Monday, February 25, 2019

The Huntress by Kate Quinn, a suspenseful historical novel about WWII's Night Witches and a quest for justice

Quinn follows up her breakout book, The Alice Network (2017), with an impressive historical novel sure to harness WWII-fiction fans’ attention. Each subplot in its triple-stranded structure thrums with tension that intensifies as they braid together.

By 1950, the public’s appetite for tracking war criminals has diminished, but British former war correspondent Ian Graham and his American partner still pursue this painstaking and honorable work. Their ultimate target is die Jägerin (the Huntress), an elusive Nazi murderess, and, for Ian, the mission is personal.

As they follow her trail, along with Nina Markova, the sole person to escape her clutches, Nina’s life story unfolds with tangible realism. A distinctly memorable, prickly, razor-wielding heroine, Nina flees remote Siberia in 1937 and trains as a pilot, eventually joining the sisterhood of female bombers known as the “Night Witches.” Lastly, in 1946 Boston, 17-year-old aspiring photographer Jordan McBride grows suspicious of her father’s elegant new Austrian wife.

The secondary characters, from Nina’s anti-Stalinist father to Jordan’s pilot boyfriend, feel three-dimensional, and the coldhearted Huntress is a complex villain. Laced with Russian folklore allusions and deliciously witty banter, Quinn’s tale refreshingly avoids contrived situations while portraying three touching, unpredictable love stories; the suspenseful quest for justice; and the courage involved in confronting one’s greatest fears.

Kate Quinn's The Huntress is published tomorrow by William Morrow.  I read it last October and reviewed it, as above, for Booklist's Nov 15th issue, giving it a starred review. There's been a lot of advance buzz about this novel, and it's justified, imho - I found the book difficult to put down.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Charles Finch's The Vanishing Man, a witty prequel to the Lenox mysteries set in Victorian England

In this second in a prequel trilogy to the Charles Lenox detective series (after The Woman in the Water), our protagonist, aged twenty-six, has had some success but struggles to be taken seriously as a private investigator—by his social circle and Scotland Yard, both. It’s June 1853, and Lenox knows solving a case for the Duke of Dorset could make his career.

His Grace wants Lenox to discover who stole a painting of his great-grandfather, the 14th duke, one in a series of portraits in his private study. Oddly, as the duke confides, the portrait alongside the missing one is the real treasure: it’s an oil painting of Shakespeare, done from life. Maybe the thief got it wrong. Getting entangled in the duke’s business leads to social disgrace—high-ranking noblemen are temperamental—and, eventually, to a much more serious case involving murder.

There’s something comforting about stepping into the viewpoint of a cultured Victorian gentleman who observes social niceties and feels a deep sense of integrity. If these values come into conflict, Lenox’s personal honor and justice regularly prevail. To hone his craft, Lenox becomes a student of life, visiting Bedlam to understand the criminal mind, and enlisting the help of an old sailor (a terrific character) with an aptitude for finding things. His dedication is admirable, since many of his peers look down on his pursuit of a vocation in “trade.” The novel is simultaneously a rich evocation of the Victorian class structure and a trenchant critique of it.

Historical crime novels with Shakespearean themes are hardly uncommon, and though the plot turns madcap in places, there’s enough novelty about this case to keep Lenox and readers on their toes. Amidst everything else going on, Lenox’s young cousin Lancelot is staying with him; while he’s an annoying little brat, some of his actions are comedy gold.

The Vanishing Man is published by Minotaur Books this week, and I reviewed it for February's Historical Novels Review. The Woman in the Water (which I reviewed last year) is the previous book in the series, and I've reviewed a few more of the ones set later in time, too.  It's safe to say I'll be reading the next in the series once it's out.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Writing the Forbidden, an essay by Ann Weisgarber, author of The Glovemaker, set in 1888 Utah Territory

I'm happy to welcome award-winning historical novelist Ann Weisgarber back to Reading the Past. Her atmospheric latest, The Glovemaker (Skyhorse, Feb. 2019), focuses on Deborah Tyler, who resides with her beloved husband, Samuel, in Junction, a tiny Mormon community set amid the cliffs and canyons of remote Utah Territory in 1888. While this is excellent character-centered literary fiction, its plot feels as taut as a thriller, with slow-building external and internal tensions. Samuel, a traveling wheelwright, is late returning home, worrying Deborah, and leaving her to face the consequences of helping a desperate stranger. The presence of the man, a suspected polygamist on the run from federal marshals, would throw her community into danger. The Tylers and other Junction families, who don't believe in plural marriage, are already feeling pressure to conform to standard Mormon practices. The Glovemaker stands out for its well-wrought setting and its portrait of faith, independence, and courage at a pivotal historical moment. Read more about the background to the novel in the essay below, and I hope you'll pick up the book yourself to learn what happens next.


