Monday, December 02, 2019

Nina MacLaughlin's Wake, Siren: Ovid's Metamorphoses for the #MeToo era

“The act of art is metamorphosis,” pronounces one woman in this eclectic collection, in which MacLaughlin daringly fashions a new artistic work that transforms female characters from Ovid’s Metamorphoses into the heroes (or anti-heroes) of their own stories.

While they take a feminist slant, similar to that in Madeline Miller’s Circe (2018), the 34 accounts in this multi-voiced mosaic, which range from a couple of pages to much longer, creatively diverge in approach and style. Some stories dazzle with their poetic eloquence, while others, written in slangy contemporary English, offer short, punchy lines and timeless themes.

Baucis, an elderly woman, tells a moving tale of enduring love and the gods’ power and gratitude, while a therapy-session dialogue ideally suits Myrrha’s disturbing story of her son’s conception. Medusa reveals the true tragedy of her plight, and in “Sibyl,” MacLaughlin converts the traditional tale into a paean to older women’s wisdom.

Many women in Ovid’s poems suffer unwanted male attention or sexual violence and find themselves silenced after being changed into animals, trees, or something else, but here they express their sorrow, fear, and rage. The free mingling of ancient characters with elements of workaday modern life won’t please everyone, but open-minded readers should applaud the virtuosity and find much worth discovering in these memorable reinterpretations.

Nina MacLaughlin's Wake, Siren: Ovid Resung was published by FSG on November 19th. I wrote this review for Booklist's October 1st issue, and it's the latest in a growing string of re-interpreted myths that I've been assigned to cover for that publication, including Miller's Circe as mentioned above, Maria Dahvana Headley's The Mere Wife (which re-imagines Beowulf in the suburbs; stunningly good, but not historical fiction), Kamila Shamsie's award-winning Home Fire (also excellent, but not HF).  With its mix of mythical and modern settings, whether you'd call Wake, Siren historical fiction is also up for debate as well, but it's worth reading, even if you don't think you're interested in shorter pieces.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Fortune's Child by James Conroyd Martin, entertaining fiction about Empress Theodora

In his solidly entertaining sixth novel, the lives of Martin’s two intelligent, resilient protagonists are marked by dramatic shifts in circumstance.

The tale of Theodora, the beautiful dark-haired middle daughter of a bearkeeper, begins in the shadow of Constantinople’s Hippodrome arena, plays out on various stages as an actress, and concludes atop a throne, following her improbable rise to become empress of the eastern Roman Empire as consort to Justinian I. Dying of cancer at 47, she liberates her old friend, a eunuch and former royal scribe named Stephen, from his grisly dungeon prison – where he’s languished for five years for reasons he doesn’t know – and asks him to write her biography.

Unlike Theodora, Stephen has had few opportunities for agency, but as his tale unfolds in parallel to hers, it wields a similar pull. A Syrian boy sold to a Persian magus and trained in multiple languages, he finds his life violently altered as a teenager. Aboard a ship leaving Antioch, he meets Theodora, who becomes his unattainable Circe.

The raw material fueling this novel is consistently fascinating. It offers a mixture of familiar human traits and exotic customs, with mythological “living pictures” all the rage in theatres and holy men, called stylites, living atop marble pillars. Likewise, the settings are vibrantly evoked as Theodora journeys through the vast, diverse lands of what we now call the Byzantine Empire in the sixth century, from the fertile landscapes of the Libyan Pentapolis to the pleasure-seeking venues of Antioch and a dark cell in Alexandria, where she encounters the Monophysite heresy for the first time. The theological details are cogently explained.

The energetically paced plot has prevalent themes of ambition and friendship. Unlike many strong-minded historical fiction heroines, Theodora forms bonds of sisterhood with other women, and they help each other navigate a world that doesn’t favor them. Along the way she makes some major mistakes and learns from them. Justinian, her future husband, shows up fairly late on the scene, and his personality remains somewhat enigmatic. This is just the first half of Theodora’s story, however, and history tells us that there’s plenty more to look forward to in book two.

Fortune's Child was published in October by Hussar Quill Press.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Review of Entertaining Mr. Pepys by Deborah Swift, set in 17th-century London

Deborah Swift has established a literary home in the 17th century, and her expertise shows in her work; she has a gift for illuminating the characters, customs, politics, and religion of the time. Her newest trilogy looks at the real-life women who figured in Samuel Pepys’ famous diary. Entertaining Mr. Pepys, the third volume, can also stand alone (I haven’t read the others yet and have some catching up to do). With such a title, and with a professional actress as its heroine, you’d expect it to be lively and entertaining, and it is.

