Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Blue Mile by Kim Kelly: Love and social change in Depression-era Sydney

The third novel from Australian writer Kelly (aka book editor Kim Swivel), set in Depression-era Sydney, excels at depicting the era’s social conditions and the swoony exuberance and thorny complications of cross-class romance. The story unfolds through the internal musings of Irish-born Catholic Eoghan O’Keenan, recently let go from his factory job, and ambitious designer Olivia Greene, daughter of a viscount who abandoned her and her mother.

After Eoghan (“Yo”) flees the grime and alcoholism of the slums with his seven-year-old sister, Agnes, he encounters Olivia by chance in the Royal Botanic Gardens. Although there’s an instantaneous mutual attraction, their relationship progresses at a realistically sedate pace. They remain separated for long periods, while Olivia attracts new clientele to her and her mother’s couturier business and Eoghan takes a dangerous job catching rivets 300 feet above water during the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

The stream-of-consciousness style takes getting used to, for Olivia in particular. Her unfiltered thoughts, full of energy and interjections, follow wherever her mind rambles. The couple’s viewpoints and vocabularies reflect their personalities, though. Both are caring people, and the narrative technique makes their sentiments toward one another feel startlingly real and honest.

The historical setting, presented clearly, plays a significant role. With Britain demanding repayment of Australia’s war debts, unemployment runs high, and there are growing pockets of civil unrest. The “blue mile” of the title refers to the overcrowded waterway dividing the city and the immense distances in faith and class separating Eoghan and Olivia. The Sydney Harbour Bridge’s massive arch, its two halves joining together at last in 1932, becomes a symbol of hope, but both the city and couple undergo significant strain before they can move forward. All of the details on the broader social context enhance the telling of a beautiful love story.

The Blue Mile was published by Macmillan Australia in 2014 (trade pb, A$29.99, 464pp).  I had picked it up as a Kindle copy, which is currently for sale at US$9.99.  This review first appeared in May's Historical Novels Review and is my third entry for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A gallery of new & upcoming historical novels from Canada

This latest gallery (see the tag Visual Previews for more) covers a dozen new and upcoming historical novels from Canadian publishers. The novels themselves are set all over the place: Canada, certainly, in the 19th and 20th centuries, but also 16th-century Istanbul, medieval Scotland, WWII France, and colonial America.

As an American reader, I often find it difficult to find new HF offerings from Canada; they're hard to track down through online bookstore listings.  I discovered a few of these through the authors' social media posts, and others through newspaper reviews, browsing publishers' catalogs, or because of my work with the Historical Novels Review.  I welcome suggestions for other books in the comments.

The life story of Camille Claudel, sculptor and mistress of Rodin, intertwines with that of the nurse who cares for her in France's Montdevergues Asylum in 1943.  Cormorant, May 2015.

This literary cowboy novel tells the adventures of John Ware (1845–1905), a former slave from South Carolina who established a successful ranch in southern Alberta.  TouchWood Editions, May 2015.

"But then she buys a rifle, and everything changes." The tale of the intrepid Abigail Peacock and her adventures (and those of other Western notables) in the late 19th-century Canadian and American West.  I'll be reading it shortly.  Brindle & Glass, June 2015.

A literary novel of freedom and re-invention, centering on a young Finnish woman who takes a road trip across the Canadian prairie in the '30s with a stranger she meets at a dance.  McClelland & Stewart, Feb 2015.

An epic love story between a soldier from Nova Scotia and a young Frenchwoman during WWI, set in the French countryside and in Halifax.  Simon & Schuster Canada, April 2015.

A young piano prodigy's coming of age, and the redemptive power of music, set in Depression-era Montreal.  Cormorant, May 2015.

A literary tall tale exploring the full-bodied life of Daniel Boone, set during the American Revolution.  Love the title.  Knopf Canada, Feb 2015.

A British war widow and a Nova Scotian schoolteacher unexpectedly join forces in post-WWI Alberta to help combat the spread of VD in the province. The author is the wife of Canada's Governor General.  Dundurn, April 2014.

This sequel to the bestselling The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi is a story of faith and forbidden love set in the 16th-century Ottoman Empire.  Aged 89 when her latest was published, Park is currently writing volume three. House of Anansi, October 2014.

