Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Lucy Foley's The Invitation, set along the Italian Riviera in the '50s

Cruising along the Italian Riviera in the 1950s sounds like a luxurious experience, and this feeling is conveyed to readers of Lucy Foley’s second novel. For the lovers at its center, the journey also entails revisiting their hidden pasts. Journalist Hal Jacobs first meets the glamorous Stella at an Italian contessa’s party in Rome in 1951. Escaping the crowds in a rooftop garden, these lonely strangers form a connection and later spend a single, memorable night together.

They encounter each other again two years later. Both are invited by the Contessa along on a publicity tour via yacht from Liguria to Cannes to promote a film based on her sea-captain ancestor’s diary. Hal is hired to document the trip for an Italian magazine, while Stella is married to the film’s major funder. Hal is dismayed not only by this unpleasant revelation but also because Stella appears diminished in her wealthy husband’s presence. As she and Hal are drawn together amid the high-profile social circle aboard ship, he yearns for her true personality to emerge—and to recapture their lost intimacy.

Stella’s traumatic history unfolds in steady flashbacks to the Spanish Civil War, while a painful episode in Hal’s past is revealed much later, with dramatic impact. Hal’s reading of the diary, which he recasts in narrative form, strangely seems to parallel what he sees. Among the stylish secondary characters who accompany and observe the couple—many have hidden pasts of their own—the elegant Contessa stands out for her understanding wisdom.

Each scene in this lyrically written novel is laden with emotion, and although the story glides along leisurely, the details are worth savoring. The Invitation is a perfect read for those who love traveling via fiction. Foley evokes the character of each city and village along the sun-drenched voyage, from the contrasting decadence and industrial grime of Genoa to the verdant cliffs of Cervo and beyond.

The Invitation was published by Little, Brown in the US last summer, with the gorgeous cover above. This review first appeared in February's Historical Novels Review.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The 2017 Walter Scott Prize longlist, and the WSP Academy's recommended titles

The 13-book longlist for the 2017 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction was announced yesterday, and I've listed the judges' selections below.

Entries are limited to books published in the UK, Ireland, and the Commonwealth.  The original publisher was provided, and I've added notes with details on their US publisher, if it exists, as well as the historical setting.  Plus I posted some of my favorite covers.  The winner will be announced at the Borders Book Festival in Scotland in June.

Have you read any, and if so, what did you think?  I've only read one so far.

The longlist:

Jo Baker, A Country Road, A Tree (Doubleday) - also Knopf, 2016.  WWII-era Europe.

Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time (Jonathan Cape) - also Knopf, 2016.  The early 20th-c Soviet Union.

Sebastian Barry, Days Without End (Faber) - also Viking, 2017.  The US Civil War and American West.

Richard Francis, Crane Pond (Europa) - same US publisher. The Salem witch trials.

Linda Grant, The Dark Circle (Virago).  Post-WWII London.

Charlotte Hobson, The Vanishing Futurist (Faber).  Russia under the Bolsheviks.

Hannah Kent, The Good People (Picador Australia) - also forthcoming from Little, Brown, Sept. 2017. 19th-century Ireland.

Ed O’Loughlin, Minds of Winter (riverrun) - also Quercus, March 2017.  Victorian-era Arctic exploration.

Sarah Perry, The Essex Serpent (Profile) - also forthcoming from Custom House/HarperCollins, June 2017. Late Victorian-era Essex, England.

Dominic Smith, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos (Allen & Unwin Australia) - also FSG, 2016. Three centuries: 1630s Amsterdam, 1950s NYC, and Sydney in 2000.

Francis Spufford, Golden Hill (Faber) - forthcoming from Scribner, June 2017. 18th-century New York.

Graham Swift, Mothering Sunday (Scribner) - also Knopf, 2016.  20th-century England.

Rose Tremain, The Gustav Sonata (Chatto & Windus) - also FSG, 2017. 20th-century Switzerland. This is the only one of the thirteen that I've read and reviewed.


In addition, the newly formed Walter Scott Prize Academy issued an additional list of recommended titles, and both this list and the longlist have international representation.

The WSP Academy's Recommended List:

Carol Birch, Orphans of the Carnival (Canongate) - also Doubleday, 2016. Carnival life in early 20th-century Europe and America.

