Monday, April 30, 2018

Book review: Peculiar Savage Beauty by Jessica McCann, set in 1930s Kansas, plus US giveaway

Add Jessica McCann’s Peculiar Savage Beauty to the list of exceptional new historical novels featuring women making their mark in STEM.

Rosa Jean (RJ) Evans has just graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a geology master’s degree in 1934. Having secured a government job back in her hometown of Vanham, Kansas, a tiny farming community she left at age six after her parents died of influenza, RJ is preparing to purchase some land, set up a soil erosion experiment station, and convince local farmers – all men – to adopt conservation farming methods to help the soil revive. She has her work cut out for her.

The title comes from a passage from O Pioneers!, which also appears as the epigraph: “…the land wanted to be let alone, to preserve its own fierce strength, its peculiar, savage kind of beauty.” Willa Cather’s wise words echo strongly in McCann’s vivid descriptions of the Dust Bowl years on the Great Plains, and her themes relating to climatic disasters and the need for people to protect the environment.

author Jessica McCann
RJ proves an admirable, resourceful heroine from the outset, when she survives a dust storm while driving her truck solo from Wisconsin to Kansas. The harrowing experience also introduces her to her first friend, a stray dog she names Stormy. The other relationships RJ forms are just as heartwarming and meaningful. Woody Parker, a man about her age who we’d call autistic today, becomes her firm friend. Others label him as dim-witted, but RJ sees his thoughtfulness and brilliant artistic talents in the dust-paintings he creates in the storms’ aftermath, and he supports her when she runs into roadblocks.

Most of the local farmers don’t trust either “government bureaucrats” or women who claim to have knowledge they themselves don’t, when their families have been working the land for generations. There are rushes to judgment on all sides, and it’s rewarding to see characters slowly move beyond preconceptions to form understandings.

All the details on the setting bring readers back to the painful Dust Bowl years: the summer heat and never-ending drought, the mud accumulating in pipes and drinking water, the wires people strung on their property to lead them back home during a blinding storm, and the evening gatherings around the wireless for Roosevelt’s fireside chats. Excerpts from period songs add to the atmosphere (I had “Stormy Weather” playing in my head while reading), and McCann gets the cadence of the rural characters’ dialogue just right; they sound like my own Midwestern neighbors.

Although I wished for slightly more information on RJ’s earlier history, this is a compelling historical novel with a tangible sense of place. It never bends to stereotype, and its characters are well worth getting to know.

This review is the last stop on the novel's blog tour; thanks to Jessica McCann for sending me a copy at my request.  Peculiar Savage Beauty is published this month by Perspective Books in hardcover ($24) and as an ebook ($8.99).


5/8/18: Thanks to everyone who entered the giveaway, and congrats to Terry M.!

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Tudor fiction without the famous, part two

Do you love novels set in Tudor England but want to escape the royal court and/or look beyond the lives of famous personalities?  In 2015, I'd posted my initial list of Tudor fiction without the famous, and appreciated the suggestions left by everyone in the comments.  Here's another selection of Tudor-era novels that feature characters that go beyond the usual suspects.

Hartshorne has written a succession of popular time-slip novels, but The Cursed Wife is set wholly during Elizabethan times.  In 16th-century York, a woman who had a curse placed upon her as a child for causing another's death finds it hard to escape her past. Pan, March 2018. [see on Goodreads]

Agnes Peppin, a butcher's daughter from Dorset, gets sent to a nunnery after an indiscretion, later finding herself thrust into the world again after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. I'll be reviewing this novel shortly. Overlook, July 2018. [see on Goodreads]

This romantic novel set in the 1580s centers on a young widow, a lady-in-waiting to a noblewoman, who seeks a better match for herself than the elderly man her father chose for her. I've purchased a copy and hope to read it soon. Courante, March 2018. [see on Goodreads]

Karen Brooks' previous novel, The Brewer's Tale, delved into gender roles and society among the working classes in 15th-century England. It's worth seeking out (it's published only in Australia at the moment). Her newest moves ahead two centuries to Elizabethan times to tell the story of a young woman, an expert locksmith like her father, who gets drawn into spying for Francis Walsingham. Morrow, July 2018. [see on Goodreads]

Ken Follett's fans know what to expect from his work: an epic portrait of a place and time from the viewpoints of a varied cast of characters. His newest, third in the Kingsbridge series set in a fictional English town, takes place in 1558, as religious conflict sweeps through. Viking, 2017. [see on Goodreads]

