Saturday, March 30, 2019

The 2018 Langum Prize in American Historical Fiction - Winner and Finalist

The news recently arrived about the historical novels honored via the Langum Prize in American Historical Fiction, so without further ado...

Louisa Hall's Trinity (Ecco, 2018) is the winner of the 2018 Prize.  

From the press release:  "The novel explores Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, through his interactions with seven imagined characters from 1943 to 1966. Speaking in 'testimonials,' the characters concentrate more on their own lives despite the major world events unfolding around them...  Excellent historical fiction has the power to reveal emotional truths that history cannot, and Trinity does just that through its ingenious form and compelling prose."

And the finalist for 2018 is The Verdun Affair by Nick Dybek (Scribner, 2018).

From the press release:  "Set in Verdun, France and Bologna, Italy in the aftermath of World War I (with a small portion in 1950s Hollywood, California), the chief protagonists are American. A young man works gathering up bones from the former Verdun battlefield for an ossuary when a young woman arrives in search of information about her husband who was reported missing in action... The book is well-written and a page turner. It has numerous elements of interest: a tender affair, the entry of a competing male, a dreadful description of Verdun following the battle, the mysterious amnesiac and the efforts to restore his memory or otherwise identify him, the chaos in Bologna incident to the early years of the Mussolini movement, and the pervasive effects of a significant mistruth spoken by one of the principal characters."

Congratulations to both authors.  I haven't read either book yet, but am looking forward to it!

The Langum Prize celebrates the "best book in American historical fiction that is both excellent fiction and excellent history."  For more information, please see the Langum Charitable Trust website.  

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

The Latecomers by Helen Klein Ross, an American country-house saga with a difference

With understated elegance, The Latecomers braids many coming-of-age stories into one. First, we have Brighid “Bridey” Molloy, an Irish teenager whose fiancé dies on the ship from Liverpool in 1908, leaving her alone, and pregnant, in bustling New York City.

Then there’s Sarah Hollingworth, the privileged daughter of a Connecticut brass-works owner, who becomes Bridey’s employer. Vincent is Sarah’s adopted son, and his view of his world, as he grows from childhood to adolescence and beyond, is realistically evoked as well. These three lives, and others, are linked over generations through a large house and the two secrets it holds.

The story also brilliantly depicts the coming-of-age of the 20th century as new technologies are introduced. The plot moves smoothly across this large swath of time. The book’s first part opens in 1927, at the deathbed of Sarah’s father, Benjamin Hollingworth, as the family doctor quietly drops the late patriarch’s medicine bottle into a hole in the wall of Hollingwood, his elegant estate in small-town northwestern Connecticut. This mysterious act has shocking ramifications that come to light much later.

The novel is a stellar example of how deep, carefully woven research can re-create the world of yesteryear. From old-fashioned pastimes like marbles and Lionel trains, to the wonders of electric lighting, to Vincent’s terrified reaction to seeing Birth of a Nation, the early 20th-century setting feels real. The social mores of each era, such as American-style upstairs-downstairs relations and anti-Irish prejudice, are presented through the characters’ actions and inner lives. And all this without any famous names in the cast (President Taft nearly visits Hollingwood, but his plans take a last-minute detour).

While The Latecomers fits nicely into the country-house saga mold, it doesn’t focus primarily on the suspenseful revelation of secrets. Instead it explores, with great wisdom, the heartfelt reasons why people choose to keep them.

The Latecomers was published in 2018 by Little, Brown, and I reviewed it initially for February's Historical Novels Review.  I like the elegant cover, too.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

A Comedy of Errors: an essay by Alan Bardos, author of The Assassins, a historical novel about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

I always get new insights into history and historical fiction writing from authors' guest posts, and the following essay by Alan Bardos is no exception.  He discusses the lesser-known background to a pivotal historical event and how he worked fictional characters into the story.  Thanks to Alan for contributing his essay and photos, and I hope you'll enjoy reading along.


A Comedy of Errors
Alan Bardos 

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was one of history’s greatest turning points, but it happened by accident. Everyone knows the story ends with the death of the Archduke and his wife, Sophie, putting into play the diplomatic crises that lead to the First World War. It is perhaps less well known that the events leading up to the assassination were a terrible comedy of errors that culminated in a world-changing tragedy.

It was this combination of tragedy and comedy that first drew me to the story and, I hope will draw people to a novel about the assassination, despite knowing the ending! The assassination of Franz Ferdinand happened as a result of a whole series of mistakes and missed opportunities right from the beginning.

