Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Splendor Before the Dark, the conclusion to Margaret George's saga of Emperor Nero's life

“You had the courage to be openly yourself . . . to be an artist in spite of ridicule and opposition,” says one woman to Emperor Nero, simultaneously describing his charismatic appeal and tragic flaw.

Covering his tumultuous last four years, George’s invigorating sequel to The Confessions of Young Nero​ (2017) opens in AD 64 with Rome’s Great Fire. Although he wasn’t there when it started, and assists refugees afterward, rumors imply otherwise.

His architectural designs for rebuilding the city are dazzling but drain the treasury. Despite his political naïveté and other faults, Nero’s narrative voice never fails to captivate because of his full-throated appreciation for art and life in general.

He cherishes his inner circle, including his beloved wife, Poppaea, while others betray him. He achieves his dream of competitive chariot racing, and Greece’s scenic wonders are gloriously brought into view as he brings a large entourage there for an extended tour of the sacred games, to the Senate’s dismay. Although Nero acknowledges the competing aspects of his complicated nature, he fails to balance them.

George’s nuanced, well-researched character study depicts his candid inner self and how the performance of his short life played out on the Roman Empire’s vast stage. It succeeds admirably in persuading readers to reconsider their impressions of the infamous Nero.

The Splendor Before the Dark will be published next week by Berkley; I wrote this starred review for Booklist's October 1 issue. It's almost 600pp long, and the first book was over 500pp, but they move quickly and will whisk you into Nero's captivating world. The book's title is perfect, too.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Children of God by Lars Petter Sveen, an unusual look at New Testament times

The first English-language release by Norwegian best-seller and prize-winner Sveen contains interconnected stories set in New Testament times. Both historical fiction and allegory, the book is insightful in both contexts. It focuses primarily on ordinary people on society’s edges—prostitutes, thieves, the lost and suffering—although Jesus and other biblical figures appear and interact with them.

In the shocking initial tale, Roman soldiers follow King Herod’s orders to kill Bethlehem’s infant boys but question their mission’s morality. A blind, elderly man persuades them otherwise; he shows up to sow discord in many other stories. A healing miracle occurs, but its effect later slips. Two sisters’ lives take dramatic turns, and the Samaritan woman is seen from a new viewpoint.

The blind stranger’s statements (e.g., “I’m what stays in the shadows while the light falls elsewhere”) become repetitive, but the stories’ consistent message speaks to the insidiousness of evil and self-doubt. While reflecting individuals’ long-ago struggles for faith, autonomy, and survival, Sveen’s linked stories also have significant modern relevance that reaches a powerful crescendo by the book’s end.

Children of God, translated into English by Guy Puzey, is published this month by Graywolf in trade paperback and ebook.  This review first appeared in Booklist's 10/15 issue. For a different (and lengthier) perspective, it was also reviewed in this past weekend's New York Times.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Hard times: Laurie Loewenstein's Death of a Rainmaker, a mystery set in Dust Bowl Oklahoma

When times turn desperate, tensions rise, and people start seeking an outlet for their suffering. In this sense, the Depression-era Dust Bowl feels like a classic setting for a murder mystery, although surprisingly few authors have taken advantage of it.

Here, just like in her first novel, Unmentionables, Laurie Loewenstein offers vivid storytelling and a fine eye for evoking small-town life in America’s heartland.

In August 1935, it’s been 240 days since the last rainfall, and the leading citizens of Vermillion, Oklahoma, the seat of Jackson County, seek out hope where they can find it. Roland Coombs arrives in town with promising testimonials to his skills in enticing clouds to let loose their precious drops of water. But less than a day after he shoots shells packed with TNT into the heavens, his body is found in the alley next to the Jewel Movie House, lying under a pile of dirt after an intense dust storm.

