Thursday, August 15, 2019

Interview with Elizabeth Bell, author of Necessary Sins, first in a four-book family saga

Lovers of engrossing family sagas: here's a new historical series to add to your list. Necessary Sins, the first book in Elizabeth Bell's Lazare Family Saga, travels from Saint-Domingue in the French West Indies in the late 18th century to Charleston, South Carolina in the 19th century, with a brief sojourn in Rome. The book's tagline—"In antebellum Charleston, a Catholic priest grapples with doubt, his family's secret African ancestry, and his love for a slave owner's wife"—reveals the basics of the plot. Joseph Lazare and the woman he comes to love, Tessa Conley, are richly described, complex characters, as are the rest of the cast. They include his level-headed doctor father, René; his mother, Anne, a hearing-impaired woman and devout Catholic; and even Joseph's formidable great-grandmother, Marguerite, whose story is told early on and whose actions affect all of their lives. I read it on a lengthy transatlantic flight, glued to the pages. Thanks to Elizabeth for her willingness to answer some questions in this interview.

The research you undertook during the 26 years of the writing process sounds impressively thorough. What were some of the most enjoyable or unique aspects of the research process?

My fictional family's story begins in Saint-Domingue, the French sugar colony that becomes Haiti. A lot of the information about Saint-Domingue is available only in French. I took seven years of French, but it was getting rusty when I started that part of the story. Then there's 18th-century French and modern French. So I'd say the language barrier was one of the more challenging aspects.

I also researched Catholicism extensively. I attended Masses in Latin, both in a church and in the open air before a Civil War reenactment. I felt like a spy because I wasn't there as a worshipper. My most enjoyable research was on-the-ground, when I toured the Charleston area. During last year's Festival of Houses & Gardens, I got to step inside the private home that sits where my character Tessa's house is located, on the corner of Church Street and Longitude Lane. You buy the ticket months in advance, and you don't know the exact homes you'll visit, so that was surreal: to stand in the place where on some other plane, my characters were arguing and embracing.

Title page of our best first-hand account of
Saint-Domingue (1797), written by a colonist
named Médéric-Louis-Élie Moreau de Saint-Méry.
You’ve written a remarkably complex, multi-layered male protagonist who not only lives in the 19th century, but who’s also of mixed race, as he's shocked to discover, and is destined for the priesthood. How did his character develop over time? Did any of these qualities present more challenges during the writing process than others?

I don't exactly make it easy for myself! My Joseph Lazare was inspired by Father Ralph de Bricassart in The Thorn Birds. But for about the first 15 years of his fictional existence, Joseph was merely a supporting character. My focus was his nephew David and…well, David's generation, because the other two characters would be spoilers. Joseph and Tessa were always in love, but for 15 years, I never let them do anything about it. Theirs was a tragic, unconsummated love that pretty much all the characters knew about, but it was entirely chaste. It's, ahem, become less chaste as I grew into adulthood myself and took a hard look at Catholicism and starting asking "Why?" and "What if?" questions.

Catholic Cathedral of St. John the Baptist,
Charleston, SC (although the congregation existed
in Joseph's day, this structure was completed
much later, in 1907; photo by author)
Catholicism is a gold mine of drama and angst for a fiction writer, and I couldn't let that opportunity go to waste. Since I've never been a boy or a man, writing from Joseph's point-of-view at various stages of his life was its own peculiar challenge. I found myself checking out books from the library on a boy's changing adolescent body! The history of racial identity and categorization is its own mountainous subject area. But I write because I want to learn and understand. I want my characters to be fully realized individuals. By giving them life in all its complexities, I think I expand my own humanity.

At what point did you realize the full story of the Lazares would be a four-book series?

About six months ago! When I began this story, I thought I was writing a single book. I knew it would be a long book, but my inspirations were 900-page epics from the 1980s, so I thought that was fine. Very slowly, I realized my saga would be more like 1500 pages. I decided that I had a trilogy...and then when I actually finished "Book 3," I realized it was over 800 pages. I had to split it again for a total of 4 books. To me, they're all one narrative. The character arcs aren't complete and the story won't be totally satisfying unless the 4 books are read in order. Joseph at the end of Book 1 or even Book 2 is not the fully evolved Joseph.

What impressed you so much about The Thorn Birds that compelled you to write an homage?

I love all that Colleen McCullough accomplishes in The Thorn Birds. The way she captures a time and place I knew nothing about, rural Australia. Her unforgettable characters. Her work holds up to repeat reads, and I get more out of it every time. Most of all, I love how interconnected each generation of her family saga is, how Fee's story echoes through her children and grandchildren. I loved the idea that (SPOILER) the earlier generations screw up and miss their chances at happiness, but eventually the youngest generation is able to break the cycle and find fulfillment. It's not reincarnation, but it's like the family is a single being that's failing and slowly learning and finally growing—the story arc isn't just about a single character's journey but all the family members together. That's so emotionally engaging and satisfying. I guess I find it cathartic, the idea that suffering will eventually lead to transcendence, even if it happens beyond your own lifetime. In Book 2 of my saga, Lost Saints, I have Tessa quote Thomas Paine: "If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace."

The Thorn Birds also inspired so many questions. As you can probably guess, I was most captivated by the character of Father Ralph. I wanted to understand the choices he made: why he wouldn't leave the Church for Meggie and why he became a celibate priest in the first place. Colleen McCullough gives us glimpses into Ralph's inner struggle, but only glimpses, and we hear very little about his life before he's ordained. I wanted more! I started asking "What if?" and eventually my answers turned into Joseph and Necessary Sins.

Alley of live oaks, Boone Hall Plantation, Charleston, SC (photo by author)

How did you choose South Carolina as the main setting?

When I was eight years old, my parents took me to visit Charleston. I fell in love, and I knew I had to set a story there. The desire simmered until I had a story to tell. I adore the flora and fauna of the Lowcountry, and they became part of my saga. But as a child, I think what appealed to me most was how easy it is to time travel in Charleston. So much of the architecture and narrow streets in the historic district have been lovingly preserved—incredibly, considering the hurricanes, fires, and earthquakes the city has endured.

How were the studies you undertook for your MFA in creative writing beneficial in your writing career?

They definitely made me a better writer. It's essential that a writer read widely and venture outside his or her comfort zone. My literature courses forced me to do that. It's essential that a writer learns to critique others' work, to take criticism, and to make her stories the best versions of themselves. But the most important thing to come out of my MFA degree were the lifelong friendships I forged with classmates. These writers have provided invaluable feedback on my work in the years since we graduated, and they've supported me on this grueling journey to publication.

Old Slave Mart Museum, Charleston (photo by author)

I love family sagas that extend over generations and journey to different places, and based on Necessary Sins and the descriptions of the later books, it sounds like you do, too. What appeals to you about writing an epic historical saga?

I love stories I can dive into and inhabit for more than a day or two. I love contrasts and juxtapositions. I love finding surprising connections and echoes. To me, a saga best reflects reality in all its rich beauty, ugliness, and complexity because the writer has a canvas as large as life. However, classic sagas from ancient times to the 20th century are often larger than life and tend toward melodrama. I'm trying to walk that line: a grand scale that captures lost times and places yet is deeply grounded in characters who aren't simply props and symbols. No single individual can express what it means to be human, so the characters are part of a larger whole, but each one is fully rounded and believable. At least that's what I'm striving for. Real life is messier than fiction, so there's artifice involved in telling a satisfying story; but if it's done well, artifice can become art.


