Monday, June 25, 2018

Highland Sisters by Anne Douglas, an unpredictable Edwardian Scottish romantic saga

Set in the Scottish Highlands and Edinburgh as the Edwardian era winds down, Douglas’s concise yet engaging romantic novel follows a young woman’s path to fulfillment and illustrates the pain of unrequited love. Lorne Malcolm’s decision to run away with her employer’s son on her wedding morning shocks her older sister, Rosa, and devastates her fiancé, Daniel MacNeil. A housemaid in Inverness, Rosa can’t comprehend Lorne’s self-centeredness, especially since handsome Daniel is quite a catch. Some months later, when Daniel begins courting Rosa, she is thrilled but wary; in his proposal, he asks her to help him forget Lorne, which isn’t the most promising beginning.

They marry and move into a big-city tenement, and the story is sympathetic toward Rosa, left alone all day while Daniel works. Her pursuit of a job outside the home gives her purpose but adds complications to their marriage, since Daniel proves resistant, and she still isn’t certain of his love. The theme of women’s early 20th-century roles figures strongly. Despite some repetitive descriptions, the plotline is eventful and pleasingly unpredictable. Douglas evokes period mores through her characters’ personalities and actions: they may not discuss their feelings openly but yearn for happiness all the same.

Highland Sisters was published by Severn House in 2018. Anne Douglas is a bestselling Scottish novelist who has set many novels in Scotland in the early 20th century (this is the first I've read). I wrote this review for February's Historical Novels Review based on a NetGalley copy.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

A suitable job for a woman? A guest post by Kate Braithwaite, author of The Road to Newgate

Today I have a guest post from Kate Braithwaite, whose new novel, The Road to Newgate, will be one you'll want to read if you're intrigued by 17th-century England. Its subject, the Popish Plot, doesn't get a lot of play in historical fiction, so this was new territory for me. I found myself placed in the thick of the suspenseful drama alongside Nat Thompson, his wife Anne, and their friend William Smith (more on them below). How does one bring down an odious, immoral man who's managed to sway public opinion about the righteousness of his cause?  It's a dangerous prospect - Titus Oates seems to have the law on his side as well - with no guarantee of success. Anne Thompson alternates narrating the story with Nat and William, and Kate's post illuminates the lives and roles of women in Restoration England.

There's a giveaway opportunity at the end, too, for US readers. Welcome, Kate!


A Suitable Job for a Woman?
Kate Braithwaite

Were there any women in the 17th century?”

This is a question that historian Antonia Fraser was asked by a male friend when she told him that her next book would be The Weaker Vessel: Women’s Lot in Seventeenth Century England. Of course it’s tongue in cheek, yet how many famous Stuart women spring to mind? There was Nell Gwynn, of course, Charles II’s mistress, orange-seller and actress. And Aphra Behn, playwright, poet and one the first Englishwomen to earn a living writing. But how many more? Given that our historical sources were written about men, by men, it can be a challenge for a historical novelist to create a strong, believable female character - true to the period, but not a Royal mistress or a talented author. The subject of my second novel, the 17th century Popish Plot in Restoration England, is full of drama and incident, but in the text books, pamphlets and trial transcripts it’s male-dominated drama. The women are missing.

The Road to Newgate is about Titus Oates, a preacher, who causes uproar in London in 1678 with wild stories of a Catholic plot to assassinate Charles II. Barricades go up in the streets, prominent Catholic Lords and priests are arrested and fake news and bigotry dominate the public consciousness. When Sir Edmund Godfrey, a Protestant magistrate linked to Oates, is found dead in a ditch and the plot stories were deemed to be true, only a brave and resilient journalist, Nat Thompson, wants to chase down the truth about Oates – at great personal cost.

These costs involve Nat’s close friends Henry Broome and William Smith, as well as his wife, Anne. Henry is a bookseller and publisher, a father-figure to Nat, a much younger man. William is a schoolteacher, quiet, sensitive and with a secret he is afraid to share with Nat and Anne. And then there is Anne. In early drafts of the story, she was little more than his wife, a character with no real agency, story arc or importance to the plot, other than making her busy husband feel guilty about leaving her at home while he is busy at work. In a contemporary story, Anne would have education, training, her own bank accounts, transport, perhaps money from her own family or a better paying job than Nat does. But the life of a seventeenth-century wife was very different. A married woman at that time belonged to her husband. Anything she owned prior to her marriage transferred to him. Husbands had the right to discipline their wives and no wife could give evidence in court against her husband. Widows had more freedom and independence but The Road to Newgate is about a married couple and whether that marriage survives in a time of tumult. Anne’s options seemed limited.

