Sunday, February 28, 2016

Some international historical fiction releases coming soon to America

This is a post about the international marketplace, book cravings, and impatience.

I occasionally purchase historical novels from non-US outlets.  If I hear about one I think I'd enjoy, either based on a positive review or an intriguing description, I'll add it to my wishlist and proceed to buy if I'm so inclined.  But I normally only do this if the book isn't available from an American publisher or distributor, and if I haven't heard anything about a future US release.

There have been times, though – at least nine, if you count what's in the pile above – when a book has found an American publisher sometime after I've bought the original edition.  On one hand, this means I own a collector's item of sorts; on the other, maybe I could've saved some money if I'd waited a little longer.

Or maybe it means I'm a good predictor of international historical fiction that will potentially interest American readers?  It would be nice to think so, but...

In any case, here are the American covers and release dates for nine historical novels that were first published in other countries: either Canada, the UK, or Australia.

A dual-period story about a decrepit old mansion on an island in Scotland's Outer Hebrides, a century-old mystery, family rivalry, and forbidden love.  The UK title was Bhalla Strand, and I had picked up my copy two years ago when visiting England. I recommend it.  Atria/Simon & Schuster, August 2016.

A secret love, a mysterious photograph, and delectable pastries, all spun together into a multi-period tale set in Paris of 1909 and Cambridge nearly eighty years later.  Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's will publish it in the US in September 2016, with the same cover as the original UK edition.

A young woman named Amy Snow, named such after being found abandoned in a snowdrift as a baby, embarks on a treasure hunt across Victorian England that was set in motion by her dear friend and protector, heiress Aurelia Vennaway, before her early death.  I loved this delightful debut novel (reviewed here from its UK edition), and it will appear in June 2016 from Simon & Schuster (US).

In postwar Australia, a young widow, struggling to come to terms with moving forward without her husband, meets a poet who's likewise in search of a new beginning, but events have a way of turning out differently than expected.  This literary novel, widely praised in Australia, will appear from Atria/Simon & Schuster in April 2016.

British writer Rachel Hore's novels highlight women's experiences and lingering secrets from the past.  Here she applies her successful dual-narrative technique to the story of an aspiring concert pianist in pre-war Paris and a violinist passing through the city on tour a quarter century later.  Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's will publish it in hardcover in August 2016.

Queen Anne has been one of the few English queens to be relatively neglected in historical fiction, aside from Jean Plaidy's novels, but that's about to change.  Limburg's novel promises to paint a sympathetic portrait of a young woman who survived the Restoration court and numerous political ups and downs to become ruler of her country.  Pegasus will publish the book in the US this December.

In Edwardian London, a female trapeze artists disappears mid-performance, spurring a Fleet Street reporter to find answers.  Pegasus will release this novel in March 2016 (a week from tomorrow, to be exact).

This is the story of Mary Dyer, a courageous heroine of 17th-century New England who dared to defy the Puritan establishment.  I had to buy the hardcover from last year, but Vintage Canada will release the paperback edition (with this gorgeous new cover) in both Canada and the US in early March 2016.

And the final book in my pile is Dinah Jefferies' The Tea Planter's Wife, about an Englishwoman in 1920s Ceylon who marries a tea merchant who's keeping devastating secrets about his first marriage.  The cover design looks similar to the original UK paperback, but with a slightly different color scheme.  Crown will publish it in hardcover in September 2016.

Can you think of others?  For American readers: how frequently do you buy historical fiction from non-US sources?

Friday, February 26, 2016

A visit to Yorkshire's Bolton Abbey in Frances Brody's Murder on a Summer's Day

Just over two years ago, I reviewed the third novel of Frances Brody's Kate Shackleton mysteries, Murder in the Afternoon, set in 1920s Yorkshire.  Since I'm not particular about reading series books in order, I had no problem with picking up book #5, Murder on a Summer's Day, which was published this month in the US (and three years ago in Britain).

It's 1924, and Kate Shackleton has earned respect as a private investigator, so much so that the India Office calls upon her services when a visiting Indian royal, the Maharajah Narayan Halkwaer of Gattiawan, vanishes while on a shooting excursion on the grounds of Bolton Abbey.  Kate's cousin James, a high-ranking bureaucrat in the India Office, wakes her out of a sound sleep to request her help in locating him.