Elizabeth Bell has been writing stories since the second grade. At the age of fourteen, she chose a pen name and vowed to become a published author. That same year, she began the Lazare Family Saga. It took her a couple decades to get it right. New generations kept demanding attention, and the story became four epic historical novels. After earning her MFA in Creative Writing at George Mason University, Elizabeth realized she would have to return her two hundred library books. Instead, she cleverly found a job in the university library. She works there to this day.  Visit her website at

Monday, August 12, 2019

Chimes of a Lost Cathedral by Janet Fitch continues Marina M's story during the Russian Civil War

Fitch’s transporting sequel to The Revolution of Marina M. (2017) is even better than the first book. Ceaselessly entertaining through its lengthy page count, it presents a disillusioned, more mature Marina Makarova as she is broken and remade alongside Russia during its civil war.

As the novel opens, 19-year-old Marina, pregnant with her lover’s child, has just escaped from a cult on her family’s former estate. Her journeys take her deep into the Russian countryside and back to her devastated home city. In this full-blooded feminine epic, Marina narrates her dramatic life with striking visual detail, whether she’s riding aboard the agit-train Red October, preparing for the White Army’s advance on Petrograd, or teaching poetry to downtrodden shoe-factory women desperate for a glimpse of beauty.

Enduring near-starvation and terrible poverty and loss, Marina forms strong connections with peasants and the artistic intelligentsia alike, but can’t manage to leave her past behind. “The revolution’s not an event, Marina. It’s a creature,” Maxim Gorky tells her, and Fitch shows her protagonist’s inner turmoil as she and Russian workers awaken to the revolution’s political reality, which is far from what they’d hoped.

Awash with emotion and poetic imagery that aptly reflect Marina’s changing circumstances, Fitch’s tale channels Marina's vibrant spirit throughout. Historical fiction fans should devour this.

Chimes of a Lost Cathedral was published by Little, Brown in July. It's nearly 800 pages but moves fast. I wrote this starred review for the June issue of Booklist. I'd also reviewed the first book in the series back in 2017; together, they make over 1700 pages of epic storytelling, and Marina tells her story in a single narrative thread throughout. For readers who bemoan the idea that authors aren't writing on this type of epic scale anymore: check these two books out!

Thursday, August 08, 2019

The Owen Archer Ensemble, a guest post by Candace Robb - plus US giveaway for A Conspiracy of Wolves

I'm happy to welcome Candace Robb here today for a guest post about the supporting cast in her long-running Owen Archer mystery series set in 14th-century York.  The eleventh and newest volume, A Conspiracy of Wolves, was published last week by Severn House/Crème de la Crime in hardcover and ebook.


The Owen Archer Ensemble 
Candace Robb

I approach each scene with a vision of its shape and the characters involved, yet I know it will take on its own form as I write, including unplanned characters who stroll onto the set and make themselves comfortable. A few of these incidental characters not only return in later scenes, but also reappear in future books, becoming members of the series ensemble. Some first appear in a rather minor role—Magda Digby and Brother Michaelo; some are integral to the plot—Alisoun Ffulford.

Magda Digby insinuated herself into an early draft of The Apothecary Rose, her role growing from a cameo appearance—the grieving mother weeping over her son’s grave—to the final version in which she is a minor but notable character. A chance comment from my agent at the time after reading an early draft—an interesting character. Will we see her again?—suggested to me that Magda might warrant another look. That must be what woke her. Gradually, as I revised, she inspired brief scenes; I saw a role for her, and a far richer identity. The elderly woman in mourning expanded into the enigmatic healer Owen encountered on his first day in York and came to respect for her wisdom, healing skill, and long memory about the people of York and Galtres.

Brother Michaelo also made his debut in The Apothecary Rose, as the toady of Archdeacon Anselm. In Rose he was a pathetic creature frequenting the infirmary at St. Mary’s with headaches. When he failed in his task for Anselm his role seemed finished. But much to my surprise, Archbishop Thoresby took him on as his private secretary in The Lady Chapel, as his “hair shirt.” In Thoresby’s service Michaelo came to see the error of his ways and sought redemption—though on his own terms. His all too human struggles endeared him to me, and Michaelo became a character I enjoyed following.

But with Thoresby’s death in A Vigil of Spies, and the failure of Richard Ravenser’s bid to take his uncle’s place as archbishop, Michaelo’s role in the series was over. Or so I thought. But something odd kept happening as I wrote Owen’s first scenes in A Conspiracy of Wolves—Brother Michaelo kept appearing, appalled by the crime scene, yet proving unexpectedly helpful. I would edit him out only to have him reappear. I thought he’d returned to Normandy between books 10 and 11, but I was wrong.

Alisoun Ffulford was a central character in The Riddle of St. Leonard’s, a child orphaned by the pestilence, unwittingly caught up in a series of crimes. Hostile toward Owen Archer and Magda Digby when they came to rescue her, she tried to strike out on her own in a countryside terrified by the plague. She intrigued me, and her character, a stubborn child who hunted with a bow and distrusted everyone, oddly lightened the plague-haunted story. I found I could not let her go once I’d finished the book. I wanted to explore whether she would convince Magda to take her on as an apprentice, and, if so, how that would play out. By book 10, A Vigil of Spies, Alisoun matured and gained not only Magda’s but also Owen’s respect. However, she stumbled in A Conspiracy of Wolves, and that is how she’s managing to keep my interest.


About the Author

I’m Candace Robb, a writer/historian engaged in creating fiction about the late middle ages with a large cast of characters with whom I enjoy spending my days. Two series, the Owen Archer mysteries and the Kate Clifford mysteries, are set in late medieval York. The Margaret Kerr trilogy is set in early 14th century Scotland, at the beginning of the Wars of Independence. Two standalone novels (published under pseudonym Emma Campion) expand on the lives of two women in the court of King Edward III who have fascinated me ever since I first encountered them in history and fiction.

I am a dreamer. Writing, gardening, walking, dancing, reading, being with friends—there’s always a dreaming element.

About A Conspiracy of Wolves (Owen Archer, Book 11):

When a prominent citizen is murdered, former Captain of the Guard Owen Archer is persuaded out of retirement to investigate in this gripping medieval mystery.

1374. When a member of one of York’s most prominent families is found dead in the woods, his throat torn out, rumours spread like wildfire that wolves are running loose throughout the city. Persuaded to investigate by the victim’s father, Owen Archer is convinced that a human killer is responsible. But before he can gather sufficient evidence to prove his case, a second body is discovered, stabbed to death. Is there a connection? What secrets are contained within the victim’s household? And what does apprentice healer Alisoun know that she’s not telling?

Teaming up with Geoffrey Chaucer, who is in York on a secret mission on behalf of Prince Edward, Owen’s enquiries will draw him headlong into a deadly conspiracy.


During the Blog Tour, we are giving away a hardcover copy of A Conspiracy of Wolves by Candace Robb! To enter, please use the Gleam form below.

Giveaway Rules:

– Giveaway ends at 11:59 pm EST on August 15th. You must be 18 or older to enter.
– Giveaway is open to the US only.
– Only one entry per household.
– All giveaway entrants agree to be honest and not cheat the systems; any suspicion of fraud will be decided upon by blog/site owner and the sponsor, and entrants may be disqualified at our discretion.
– The winner has 48 hours to claim prize or a new winner is chosen.