Mary Elizabeth “Bird” Carpenter comes from a well-to-do London household. Her troubles begin after her widowed father grows besotted with and marries a younger woman who wants Bird out of her home. Bird is hardly thrilled to marry horse-dealer Christopher Knepp, who she barely knows, and even less so when she arrives at Knepp’s home as a bride and discovers she was essentially purchased to be his servant and brood-mare. Knepp, driven by his jealousy of a neighbor and business rival, is a skinflint who spends nearly all his meager income on horses, and Bird spends many exhausting days—and then years—washing saddles, preparing meals for Knepp’s workers, and fighting to create a well-furnished household amid the grime and neglect.

Bird has always had a beautiful singing voice, and through her friendship with Livvy, Knepp’s black serving-maid, she gets introduced to the London stage: first as an observer, then as a performer. When she sees a possible way out of her life of drudgery, she grabs it with both hands. Knepp is reluctant to let his wife tread the boards, but the enterprising Bird sees a way to present it to him as a business opportunity. Through the stage, Bird finds a new admirer in avid theatre-goer Samuel Pepys.

I especially enjoyed Swift’s depiction of working-class life and people in 1660s London. Her diverse cast of characters includes Bird’s needy, frail mother-in-law; several Catholics forced to hide their beliefs; Livvy and her family, forced to live apart; and Stefan, a young actor who adored playing female roles and is devastated by the new trend to hire actresses, rather than men, to play women on stage. Neither he nor Knepp is kind to Bird, but Swift also gives us enough glimpses of their struggles so that their attitudes are understandable, even if it’s difficult to like them. Swift also presents a convincing, panoramic view of the chaos and devastation wrought by the Great Fire of 1666:

Further up, shouts, as families flung their goods into the river. From this distance, the wharf teemed with running silhouettes against the brilliant light of the flames… the landscape of London was like a mouth with missing teeth, full of blackened stumps and gaps. The view was alien, unrecognizable. Half-burned joists and rafters stuck out from church steeples; in the distance something exploded.

Though the plot dips into others’ viewpoints now and again, it’s anchored by the delightful and determined Bird, and it’s a pleasure to follow along with her unexpectedly successful career path in 17th-century London.

Entertaining Mr. Pepys is published by Accent Press this week, and this is day 1 of the author's blog tour with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours. There's a tour-wide giveaway, too:

During the Blog Tour, we are giving away a signed copy of Entertaining Mr. Pepys! To enter, please use the Gleam form below.

Giveaway Rules

– Giveaway ends at 11:59 pm EST on December 12th. You must be 18 or older to enter.
– Paperback giveaway is open internationally.
– 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.

Entertaining Mr. Pepys

Friday, November 15, 2019

Love Without End by Melvyn Bragg, a multi-period novel exploring Heloise and Abelard's 12th-century love story - plus giveaway

The love story of the brilliant scholar Heloise and her tutor, the celebrity philosopher Peter Abelard, is remembered for its passion, tragedy, and sacrifice. Today, though, some aspects of their relationship can seem inexplicable. Why, for example, did their marriage have to be secret, and why did both feel obliged to take religious vows?

In his psychologically penetrating and touching novel, Bragg addresses these questions, and others, by placing the lovers into their socioreligious context of twelfth-century France and by weaving in a modern thread. While composing a novel about the medieval couple, a historian named Arthur explains his writing choices to his twentysomething daughter, Julia, while leading up to a big reveal about why he left her mother.

Neither present-day character is fully fleshed out; they mainly exist to provide a running commentary on Abelard and Heloise’s decisions. However, the historical portions, steeped in the philosophies of the age, take readers deep into the characters’ minds as the pair fall in love, endure Heloise’s uncle’s wrath and betrayal, and live separate yet emotionally connected lives thereafter.

Love Without End is published by Arcade this month in the US (it was previously published in the UK by Sceptre). I wrote this review for Booklist's 10/15/19 issue and subsequently received a hardcover copy of the book in the mail. Interested in reading it for yourself?  Please fill out the form below to enter the giveaway.  One response per household, please; void where prohibited.  Deadline Friday, November 22nd.  Good luck!


11/23/19: The giveaway is over.  Congratulations to Vivienne S., and hope you'll enjoy the read! Thanks to all who entered.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Six new and upcoming Austenesque reads for Janeites and historical fiction fans

Jane Austen fans, rejoice: historical novels with Austenesque themes are regaining prominence in the genre. Five to ten years ago, Pride and Prejudice retellings and sequels, and more novels inspired by her work, commanded a large presence.  Others have appeared periodically since. There are hundreds of them in all, and you can find many reviewed at Austenprose, Laurel Ann Nattress's impressively detailed blog dedicated to Austen's life and works. The half-dozen selections below are all new or forthcoming, and there's been buzz about them among fans. Even within this theme, the topics are diverse, including literary sequels featuring Austen characters, a novel re-imagining her sister's life, and another featuring characters inspired by her work.