Scratch the surface, however, and it’s no surprise that women were not just silent or complicit in their forced domestication. Then, as now, not all women wanted to stay at home to raise children, launder, clean or cook. Not all working women were content to be servants or seamstresses. In the course of my research I learned that women as well as men engaged in the explosion of pamphlet writing and journalism during the Restoration. Take this example, published anonymously, by a woman complaining about the amount of time that men were spending in the popular coffee shops of the day. Published in 1674, The Women’s Petition against Coffee declared that men were neglecting their family duty because of the hours they spent talking, arguing and drinking coffee. They were in danger of becoming worse gossips than women and worst of all, excessive coffee was having a dampening effect on their ardour. “Never,” it reads, “did Men wear greater breeches, or carry less in them of any Mettle whatsoever.”

Source: EC65.A100.674w, Houghton Library, Harvard University
(via Wikimedia Commons)

Anne’s character – stubborn, loving, intelligent but a little naive – would never have written a document like that one, but the inspiration for a way for her to develop within the story was linked to the world of pamphlets and opinion that her husband is so engaged with. An idea fell into my lap when I was researching the printing business. Although women could not be apprentices in the print shop, a key duty of a wife in the seventeenth century was to support her husband. Women could and did learn to run printing operations, for example Anne Baldwin, the wife of Richard Baldwin, the printer of the London Mercury, who helped her husband in all aspects of his business. Widows commonly took over print shops when their husbands died. To do so effectively, they must have been working in the trade for some time.

Here then, was the perfect opportunity for Anne to spread her wings and take charge of her own fate. Although with a proud husband determined to provide for her and Henry, his printer, less than impressed by Nat’s hasty marriage to her, Anne would still have some challenges to overcome.


Kate Braithwaite was born and grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland. Her first novel, Charlatan, was longlisted for the Mslexia New Novel Award and the Historical Novel Society Award.

The Road to Newgate, a story of lies, love and bigotry in 17th century London, will be published by Crooked Cat Books on July 16th. Kate lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and three children.

For more information, please see The Road to Newgate on Amazon.  Visit the author on her website, on Twitter, or on Facebook.

And for a giveaway opportunity for US readers:

The author is offering a giveaway of a signed paperback copy of The Road to Newgate along with a handmade book (pictured above). For a chance to win, please fill out the entry form below; deadline Wednesday, June 27th. US readers only.  One entry per household, and void where prohibited. Good luck to all!

Update, 6/28: The giveaway is over. Congrats to Sarah N, and thanks to all who entered!

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Victoria Glendinning's The Butcher's Daughter explores an ordinary woman's Tudor-era life

Most people in sixteenth-century England weren’t royalty or famous names, yet a focus on the well-known predominates in historical novels.

Evincing deep knowledge of Tudor-era society, award-winning biographer and writer Glendinning helps remedy this skewed perspective. She centers on a young woman left homeless after Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries and forced back into a world that slots women into tidy, repressive categories.

In 1535, the witty, curious Agnes Peppin is sent to Shaftesbury Abbey after bearing an illegitimate child and finds a home among the nuns. Agnes is literate, and as the abbess’ assistant she is in a prime place to see Thomas Cromwell’s destructive plans for England’s religious houses coming to fruition.

Glendinning’s psychologically astute novel shows how significant an upheaval this was. Monasteries and abbeys served as social safety nets and economic engines, and their residents’ heartbreak and confusion are palpable as the sanctuaries are dismantled.

Agnes’ sudden freedom, both a burden and an opportunity, sets her on an entertaining, picaresque journey toward self-fulfillment across England’s West Country. Through the experiences of Agnes and others, Glendinning thoughtfully explores womanhood’s many facets.

The Butcher's Daughter will be published by Overlook next week; I wrote this review for Booklist's 5/15 issue. For readers looking for more "Tudor fiction without the famous," this is one!

The cover at top left is the US edition, while the UK cover is at the bottom right.

Monday, June 11, 2018

A long-distance literary love story: Noon in Paris, Eight in Chicago by Douglas Cowie

French feminist writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir was best known for her masterwork, The Second Sex (1949); Nelson Algren was an award-winning American writer acclaimed for depicting working-class Chicago.

In a novel about the romance between these prominent literary figures, one might expect a thorough presentation of their intellectual lives, but Cowie’s approach is refreshingly different. With a fast-paced, down-to-earth, conversational style, he evokes their strong emotional and physical connection and their struggle to sustain it.

After getting Nelson’s number from a mutual friend, Simone phones him when she visits Chicago in 1947. They spend the evening visiting “the real city,” including the county jail, and end up in bed at his apartment. Over many transatlantic flights, foreign vacations, and letters flying across the globe, Cowie draws us into their psyches.