For her latest work of literary fiction, Powning (The Sea Captain's Wife, reviewed here in 2011) turns to the story of English-born Mary Dyer, who traveled to America in the 1630s and found the Puritan church of the Massachusetts Bay Colony horrifically intolerant. Knopf Canada, April 2015.

The "farmerettes" are six young woman, recent high school grads, who form bonds, find love, and face heartbreak as they work together on a family farm, taking the place of men off fighting overseas during the summer of 1943.  A YA novel.  Second Story, April 2015.

Somehow I missed that Jack Whyte had a new book out.  This newest in his Scottish series is subtitled "a tale of Andrew Murray," a military leader who became a Guardian of Scotland. Viking Canada, November 2014.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Dissolution, faith, and love: Roses in the Tempest by Jeri Westerson

Isabella Launder is a yeoman farmer's daughter living in a Staffordshire village in 1515. A tall, plain woman who strikes up a close friendship with Thomas Giffard, the son of her father's overlord, Isabella makes the surprising decision to join a nunnery rather than be forced to marry someone else.  As a novice, holy sister, and finally prioress of Blackladies, she finds joy in caring for the convent's roses as well as a new kind of family life, though she never forgets Thomas, nor he her.

True to their era and their class, both are refreshingly honest about why a marriage between them would never have worked.  Still, their love for one another – strong, unreciprocated at first, always chaste – endures over the years, through Thomas' troubled marriage to an heiress; Isabella's adjustment to convent life, including the envy and abrasiveness of a fellow nun; and Henry VIII's decision to proclaim himself head of the church.  Repercussions from the latter bring even an inconspicuous, poor convent like Blackladies to the notice of the king and his greedy advisers.

Told in the alternating voices of Thomas and Isabella, Roses in the Tempest is decidedly different fare from Jeri Westerson's previous release, Cup of Blood, a fast-moving and suspenseful medieval mystery with a sexy outcast hero and plenty of witty banter.  However, while less action-oriented, it's just as engaging, and the contrast in styles demonstrates her versatility as a writer. 

In keeping with his family's position, Thomas is often at court, while Isabella remains enclosed within her small priory. The changing scenes provide a varied view of Tudor life.  Both protagonists show wonderful growth over time, and unlike many other novels set in the period, they come to share a deep-rooted and abiding faith, one that refuses to be dislodged on a king's whims.  This isn't inspirational fiction, but the prose has a spiritual richness that meshes perfectly with their outlook on the world.  Here is Isabella:

"Raising my head to inhale the remnants of summer, the bells sounded again.  Listening, I reflected on their timbre, how they called each of us to that quiet house of God's, and even how they were part of the landscape, like a tree or a fence.  How natural they were to the environment, as natural as I in my garden."

Westerson states up front that the relationship she posits between Isabella and Thomas is fictional, although the larger historical events are true, and all of the characters once existed. According to the introduction, the novel was first written 14 years ago, before her mystery-writing career began.  If she has others like it sitting in a dusty old drawer, let's hope they'll also be pulled out and released.

Roses in the Tempest was published in April by Old London Press ($13.99 pb / $5.99 ebook, 280pp). This was a personal purchase.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Art, war, and secrets: Currawong Manor by Josephine Pennicott

With her previous novel, Poet’s Cottage, Josephine Pennicott proved that edgy bohemian glamour and gothic creepiness made a great combination. Here she continues these themes but ups her game further with her riveting dual-period novel, set in Australia’s Blue Mountains in 2000 and 1945, about dreadful family secrets, the interpretations of creative works, and the lasting impact of war on artists and their art.

The modern protagonist, photographer Elizabeth Thorrington, jumps at the chance to return to Currawong Manor, her grandparents’ remote estate, following a career scandal. In the course of preparing a coffee-table book about her grandfather, eccentric painter Rupert Partridge, and his three beautiful life-models called the “Flowers,” she hopes to learn about her family history. A wild, haunted place, with its fairytale garden, high towers, and mythological sculptures wreathed in mist, Currawong was once the scene for a trio of tragedies. “The locals have always called it the Ruins,” Elizabeth tells a friend, “not just because it’s fallen into ruins, but because it ruins lives.” Then there are the mysterious “dollmaker” and her daughter, who were allowed to remain on the property – why?

