Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Carol McGrath's The Woman in the Shadows, a novel about a little-known Tudor woman

This is a lovely read about the little-known wife of a famous man. It’s also an illuminating portrait of their marriage, showing how a clever woman of independent spirit navigates her relationship with a husband who controls the purse-strings and makes all major decisions… and whose wishes she must frequently heed.

In addition, The Woman in the Shadows presents a detail-rich portrait of a merchant household in Henry VIII’s England. Two years ago on this blog, I wrote a post entitled Tudor Fiction Without the Famous, and this novel fits (even though it does have one very well-known character).

The heroine is Elizabeth Williams, nee Wykes, a 23-year-old widow in London of 1513. Following her husband’s untimely death, she decides to take over his cloth business – it was her father’s trade as well – but runs into obstacles, for her fellow tradespeople and even her own servants, at least at first, resent her taking a prominent role in a man’s world. Her father wants to see her return home and remarry, but Elizabeth has other plans – like traveling up to the Northampton Cloth Fair and running a stall there herself.

Readers will find themselves absorbing significant detail on the cloth trade, including fabric types, arrangements to import materials from the continent, and the sumptuary laws regulating the colors and apparel types that different classes are permitted to wear.

Elizabeth’s life changes after she reconnects with a childhood acquaintance, Thomas Cromwell, a lawyer who had served as her father’s middleman overseas. In contrast to another, less pleasant suitor, Elizabeth finds Thomas kind and protective, a reliable potential husband. For the sake of love, something Elizabeth doesn’t really expect in a marriage, she gives up her role as solo businesswoman. Although their relationship is warm and loving, for the most part, Elizabeth sometimes chafes at the sacrifices she must make as the wife of an upwardly mobile man whose increasing political prominence makes her uneasy. The novel’s focus is domestic; none of it takes place at court. Elizabeth sometimes comments on royal happenings and worries that Thomas’s attachment to statesman Thomas Wolsey will lead to danger.

As Elizabeth’s family grows, dramatic subplots involve the repercussions of a secret from her first marriage, another housewife’s spiteful jealousy, the growing influence of the “new learning,” and a surprising revelation about Thomas himself. Although the novel intimates what Thomas Cromwell’s family life may have been like, this isn’t just a “woman behind the famous man” novel; the author shows us that Elizabeth’s story is noteworthy in itself.

The Woman in the Shadows was published by Accent Press in August in trade paperback and ebook. Thanks to the publisher for sending me an advance copy.  For more information on how the author crafted the novel out of the limited facts about Elizabeth and her family, see Carol McGrath's article "The Woman in the Shadows."

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Women's power through the ages: A Secret History of Witches by Louisa Morgan

Fans of Gothic historical sagas should be drawn to this multi-generational novel about a family of Breton witches whose talents descend through the female line.

Of the six granddaughters of Ursule Orchière, a Romani woman who dies saving her clan from witch-hunters, only Nanette, the youngest, proves to have inherited her magic.  In 1821, Nanette and her sisters flee France for a farm in Cornwall, where they work the land and live in seclusion to avoid unwanted attention.

The story tumbles down through the next hundred years, covering the journeys of Nanette’s daughter, also named Ursule, then Irène, Morwen, and finally Veronica as they come into their heritage in adolescence and carve out paths in a world that would shun them, or worse, if their secrets became known.

In the beginning, the historical backdrop is lightly sketched, while the male characters serve little purpose other than to act as vicious antagonists or, alternately, father the women’s children. As the story continues, the plotlines become stronger, likewise the romantic tension; the history also becomes more paramount. (Even so, the story involving Veronica’s wartime contributions is over the top.) Not all the women are sympathetic, which keeps things fresh and unpredictable.

Although most of the manifestations of their power, like spell-casting and scrying, aren’t unusual for fantasy fiction, Morgan incorporates some creative touches, such as their diverse animal familiars, and the grimoire written in a version of French so archaic it requires translation.

Even more compelling than the magic are the five heroines’ differing reactions to their abilities and their relationships with those from earlier generations. Morgan also depicts with visceral impact the roles of women in a male-centered world, and the dangers faced by anyone who doesn’t adhere to prevailing religious beliefs.