Writing the Forbidden
Ann Weisgarber

When I was a kid and company came to dinner—and this especially meant relatives—we were forbidden to discuss politics and religion. If the conversation ground down into an awkward silence, the weather was a safe bet. So was the latest home repair adventure that went awry. But politics and religion? Absolutely not.

So what have I done? I broke my family’s rules and wrote The Glovemaker where, gulp, the novel takes place in Utah Territory during 1888 when the federal government had cracked down on men with plural wives.

In other words, a novel with characters who are influenced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, polygamy, and politics. I didn’t set out to do this. But when I was on vacation at Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park, I stumbled across the name of a married woman who owned twenty acres of orchards.

I was fascinated by her since her husband had disappeared from census records. I tried to find his death certificate but didn’t have any luck. I searched my favorite website,, and couldn’t find his gravesite or a marker.

There was very little information about the woman other than the land deed was in her name, she didn’t have any children, and she was marked as married in the census records rather than widowed. What had happened to her husband? Had she waited the rest of life for him to come home to her?

I read books and articles about the area hoping to find clues about her. To my surprise, I learned that during the 1880s the federal government was determined to banish polygamy and federal marshals tracked down men with plural wives. Some of these men attempted to evade arrest by hiding at a place called Floral Ranch. The ranch was close to the woman’s home.

The story began to haunt me. A woman whose husband has disappeared. Men charged with the felony of polygamy hiding at an isolated ranch. Federal marshals hunting for them.

But wait. Write a novel that deals with religion? And in a subtle way, write about politics? Neither are polite dinner talk. They’re controversial. People have strong opinions about one or both. I could upset readers.

Yet, religion and politics are part of our everyday lives. Aren’t there times when one or both shapes people’s lives? How can someone write a novel about Harriet Tubman and not bring in the political climate of her day? Imagine a novel about Henry VIII that doesn’t refer to his split with the Catholic Church. Or The Scarlet Letter without the Puritans’ code of conduct.

Books are meant to make us think even as they entertain us. They are meant to shake us up. But most important to me was the woman who owned twenty acres of orchards whose husband had disappeared from all records. She was a Mormon who lived during perilous times for the church. Her life wasn’t easy or safe.

Even so, I was uneasy about writing a novel that dealt with religion. To help me decide what to do, I went to Utah and visited her grave. She wasn’t buried near other family members but was alone.

I didn’t want her to be alone or forgotten. So I broke the rules and wrote The Glovemaker.


Ann Weisgarber was born and raised in Kettering, Ohio. She has lived in Boston, Massachusetts, and Des Moines, Iowa.

In addition to The Glovemaker, she is the author of The Promise and The Personal History of Rachel Dupree, which was longlisted for the Orange Prize and shortlisted for the Orange Prize for New Writers. She lives in Texas.

For more information, please visit her website at

Thursday, February 14, 2019

The Song Peddler of the Pont Neuf by Laura Lebow, a mystery of 1788 Paris

Paul Gastebois, a “confidential inquirer” in Paris of 1788, usually avoids taking on missing person cases. “People in Paris are lost all the time, sometimes on purpose,” he says. Still, he can’t resist the challenge of finding Gaspard Bricon, an elderly man who spent his days singing and selling copies of his songs on the Pont Neuf, the city’s oldest bridge.

One of Gaspard’s good friends is worried, and Paul feels touched by his concern. Besides, Paul’s well-paying gig of tailing a rich young Austrian diplomat around Paris for the police is pretty dull, and this new case fires up his curiosity. His search takes him to Gaspard’s lodgings, where a piece of crumpled parchment leads him to assume the song peddler was involved in high-level political blackmail.

