Thursday, November 29, 2018

Family traditions and women's hidden histories: Cathy Lamb's No Place I'd Rather Be

Cathy Lamb’s No Place I’d Rather Be is a multi-period saga that leans more heavily on the contemporary side of things, so it can work as a gateway for readers wanting to dip their toe into the historical fiction world. It intermingles the themes of cooking, family heritage, and strong women – and how broken bonds are relinked.

In 2011, Olivia Martindale returns to Kalulell (a small city modeled on Kalispell), Montana, after a two-year absence spurred by the breakdown of her marriage, for reasons not revealed until later in the book. Accompanying her are two girls, Stephi and Lucy, she hopes to adopt once their abusive, drug-addicted mother’s parental rights are terminated. All three are quickly swept up into Olivia’s family baking traditions (what they call “Martindale Cake Therapy”).

The Martindale women are tough and independent, and each has struggled to get where she is. There’s sister Chloe, a widowed paramedic whose teenage son, Kyle (a terrific character), has Asperger’s; mother Mary Beth, a divorced surgeon who encourages (in a lovingly pushy way) Stephi and Lucy’s interest in medicine; and her kind grandmother Gisela, a traditional healer and former nurse who works with Mary Beth in a family clinic.

Their personalities are oversize, and their dialogue sometimes over-the-top, but this story has a strong heart and manages to balance their eccentricities with a much more serious side. During a rainstorm at the family home, Olivia rushes up to the attic and rescues a taped-up old trunk from water damage. Within it, she discovers artifacts from Gisela’s past: a wedding dress, a 1940s nurse’s uniform, a menorah, and a singed, stained cookbook filled with handwritten recipes in several languages and old drawings. Gisela had never spoken of her parents or family in the Old Country, since their history clearly caused her pain. The stories of Gisela's own mother and grandmother, dating back to the 1890s along the outskirts of Odessa, are interspersed. As Olivia slowly uncovers what her grandmother endured seven decades earlier, can she also reconnect with her estranged, seemingly perfect husband?

For those who enjoy relationship-focused novels with a lot of sass and a dash of history, this book is a good choice to curl up with on a chilly autumn afternoon.

No Place I'd Rather Be was published by Kensington in 2017.  Thanks to the author for the review copy.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

A visual preview of the winter 2018-19 season in historical fiction

The winter season is nearly upon us!  What historical novels are you looking forward to over the next few months?  Here are a dozen that caught my attention. What they offer: less familiar settings, new perspectives, and/or intriguing characters.  I haven't read any of these yet but am looking forward to them all.

The story of two women, a child, a difficult journey, and the aftermath of war, set in Spain and southern France at the end of WWII.  Now this is an eye-catching cover. Lake Union, February 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Secrets surround the marshy English landscape where a 10-year old girl arrives in 1939 to meet the couple who will adopt her. Her father's rescue of a downed German airman spurs a chain of events that haunt her, decades later, as an old woman. Readers in the UK can find it under the title Call of the Curlew. Tin House, January 2019. [see on Goodreads]

A new novel set to reveal a little-known story about America's first president: his relationship with his first love, Mary Philipse, and how it affected his views going forward.  St. Martin's, February 2019. [see on Goodreads]

The author's second novel takes place in colonial Malaysia in the 1930s, focusing on an apprentice dressmaker working in a dance hall, a houseboy with an unusual task, and what happens when their paths collide. Flatiron, February 2019. [see on Goodreads]

This literary saga promises intrigue surrounding glass designer Tiffany and his opulent mansions, his gardener's family, and repercussions of past choices spiraling down from 1916 over the next century.  Sarah Crichton Books/FSG, February 2019.  [see on Goodreads]

