Saturday, December 30, 2017

Seventeenth-century England: a recommended reading list

It’s been heartening to see so many people share my interest in 17th-century English settings. A number of recommendations of other titles have been arriving in the comments to my last post and via comments to my Facebook post at the Historical Novel Society public group and elsewhere.

So I thought I’d collate them in a separate post, with credit to everyone involved, along with some additional recommendations of my own.  Thanks to all who offered suggestions, and please let me know if I've missed anything.

The Graham Saga by Anna Belfrage, about “the unrest/ religious persecution that came in the wake of the Restoration through the eyes of a Lowland Scot and his time travelling wife” – via the author. [see on Goodreads]

Pamela Belle’s Wintercombe and its three sequels (Herald of Joy, A Falling Star, Treason’s Gift) – via Mike Shoop. I also highly recommend these sagas about a Somerset family during the English Civil War and after. All were recently reissued via Endeavour Press. [see on Goodreads]

Pamela Belle’s The Herons of Goldhayes trilogy – via me and author Anna Belfrage. These wonderful novels first introduced me to the richness of the 17th century… I read them in high school! [see on Goodreads]

Molly Brown, Invitation to a Funeral – a rollicking historical mystery featuring Aphra Behn – via me. [see on Goodreads]

The Rebel Puritan series by Jo Ann Butler, about Herodias Long, who winds up in Newport, Rhode Island, but whose story begins in England – via the author (and me - I reviewed the first book in 2011). [see on Goodreads]

Susanna Calkins’ early Restoration mysteries – via both Suzanne McGee and Nancy Bilyeau. [see on Goodreads]

The King’s General by Daphne du Maurier, “set in Cornwall during the English Civil War” – via Ingibjörg Ágústsdóttir. [see on Goodreads]

Elizabeth Fremantle’s Stuart-era novels – via Nancy Bilyeau. [see on Goodreads]

Elizabeth Goudge, The Child from the Sea – via me. A biographical novel of Charles II’s first mistress, Lucy Walter. [see on Goodreads]

Robert Graves’ Wife to Mr. Milton – via Brian Wainwright. [see on Goodreads]

J.G. Harlond’s Chosen Man trilogy – via the author. [see on Goodreads]

Cynthia Harrod-Eagles’ Morland saga, some of which includes the 17th century – via Sally Archer. [see on Goodreads]

Steel and Lace edited by Francine Howarth, an anthology of 17th- and 18th-century stories – via MJ Logue. [see on Goodreads]

Marci Jefferson, The Girl on the Golden Coin, about Frances Stuart – via me; I reviewed it back in 2014. [see on Goodreads]

Novels by MJ Logue, who “has given voice to an absolutely wonderful cast of Parliamentarian soldiers led by Colonel Hollie Babbitt & this rag-tag band's adventures and misfortunes during the various battles of the Civil War” – via Anna Belfrage. [see on Goodreads]

Olga Morrill’s The Vagabond Quakers (New England, not England) – via Jo Ann Butler. [see on Goodreads]

Annette Motley’s The Quickenberry Tree, an older novel “about the Herons of Heronscourt and how they met the English Civil War” – via Mike Shoop. [see on Goodreads]

Conceit by Mary Novik, about Pegge, daughter of John Donne – via me. [see my review from 2010; see it on Goodreads]

Pillars of Avalon by Katherine Pym, about the settling of Newfoundland by the notorious David Kirke – via Diane Parkinson. Per the author, her novels are written using period language. [see on Goodreads]

Stella Riley’s six novels set in 17th-century England, including A Splendid Defiance – via the author. Her earlier novels are classic romantic epics that were recently reissued. [see on Goodreads]

Christy K. Robinson’s two biographical novels “that began in 1629 England with the Great Migration and ended with the hanging of Mary Barrett Dyer in 1660 New England” – via the author. [see on Goodreads]

The French Mistress, The Countess and the King, and other novels by Susan Holloway Scott – via me. Read my interview with the author.  [see on Goodreads]

The Blackthorn Key series by Kevin Sands – via reader Canadian Lyn. This is a middle-grade historical fantasy/adventure series “about an apothecary's apprentice. It is a combination of the best of Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code.” [see on Goodreads]

Mary Sharratt, Daughters of the Witching Hill, about the women accused during the Pendle witchcraft trials; read my interview with the author, from 2010. [see on Goodreads]

Love and Gravity by Samantha Sotto, a time-slip involving Isaac Newton – via me. [see on Goodreads]

The Guardians of the Crown series by Alison Stuart, which “spans the interregnum and three other stand alone stories from earlier” – via Anna Belfrage and the author. The author also linked to a paper she presented at the HNS Australasia Conference that included a bibliography of English Civil War novels over the last decade. [see on Goodreads]

Deborah Swift’s 17th century novels – via Nancy Bilyeau. The author had written a guest post for this site in 2014 about venturing into teen historical fiction. [see on Goodreads]

Andrew Taylor’s The Ashes of London, “a gripping mystery about the Great Fire of 1666” – via Larry Zuckerman. [see on Goodreads]  Look for the sequel, The Fire Court, out from HarperCollins UK in April 2018.