Conspiracy of Wolves

Monday, August 05, 2019

Relative Fortunes by Marlowe Benn begins a stylish mystery series set in 1920s Manhattan

With her debut novel, Marlowe Benn gives us a pair of family stories intertwined with a twisting mystery garbed in stylish language. The setting is Jazz Age Manhattan; while socialites party their way across the city, and suffragists relish the victory of the 19th Amendment, progressive women know more work needs to be done.

Into this buzzing atmosphere arrives Julia Kydd, an independent young woman who has returned home from a five-year stay in London to receive her inheritance on her 25th birthday. However, her half-brother Philip has put up an unexpected challenge to their late father’s bequest, which sets them at odds. It’s an awkward situation at best. They barely know one another, and Julia’s obliged to lodge with him since he still controls her funds.

While crossing the Atlantic, Julia had gotten reacquainted with a boarding-school chum, Glennis Rankin, whose own family woes are deepening. Glennis’s much-older sister, Naomi, has been found dead in her basement apartment, an apparent suicide, but there’s much that’s suspicious about her untimely passing. Apart from Naomi and Glennis, the Rankins are a ghastly, judgmental bunch – their pompous brother Chester criticizes Naomi in his eulogy – which prompts Glennis, confused and furious, to lean on Julia for support. Thus Julia is drawn into her friend’s personal drama, and she has added motive for doing so after Philip makes her an offer she can’t refuse: if she can prove Naomi was murdered, he’ll stop contesting her inheritance.

This bargain sounds contrived, and some readers may not be convinced otherwise, but knowing more about the context makes it feel less so. Philip is an enigmatic fellow who isn’t the greedy villain one may expect. A literary, urbane sort who’s fascinated by psychology and has solved “puzzlers” for the police, he seems to be testing Julia.

Julia herself is another character whose personality deepens over time. A modern 1920s woman who has a British lover but values her independence too much to marry, she saves her greatest passion for her aspiring career as a literary publisher. (It’s an interest that Marlowe Benn shares, and aficionados of fine bindings, colophons, and fonts will soak up the details.) Julia also discovers one irony: the freedom she loves depends on money. Without it, her choices are marriage or poverty: the same restrictive options faced by so many of the era’s women.

The standout character, however, is Naomi, a woman with many layers. Would that we could meet her in person, but then there’d be no mystery. Naomi was a devoted suffragist, to her family's dismay, and she may have been in a “Boston marriage” with the colleague, Alice, who shared her dreary basement flat in the family mansion. Naomi had been forced to live there in the first place because of a terrible choice her rich brother forced her into. While it’s possible she killed herself in despair at her circumstances, it wouldn’t be like Naomi to give up. It’s not in Julia’s nature, either.

Benn has a sure hand with sizing up people in words: “Vivian Winterjay stood across the room in a spotlight of wary silence, mustering one of those small, composed smiles meant to carry one through any occasion—the bare-knuckle refuge of impeccable breeding,” she writes of Naomi’s married sister. And the era as well; Julia notes Glennis’s shock at Naomi’s passing as follows: “Six years since death’s long romp across Europe, and still young people everywhere were caught short by its caprice.” The ending offers plenty of revelations in character and plot, and leaves opportunity for the enterprising Julia to appear in future books (hopefully with company, too).

Relative Fortunes was published by Amazon's Lake Union imprint on August 1st; I reviewed it from a NetGalley copy.

Friday, August 02, 2019

Embracing life: Elizabeth Gilbert's City of Girls, set in the theater world of mid-20th century Manhattan

The heroine of Gilbert’s bold, zesty historical novel couldn’t be more different from The Signature of All Things’ intellectual Alma Whittaker, but the books share worthy themes, like the importance of embracing life and women’s self-acceptance. Attractive and rich, Vivian Morris gets kicked out of Vassar in 1940 for never attending class. Her despairing, distant parents send her to live in Manhattan with her aunt Peg, co-proprietress of the Lily Playhouse, a shabby venue that stages middling productions for the area’s working-class denizens.

Finding a home among the performers and crew, Vivian dives headlong into the theater world. A gorgeous showgirl named Celia draws Vivian into her habits of late-night carousing, smoking, drinking, and sleeping with attractive men—lots of them. Before that, though, Vivian must shed her unwanted virginity, and that scene is hilarious in its cringe-worthy awkwardness.

When one of Peg’s old chums, British actress Edna Parker Watson, arrives in town with her handsome-but-dumb thespian husband, Peg feels she must stage a production deserving of Edna’s talents. This leads (with many people’s help, including Vivian’s as costume designer) to the creation of a musical called City of Girls, a show described in such entertaining detail that readers will want to buy tickets. Vivian continues to fling herself into her hedonistic lifestyle regardless of consequences—until there are, in fact, awful consequences that shape her later life.

Aged 95, Vivian writes her life story for a woman named Angela, whose father she once knew, and whose identity is satisfyingly revealed toward the end. While these constant reminders (“…from that moment, on, Angela”) can be intrusive, the older Vivian’s voice contributes perspective and hard-won wisdom. Steeped in Manhattan theater glamour during WWII and after, City of Girls zips along throughout, wearing its research lightly as it showcases its cast of unabashedly liberated women during Vivian’s coming of age.

City of Girls was published by Riverhead in June; I reviewed it for August's Historical Novels Review from a NetGalley copy. Gilbert's The Signature of All Things is reviewed here.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Time to get "lost" in a historical novel

I was looking through Mt. TBR and Mt. Finished over the weekend and noticed a certain title pattern coming up.

The word "lost," of course, prompts questions: why did she/it/they disappear?  What were the circumstances behind it?  How will they be found?  Sometimes the book itself answers the question; Cecily Ross's novel includes the imagined contents of Susanna Moodie's personal journals. In Fitch's novel, the poetic title reflects the losses felt by St. Petersburg during the Russian Revolution and subsequent civil war, and the heroine's remembrances of her earlier life.

All of these evoke a sense of mystery about the past that appeals to historical fiction readers.

Most of these books were published in the last year or two. What others can you think of?

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

The Undertaker's Assistant by Amanda Skenandore, an original look at Reconstruction-era New Orleans

With her second historical novel, Amanda Skenandore taps into society during the politically troubled Reconstruction years in New Orleans, where formerly enslaved people organized political meetings and mingled with Creoles of mixed race.

Into this environment comes Euphemia “Effie” Jones, a freedwoman in an unusual profession: she embalms the dead alongside her white employer, Mr. Whitmark, a former army colonel who had fought for the North. In reality, Effie knows the job as well as he does, often finding herself taking over tasks since his hands shake after years of too much drinking.

Having been trained in her profession by the white colonel from Indiana who’d taken her in after her escape from slavery as a child, Effie has returned home in search of the personal past she can’t remember. Alongside the uphill battle of her quest, she befriends, to her surprise, several people who challenge her stoic outlook, including Samson Greene, a handsome Black state representative, and Adeline, a beautiful upper-class Creole who cares for her mother after falling on hard times.

In a different writer’s hands, Effie could have been an unsympathetic figure. More comfortable with the dead than the living, Effie closely guards her emotions, and she can be frank to the point of discomfort. She discusses her career too readily at social gatherings, for instance, and doesn’t hesitate to inform the other women from her boardinghouse that they’ve been taken in by a fraud. (They don’t react well.) However, by giving her a believable inner life, Skenandore makes her behavior feel logical, even admirable. Effie had clearly experienced some terrible trauma in her youth, even though it comes back to her only in bits and pieces, and overcame it to establish a fiercely independent life.