Emily Bitto, The Strays (Legend Press) - also Twelve, 2017. Depression-era Australia.

Jessie Burton, The Muse (Picador) - also Ecco, 2016. The Spanish Civil War and 1960s London.

Tracy Chevalier, At the Edge of the Orchard (Borough Press) - also Viking, 2016. 19th-century Ohio and California.

Emma Donoghue, The Wonder (Picador) - also Little, Brown, 2016.  19th-century rural Ireland.

Susan Fletcher, Let Me Tell you About a Man I Knew (Virago).  Late 19th-century France.

Anna Hope, The Ballroom (Doubleday) - also Doubleday US, 2016. England in 1911.

Lauri Kubuitsile, The Scattering (Penguin South Africa). Early 20th-century South Africa; has US distribution.

Lynne Kutsukake, The Translation of Love (Knopf Canada) - also Viking, 2016. WWII-era Canada and Japan.

Eowyn Ivey, To the Bright Edge of the World (Tinder Press) - also Little, Brown, 2016. Alaska Territory in 1885.

Ian McGuire, The North Water (Scribner).  Also Henry Holt, 2016.  The 19th-century Arctic.

Abir Mukherjee, A Rising Man (Harvill Secker) - also Soho, 2017. Calcutta in 1919.

S.J. Parris, Conspiracy (HarperCollins).  Paris in 1585.

Steven Price, By Gaslight (Oneworld) - also FSG, 2017. Victorian London.

Ralph Spurrier, A Coin for the Hangman (Hookline Books).  1950s Britain.

Andrew Taylor, The Ashes of London (HarperCollins). Also HarperCollins US, March 2017.  The Great Fire, 17th-century London.

Natasha Walter, A Quiet Life (Borough Press).  Mid-20th century England.

A.N. Wilson, Resolution (Atlantic). 18th-century world exploration.

Alissa York, The Naturalist (Random House Canada). 19th-century America and Brazil.

Louisa Young, Devotion (Borough Press).  Pre-WWI England.

I like seeing award longlists even more than the final results -- more books to choose from!  And the "recommended" list provided by the Academy brings even more historical novels to readers' attention.  I've only read four, the ones with the reviews linked above, and enjoyed them.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Book review: The Confessions of Young Nero, by Margaret George

Does he fiddle while Rome burns? No, although he loves performing music. What about the extravagances, dissipation, and political murders? Let’s just say there are extenuating circumstances.  Once again demonstrating mastery of the epic fictional autobiography, George chronicles the rise of Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, Emperor Caligula’s nephew, from sensitive boy to imperial heir to, finally, near-omnipotent ruler as Emperor Nero.

It’s a coming-of-age story like no other, and George’s Nero details the rapid shifts in circumstance that transform his character – not without many twinges of guilt along the way, He fears becoming like his mother, the ambitious, amoral Agrippina, but must play her game to survive.

An athlete and admirer of Greek culture, Nero is a consummate showman, and his entertaining narrative exemplifies this. With conviction and flair, George looks past two millennia of bad press about Nero to reveal an intelligent man of justice and religious tolerance who takes refuge in artistic expression.  This is the first of two novels charting his dangerous, outrageous life in first-century Rome; the second is eagerly awaited.

I read The Confessions of Young Nero last October, and the review above was submitted to Booklist for publication in February 1st issue. The novel, Margaret George's seventh historical epic, will be published by Berkley in hardcover ($28, 528pp) and ebook ($12.99) on March 7th.  The UK publisher, Macmillan, will publish on March 9th.

Her six previous historical novels are as follows.  Which is/are your favorite(s)?

The Autobiography of Henry VIII, 1986
Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles, 1992
The Memoirs of Cleopatra, 1997
Mary, Called Magdalene, 2002
Helen of Troy, 2006
Elizabeth I: A Novel, 2012

For more information, see the author's website.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Johnstown Girls by Kathleen George, fiction about the 1889 Johnstown Flood, women's lives, and family secrets

“Is a hundred years long enough to keep a secret?”

A novel that mingles past reminiscences with a contemporary storyline, The Johnstown Girls centers on the traumatic flood that devastated the village of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in 1889, killing over 2200 people.