A Secret History of Witches will be published on September 5th by RedHook; thanks to the publisher for approving my NetGalley access. Louisa Morgan is a pseudonym for Louise Marley, who writes historical fantasy and science fiction under her own name; she has also written a series of historical sagas set in early 20th-century Seattle as Cate Campbell.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Beyond Absolution by Cora Harrison, a mystery of Ireland in 1923

In the politically roiled Irish city of Cork in 1923, Reverend Mother Aquinas’s latest investigation is tragically personal. An old childhood friend, the elderly Father Dominic of the Capuchin Brothers, has been found murdered in his confessional stall at Holy Trinity Church, pierced through the ear with a sharp, narrow blade. In many historical mysteries, the victims have numerous enemies, but this case is more puzzling: nobody can imagine who’d want to kill such a gentle man.

For the sake of Dominic’s grieving brother, Prior Lawrence, the Reverend Mother wants to discover the truth. She contributes information based on her personal connections and extensive knowledge of Cork’s citizenry while her former pupil, Inspector Patrick Cashman of the Civic Guards, examines the crime from an official standpoint. Strangely, on the day before his death, the unworldly priest had been seen visiting an antique shop on Morrison’s Island, upset about a damaged ceramic hawk for sale there.

Every volume in this exceptional series (Beyond Absolution is the third) adds to readers’ understanding about the geography and political history of Cork, and Ireland itself, during the 1920s. Although the IRA is blamed for most killings, Dominic’s murder doesn’t bear their signature, especially since his kindness extended even to Republican sympathizers. The mystery about the hawk is revealed midway through, but the killer’s identity remains unknown until the end. Looking back afterward, however, it’s clear Harrison had been dropping periodic clues to lead to the correct conclusion.

With their shared childhood and contrasting life experiences, the heroine and her elegant cousin Lucy make a wonderful team. Understandably, the Reverend Mother appears noticeably aged and tired in this entry, which shows how anguish can take a heavy physical toll. Let’s hope she and her partners can rally sufficiently to play roles in future books.

Beyond Absolution was published by Severn House on August 1st. By now it should be clear that I'm a fan of this series, which begins with A Shameful Murder and continues next with A Shocking Assassination. I reviewed the last two for the Historical Novels Review, and the first one for this site. Cora Harrison also writes mysteries set in 16th-century Ireland (the Burren Mysteries) and has recently started a new series about an Irish lawyer in the Tudor court of 1522; the first entry is The Cardinal's Court.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Lost Diaries of Susanna Moodie by Cecily Ross, biographical fiction about an early Canadian settler

One might say Susanna Moodie is to Canada what Laura Ingalls Wilder is to the United States: both were early pioneers who gained renown for books about their experiences. Moodie’s Roughing It in the Bush (1852), recounting the first seven years she spent in Upper Canada as a young wife and mother in the 1830s, is considered a classic.

With her debut, Cecily Ross imagines Susanna’s personal journal. It’s convincing as a period diary while fulfilling expectations for a satisfying, well-researched historical novel. Notably, it goes where an account published for public consumption simply couldn’t: into the intimate reaches of a woman’s heart. The tone is warm, honest, and spiced with wit.

Ross gives eloquent voice to Susanna’s frustrations with the husband she loves, John Dunbar Moodie, an Orcadian dreamer whose “unquenchable thirst for adventure” leads them into a life full of hardships. She also provides details on the help Susanna receives from indigenous women, and her close relationship with sister Kate (fellow settler Catharine Parr Traill), whose sunny optimism contrasts with Susanna’s somber disposition. We feel Susanna’s confusion and heartbreak as they grow apart.

Susanna begins her diary at age twelve, growing up in Regency-era Suffolk as the non-conformist youngest daughter in the poverty-stricken Strickland family, many of whom have literary aspirations. The considerable time devoted to her English years lets us see firsthand why Susanna, raising a large family amid terrible poverty on their wilderness farm—often without John’s presence—yearned so much for home.

Her story also movingly speaks to the ways women reacted to gender limitations. As Ross illustrates, Canada offers scenes of breathtaking beauty, and there are moments of joy and humor, but pioneer life is consistently hard. “This land is erasing me and beginning to remake me in ways I never anticipated,” Susanna writes, and we’re with her every moment on this transformative and ultimately triumphant journey.