The novel’s pacing can be slow at times, but it’s strong in both character and setting. The social environs are adeptly evoked, from the bustling, multi-lingual French Quarter, where Creole socialites seek to impress, to the terrifying raids that mobs of angry white men carry out against law-abiding Black citizens. The embalming process is presented in detail, much like an art form in which Effie happens to be particularly talented.

In addition, Skenandore involves all the senses in her evocation of the past, which not only looks differently than the era we know but can also sound and smell differently. The Undertaker’s Assistant is worth seeking out for anyone seeking an American historical novel both intriguing and original.

The novel will be published by Kensington on July 30th; thanks to Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for the NetGalley copy.

During the Blog Tour, we are giving away two signed copies of The Undertaker’s Assistant by Amanda Skenandore! To enter, please use the Gleam form below.

Giveaway Rules

– Giveaway ends at 11:59 pm EST on August 15th. You must be 18 or older to enter.
– Giveaway is open to the US only.
– Only one entry per household.
– All giveaway entrants agree to be honest and not cheat the systems; any suspicion of fraud will be decided upon by blog/site owner and the sponsor, and entrants may be disqualified at our discretion.
– The winner has 48 hours to claim prize or a new winner is chosen.

The Undertaker's Assistant

Monday, July 22, 2019

Interview with Jennifer Kincheloe, author of The Body in Griffith Park, a mystery of 1900s LA

Anna Blanc, Jennifer Kincheloe's detective heroine, isn't someone you've encountered before in mystery fiction. A former heiress disinherited by her father, she now works as a police matron for the LAPD but hasn't left her high society tastes behind. She's also better at some aspects of her job than others. In her third and latest outing, set in 1909, she and her sweetheart, Detective Joe Singer, stumble upon a man's body during an attempted romantic tryst in Griffith Park. Between her determination to solve the crime and the presence of a mysterious admirer, Anna's life suddenly becomes more complicated. The novel combines witty humor and a rich look at women's roles and social problems in early 20th-century LA.

What got you interested in writing a historical mystery series?

One particular woman. Alice Stebbins Wells. She became the first female cop in Los Angeles in 1910. I thought she had to be an absolute badass. So I wanted to write something in her honor. My character, as it turned out, was nothing like Anna Blanc.

Anna’s a great character, with the wealthy background she had to leave behind and her determination to be a detective in a man’s world. She also loves her food and whiskey. How did you come up with her personality?

She came tumbling onto the page. I truly wanted to write a tribute character, similar to Alice Stebbins Wells, who was middle-aged, middle-class, married, average-looking, a former minister, and a serious political operator. But that’s not who came out when I started typing. I didn’t think about creating her. She created herself.

What made you choose early 20th-century Los Angeles as the setting?

I love Los Angeles and I love women who make history. Alice Stebbins Wells has been celebrated as the first female cop in America (although she wasn’t), so I set the book in her stomping grounds.

The police matrons at LAPD in 1909 have a huge amount of responsibility and stressful jobs, and it’s clear Anna isn’t exactly the best match for the position. How did you imagine this career for her?

When I started writing the book, and Anna came out so green, I didn’t think she was ready to be a cop. Even Detective Wolf wouldn’t hire her for that. Matrons had been around in LA since 1888, and the early women cops all started out as matrons. So Anna starts out as a matron. Putting a rich girl in jail is an interesting juxtaposition. There is nowhere farther away from her sheltered life on Bunker Hill. In this book, I wanted to draw attention to the problems in our jails both then and now, because they haven’t changed—substance use, mental illness, racism, poverty, trauma, overcrowding, sexual abuse of inmates, domestic violence, exploiting women in the sex trade, homelessness.

I was amazed to read about private railcars owned by wealthy families, and how they could be attached to existing trains at the station so they could make their journeys in total luxury. That would be the life! How did you re-create the experience on the page?

You can still do that, you know. I was on the California Zephyr once going from Denver to San Francisco, and we had to wait to attach Dan Aykroyd’s railcar. Kudos to Mr. Aykroyd. It’s much better for the environment than flying.

I wrote the scene using photographs of luxury railcars from the era and made a composite. And the whole lady on the polar bear rug thing was a popular pose in erotic photography of the day. There’s a famous one of 1900s super model Evelyn Nesbit.

The slangy expressions that Anna and other characters use are a lot of fun to read. Do you have any favorites?

author Jennifer Kincheloe
I love all the slang, and I adore putting it into Anna’s mouth. The slang itself is a form of generational rebellion. And Anna loves to rebel. Her father would want her to use words from Webster’s dictionary.

If I had to pick a favorite, I suppose I like “Jupiter” as an interjection.

I think it’s funny how much of the slang hasn’t changed. “Cutting up,” meant goofing off, for instance. “Dead meat” was someone doomed. They used “killer,” for really great, and “tore,” for going really fast. Profanity was also the same.

I complied a huge list of period slang that I constantly refer to. I harvested it from writings contemporary to my novels, like LA newspapers and popular fiction. There’s also this great, fat, two-volume slang dictionary, The Historical Dictionary of American Slang, that I rely upon. The author got tired of writing it, so it only goes up to the letter O, but it has 14 pages just dedicated to the F word.


The Body in Griffith Park is published by Seventh Street this month. Thanks to the author for participating in this Q&A!

Friday, July 19, 2019

Jacob's Ladder by Ludmila Ulitskaya, a century-spanning epic of Russian life

Nora Ossetsky, a set designer in 1970s Moscow, discovers a willow chest filled with her paternal grandparents’ correspondence after her Grandmother Marusya’s death. Thus begins acclaimed Russian writer Ulitskaya’s (The Big Green Tent, 2014) expansive novel about the complications of human lives and repeating generational patterns, set against a backdrop that spans a century of tumultuous Russian and Soviet history.

Nora’s and Marusya’s parallel stories are intercut, and both depict the challenge of maintaining long-distance relationships. Nora endures separations from her Georgian lover and later from her eccentric son, while Marusya, a dancer from Kiev, and the man she marries, Jacob Ossetsky, lay their hearts and minds bare in passionate letters written while apart.

Although the novel’s early pages promise the revelation of family secrets, and the narrative delivers, it is primarily concerned with evoking people’s quotidian joys and sorrows. The story sojourns through the realms of music, science, and politics as Ulitskaya gives full rein to her characters’ thoughts—particularly Jacob’s, with his great thirst for knowledge—but the plot remains strong. Ideal for devotees of Russian literature and epic tales.

Jacob's Ladder, translated from Russian by Polly Gannon, is published by FSG this month; I reviewed it for Booklist's 6/1/19 issue.

I'll admit it: the heft of Ulitskaya's novels have been rather daunting (this one clocks in at 560pp), but the story is very approachable, and the translation fluid. I would suggest reading it as an ebook, as I did, if you find that format agreeable.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

The Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer, a fictional take on Varian Fry's courageous WWII years

Orringer’s (The Invisible Bridge, 2010) gripping second novel centers on Varian Fry, the American editor who undertook great risk to rescue endangered European artists and intellectuals from the Holocaust.

Overseeing the Emergency Rescue Committee’s work in 1940 Marseille, Varian and his fellow activists use delicate personal connections to ensure high-profile refugees’ escape from Vichy France through legal and illegal means, amid limited finances and a less-than-supportive State Department.

Into this high-pressure atmosphere arrives Elliott Grant, Varian’s (imaginary) former lover, requesting a complicated favor. Through their revived affair, the story explores issues of identity and living one’s authentic self. Grant is a convincing creation, but readers may be uneasy that considerable emotional weight and suspense hinge on a historical character’s fictional relationship and its repercussions.