Nelson wants Simone to move in permanently, but her commitment to her long-time Parisian partner, Jean-Paul Sartre, precludes that. Ultimately, they face wrenching choices. Although the details are specific to this famous couple, the insights into how relationships flourish and wither are universal.

I wrote this review for Booklist, and it was published as an online review in March; the novel itself was published in May in the US by Myriad Editions (it was previously published in the UK). Cowie is an American fiction writer who is currently Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Adventures in flight: Chasing the Wind by C.C. Humphreys

Like its go-getter heroine, C. C. Humphreys’ newest historical thriller starts on the ground but quickly takes off. Pilot Roxy Loewen, fleeing from her father’s creditors and the man responsible for his death on a New York street in 1929, makes a grand exit from the scene – with some help from fellow aviator Amelia Earhart.

Seven years later, she’s running guns into British Somaliland alongside her German commie lover, Jocco Zomack, doing her part to support the Ethiopians’ war against the Italians. But even as Mussolini claims victory, there’s another battle right behind it. Roxy’s next mission: fly more guns into politically torn Madrid, pick up an original Bruegel painting, lift it out of the country, and deliver it to a buyer in Berlin, on behalf of Jocco’s art dealer father – all without Hermann Göring and his goons finding out.

A bold feat, but Roxy’s sure she can do it. The money’s good, too. But she hasn’t counted on the Nazis partnering with her arch-nemesis.

With Chasing the Wind, Humphreys, who has made many forays into 16th through 18th-century settings, successfully vaults ahead to the first decades of the 20th century, when the world was reacting to the stock market crash, eruptions into civil war, and the rising tide of fascism.

He shows that he's mastered the skill of combining fast-paced action with vibrant historical detail. As the story speeds along with Roxy’s daring schemes and hairsbreadth escapes, it also delves into the techniques of forging a centuries-old painting and flying a small aircraft. Readers also get to experience the tense atmosphere of the 1936 Berlin Olympics (“Sport and politics are not separate, not at all. This display is all about power,” Roxy aptly observes) and walk through the opulent interior landscapes of the Hindenburg on its final voyage.

Roxy’s a gal with moxie to spare, but she’s not superhuman; she often experiences setbacks. She’s tough but compassionate: as Jocco tells her, “I know you care more than you admit.” That sometimes gives her adversaries the advantage, but it also makes her a relatable, admirable character.

Granted, if you don’t take to wild adventures that just happen to swoop through some of the era’s most significant events, this may not be your book. But if you're tempted to try keeping up with Roxy, though, it's great fun; just hang on and enjoy the flight.

Chasing the Wind is published in Canada by Doubleday Canada, and in the US as an indie title (ebook). Thanks to Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for providing me with a Kindle copy. 

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Past v. Present: The Challenges of a Historical Thriller. an essay by Terrence McCauley

In today's post, author Terrence McCauley, who writes novels set in the past and others in the present-day, describes the appeal and challenges of writing fiction set in 1930s NYC.


Past v. Present: 
The Challenges of a Historical Thriller
Terrence McCauley

As a writer, I always look for new ways to challenge myself. I never want to keep writing the same story over and over again. I don’t think the audience want to read the same kind of story, either. That’s one of the many reasons why I love setting my stories in different time periods. For example, my University series (Sympathy for the Devil, A Murder of Crows, A Conspiracy of Ravens) are all modern day techno-thrillers with plenty of action and technology to help me keep the pace moving.

Historical fiction does not allow me that luxury. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. Writing about 1930s New York affords me another set of challenges I wholeheartedly embrace. My Charlie Doherty novels (The Devil Dogs of Belleau Wood, Slow Burn, and now The Fairfax Incident) are different from any other kind of story I tell. I write them in the first person from Charlie’s perspective because I want the reader to get a sense of what he’s experiencing as he’s experiencing it. I don’t give myself the ability to use the third person omniscient narrator because I’m afraid of getting too far ahead in the story. I have a reason for that.

When writing about a bygone era, it’s very easy for the writer to slip into something I call the "dreaded data dump," an unfortunate place where the author is anxious to demonstrate how much research he or she did on the era by packing the story with historically accurate facts. These data dumps are usually long sections that might be interesting to read, but often kill the momentum of the story. By only allowing myself to use the first person voice, I can constantly yet subtly remind the reader of the time and setting of the novel. I can either talk about the grand mansions and packed streets of Old New York, or I can have Charlie mention them as he’s moving from one location to the other on his way to cracking the case. People tend to skip over passages that are too long, and that means death to a writer and a story.

My books may be set in the past, but they’re being read by a modern audience who have all of the distractions of the day. Emails, texts, social media are all at the reader’s fingertips, especially if they’re reading on a tablet or smartphone. The last thing I want them to do is leave Charlie’s world to glance at what’s happening right now.