Carol McGrath's newest novel, which can be read as a prequel to Wolf Hall, focuses on Elizabeth Williams, a prosperous widow who married Thomas Cromwell as her second husband. Taking place before Cromwell's rise to fame (and notoriety), it focuses on an independent woman and her life in a Tudor merchant household. Accent, 2017. [see my review] [see on Goodreads]

This is the debut of a new Elizabethan mystery series featuring Bess Ellyott, an herbalist from London who relocates to the countryside and follows the trail of her husband's murderer. Crooked Lane, March 2018. [see on Goodreads]

Monday, April 23, 2018

Lilly Sommers' The Dark Dream, an epic of the gold rush in 19th-century Australia

My house is full of older books I’d purchased at least a decade ago, but due to ongoing commitments, I rarely have time to read them. I was starting to feel guilty about this, though, so picked this one up after finishing my latest Booklist assignment.

Published by Arrow/Random House Australia in 1997, Lilly Sommers’ The Dark Dream is an epic historical adventure (of nearly 600 pages) set in the rough-and-tumble world of the Bendigo gold rush in 1852. It’s long out of print, although the style doesn’t feel dated at all, and the author is still actively writing historical novels; I have some of her latest books, written under her own name, Kaye Dobbie. I bought The Dark Dream online years ago after enjoying another novel of hers, The Bond, which I’d found in an American remainder bookstore.

The heroine goes by Ella Seaton, although her real name and identity are a mystery that unfolds throughout the book. She awakens with a painful head injury in the mud alongside Seaton’s Lagoon, not knowing who she is or why she’s there. A man rescues her and brings her to his friend Adam, a tinker on his way to the Bendigo goldfields. Adam calls her Cinderella – Ella for short – after finding a pair of discarded leather shoes nearby and seeing that they fit her.

Ella and Adam assume she was set upon by bushrangers and robbed. One of her fingers bears the mark of a ring, so they know she was married. As Adam cares for her during her recovery, they make their way via horse-drawn cart to the goldfields, tracing the route Ella may have originally followed, hoping someone can identify her. However, Adam has own secrets, dating back to his days as a California forty-niner. The dangers they face derive as much from Adam’s troubled past as Ella’s present situation: her lack of memory leaves her vulnerable to enemies she can’t anticipate.

Storylines involving amnesia can sometimes feel contrived, but to Sommers’ credit, her portrayal of Ella’s condition feels honest. Ella innately senses that she was gently born, and although she’s grateful for Adam’s help, she’s clearly uncomfortable with camping in the bush, the lack of cleanliness, and treating folks like Adam and his acquaintances as social equals. This allows for considerable character growth as the plot moves along. Flashes of Ella’s earlier life come to her in dreams she can’t recall after waking. I particularly liked the scene where she glimpses herself in a mirror for the first time, and fails to recognize herself immediately. My one problem with the storyline was Ella’s naïve assumption that returning to her husband should be her ultimate goal, even given evidence to the contrary.

I recommend the book for its exciting plot, slow-building romance, and depiction of the characters (some brave, some foolish, many disreputable) caught up in the Victorian gold rush. Anyone seeking The Dark Dream can find a cheap copy via Bookfinder. And maybe it will be re-released on Kindle some day.

This is my 2nd entry in the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2018.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Gateway to the Moon by Mary Morris, a historical epic about the crypto-Jews of New Mexico

Where do we come from?  Focusing on the crypto-Jews of the American Southwest and their European ancestors, Morris’ (The Jazz Palace, 2015) enthralling saga ponders this question in both a genealogical and astronomical sense.

Seeking extra spending money, 14-year-old Miguel Torres, an amateur stargazer from a tiny New Mexican town in 1992, takes a job babysitting the two young sons of Rachel Rothstein, a lonely, restless artist and doctor’s wife. Full of typical adolescent preoccupations, and curious about his place in the universe, Miguel tries to serve as a positive role model for the boys while noting the odd familiarity of the Rothsteins’ Jewish traditions.

A parallel plotline follows the story of Luis de Torres, a converso interpreter on Columbus’ first voyage forced to conceal his faith. Magnificent characters with complex psychologies, including adventurous entrepreneurs and several courageous women, populate this generational tale of the Sephardic diaspora. Their lives alternate between periods of relative peace and persecution, since the deadly Inquisition is ever vigilant.

Over time, memories of their Jewishness vanish, though some traditions endure. The descriptions of culinary specialties are especially divine.

The story glides effortlessly between viewpoints and vibrant settings ranging from Lisbon to Tangier, the Caribbean, and Mexico City. With prose as clear as the star-strewn night sky, Morris’ novel explores people’s hidden connections.