This spotlight post forms part of a blog tour for Diana Birchall's The Bride of Northanger,which follows.

The Bride of Northanger by Diana Birchall

On the eve before her wedding, Catherine Morland learns from her intended, Henry Tilney, about a supposed centuries-old curse on his family. A level-headed young clergyman, Henry doesn't personally believe in curses, even though the specifics of this one appear to have materialized in recent generations.  The wedding gift the Tilneys receive from his father doesn't exactly bode well, either. So begins this witty, gently satirical Gothic mystery that continues the story of Austen's Northanger Abbey in prose resembling the original. White Soup Press, Sept. 2019. [see on Goodreads]

The Clergyman's Wife by Molly Greeley

Subtitled "A Pride & Prejudice Novel," Greeley's debut novel centers on Charlotte Collins, who had married the pompous vicar Mr. Collins, and in doing so chose practicality over personal contentment. But what happens when she meets a man, a kind local farmer, who seems interested in what she has to say? William Morrow, Dec. 2019. [see on Goodreads]

The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow

Mary Bennet, the plain, book-loving middle daughter in Pride and Prejudice, lives in the shadow of her more vibrant sisters, but here readers see her through her own eyes, examining the circumstances that shaped her and the motivations for her personal growth. Henry Holt, March 2020. [see on Goodreads]

Miss Austen by Gill Hornby

Cassandra Austen, beloved older sister and friend of Jane, is granted center stage in Hornby's novel, which depicts her as a woman in her sixties, long after Jane has passed away, and also re-creates the scenarios which caused her to destroy their faithful correspondence. What revelations did those letters contain, and what might they have told us about both Jane and Cassandra?  Flatiron, April 2020. [see on Goodreads]

The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner

I had the opportunity to read The Jane Austen Society via Edelweiss, after seeing recommendations on social media, and loved it. Debut novelist Jenner sets her gently charming story in Chawton, the Hampshire village where Austen lived at the end of her life. In the post-WWII years, a group of individuals from various walks of life are drawn together to form a literary society to celebrate and preserve the memory of their favorite author. The cast exhibits their own Austenesque dramas, but even newcomers to Austen should enjoy this one. St. Martin's, May 2020. [see on Goodreads]

A Completing of The Watsons by Rose Servitova

An unfinished Austen work has proven too tempting for many novelists to resist. Focusing on Emma Watson, youngest daughter of a clergyman, Irish writer Servitova begins with Austen's work and then continues her heroine's story, following with what happens after Emma leaves her wealthy aunt's home and returns to live under her father's roof. Wooster Publishing, Sept. 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Please follow along with more stops on the blog tour via Austenprose.

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner, a tale of two Jewish sisters across 70 years

Spanning seventy years in two sisters’ lives, this is Jennifer Weiner’s first historical novel, and it’s an impressive one. As children, Jo and Bethie Kaufman feel slotted into categories: Jo the sports-loving tomboy who perplexes their rigid mother, and Bethie the pretty, well-behaved daughter. It’s 1951, and the Kaufmans have moved from multi-ethnic downtown Detroit to a “safe” Jewish neighborhood. To better assimilate, their black maid, Mae, is replaced, and with her goes Mae’s daughter, Jo’s good friend.

Bethie and Jo’s probable paths get derailed by several awful events. Over the decades, through college at Michigan and other happenings related in richly detailed yet swiftly-paced prose, their roles turn inside out. Jo, a lesbian and social activist, finds herself a suburban mother of three, and Bethie, who loses herself in ‘60s counterculture, becomes a restless adventurer. Jo loves her children, but neither woman is content, a feeling they see about the other but can’t acknowledge in themselves. Circumstances change, but the return to happiness is complicated.

Poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” In her introduction, Weiner says she has this quote in mind while writing, and it fits her honest, feminist approach. Through Jo and Bethie’s experiences, she shows how women support and fail one another, and how the pressure to conform to society’s expectations takes a different shape in each era. Jo and Bethie are white, but Weiner also shows how women of color had an even tougher road.

There are many seamless cultural references, from civil rights picketing to Joan Baez at Newport (and if you’re of a certain age, you may get the Jell-O jingle stuck in your head). Smart, authentic, and full of human nature’s internal truths, Mrs. Everything is more than “fiction for women”—it’s a vibrant American story.