Getting a modern reader to relate to the 1930s is also a challenge that must be overcome. Some pick up a book like mine expecting to read a hats-and-gats drama with tough private detectives, gun molls and wise-cracking gangsters. That’s why I try to make my characters more believable by showing the people of that era are very relatable to the people of today. Many of my characters are survivors. They’ve lived through the horrors of the First World War, the boozy glamour of the Roaring Twenties and are now suffering through the horrible hangover of the beginning stages of the Great Depression. Times are bad and promise to get worse. But rather than tell the reader all of that, I have chosen to relate that story from Charlie’s point of view. He’s as world-weary as the next guy, but he doesn’t fall into the same categories of similar characters who have come before him. He isn’t idealistic, he doesn’t follow a code and he’s not above shoving someone aside to grab a quick buck. He’s a product of his time; a former detective who had made plenty of money during the corrupt Tammany Hall era, but finds himself pushed aside by the Reform movement sweeping the day. I don’t tell the reader any of this. I show them through Charlie’s internal dialogue and actions. I find this makes it easier for the reader to understand the time by seeing it all through Charlie’s eyes.

author Terrence McCauley
Another challenge about writing about the past is overcoming modern biases about the actions and opinions of characters from another age. For example, I didn’t include a female detective in Fairfax because, quite frankly, there weren’t many female detectives back then. Sure, there were a few, but not enough to make one’s inclusion in my story seem realistic. Doing so would have been jarring and, as I said earlier, the last thing I want to do is pull the reader’s eyes off the page. That also doesn’t mean I make all the women in my books flappers or house fraus, either. Instead, the women in Fairfax and my other 1930s books are strong and influential in their own way. In Prohibition, for example, Alice may seem weak, but she exudes a lot of influence over the enforcer Terry Quinn. In Fairfax, I don’t think anyone would want to find themselves across the bargaining table from the formidable matriarch Mrs. Fairfax. And one of the main villains in the book doesn’t pick up a Tommy gun and begin firing. She is far more powerful by using her intelligence and cunning to serve her cause.

All of the devices and themes I mention here serve one purpose: to do everything I can to get the reader to buy in to the story. People read historical fiction for a lot of reasons. One reason I read it is to lose myself in a time that I might know something about, but wish to read about it in a fictionalized setting. My goal in writing Fairfax and my other 1930s novels is to introduce the reader to a time that’s not all unlike our own. A time where civil unrest and political paranoia runs rampant. A time when people worked hard and did what they had to do to survive. And to show them a protagonist who is far from a hero, but does the best he can with who he is.

The more things change, the more they seem to stay the same.


Terrence McCauley's The Fairfax Incident is published today by Polis Books.

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Katherine Kovacic's The Portrait of Molly Dean, a multi-period Australian thriller about a real-life unsolved murder

“Lane & Co. think they have a portrait of a pretty but unknown girl by an unknown artist. However, I am planning to buy a portrait by Colin Colahan of a girl who became famous for being the victim in one of Melbourne’s most sensational murders; a murder that has never been solved. Her name is Molly Dean.”

These attention-grabbing sentences summarize the opening of Kovacic’s terrific new crime novel. In 1999, Alex Clayton, an art dealer used to turning paintings over swiftly for profit, arrives at an auction house knowing more about a portrait’s backstory than anyone—or so she thinks. After her successful bid, she researches its subject, uncovers a web of mysteries, and needs to know even more.

Molly Dean, the dark-haired, brown-eyed woman gazing out from the canvas, was the artist’s lover, a schoolteacher and aspiring writer with a troubled home life. In 1930, she was brutally beaten on a dark suburban lane and died hours later. The prime suspect went free, without even a trial. With the help of her art restorer friend John, the Mulder to her Scully, Alex investigates the decades-old mystery. An alternating thread follows Molly’s path up to that fateful night.

This is Kovacic’s debut, and thriller writing is clearly her forte. Her art-infused story has relentless pacing, and Alex’s brash attitude and witty voice exert a strong pull. Molly’s sections are slower and more detailed, and the bohemian world she inhabits is more implied than present, but her determination inspires respect. She seeks to escape her coarse, abusive mother and achieve her literary dreams but lacks sufficient support.

Molly was a real person, and her shocking biography is just as the author describes. Fans of Jessie Burton’s The Muse and Josephine Pennicott’s multi-period gothics should seek it out.

The Portrait of Molly Dean was published by Echo, an imprint of Bonnier Australia, this year. I hadn't heard of it until I came across it as a Read Now title on NetGalley, and it was a worthy find. US-based readers can find the e-version for sale at Amazon for $9.99. I reviewed it originally for May's Historical Novels Review.  This is also my 3rd entry for this year's Australian Women Writers Challenge.