I wrote this (starred) review for Booklist's March 15th issue. This was my first time reading one of Mary Morris's novels.

Some other notes:

- The title, Gateway to the Moon, is the translation of Entrada de la Luna, the New Mexican town where Miguel lives.

- There's an academic society, the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies, geared toward "researching the history of crypto-Jewish and Sephardic communities around the world"; it has an associated journal.

- For other novels on this subject, see Daniella Levy's By Light of Hidden Candles and Kathryn Lasky's YA historical novel Blood Secret.

- Read more about the subject, the controversy, and the genetics at Smithsonian Magazine: "The 'Secret Jews' of San Luis Valley."

Monday, April 16, 2018

Review of Charles Frazier's Varina, about the Confederacy's unlikely first lady

What legacy befalls those who find themselves on history’s wrong side? Frazier’s (Nightwoods, 2011) fourth Southern historical novel centers on Varina Howell Davis, the unlikely first lady of the doomed Confederacy.

Its nonlinear structure roams across her tragic life’s vast landscape, from her girlhood as an impoverished Mississippi planter’s well-educated daughter to her strained marriage to the much-older Jefferson Davis to old age in a Saratoga Springs rest home. There, regular visits from James Blake, an African American man she’d taken in as a child, prompt her recollections.

Frazier crafts haunting scenes of her and her children’s flight from Richmond via wagon through the devastated South and her morphine-hazed, funereal view of her husband’s rain-soaked inauguration.

Intelligent, outspoken, and clear-sighted but yoked to an intransigent man, the real Varina (who is called “V” throughout) sometimes feels elusive. One wonders what she could have become under different circumstances.

In her conversations with James, she proclaims “the right side won” yet seems unable to fully grasp slavery’s ramifications. This powerful realization of its time also has significant meaning for ours.

Charles Frazier's Varina is published this month by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins. I wrote this review for Booklist's March 1 issue. Frazier is best known, of course, for Cold Mountain, a book I've yet to read (!). I enjoyed his Thirteen Moons, particularly the quality of writing, although I felt the protagonist's love interest wasn't fully three-dimensional.

For more information on the novel's background, read an interview with the author from the News & Observer (Raleigh, North Carolina).

Thursday, April 12, 2018

By Love Divided by Elizabeth St. John, an epic of the English Civil War years

The novels in Elizabeth St. John’s Lydiard Chronicles are standouts in the recent resurgence of historical fiction set in 17th-century England. The first book, The Lady of the Tower, was seen from the first-person perspective of Lucy St. John of Lydiard Tregoze, a young noblewoman who came to marry Sir Allen Apsley, Keeper and Lieutenant of the Tower of London in Jacobean times.

Moving seamlessly into third person, this sequel follows Lucy, now widowed and trying to stave off her husband’s creditors in court, and her two eldest children, Allen and Luce, as their declined fortunes and political loyalties force them into irrevocable decisions that shift their paths.

Having absorbed different views from their parents, Allen and Luce find themselves on opposite sides of the coming English Civil War. Believing strongly that “the king is as a father to the people of this nation,” Allen becomes a prominent courtier and Cavalier, later accompanying his Villiers cousins into war. Luce, however, takes Parliament’s side, having seen firsthand how Charles I’s French wars drove her family into near-penury.

While acknowledging her “Calvinist soul” and sympathizing with Luce, Lucy hates seeing how her children are divided and hopes that war won’t tear her family apart. At the same time, she doesn’t hold her viewpoints back. In one revealing scene back at her birthplace, she makes her thoughts clear about her younger brother John’s monarchist views and pretentiousness.

With so many moving parts, the issues that brought England into civil war are complex and can be challenging to grasp. However, this epic novel exemplifies the fact that history is created from people’s individual stories, which makes the concepts easy to absorb. The author draws readers into the prevailing sentiments of the era from multiple angles, and from domestic life to battles and military campaigns – including incidents rarely shown in fiction, like Charles I’s attempt to impose the Anglican prayer book on Scotland.

Generational lessons are learned, as Lucy shares her reasons for her avoidance of court life with her daughter, and Allen grows up and fights to restore the Apsleys’ fortunes. The story delves deeply into two opinionated women’s lives and unavoidable choices, and depicts two love stories – which are equally romantic, for different reasons.

By Love Divided is a lengthy book (over 9000 lines on my Kindle), and readers already enamored of the 17th century years should delight in the plentiful details. Newcomers should also welcome this introduction to the English Civil War and a prominent family active at that time. For me this series is also a natural recommendation for anyone who grew up reading Pamela Belle’s Herons of Goldhayes series, a longtime favorite.