The writing is sharp throughout, with striking images of the house both in the modern segments and in its prime. The most memorable creation is Ginger Lawson, whose attitude is as fiery as her hair. A former “Flower” with lots of sex appeal even in her 70s, Ginger returns to Currawong to be depicted anew in Elizabeth’s book. Her recollections about Rupert drive the plot along.

There’s a lot of story packed into the nearly 400 pages, all perfectly paced, with secrets teased out bit by bit until the shocking denouement – which is worth staying up late to discover. Fans of Kate Morton should devour it, but Pennicott has a distinctive style all her own.

This review first appeared in the Historical Novels Review's May issue and is based on my own copy of the book.  Currawong Manor was published by Macmillan Australia in 2014 in trade paperback (Au$29.99) and as an ebook ($11.99 - update 5/14, as the price just dropped).  This review is my 2nd entry for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

And for readers unfamiliar with what a currawong is, they're birds native to Australasia, and their presence plays a role in the story.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Charting the political waters of the Stuart era: Margaret Porter's A Pledge of Better Times

In Margaret Porter’s sparkling A Pledge for Better Times, the theme is constant change – political, religious, generational, and all of these intertwined.

Its setting is comparatively rare for historical fiction: the time between the end of Charles II’s reign and George I’s ascension, three decades and four monarchs later. The events within its pages will make readers wonder why that is, for they're historically significant: Monmouth’s rebellion, the Siege of Belgrade, and the Glorious Revolution that saw the Catholic James II ousted and his Protestant daughter and son-in-law, Mary and William, invited to rule.

Using the strength and intelligence they were born with, the novel’s characters weather the shifting political climate over time. Lady Diana de Vere and the man she weds, Charles Beauclerk, Duke of St. Albans, are both prominent at court. Born of parents who were hardly faithful to one another, Diana guards her virtue, and her loyalty endears her to the future Queen Mary. Diana’s “frankness and acuity of mind” is of great benefit throughout her life.

Meanwhile, Charles paves his own path, never able to forget that of all the illegitimate sons of Charles II, his mother, former orange seller and actress Nell Gwyn, was of low birth: “Royal blood and military heroics could not eradicate the indelible stain of bastardy or the stench of the stage.”

Diana and Charles come to love one another deeply, but their differing views on married life (he becomes an army officer, detesting the courtier’s life she was born to) creates occasional disharmony, as does a hidden deception about their engagement. Two additional viewpoints add further texture: that of Diana’s father, the Earl of Oxford, who makes plain his dislike of James II’s tyranny and religious intolerance; and Mary herself, a gentle, intelligent woman and devoted wife crushed by her husband’s infidelity. Hers is a clearly admiring portrait.

Fans of royal fiction of the juicier sort may find the approach sedate at first, but it’s actually refreshing in its lack of gaudiness. The historical background is well-defined and the characters genuine, and the author’s love for the finer details of upper-class life in the Stuart era, such as painting, architecture, and gardening, shines through. At these and other moments, reading the novel itself gives the feel of stepping into an English garden, one filled with light, plentiful color, and cultured elegance.

A Pledge of Better Times was published by Gallica Press in April in ebook and paperback ($5.99/$14.95, 400pp).  Thanks to the author for providing me with a copy for the virtual book tour.  See Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for additional stops.

Friday, May 08, 2015

Historical fiction picks at BEA 2015

As in previous years, I’m compiling a guide to the historical novels being promoted at the upcoming BookExpo America (BEA) show, to be held at the Javits Center in New York on May 27-29. The following list is based on BEA’s own list of traditional and in-booth autographing, Publishers Weekly’s “galleys to grab” list, Library Journal's 2015 galley guide, and announcements from publishers. I've added blurbs, booth numbers, etc., to make the list more user-friendly.  Good news: the HF picks are plentiful this year!

For authors with historical novels at BEA who aren't yet included, or to provide corrections, please leave a note in the comments or drop me an email. As always, I recommend cross-checking these dates/times with the BEA site or your program book beforehand to avoid possible disappointment.