The need to solve the crime creates difficulties for longtime sheriff Temple Jennings, who’s up for re-election shortly. He’s also under pressure to start foreclosure proceedings against the Fullers, a hardworking farm couple who’d tried hard to make a go of their land but failed, thanks to the weather. When circumstances lead Temple to pinpoint Carmine, a young man from the nearby CCC camp, as the rainmaker’s murderer, the decision raises unease in those closest to him.

The novel excels in depicting characters and relationships. Temple and his wife, Etha, are devoted to one another, but Etha sees qualities of her late son in Carmine and has reason to believe him innocent. Having lost a child, Etha is horrified by stories of families forcing their older children to leave home since they can’t feed them any more. Then there’s Temple’s deputy, Ed McCance, an earnest former CCCer who doesn’t want the organization’s name tarnished. Just when you think the plot is heading in one direction, the crime’s resolution comes as a surprise.

There are some quirky local traditions, such as the “rarely used” (per Etha) small jail cell in a corner of the Jenningses’ kitchen, and a host of personalities depicted without stereotype, including Chester Benton, the blind and dapper theater owner disgruntled by how the murder leads to lost sales.

The atmosphere of Dust Bowl Oklahoma seeps through the pages, and the descriptions of these tough times become yet stronger when they're made personal: the “worn and brittle” men inhabiting a once-prosperous rooming house, a former destination for westward dreamers, and a family’s daisy-patterned china, the plates they ate on every day, now “nothing more than secondhand plates to some stranger, wiped clean of meaning.”

Death of a Rainmaker was published by Kaylie Jones Books this month; thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Review of The Game of Hope by Sandra Gulland, a novel about Hortense de Beauharnais, Napoleon's stepdaughter

“The key to survival is flexibility.” These words of wisdom, spoken by the drawing instructor at Maîtresse Campan’s boarding school for girls, prove prescient for his pupil, Hortense de Beauharnais. At the beginning of Gulland’s elegantly written young adult novel, set in France in 1798, Hortense is just fifteen. She and her cousin Ém and close friend Adèle (called Mouse), Maîtresse Campan’s niece, form a tightly knit threesome. They attend their lessons and look after the school’s younger charges. However, their mutually supportive group is still part of the larger world, and Gulland carefully presents the historical backdrop as Hortense would have experienced it.

It’s been a mere four years since the Reign of Terror, in which many French aristocrats were executed via guillotine. Hortense’s father was one of them, and she suffers terrible nightmares and worries that she played a role in his death. Her ebullient mother, Rose, now married to General Bonaparte, has been obliged to reinvent herself as well; she now goes by Josephine, Bonaparte’s preferred name for her. Hortense’s brother Eugène is serving with Bonaparte in Egypt, and she writes him heartfelt letters that she’s unable to send. And then there’s her classmate Annunziata, Bonaparte’s rude younger sister, who suddenly decides to call herself Caroline.

Hortense’s lively and warm nature makes her an appealing narrator, and although more colorful personalities threaten to outshine her, she holds her own. Her coming of age and the accompanying shifts in her relationships are among the book’s highlights. While Josephine writes to her daughter that “we’re more like the best of friends,” she also counsels her that “it’s wise not to linger” in an unmarried state, since “a girl quickly loses her bloom.” This is difficult advice for a romantically-inclined teenager to hear, especially when she has a crush on a handsome, older officer.

Over the course of the book, Hortense gains greater perspective on the stepfather she disdains, the father she adored but barely knew, and even her challenging schoolmate, Caroline. Her frequent exclamations (aie!) and parenthetical asides sometimes make her seem younger than her age. That said, the novel strikes the right balance between Hortense’s youthful innocence and the tense uncertainty of the era. It creates a convincing portrait of a young woman learning about her world, navigating through limited choices, and fulfilling her ambitions as much as she’s able.

The Game of Hope was published by Viking Books for Young Readers in June (384pp, hardcover and ebook); I read it from a personal copy. This review forms part of the author's blog tour with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.

During the Blog Tour, we will be giving away a copy of The Game of Hope to one lucky reader! To enter, please enter via the Gleam form below.

