Sunday, October 13, 2019

Marley by Jon Clinch provides dark backstories for characters in Dickens' A Christmas Carol

In his highly acclaimed Finn (2007), Clinch crafted a prequel to a literary classic, expanding upon its characters while adding a daring, historically relevant twist. His latest follows in grand form by developing backstories for Jacob Marley and Ebenezer Scrooge of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Here, Scrooge’s miserliness is a quality that emerges from his circumstances. Marley, however, is deceit incarnate, beginning when they meet at a boys’ boarding school in 1787. Their unpleasantly codependent association continues into adulthood, when they establish a shipping company enmeshed in secrets, including trading in human cargo.

Bright but emotionally detached, Scrooge prefers working with numbers, leaving the business’s nasty aspects to Marley, but to win Belle Fairchild’s hand, Scrooge must extricate himself from the slave trade. Thus begins the pair’s all-encompassing, self-destructive rivalry.

Clinch gives us a full-fledged late-Georgian London, with its shadowy lanes and increasing commercial growth, and his female characters, namely Belle and Scrooge’s sister, Fan, are convincingly developed. This smoothly written, insightful tale should prompt people to reread its inspiration with fresh eyes.

Jon Clinch's Marley is published this month by Atria/Simon & Schuster.  I reviewed it for Booklist's September 1 issue from an Edelweiss e-copy. While it's the prequel to a holiday classic, its themes (greed, slavery, family ties, the possibility of redemption) are of perennial contemporary interest.

Read also the recent NYT review of Marley, written by Simon Callow.

Also related to A Christmas Carol is Samantha Silva's Mr. Dickens and His Carol, from 2017, which stars Dickens himself and imagines the circumstances behind its writing.

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

Thoughts on the similarities between the two Kentucky Pack Horse librarian historical novels

Regarding the Buzzfeed News article making the rounds in the historical fiction world, citing eight commonalities between two new releases: I read Jojo Moyes’ The Giver of Stars as an ARC over the summer. (My review, written for November's Historical Novels Review, is forthcoming.) I haven’t read Kim Michele Richardson’s The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek yet, though had bought a copy for my library.

While many people on social media are calling plagiarism based on the “alarming similarities” in these two books, and the citations were written to persuade readers of this view, I’m not convinced. This is why.

First, it’s not surprising at all that two authors would be publishing historical novels about the Kentucky Pack-Horse Librarians now. The articles about them in the Smithsonian Magazine, Atlas Obscura, and on NPR were circulating heavily in the past couple of years, so it was a natural topic for novelists writing about strong female characters in 20th-century settings.

Some of the cited similarities are plot devices I’d expect to see in any commercial fiction on the subject: for example, librarians getting accosted by suspicious/religious men of the hills in an isolated woodland setting. Novels need conflict, and in a situation where women are obliged to travel alone, such a character is an obvious choice as antagonist or villain. Today’s historical novelists seek to diversify their cast, and so the choice of a black librarian as a secondary character isn’t surprising either, even if it wasn’t historically documented. Both of these elements, in other words, aren't as unique as it may seem at the outset.

There’s a JSTOR article about the Pack-Horse Librarians* that mentions the Women’s Home Companion as a popular choice of reading material in these remote residences, and that child care was a popular topic in it. This is a core research resource, the top search result in Google Scholar on these librarians.  This article also says that the librarians met initial resistance from some of the mountain dwellers they served. And of course if you’re looking for folksy elements to include in fiction in a rural setting, home-made quilts are a good choice. I received one as a wedding gift myself. Many of the mentioned similarities aren’t significant plot elements of The Giver of Stars, but details sprinkled in to make the novel feel authentic.

There’s always a hope for an author that they’ll be the first, or the only, novelist to write on a unique topic. The truth is that, with the strongest market for historical fiction being a narrow band of female-focused 20th-century history, there is often a race to see who can be the first novelist to lay claim to a historical personage or subject. I can understand authors getting upset when that doesn’t happen, and if they feel like they’re competing for attention with another book.

Readers interested in historical subjects appreciate having multiple perspectives, though, particularly when each author has a unique angle. Both books made it to the LibraryReads list for their respective release months; was there ever any doubt?  From what I’ve read about Book Woman, the protagonists and underlying plot arcs of the two books are very different.

Both authors are experienced historical novelists, meaning that they know their genre (and its conventions) well. Both did considerable research on site, at around the same time, and likely used some of the same research material. Giving modern readers what they expect in a story about the Pack-Horse Librarians means tapping into common details and tropes, and going by the material provided, I suspect that’s what happened here.

* Boyd, Donald C., "The Book Women of Kentucky: The WPA Pack Horse Library Project." Libraries & the Cultural Record, 42(2): 2007.