This page will be updated as more information is made available.  New listings are indicated with ~new~.  I’ve tried not to cross-list titles, so if an author is doing a galley signing, it will be listed in the 2nd section below, under Author Signings.

Last updated: Sat 5/23, 1pm.

~Galleys to Grab~

Europa Editions (booth 3124):

Chantel Acevedo, The Distant Marvels - political and family saga set in 20th-c Cuba. Author signing TBA.

Graywolf Press (booth 3064):

Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake - resistance against the Norman invaders in 11th-c England; written in a re-created version of Old English.

~new~ Grove Atlantic (booth 939A):

George MacDonald Fraser, Captain in Calico - standalone novel (his first, per the LJ guide) from the late author of the Flashman series, starring 18th-c Caribbean pirate Captain Jack Rackham.

Hachette (booth 2918-9):

Oscar Hijuelos, Twain and Stanley Enter Paradise - lengthy posthumous novel about the friendship between Mark Twain and explorer Henry Morton Stanley.

HarperCollins (booth 2038):

Parnaz Foroutan, The Girl from the Garden - family saga of Persian Jews in early 20th-c Iran.

Adriana Trigiani, All the Stars in the Heavens - Loretta Young in ‘30s Hollywood. Excerpt galleys, also signing on Fri 5/29 at 2pm.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (booth 2541):

~new~ Alexander Chee, The Queen of the Night - a woman "from courtesan to diva" in Paris during the Second Empire

Clare Clark, We That Are Left - two sisters during WWI.

Macmillan (booth 3056):

H. S. Cross, Wilberforce (galley giveaway 5/29, 9am) - adolescent longing in 1926 England.

Elsa Hart, Jade Dragon Mountain (galley giveaway 5/27, 4:30pm) - an exiled Chinese librarian investigates a murder in the 18th century.

Benjamin Johncock, The Last Pilot (galley giveaway 5/28, 10:30am) - marriage and family life at the time of the Space Race.

Penguin Random House (booth 3119):

Alexandra Curry, The Courtesan - Qing dynasty courtesan Sai Jinhua in the late 19th century.

Ottessa Moshfegh, Eileen - crime in early ‘60s Boston area.

Natasha Solomons, The Song of Hartgrove Hall - love, grief, and treachery on an English estate, 1946 and 50 years later.

Simon & Schuster (booth 2620-1):

~new~ Susan Barker, Incarnations - literary speculative fiction; a Beijing taxi driver revisits his past lives, set at various periods in Chinese history.

Lynn Cullen, Twain’s End - the personal life of the famous author.

~new~ Soho Press (booth 3240):
David Downing, One Man's Rag - WWI spy novel featuring Jack McColl

Ruth Galm, Into the Valley - poetic novel about a woman caught between generations in California's Central Valley in the '60s

Sourcebooks (booth 3039):

Kelli Estes, The Girl Who Wrote in Silk (galley giveaway 5/28, 11am) - a modern woman, a Chinese girl from 100 years earlier, and a silk scarf that links them.

Susan Higginbotham, Hanging Mary (galley giveaway 5/28, 2pm) - Mary Surratt and a scheme to save the dying Confederacy.

~Author Signings~

Wednesday, May 27th (exhibit floor opens at 1pm)

~new~1:15-1:45pm, booth 2657 (Mystery Writers of America)
Lori Roy (author of Let Me Die in His Footsteps; title to be signed not given)

2:30-3:30pm, booth 1039 (Algonquin):
B. A. Shapiro, The Muralist - dual-period novel surrounding an artist’s disappearance on the eve of WWII.

2:30-3:30pm, booth 2541 (HMH):
Amy Stewart, Girl Waits with Gun - one of America’s first female deputy sheriffs, set in 1914.

Thursday, May 28th

~new~ 9-10am, booth 3119 (Random House)
Melanie Benjamin, The Swans of Fifth Avenue - friendship between Truman Capote and Babe Paley in '50s NYC.
~new~ 10-10:30am, booth 2657 (Mystery Writers of America)
Lyndsay Faye (author of The Fatal Flame and other thrillers of 1840s NYC; specific titles to be signed not given)

10:30am, booth 3039 (Sourcebooks):
Charles Belfoure, House of Thieves - thriller set in Gilded Age NYC.