Still, Orringer is a beautiful prose stylist who captures depth of meaning about complex human issues, and she addresses head-on the moral dilemma of making value judgments on individual lives. She crafts a vivid portrait of wartime Marseille, its innate sophistication darkened by Nazi oppression, and of Fry’s heroic real-life accomplishments.

I read The Flight Portfolio back in February for review in Booklist's 4/15 issue; the book was published in May by Knopf.

For additional perspectives, which are worth reading, please see Novel Historian's review of The Flight Portfolio -- not dissimilar in our conclusions, but more detailed and with some different points -- and Cynthia Ozick's review in The New York Times (though heads up about a spoiler midway through).

Even if you skip Ozick's review, in which she says "For the historical Fry, beyond hunches and hints, there is no evidence of homosexuality," if you're interested in biographical novels and the fact vs. fiction debate, you'll want to read the letters to the editor sent to the NYT in response: "Was Varian Fry Gay -- and Should It Matter?  Readers respond." Notably, Varian Fry's son is the author of one of these letters.

Saturday, July 06, 2019

A collection of #HNS2019 links - summaries of the latest Historical Novel Society conference

As I mentioned last week, I recently returned from a two-for-one conference trip that saw my two worlds colliding (or at least coming closer together).  National Harbor, Maryland, the site of the 8th Historical Novel Society North American conference, and Washington, DC, where ALA Annual was held, are about 15 miles apart, so I went to first one, then the tail end of the other.

The conference had about 420 people attend, which was great to see.  Having co-founded the North American conferences along with Ann Chamberlin (and marketing coordinator Claire Morris) back in 2005, when we had half as many participants, I enjoy seeing how the conferences have grown and expanded since then. There were a plethora of panels to choose from, two wonderful keynote speakers in Dolen Perkins-Valdez and Jeff Shaara, a massive afternoon book signing, and cocktail parties that let me catch up with old friends and meet people I'd been in contact with only on social media or email. Based on the attendee list, there were many people I never saw; the hotel, the Gaylord, was enormous.  My friend Alana White and I co-presented a session on research for historical novelists that was scheduled as a small group Koffee Klatch session, but we had almost 70 people show up and stay for the full hour, sitting or standing.  Not bad at all!

Although I didn't end up taking detailed notes, some of my fellow #HNS2019 attendees fortunately did.

At A Writer of History, M. K. (Mary) Tod summarizes the panel The State of Historical Fiction, in which the conference's participating editors and agents discussed the current picture and future of the genre. Two takeaways: publishers are on the lookout for unique takes on WWII and diverse perspectives on historical times.

Mary also provides an overview of Tips on Writing a Series, with panelists Donna Russo Morin, Nancy Bilyeau, Patricia Bracewell, and Anne Easter Smith.

Novelist J. D. Davies attended the conference while visiting America for the first time.

Betty Bolte wrote about the top 5 lessons she learned from #hns2019.

The latest of Kate Quinn's conference recaps, which are always entertaining to read.

Highlights of the conference from debut novelist Kip Wilson, author of White Rose.

More highlights from the Secret Victorianist, aka novelist Finola Austin, whose upcoming novel Bronte's Mistress will be one to watch for.

Janna Noelle has some tips on getting the most out of a writers' conference such as HNS.

Liza Nash Taylor's experiences at the HNS conference and the Nantucket Book Festival. She spoke about women's fashion in history.

A newspaper writeup from the Prince George's Sentinel that focuses on the readers' festival.

And here's my book pile from the ALA exhibit hall.  Some of these will be offered for review for the Historical Novels Review, while others I'll be keeping for readers' advisory or review purposes later this year.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

The Mozart Girl by Barbara Nickel, a lively story of Wolfgang Mozart's musically talented older sister, Nannerl

Please forgive my two-week absence!  I was away at the Historical Novel Society conference in National Harbor, Maryland, and then at the American Library Association conference exhibits in DC.  Then I returned to the library and quickly got overwhelmed with work.

But without further ado, on with some reviews of historical novels. This one is for a middle-grade story, but readers of any age can enjoy it.

Maria Anna Walburga Ignatia Mozart enjoys beautiful gowns, birthday gifts, and sweets as much as any 12-year-old girl, but she has an extraordinary talent and big dreams. She yearns to perform music before royalty and to become a world-famous composer.

The first goal may be achievable, but the second sadly isn’t, because she lives in Salzburg in 1763, and only boys like her younger brother, Wolfi, can hope for a musical career. Although “Nannerl” loves her playful sibling, she’s jealous of the attention he receives and dislikes doing household chores while he practices music.

As the Mozart parents and their two Wunderkindern head out on a Grand Tour, from Munich’s Nymphenburg Palace to Versailles, Nannerl writes in her journal, performs for high-ranking audiences, and secretly composes her own symphony.

This lively middle-grade novel will make young female readers glad they live in today’s world rather than in the 18th-century Habsburg Monarchy. There’s no escaping the unfairness of Nannerl’s situation (in fact, I found myself wishing this theme was handled less heavy-handedly). Readers will also sense Nannerl’s elation when the Elector of Bavaria acknowledges her talents and requests a special concert just to hear her play (this is based on fact).

Through a subplot involving the Elector’s musically accomplished sister, Sopherl, the novel highlights the importance of female solidarity. Nickel also shows how Nannerl’s envy of her brother is solely because of societal strictures. Wolfi is depicted as an incredibly gifted, mischievous boy who looks up to her.

The cultural atmosphere is well-evoked, from German holiday specialties to costumes to travel; with sedan chairs as the proper mode of transport at Versailles, Papa Mozart worries how he’ll afford it. A swift-moving novel that will inspire readers to seek out information on the real-life Nannerl.

The Mozart Girl was published by Second Story in 2019; it was first published in 1996 as The Secret Wish of Nannerl Mozart. (I wrote this review for May's Historical Novels Review.)

Nannerl's story was also revealed in two historical novels for adults, both entitled Mozart's Sister - one by Nancy Moser (2000), and another by Rita Charbonnier (2005).

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Dawson's Fall by Roxana Robinson, a timely novel of the Reconstruction-era South

Robinson’s documentary novel intermingles fiction and family memoirs, period editorials, letters, and journal entries in its penetrating rendition of key moments during the lives of her great-grandparents, Frank and Sarah Morgan Dawson. Their characterizations and strong principles are clearly etched throughout; both were outliers in their time yet inextricably defined by it.

English-born and a defender of the rule of law, Dawson is moved to join the Confederate Navy; he later rises to become a prominent Charleston newspaper editor, whose progressive writings championing African Americans’ rights and civic participation make him unpopular. Raised in a Louisiana family brought low through loss, Sarah is a talented writer all-too-aware of women’s social inferiority. The novel’s suspenseful second half details a disturbing incident involving the Dawsons’ neighbor and governess.

While the patchwork approach means the narrative isn’t exactly smooth, it proves unyielding in its timely themes, with many depictions of how white men’s seething resentment erupts into racist violence and how Southern codes of honor and toxic values, particularly slavery, corroded individual lives and the national character.

Dawson's Fall was published by FSG in May, and I reviewed it initially for Booklist's May 1 issue. When I first started reading it, I realized the characters felt familiar but couldn't pinpoint why. Later on, I remembered it was because the central character in another book I'd reviewed over a decade ago, William Baldwin's A Gentleman of Charleston and the Manner of His Death, was also based on Frank Dawson, although in that book he was called David Lawton, and his family was also fictionalized there. I found Robinson's to be the better novel of the two.