Monday, October 07, 2019

Interview with historical novelist Susan Higginbotham, author of The First Lady and the Rebel

I'm pleased to have had the opportunity to ask Susan Higginbotham some questions about her new historical novel, The First Lady and the Rebel (Sourcebooks Landmark, Oct. 1), which delves into the complex relationship between Mary Todd Lincoln and her half-sister, Emily Todd Helm, whose husband fought for the Confederacy (as did several of Mary's half-brothers).  It's a smoothly written account of a family whose political sympathies were sharply divided. As always, Susan's research is thorough and her plots well-informed by her characters' real-life actions and personalities.

The idea that Mary Lincoln had a half-sister married to a Confederate general will likely be eye-opening to many readers. Do you recall where or when you first came across this information, and then decided to write a novel about their relationship?

While the bare fact of Mary's divided family generally rates a few pages in biographies of the Lincolns, and most novels about Mary include Emily's visit to the White House, I think it was Stephen Berry's House of Abraham: Lincoln and the Todds, a Family Divided by War, that spurred me to learn more about Emily. Although my first few novels are set in medieval and Tudor England, my previous novel, Hanging Mary, left me with a taste to do another novel set in the 1860s, especially since the primary sources were so much more accessible and since I had moved to Maryland, within an easy drive of so many Civil War sites. (No Norman French! No Latin! No more trips to England—oh, wait a minute.)

I've been fascinated by the Lincolns since I was a child, and it occurred to me that Mary's relationships with her siblings, especially the half-siblings who supported the Confederacy, was a topic that had been ignored in historical fiction. Since I like to write about actual historical figures, but like to take a fresh approach to their stories, the idea was a good fit.

Since Mary and Emily were born 18 years apart, did this create any initial writing challenges, in terms of plotting and structure?

It made for an awfully long first chapter! Originally, I had planned on a couple of more Mary chapters, including her time in Washington during Lincoln's term in Congress, before I introduced Emily, but after a couple of false starts and some stagnation I decided to fast forward through the early years of the Lincoln marriage and move on to Emily's story, which turned out to be the momentum I needed.

I appreciate how you do considerable research using primary sources. What were some of the more important or interesting discoveries you made using archival documents or photos?

Emily Todd Helm
Many students of women's history during the Civil War have heard of Phoebe Yates Pember, who wrote a memoir of her service as matron of Richmond's Chimborazo Hospital, but I don't think any historian has noted her connection with Emily Todd Helm. It wasn't something I noticed myself until I was scrolling through my scans of Emily's papers at the Kentucky Historical Society and saw a faded letter signed "Phoebe Y. Pember." To my surprise, I learned from reading the letter that not only did the women know each other, but Emily stayed in Phoebe's rather contentious household in Marietta, Georgia, at some point before Phoebe decamped for Richmond. Having learned that, I couldn't miss the opportunity to give the sharp-tongued and sharp-witted Phoebe a cameo appearance in my novel.

One discovery I made, however, was entirely by accident. A researcher in Madison, Indiana, where Emily lived after the war, wrote a pamphlet about Emily, and when my copy arrived I found that included with it was a photocopy of a typewritten transcription of a letter Emily wrote to Frank McCawley after his brother, George "Mac" McCawley, who had been one of Benjamin Hardin Helm's staff officers, was killed in battle. It's a very raw, emotional letter in which Emily dwells on her own loss in Mac's death rather than the McCawley family's, and I came away from it convinced that had Mac survived the war, Emily might well have married him after a respectable interval. At the very least, the letter—preserved by the McCawley descendants in a family Bible—was evidence of the strong friendship between Mac and Emily, and gave Emily a confidant at certain points in the novel.

As you mention in the notes at the end, Lincoln's life has been very well documented, but I particularly enjoyed seeing his home and family life depicted on the page in The First Lady and the Rebel. Were there any lesser-known qualities about Lincoln that you especially wanted to bring to life?

I did enjoy throwing some of my favorite stories about Lincoln into the novel—like the incident where he was so lost in thought he failed to notice that the child whose wagon he was pulling had fallen out of the wagon—but what I was striving for more than anything was to show the Lincoln marriage as a loving one, albeit one with its ups and downs (like most marriages). Even some historians, often relying on secondhand and even third-hand accounts, have fallen into the trap of painting the marriage as an unrelievedly miserable one, with Mary inflicting most of the misery.

Mary Todd Lincoln
I found it difficult to write Lincoln, as he is a hero of mine, so I hope readers find a few flaws in him. As for Mary, there are so many black-or-white portrayals of her, even in nonfiction—she's either the termagant who made Lincoln's life a living hell before she went crazy, or she's a proto-feminist without whom Lincoln would have been nothing and who was shoved into a lunatic asylum by her greedy, ungrateful son after she proved an embarrassment to him.

She's a complex, fascinating woman who fell in between those extremes, and I wanted to present a more balanced view of her. (That being said, she could throw a spectacular hissy fit when she chose to—I actually cut some of the scene at City Point, because the editor thought it went on too long. Imagine what it must have been like to live it!)