The author’s skillful plotting keeps readers guessing as the mystery expands and transforms during Paul’s investigations through many Parisian neighborhoods. Our detective’s background is equally interesting; his younger sister Aimée is an apprentice seamstress, his brother is a churchman, and Paul had evaded his late father’s plans for him to join the butcher’s trade, preferring a career independent of the guilds (and smelly animal carcasses).

Lebow sets her series opener not in the popular French Revolutionary era but the less familiar time beforehand, and she incorporates the details to good effect. Louis XVI has agreed to convene the Estates General for the first time in over 170 years, and the commoners—who have grown more numerous and prosperous—place their hopes in finance minister Jacques Necker for fair representation and tax reform. Despite some people’s guarded optimism, there’s a fierce underground trade in scurrilous pamphlets, and Paul gets enmeshed in learning more about that risky business, too. Multifaceted characters, abundant local color, and dashes of wit (one of Paul’s disguises is laugh-out-loud funny) add to the appeal of this diverting mystery.

The Song Peddler of the Pont Neuf was published by Settocento Press in 2018; I reviewed it for February's Historical Novels Review.  Fortunately, it appears to be first in a new series.  The author's debut novel, The Figaro Murders, also stands out for its well-depicted original setting of 1780s Vienna.

Monday, February 11, 2019

A gallery of forthcoming 2019 historical novels set before the 20th century

What I've been finding lately: new historical novels set earlier than the 20th century are getting to be rare beasts. WWII (and to a lesser degree, WWI) is still trending, and fiction evoking the 1950s and '60s is blossoming, too. One advantage of 20th-century settings is that they can seem modern enough to hook in contemporary fiction readers, thus reaching a wide audience beyond the historical fiction crowd.  But what about readers who enjoy, even prefer, an earlier time frame?  This post is for you. 

Here are ten upcoming historical releases, with US publication dates in the first half of 2019, and set at least 119 years in the past.  (Also note: small press and indie novels do a great job of covering pre-20th century eras.  As in past years, I'll be doing a special focus on them in March.)

The Irishman's Daughter by V S Alexander

A young woman and her farming family face hardship during Ireland's Great Hunger in 1845 County Mayo.  Kensington, Feb 26th. [see on Goodreads]

The Almanack by Martine Bailey

In looking into the mystery of her mother's drowning death, a young woman in 18th-century England discovers curious notes she'd left in her almanack.  Severn House, May. [see on Goodreads]

Courting Mr Lincoln by Louis Bayard

A literary portrait of the young Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois, in the 1840s, seen through the eyes of his future wife, Mary Todd, and his best friend, Joshua Speed.  Algonquin, April. [see on Goodreads]

An Unconditional Freedom by Alyssa Cole

The third book in Cole's award-winning Loyal League series follows a newly freed Black man, an enterprising young woman, and their dangerous lives as covert spies for the Union during the Civil War. Kensington, February 29. [see on Goodreads]

The Parting Glass by Gina Marie Guadgnino

Mary Ballard, a lady's maid to wealthy Charlotte Walden in 1820s New York City, holds many secrets, including her Irish heritage and her secret passion for her mistress.  Atria, March. [see on Goodreads]

Woman 99 by Greer Macallister

A young woman in late 19th-century San Francisco goes undercover in an insane asylum to rescue her sister, who their parents had unjustly placed there.  Sourcebooks, March. [see on Goodreads]

The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse

Heading further back in time, Kate Mosse's newest epic, set in mid-16th-century France during its religious wars, opens as a young woman receives a mysterious note. Minotaur, June. [see on Goodreads]

Blackberry and Wild Rose by Sonia Velton

This debut features two ambitious young women in the Spitalfields district of mid-18th-century London, where Huguenot silk-weavers ply their trade and seek to perfect their designs.  Blackstone, May. [see on Goodreads]

The Lost History of Dreams by Kris Waldherr

A Victorian gothic mystery set in the world of post-mortem photography, romantic poetry, ghosts, and lost love.  Atria, April. [see on Goodreads]

Anna of Kleve by Alison Weir

A new look at Henry VIII's fourth queen, and the newest in Weir's Six Tudor Queens series; the title refers to her as she would have called herself. Ballantine, May. [see on Goodreads]

Friday, February 08, 2019

The Valentine House by Emma Henderson, an Alpine family saga set in 20th-century France

The Valentine house, a wooden chalet overlooking the valley of Hext in the French Alps, is given the Greek name “Arete” (meaning excellence or virtue) by its owner, Sir Anthony Valentine, who built it in the 19th century. Sir Anthony loves the classics, and he also loves the Haute-Savoie region with a near-erotic passion evoked in his private journals. He and his large family travel to Arete to spend their summers, and local farmers greet their British eccentricities with a mix of fascination and resentment.