When the assassins travelled from Belgrade to Sarajevo, Nedeljko Cabrinovic, the biggest liability of the conspirators, met a police detective from Sarajevo on the train in Bosnia. The detective was a friend of his father's, who was a businessman and pillar of the community, which had created a lot of conflict with his radical son.

The policeman had recently seen Nedeljko’s father and struck up a conversation with Nedeljko to catch him up on family news. This made Gavrilo Princip, who was traveling separately but by accident sitting in the same train carriage, nervous. Cabrinovic’s easygoing nature had already endangered the other assassins during the journey. The policeman noticed and asked Cabrinovic who Gavrilo was and why he was staring at them, but his suspicions were not raised any further. A simple request to see Gavrilo Princip’s papers would have revealed that he was travelling illegally and put pay to the whole plot before the assassins reached Sarajevo.

Lateiner Bridge, Appel Quay (now called Obala Kulina Bana).
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand happened at this corner,
turning into Franz Joseph Street (now called Zelenih Beretki).

This reflects the Austro-Hungarian Government’s attitude to the threat placed by the nationalist movements in their Balkan provinces. No attempt was made to counter them because the security services did not believe they existed, let alone posed a threat. The repeated warnings of a possible assassination were ignored by the local military governor, General Potiorek, the Archduke himself and the Austro-Hungarian Government. The idea that half-starved schoolboys could be any kind of a threat was too ridiculous to contemplate.

This gave me the opportunity to place my fictional characters at the heart of the story. Specifically the central relationship between my feckless lead character, Johnny Swift, a disgraced British diplomat; and Lazlo Breitner, a methodical Hungarian official, in a marriage of opposites that drives the narrative forward.

Breitner is well aware of the threat from the assassins and does everything he can to stop them, right up to confronting his nemesis, Franz Ferdinand, to beg him not to go to Sarajevo; but he is not believed.

Sarajevo City Hall. Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie left
here for their fateful journey on 28th June 1914.

To try and get evidence of the plot Breitner coerces Johnny into joining the conspirators, embedding him in their boardinghouse. Johnny who has been sent to Bosnia on a fool’s errand to get himself killed after cuckolding his superior, is eventually glad of the opportunity to redeem himself.

He manages to ingratiate himself with the assassins and joins in their reckless behaviour that should have got them caught. He discovers their plans and motivations; but Johnny’s decadent nature ensures that he fails to make use of the information. Realising the enormity of his error, Johnny foils the first assassination attempt that is made.

A bullet hole in the Graf & Stift car which Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were travelling in
when they were shot; the bullet went through the side of the car
and hit Sophie in the abdomen. Museum of Military History in Vienna. 

He replaces the Archduke’s chauffeur in an effort to claim the much deserved credit. Then, as happened on the 28th June 1914, takes a wrong turn, stopping the Archduke’s car in front of Gavrilo Princip when General Potiorek notices the mistake. Princip didn’t even look when he fired two shots that changed the world and propels Johnny on a journey through the major events of the twentieth century.

author Alan Bardos
This was the last in a whole series of errors and bad luck that led to the assassination. They say that the side that makes the least amount of mistakes wins a war. It also seems to be the case for the side who starts them.


The Assassins is published by Endeavour Media: Amazon UK |

I'm a graduate of the MA in TV Script Writing at De Montfort University, and I also have a degree in Politics and History from Brunel University. Writing historical fiction combines the great loves of my life.

Please follow me on:  Facebook | Twitter: @Bardosalan | Goodreads

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Make Me a City by Jonathan Carr, an eclectic fictional portrait of 19th-century Chicago

Carr’s intricately woven debut evokes the history of nineteenth-century Chicago while showcasing important but little-known historical figures and fictional people from different walks of life who contribute to its development.

The chronologically arranged chapters vary in style, from straightforward narrative to spot-on pastiches of news articles and diaries to excerpts from a compiled “alternative history” text whose contents are cleverly self-referential.

In 1800, Jean Baptiste Pointe de Sable, a trader of part-African descent and the marshy land’s first nonindigenous resident, plays a fateful chess game. Other significant characters include schoolteacher Eliza Chappell Porter, developer John Stephen Wright, and engineer Ellis Chesbrough. Their and their descendants’ lives are full of incident, including the Battle of Fort Dearborn and the Great Chicago Fire. While their personalities are colorfully rendered, the depictions of Native Americans aren’t terribly nuanced.

More eclectic than Micheneresque, the novel nonetheless offers a strong sense of place. Ambition, injustice, and opportunity all play roles as Chicago expands outward and upward. Over time, the disparate stories, which span the entire century, intersect in delightfully unexpected ways.