One of the fortunate survivors of the disaster, Ellen Emerson is a spry 103-year-old in the year 1989. Although her parents and brother were lost to the floodwaters, Ellen miraculously stayed alive after a mattress bearing her and her twin sister swept them both to safety. Or so Ellen continues to believe. The siblings were separated in the chaos, and young Mary’s body was never found.

To mark the centennial of the event, Nina Collins and Ben Braddock, two reporters from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, arrive at Ellen’s home to interview her. Ben’s editor wants him to dig up some new angle on her story. The pair succeed in doing so, but the research process takes some unexpected turns.

Ellen and her long, eventful life are the highlights, and the sections recounting her perspective are easily the most riveting. Both natives of Johnstown, Ellen and Nina develop a warm friendship that comes alive on the page. Ellen tells her long-hidden secret to Nina and Ben early on, so it doesn’t drive the plot, but the details on her life as a career woman in big-city and small-town America easily hold readers’ attention. The aspects involving Nina and Ben’s romance just can’t compare, plus it has odd emphases and digressions. There’s an explicit sex scene in the first few pages, when we barely know the characters – why? Do we need to be brought into a marriage counseling session between Ben and his estranged wife? In addition, the story occasionally slips into other viewpoints (like that of Nina’s mother) that don’t feel necessary.

The novel offers a wealth of information for anyone interested in the Johnstown Flood, the circumstances that caused it, and its effect on the region and its residents a century later. Just be prepared to put up with some meanderings and quirks along the way.

The Johnstown Girls was published in paperback by the University of Pittsburgh Press last week ($18.95, 348pp). This is a long overdue review, which I based on a NetGalley copy from 2014, which is when the hardcover edition appeared.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Writing the Past: The Family Story Behind One Good Mama Bone, a guest post by Bren McClain

Author Bren McClain is here today with the moving family story that inspired her debut novel, as well as details on the research she conducted to make her novel's world feel authentic to the place, period, and characters.


Writing the Past:
The Family Story Behind One Good Mama Bone
Bren McClain

Understand this first – my daddy was a crusty, old-fashioned, Southern Baptist farmer in Anderson, South Carolina. He drew his life, all 89 years, from the land. Dirt ran in his blood. Be his little girl and find something funny while eating supper, start to giggle, and he’ll stop you cold and yell down in your bones, “You’re supposed to eat when you come to the eating table.”

Yet, ask him about this one day in March of 1941 when he was a fourteen-year-old boy, a photograph of him and his 4-H steer splashed above the fold and across the front page of his hometown newspaper, The Anderson Independent, and hear what he tells you. “Get your mind on something else,” his voice no longer yelling, but soft like it could break. Read the story below the photograph and find out the event is called The Fat Cattle Show & Sale and that my daddy’s steer, weighing in at 1100 pounds, was named Grand Champion. For that, he received 30 cents a pound, which totaled $330. He was a celebrity, of sorts, treated to free lunches all over town. Look back at him now, and see his eyes misted over.

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I had to find out why.

I wrote a novel, placed in it an innocent six-year-old boy, who enters the Fat Cattle Show & Sale for the big money it would bring him and his mama, if he won. The boy’s father has died, and the farm they live on is in danger of being foreclosed. They’re so poor, he’s lucky if he gets a pear to last him the whole day. I also placed in it another little boy, this one not so innocent, because his daddy forces him to enter, all for the glory of it.

But first, I had a ton of research to do. I chose to set the story in the early 1950s vs. the 1940s, because it better suited the story I was trying to tell. I wanted to give my antagonist, Luther Dobbins, enough time to establish a dynasty with his elder son’s long streak of winning, only for his son to age out and toss the family baton to his younger son. Let’s just say that the folks in the South Carolina Room at the local library got to know me. I put countless hours in front of a microfilm machine, where I fed in reels of The Anderson Independent and rolls and rolls of dimes for copying. Thursday papers were always terrific with their extensive grocery store advertisements that showed the prices of food and the name brands. One day, I ran across an advertisement for a product called “Retonga,” a tonic that I learned women, especially, drank back them, many for its high alcohol content (about one-third). I knew instantly that one of my characters, Mildred, the wife of the antagonist, would make a habit of consuming this liquid.