Mrs. Everything was published by Atria this summer, and I'd read it from an Edelweiss e-copy and reviewed it for November's Historical Novels Review.  You can read more about the background to the novel, including details on how Jo's character was partly inspired by her mother's life, in Weiner's interview with Parade Magazine.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Seven witchy historical fiction reads for Halloween

It's October, and in Illinois this means the evenings are getting darker, the weather's getting colder, and the chilly winds are blowing the fallen leaves all over the place; in other words, it's a good time to tuck in with an atmospheric autumn read.  Witches are trending in historical fiction, along with Gothic-themed novels. Within that group, novels about magical powers that descend through the female line can practically form their own subgenre. Here are seven such novels — seven being a magical number, of course — just right for the Halloween season. (One of these, the Sayers, isn't out until February, but reviewers can find it on NetGalley.)

What Should Be Wild by Julia Fine

In this multi-period historical fantasy set alternately in modern times and the past, a young woman with mysterious powers lives in near-isolation at the forest's edge, not knowing that her female ancestors still live there, unable to escape.

The Witch of Willow Hall by Hester Fox

In a remote pocket of 19th-century New England, a young woman with supernatural gifts passed down from an accused Salem witch comes to terms with her family mansion's creepy history.

The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs by Katherine Howe

Howe's new novel, linked by characters and themes to her debut, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, follows her protagonist, Boston professor Connie Goodwin, as she learns more about a long line of talented women while attempting to banish a curse.

Hag by Kathleen Kaufman

This multi-generational, magical story of the Cailleach, a local deity from ancient Scotland, and the power she instilled in her female descendants, moving forward to modern times.

The Witch's Kind by Louisa Morgan

Along the Pacific Northwest coast in the 1940s, a woman and her aunt find their lives changed after an abandoned baby girl — who turns out to have a mysterious gift — is brought to them.

A Secret History of Witches by Louisa Morgan

Beginning in Brittany in the 1820s and moving forward through the generations until WWII, Morgan tells the story of women who carve out paths in a world that would shun them, or worse, if their secrets became known.

A Witch in Time by Constance Sayers

In this novel of reincarnation, love, and hereditary magic, beginning in Belle Epoque France, a young woman and her lover, a painter, get caught up in the effects of a curse that endures until the present day.  Out in February 2020.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

The Vanished Bride by Bella Ellis, a Gothic mystery-adventure with the Brontë sisters on the case

The Brontë sisters have joined the stable of historical characters appearing as sleuths. Even though – as with other famous folks cast into detective mode – I didn’t believe for a second that this could’ve happened in real life, it was entertaining to imagine “what if.”

Bella Ellis, the Brontë-esque pseudonym adopted by author Rowan Coleman, sets her series debut during the brief period that Charlotte, Emily, and Anne lived together at Haworth Parsonage, after their studies and periods of employment ended, and before they embarked upon their masterpieces.

In 1845 Yorkshire, the trio learn, via rumors heard by their troubled brother, Branwell, that a young wife and mother, Elizabeth Chester, has vanished from home – leaving behind a baby and stepchild and a blood-soaked mess in her bedchamber. The lurid details make it unlikely Mrs Chester could still be alive. Mattie French, a former classmate of Charlotte’s from their dreadful days at the Cowan School, is the Chesters’ governess, which gives the sisters the opportunity to stride across the moors (a mere two hours’ walk) to pay her a visit. They understand that, in this day and age, a woman’s life can count for very little, so they find purpose in seeking the truth.

The sisters’ fictional counterparts have the personalities one would expect: Emily the imaginative loner who adores the world’s natural wildness, Anne the careful observer with hidden depths, and Charlotte, in whose petite frame resides both intelligence and passion; she still hasn’t gotten over her unrequited attachment to her married tutor from Brussels. Their interactions with one another, and with others, are hard to look away from, so much so that poor victim Elizabeth Chester sometimes fades into the background.

In keeping with the Brontës’ themes, the plot of The Vanished Bride mixes high Gothic drama (including a creepy Elizabethan-era house, its craggily handsome, imposing master, and a forbidding housekeeper), reflective moments, and astute observations on women’s social roles in this corner of remote Yorkshire. Ellis aims her most pointed comments, though, at brother Branwell, the only Brontë son. Distraught after a broken-off affair, he drowns his sorrows at the local tavern and continues to squander his potential:

“Branwell had intelligence and wit – he had a deal of talent – and yet none of it was enough to bring him any happiness or contentment within himself. It was as if all of his life he’d been waiting for his genius to be discovered, for his talents to be lauded, without him actually having to do anything. Branwell thought of himself as destined for great things but did no great things to earn that distinction.”