I reviewed Make Me a City for Booklist's March 1 issue, and it's published today by Henry Holt. I had some caveats but was glad to learn more about early Chicago's lesser-known movers and shakers. All of the people named in the review are historical figures, and they mingle with an array of fictional characters.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Book review: American Princess: A Novel of First Daughter Alice Roosevelt, by Stephanie Marie Thornton

In a novel about a famous presidential daughter who was one of the leading political wits of 20th-century America, the heroine’s narrative voice is critical. Fortunately, in American Princess, author Stephanie Marie Thornton channels Alice Roosevelt’s vibrant, opinionated, sometimes caustic disposition in a thoroughly convincing way, maintaining it across 400-plus pages.

The woman called “Princess Alice” by the Washington scene, and whose occupation was listed as “gadfly” on her death certificate, was born in 1884, the only daughter of Theodore Roosevelt and his first wife, Alice Lee, who died two days after her birth. In addition to evoking her firecracker spirit, the novel explores young Alice’s quest for her father’s affection and approval. She feels he slights her in favor of her younger half-siblings since she reminds him too much of her beautiful, gray-eyed mother (her impression isn’t wrong).

Thornton takes up Alice’s life starting in 1901, as her father takes up the mantle of William McKinley’s presidency after his assassination, and as Roosevelt’s large blended family moves into the White House. Alice’s outsize personality manifests itself in outrageous antics early on: carting a garter snake named “Emily Spinach” in her handbag, for instance, and interrupting her father’s meeting to talk about her society debut. While she never loses her brashness, she transforms into a political force of her own, soaking up knowledge to bolster her father’s (and, later, her brother’s) political career.

For Alice, the personal and political always intertwine, and as such, the story offers both abundant details on both 20th-century American politics and a strong emotional heart. As a young woman, Alice finds it hard to find true friends, and she faces even tougher internal conflict after falling in love with prominent congressman Nick Longworth, marrying him, and worrying about his possible infidelities. The novel also serves as a reminder that while history relies on facts and dates, it’s stories about people that bring it alive. Readers having only a vague idea of the Teapot Dome scandal will get a firsthand impression of how it affected Alice’s family (and how cousins Franklin and Eleanor later used it to further their ambitions), while getting new perspectives on the future President Taft – aka “Uncle Will,” her father’s affable Secretary of War. While accompanying him on his diplomatic mission to Asia in 1905, Alice – by then a global celebrity – steals the show.

Despite occasional tensions, Alice’s love for her family remains paramount, and scenes at the beginning and end with her beloved granddaughter, Joanna, bring the story full circle. Throughout, Alice is an entertaining, irreverent guide to the events in her dramatic, nearly-century-long life.

American Princess was published on Tuesday by Berkley; thanks to the publisher for sending me a print ARC.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

A Women's History Month gallery: 10 new and upcoming novels about historical women's lives

In celebration of Women's History Month, and the focus on fiction from small and independent publishers on this blog during March, here are 10 recent and upcoming novels about women from history: biographical novels, as they're often called.

Hedy Lamarr, Hollywood screen star and underrated scientist. Sourcebooks, March 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Berthe Morisot, who follows her dreams of becoming an artist in 19th-century Paris. Regal House, March 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Harriet Tubman, the renowned American abolitionist and "conductor" along the Underground Railroad.  Arcade, May 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Sofonisba Anguissola, the accomplished Renaissance-era painter.  Bagwyn Books, January 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Elizabeth Stuart, known as the "Winter Queen" of Bohemia, daughter of James I of England and ancestress to today's British royal family. ECW Press, June 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Makeda, the legendary Queen of Sheba. Blank Slate, April 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Lulu Hurst, late 19th-century vaudevillian and stage magician known as the "Georgia Wonder." Hub City Press, May 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Sarah Jacob, a 12-year-old Welsh girl who supposedly lived without food in the mid-19th century.  Bellevue Literary, May 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Maile, a Hawaiian chief's daughter who marries John Harbottle, Captain Cook's translator, in the late 18th century. Shadow Mountain, April 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Lady Virginia Courtauld, an Italian-born glamorous, rule-breaking, progressive socialite in 1950s Rhodesia. Bloomsbury, August 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Interview with Gina Marie Guadagnino about her debut novel, The Parting Glass, set in 1830s NYC