Giveaway Rules:

– Giveaway ends at 11:59pm EST on October 22nd. You must be 18 or older to enter.
– Giveaway is open to US Only.
– Only one entry per household.
– All giveaway entrants agree to be honest and not cheat the systems; any suspect of fraud is decided upon by blog/site owner and the sponsor, and entrants may be disqualified at our discretion.
– Winner has 48 hours to claim prize or new winner is chosen.  Good luck!

Game of Hope

Monday, October 15, 2018

Interview with Margaret Porter, author of Beautiful Invention: A Novel of Hedy Lamarr

Margaret Porter's new novel Beautiful Invention reveals, in lively and convincing fashion, the complicated life of Hedy Lamarr: Austrian-born screen star, film producer, wartime fundraiser, and talented inventor. While she was best known as a glamour girl, the results of her scientific collaboration with composer George Antheil are credited as a precursor to today's Bluetooth technology. I'm happy to offer an interview today with Margaret, and I'd like to thank her for answering my questions and sending me a copy of the book, which is being launched in the US today.

What convinced you to write a novel based on Hedy Lamarr, and what aspects about her do you admire the most?

The desire to write about Hedy resulted from various alignments and serendipities. Not many years after her death, I was doing an internet search for some '30s and '40s film stars—her near contemporaries—and kept hitting articles about her newly publicized technological achievement. At the time, I filed it in the back of my mind as merely “interesting” and “surprising” and “unexpected.”

Then, in 2010, two biographies of her were published—one by Ruth Barton and the other by Michael Shearer. The following year came Hedy’s Folly by Richard Rhodes, primarily about her invention of frequency-hopping and spread-spectrum technology. I still remember hearing the author’s interview on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show. At the time, my focus was 17th- and 18th-century England, but gradually I considered starting a novel about Hedy Lamarr, if only to challenge myself.

The time period seemed so far outside my familiarity zone. Yet I had studied cinema history extensively during my graduate film studies, and after earning my degree I continued reading about related subjects just for pleasure. And I’ve always been a TCM addict. When I was unable to decide which competing 17th or 18th century subject to pursue, Hedy slipped in and co-opted my attention. It helped having two fine biographies of her, and many other explorations of her life and career—these were a great foundation. But Beautiful Invention is largely based on my own primary research, and there was so, so much background material to utilize.

Beautiful Invention shows that Hedy Lamarr had a thoroughly eventful life in the public eye, beginning when she was just sixteen. I enjoyed your depiction of the many facets of her life, her scientific accomplishments, and her need and desire to continually reinvent herself. How did you decide what aspects to depict on the page, and which to skim over or leave out? 

The filtering process was probably my greatest challenge. Earlier drafts contained more of her life in Austria, because that was the most unfamiliar aspect of her life to most people—apart from her hobby of inventing. And then I found that different periods of her life fit rather neatly into a three-part structure. She starred in so many films, therefore I had to pick and choose which roles were important in the overall trajectory of her career, and where the primary focus should be her complex personal life. Early on I decided to conclude on an ambiguously positive note, while at the same time foreshadowing her next reinvention. I had no intention of pursuing her into her post-Hollywood life. It was so tortured, as anyone who viewed the Bombshell documentary is aware.

In the afterword, you described having learned about Hedy at a young age, since your father had thought highly of her. How did your impressions of Hedy change as you delved into her story and researched it more thoroughly?

When I began the novel, I thought of her chiefly as a beautiful actress with a brilliantly creative brain. I couldn’t help being impressed by her curiosity, her intellect, and her determination. I discovered how mercurial she was, and how very enigmatic she could be in her relationships. Because Hedy was a collection of contradictions, I wanted to be very intentional in clarifying motivations at decision points in the story.