Narayan's disappearance has many folks worried.  He had brought many valuable jewels with him; Gattiawan is embroiled in a rivalry with a nearby Indian state; and, most scandalous of all, he was enjoying a dalliance with an unsuitable woman, a former Folies Bergère dancer... who claims that he was about to make her his second wife.

Before too long, Kate has fulfilled her task, though the outcome is hardly what she'd hoped.  There are not one but two suspicious deaths, but nearly everyone from local villagers to the India Office prefer to call them "tragic accidents."  Why?  Kate's also puzzled about the reason her help was sought in the first place.  Left on her own to investigate possible foul play, Kate is up to the task, of course, with the help of her assistant, former policeman Jim Sykes (whose undercover role as a tourist in search of good fishing leads to some funny moments).

As was the case with Murder in the Afternoon, this entry is both a crime novel and a carefully drawn portrait of 1920s country life in Yorkshire.  The pacing is leisurely early on, and it takes the appearance of Lydia Metcalfe, Narayan's supposed fiancée, to liven up the action – something which would undoubtedly please her to know.  Lydia is a hoot. Although born into a local farming family, she's always felt she deserved better.  If social acceptance isn't within her reach, wealth will suit her just fine.  And, as illustrated in the book, the Indian royals (who bring trunks of clothing, jewels, and large entourages wherever they travel) do live very well indeed.

Bolton Hall at Bolton Abbey, North Yorkshire, photo by Jonathan Palombo
(avail on Wikimedia commons, licensed via CC BY 2.0)

Bolton Abbey is a real place, a 50,000-acre estate owned by the Dukes of Devonshire, and I enjoyed walking the moor and exploring the lands along the River Wharfe (including the treacherous rapids and waterfalls known as the Strid) alongside Kate and her companions.  The Duke and Duchess remain in the background in the novel, which I think was a wise decision.  Although she may seem to be an unlikely character, Lydia Metcalfe is based on an actual person, and you can read more about her real-life inspiration, Stella Mudge, in Coralie Younger's deliciously named Wicked Women of the Raj.

Murder on a Summer's Day was published by Minotaur in February 2016 ($25.99/C$29.99, hardcover, 401pp).

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The women behind the Georgian throne: Laura Purcell's Mistress of the Court

In her second entertaining novel about the Georgian royals, Laura Purcell explores the complex interdependencies between two intelligent women and intergenerational strife at the realm’s highest level.

In 1712, Henrietta Howard is in desperate straits. Tied to an abusive husband, and short on funds to raise their son, Henrietta takes the impulsive step to leave England, board a ship to Germany, and throw herself on the mercy of Sophia, Dowager Electress of Hanover, elderly heiress to Britain’s throne. She finds a sympathetic ear not only in Sophia but also in her grandson’s wife, Princess Caroline; the warm rapport between Sophia and Caroline is charming to witness.

When word finally arrives of Queen Anne’s death – alas, six weeks after Sophia’s own death – the royal party heads to London, where Sophia’s haughty son, now George I, is crowned king. However, Caroline’s protection has a price. Caroline’s husband George, Prince of Wales, decides to take a mistress. They have an affectionate marriage, but it’s what princes do. A clever woman with behind-the-scenes influence, Caroline knows of Henrietta’s discretion and agreeable nature. Rather than leave it to chance, she pressures Henrietta to take the role.

Through their alternating viewpoints, Purcell highlights the commonalities the two women share, as well as the shifting tensions in their one-time friendship. Loving mothers, both, they endure long-term separations from their sons and suffer the unfortunate consequences. From architecture to politics to women’s circumscribed roles, Georgian London comes into clear view.

Delightful little details bring the era alive, such as a scene in which Caroline’s hair is blasted with powder-blowers until her “buttery locks were curls of snow.” It all works to serve the storyline; the history-fiction balance is essentially perfect. The writing style is very approachable, too, making this a great read for royalty fans and also for newcomers to historical fiction.

Mistress of the Court was published by Myrmidon (UK) last year (£8.99 paperback, or $4.99 on Kindle, 448pp).  The US paperback will be out in May ($14.95).  This was a personal purchase – I'd preordered a Kindle copy after enjoying Purcell's Queen of Bedlam two years ago.  This review previously appeared in the Historical Novels Review's February issue.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Reassembling the past: The Photographer's Wife by Suzanne Joinson

It was hard to get a handle on the plot of The Photographer’s Wife. For a good long while, I felt like I was glimpsing the characters and their situations through fractured glass.  Individual scenes were clear, but the full picture of the characters and motivations remained muddled until close to the end. It made for a distancing reading experience.