Sarah Morgan (later Dawson) was the author of A Confederate Girl's Diary, a six-volume set of journals first published in 1913, and which has become a key primary source about the Civil War experiences of Southern women. Read more about it at Documenting the American South.

For more background to the novel, read Robinson's interview with Publishers Weekly, in which she addresses her family history, research, and weaving history into fiction ("I made up almost nothing," she says).

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Marriage, mayhem, and murder: Allison Montclair's witty historical mystery The Right Sort of Man

Allison Montclair’s The Right Sort of Man sees two unlikely business partners running a matrimonial agency in post-World War II London – and teaming up to pin down a murderer. It’s an inspired pairing. Mrs. Gwendolyn Bainbridge, a tall, elegant war widow, has an intuitive knack for sizing up characters and situations, while Miss Iris Sparks has moxie to spare, a string of past fiancés and lovers, and an analytical mind that served her well in wartime intelligence (which she isn’t allowed to talk about). Their ongoing banter is quick and clever without feeling forced.

In part, think The Bletchley Circle but with cheeky wit instead of creepy suspense. Both women have traumatic personal histories that shape their approaches to life, though, which lends the novel a sense of gravitas absent from more standard cozy mysteries.

Their new business venture, located in upscale Mayfair (which would be a fashionable venue if not for the bombed-out rubble surrounding their building), threatens to derail after their latest client is found stabbed. Tillie La Salle was a shopgirl with aspirations to marry out of the East End, but Iris knows she isn’t fully on the up-and-up (“a shady lady from Shadwell,” she calls her). The police are certain the mild-mannered accountant that Iris and Gwen had set up for a date with Tillie is the culprit, but the pair, suspecting otherwise, set out to clear the man’s name.

Gwen may come from a posh background, but she’s game for expanding her social horizons (her attempts to navigate London’s public transport are very funny). On the serious side, she’s forced to live with her controlling aristocratic in-laws, who took custody of her six-year-old son while she was deep in mourning for her beloved husband. Despite her brashness, Iris has self-esteem issues and is unused to having female friends. She and Iris had met at the wedding of mutual acquaintances and set up their shingle shortly after, but they don’t know each other very well, and part of the fun is seeing how their personalities interact.

Alongside them, Montclair has assembled a terrific supporting cast, from to the women's occasional secretary, who goes by Sally, to Iris’s policeman former lover, to Gwen’s delightful son, Ronnie. The post-WWII era is far more than window-dressing, and the period lingo feels right. Even the acknowledgments at the very beginning are witty. It does strike an odd note that few seem distraught by Tillie's demise, even with her shifty connections, but overall, this is a choice item for your summer reading pile, and a great start to a new series.

The Right Sort of Man was published by Minotaur on June 4th; thanks to the publisher for providing me with a copy.

Saturday, June 08, 2019

Mark Haddon's The Porpoise, a quasi-historical mythic tale about women's lack of agency

Haddon’s (The Pier Falls and Other Stories, 2016) new novel works on multiple levels: as an entertaining adventure, a creative patchwork of an ancient story’s many manifestations, and an exploration of how women suffer when men control their fates.

Born after her pregnant mother's death in a plane crash, Angelica grows up in luxury, but her father, Philippe, sexually abuses and isolates her, and the staff on his English estate are little help. An attempted rescuer, the son of Philippe’s business associate, is attacked by Philippe and flees for his life.

Aboard the Porpoise, an oceangoing yacht, the young man’s journey turns fantastical as he transforms into Pericles, Prince of Tyre, hero of the Shakespearean play, whose story parallels the modern-day situation. The settings are colorfully rendered, and the fast-paced action is occasionally disorienting as scenes alternate between Pericles’ quasi-Greek world, a gritty Jacobean London, and Angelica’s traumatic life.

Considerable attention is paid to the viewpoints of Pericles’ abandoned wife and daughter. Playful yet unsettling, Haddon’s tale offers timeless themes and should particularly interest aficionados of myths and legends.

The Porpoise will be published on June 18 by Doubleday, and I reviewed it initially for Booklist.  Does it count as historical fiction?  Sort of. Don't expect absolute accuracy in the ancient Greek aspect (this is deliberate). I did enjoy the different view of Jacobean London. Haddon's best-known book is, of course, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

Monday, June 03, 2019

A visual preview of summer 2019 in historical fiction from UK publishers

Here's a collection of new and upcoming historical novels from British publishers, with their corresponding cover designs.  Please note that the UK focus below reflects the publisher, not necessarily the author's nationality.  Some of these twelve books will be appearing from North American presses later this year, while for others, I recommend Book Depository.  I'll be traveling to the UK later this year and am hoping to find some of these in person.

The Sound of the Hours by Karen Campbell

A young woman in occupied Tuscany during WWII falls in love with a black American soldier. Bloomsbury, Sept. 2019. [see on Goodreads]  Also published by Bloomsbury in the US.

The Glittering Hour by Iona Grey

Romantic historical fiction set amid the exuberance of post-WWI England, from the award-winning author of Letters to the Lost.  Simon & Schuster UK, May 2019. [see on Goodreads]  Also to be published by Thomas Dunne in the US in December.

The Second Sleep by Robert Harris

A shift in historical era for the multi-faceted Harris, whose new thriller is set in a remote town in Exmoor, southwest England, in the 1460s.  Hutchinson, Sept 2019. [see on Goodreads]  Also to be published by Knopf in the US in November. Thanks to Sarah OL for mentioning this book in an earlier comment.

The Convert by Stefan Hertmans

Another forthcoming historical set in medieval times. Based on a true story uncovered by the Flemish Belgian author, The Convert reveals the life of a young woman from Provence who converted to Judaism to marry the man she loved.  Text, July 2019.  [see on Goodreads]

Those Who Are Loved by Victoria Hislop

I've enjoyed Hislop's novels set in Greece, including The IslandThe Thread, and The Sunrise.  Her newest also has a Greek setting, this time during the German occupation and the country's civil war, and four decades later.  Headline, May 2019.  [see on Goodreads]

The Boy with Blue Trousers by Carol Jones

Australian writer Jones intertwines the stories of two women, one English and one Chinese, during the quest for gold in 19th-century Australia.  Head of Zeus, June 2019. [see on Goodreads]

A Matter of Interpretation by Elizabeth MacDonald

This new offering from an Oxford-based small press is another medieval on the list; it centers on 13th-century mathematician and scholar Michael Scot and his travels on behalf of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II.  Fairlight, Sept. 2019. [see on Goodreads]

A Book of Secrets by Kate Morrison

African-born Susan, a servant in a Catholic household in late 16th-century England, is on a quest for her lost brother and her lost personal history.  It's been blurbed by Miranda Kaufmann, the author of Black Tudors.  Jacaranda, May 2019.  [see on Goodreads]

Shadowplay by Joseph O'Connor

Drama surrounding the trio of actor Henry Irving, actress Ellen Terry, and theatre manager (and author) Bram Stoker in Victorian London.  Harvill Secker, June 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Entertaining Mr Pepys by Deborah Swift

The final volume in Swift's trilogy about real-life women in the life and diary of Samuel Pepys; the protagonist here is musician-actress Elizabeth Carpenter. Accent, Sept. 2019.  Not on Goodreads yet, but you can find it on Amazon UK.