What appeals to you about writing historical fiction about people who once lived? Are there qualities you look for in deciding which historical characters to write about?

Well, for one thing, with historical figures, there's a ready-made plot—which comes in handy for someone like me who prefers drawing characters to creating plots. For another, I really enjoy the research that comes with writing about a historical figure. And it's a pleasure introducing readers to the little-known aspects of a prominent historical figure or to a famous person's lesser-known friends or relatives.

In choosing characters to write about, I gravitate toward women who have been misunderstood by history or overlooked by history. I'm drawn to strong women, but to quiet strength, not to the showy type displayed by the "kick-ass heroine." Resilience is a quality I particularly value, which might explain why so many of my female characters, who as a group have terrible luck in keeping their husbands alive, are called upon to exercise it to such a large degree.

Thanks so much, Susan! 

About the Author

Susan Higginbotham is the author of seven historical novels, including Hanging Mary, The Stolen Crown, and The Queen of Last Hopes. The Traitor’s Wife, her first novel, was the winner of ForeWord Magazine’s 2005 Silver Award for historical fiction and was a Gold Medalist, Historical/Military Fiction, 2008 Independent Publisher Book wards. She writes her own historical fiction blog, History Refreshed. Higginbotham has worked as an editor and an attorney, and lives in Maryland with her family.


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The First Lady and the Rebel

Monday, September 30, 2019

Thoughts on Philippa Gregory's new saga of 17th-century England, Tidelands

Enthusiasts of Philippa Gregory’s Tudor novels may call her latest a departure, but the atmospheric Tidelands is more of a return to her former style and era. As in her Tradescant novels, she sets her tale in the 17th century, during England’s Civil War, and while her focus remains on the lives of women, it's shifted to ordinary working-class folk. There’s a strong thread of royal intrigue, but one (mostly) seen from a distant viewpoint. After reading the critical Entertainment Weekly review and the reasoning there, I guessed that Tidelands would suit my tastes, and it did. In fact, I enjoyed it more than any of her novels since The Other Boleyn Girl.

Gregory obviously loves her setting – the “neither land nor sea” marshy regions of Sealsea Island, off the Sussex mainland – and lingers over descriptions while her heroine, Alinor Reekie, navigates her way through the hidden traps in its sands and tides. Twenty-seven-year-old Alinor, healer and midwife and sister of the local ferryman, is among the poorest residents of her tiny coastal community. Her husband has vanished, leaving her with two children moving into adolescence.

She ekes out a living as best she can, hewing to a straight, narrow path even as her neighbors hint she must have mystical powers. Her greatest treasures, besides her son and daughter, are the remnants of old Saxon coins she finds on the beach. Early on, Alinor reflects on having the “sight,” as her female ancestors did before her, but Gregory doesn’t make much use of this supposed ability: Alinor’s not Jacquetta or Elizabeth Woodville.

Alinor’s life takes a sharp turn when she encounters James, a traveling priest in disguise, late on Midsummer Eve and guides him across the tidelands to the home of the local lord, a known royalist supporter. Through the intertwining stories of Alinor and James, Gregory shows how the political divide reaches out to affect even isolated Sealsea Island. James grows entranced by Alinor’s beauty and kindness, marveling at having found “a woman like you, in a place like this.”

Different meanings of this phrase echo throughout. Gregory’s tendency to repeat bits of dialogue for emphasis can sometimes aggravate, but here it works well. Alinor and James fall in love, of course, though there are hints that, even with his expensive clothes and greater education, she’s of stronger moral fiber than he.

Tidelands is indeed more of a “slow burn” than an epic read full of juicy excitement. That said, Alinor’s character is richly developed, with many subtle shadings. Because her meager income depends on others’ goodwill, she can rarely act on her desires. James’s presence throws her into disarray, but she can’t let it show. With her inner turmoil, I found her among the most complex and intriguing among Gregory’s heroines. When Alinor’s covert act to help James is rewarded, and her children’s fortunes improve, her neighbors’ whispers about her increase. Meanwhile, James, forced to conceal himself among Parliamentarians, continues his secret, dangerous mission for his king.

The way Gregory handles her “abortion subplot” goes contrary to what one might expect of the people involved, and I found this puzzling. But otherwise, Alinor’s character falls in with her status as an impoverished woman all too aware that she sits on the margins. As such, she possesses a strength imperative for survival, one which her social superiors hardly recognize. When a higher-ranking man, speaking of the political chaos engulfing Britain, calls it a fight “between men… It was about our country, our war,” Alinor's reply has a quiet, firm insistence on her place in the world: “‘My war, too,’ she observed. ‘My country, too.’”

Tidelands was published by Atria/Simon & Schuster in August; I read it from an Edelweiss copy (and also bought a print copy for the library's bestseller collection).