The novel was published last October by Falcon Historical in pb and ebook.  Thanks to the author for sending me an ebook copy.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Two Souls: when introverts write about divas, a guest post by Mary Sharratt, author of Ecstasy

I'm pleased to welcome Mary Sharratt back to Reading the Past.  Her new novel Ecstasy, set in a richly imagined fin-de-siècle Vienna, focuses on Alma Schindler Mahler, a bold, musically gifted woman controversial in her own time as well as ours. I especially enjoyed its depiction of Alma's passionate nature and her struggles to define herself with regard to her considerable talents and her relationships with men. Ecstasy is published today by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Welcome, Mary!


Two Souls: When Introverts Write about Divas
Mary Sharratt

Alma Schindler Mahler, the heroine of my new novel Ecstasy, was everything I am not. She was larger than life. An exuberantly extroverted diva. The It-Girl of fin de siècle Vienna. When Alma stepped into the salon in her white crepe-de-chine gown, the air crackled with electricity, so mesmerizing was her presence. Artists, architects, and poets vied for her attention.

Gustav Klimt chased her across Italy to give her her first kiss when she was just a teenager. Gustav Mahler fell in love with her at a dinner party and proposed only weeks later.

Her subsequent husbands and lovers included Bauhaus-founder Walter Gropius, artist Oskar Kokoschka, and poet Franz Werfel. But she was her own woman to the last, polyamorous long before it was cool, one of the most controversial women of her time.

I, however, am a wallflower. At parties, I struggle with small talk. I don’t covet Alma’s impressive list of paramours either, as much as I respect these men. I’ve been happily, faithfully married for nearly thirty years. While I certainly don’t judge or begrudge Alma for her adventures, I love my quiet married life.

Personality-wise, I have far more in common with Alma’s first husband, Gustav Mahler. Not that I presume to claim his level of genius—far from it. But he was an introvert after my own heart. In the woods near their summer home on Lake Wörthersee in Austria, he build a composing hut where he spent his mornings composing in pristine solitude. No one was allowed to disturb his creative trance. To me that sounds like heaven on earth.

Some Mahlerites blame Alma for his downfall. Despite the fact that Mahler died aged fifty of a hereditary heart condition, they appear to believe that Alma’s adulterous affair with Walter Gropius hastened Mahler’s demise. I think the most fanatical Almaphobes would love nothing better than to dig her out of her grave in Vienna’s Grinzing Cemetery and burn her remains at the stake for her perceived sins against Mahler.

Yet Mahler loved Alma as passionately as some of his fans seem to hate her. We can feel her indelible presence in his music from his Fifth Symphony onward. His most tender adagios are declarations of his devotion to her. In his tenth and final symphony, we can literally hear his heart breaking for her. He scrawled on the score, “To live for you, to die for you, Almschi.”

How could one woman could inspire such extreme emotional reactions? In the popular imagination Alma is the mercurial femme fatale. A voracious, man-eating seductress. But I knew there had to be so much more to her.

The introvert in me saw Alma’s other side—her secret self hidden in the pages of her diary. This Alma was a cerebral and paradoxically lonely young woman. Though lacking in formal education, she devoured philosophy books and avant-garde literature. She was a most accomplished pianist—her teacher thought she was good enough to study at Vienna Conservatory. However, Alma didn’t want a career of public performance. Instead she yearned to be a composer. Her lieder, composed under the guidance of her mentor and lover, Alexander von Zemlinsky, are arresting, emotional, and highly original and can be compared with the early work of Zemlinsky’s other famous student, Arnold Schoenberg.

But the odds were stacked against her. Women who strived for a livelihood in the arts were mocked as the “third sex”—the fate of Alma’s friend, the sculptor Ilse Conrat. When a towering genius like Mahler asked Alma to give up her composing career as a condition of their marriage, she reluctantly succumbed.

Yet underneath it all she was still that questing young woman who yearned to compose symphonies and operas. Shortly before her marriage, twenty-two-year-old Alma wrote in her diary, “I have two souls: I know it.” Born in an era that struggled to recognize women as full-fledged human beings, Alma experienced a fundamental split in her psyche—the rift between herself as a distinct creative individual and herself as an object of male desire. The suppression of her true self to become the woman Mahler wanted her to be was unsustainable and inhuman. Eventually the authentic Alma erupted out of this false persona.

What emerged was a woman far ahead of her time, who rejected the shackles of condoned feminine behavior and insisted on her sexual and creative freedom. Alma eventually returned to composing and went on to publish fourteen of her songs. Three other lieder have been discovered posthumously. Now her work is regularly performed and recorded.