The Lost Diaries of Susanna Moodie by Cecily Ross was published in April by HarperAvenue, an imprint of HarperCollins Canada; the book is also available from US outlets ($16.99, or $22.99 in Canada, 381pp).  This review also appears in August's Historical Novels Review.

Some additional notes:

- A Celebration of Women Writers, hosted by UPenn's digital library, has the complete text of the 2nd edition of Roughing It in the Bush.

- Susanna Moodie isn't well known in the US; the main reason I'd been aware of her before this novel is because I used to be the subject bibliographer for Canadian Studies at my previous library job.  Her story is worth knowing.

- Readers of Jean Plaidy's novels should recognize the name of Agnes Strickland, whose multi-volume Lives of the Queens of England was often listed as a source in Plaidy's bibliographies.  Agnes and her sister Elizabeth (her uncredited, publicity-shy co-author) were also sisters to Susanna and Catharine.  They stayed behind in England and created literary careers for themselves.  All appear in Ross's novel.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Amy Myers' Dancing with Death, a humorous country house mystery set in the Roaring Twenties

Crackling cauliflowers and suffering stockfish! The heroine of Amy Myers’ diverting new country house mystery is a feisty young woman known for her culinary delights and colorful expressions.

In 1925, Nell Drury is the chef at Wychbourne Court, a stately home in the Kentish countryside where the upper-class Ansley family has lived for centuries. The manor has its share of resident ghosts, and Lord Ansley’s sister, Lady Clarice, claims to communicate with them.

A fancy-dress ball brings many of London’s Bright Young Things to Wychbourne, including friends and frenemies of Lord and Lady Ansley’s grown-up children. Nell’s preparations for the evening get complicated when she’s asked to serve a leader for a late-night “ghost hunt.” She’s also caught off guard by an old flame’s reappearance.

When Nell comes upon the stabbed body of a houseguest during the spook-catching exercise, Scotland Yard gets called in, and Lady Ansley, rightly concerned about her family’s reputation, asks Nell to go sleuthing on her own in case the police mess things up.

Nell is entertaining company. Born within the sound of Bow Bells, Nell had trained as the apprentice of a renowned French chef at a fine London establishment. She now occupies a unique position in the household (she’s a chef, not a cook, and will correct anyone who gets it wrong). This helps with her investigations.

The plot and cast list feel overcrowded, and some people’s personalities don’t seem to extend beyond their eccentricities. However, the story picks up steam once the victim’s secrets come to light. Myers does a good job depicting the reckless jubilance of the Roaring Twenties and the darkness lurking beneath the surface gleam. The crime is also resolved more realistically than is typical in mysteries with amateur sleuths.

Dancing with Death, first in a new series, was published by Severn House in May.  Amy Myers has written many crime novels, both historical and contemporary, as well as sagas under her own name and as Harriet Hudson (see her website for more). This review also appears in May's HNR.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Book review: The Sisters of Alameda Street by Lorena Hughes

Which of the four Platas sisters of Alameda Street is Malena’s mother? Lorena Hughes’ debut novel is nonstop entertainment with a warmhearted touch, and the plot moves fast as secrets upon secrets come to light.

In 1962 Ecuador, just after her father’s suicide, Malena Sevilla discovers a shocking note among his things. Malena’s mother had supposedly died in childbirth, but the letter, addressed to Malena’s late grandmother, was written by a woman heartbroken about having given Malena up as a baby—and it’s signed only “A.” Seeing this, Malena abandons her nursing coursework and boards a bus from Guayaquil to the small Andes community of San Isidro, the place of the note’s origin, to find answers.

Arriving at the Platas home on Calle Alameda, she finds her task simultaneously easier (the family affectionately welcomes her, mistaking her for the daughter of a family friend) and more difficult (the sisters’ names all start with A).