The novels of Sam Thomas (Midwife Mysteries) – via Nancy Bilyeau. [see on Goodreads]

Rose Tremain, Restoration and Merivel – via me (I reviewed Merivel when it came out). [see on Goodreads]

See also a list I found on Goodreads, “England’s Second Civil War and Restoration."

Best wishes to everyone for a happy 2018 and a good upcoming year of reading! I'll be back with more reviews in January.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Spotlight on a recent trend in English historical fiction: the 17th century

The English Civil War, the Restoration, the Great Fire of London, the Great Plague, and the country's notorious witch persecutions... 17th-century England is full of dramatic events ripe for historical novel treatment. The period has long been a favorite of mine, and it's great to see trends finally catching up with my reading tastes. This flourishing new direction in historical fiction has taken root in the UK marketplace; nearly all of the books below are from British authors, and/or are published by British publishers. However, 17th-century fiction fans from around the world can easily join in!

Below are 14 new and forthcoming novels set in this period, with covers and short blurbs. Are there any you've read, or are hoping to read? Suggestions for others are welcome.

If you're reading this post via Goodreads, and the images don't match up with the text, you can find a better version at my blog via this link.

1650: This romantic epic about a former Royalist captain and a traitor's daughter takes place following the Second English Civil War and the execution of Charles I, a time of suspicions and divided loyalties.  Endeavour, May 2017. [see on Goodreads]

1603: This first in a trilogy by a British historian (Elizabeth's Women and others) will focus on a young woman with healing talents who gets drawn into danger at the Jacobean court.  Atlantic Monthly, July 2018. [see on Goodreads]

1674: This gothic ghost story, set in wild, remote Yorkshire amid the ruins of the English Civil War, centers on a young woman, a creepy old hall, and a stranger who pays a call.  Headline, Feb 2018. [see on Goodreads]

1662, the early 19th century, and the present day: a time-slip focusing on Elizabeth Stuart, the "Winter Queen," and her champion, William Craven; and a modern woman seeking her missing brother. Graydon House, Oct 2017; I interviewed the author based on the UK edition (2015). [see on Goodreads]

1640s: This second novel in the Blandford Candy series sees him looking back on his picaresque adventures during the Civil War years, which include conspiracy, a treasure hunt, and the quest for a missing book. Holland House, Sept. 2017. [see on Goodreads]

1615: Writing under a new name for her historical thrillers, Elizabeth Fremantle (who's written several excellent novels of Tudor- and Stuart-era royals including The Girl in the Glass Tower) turns her hand to the real-life drama of the Overbury murder scandal.  Michael Joseph, June 2018.  [see on Goodreads]

1640s: This dark historical fantasy, geared towards YAs and set during the early English Civil War, follows a girl named Makepeace who discovers her family's innate talent for hosting spirits of the dead. Amulet, Oct. 2017; Macmillan UK, Sept 2017 (the UK cover is above). [see on Goodreads]

1611: After numerous trials detailed in the first two books (The Aviary Gate and The Pindar Diamond), merchant Paul Pindar and his wife Celia, a former captive of the Sultan, take up residence  in London, but troubles soon invade their household. Bloomsbury, May 2017. [see on Goodreads]

1663 and the 20th century: the isolated estate of Wychwood in Oxfordshire reflects the themes of the surrounding world, from the years after the English Civil War through the Cold War. This sounds like a great choice for fans of "house" books. Harper, Jan 2018. [see on Goodreads]

1652: A varied cast of characters, including a grieving husband, an overzealous preacher, and his suffering wife, ponder their political ties and religious loyalties during the age of Oliver Cromwell. Corvus, Apr. 2017. [see on Goodreads]

1630: Book 2 of the author's Lydiard Chronicles (after The Lady of the Tower) follows the second generation of Apsleys, the children of Lucy St.John, as England heads toward civil war. I'll be reviewing this novel shortly!  Falcon Historical, Oct. 2017.  [see on Goodreads]

1660s: The life of Samuel Pepys, the famous diarist of mid-17th century London, is envisioned through different perspectives, including that of Deb Willet, his wife's real-life maid, who finds herself at the center of intrigue. Accent, Sep. 2017.  [see on Goodreads]

1649: The author of Aristocrats, among many other works of historical nonfiction and fiction, pens a new historical novel about a Dutch engineer, the English fens, and the impact of scientific achievement.  July 2018, Chatto & Windus. [see on Goodreads]

1645:  The story of Matthew Hopkins, England's notorious Witchfinder General, is seen through the eyes of an older sister, Alice, who's frightened of what he has become. Ballantine, April 2017; Viking UK, March 2017.  [see on Goodreads]

Also see The Bookseller's announcement for the sale of Stacey Bartlett's forthcoming The Familiars, set during the Pendle witch trials of 1612.