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Call Your Daughter Home by Deb Spera, 1920s-set fiction about three distinctive Southern women

Spera’s debut novel brims with grim authenticity as she recounts the unexpected bond between three women in the small town of Branchville, South Carolina. Her own great-grandmother and grandmother came from this same place, enduring grinding poverty while raising their families as best they could, and her deep familiarity with the land and people seeps into the pages.

In 1924, five years before the Great Depression’s official start, hard times have already hit. The boll weevil infestation has devastated local cotton production, and the region hasn’t recovered. Married at thirteen, Gertrude (Gert) Pardee has an abusive alcoholic husband, four growing daughters, and no money to properly feed or clothe them. When she sees a dark way out, she takes it and doesn’t look back. When Gert arrives at the home of Mrs. Annie Coles to ask about a job and a place to live, she speaks first with the Coles’s black maid, Oretta (Retta) Bootles, and their three lives converge.

Their voices are unique and distinctive, and their personalities transcend what seem at first to be stereotypical roles. Gert sees the Missus a “fine old lady” whose house is “pure white and grand as the entrance to heaven,” but something terrible is clearly eating the Coles family from the inside. Annie is seventy, with two sons who struggle to emerge from under their father’s controlling thumb, two estranged daughters, and a beloved son who committed suicide years ago (she doesn’t know the reason). Her voice and painful journey are sadly believable. Retta, the middle-aged daughter of former slaves, is rough-edged but compassionate; she runs Miss Annie’s house while going home each night to her husband in their black neighborhood, “Shake Rag.” Their plot arcs aren’t equally satisfying (it would be a spoiler to say why), but the novel succeeds in evoking Southern women’s survival during tough times.

Call Your Daughter Home was published by Park Row/HarperCollins; I read it from a NetGalley copy.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Bits and pieces of historical fiction news: critical reviews, bio-fiction, HF for new readers and WWII

Here's a roundup of historical fiction articles I found on the web recently.

Negative reviews can be dismaying for authors, but they can hold value for readers trying to decide whether a novel is worth their time. Sometimes I'll read a critical review that persuades me to read a book, and the review of Philippa Gregory's Tidelands in Entertainment Weekly did this for me. In contrast to the reviewer (staff journalist Maureen Lee Lenker), I'd grown steadily more lukewarm about Gregory's Tudor series and didn't read the last two, figuring I'd had my fill of Tudor drama and angst. I'm predicting that a novel that avoids juicy subplots in favor of something less obvious, more of a "slow burn" in other words, may be more to my taste. The comment about Gregory's handling of an "icky" abortion subplot (no spoilers if you've read it, please!) concerns me a bit, but the observation that this situation isn't handled in a way that echoes modern politics does not, since this is a novel set in the 17th century.  I'll be reading Tidelands soon and will post my review then. For more background to Gregory's writing choices, she did a separate interview with EW about it.

For the History News Network, novelist Gill Paul discusses writing fiction about real people: the motivations, pitfalls, techniques, and occasional surprises (like if a person upon whom you've based a character reads your book and emails you).  I liked this comment: "The best novels about real people make us re-evaluate the subject and perhaps alter our preconceived ideas."

At Book Riot, Jeffrey Davis has an essay called 5 Historical Fiction Books to Read if You Don't Like Historical Fiction. For several years, I was a regular guest presenter in an English class examining the reading interests of adults, and historical fiction was a tough sell for most of those students, too. I always enjoy reading other takes on the genre and noted the author's realization that while WWII is the most popular setting, historical fiction encompasses a broader period than that one era. Check out the recommendations there of "gateway" books for newcomers to HF.  A couple of them take place in the '80s -- that is, my high school and college years, which does seem like a distant place at times.

Continuing with this theme, writing for Parade Magazine, author Kristen Harmel (The Winemaker's Wife) analyzes why WWII Fiction Is So Hot Right Now, providing some good reasons and also some fiction recommendations. Among them, the ones I've read are Kate Quinn's The Huntress and Ann Mah's The Lost Vintage, both of which I recommend as well.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Diversity in the Ancient World, a guest post by Zenobia Neil, author of The Queen of Warriors

Author Zenobia Neil's newest historical novel, The Queen of Warriors, is published this Thursday, and today she's stopping by with a guest post about cultural diversity during the Hellenistic Period as part of her blog tour. Welcome, Zenobia!


Diversity in the Ancient World
Zenobia Neil 

Alexander the Great represents many things to different people. When I first started researching the Hellenistic period while writing The Queen of Warriors, I was curious about ancient Persian perfume. I started reading a blog post about perfume in Hellenistic Persia. I learned that my main character Artaxerxes of Rhagae could indeed wear sandalwood and musk. And then I read the comment section, which quickly devolved into an argument between two strangers about if Alexander the Great was accursed or a hero.

