Monday, July 29, 2019

Time to get "lost" in a historical novel

I was looking through Mt. TBR and Mt. Finished over the weekend and noticed a certain title pattern coming up.

The word "lost," of course, prompts questions: why did she/it/they disappear?  What were the circumstances behind it?  How will they be found?  Sometimes the book itself answers the question; Cecily Ross's novel includes the imagined contents of Susanna Moodie's personal journals. In Fitch's novel, the poetic title reflects the losses felt by St. Petersburg during the Russian Revolution and subsequent civil war, and the heroine's remembrances of her earlier life.

All of these evoke a sense of mystery about the past that appeals to historical fiction readers.

Most of these books were published in the last year or two. What others can you think of?

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

The Undertaker's Assistant by Amanda Skenandore, an original look at Reconstruction-era New Orleans

With her second historical novel, Amanda Skenandore taps into society during the politically troubled Reconstruction years in New Orleans, where formerly enslaved people organized political meetings and mingled with Creoles of mixed race.

Into this environment comes Euphemia “Effie” Jones, a freedwoman in an unusual profession: she embalms the dead alongside her white employer, Mr. Whitmark, a former army colonel who had fought for the North. In reality, Effie knows the job as well as he does, often finding herself taking over tasks since his hands shake after years of too much drinking.

Having been trained in her profession by the white colonel from Indiana who’d taken her in after her escape from slavery as a child, Effie has returned home in search of the personal past she can’t remember. Alongside the uphill battle of her quest, she befriends, to her surprise, several people who challenge her stoic outlook, including Samson Greene, a handsome Black state representative, and Adeline, a beautiful upper-class Creole who cares for her mother after falling on hard times.

In a different writer’s hands, Effie could have been an unsympathetic figure. More comfortable with the dead than the living, Effie closely guards her emotions, and she can be frank to the point of discomfort. She discusses her career too readily at social gatherings, for instance, and doesn’t hesitate to inform the other women from her boardinghouse that they’ve been taken in by a fraud. (They don’t react well.) However, by giving her a believable inner life, Skenandore makes her behavior feel logical, even admirable. Effie had clearly experienced some terrible trauma in her youth, even though it comes back to her only in bits and pieces, and overcame it to establish a fiercely independent life.

The novel’s pacing can be slow at times, but it’s strong in both character and setting. The social environs are adeptly evoked, from the bustling, multi-lingual French Quarter, where Creole socialites seek to impress, to the terrifying raids that mobs of angry white men carry out against law-abiding Black citizens. The embalming process is presented in detail, much like an art form in which Effie happens to be particularly talented.

In addition, Skenandore involves all the senses in her evocation of the past, which not only looks differently than the era we know but can also sound and smell differently. The Undertaker’s Assistant is worth seeking out for anyone seeking an American historical novel both intriguing and original.

The novel will be published by Kensington on July 30th; thanks to Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for the NetGalley copy.

During the Blog Tour, we are giving away two signed copies of The Undertaker’s Assistant by Amanda Skenandore! To enter, please use the Gleam form below.

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The Undertaker's Assistant

Monday, July 22, 2019

Interview with Jennifer Kincheloe, author of The Body in Griffith Park, a mystery of 1900s LA

Anna Blanc, Jennifer Kincheloe's detective heroine, isn't someone you've encountered before in mystery fiction. A former heiress disinherited by her father, she now works as a police matron for the LAPD but hasn't left her high society tastes behind. She's also better at some aspects of her job than others. In her third and latest outing, set in 1909, she and her sweetheart, Detective Joe Singer, stumble upon a man's body during an attempted romantic tryst in Griffith Park. Between her determination to solve the crime and the presence of a mysterious admirer, Anna's life suddenly becomes more complicated. The novel combines witty humor and a rich look at women's roles and social problems in early 20th-century LA.

What got you interested in writing a historical mystery series?

One particular woman. Alice Stebbins Wells. She became the first female cop in Los Angeles in 1910. I thought she had to be an absolute badass. So I wanted to write something in her honor. My character, as it turned out, was nothing like Anna Blanc.

Anna’s a great character, with the wealthy background she had to leave behind and her determination to be a detective in a man’s world. She also loves her food and whiskey. How did you come up with her personality?