While I was gathering up material for this post last month (sometimes these ideas take a while to percolate), I came across Elizabeth Fremantle's post on the History Girls blog, "The Stuarts Are Still the New Tudors," which also focuses on this very welcome trend. Check out her post for more perspective, and for info on additional titles that fit, both in fiction and nonfiction.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Whispers of Warning by Jessica Estevao, a spiritualist mystery set in turn-of-the-century Maine

It’s the turn of the 20th century, and the resort town of Old Orchard Beach, Maine, expects a busy season. Large crowds gather for a suffrage rally, plus everyone awaits the opening of a lengthy pier designed to entice tourists.

This second novel in the A Change of Fortune series finds former con artist Ruby Proulx enjoying her new life in town at her Aunt Honoria’s spiritualist-themed Hotel Belden and learning to heed her clairaudient abilities. The arrival of nationally-known psychic and suffragist Sophronia Foster Eldridge draws new business to the hotel while alarming townspeople. After the lady makes a public announcement at the rally, promising to expose corruption among those in power, it’s a sure sign that trouble’s ahead.

This is a mystery, so fans of the genre can infer that Sophronia’s days are numbered. However, the plot is rather dilatory in getting there. There are a host of unconventional characters staying at the Belden, including opinionated cook/housekeeper Mrs. Doyle, who can detect people’s auras; the obnoxious brother and sister-in-law of Honoria’s devoted suitor; and an author belonging to an elite group of hay fever sufferers (this society, fascinatingly enough, is based on historical fact). Also visiting town is an anti-suffrage politician who was once engaged to Sophronia.

Reading about these backstories is interesting, but suspense is lacking early on. Once Sophronia’s body is discovered in a saltwater pool, the pacing improves. Discouraged by the dishonest police chief’s lack of interest in the case, Officer Warren Yancey reluctantly teams up with Ruby, who he admires, although he thinks her psychic work is a bunch of hokum. Their growing friendship is spiced with romantic tension. The social concerns of the period are well evoked. Not surprisingly, Ruby encounters a few men with sexist attitudes, which were just as irritating then as they are today.

Whispers of Warning was published by Berkley in September; I reviewed it for November's Historical Novels Review. For those who like to read series in order, here's the review of book 1, Whispers Beyond the Veil.  Both books have great covers designs!

Friday, December 15, 2017

Mr. Dickens and His Carol, a Victorian holiday tale by debut novelist Samantha Silva

It’s November 1843, and Charles Dickens is a man besieged. His latest serial, Martin Chuzzlewit, isn’t selling, and his wife and children expect a splendid Christmas, with expensive decorations and gifts. Other family members, reliant on his generosity, need him to pay their bills.

Citing a clause in his contract, his publisher demands he write a Christmas-themed book to satisfy his fans, but time is pressing. And how can he get in the holiday mood when it’s so unseasonably warm? Bah, humbug! Frustrated yet determined, Dickens embarks on a quest that takes him back to his old haunts and introduces him to a beautiful young seamstress who motivates him.

Making her debut, Silva creatively imagines the circumstances that inspired A Christmas Carol. The characters and atmosphere of Victorian London feel wonderfully Dickensian, and it’s fun to see Dickens gathering new material through his interactions. His writerly dilemmas should resonate with literary types, too.

With the wit and sprightly tone of a classic storyteller, Silva presents a heartwarming tale of friendship and renewal that’s imbued with the true Christmas spirit.

Mr. Dickens and His Carol was published by Flatiron in November; I wrote this review for the 10/1 issue of Booklist.  This is my 3rd and final Christmas review for the season - I've read more of these this year than usual.  A note that this isn't the same story as in the film The Man Who Invented Christmas (which I haven't yet seen but hope to catch over the break), although the premise is similar.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Daughters of the Night Sky by Aimie K. Runyan, an absorbing portrait of WWII's Night Witches

A superb portrait of wartime valor, Daughters of the Night Sky spotlights the accomplishments of the Russian military aviators known as the “Night Witches.” These all-female Red Army regiments flew harassment bombing missions against the Nazis under cover of darkness, in hand-me-down planes and without radios, to diminish the enemy’s strength and disrupt their sleep. It worked.