I think many figures in history can be both good and evil. No one is just one thing. All too often historical figures are taken out of context of their time and place. Enough books have been written about Alexander, and I have no interest in weighing in on his crimes and crowning glories. What fascinated me was the sheer intensity of feeling people still have about him. I want to talk about something else he did—or that he helped to do: by invading Persia and conquering basically all of Asia Minor and India, Alexander brought a flood of diversity throughout the land.

The Hellenistic Period (323 BCE - 31 BCE) saw a wave of cultural exchange. Alexander conquered Persia, but he also adopted Persian customs (despite the disapproval of his men). Greek culture, language, and art spread throughout Asia Minor, Egypt as far as Northeast Africa, and to part of modern India. (I should also stress that there wasn’t a unified Greece. Each polis or city-state had their own way of doing things, but I’m going to simplify and call Macedonians, Athenians, and Spartans “Greek.”)

When I first read about this time period in Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy, one of the aspects that interested me the most was the diversity of the people of this time period. Not only was I intrigued by the Persians—perceived as feminine by the Greeks because they wore leather trousers—but also by the Bactrians with their camel hair vests, and the Medes. I was enthralled by these ancient people I knew so little about.

Since I chose to write about a fictional Spartan woman warrior who becomes the leader of a mercenary army, I had characters from many different lands. Alexandra, the Queen of Warriors, has an army composed of Spartan commanders as well as Ionian, Nubian, and Median factions. Later in the book, her army adopts Persian squires.

Though I did not base my character on a known historical figure, we do know that Xenophon and his ten thousand were Greek soldiers in Persia, fighting for a Persian prince. Alexandra and her men find themselves in a similar position, fighting for a Macedonian king to keep Alexander’s tattered empire intact. In The Queen of Warriors, these diverse factions follow Alexandra for different reasons; one is her reputation as a fearless leader and the strength of her Spartan warriors.

Alexandra’s troop also includes Mithra, a Babylonian former concubine, a girl whose beauty has been its own curse. Mithra was raised in the pleasure houses of Babylon and has learned to become a warrior in her own way. When she’s given her freedom, she finds a place for herself in Alexandra’s household. Two other characters who sprang almost fully formed into the book are Silent Shadow, a Nubian marksman who lost his tongue when he refused to give away a secret, and Judah, a Judean slave who gains his freedom by risking his life.

The ancient world is often portrayed as one group of people battling another. Writing in the Hellenistic world gave me an opportunity to show the diversity and cultural exchange that existed thousands of years ago and continues to this day.


About the Author

Zenobia Neil was named after an ancient warrior queen who fought against the Romans. She writes about the mythic past and Greek and Roman gods having too much fun. She lives with her husband, two children, and dog in Los Angeles. The Queen of Warriors is her third book.

Visit her at You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.


During the Blog Tour, we are giving away 2 eBooks and 2 paperbacks of the author's first two books, Psyche Unbound and The Jinni’s Last Wish! To enter, please use the Gleam form below.

Giveaway Rules:

– Giveaway ends at 11:59 pm EST on October 4th. 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 Queen of Warriors

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Kyung-Sook Shin's The Court Dancer, set in 19th-century Korea and Belle Époque Paris

For historical fiction fans interested in courtly intrigue but ready to move on from English and European locales, here’s a novel to consider. It should also attract literary fiction readers seeking a new perspective on France’s Belle Époque, or anyone who appreciates poetic writing and themes of cross-cultural identity.

I’d purchased Kyung-Sook Shin’s The Court Dancer for the library’s bestseller collection a year ago after reading positive reviews but didn’t have time to read it myself until now. The fluid translation into English is by Anton Hur.

Based on a brief mention in a century-old diplomatic memoir, it fleshes out a tale set during a historical turning point. In 1876, the Jaemulpo Treaty (also called the Treaty of Ganghwa) between Japan and Korea ended Korea’s lengthy period of isolationism, after which many countries in the East and West began looking toward it, with an eye to diplomatic relations or foreign control.

Although not labeled as such, the novel's first chapter acts as a prologue that divides the rest of the novel into two halves: what happens before and after. In 1891, Yi Jin, a 22-year-old dancer at the Korean royal court, sails to France in the company of the man who loves her: Victor Collin de Plancy, the first French legate to Korea’s Joseon Kingdom. Although Jin holds affection for him and opens herself up by letting him brush her lustrous black hair (the story is full of symbolic actions such as these), it becomes clear she had little choice.

The Queen, who had acted as Jin’s surrogate mother, noticed the King’s growing attentions toward Jin and got him to send her away. This is a radical decision not only because of Jin’s and Victor’s unusual interracial relationship but also because agreeing to become a court dancer is itself a ritual as binding as a wedding ceremony. “Take care to live beautifully, so your name inspires a feeling of grace in the people who speak it,” the Queen tells her in farewell: eloquent but uninspiring words, since they address her behavior rather than personal happiness.

