Saturday, June 29, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 15, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 08, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 03, 2019

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

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


The Sound of the Hours by Karen Campbell

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


The Glittering Hour by Iona Grey

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


The Second Sleep by Robert Harris

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


The Convert by Stefan Hertmans

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


Those Who Are Loved by Victoria Hislop

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


The Boy with Blue Trousers by Carol Jones

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


A Matter of Interpretation by Elizabeth MacDonald

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


A Book of Secrets by Kate Morrison

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


Shadowplay by Joseph O'Connor

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



Entertaining Mr Pepys by Deborah Swift

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


The House by the Loch by Kirsty Wark

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



The Hiding Game by Naomi Wood

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