On the other hand, the style meshes well with the novel’s themes of dislocation and the resurfacing of the past in unexpected ways.

The heroine isn’t the woman of the title but an 11-year-old British girl, Prue Ashton, sent to live with her father in Jerusalem in 1920, after her mother is placed in a mental institution. Charles Ashton, appointed as a civic adviser, has a plan to redesign the city in orderly English fashion, complete with gardens and trees, and without understanding how disruptive it would be to local culture or religious laws.

Neglected by her father, Prue roams around alone with her Kodak, gets tutored in Arabic by a Turkish man, Ihsan Tameri, and becomes caught up in intrigues beyond her ken which play out among the adults around her. These include the past shared between pilot William Harrington, a shell-shocked veteran hired to survey the city by air, and beautiful Eleanora Rasul, wife of a famous Arab photographer. Prue's also too young to take in the surreptitious plans of the Arab nationalist movement, or Ihsan’s true motives for spending time with the lonely girl.

Seventeen years later, Prue is a sculptor living in a ramshackle environment on England's south coast, a divorcee with a six-year-old son, Skip. She has repeated the pattern set by her own early life, letting Skip run wild while focusing her intense passions on her art. Then a visiting journalist starts asking odd questions – ones not dealing with her profession, but the half-year she spent in Jerusalem as a child.

The story spreads out over multiple periods, and with flashbacks nested inside flashbacks, which feels rather unsettling.  Intensifying this feeling are the many characters with unsavory incidents in their pasts, and who are difficult to warm to.

Amid the impressionistic prose are thoughtful and striking meditations on the settings and themes:

Most people – she had discovered – gave it great symbolism, arriving in Jerusalem. They had planned it and read and dreamed and thought about it for such a long time before coming and they all seemed to have such hopes about the city and when they got here they were always rather cross. It was never quite what they were looking for.

I highlighted this phrase, and others, but what kept me reading was the desire to know how everything came together. What transformed Prue from an eager-to-please, precocious girl into a defiantly independent woman? What secrets from the past does she unknowingly hold?

This book is for those who appreciate atmospheric literary fiction and character-centered mysteries, provided they have sufficient patience and don’t mind the company of difficult, selfish people.

The Photographer's Wife was published this month by Bloomsbury USA ($26.00, hb, 352pp).  Thanks to the publisher for approving my NetGalley request.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Encore, encore: a gallery of second novels (historical, of course) for 2016

Until I looked around online just now, I hadn't realized there was a literary prize for second novels: the Encore Award, which comes with a hefty purse of £10,000.  It's currently celebrating its 25th anniversary.  What a great idea.  As its web page states:  "The award fills a niche in the catalogue of literary prizes by celebrating the achievement of outstanding second novels, often neglected in comparison to the attention given to promising first books."

Back in January, I'd posted a gallery of 2016 debuts.  I'd already been thinking about a new post focusing on authors' second historical novels, so here we go: below are a dozen sophomore works of historical fiction to be published in 2016.  They're all by women, not by design, but I didn't come across relevant titles by men in a quick scan through forthcoming titles (let me know what I've missed).  If these sound good, you can check out the authors' first efforts also.

Following upon An Appetite for Violets (see review) is a new culinary tale of psychological suspense. Set in early 19th-century Manchester, England, it's about a young wife, her cook, a failing marriage, and a desperate secret.  Thomas Dunne, January 2016.  The UK title is The Penny Heart.

An artistic young Scotswoman and a French soldier, childhood friends who had stayed in touch for years via letters, are reunited under difficult circumstances in WWI France.  Brockmole's debut was the bestselling epistolary novel Letters from Skye (see my interview). Ballantine, May 2016.

Jessie Burton's The Miniaturist, set in 17th-century Amsterdam, was a major bestseller and Waterstones' Book of the Year for 2014.  Her second novel moves ahead in time, to Spain of 1936 and London thirty years later, in a tale of two women, art, and deception.  I have a galley, but the cover is different than the above, so the art may be changing.  Ecco, July 2016.

DiSclafani's second book after The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, which took place in the '30s, focuses on the vibrant society of 1950s Houston, Texas, and a complicated tale of women's friendship.  Riverhead, May 2016.