Her ethnic background was one of the reasons she needed to leave Austria when she did. But she never admitted that all her grandparents were Jewish, not even to her own children. Hitler was aware, and it was no secret in Europe—yet during her years of greatest prominence, hardly any American press accounts mentioned it. She regarded her beauty as a curse, and hated that people’s expectations of her were based wholly on the way she looked. But she needed to capitalize on her appeal in order to make a living. She was a down-to-earth homebody but professionally ambitious.

Hedy Lamarr, publicity photo for The Heavenly Body (1944)

The glamour girl image that MGM projected was uncomfortable for her, and she had to sustained it to survive and thrive within the studio system. She wanted to excel at acting but found movie making tedious. She longed to commit to a true soul mate, but fell in love too easily and married too hastily. More than once.

I enjoyed the nuanced depiction of Hedy’s marriage to Fritz Mandl, although her life with him definitely wasn’t easy. I found it interesting that they stayed in contact years later. How did you gain insight into their relationship?

Fritz is also an enigma. To a very great degree, he acted from unalloyed self-interest. I regard his continued contact with Hedy as an artifact of his controlling and possessive nature: “Once mine, forever mine.” But maintaining his connection to the world’s most famous film star was also very convenient for him. After his association with the Nazi regime in Germany became widely known, he would have wanted to salvage his reputation. And I suspect Hedy was grateful to him, in a way, for expanding her horizons beyond the theatre through their social life.

There’s no doubt she met interesting and prominent people during that marriage. At the same time, she was very frustrated and unhappy—who wouldn’t be? But one notable aspect of her character was an ability to move beyond the past and live almost wholly in the present. She prided herself on remaining friends with Fritz, although she probably didn’t expect to in the worst moments of their marriage. Based on the evidence, their parting was more mutual and possibly more amicable than MGM wanted people to believe. The studio had a vested interest in covering over the Mandl taint.

Did you find that your background as an actress informed your perspective on Hedy’s life?

Most definitely. This is my fourth novel with a performer as a heroine, and I do draw on my experience as necessary. Stardom—in films, or on the stage—is a common teenage dream, one that Hedy and I shared. I’ve spent years of my life, since childhood, in the theatre, and from my teens I was on location with feature films or television shows. Unlike Hedy, I never had the pressure of carrying a film, and its profitability certainly did not depend on my efforts as an extra! I felt an especially close kinship with her when she ventured into producing, because that’s the path I eventually followed. I would like to have focused on that brief chapter of her career more than I was able to in this book.

author Margaret Porter
Your last two novels have moved in the new direction of biographical fiction. What appeals to you about writing novels based on historical figures?

Biographical fiction was my destiny. In my youth, those were the types of novels I read and re-read and most wanted to write. As an adult reader, I followed the same pattern. Within a few years of finishing graduate school, my first novel was published as a Regency romance, and eventually I was writing longer, more complex books, extremely fact-based. I got distracted from fiction by an ambitious attempt at a literary biography. While intensely researching my subject, the light dawned. “What was I thinking? Here’s my long-awaited opportunity to write a biographical novel!”

That individual generated so much speculation and unsatisfied curiosity, despite my deep immersion in the historical record, and I needed my imagination to fill the gaps. And to supply the deeply personal details and motivations and reactions that are inevitably unavailable to the researcher. For me, that’s what exerts so strong and irresistible an appeal. But at that time I wasn’t entirely clear on the scope of the plot, or its structure, the character arc. So I decided to clear my head by exploring an intriguing but obscure 17th century couple rooted in my own family tree . . . which resulted in A Pledge of Better Times. The next four planned projects also feature real people of the past—though none as famous as Hedy Lamarr!


MARGARET PORTER is the award-winning, bestselling author of Beautiful Invention: A Novel of Hedy Lamarr and twelve other historical novels for U.S. and foreign-language publishers. She studied British history in the U.K. and afterwards worked professionally in theatre, film, and television. Margaret returns annually to Great Britain and Europe to research her novels. She and her husband live in New England with their dogs, dividing their time between an architecturally unique book-filled house in a small city and a waterfront cottage located on one of the region’s largest lakes. More information is available at her website,

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

The Queen's Promise: a panoramic view of the early English Civil War years

Vantrease’s long-awaited return to the historical fiction scene showcases her painstaking attention to characterization and period atmosphere. Opening with a prologue depicting the execution of Charles I’s advisor Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, in 1641, the novel follows a wide array of individuals as tensions between the king and Parliament erupt into civil war.