Their exploits are recounted through the eyes of a French teenager, Mathilde, who becomes a servant at Arete in 1914. A bright peasant girl, her narrative voice is sharp and self-aware. She knows she owes her position to her unattractiveness – Sir Anthony’s wife only hires “uglies,” supposedly to deter his wandering eye – but Mathilde cares “not a jot.”

She’s a delight to spend time with, as she observes the Valentines, befriending their granddaughter, Daisy, and accompanying them on hikes. During her duties, she comes upon a peculiar love letter whose impact she doesn’t recognize until six decades later.

The chapters set in 1976, told in the third person from the viewpoint of George, Daisy’s grandson, lack the liveliness of the earlier sections, but Mathilde carries the story there also. Now a stubborn widow in her seventies, she faces a tough decision. American developers seek a foothold in the region, and Mathilde’s son, Luc, takes their side – but Mathilde holds a secret that may deter his plan. The two timelines eventually join.

The family saga aspect is entertaining, if somewhat drawn out, but it’s a treat to spend time in this remote, beautiful area of France. Mathilde is a great character, and Francophiles will applaud when she cheekily carves a circumflex (arête means “sharp mountain ridge”) into the Valentine house’s written name.

The Valentine House was published by Sceptre (UK) in 2018; I reviewed it for the Historical Novels Review from a personal copy.  I bought it purely based on the historical setting, which turned out to be a good choice.

Monday, February 04, 2019

The Hundred Wells of Salaga examines women's lives and internal slavery in late 19th-c Ghana

Told with the poetic simplicity of a folk tale, but with the rich detail and scope of an epic, The Hundred Wells of Salaga is a memorable read about a little-known historical subject: indigenous slavery in pre-colonial Ghana, and how it affected the lives of two young women and their families. The lives of Aminah, a teenager from the village of Botu, and Wurche, the only daughter of a lesser chief of Kpembe, begin worlds and many miles apart, but their stories come together midway through.

Both heroines are proud and resilient, qualities that carry them through considerable personal turmoil. Aminah, who had used to spend her time daydreaming, selling maasa (millet porridge) to people on the caravan when it passed through Botu, and caring for her younger twin sisters, is taken captive by horsemen along with her siblings and forced to march far from home. The pain and loss she experiences along the way are addressed plainly.

Although she’s part of the Gonja royal family and is accordingly self-assured, Wurche also experiences a loss of freedom after she agrees to marry a prince of Dagbon to seal an alliance. After Wurche’s father sees an opening to seize power for himself, infighting among the Gonja people further destabilizes the twin towns of Kpembe and Salaga, which had already been thrown into chaos due to the disruption of the local kola nut trade.

In the late 19th century, Salaga, as we learn, is a center for intra-African trade of all kinds, including that of human beings. The novel’s title alludes to this fact; the water from Salaga’s many wells was used to wash the many slaves brought there for sale. In a Q&A at the end, Attah reveals that her great-great-grandmother had been enslaved and sold at the market at Salaga, but little else is known about her. Aminah’s story is the author’s imagined version of her life, while details about royal women such as Wurche are better documented.

Their journeys are recounted without cliché or stereotype, and the secondary characters are well-rounded also. These include Moro, a slave-trader who seeks a way out of the terrible business, and Helmut, a sympathetic German man. The novel also includes insightful detail on the land’s spoken languages, foods, and religions, including how Islam (which Wurche’s family observes) can be used to establish both order and control over women’s lives.

The novel is just 230 pages long, but it has the heft of a work of much greater length. I recommend it for its insight, smooth readability, and its power of bringing an important aspect of the history of the slave trade to light in fiction.

The Hundred Wells of Salaga is published tomorrow in the US by Other Press, with the beautiful cover art above; it was previously published in Nigeria by Cassava Republic.  Thanks to the publisher for sending me an ARC at my request.