Trapped into an unintentional impersonation, Malena gets pulled into numerous dramas and spats as she searches for clues. All four women—motherly Ana, quiet and artistic Alejandra, glamorous widow Amanda, and fragile Abigail, who had died young—had hidden romances in their past, which are movingly revealed in flashbacks. Amanda’s plans to open a nightclub scandalize her conservative community and, seeing this, Malena worries how the revelation of an illegitimate child would affect the family. She also feels attracted to a darkly handsome man who’s already taken, and no good can come from that.

This book is great fun. Scenes involving clandestine late-night excursions, visits to a seedy motel, and Malena’s unexpected tango performances demonstrate the author’s skills in writing comedy—such a rare treat in historical fiction. The many threads are carefully untangled, and the strength of family wins the day. Heartily recommended to saga readers.

Lorena Hughes' The Sisters of Alameda Street was published last month by Skyhorse, and I reviewed it from an Edelweiss e-copy for August's Historical Novels Review.  If you're looking for a fun historical novel with an original setting, this is a good choice.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore, a tense literary novel about revolution, liberty, and legacy

Historical atmosphere and characterization are top-notch in Dunmore’s (Exposure, 2016) newest work of literary historical fiction. Although there’s little action, considerable tension develops as Lizzie Fawkes awakens to the truth about the man she married and his first wife’s fate—details that readers know from the start.

The setting is 1790s Bristol, England. Revolution is erupting in Europe, and Lizzie’s mother, Julia Fawkes, a writer who “attacked the majesty of kings,” belongs to a group of radicals watching their beliefs take form in nearby France. Lizzie’s husband, building-developer Diner Tredevant, knows that war will crush his ambitions to build a terrace high above the Avon Gorge. Diner has always resented Lizzie’s family and their free-thinking ways, and as money grows tight, Diner’s controlling behavior and paranoia become evident.

The graveyard scene from the novel’s modern-day prelude isn’t picked up again but pays homage to the many women’s lives lost to history. Knowledge of Dunmore’s recent passing, added to her theme of the legacies people leave behind, lends a sad poignancy to the reading experience.

Birdcage Walk, Helen Dunmore's final novel, is published this month in the US by Atlantic Monthly (it's been out in the UK since March). Originally it was slated to be published in November, but the release date was moved forward after the author sadly passed away from cancer in June. This review was submitted for publication in Booklist's August issue, which is just out.  It's my first experience reading one of Dunmore's novels, and I'm glad it was assigned to me.  For those who've read her earlier work, I'd be interested to hear about your favorite(s).

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Love and Gravity: a quirky time-slip novel about music, love, and Isaac Newton

Eminent 17th-century scientist Sir Isaac Newton never married, and he reportedly wasn’t romantically involved with anyone. What if that wasn’t true? Sotto, author of Before Ever After, delivers another time-bending romantic adventure with her latest, which imagines a love story between Newton and a modern woman, a gifted cellist, who manages to bridge the 300-plus years through music. The premise is fanciful, but Sotto is reliably good at traveling along life’s offbeat paths.

Andrea Louviere first sees Newton when she’s seven, after a crack in her bedroom wall opens wide enough for her to glimpse a boy about her age. The only person she dares tell is her school friend, Nate, who doesn’t believe her. As Andrea grows up, and her relationship with Nate turns romantic, she and Isaac develop a mysterious bond. When Andrea is seventeen, she begins receiving Isaac’s letters via an elderly messenger who somehow has contact with them both. She determines to unlock the mystery of the shared future Isaac speaks of, but this seems impossible, since the objects they exchange through the time-portal all turn to dust.

Most of the novel is set in the present, with lengthy sections showing Newton’s childhood in Woolsthorpe in Lincolnshire and his later years at grammar school and at Cambridge. The novel isn’t as substantive historically as it could be, and the secondary characters are mostly vague shadows. Someone like Nate deserves better than the second place to which he’s relegated, too. The time-travel mechanism is clever, though, one that takes into account both parties’ talents, and the story grows significantly poignant in the last third or so. This isn’t The Time Traveler’s Wife, which it clearly emulates, but it’s an entertaining diversion for romance fans open to something different.

Love and Gravity was published as an ebook original ($6.99) in February by Ballantine; this review was written for February's Historical Novels Review.  It's available in paperback in the Philippines, where the author resides.

Back in 2011, I'd reviewed the author's debut novel, Before Ever After, and recommend it.