A tale of glamour, privilege, secrets, and tragedy involving two outcasts, a British journalist and a rich American businessman's wife, who meet and reconnect on the Italian Riviera in the 1950s.  Her first novel was The Book of Lost and Found (see review).  Little, Brown, August 2016.

Four years after publication of The Snow Child, a magical tale set in 1920s Alaska (which I haven't read yet but which was highly recommended to me), comes Ivey's new novel about the people involved in an expedition deep into the central Alaskan wilderness in 1885.  Little, Brown, August 2016.

Second in a duology about 7th-century Empress Wu, China's only female ruler, Randel's novel continues the story begun in The Moon in the Palace, following Mei and her fight to secure China's future and against her royal lover's murderous wife.  I loved book one and am eager to read the sequel.  Sourcebooks Landmark, April 2016.

Rindell's next novel after The Other Typist, a novel of obsession and secrets in Prohibition-era NYC, stars three ambitious individuals aiming to succeed in the cutthroat world of book publishing in late '50s Greenwich Village.  Putnam, April 2016.

Phyllis T. Smith's first novel I Am Livia (see my interview) was an enjoyable take on Livia Drusilla, wife of Emperor Augustus.  Daughters of Palatine Hill, as you can assume from the title, remains in imperial Rome, recounting the intrigue-filled story of Selene, Cleopatra's daughter; Julia, Augustus' only child; and Livia, in her later life.  Lake Union, February 2016.

The lives of two women -- a Jewish socialite who had abandoned her child, and the working-class Irish Catholic woman who took the baby in -- become intertwined in post-WWI coastal Massachusetts.  Solomon's first novel was The Little Bride, literary fiction set in the 19th-century West.  Viking, July 2016.

Continuing the poignant story of the Morgan family of Scranton, Pennsylvania, sixteen years after the first book (the excellent Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night), All Waiting Is Long, set in the '30s, recounts the complex relationship between Violet Morgan and her younger sister, Lily, in a world full of social strife.  Akashic/Kaylie Jones, July 2016.

A young woman, newly arrived in small-town Illinois in 1874, is forced to accede to her mother's deceptive behavior while struggling to find a place for herself in an environment of political intrigue and the fight for women's rights.  Volmer's first novel was Crown of Dust, set during the California Gold Rush.  Soho, May 2016.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Out of step with the century: a review of Sanctuary, a moody YA ghost story

In this moody historical ghost story, nearly everything – the house at its center, the characters, their relationships – feels slightly out of step with the real world. McKissack has successfully infused her debut novel with the Gothic-ness the genre requires.

Cecilia Cross, an introspective 17-year-old, tells us her former classmates found her odd: “Maybe the sea, something to do with being from an island… you seem like you’re from someplace else.” After her boarding school tuition is abruptly cut off following her Aunt Laura’s death, Cecilia returns home to Sanctuary, an immense 18th-century mansion on a windswept Maine isle. Ten years earlier, following the ’29 crash, Cecilia’s father committed suicide; five years afterward, her older sister and grandmother died in a fire, and her mother was placed in an asylum. Numerous misfortunes are piled upon our heroine’s shoulders.

Cecilia finds herself dependent on her unstable, cruel uncle, who wants her gone. Eli Bauer, a young professor on site to study Sanctuary’s extensive book collection, seems her only hope, and they spend time exploring the island’s graveyards and wild regions, slowly falling in love in the process. There are many unsettling presences, though, ones that Cecilia can sense. They draw her into a whirlwind of mystery and tragedy involving the Acadians’ expulsion from Nova Scotia two centuries earlier.

This sorrowful episode, and Cecilia’s ties to it, is fascinating to explore, but it takes a long time for the plot strands to come together. The larger issue, though? Cecilia’s nearly an adult, in 1939, with no apparent plans for her future nor means to support herself. She wanders around a lot while others handle the daily chores. And the family supposedly isn’t wealthy anymore; one wonders how a mansion of Sanctuary’s size stays running. Recommended for YA and adult readers wanting to indulge in Gothic atmosphere without worrying about practicalities.