The House by the Loch by Kirsty Wark

A novel of family secrets kept and revealed, set in Scotland (as you can infer from the title) in the 1950s and decades later. Two Roads, June 2019. [see on Goodreads]

The Hiding Game by Naomi Wood

Love, friendship, art and obsession centering on students at the Bauhaus art school in 1920s Germany, from the author of Mrs. Hemingway.  Picador UK, June 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Monday, May 27, 2019

Review of Anna of Kleve, The Princess in the Portrait by Alison Weir, book four in her Six Tudor Queens series

The title of Weir’s perceptive latest entry in her acclaimed Six Tudor Queens series, following Jane Seymour, the Haunted Queen (2018), signals a new, original view of Henry VIII’s fourth wife, best known as Anne of Cleves.

A princess from the German duchy of Kleve, Anna grows up in her father’s learned court. In a speculative subplot, she is seduced by an attractive cousin-by-marriage, leading to an emotionally difficult secret. When England seeks an alliance with Kleve, Anna grows alarmed about King Henry’s poor marital history, and their first meeting is hardly auspicious.

Weir draws readers into Anna’s sympathetic viewpoint as she adjusts to unfamiliar customs, gazes at Greenwich Palace’s ornate splendor, and puzzles over Henry’s physical rejection even as he treats her kindly. Warm and intelligent, Anna learns to choose her battles, even if it means divorcing the monarch who has, surprisingly, become her good friend.

Political, legal, and religious matters are dexterously illustrated, and Weir devotes ample time to the little-known struggles of Anna’s post-annulment life. A richly satisfying portrait of a woman who made the best of limited choices.

This is the third entry of Weir's series that I've reviewed for Booklist, the first two being Anne Boleyn, A King's Obsession and Jane Seymour, The Haunted Queen. This review first appeared in the 4/15/19 issue. I'm curious what the full title of the next novel about Katherine Howard will be. The books in this series typically extend for 500-600pp, and I'm also curious how Weir will transform Katherine Howard's short life into an epic of similar scope.

For what it's worth, I think the cover design and title for Anna of Kleve are perfect and create the impression (one fulfilled by the novel) that Weir will be looking at her latest subject in a different way. The model – attractive, youthful, and shown holding a book – even resembles Anne from the famous Holbein portrait that convinced Henry VIII to wed her. The "Flanders mare" nickname that she was saddled with (sorry...) came from a 17th-century source, as mentioned by Weir in her author's note.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Satapur Moonstone by Sujata Massey, a mystery set in 1920s India

Perveen Mistry’s position as the only female lawyer in 1921 Bombay keeps her services in demand. When Sir David Hobson-Jones, the governor’s chief councillor, asks her to investigate a legal matter for the Kolhapur Agency, a British civil service branch, she’s wary of getting into bed with India’s colonizers. It’s a lucrative, prestigious short-term opportunity, however, and she feels compelled to accept.

The maharaja of the small princely state of Satapur is a ten-year-old boy, and his widowed mother and grandmother disagree on his education. Because they live in purdah, a woman lawyer is the best choice as mediator. While this premise is similar to the series opener, The Widows of Malabar Hill, Perveen quickly finds herself in a very different situation that tests her physical strength and negotiating skills and lands her into danger.

Massey devotes ample time to illustrating the politics and culture of a remote Indian princely state and the personalities of a new cast before introducing the mystery, which emerges midway through. This may unsettle genre readers who expect a more standard detective story, but it lets the investigation unfold organically. The maharaja Jiva Rao’s older brother and father both died well before their time; the palace servants blame a curse. Perveen comes to suspect a more human cause, and she worries for the boy’s safety.

Even before the mystery begins, a sense of uneasiness arises because Perveen is out of her element. She must travel by palanquin through the jungle to the palace, which she finds awkward and embarrassing, and endures the dowager maharani’s rude comments on her Parsi customs. The characters, even the unpleasant ones, are all intriguing, from the snobby royals to compassionate political agent Colin Sandringham. Perveen clearly wants to see more of him, her complicated marital status notwithstanding, and readers will too.

The Satapur Moonstone was published by Soho on May 14th.  Its predecessor, The Widows of Malabar Hill (see my earlier review) has won multiple awards, namely (taken from the book's Amazon page): the 2019 Reading List Award from the ALA in the Mystery category, the 2019 Mary Higgins Clark Award, the 2019 Lefty Award for Best Historical Novel, and the 2018 Agatha Award for Best Historical Novel. 

Needless to say, I'm on board with following the entire series. I reviewed this one for May's Historical Novels Review and am looking forward to seeing what Perveen does next.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Slices of American history: Brides in the Sky by Cary Holladay

The eight stories and one novella in Holladay’s collection prove that it’s possible to capture the essence of a place, characters, or event (or all three) in a concise format. Three stories are contemporary, but historical fiction readers should find themselves sufficiently compelled to read them all. Taken together, the theme of women’s relationships resounds: the ties between mother and daughter, or between sisters (blood, sorority, or in-laws).

The title story is named after the Pleiades, the “seven sisters” in the heavens, a constellation that Kate and Olivia Christopher glimpse as they, along with their new husbands and others, venture along the Oregon Trail from Virginia to the Willamette Valley in 1854. It’s impressive how Holladay compresses the epic scope of the journey into 22 pages, including the arid landscapes and accompanying hardships, shifting group dynamics, and one sister’s fateful choice.

“Comanche Queen” recounts the well-known frontier story of Cynthia Ann Parker, captured in a Comanche raid and returned to white civilization—unwillingly—two decades later. While her story hews closely to history, that of her family is partly imagined; it incorporates the themes of communication and random chance.

“Interview with Etta Place, Sweetheart of the Sundance Kid” is exactly that, a raw-voiced, too-brief narrative imagining their romantic partnership and what really happened to the pair. “Ghost Walk,” set in 1899 Philadelphia, tells a disturbing domestic story with a welcome, surprising twist. The final novella, “A Thousand Stings,” is written for adults but envisioned perfectly from the viewpoint of eight-year-old Shirley Lloyd. It combines a nostalgic look at childhood pastimes in 1967 Virginia with her observations on local dramas (the controversial minister is a hippie and antiwar protestor), her mother’s ennui, and her older sister’s adolescence. Each story is centered in its era, evoking life’s unexpected joys and hard edges.

Cary Holladay's Brides in the Sky: Stories and a Novella was published by Swallow Press, the imprint of Ohio University Press, in January. Historical fiction readers often prefer longer books and shy away from short-story collections, and if you're one of these, I recommend that you give this collection a try anyway!  I was pleasantly surprised by the depth and range of these stories.  I reviewed the book for May's Historical Novels Review based on a NetGalley copy.

Friday, May 10, 2019

The Almanack by Martine Bailey, a richly atmospheric mystery of mid-18th-century England

Saturated with beautiful images of the natural world in mid-18th century rural England, Bailey’s third mystery evokes a time when people regulated their lives according to the change of seasons and were fascinated by mechanisms, scientific and not, used to predict future events. It takes place during a pivotal period rarely seen in fiction: the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1752, when eleven days were “lost.”

A young woman named Tabitha Hart is robbed by her latest bedmate while traveling from London to her home village of Netherlea at her ailing mother’s request. Alas, she arrives too late: the Widow Hart lies cold in her bed, presumably having drowned in the river. Although she is shamed for her loose behavior, and for leaving behind an infant girl for her mother to raise, Tabitha is well-educated, and she takes up her mother’s former post as village searcher. She also picks up her mother’s favorite Almanack, and the scribbled marginalia in the little book, along with a threatening note, convinces Tabitha she was murdered.