Harsh, but fair – especially given how his sisters, as readers will know, will grasp every opportunity to use their own talents during the remainder of their all-too-brief lives.

The Vanished Bride was published by Berkley in September.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Bits and pieces of historical fiction news: African epics, the writing biz, Australian HF, collaborative novels, and more

Rewriting the Historical Epic: African Women Writers Go Big.  The Christian Science Monitor profiles female writers from Africa taking on "big grand historical narratives" in their fiction, including Petina Gappah (Out of Darkness, Shining Light), Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (Kintu), and Ayesha Harruna Attah (The Hundred Wells of Salaga). All have received considerable acclaim. Namwali Serpell's The Old Drift is another, though it's not mentioned in the article.

I appreciate reading historical novelists' takes on the business aspects of authorship. At her blog, Susanne Dunlap, who has written for both  adults and YAs, and whose latest novels are indie-published, talks about her past and current writing career: the monetary aspects, marketing, and finding a support network.

And Michelle Cameron, author of The Fruit of Her Hands, a fantastic read focusing on medieval Jewish history, and the forthcoming Beyond the Ghetto Gates, writes about the process of asking for blurbs from other authors.

Joffe Books recently got in touch to say they'd purchased the fiction list of long-running British publisher Robert Hale, and that they plan to work with authors to re-release their books on Kindle with new covers and editorial refreshes. I'm a longtime collector of novels from Robert Hale, which published many novels about British and European royals in decades past; they also published historical romances and sagas. Because Hale's hardcovers were aimed at libraries, many have been expensive and/or hard to find on the secondhand market. Anyone interested in getting updates can sign up for Joffe's email list.

Leading up to the Historical Novel Society Australasia's latest conference, which is this coming weekend, the Sydney Morning Herald has a focus on fiction set in the past.  Read more: Turning Pages: the mirror of history.

Lastly, what's it like to write a collaborative novel, one smoothly stitched together from seven different viewpoints? The six authors of Ribbons of Scarlet: A Novel of the French Revolution's Women are interviewed at BookBub.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

The Golden Wolf by Linnea Hartsuyker concludes her epic trilogy of 9th-century Norway

With expertly described settings spanning late-ninth-century Norway, Iceland, and the Orkney Islands, this satisfying finale to Hartsuyker’s Golden Wolf trilogy, following The Sea Queen (2018), expands into the next generation.

After a mistake results in a man’s killing, trouble erupts, tangling Ragnvald of Sogn and his family in a lengthy conflict. With the goal of uniting Norway, Ragnvald has fought King Harald’s battles for years and feels the cost of his continued loyalty, and both have many sons seeking their own alliances and kingdoms.

Hartsuyker again displays skill at evoking the complexities of human relationships and the different facets of masculine and feminine strength. Unlike her adventurous mother, the sea-queen Svanhild, Freydis Solvisdatter is a gentle spirit. She endures hardships after a Norse warrior claims her, and Svanhild, one of Harald’s wives, faces tough choices herself. Gyda of Hordaland, Harald’s long-betrothed bride, is another intelligent, admirable woman.

The number of characters and subplots threaten to affect the novel’s cohesion initially, but Hartsuyker’s smart storytelling soon takes over as the threads overlap and come together in a fitting conclusion.

The Golden Wolf was published by Harper in August, and I'd reviewed it for Booklist in July, so this review is long overdue to appear here. I was fortunate to be sent the entire trilogy to review. The novels came out a year apart: The Half-Drowned King (2017), The Sea Queen (2018), and now this final concluding volume. All are definitely recommended; they're well balanced between male and female viewpoints and are not just for fans of historical adventure. I'd wanted to read the trilogy ever since I read about the original book deal, and I can't wait to see what subject Hartsuyker turns to next.

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.

-- Addendum to this post: I'll repeat below what I added in the comments shortly thereafter, after having read both books:

-- Yesterday night I read enough of The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek (I'm mostly finished) to solidify my opinion even more. The storylines and characters in both books are fundamentally different, and the way the "similarities" manifest in each novel are also very different on a contextual and structural level. What I've been seeing is a lot of rushing to judgment based on the way the citations in the Buzzfeed piece are presented (which, now that I've read both books, I find slanted and overly simplified) and because of a willingness to believe that an author with a larger profile and platform had to steal to get ahead. This is also a common trope, but it doesn't mean it's true. I hope more readers will take the trouble to check out both books firsthand. --

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]