We see the action from the viewpoint of Ekaterina (Katya) Ivanova, who has dreamed of flying since childhood. With her widowed mother’s support, she enrolls in a military academy for aviators. The story follows her training, her excitement at acceptance into a volunteer regiment led by a renowned female major, and the daring sorties she flies as her best friend’s navigator – and through significant moments of exhilaration, cameraderie, and sorrow. There’s a subtle romantic subplot, and Katya draws sustenance from her beloved’s letters, but it doesn’t overwhelm her dedication.

There are numerous hardships for Katya and her fellow aviators to overcome, from insufficient rations and icy temperatures to subtle resentment and outright sexual harassment. They enter into a man’s world quite literally, as exemplified by the male uniforms and undergarments distributed to them (complete with flap at the front, which they joke could be a place to hold their lipstick), but they modify them to almost fit. Tough and disciplined, they know they must surpass men’s expectations and accomplishments to be taken seriously. Soviet ideals stressed gender equality, and the novel acknowledges Comrade Stalin’s approval of these military women while providing examples of his totalitarianism.

In historical novels about multiple women, authors tend to slot them into compartments, creating characters representing different societal groups through their contrasting backgrounds: the snobby rich girl vs. the ambitious poor one, city-dwellers vs. naïve country folk, etc. Fortunately, as in her previous two books set in early Quebec, Runyan avoids this temptation. The aviators have unique characteristics and motivations, and despite their occasional disputes, she emphasizes how Katya and the others unite to perform their courageous mission. They form tight quartets – pilot, navigator, armorer, mechanic – whose lives are mutually dependent.

It’s a pleasure to see the author grow in strength as a novelist while adapting to a new historical setting. Her tension has grown sharper, her characterizations deeper, the emotional quality more penetrating. At one key moment, I worried she’d plotted herself into a corner, but this wasn’t the case; I found myself impressed by how this situation was resolved. With its absorbing blend of technical details and emotional resonance, Daughters of the Night Sky is a great way to wrap up your historical fiction reading year, or to start your new year of reading in 2018.

I received this copy for review via NetGalley. Daughters of the Night Sky, officially released by Lake Union in January, is the historical fiction pick for Amazon First Reads in December 2017. If you have a Kindle, I recommend selecting it as your choice!

Thursday, December 07, 2017

A gallery of fifteen historical fiction reads for Jewish Book Month

Jewish Book Month, an annual celebration of Jewish literature sponsored by the Jewish Book Council, has been in existence since 1943, though its history extends even further back. This year, it's being held between November 12 - December 12, 2017. The dates change each year, since it takes place just before Hanukkah.

As my way of participating in this event, here are 15 historical novels — family sagas, biographical novels, literary fiction, plus a couple of mysteries — featuring Jewish characters and/or focusing on aspects of Jewish history. Some of these are titles I've reviewed previously, and others are on my TBR. I've aimed to provide examples covering a range of geographic settings.

For additional examples, see the Jewish Book Council's historical fiction reading list. Please leave recommendations for other books in the comments!

The Galapagos Islands, WWII: Frances and Ainslie Conway, a married couple working for the Office of Naval Intelligence, embark on a clandestine mission on these distant islands but keep many secrets from each other. Based on historical characters. [see on Goodreads]

France and Germany, mid-13th century:  the story of renowned German rabbi Meir ben Baruch of Rothenberg, the author’s ancestor, as seen from his wife’s viewpoint. [see my review] [see on Goodreads]

Yemen, 1920: in this intimate saga about Yemenite Jews, a young girl learns about her heritage through the artistry of henna tattoos. [see on Goodreads]

Ireland, 20th century and present-day: the story of the little-known Jewish community in Ireland unfolds through three distinct stories spanning over 100 years. [see on Goodreads]

The US South, 1820s-30s: when a Jewish peddler falls in love with an independent Cherokee woman, he becomes personally entangled in a tragic tale set in motion twenty years earlier. [see my review] [see on Goodreads]

St. Thomas, early 19th century: a lyrical fictional biography of Rachel, a young woman from Paris who later became the mother of impressionist painter Camille Pissarro. [see on Goodreads]

U.S. Civil War: a young Jewish man runs into trouble when he’s asked to infiltrate a group of suspected Confederate spies. [see my review] [see on Goodreads]

London, 1660s and today: in this dual-period literary novel, a modern historian seeks to uncover the identity of a scribe from centuries earlier. [see on Goodreads]

Spain, late 15th century: as the Inquisition solidifies its power across Spain, King Ferdinand's chancellor Luis de Santangel, who comes from a converso family, begins to examine his faith and cultural identity. [see on Goodreads]

Chicago, 1872:  after an Orthodox rabbi is murdered, his daughter, Rivka, teams up with an Irish detective to find the perpetrator. [see on Goodreads]