But the “find” that I loved to pieces was a notice of a weekly event in Anderson called “Shoe of the Week,” sponsored by Welborn Shoes, where women would visit the store, drop their name and telephone number into a box beside a featured shoe and then wait on Friday mornings for a call from WAIM Radio announcer, Marshall Gaillard, who would draw one name from the box. The lucky winner would get that shoe in her size. I gave this wonderful happening to my protagonist, Sarah Creamer, because I wanted something good for her and because shoes already were important in the story.

It was not only the time period that I needed to research, but also cows and the Fat Cattle event itself. Fortunate for me, every Monday, the paper carried a column by the county agent, H. D. Marett, called “Your County Agent Says.” I learned about the kind of grass to plant in pastures, when to put the steers on full feed, the best kind of grain mix, etc.

What did I do with all of this research? I organized it into 32 categories - for example, picking out a steer, feeding out a steer, cow biology and also by my character’s names. It was still too much to manage, so I cut out the salient information from each piece of paper, taped the info to 5 X 7 notecards and then organized them with tabs inside a box.

But the most important source of my research was my daddy. He finally came around to my writing this novel. In fact, I’d call him up on the phone and say, “I’ve got another question for you.” His answer? “Shoot.” That meant go ahead. I have a tab called Daddy’s Info. The brands of chewing tobacco, when the road in front of his house was paved, how to fit a burlap bag onto the down chute of a hammermill, how to crank a tractor with a flywheel, how to build a fence using cedar trees, how to kill a hog, the kinds of pistols.

And this one: What to do if a steer gets the bloat.

He had a steer with that condition once, when he was a boy, the animal bloating from eating too much grain. “You can try giving him a Pepsi Cola or two to see if it helps, but if it don’t, you’ll have to stab his stomach with an ice pick.” He talked of the triangular area between the animal’s hip bone and last rib, high up on its left side. “Rub your flat hand over it in little circles and get it all loosened up and then stab it right quick. And if you’ll put your ear right out from the hole, you’ll hear a little whistle when the gas starts to come out.” I followed daddy’s directions entirely when I wrote that scene.

Go back now and look at that first photograph and see the man wearing a hat standing behind the steer. Read the caption beneath and learn this is Bailey Trammel, manager of Ideal Super Market, “where the premium meat will be sold.” Therein lies the answer I had come seeking. Daddy had sold out his best friend, his steer. And I would come to know by reading about other boys, that he had spent a long year with his steer, feeding him, taming him, loving him. “Get your mind on something else,” he had told me.

But I couldn’t. I wrote a novel.


Bren McClain's One Good Mama Bone is published by Story River Books of the University of South Carolina Press today.  Read more about the novel at the author's website.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Jennifer Ryan's The Chilbury Ladies' Choir, an uplifting novel of women on the WWII home front

“There’s something bolstering about singing together.” Jennifer Ryan’s charming debut interweaves many women’s voices to create a strong chorus that rings out with heart and the celebration of life.

The story spans barely five months in 1940, but it’s an eventful time for Chilbury, a small Kentish village seven miles from England’s coast. With most men off at war, the vicar disbands the choir, but as with so many other home front duties, Chilbury’s women take up the reins. Their female-only singing ensemble, daring for its time, is successful in more ways than one.

Their stories are told through their writings, and each woman’s account echoes her personality. There’s Mrs. Tilling, a timid widow and nurse worried about her only son in France; Venetia Winthrop of Chilbury Manor, a sophisticated flirt; Kitty, her attention-hungry younger sister; and Edwina Paltry, a conniving midwife. Kitty’s diary entries are fun, since they burst with enthusiasm and teenage melodrama as she dreams about her sister’s longtime suitor and reacts to her changing world.

In letters to her London-based friend, Venetia reveals how her affair with a mysterious artist turns into something more, to her astonishment. Mrs. Tilling’s growing courage to stand up for herself and others will have readers cheering, as will her growing closeness to the burly colonel billeted with her. Edwina’s involvement in a greedy baby-swapping scheme gets soap-opera silly, but her audaciousness never fails to entertain. The fifth and softest voice is that of Sylvie, a Czech Jewish evacuee.