Throughout her life, Jin struggles to discover who she is, and in many indelible passages, Shin highlights her painfully illuminating journey from childhood on. A nameless orphan raised at the royal court, she forms an attachment to the lonely Queen Min and learns French from a visiting priest. While in Paris, Jin is accepted everywhere as Victor’s wife and draws applause for her inspired reading of Guy de Maupassant’s A Woman’s Life in the author’s presence. However, despite her fluent French and adoption of Western dress in a country that celebrates freedom, she attracts uncomfortable attention: feeling much like the Africans she sees in a dreadful Bois de Boulogne exhibit, put on display as an exoticized “other.” Victor collects Korean books and celadon pottery, and she grows troubled, imagining herself as another object.

“Jin could not be free of the attention of strangers, whether they were from kindness of curiosity. And without that freedom, there could be no equality.” Sometimes Shin lets readers soak up the symbolism in her beautiful imagery; other times, like here, she is effectively direct.

As a protagonist, Jin is hard to get to know. Her character feels opaque early on, and her physical appearance is highlighted (with multiple descriptions of the elegant nape of her neck, for example), but Shin gradually lets readers join her inner world. The author’s penchant for revealing a key plot point at a chapter’s beginning, then working her way backward to reveal how the situation happened, is a technique that some readers will find suspenseful, while others will find it frustrating. I found it some of both. That said, this melancholy novel about a courageous, misunderstood woman rewards those who stick with it.

The Court Dancer was published by Pegasus in 2018.

Monday, September 09, 2019

Review of Elizabeth of Bohemia: A Novel about Elizabeth Stuart, the Winter Queen by David Elias

Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of James I of England, narrates her own story in Elias’s wide-ranging novel. Her life encompasses many seismic events, from the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, which was meant to kill her father and install her as a puppet queen for the Catholics, to the origins of the devastating Thirty Years’ War, followed by years of strain and exile in the Netherlands. In short, her dramatic story is ripe for fictional treatment. However, the result is an uneven gallop through 17th-century European history rather than a sweeping biographical epic of a strong-willed woman’s life.

The story begins as her father arranges her marriage to Frederick, Count Palatine of the Rhine, a Protestant prince of her own age. A young woman with a flair for the dramatic, Elizabeth is unrealistically upset with her parents for not letting her choose her own husband, and later causes a scene by kissing Frederick before a large crowd. The couple settles in Heidelberg; she later goads him into taking the crown of Bohemia and bears him thirteen children. Their short reign in Bohemia gives her the famous nickname of the “Winter Queen.”

Periods of overwrought emotion (she lusts after the English statesman and explorer incorrectly referred to many times as “Sir Raleigh”) alternate with more realistic, lively scenes and staid recitations of events. Elizabeth’s defining motive seems to be rebellion, and the era’s complicated political scene doesn’t come into clear view. Frederick is called a “Bohemian prince” years too early, and a strange subplot involving Elizabeth’s cousin, Arabella Stuart, serves no real purpose. The descriptions of fashion and décor are well done, however. Unfortunately, despite evocative period language and some truly moving moments as Elizabeth reflects on her family’s tragedies, readers interested in her life may not find this novel sufficiently satisfying.

Elizabeth of Bohemia was published by ECW Press (a Canadian small press) in June, and I'd reviewed it from NetGalley for the Historical Novels Review. This was a disappointing read, unfortunately. The later part of Elizabeth Stuart's life is well presented in Nicola Cornick's timeslip novel House of Shadows. She also appears in Jane Stevenson's The Winter Queen, which imagines a relationship between Elizabeth and an African prince.

Thursday, September 05, 2019

The Sweetest Fruits by Monique Truong, fiction about the women in Lafcadio Hearn's life

Three distinctive, remarkable women narrate Truong’s third novel. They never meet, but their lives are interconnected, and subtly influenced by one another’s, through one person they all love: Patrick Lafcadio Hearn, the Greek-born, Irish-raised writer and translator who became a talented journalist in mid-19th century America, and whose stories about his final home of Japan introduced Western audiences to his beloved adopted country.

He was a man created of continuous reinvention, and the journey he followed was so wide-ranging and unusual for its time that it’s hard to believe one 54-year life encapsulated it all. That said, it’s the women who shine here, and in a notable shift in perspective, Hearn comes alive only through their words. His absence from the page is frequently more palpable than his presence.

The first voice, expressed with lyricism and a mother’s yearning for her long-lost child, is that of Rosa Cassimati, a sheltered nobleman’s daughter from the Greek island of Cythera who was forced to leave her second son, Patricio, behind with his Anglo-Irish father’s family. Beginning in 1906, Alethea Foley, a formerly enslaved woman employed as a cook in a Cincinnati boardinghouse, remembers the boarder, Pat Hearn, who she admires and eventually marries—an event which has repercussions due to miscegenation laws. The longest tale belongs to Hearn’s second wife, Koizumi Setsu, a samurai’s daughter who bears him four children and sees his transformation from a foreign English teacher into a naturalized Japanese citizen.