Connecticut, 1948: after what should be a relaxing summer at "Bagel Beach" along the shoreline turns unexpectedly tragic, the sisters in a close-knit Jewish family must deal with the lengthy fallout. [see on Goodreads]

Palestine, early 20th century: in this work of magical realism (the author's first novel), several Ukrainian families move from Europe to settle in a rural village in Ottoman Palestine. [see on Goodreads]

Cape Ann, 1927: a girl’s secret birth mother and her adoptive mother, one from a prominent Jewish family and the other the  matriarch of a large Irish clan, find their lives intertwining again. [see my review] [see on Goodreads]

Prague, 1592: a Talmudic scholar investigates the murder of a young Christian girl, hoping to exonerate one of his fellow Jews. [see my review] [see on Goodreads]

1920s-1970s Israel, as seen through the experiences of several women over four generations in a Sephardic Jewish family. [see my review] [see on Goodreads]

Monday, December 04, 2017

Mountains and memory: Return to Your Skin by Luz Gabás, a time-slip novel set in the Spanish Pyrenees

Most time-slip novels in the traditional mold are set in countries with a lengthy and well-documented history. Think Anya Seton’s Green Darkness, Barbara Erskine’s Lady of Hay, and, more recently, Nicola Cornick’s House of Shadows, all with British settings.

Thanks to AmazonCrossing and the fluid translation of Noel Hughes, English-speaking readers have the opportunity to read one set in the less-common location of Spain: Return to Your Skin by Luz Gabás, which—as one can guess from the title—involves a reincarnation theme.

The modern story follows Brianda, an engineer in her late thirties, who leaves Madrid to stay with relatives in the remote mountain village of Tiles after suffering unexplained anxiety and a dream involving a dark-haired woman, a rain-soaked night, and an encounter with a mysterious man along a treacherously narrow aqueduct. Brianda has always had a great relationship with her live-in boyfriend, Esteban, but when her visions start invading their sex life, as shown in a disturbingly effective scene, she withdraws from him emotionally.

In Tiles, her aunt Isolina welcomes her warmly to Anels House, although her uncle Colau is as gruff as she remembers and seems consumed by a mysterious anger. Enigmatic Colau, whose family is rumored to be cursed, seems destined to be a typical villain but turns out to have perhaps the most intriguing psychological profile among all the characters. Colau is also a longtime researcher of local history, but what Brianda turns up doesn’t please him. And then she meets an Italian man named Corso who’s restoring his family’s manor, Lubich, across the woods from Anels, and to whom she feels an uncanny attraction.

About a third of the way in, the viewpoint switches to the heroine’s earlier counterpart, Brianda of Lubich. The political situation in late 16th-century Aragon, which grows progressively more hostile, takes a while to untangle due to the many individuals and factions involved. It’s a complex portrait of a dark, painful epoch, particularly for women—and one aspect of the plot, as Gabás explains in an afterword, is drawn from actual history.

Classic time-slip elements are introduced one by one: a churchyard with secrets, revelatory documents and other artifacts, and a secret passion that’s hard to deny. When romantic lightning strikes, though, what happens to the couple’s existing partners: are these situations addressed head on, or are the problems brushed aside? The answer is “some of both,” and in one case, disappointingly, it isn’t handled at all. Also, oddly, the modern characters appear not to have surnames.

The novel, moving slowly at first, gains significant power in the last half as the stakes grow higher, and accusations of witchcraft begin to fly. Its strength lies in its portrait of an era and its tragic aftermath, and the pressure this bears on subsequent generations.

Thanks to the publisher for providing access via NetGalley.

Friday, December 01, 2017

Enchantress of Numbers by Jennifer Chiaverini, a biographical novel of computing pioneer Ada Lovelace

Known recently for her Civil War–era fiction, Chiaverini (Fates and Traitors, 2016) takes a transatlantic sojourn for this exquisite biographical novel. It’s a quintessential example of the form, covering nearly her subject’s entire life in an engaging, evenly paced style.

Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace, was a nineteenth-century English mathematician who is considered an ancestress of the digital age for creating a computing algorithm. Her narration uses an inviting, slightly formal tone that evokes the era.

Much attention is given to Ada’s youth, describing how her overprotective mother, Annabella, seeks to suppress the “bad Byron blood” Ada inherited from her notorious poet father by upholding logic and discipline while discouraging imaginative thought. As Ada matures and finds mentors in inventor Charles Babbage and mathematician Mary Somerville, her relationship with Annabella (a wonderfully complex character) is shown with nuance.

In addition to the well-presented particularities of Ada’s life, including many scenes of society gatherings and technological demonstrations, the novel provokes reflection on interpersonal connections and how they shape one’s development. Wholeheartedly recommended for historical-fiction fans and STEM enthusiasts.