10:30-11am, booth 1921 (Norton):
Matthew Guinn, The Scribe - serial murderer in 1881 Atlanta.

10:45am, booth 2657 (Mystery Writers of America):
James R. Benn, The White Ghost - historical mystery, JFK and Billy Boyle in the South Pacific.

~new~ 11-11:30am, booth 3126 (Other Press)
Bruce Bauman, Broken Sleep - "Pynchonesque saga" about rock music, art, politics, and love between the '40s and the year 2020

11am-noon, table 12:
Emily Holleman, Cleopatra’s Shadows - Arsinoe, Cleopatra’s little-known younger sister.

~new~ 11:30-noon, booth 2657 (Mystery Writers of America)
Nancy Bilyeau, The Tapestry - historical thriller about Joanna Stafford, a Dominican novice in the turbulent court of Henry VIII; 3rd in series after The Crown and The Chalice.

Noon, booth 3240 (Soho Press):
James R. Benn, The White Ghost - see above at 10:45am.

1:30-2:30pm, booth 3319 (Penguin Random House):
Geraldine Brooks, The Secret Chord - the story of King David.

~new~ 2-3pm, table 6:
Julianna Baggott, Harriet Wolf's Seventh Book of Wonders -narrative of three women and a lost masterpiece that spans 20th-century history.

2:15pm, booth 649A (Akashic):
~new~ Barbara J. Taylor, Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night - debut novel about the aftermath of a family tragedy, set in an early 20th-c Pennsylvania mining community; wonderful book!

3-4pm, booth 3019 (Hachette):
Jami Attenberg, Saint Mazie - Mazie Phillips and her life in Jazz Age NYC.

~new~ 3-4pm, table 6:
Virginia Baily, Early One Morning - two women save a child during WWII, an action which reverberates even years later.

3:30-4:30pm, booth 3119 (Penguin Random House):
Rebecca Makkai, The Hundred-Year House - quirky “generational saga in reverse.”

3:30-4:30pm, booth 2908 (Harlequin):
Pam Jenoff, The Last Summer at Chelsea Beach - a young Italian woman’s journey and choices during the WWII years.

Friday, May 29th

10-11am, booth 2620-21 (Simon & Schuster):
Alice Hoffman, The Marriage of Opposites - impressionist painter Camille Pissarro’s Jewish mother, Rachel, set on St. Thomas in the 1800s.  Note conflicting info:  the LJ guide indicates Hoffman will be signing The Dovekeepers and Museum of Extraordinary Things instead.

~new~ 10-10:30am, booth 2657 (Mystery Writers of America):
Annamaria Alfieri (specific title to be signed not given)
M. J. Rose, The Witch of Painted Sorrows - art and gothic suspense in 1890s Belle Époque Paris.

10:45-11:45am, booth 3156 (Bloomsbury):
William Boyd, Sweet Caress - life of a modern woman in England, from WWI through her time as a war photographer in WWII France.

~new~ 11:30am-noon, booth 2657 (Mystery Writers of America)
Laura Joh Rowland, author of mysteries of historical Japan (specific title not given)

11:30am-12:30pm, booth 3119 (Penguin Random House):
Annie Barrows, The Truth According to Us - family secrets are discovered while a young debutante works for the Federal Writers Project in '30s West Virginia.

12-12:30pm, table 15:
Kim van Alkemade, Orphan #8 - a girl is subjected to medical experiments in 1919 NYC; her choice between revenge and mercy years later.

2pm-3pm, booth 3119 (Penguin Random House):
Paula McLain, Circling the Sun - the life of aviator and memoirist Beryl Markham.

~new~ 2pm, booth 640A (Feminist Press at CUNY):
Sarah Schulman, The Cosmopolitans - "remake of Balzac's Cousin Bette" (per an author interview) set in 1958 Greenwich Village.

~new~  3-3:30, table 14:
Daniel Melnick, The Ash Tree - the marriage between an American woman and an Armenian genocide survivor.