Nat Starling, a poet newly arrived in town, helps Tabitha in her search to avenge her mother’s death, and the main clue is the purported killer’s initial, “D.” Although at first Tabitha suspects Nat is “all verse and no purse”—one of many fun expressions—she soon grows as beguiled by him as he is by her. Meanwhile, some dire predictions in the Almanack appear to be coming true.

Adding to the intellectual puzzle, each chapter begins with a riddle from the era (the answers can be found at the end). The writing has an authentic period richness, and while the mystery unfolds slowly, there are moments of fast-paced excitement and several real surprises on the way to the big reveal.

The Almanack was published by Severn House in May; I reviewed it for May's Historical Novels Review. I'd previously reviewed the author's first novel, An Appetite for Violets, a culinary mystery set also in Georgian times.

Monday, May 06, 2019

Interview with Kate Braithwaite, author of The Girl Puzzle: A Story of Nellie Bly

Kate Braithwaite's newest novel The Girl Puzzle, published by Crooked Cat this week, provides an insightful look into the exploits and motivations of famed investigative reporter Nellie Bly (real name Elizabeth Cochrane).  In addition to taking us into the Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum along with her in 1887, the novel gives us the viewpoint of her secretary Beatrice Alexander, who, decades later, types up notes about her employer's groundbreaking experiences. I'm happy to welcome Kate back to the blog today.

You’ve given your novel an intriguing structure, with the story moving between Elizabeth Cochrane’s undercover expose of the conditions on Blackwell’s Island in 1887, for which she became famous, and her later life in the 1920s, which isn’t well known at all. How did you come up with this idea?

My starting point with writing about Nellie Bly/Elizabeth Cochrane was very much the asylum expose. I found that adventure fascinating: I wanted to write about it, and I knew it was something I’d like to read a novel about. But I felt there were obstacles. Firstly – she’d already written about it herself. What would I be adding to that? Secondly, many potential readers would begin the story already knowing that Nellie was released from the asylum and went on travel solo around the world. I was concerned that might mean the story lacked suspense.

My view changed, though, when I discovered there were contradictory accounts of her time in the asylum – contradictions given by Nellie herself, as well as in other competing newspapers. And by that time, I’d also learned how much more there was to Nellie Bly’s life story and was keen to somehow share that too. When I read that in her fifties, Nellie Bly lived in a hotel suite in New York City and ran an informal adoption agency for children, I decided to structure the novel with two timelines.

Is Beatrice Alexander based upon anyone in particular?

Beatrice Alexander was the name of one of Nellie Bly’s secretaries in 1920. She was interviewed in an unpublished thesis, Nellie Bly: A Biographical Sketch, that I was able to read thanks to Columbia University. That told me some things about Nellie Bly’s later life, but nothing really about Beatrice. So although based on a real person, she’s a fictional character who – in some ways – walks in my shoes. She’s impressed by Nellie Bly. She admires her. She wants to know more about her and understand her character. She even goes to look at the Temporary Home for Women on 2nd Avenue and tries to imagine Nellie Bly there. I have Beatrice doing that in October, 1920, just as I did it myself in October, 2018. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but looking at it now, I’d say that if Beatrice is based on anyone, she is based on me.

What was your reaction, upon first reading what Elizabeth and her fellow patients endured in the asylum?

A weird sense of disappointment! There were many shocking details, but Nellie’s writing is very matter of fact and abrupt. She evens says herself that she tells her story “as plainly as possible,” because she was there as a journalist and tasked with reporting on facts, not feelings. The beatings, the hair-pulling, the bullying incidents and acts of violence certainly make for difficult reading at points. But at the end I didn’t feel that I learned very much about Nellie Bly herself. I wanted to know more. How did she get the assignment? What journalism experience did she already have? She was only 23 at the time. How did the asylum experience affect her? Did she ever see anyone she met there again? What happened to the other patients? How did the doctors and nurses in the asylum react when Nellie’s story was published?

How did you research Nellie Bly’s character during her later life?

My main source for Nellie’s life, outside her own newspaper reports, was Brooke Kroeger’s comprehensive biography, Nellie Bly: Daredevil. Reporter. Feminist. It’s over 600 pages long, amply illustrating by that fact alone that there was much more to Nellie Bly’s life than the asylum expose and her solo trip around the world – amazing as both those feats were. Kroeger’s biography is incredibly detailed and also meticulously indexed. I was able to obtain source material for many of the episodes she details – for example, the thesis I mentioned earlier where Beatrice Alexander was interviewed. My local library helped obtain some of Nellie’s later articles, too. For anyone who wants to know more about Nellie’s life and writing, I’d recommend Kroeger’s biography as well as Nellie Bly, Around the World in Seventy-Two Days and Other Writings, edited by Jean Marie Lutes. This collection includes her first article, "The Girl Puzzle," her two original madhouse reports, her round the world expedition and some much later stories during and after World War I.

author Kate Braithwaite
As a British author writing about American characters, are there any language differences you had to pay attention to? 

Although I have lived in the U.S. since 2010 and am a naturalized citizen, I grew up in Britain and lived there for most of my life. I’m very aware of the differences between U.S. and U.K. English and approached writing The Girl Puzzle with this very much in mind. Nellie Bly was a proud American woman – in fact she disliked the British! – and I was as keen to be true to her story in this aspect as much as any other. Spelling was obviously a starting point. Then there are many everyday words that are different – you say purse, I say handbag, you say bangs, I say fringe, you say two weeks, I say fortnight and so on. Hopefully I kept my British vocabulary firmly under control. If I was setting out to write a contemporary novel with modern Americans as my main characters, I actually think my task might be harder than it was here. As I wrote I read and re-read Nellie Bly’s work across her working life and have the hope that my British educated writing style fits with that period fairly comfortably. Of course, I could be wrong! I did ask early readers to look out for ‘British-isms’ and have my fingers crossed that American readers are not disappointed in the book.

Did you get to travel to any of the sites covered in the novel?

Absolutely. Although I’d love to go to the haunts of Nellie’s early life in Pittsburgh, Cochran’s Mills and Apollo, I didn’t make it over there, choosing instead to focus on New York where all the action takes place. The Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum still stands, at least in part. It’s now an apartment building and the wings are new, but the central octagon is the same, in its exterior at least, as it was in 1887. Standing outside the asylum and looking over the East River at Manhattan, just as Nellie Bly did, was a really memorable experience for me. I also followed in her footsteps on the day she began her adventure, walking from her boarding house on West Ninety-Sixth Street, through Central Park and all the way down to 84 Second Avenue. Bellevue Hospital, a location Nellie visits in both timelines, looks very different now but her home in the 1920’s, (now Herald Towers, then the McAlpin Hotel) is just next to Macy’s Department Store. I spent some time there, imagining Miss Bly and her staff coming and going, although I had to remember that the Empire State building, which looms up behind it, wasn’t completed until 1931.


Kate Braithwaite grew up in Edinburgh but now lives with her family in the Brandywine Valley in Pennsylvania. Her daughter doesn’t think Kate should describe herself as a history nerd, but that’s exactly what she is. Always on the hunt for lesser known stories from the past, Kate’s books have strong female characters, rich settings and dark secrets. The Girl Puzzle is her third novel.  For more information, see her website at and on social media as follows:

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