Enchantress of Numbers will be published on December 5 by Dutton. This review was written for Booklist's 10/15 issue.

Some other notes:

- As the daughter of math professors and as a one-time math major (and current math/computer science librarian) myself, I'd been planning to read this novel anyway so was pleased when it showed up in the mail as a Booklist assignment. This is my first experience reading one of Chiaverini's novels. Not long ago, I was asked for recommendations of historical novels that provide a comprehensive portrait of a character by following them through their entire life, or close – and this one fits.

- The portrait on the cover is actually one of Ada (something you don't see much of any more in historical fiction). It was painted in 1836 by British artist Margaret Sarah Carpenter, a scene which is dramatized in the novel.

- Chiaverini has also written the 20-book Elm Creek Quilts series, and some of those books are historical as well.

- Looking for other novels about women in STEM?  See my earlier list, Women in Science and Mathematics: a gallery of historical novels (and read the comments, too).

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Unbound by John Shors, a novel of freedom, love, and the Great Wall of China

Meng was just a lone woman. She had been born with a voice but told by society not to use it, born with eyes but told not to see. Yet her feet and resolve were unbound. And she would travel onward, coming to better know the world that she was a part of, the steps she needed to take to consider herself free.

Seventh of John Shors’ Asian-set novels, Unbound reimagines a legend well-known in China but perhaps less familiar to Western audiences: that of a young wife determined to reunite with her beloved husband, who was pressed into service constructing the Great Wall.

This version of the tale unfolds during the Ming Dynasty, in the mid-16th century. A year after her husband Fan’s departure, his wife Meng, missing him desperately and concerned about his well-being during the harsh winter atop the wall, crafts a warm coat and sets out on foot from Beijing, in male disguise, to bring it to him. Meanwhile, Fan, a talented craftsman responsible for maintaining the Great Wall’s structural integrity over the six miles between Jinshanling and Simatai, struggles to do his task amid increasingly poor health, regular Mongol attacks, and his cruel commander’s jealous rages and threats.

Meng and Fan’s love never wavers throughout the course of this clearly and straightforwardly written novel. Other subplots soon take prominence, though, such as Meng’s friendship with a man she meets en route (their teasing banter is lively and fun) and Fan’s protectiveness toward Bataar, a twelve-year-old enslaved Mongol boy. The question also arises about whether Bataar’s father will find and rescue him. There are no givens about how any of these situations will play out.

Descriptions abound of the Great Wall’s impressive architecture, with its many crenellations and watchtowers spanning the rugged terrain (“like a dragon sprawled across the mountains”) as well as the strategy behind its design. At times the educational purpose slows down the plot—considerable time is spent explaining how the Wall is built, and the information on how a sedan chair operates feels overlong—but anyone interested in Chinese history should find the material fascinating.

The Great Wall of China at Jinshanling
Severin.stalder [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Although the lovers are Chinese, this isn’t a one-sided presentation. The Mongols are fierce fighters, proud of their culture and bounteous grasslands, who want to trade with their resistant southern neighbor. In contrast, the Chinese emperor (who is never seen, only talked about) comes off as rigid and xenophobic. The novel examines the various power differentials of the day: between men and women, the Chinese and Mongols, and the different classes in Chinese society. On her journey, Meng observes how regulations on dress and other customs are selectively relaxed the further one gets from Beijing: a nice touch.

A more thorough copy edit would have caught the occasional typos and misspellings. {Update, 12/21: these have been fixed in the latest version of the novel.] For anyone curious about the Great Wall or the lives of average people during part of its construction, Unbound is definitely recommended.

Unbound was published in August in trade pb and ebook. Thanks to the author for providing me with a review copy.

Friday, November 24, 2017

A Christmas Return by Anne Perry, a holiday mystery novella set in Victorian times

This compact little gem, Perry’s fifteenth Christmas novella, demonstrates her proficiency in writing Victorian-set mysteries. The protagonist is Mariah Ellison, grandmother of Charlotte Pitt from another of Perry’s series.

One day in mid-December, Mariah receives an unusually heavy Christmas pudding at her London residence. Cutting into it, she discovers an ornamental cannonball—a gift that signals events from her past. The sender is Peter Wesley, grandson of her estranged friend Rowena, and he desperately needs Mariah’s help.

Twenty years earlier, in the village of Haslemere in Surrey, Rowena’s lawyer husband, Cullen, had suddenly refused to continue defending his client. Dr. Owen Durward had been accused of raping and murdering a teenage girl, and nobody knew the reasons behind Cullen’s change of heart. Then that same night, Cullen himself was killed, and Durward was subsequently acquitted.