The 17th century continues to be fertile ground for new fiction. The witch trials of early 17th-century England sit at the backdrop of this debut, in which two young women - a wife desperate for a child, and a midwife accused of witchcraft - join together amid desperate circumstances.  MIRA (US/Canada), Zaffre (UK), February 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Bartolomeo Scappi was a historical figure, a famed chef in Renaissance Italy. In King's second novel (after Feast of Sorrow, also on a culinary subject), Scappi's nephew, Giovanni, searches for secrets in his late uncle's past. Atria, February 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Knowing his days are numbered, a consumptive attorney teams up with an ex-soldier to track a killer in late 18th-century Stockholm. The author's surname, Swedish for "night and day," indicates he's a descendant of one of Sweden's oldest noble families. [see on Goodreads]

There's been considerable buzz about this literary debut, which isn't the first to reveal the story of model/photographer Lee Miller in the 20th century, but the author's style and language are receiving accolades. Little, Brown, February 2019. [see on Goodreads]

The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo

A historical mystery set in Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy's Egypt, as she asks her friend to investigate her spy's recent murder; first in a new series. Head of Zeus, December 2018. [see on Goodreads]

The story of Cherokee America Singer (called "Check"), a farmer and mother of five in the Cherokee Nation West of 1875, and the family dramas and culture clashes that involve her and her community.  Western fiction from a perspective not seen enough in the genre.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, February 2019. [see on Goodreads]

A Mormon woman, living in a remote town along a canyon floor in Utah, finds her life turned upside down when a stranger requests her help. Weisgarber's novels always show mastery of setting and character development. Skyhorse, February 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Friday, November 23, 2018

Supriya Kelkar's debut novel Ahimsa: the Indian independence movement through young eyes

It’s impressive how much cultural and historical detail Supriya Kelkar has worked into her debut novel without sacrificing pacing. Ahimsa moves along quickly, its title referring to the principle of non-violent resistance promoted by Gandhi during India’s struggle for independence from Britain.

In 1942, Shailaja Joshi, a young wife and mother, heeds Gandhi’s request that a member of each Indian family should take part in their country’s freedom movement. She has the support of her husband, and quits her job working for a British officer, although the elderly uncle who lives with the family feels her efforts will ultimately be futile. However, the action is seen not from Shailaja’s viewpoint but that of her ten-year-old daughter, Anjali.

While Ahimsa is geared toward middle-grade readers, it can be appreciated by older readers as well, adults included. I didn’t feel like any of the language or concepts were oversimplified. The novel covers a dramatic and traumatic time in India’s history, with tensions rising between India and Britain, between Hindus and Muslims, within India’s rigid caste system, and between the courageous people who seek change and those who resist it just as strongly. It’s remarkable how well these serious conflicts are articulated within a book for young readers.

The story follows Anjali as she adjusts her perceptions while her world and family transform in front of her. She doesn’t understand when her mother burns their gorgeously colored, British-made saris, instead making them wear plainer, homespun cotton khadis because they’re locally woven. Through her mother, Anjali also has her eyes opened to the living situation of her family’s toilet-cleaner, Mohan, a boy who was forced into that role simply for being born into the lowest caste.

Both Anjali and Shailaja make mistakes in their approach to change. In keeping with reality, Kelkar doesn’t present the adults as having all the answers. This new era in India is a learning experience for the entire family, and there are universal lessons worth absorbing, too, like the need to respect and use the name that a group prefers to call themselves (for example: Dalits for Mohan’s caste, rather than the insulting term Untouchables or Gandhi’s term for them, Harijan). Anjali’s best friend is a Muslim boy, Irfaan, and the plot also demonstrates how their close relationship is affected when Hindu-Muslim riots break out in their town.

The two-page glossary at the end could easily have been expanded, but overall this is an engaging novel based on the experiences of the author’s great-grandmother (Shailaja in the story). For historical fiction readers and librarians interested in experiencing India's history through young eyes, or adding an #ownvoices story to their collection, Ahimsa would be a good choice.

Ahimsa was published by Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low, in 2017; I received a copy through LibraryThing's FirstReads program earlier this year.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

New England Gothic: The Witch of Willow Hall

Tapping into recent interests in Gothic fiction, Fox’s uneven debut focuses on the middle daughter of a wealthy New England family who doesn’t realize she inherited a talent for witchcraft. As a child in 1812 Boston, Lydia Montrose unsuspectingly calls upon her latent powers to take revenge against a cruel neighbor boy. Nine years later, she and her family are forced to leave the city following rumors of her older sister Catherine’s shocking conduct.