As the village intrigues play out and the Nazi threat reaches England, shattering buildings and lives, shadowy men skulk about in the woods, and the women draw strength from their togetherness. Fans of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and the TV series Home Fires should put this uplifting, absorbing novel high on their reading lists.

The Chilbury Ladies' Choir is published by Crown this Tuesday, February 14th in hardcover and ebook.  The UK publisher is The Borough Press.  This review first appeared in February's Historical Novels Review.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Late Harvest by Fiona Buckley, an entertaining historical saga of 19th-century Somerset

Fiona Buckley is best known for her Tudor-era mystery series featuring Ursula Blanchard, lady-in-waiting (and more) at the court of the first Queen Elizabeth. Under her real name, Valerie Anand, she has crafted many outstanding historical novels set in various periods of England’s history, including the six-book Bridges Over Time series as well as two linked standalone novels (The House of Lanyon and The House of Allerbrook) set on Exmoor in Somerset in the 15th and 16th centuries respectively.

In terms of style and focus, her newest historical saga, Late Harvest, belongs in the same category with the latter. It brings together bucolic settings, timeless human dilemmas, epic romance, and dashing adventure (including intrigue surrounding illegal smuggling) reminiscent of the Poldark novels.

The heroine is Peggy Shawe of Foxwell Farm, a freehold on Exmoor in the county of Somerset. In 1860, as an elderly woman, she looks back on a life which her fellow countrymen might call scandalous, but of which she's proud... she has no regrets about her actions. Her main sorrow involves the many years she was forced to spend apart from the man she loved and lost, Ralph Duggan.

In 1800, Peggy is 20 years old, and there’s always been the unspoken understanding that she’d marry James Bright, the younger son from another farming family. Although Peggy and James are childhood friends, she finds him solid but dull. Then Peggy falls in love with Ralph, whose father engages in “free trading” to avoid the excessive import duties on foreign goods. Peggy’s widowed mother strongly objects to their marriage, claiming they’re unsuited: “Farming families should marry into one another. The sea and the land don’t mix.” Ultimately, their future together is thwarted after Ralph’s brother is accused of murder.

Mention is made of the Napoleonic Wars, but specific events don’t intrude much into the story. However, a deep sense of time and place is ever-present in the farmers’ speech patterns, the beautiful descriptions of the heather-covered moorlands and rocky coastline of Somerset, and local men’s actions against government overreach. People’s long-term relationships with the land are emphasized. “It was,” Peggy states, observing the yarn market at Dunster, “as though bygone times still existed, preserved in the things our ancestors had built.”

Many sagas that span this amount of time can have an episodic feel, but Late Harvest is smoothly paced as it follows Peggy’s domestic life and adventures over many decades. The story comes full circle in a satisfying fashion but takes many twists on its way there.

Late Harvest was published by Severn House in hardcover last June ($29.95, 265pp) and will be out in trade paperback in the US a few weeks from now, in March.($17.95).  It's also out on Kindle ($9.99).  Thanks to the publisher for access via NetGalley.

For those curious about the setting, aside from the painting on the novel's cover, see the Exford page on the Visit Somerset tourism site.  Exford is the rural village where the Shawes live, and it's beautiful country.

Monday, February 06, 2017

Stolen Beauty by Laurie Lico Albanese, a novel of art and family set in fin-de-siècle and WWII Vienna

For those who moved in high society in fin-de-siècle Vienna, the city sat at the pinnacle of elegance and culture. Provocative political ideas were discussed in private salons and coffeehouses along the Ringstrasse, while painter Gustav Klimt and designers like the Flöge sisters pushed boundaries in art and design.

By four decades later, the Viennese atmosphere was far darker. Amid a rising tide of anti-Semitism, Jews were beaten in the streets, forced out of their homes, and had their property seized by the Nazis, who took care to ensure their heinous methods of theft appeared unimpeachably legal.

In her engrossing tale of art, family, loss, and female empowerment, Laurie Lico Albanese’s Stolen Beauty presents a shifting view of this famous European city. The characters are historical, and the novel also describes a real-life account of long-awaited justice – one that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen the 2015 film Woman in Gold.