Now Durward has returned to Haslemere again, wanting to dispel any lingering sentiments about his guilt. This dredges up immense pain for the Wesleys, since he’s spreading rumors that Rowena was the cause of his past troubles. Rowena isn’t the fighting sort, so Mariah and Peter decide to take action.

A plain woman in her eighties, Mariah has a reputation of being sharp-tongued and tetchy. In one of many skillful unveilings of human nature’s many facets, the story delves into the origins of her bitterness—and the courage she must exhibit to overcome it.

The atmosphere of close-knit village life in the 1890s feels pitch-perfect, from the homeliness of residents’ holiday decor to the gossip that spreads like a dreadful stain. The characterization is superb, and the work’s short length is perfect for the material. The spirit of the Christmas season is cleverly evoked through the underlying theme that it’s never too late for reconciliations and second chances.

Anne Perry's A Christmas Return was published by Ballantine this month (hardcover, 177pp). In the UK, the publisher is Headline. I reviewed it for November's Historical Novels Review.  This is my second experience with one of her Christmas novellas, the first being A Christmas Escape from 2015. You don't have to have read the Thomas & Charlotte Pitt novels to enjoy this one.

Want to win a copy for yourself? I have an extra, which I'll be giving away to an interested blog reader. Just enter your info in the form below by Friday, December 1st, and I'll draw a random entry after that.  This giveaway is open internationally.  One entry per household, please; void where prohibited.  Good luck!

Update, 12/2:17: Giveaway entries are closed, and a winner has been selected via Congrats to Michael C!  I've sent you an email and hope you'll enjoy the book.
Thanks to all who entered!

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Women of World War II: a gallery of historical novels, new and old

Over the last few days, my husband and I have been getting into the historical crime drama series The Bletchley Circle on DVD, since we'd missed seeing it when it aired on PBS. Set in 1952, the show focuses on a quartet of women formerly part of the code-breaking team at Bletchley Park during wartime, and how they reunite to trap a serial killer. We've only seen the first season so far, and I can highly recommend it for its insights into the postwar era and women's lives and hidden talents.  Plus, there are scenes of almost unbearable suspense; you may not want to watch too late at night!

Along these lines, and per a reader's request, here are 10 historical novels evoking women's wartime efforts. This gallery mixes current reads, forthcoming titles, and some older novels which appeared before the period became trendy, and which are deserving of a second look.

In this inspirational novel, four women of different ages and economic backgrounds become friends during their work at a small-town Michigan factory contracted to build ships for the US war effort.  Bethany House, 2006. [see on Goodreads]

Baldwin's literary novel is based on the real life of Noor Inayat Khan, an Indo-American woman who became an undercover wireless operator for the British government in occupied France.  Knopf Canada, 2004.  [see on Goodreads]

Beard's debut dramatizes the story of ordinary women who traveled to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, in the 1940s to work on a clandestine mission whose true purpose was kept from them.  William Morrow, February 2018. [see on Goodreads]

First in a trilogy, The Chestnut Tree takes place in a small Sussex fishing village and follows the lives of a group of women determined to help with the war effort, and who participate in different ways. Thomas Dunne, 2003. [see on Goodreads]

Basing his novel on the wartime lives of his two grandmothers, Cleave depicts a young aristocratic Londoner who forges an inner strength through her traumatic experiences, and two men who love her. Simon & Schuster, 2016. [see on Goodreads]

An adventurous young Welsh singer travels the world during wartime, entertaining the troops, and is asked to assist the British Secret Service, a job she keeps secret from the man she loves. Touchstone, 2012. [see on Goodreads]

The immense courage and heroism of military nurses during WWII are depicted via the author's depiction of two friends half a world apart, one stationed in France, the other in the South Pacific. William Morrow, 2017 (this is the paperback cover). [see on Goodreads]

Called the "Night Witches" by the Germans, this all-female squadron of Russian military aviators was known for courage, daring, and precision. Runyan's third novel (after two historicals about the early settlement of Quebec) follows a young pilot who takes to the skies for her country. Lake Union, January 2018. [see on Goodreads]

From the 1930s through the postwar years, two young African-American women from Mississippi, lifelong friends, find that their destinies lead them across America and Europe; their story involves their wartime service.  BlueHen, 2002. [see on Goodreads]

In this novel about determination and identity, Ida Mae Jones, a light-skinned black woman from Louisiana, decides to pass for white to join the WASPs (Women's Airforce Service Pilots) when the United States enters the war.  The heroine is eighteen, and although this book is classified as YA, it should interest adult readers as well.  Putnam, 2009. [see on Goodreads]

Looking for yet more on this topic?  See Part 1 and Part 2 of my "women at war" lists, which I'd posted back in 2011.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

By Light of Hidden Candles by Daniella Levy, a multi-period novel of cultural heritage, faith, and love

Entertaining, culturally rich, and fearless in speaking of complex theological questions, American-Israeli author Levy’s debut novel delves into the history of Spain’s crypto-Jews—descendants of Jewish people who secretly observed their faith following expulsion or forced conversion. The story is structured into three intertwined narratives, two contemporary and one historical.