They take up residence in Willow Hall, a large mansion in the distant town of New Oldbury, where her father, investor in a local mill, hopes to make a fresh start. Lydia is close to her eight-year-old sister Emeline, and while they enjoy wandering the countryside, spiteful Catherine chafes at her forced isolation. As Lydia develops an interest in John Barrett, her father’s handsome business partner, Catherine’s jealousy asserts itself while she simultaneously flirts with John’s friend. Meanwhile, supernatural happenings at Willow Hall, which only Lydia can see, hint at its tragic past.

The story’s premise – a young woman coming to terms with abilities passed down from an accused Salem witch – is a clever one. Because the scenes focusing on this aspect are particularly strong, they should have been given greater prominence over the romance and toxic family drama. Fox is particularly skilled at conveying the creepy atmosphere when the dead emerge into the world of the living.

The secondary characters, including Lydia’s mother and father, feel rather thin, and the early industrial New England setting could have been more sharply evoked through the characters’ actions and dialogue. The Montrose daughters’ attention to social proprieties comes and goes; maybe their odd conduct could be chalked up to lax parenting. Fans of historical horror may want to read the novel regardless, especially if they enjoyed Louisa Morgan’s A Secret History of Witches.

I reviewed this novel for November's Historical Novels Review. The Witch of Willow Hall was published by Graydon House in October. Judging by the Goodreads reviews, I'm in the minority with my reaction.

Monday, November 12, 2018

A septet of recent & upcoming historical novels, all with the number seven

This doesn't qualify to be a trend, but it's a curious recent phenomenon. The number seven figures prominently in classical history, mythology, and literature; it's thought of as a particularly lucky or magical number.  So perhaps it's no surprise that authors are channeling its power within their fiction.  Here are — of course — seven historical novels, all published in 2017 or after, which share this number in their titles (or series). How I came upon this interesting commonality is something you might call sevendipity. After finding the Grames novel on Edelweiss last week, its title reminded me of another, and then another... there are a few that I think readers will have trouble keeping straight!

Seven fictional tales set in the same historical worlds as Gabaldon's Outlander stories set in the 18th century and later; two are original to this book. Delacorte, 2017. [see on Goodreads]

The story of Stella Fortuna, a young woman in early 20th-century Italy who seems unusually accident-prone, and her long, complicated relationship with her sister, both in Italy and America over the next century. Ecco, forthcoming May 2019. [see on Goodreads]

A moving historical novel set aboard the Lusitania during WWI and based partly on family history. HarperCollins, 2017. [see on Goodreads]

Part of James's Desperate Duchesses series of Georgian- and Regency-set historical romances, this entry focuses on an earl's son in need of a governess for his siblings, and an aristocratic woman who runs a governess agency  Avon, 2017. [see on Goodreads]

A young woman tapped to write an aging film star's biography is drawn into her stories of the lost world of 1950s Hollywood and all of her past marriages. Atria, 2017. [see on Goodreads]

This is the fifth and latest in Riley's Seven Sisters series (the first book had the title The Seven Sisters) about a group of women, adopted by the same man as babies, who leave for adventures around the world in search of their birth heritage. Their family stories take readers back to the early 20th century. Atria, forthcoming February 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Set around a 1920s country house party, this unusual murder mystery features a protagonist who inhabits the body of different characters and is forced to relive events of the fateful day of Evelyn's death until he solves the crime.  Sourcebooks, 2018. [see on Goodreads]

Friday, November 09, 2018

Great Lakes Gothic: Wendy Webb's Daughters of the Lake

Wendy Webb’s newest Gothic novel is partly a paranormal time-slip with occasional ghosts and spooky happenings. It’s also a multi-period saga about doomed lovers and a long-unsolved mystery full of atmospheric Great Lakes folklore. If any of these elements appeal, dive right in!