Precisely researched, The Sweetest Fruits reads like a collection of oral histories; it provides a series of vivid impressions illuminating each heroine’s personal story and her purpose in telling it. While it may disappoint readers seeking an addictive plot, it resounds with character and feeling and has much to offer observers of historical women’s hidden lives.

The Sweetest Fruits was published this week by Viking in hardcover and ebook. I reviewed it from NetGalley for August's Historical Novels Review.  You can read more about Truong's research and writing decisions in her interview with blogger Deborah Kalb, which I found linked from the author's website.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

The Summer Queen by Margaret Pemberton, a saga about Queen Victoria's royal grandchildren

British and European royalty buffs will revel in this book, in which the lives of Queen Victoria’s large clan of descendants are retold as a sweeping family saga. The action spans from a large gathering at Osborne House, the royal summer retreat, in 1879, through the fall of the Romanovs in 1918.

The principal viewpoints are May of Teck and her cousins Alicky of Hesse and Willy of Prussia—who, in later years, will be known respectively as Queen Mary, Empress Alexandra, and Kaiser Wilhelm. The story imagines that they form a pact that makes them kindred spirits, and the letters they exchange over the years (the women in particular) draw readers into their reflections, hopes, and fears.

Although all the characters are born to great privilege, Pemberton makes them relatable without ignoring their flaws. May, daughter of Victoria’s first cousin, grows up knowing that as a “Serene Highness”—a lesser pedigree than her royal relations—she can never aspire to marry the man she has a crush on: Eddy, the Prince of Wales’s heir. Although embarrassed by her parents’ financial problems, and their need to economize by moving to the Continent, May soaks up culture in Florence and returns to England a well-educated, level-headed young woman. Alicky, a shy, impressionable girl with a mystical bent, finds her soul mate in Nicky, the Romanov heir, but their religious differences seem insurmountable.

The plot emphasizes the personal over the political, with depictions of many courtships and attempted matches, from well-known pairings to the lesser-known and short-lived: like the scandalous second marriage of Alicky’s father, and the sexy affair between May’s brother and Maudie of Wales. Despite some instances of characters sharing facts for the reader’s benefit, it’s an addictive story, and Pemberton gets the relationships correct on their complicated family tree, too.

The Summer Queen was published by Pan this year in paperback. I reviewed it for August's Historical Novels Review from a personal copy. Margaret Pemberton is a former chair of Britain's Romantic Novelists' Association, and she's written under several pseudonyms. Her best known pen name in America is Rebecca Dean, under which she authored other novels with royal connections, like The Golden Prince (focusing on the young Edward VIII), and The Shadow Queen (about Wallis Simpson).

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

'Tis 50 Years Since: 1969 in historical fiction

The Historical Novel Society's definition of historical fiction includes novels set at least 50 years before the writing, or those written by someone who wasn't alive at the time they were set. If you follow these guidelines, current novels taking place in 1969 are now considered historical fiction. So, for any readers who think the '60s are too recent to be "historical"... well, next year, the 1970s will start getting included under that umbrella (!!).

The final year of the tumultuous 1960s saw a number of iconic events, including Woodstock, the moon landing, the continued Vietnam War, the Manson murders, Chappaquiddick, and the Stonewall riots. It's also the year I was born, so I'm soon to become historical myself. For that reason, I'm especially interested in historical fiction set in '69. These novels re-create the world I was born into but didn't personally experience.

Below are ten historical novels taking place during 1969 (including some published a year ago or more; this is cheating a bit).  I'm looking forward to reading them.

And for further reading:: author Richard Sharp's guest post, The Sixties: The New Frontier in Historical Fiction, is one of my favorite essays on this site. It does a great job of putting in perspective why it's important for authors to continue examining the '60s and writing novels set back then.

America Was Hard to Find by Kathleen Alcott

Alcott covers events of the Cold War era (one plot strand takes place in '69) in her story of a couple, their brief affair, their son, and their involvement in major socio-cultural events. I love the cover design. Ecco, May 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Adamson's 1969 by Nicole Burton

A young Englishman attends American high school in '69 and gets caught up in many events of the day/year. Apippa, Oct. 2018. [see on Goodreads]

The Girls by Emma Cline

Searching for a place to belong, an impressionable California teenager gets drawn into the world of a dangerous cult during the summer of '69.  Inspired by the Manson murders. Random House, 2016. [see on Goodreads]

The Fourteenth of September by Rita Dragonette

The coming-of-age story of a nineteen-year-old woman, recipient of a military scholarship leading to a nursing career, who finds her future in limbo after awakening to the antiwar movement. She Writes, 2018. [see on Goodreads]

Summer of 69 by Elin Hilderbrand

In this book described as the author's first historical novel, Hilderbrand presents the individual stories of the Levin siblings as they live through and experience pivotal events of that summer in Nantucket.  Little, Brown, June 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Cementville by Paulette Livers