Alma Ben-Ami, a gregarious college student who defies the stereotype of observant Jewish women, gets excited after discovering an engraved gold ring and a box of ketubot—Jewish marriage contracts—covering 24 generations in her family’s female line. Her memory-impaired grandmother, who was born in Morocco’s Spanish protectorate, can no longer recall the ring’s history.

Shortly thereafter, at the family Judaica shop in Manhattan, Alma meets Manuel Aguilar, a Spaniard whose former priest had discouraged his curiosity about Judaism. When they enroll in the same NYU archives program and study abroad in Madrid to research their genealogies, their growing closeness affects their friendship, since Alma won’t date anyone outside her faith.

A separate strand presents the experiences of Míriam de Carmona, Alma’s ancestor, living with her spice-merchant father, Abraham, in the judería of Lorca in southeastern Spain in 1492. Abraham’s decision to sell kosher wine to a converso family attracts the Inquisition’s attention.

Young people often explore questions of religion and identity in college, so Alma and Manuel’s in-depth discussions about her Jewish customs, his Catholicism, and where they overlap and differ all feel honest and real. Their humorous banter keeps the pacing brisk.

It’s difficult for Alma to keep kosher in modern Spain, and the story explains the importance of these traditions and emphasizes the tenacious survival of the Jewish people. In the 15th century, Míriam faces her own romantic dilemma, and her fear of discovery by the Inquisition is terrifyingly palpable. The plotline relies on coincidence at times but has an enjoyably satisfying outcome.

By Light of Hidden Candles was published by Kasva Press in 2017; I reviewed it for November's Historical Novels Review based on a "read now" copy I found at NetGalley, which has become a worthwhile source for new book discoveries for me. The novel can be considered an example of New Adult fiction. It's also a good choice for Jewish Book Month, which runs this year from November 12 - December 12.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Blood Moon by Ruth Hull Chatlien, a tense fictional account of the Dakota War of 1862

Ruth Hull Chatlien spins a taut and believable tale in her second historical novel, Blood Moon, which dramatizes Sarah Wakefield’s six-week captivity among the Dakota people in 1862, along with her four-year-old son and infant daughter.

The wife of Dr. John Wakefield, a government physician at the Upper Sioux Agency in southern Minnesota, Sarah had previously formed friendships among the Sioux (as she calls them), relationships which stand her in good stead after hostilities break out between the white settlers and Indians. Sent away from their home by John for her safety, she and her children see their journey tragically disrupted; they are taken into the custody of Chaska, a friendly “farmer Indian,” and his not-so-friendly relative, Hapa.

Vowing to return her to her husband when it’s possible to do so, Chaska brings Sarah under his protection, and she comes to see him and his kindly mother, Ina, as adopted family members. Both are sympathetic characters, and it’s only thanks to them that Sarah survives. Still, there are many close calls, with many of Chaska’s compatriots vowing to kill all white settlers—she sees examples firsthand.

Through her narrative, Sarah deftly illustrates the political tensions that lead up to the U.S.-Dakota War: restrictions imposed upon the Dakota, combined with drought and their subsequent hunger, have driven the Indians to the breaking point. The complex situation is painted in many shades of gray, with many Dakota people wanting to avoid violence. “The longer I am with them,” she states, “the more I understand that their attitudes toward whites are neither uniform nor predictable.”

An intelligent and courageous woman, Sarah already knows how to speak Dakota to some degree, and the story shows how she learns to follow their ways and behave in a culturally acceptable manner, despite disdain from other white captives. The author provides considerable detail on the Dakota culture, including their dress, language, and kinship relations. That said, Sarah longs to return with her children to the white settlers’ world, and to her husband.

On this topic, the depiction of Sarah and John Wakefield’s mismatched marriage deserves acclaim for its realism. Sarah, a six-foot-tall farmer’s daughter, has a scandal in her past that’s not of her own making. The historical character’s own memoir alludes to this, but without going into detail; the explanation given in the novel feels plausible.  John, from a blue-blooded New England family, is a talented, adventurous physician who’s prone to occasional violence and verbal put-downs. Keeping to the mindset of mid-19th century mores, Sarah is a caring mother who does her best to be a good wife, feeling that John saved her from a life that could have been worse. One specific scene toward the end, relating to their relationship, exudes power, meaning, and character.

Recommended for an in-depth look at a little-known but important event from 150 years ago that was tragic on many fronts and had lasting consequences.

Blood Moon was published by Amika Press in June; thanks to the author for providing me with an e-copy.