Jennifer McKissack's Sanctuary was published by Scholastic last September in hardcover ($17.99, 306pp), and this review also appears in the Historical Novels Review's February reviews.  The novel shows promise, although I had been hoping for more complete world-building.  Judging by other reviews I've read, my reaction is unusual.  This is a Gothic tale that, for me, would have worked better if set in an earlier time when finding a worthy husband was a young woman's single-minded goal. But, set in 1939, the story didn't work for me as much as I'd hoped.  Like Da Vinci's Tiger, this is also a YA historical novel, and the pair make for a study in contrasts.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

The voice of a Renaissance heroine: a review of L. M. Elliott's Da Vinci's Tiger

When there are gems like this to be found, it’s no wonder adults get in the habit of raiding bookstores’ YA sections. This lyrical character-driven novel is narrated by 17-year-old Ginevra de’ Benci Niccolini, daughter of a banking family in 15th-century Florence, who was one of Leonardo da Vinci’s early subjects. His painting of her is groundbreaking for its forward-facing gaze and backdrop of the natural world. Ginevra was also a poet, although only one line remains of her writing (the book’s title derives from this).*

Ginevra is the wife of a kind but distant wool merchant twice her age. Her marriage was arranged by her uncle and Lorenzo de’ Medici, and despite her convent education and spirited wit, she’s used to having little say in her life. However, when Venetian ambassador Bernardo Bembo decides to make her his Platonic lover and commissions her portrait, it pushes her to consider delicate matters of the heart, especially when Bembo seems to want more than idolizing her from afar. Her sympathetic mentor, Abbess Scolastica, gives her wise advice on how she can retain her virtue and make her own voice heard.

Ginevra’s movements around the city create a richly detailed tour of Florentine history and culture, from an exciting joust at the Piazza di Santa Croce to the peace of the Le Murate convent – famous for its sisters’ gold-thread embroidery – to a fancy dinner party at the Palazzo Medici, where the strange new table fork is introduced. Elliott also brings readers into the studio with Leonardo, imagining the artistic decisions behind Ginevra’s portrait. Her research is thorough and enthusiastic, so much so that Ginevra’s story sometimes fades into the background, but anyone fascinated by the setting won’t mind. Speaking to the theme of women’s agency in restrictive times, this is a beautiful and thoughtful read for teenagers on up.


Da Vinci's Tiger by L. M. Elliott was published by Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, in late 2015 ($17.99, hardcover, 304pp). I had been pre-approved for this title on Edelweiss and had some free time over the Christmas holidays, so I started reading it and got into the story quickly.  This review also appeared in February's Historical Novels Review

Although you'll find this novel categorized as Young Adult, it can be read and enjoyed as an adult title just as easily.  Are there other YA historical novels you can think of that feature heroines who are already married as the book opens?  That aspect was new for me, and I appreciated the author's adherence to historical accuracy in that respect, and others.

Read more about Leonardo da Vinci's portrait of Ginevra (above), the only painting of his on display in the Americas, at the National Gallery of Art website.

* The one line of poetry by Ginevra de' Benci that's come down to us is:  "I beg your pardon, I am a mountain tiger."

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Book review: The Forgotten Room by Karen White, Beatriz Williams, and Lauren Willig

This multi-generational novel, set between 1892 and 1944, is jointly written by three people, all bestselling authors (and good friends), but the smooth writing style makes it hard to tell it’s a collaborative effort. That said, I had fun guessing who wrote what.

The three heroines are introduced one after the other. During WWII, while on duty at a private hospital on East 69th St. in Manhattan, Dr. Kate Schuyler is surprised by her attraction to a new patient, Captain Cooper Ravenel, and his possession of a miniature portrait that resembles her greatly. At the height of the Gilded Age, gentle Olive Van Alan goes into service at the elegant Pratt Mansion, concealing her identity, and planning revenge on the rich family that ruined her father. Lastly, in 1920, Lucy Young, a German baker’s spirited daughter, takes up residence at a women’s boardinghouse, hoping to uncover her mother’s connection to the place.

The house in all three stories is the same. By the time the second iteration of Kate’s narrative came around, I was hooked, wondering how each woman’s story would turn out, and curious about the origins of the portrait and Kate’s ruby necklace.

Genealogy buffs will appreciate the unfolding mystery; I found myself sketching a family tree as relationships slowly fell into place. With its themes of lost grandeur, poignant romance, and the elusiveness of the past, the plot has a grand emotional sweep. It also addresses social barriers and the challenges women face in the working world. Through the role the house plays in each era, too – a status symbol, a respectable residence, and a utilitarian building – it symbolizes the changes transforming American society. This is an absorbing standalone novel, but fans of the authors’ previous books will notice some references left just for them.

The Forgotten Room was published by NAL in January ($25.95/C$33.95, hb, 371pp).  This review first appeared in February's Historical Novels Review.