The residents of a small Kentucky factory town face the aftermath of Vietnam when local soldiers' bodies return home, spurring seismic change in Cementville.  Counterpoint, 2014. [see on Goodreads]

Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes

The NYT bestselling epic of the Vietnam War, written by a decorated veteran who served in combat as a Marine overseas and based his first novel on his own experiences. [see on Goodreads]

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

This top-selling print book for the first half of 2019, taking place in coastal North Carolina in 1969, is a story about a lonely young woman from the marshlands, her coming of age, the era's prejudices, and a mysterious murder. This one has been on my TBR since it came out.  Putnam, 2018. [see on Goodreads]

GodPretty in the Tobacco Field by Kim Michele Richardson

Richardson's second novel takes place in the rural Kentucky mountains in 1969 and traces the coming of age of a young woman with big dreams. Kensington, 2016. [see on Goodreads]

Summer of 69 by Todd Strasser

The Woodstock music festival and the Vietnam draft figure in this autobiographical novel that's pitched as taking readers on a "psychedelically tinged trip of a lifetime." Candlewick, 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Saturday, August 24, 2019

The Vexations by Caitlin Horrocks, fiction about composer Erik Satie and his family in the Belle Époque

A beautifully melancholic tone permeates this finely written debut novel from acclaimed short story author Horrocks. More than biographical fiction about French avant-garde composer Erik Satie (1866-1925), it’s a multi-perspective saga about the Satie siblings and their circle, and how their lives touched and diverged over decades.

After their father abandons them in 1872, Eric (the original spelling), Louise, and Conrad live with their grandmother in Normandy, until Louise is later sent to stay with her great-uncle. The three never regain their childhood closeness. Now calling himself Erik, the composer pursues music in Paris, and struggles to rise above the cabaret scene, his erratic behavior giving him a “problematic level of fame.” Louise marries into a prominent family yet suffers significant losses.

Erik’s story looks beyond the “tortured genius” stereotype to something more nuanced and real, while both Louise and painter Suzanne Valadon, Erik’s one-time companion, personify different aspects of being a woman alone. The bleakness of the themes of loneliness, family separation, and thwarted expectations sits in counterpoise to several couples’ deep love and the creativity that produces innovative art.

The Vexations was published in August 2019 by Little, Brown; I'd reviewed it for Booklist's July issue. I confess I hadn't run across Erik Satie before picking up the novel and have since read that he's considerably more familiar a name in Europe than in the US. Louise, Erik's sister, is apparently so little-known that she isn't mentioned in Satie's Wikipedia entry; reading it, you'd think Conrad was his only sibling. I found her story the most poignant and was glad to discover it.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

The First Mrs. Rothschild by Sara Aharoni, fiction about the matriarch of a Jewish banking dynasty

With her third novel, a prizewinner in Israel, Sara Aharoni illuminates the matriarch of an international banking dynasty, perhaps the most famous in the world. When one thinks of the name Rothschild, visions of immense wealth, financial power, and influence come to mind, but their origins were humble. Aharoni shows how her heroine, a woman of remarkable character, retained her modest lifestyle through her near-century-long life and instilled strong values in her family.

As a female historical-novel protagonist, Gutle Schnapper, nicknamed Gutaleh, is unusual since she’s content, and proud, to be the wife of a great man and the mother of his many children (five sons and five daughters that survived). Conditions in the Judengasse (Jewish quarter) of Frankfurt in 1770 are overcrowded, and its residents, forbidden from full citizenship, face tight restrictions on their movement, behavior, and careers. Meir Amschel Rothschild, well aware of these prejudices, determines to achieve dignity through financial success, and he finally wins Gutaleh’s father’s approval after becoming court banker to Wilhelm, crown prince of Hesse-Kassel.

In a voice that feels true to her culture, Gutaleh evokes her daily joys and laments, including her passionate marriage, her children’s births and deaths, and her periodic concerns (“Is it seemly to have our profits founded in war?” she wonders). While she remains at home in the Judengasse, running a growing household, Meir makes connections on his travels, overcoming countless obstacles while founding a large banking and trade empire.

The sections where Gutaleh shares details on international politics and economics are rather dry, but she’s an insightful observer of her children’s natures, particularly those of her sons. Each son later establishes his own financial institution in a different European city, creating an indomitable family network. Jewish history buffs will want to read this, and so will anyone seeking an original take on 18th- and 19th-century European history.

The First Mrs. Rothschild, translated into English by Yardenne Greenspan, was published by AmazonCrossing in 2019; I reviewed it from a NetGalley copy for the Historical Novels Review.

Did you know August is Women in Translation Month?  This celebration was founded in 2014 by blogger Meytal Radzinski. Use the hashtag #WITMonth to locate other reviews, articles, interviews, and more on international women writers whose books were translated into English.

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.
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– Only one entry per household.
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– 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.