I borrowed the DVD of the latter after finishing the book, and they’re quite different, since they focus on different aspects of the history (the past vs. the present). Also, as much as I enjoyed the movie, Helen Mirren’s acting in particular, the book tells a deeper, more fulfilling story.

Alternating as narrators are Adele Bloch-Bauer, who was depicted in multiple works by Gustav Klimt, and her niece Maria Altmann. Their separate stories are fleshed out so well that each could be complete in itself, but the intertwining makes the themes resonate more strongly. Their situations and circumstances strike a marked contrast, but the women are equally brave and determined. Rather than pointing this out in obvious fashion, the author lets readers see this for themselves.

Both women are the youngest daughters in different generations of the same prominent Jewish family. Although neither is religious, this doesn’t matter as far as how society envisions them. While Adele can’t achieve her dream of attending university due to her gender, she makes connections and a name for herself in the avant-garde art world and nourishes her intellect in other ways. Similarly, Maria goes after what she wants, including the husband of her choosing. After being forced to flee the city of her birth for her own survival, Maria, years later, fights to regain the Klimt paintings that the Nazis stole from her family.

Naturally, both women’s stories are intricately intertwined with that of Klimt’s artistic renderings of Adele. Albanese details the circumstances behind their creation, as well as the paintings’ afterlives. Adele’s relationship with Klimt is vividly imagined as an intimate affair that proves beneficial to both; for her, it’s part of her ongoing journey of self-discovery.

Like the gilded image of Adele on canvas, the novel is painted with abundant detail and, in the earlier sections in particular, descriptions that sparkle. For Adele, visiting Vienna’s elegant Central Café with her fiancé for the first time, “the gold-embossed wallpaper made the room glow like a treasure box,” while her new friend Berta Zuckerkandl describes the conversations between writers there: “Sometimes they read aloud to one another, and bits of poetry land on my table like beautiful birds.”

Per the afterword, Stolen Beauty took the author years to research. Read it for insight not only into art and European history, but also the private lives and motivations of two women who stood up for what they believed in.

Stolen Beauty will be published tomorrow in hardcover and ebook by Atria ($26 / $12.99, 320pp). Thanks to the publisher for providing me access via Edelweiss.

This post forms part of the novel's blog tour.  As part of the tour, the publisher is offering the opportunity to win one of three signed copies of Stolen Beauty by Laurie Lico Albanese.  The contest is open until February 14th.  To enter, visit the contest site at Rafflecopter.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

More historical fiction prize winners - the Langum Prize and the Costa Awards

It's the season for literary prize announcements.  The shortlist for the 2016 Langum Prize for American Historical Fiction was posted last month, while the winner and finalist were announced this week.

Michele Moore's debut novel The Cigar Factory (Univ. of South Carolina Press, 2016) is the winner of the 2016 Langum Prize.

Per the organizer's comments: "This marvelous debut traces the lives of two working class families in Charleston during the years 1917-1946. The families are similar in many ways: devout and practicing Roman Catholics, headed by matriarchs who work in the local cigar factory, both struggling mightily for survival in severely limited circumstances. Yet they are dissimilar in ways crucial for Charleston in these years: one family is black and the other white... The author describes the difficult lives of these two families, both joys and sorrows, with great sensitivity and beauty."

See also the book's Facebook page for more details. Of interest to book groups: the author is available for discussions via Skype and can be contacted via the novel's website.

More details are posted at the Langum Trust.


Also, the Costa Award, a long-running British literary prize open to UK and Irish authors, announced their 2016 Book of the Year on January 31st. The winner happens to be a historical novel: Sebastian Barry's Days Without End (published in the US by Viking in January).

Days Without End tells the story of young Irishman Thomas McNulty, who crosses the Atlantic in the 1850s, fights in the Civil War, and has an intimate relationship with a fellow soldier.

For background, read The Guardian's interview with the author, in which he reveals how his son "instructed [him] in the magic of gay life."

Another historical novel on the Costa category winner list was Francis Spufford's Golden Hill, set in 1740s New York (First Novel Award). Golden Hill will be published in the US by Scribner this June.