Gina Marie Guadagnino's debut novel, The Parting Glass, grabbed my attention immediately. After downloading the e-galley, I'd intended to skim the first few pages to get a sense of the plotline before picking it up again later, but the voice and storyline were so intriguing that I found myself reading it straight through immediately. Set in 1830s New York City, it's narrated by Mary Ballard, a lady's maid with several secrets.  She's an Irish Catholic immigrant whose real name is Maire O’Farren, and her twin brother, Seanin, works as a groom on the same property. Maire reluctantly conceals Seanin's clandestine affair with her upper-class mistress, the beautiful Charlotte Walden, all the while wishing that she herself was the object of Charlotte's desire. During her time off, Maire embarks on her own affair with a prostitute she meets in an Irish tavern. The fast-moving story richly evokes the little-explored world of the Irish working class in early New York while delving into period-appropriate issues also relevant for our own time.  The Parting Glass is published today by Atria/Simon & Schuster.  Thanks to the author for answering my interview questions!

I’m an academic librarian, and so it was great to read that you also work in academia, and that your office is within NYU’s library. I can’t resist asking: what are some ways in which library research contributed to your writing of The Parting Glass?

I love working in a library building, and am definitely a familiar sight at the circulation desk during my lunch breaks. Library research was absolutely instrumental to the composition of The Parting Glass. Through my access to the various collections at Bobst Library, I was able to read first-person accounts of Irish servants working in New York in the 19th century, see maps and find property records for the townhouses on Washington Square North, find source texts detailing Irish secret societies, and read many analyses of New York society in the 1830s. In addition to books, I had access to a number of online databases and journals through my library subscription. And while this has nothing to do with research, I appreciate having access to so many quiet study rooms and lounges in which I can write!

Most novels that I’ve read about the lives of Irish immigrants in America center on the period of the Great Hunger or later in the 19th century, but the era in which you’re writing about is equally fascinating. Why was this an exciting period for you to explore?

The 1830s were an interesting time for the Irish in America, in that it saw the importation of various secret societies to the New World. Various secret societies, largely working for social justice against English and Anglo-Irish landlords by committing agrarian violence, had been flourishing in Ireland since late 17th century. By the 1830s, there were enough Irish Catholics in America that some of these societies had begun to flourish on American soil. I found rich storytelling inspiration in those early years for which there is less documentary evidence; I felt I could take more creative liberties.

I also wanted to explore a point in the history of the Irish diaspora where there was greater integration and collaboration with other ethnic groups than there tended to be during the immigration of the 1840s. This period also represented the height of the era in which New York Society was based around the northern part of Greenwich Village and Washington Square, and it was particularly important to me, as a homesick New Yorker when I began writing this novel, to set the story in the place I missed the most. The conflation of these priorities drew me to explore the late 1830s.

I really enjoyed the depiction of the lives of the working class, including servants, in early NYC. Why did this population interest you?

Many of the classics of English and American literature center on the lives of the leisure class, or on the struggles of those living beyond their means in genteel poverty. While there are notable exceptions (Dickens’ street urchins and mudlarks spring to mind) exploring the underclass of society, I was always struck by the fact that the Dashwood ladies open Sense and Sensibility discussing how many servants they can afford in their reduced circumstances, and even while bewailing how dreadful it is to be poor, the March sisters are still supported by their stalwart (Irish) servant Hannah in Little Women. The heroines of 19th-century fiction so often bemoan the constraints that society has placed upon them; they must make advantageous marriages if they hope to achieve economic comfort. But clearly, behind the scenes, other women were lighting those heroine’s fires and dressing their hair and brewing their tea, obviously dependent on their own labor for financial security.

author Gina Marie Guadagnino
(credit: L. M. Pane)
I kept gravitating toward the idea that, in a way, working-class women experienced more freedom and personal autonomy than their upper-class counterparts. Without the constraints of maintaining one’s social reputation, working-class women had the capacity to make decisions that ranged far beyond who to marry, and, for the creative and ambitious, there were opportunities to break out of the restrictions imposed by an inherently classist society. I wanted my book to focus on members of the immigrant working class who were taking advantage of the opportunities of the New World to remake their lives in their own image. I wanted to show the undercarriage of the gilded world: all the gears and cogs that kept the status quo possible. It was the marriage of these ideas that led me to write The Parting Glass.

I was wondering if you could provide some insight into the Irish characters’ dialogue and how you re-created it–it feels relatable (and occasionally raunchy!) as well as appropriate to their social status and background. I especially appreciated the depiction of how Mary becomes adept at code-switching after learning how it can benefit her socially.