Present day: the body of an auburn-haired young woman wearing a vintage nightgown is released by Lake Superior, a baby clutched in her cold arms. Kate Granger reacts badly to the discovery, since she’s been having dreams from the woman’s viewpoint. After traveling to the tourist town of Wharton, where her cousin Simon has transformed their wealthy great-grandfather’s mansion into a B&B, Kate learns the mystery has followed her there.

As Kate recovers from a broken marriage, Simon’s caring attitude helps ground her; so does Nick Adams, a handsome African-American cop. An alternating thread follows Addie Cassatt, the young woman from the lake, from her unusual birth circumstances in 1889 to her loving marriage and tragic last days. Addie’s ancestors had close ties with the lake, which somehow protected them. A similar thread of destiny links Addie to Jess Stewart, a boy who saves her life.

I rarely read novels straight through in a day, but – pardon the watery descriptions – the fluid writing swept me into its wake, keeping me reading even when thought I knew where the story led. The plot moves from present to past and back, sometimes popping unexpectedly into minor characters’ viewpoints, but the transitions are smooth.

Highlights include the realistic dialogue, warmhearted characters (especially Simon), and depictions of early 20th-century Midwestern architecture, social happenings, and attitudes. How many old mysteries arise from the fact that our 19th-century forebears were reluctant to air their personal woes? That historical sentiment rings absolutely true. The story isn’t out-and-out terrifying like Webb’s earlier Gothics, but it’s still an engrossing supernatural tale.

Daughters of the Lake was published by Lake Union on November 1; it's currently the #1 bestseller in Amazon's Gothic Fiction category. I reviewed it for November's Historical Novels Review.

Sunday, November 04, 2018

The Monastery Murders by E. M. Powell, a deadly excursion to 12th-century Yorkshire

The second outing for the talented detective team of Aelred Barling, royal clerk to Henry II, and his assistant Hugo Stanton is full of chilling atmosphere, both literal and figurative. At the request of Ranulf de Glanville, Justiciar of England in 1177 AD, both are sent north from London, a ten days’ ride in darkest winter, to the remote Cistercian house of Fairmore Abbey in Yorkshire. On Christmas Eve, the mild-mannered sacrist, Brother Cuthbert, was found murdered in a pretty horrific way.

Abbot Philip, who’d known Barling during their youthful studies in Paris, requests his help specifically. While Stanton’s an easygoing sort who enjoys ale, convivial gatherings, and women, Barling is a straitlaced fellow who prefers time at his writing desk. When it comes to their feelings about this mission, though, they’re in agreement: neither wants to go.

When they arrive at the monastery, which is nestled deep into a rocky valley, they discover the place in turmoil, although few openly admit it. Tension spills out from multiple avenues. The older monks chafe at Philip’s election to his current role, the lay brothers resent being treated like mindless workhorses, and many feel uncomfortable breaking their vows of silence to respond to outsiders’ questions. Then a second murder occurs, and another. Each is creatively gruesome.

This strongly plotted mystery is definitely not a cozy! The thawing relationship between Barling and Stanton, already begun after their joint success in The King’s Justice, helps lighten their increasingly heavy investigative burden. Barling sees it as his duty to impart periodic lessons that Stanton hates, but they acknowledge the other’s strengths and gifts. The final outcome, which arrives after a high body count, depends on their bond of mutual trust and is gratifying in that sense, and others.

The cast list isn’t solely male, and the presence of women in this highly regulated masculine environment creates disarray that’s first entertaining, and later dangerous. Hints at secrets about Barling’s past, which he’d rather not think about, contribute another intrigue-filled layer. Sometimes later volumes in a mystery series reveal the truth about earlier whodunits, but fortunately this isn't the case here.  Readers who haven’t picked up book one, which I also recommend, won't discover any clues about how that mystery was resolved.

The Monastery Murders is published by Thomas & Mercer, Amazon's crime/thriller imprint, in September.  Thanks to the author (who I'd interviewed about book one, The King's Justice) for sending me a NetGalley widget.