3:30-4:30pm, booth 3119 (Penguin Random House):
Sara Donati, The Gilded Hour - epic of two women doctors in Gilded Age NYC.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

When tolerance fails, can hearts prevail? An essay by Pamela Schoenewaldt

Novelist Pamela Schoenewaldt is here today with a post about her latest novel's historical backdrop, and the subject is very relevant for today as well. 


When tolerance fails, can hearts prevail? 
By Pamela Schoenewaldt

My research for Under the Same Blue Sky opened for me a fascinating look at my own German-American heritage, our national immigration debate, and a sobering reminder of how thin the veil of tolerance can be. A few facts. German-Americans are, even today, our largest self-reported minority. Between 1820 and World War I, six million Germans came to America, entering every profession and social strata, profoundly shaping our culture. By 1900, cities like Cleveland, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, and Hoboken were more than 40% German-American.

Many came to escape the draft (terms up to 25 years were common), poverty, and crushing debt. For my great-grandmother, Germany was a door that closed behind her. She learned English quickly and never looked back. Another ancestor, a cabinetmaker, found his place in a cozy German enclave of Manhattan called Harlem.

Other immigrants, like Johannes Renner of my novel, lived with the ache of loss, a deep well of memories and constant communication with friends and family back home. The stunning scale of horrors in World War I, both civilian and military, plunged him into what now would be diagnosed as “vicarious trauma,” a crippling manifestation of PTSD.

As America inched towards war, the predicament of German-Americans grew more complex and anguished. In fact, public suspicion and media railings against all “hyphenates” intensified. German-Americans, Hungarian, Italian, Polish, and Russian-Americans were suspect. Scrambling, German-Americans invented a pacifying phrase: "Germany our Mother, Columbia [America] Our Bride." Pretty words, said “real” Americans. But what happens when the mother and wife take up arms?

That day came, of course, on April 6, 1917. “Once lead this people into war,” President Woodrow Wilson warned, “and they'll forget there ever was such a thing as tolerance.” He was right. Overnight, as soldiers were rapidly enlisted, another army was being created of graphic artists, cartoonists, musicians, speechwriters, journalists, and teachers. Their job was to whip up hatred against the Kaiser. Naturally there was spill-over. Suddenly, long-time neighbors, friends, and colleagues were suspect. English itself must be purged of “Hun” words like hamburger, sauerkraut, frankfurters, dachshund, German Shepherd. Speaking German in public was forbidden. Books were burned. Freedom of speech, press, and assembly were choked off. German-Americans were forced to buy war bonds in great quantities to “prove” loyalty. Jobs were lost, homes destroyed, thousands imprisoned on suspect charges. Employees in some factories were forced to crawl across the floor and kiss the American flag. There were lynchings.

So quickly all this happened. That was the stunner for me. Communities shredded. Tolerance forgotten. This has happened over and over in history, and often, of course, on a hugely larger scale. Yet within the madness, there were those who struggled for understanding, for separating politics from people, weaving hearts together despite differences and the deep wounds of war. That’s what Under the Same Blue Sky is about.


Pamela Schoenewaldt's Under the Same Blue Sky is published today in trade paperback by William Morrow (318pp, $14.99/Can$18.50).

credit: Kelly Norrell
Pamela’s first novel, When We Were Strangers (HarperCollins, 2011), was a USA Today Bestseller, a major book club pick, a Barnes & Noble Great Discovery, short-listed for the Langum Prize in American Historical Fiction, and has been translated into Polish, Dutch, and Russian. Swimming in the Moon (HarperCollins, 2013) was cited by the Pittsburgh Examiner as a “a must read for anyone who enjoys beautiful, richly drawn characters, and a historical setting so realistic that one would believe they had been transported to another time. A glorious, unforgettable novel, A+.” It was a runner-up for the Langum Prize and connects powerfully with those who struggle with the impacts of mental illness in their families.

Pamela lived for ten years in a small town outside Naples, Italy. Her short stories have appeared in literary magazines in England, France, Italy and the United States. Her play, “Espresso con mia madre” (Espresso with my mother) was performed at Teatro Cilea in Naples. She taught writing for the University of Maryland, European Division and the University of Tennessee. Her interactive writing workshops inspire writers of all genre and stages. She now lives in Knoxville, Tennessee with her husband, Maurizio Conti, a medical physicist, and their dog Jesse, a philosopher.