Like unconventional women throughout history, Alma to this day faces a backlash of misinterpretation and outright condemnation. She was complex, transgressive, ambitious, and often perplexing.

Which leads us back to why introverts write about divas. The Urban Dictionary defines a diva as a woman who exudes great style and confidence and expresses her unique personality without letting others define who she should be. A diva is a woman who stands in her sovereignty and blazes a trail for other women. Even introverts like me need to claim our inner diva to truly dance in our power.

Delving into Alma’s complexities allowed me to embrace all the shadows and light in my own character. For Alma was neither a “good” woman nor a “bad” woman, but a woman who insisted on being fully human, whatever the cost. A woman who recognized that pure and impure, faithful and loose, madonna and whore are simply poisonous projections used to deny women their full expression of being. Alma was not any one color, dark or light. She was the whole spectrum. So it is with all of us. Regardless whether we’re cloistered introverts or glamorous socialites, every woman contains the totality, the heights and the depths.

This is why Alma deserves to be the center of her own story. She was not only a composer but what in German is called a Lebenskünstlerin, or life artist—she pioneered new ways of being as a woman that was in itself a work of art.

Mary Sharratt is on a mission to write women back into history. Her novel Ecstasy is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Visit her website:

Thursday, April 05, 2018

Researching and Writing Historical Fiction, a guest post by Elaine Neil Orr

Today I have a short post by Elaine Neil Orr, whose new novel Swimming Between Worlds (Berkley, April), set in Nigeria and in North Carolina during the Civil Rights Movement, is one I'll be reviewing in May.


Researching and Writing Historical Fiction
Elaine Neil Orr

I don’t wait to finish research before I start writing. I start in tandem, perhaps because writing itself is the spark for me. Very soon, however, the research process begins and sparks begin to fly. I find that even the least digging into the soil of the past yields riches.

One of my favorite forms of research is to go there. My first novel, A Different Sun: a Novel of Africa, is inspired by the journal of a nineteenth century missionary woman. I journeyed to the places she had lived and traveled in the mid-nineteenth century in what is present-day Nigeria.

I wanted to see what varieties of native trees she had seen. Was the land that met her eyes hilly or flat? Were there outcroppings of rock? Where was the nearest stream? (I knew there was an historical marker where she and her husband had begun their first Sunday School.)

With Swimming Between Worlds, my new novel set in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, I was able to travel often. My home in Raleigh is less than two hours away. The novel is set in the late 1950s and 60s in an early suburb of the city, where craftsman and Victorian houses line curvilinear streets.

Photo of Tacker's house (Swimming Between Worlds)

Walking, I began to feel my story in the muscles of my legs! Because the novel covers a year, I drove over in every season, observing the dogwoods in their annual course, smelling fires coming from chimneys in the winter, listening to music wafting from open windows in the spring.

The lunch-counter sit-ins of the early Civil Rights Movement are a catalyst for the three major characters in the novel. I peered into the windows of the old Woolworths building, imagining where the counter had been, with the chrome and vinyl stools.

The tactile, sensory nature of this research brings me into a kind of communion with my character that I don’t think I could achieve without going there. I feel a spiritual connection. There is something transporting about being there. For me, it’s what brings the story to life.


About Swimming Between Worlds: Tacker Hart left his home in North Carolina as a local high school football hero, but returns in disgrace after being fired from a prestigious architectural assignment in West Africa. Yet the culture and people he grew to admire have left their mark on him. Adrift, he manages his father's grocery store and becomes reacquainted with a girl he barely knew growing up.

Kate Monroe's parents have died, leaving her the family home and the right connections in her Southern town. But a trove of disturbing letters sends her searching for the truth behind the comfortable life she's been bequeathed.

Elaine Neil Orr
(credit: Elizabeth Galecke
On the same morning but at different moments, Tacker and Kate encounter a young African-American, Gaines Townson, and their stories converge with his. As Winston-Salem is pulled into the tumultuous 1960s, these three Americans find themselves at the center of the civil rights struggle, coming to terms with the legacies of their pasts as they search for an ennobling future.

Elaine Neil Orr is professor of English at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, where she teaches world literature and creative writing. She also serves on the faculty of the low-residency MFA in Writing program at Spalding University in Louisville. Author of A Different Sun, two scholarly books, and the memoir Gods of Noonday: A White Girl's African Life, she has been a featured speaker and writer-in-residence at numerous universities and conferences and is a frequent fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She grew up in Nigeria. Visit her website at