I have to confess that some of the less-savory language is anachronistic. Period appropriate cursing at the time would have consisted largely of blasphemy; sexual and scatological cursing is more of a 20th century development. I suppose that demonstrates how the types of language we consider shocking have evolved over time! The word “crikey,” a contraction meaning “Christ’s teeth” sounds almost quaint to the modern reader, though it would have been thought of as quite profane in the 19th century. I took the liberty of substituting more modern profanity in order to signal to modern readers that the characters were using seriously dirty language - crikey just wasn’t cutting it.

Conversely, there were some words and phrases that I used preserving their 19th century definitions, though they might have evolved over time. Liddie, for example, refers to herself as “a gay girl,” not because of her queer identity, but because this was a common way of referring to sex workers in the 19th century. To strike this balance, I relied on heavy use of the OED, and read numerous primary source accounts of the lives of Irish immigrants in 19th-century New York and Boston. While the resulting dialogue isn’t perfectly period accurate with its modern profanity, I believe it achieves my goal of replicating the overall aesthetic of 19th-century Hiberno-English speech patterns.

What appeals to you about writing historical fiction? Do you have any authors or novels in the genre that you especially admire?

History and historical fiction have always been a great love of mine. I have always been drawn to stories set in the past, whether it be the distant past or something more recent. I’ve already alluded to my attractions as a younger reader to 19th-century authors Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott, but I also cut my teeth on Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and the Bronte sisters. Oddly, I didn’t really get into historical fiction until after I was out of college. But well-researched, lushly rendered historical fiction will draw me in every time, and there are probably too many authors and novels I adore to list here.

Lyndsay Faye has a perfectly-tuned ear for period language and dialogue. Nicola Griffith does an incredible job of using meticulous research and bringing historical figures most vividly to life. Madeline Miller and Helene Wecker infuse mythology with historical settings to make the fantastic feel real. Sarah Waters and Emma Donoghue each have eyes for the grittiest bits of period detail to draw the reader in. Diane Setterfield draws from a breadth of viewpoints to render a holistic landscape as she world-builds. I could, of course, go on. I think we’re approaching something of a golden age for literary-caliber historical fiction - or perhaps that’s just my wishful thinking!


Gina Marie Guadagnino holds a BA in English from New York University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the New School. Her work has appeared in the Morris-Jumel Mansion Anthology of Fantasy and Paranormal Fiction, Mixed Up: Cocktail Recipes (and Flash Fiction) for the Discerning Drinker (and Reader). She lives in New York City with her family.  For more information, please visit

Saturday, March 02, 2019

Radio Underground by Alison Littman, a suspenseful debut about the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and its aftermath

Based on actual Cold War letters, Littman’s fast-moving debut is infused with a simmering tension reflecting its setting: Budapest, Hungary, on the brink of revolution in 1956, and nine years later, when the secret police patrol the streets and any hints of dissidence are crushed. In the earlier timeline, Eszter Turján, wife of a loyal communist and mother of a teenage daughter, operates an underground newspaper, Realitás, and sneaks out at night to work with other freedom fighters.

“These kids, too young to know failure, didn’t understand their passion was no match for a government trained in killing hope,” she states plainly, and truthfully, about the student demonstrators demanding freedom. Even so, she’s determined to fan the flames of revolution to give the students a fighting chance, undertaking a drastic act involving Radio Free Europe that will shift history’s path.

In alternating segments set in 1965, Dora Turján reads people’s mail as a censor for the communist government. Eszter had neglected her daughter in favor of her political activities, and even after Eszter was carted away and imprisoned, Dora remains resentful. Littman succeeds in depicting the uneasy nuances of their mother-daughter relationship even though they rarely appear in the same scene. By intercepting odd letters in broken English from “Mike,” who writes to a DJ for Radio Free Europe and describes events from his life, Dora reads about the young man’s quest to escape Hungary. Through him, Dora obtains knowledge that leads back to her mother’s fate and forces her into a profound decision.

Some language feels too American (Eszter is often referred to as Dora’s “mom”), but the oppressive atmosphere is deftly handled through many affecting scenes, including one with a group of young people secretly gathered around a small radio and listening to Western music, dancing together, and feeling temporarily fearless.

Radio Underground was published by Last Syllable Books in November 2018, and I reviewed it (from an Edelweiss copy) for February's Historical Novels Review.

This is also the initial post this month in acknowledgment of the contributions of small and independent presses to a vibrant literary marketplace. Small Press Month had used to be a national celebration taking place in March, with official recognition and funding support. That, unfortunately, is no more, but we'll still be having a mini-celebration here on this blog. As in past years, I'll be dedicating some posts during March to historical fiction from small presses (these will be intermixed with some previously arranged posts on books from larger publishers).  Hope you'll enjoy following along.