title is Teddy Mallory, the spoiled only son of Lord Montfort’s sister. While everyone is horrified by the circumstances of his death (he’s found hanging from a gamekeeper’s gibbet the morning after the Montforts’ renowned summer party), he wasn’t well-liked. The mostly-unlamented Teddy has a long history of disreputable behavior, some of which is yet undiscovered. Even more curiously, two women, one a houseguest and one a new maid named Violet, vanished the same day.

The arrival of an aggressive Scotland Yard investigator with no respect for his betters throws the household into even more disarray. Because the Montforts’ heir, Harry, was seen having a vicious argument with Teddy, he appears guilty at first. However, his mother, Clementine, believes in his innocence and enlists Mrs Jackson to keep her ears to the ground.

Among the houseguests are a dizzying bevy of socialites, introduced for the most part all at once. The characters have the advantage here, since they know who’s who better than readers will, but over the course of the novel, their distinctive personalities sort themselves out.

The shifting rapport between the central pair of allies – an unconventional yet privileged noblewoman and an upper servant whose brusque efficiency and “hierarchical cast of mind” belie her relative youth – is one of the novel’s high points. Arlen has a firm grasp on period mindsets and, as expected of any novel set in England in 1913, she inserts relevant details on the changes sweeping the country, such as women’s suffrage – a movement many female characters resist.

The lovely descriptions of the rolling green countryside around Iyntwood place us right into that glorious setting. Through its master’s thoughtful reflections on his “still-feudal way of life” while on a morning’s ride around his estates, we also get a solid sense of his family’s long-entrenched relationship with the land and his protectiveness toward his servants – even though, he admits, he “wasn’t terribly sure what Violet looked like.” The book is full of these small but telling details.

In this not-quite cozy mystery, the resolution to the crime unfolds in a logical manner. Sufficient clues are planted to let readers guess the culprit a bit early. Since they make an impressive and successful team, I hope Lady Montfort and Mrs. Jackson will join their wits again in future volumes – in particular, it should be interesting to see how much the characters relax their social attitudes as World War I gets underway.


Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman will be published by Minotaur/St. Martin's Press tomorrow in hardcover ($25.99, 320pp).  This post is among the first out of the gate for the blog tour hosted by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.  Thanks to the publisher for approving my NetGalley copy.