In 1642, Queen Henrietta Maria, detested by England’s people for her extravagances and fervent Catholicism, travels abroad to deliver the 10-year-old Princess Mary to her future husband and convince the Dutch to buy England’s crown jewels. She has promised to help finance her husband’s battles and return to her younger children, but her words may be as empty as those of her husband, who had vowed to save his friend Strafford.

Meanwhile, young Prince Henry and Princess Elizabeth are quietly taken into the care of Lucy Hay, Countess of Carlisle—Strafford’s former lover, Henrietta’s sometime friend, and current lover of Parliamentary leader John Pym.

Lucy, a courtier who was one of the era’s most intriguing personalities, tended to serve both sides simultaneously when it suited her purposes. In Vantrease’s portrayal, this doesn’t demonstrate fickleness on her part but a unique blend of survival instinct and human compassion.

Although Henrietta and Lucy are the ostensible protagonists, the narrative splits into many different strands that take a long time to form into a cohesive story. The chapters with Caroline Pendleton, wife of a wool merchant turned knight, succeed in evoking the desperate plight of women left alone during wartime. Others focus on James Whittier, a nobleman, printer, and one-time highwayman whose path crosses Caroline’s.

While their stories are interesting when taken individually, the overlarge cast makes the novel lose focus. And so the Broken Kingdom series has a fairly slow start; hopefully Part Two will draw all the stories together more tightly.

Brenda Rickman Vantrease's The Queen's Promise was published by Severn House in August. Book 2, A Far Horizon, will be out next February.  This review first appeared in the Historical Novels Review's August 2018 issue.

Friday, October 05, 2018

Edward Carey's Little, a witty, macabre epic about the woman who became Madame Tussaud

Carey presents an immensely creative epic that follows a poor orphan’s rise to become the famous Madame Tussaud.

Born in 1761, and nicknamed “Little” for her petite size, Anne Marie Grosholtz becomes the unpaid apprentice of her late mother’s odd, nervous employer, Dr. Curtius. After fleeing to Paris, they join forces with a redoubtable widow and her son. Their skills with wax attract attention, leading to their unusual museum and Marie’s invitation to tutor Princesse Elisabeth at Versailles.

At a time of rampant social disparities, the museum becomes a great equalizer: a place where royalty, poets, and notorious murderers—that is, their sculpted stand-ins—can be viewed up close, and ordinary people can participate in a lottery to be models themselves.

Mingling a sense of playfulness with macabre history, Carey depicts the excesses of wealth and violence during the French Revolution through the eyes of a talented woman who lived through it and survived. The oddball characters and gothic eccentricities evoke Tim Burton’s work, but without any fantastical elements; the reality is sufficiently strange on its own.

Carey shows how the seemingly absurd, like royal servants lodging in cupboards and artisans forced to re-create newly executed people’s heads in wax, becomes shockingly routine. The unique perspective, witty narrative voice, and clever illustrations make for an irresistible read.

I wrote this starred review for Booklist's September issue.  Little will be published later this month by Riverhead in the US. Aardvark Bureau published it in the UK this week.

The question of whether there are fantastical elements in the book (see the review at Kirkus) seems up for debate; it depends on whether you believe that some of the objects Marie encounters are actually sentient, or if her perceptions are due to her unique view of the world. I chose the latter, and appreciate how it was written to be read either way.

Also, having read and loved Michelle Moran's Madame Tussaud (see my earlier review), I wondered how similar a read Little would be.  My conclusion: other than being based on the same person and circumstances, they're very different in approach and tone.  It's worth reading both!