She came tumbling onto the page. I truly wanted to write a tribute character, similar to Alice Stebbins Wells, who was middle-aged, middle-class, married, average-looking, a former minister, and a serious political operator. But that’s not who came out when I started typing. I didn’t think about creating her. She created herself.

What made you choose early 20th-century Los Angeles as the setting?

I love Los Angeles and I love women who make history. Alice Stebbins Wells has been celebrated as the first female cop in America (although she wasn’t), so I set the book in her stomping grounds.

The police matrons at LAPD in 1909 have a huge amount of responsibility and stressful jobs, and it’s clear Anna isn’t exactly the best match for the position. How did you imagine this career for her?

When I started writing the book, and Anna came out so green, I didn’t think she was ready to be a cop. Even Detective Wolf wouldn’t hire her for that. Matrons had been around in LA since 1888, and the early women cops all started out as matrons. So Anna starts out as a matron. Putting a rich girl in jail is an interesting juxtaposition. There is nowhere farther away from her sheltered life on Bunker Hill. In this book, I wanted to draw attention to the problems in our jails both then and now, because they haven’t changed—substance use, mental illness, racism, poverty, trauma, overcrowding, sexual abuse of inmates, domestic violence, exploiting women in the sex trade, homelessness.

I was amazed to read about private railcars owned by wealthy families, and how they could be attached to existing trains at the station so they could make their journeys in total luxury. That would be the life! How did you re-create the experience on the page?

You can still do that, you know. I was on the California Zephyr once going from Denver to San Francisco, and we had to wait to attach Dan Aykroyd’s railcar. Kudos to Mr. Aykroyd. It’s much better for the environment than flying.

I wrote the scene using photographs of luxury railcars from the era and made a composite. And the whole lady on the polar bear rug thing was a popular pose in erotic photography of the day. There’s a famous one of 1900s super model Evelyn Nesbit.

The slangy expressions that Anna and other characters use are a lot of fun to read. Do you have any favorites?

author Jennifer Kincheloe
I love all the slang, and I adore putting it into Anna’s mouth. The slang itself is a form of generational rebellion. And Anna loves to rebel. Her father would want her to use words from Webster’s dictionary.

If I had to pick a favorite, I suppose I like “Jupiter” as an interjection.

I think it’s funny how much of the slang hasn’t changed. “Cutting up,” meant goofing off, for instance. “Dead meat” was someone doomed. They used “killer,” for really great, and “tore,” for going really fast. Profanity was also the same.

I complied a huge list of period slang that I constantly refer to. I harvested it from writings contemporary to my novels, like LA newspapers and popular fiction. There’s also this great, fat, two-volume slang dictionary, The Historical Dictionary of American Slang, that I rely upon. The author got tired of writing it, so it only goes up to the letter O, but it has 14 pages just dedicated to the F word.


The Body in Griffith Park is published by Seventh Street this month. Thanks to the author for participating in this Q&A!

Friday, July 19, 2019

Jacob's Ladder by Ludmila Ulitskaya, a century-spanning epic of Russian life

Nora Ossetsky, a set designer in 1970s Moscow, discovers a willow chest filled with her paternal grandparents’ correspondence after her Grandmother Marusya’s death. Thus begins acclaimed Russian writer Ulitskaya’s (The Big Green Tent, 2014) expansive novel about the complications of human lives and repeating generational patterns, set against a backdrop that spans a century of tumultuous Russian and Soviet history.

Nora’s and Marusya’s parallel stories are intercut, and both depict the challenge of maintaining long-distance relationships. Nora endures separations from her Georgian lover and later from her eccentric son, while Marusya, a dancer from Kiev, and the man she marries, Jacob Ossetsky, lay their hearts and minds bare in passionate letters written while apart.

Although the novel’s early pages promise the revelation of family secrets, and the narrative delivers, it is primarily concerned with evoking people’s quotidian joys and sorrows. The story sojourns through the realms of music, science, and politics as Ulitskaya gives full rein to her characters’ thoughts—particularly Jacob’s, with his great thirst for knowledge—but the plot remains strong. Ideal for devotees of Russian literature and epic tales.

Jacob's Ladder, translated from Russian by Polly Gannon, is published by FSG this month; I reviewed it for Booklist's 6/1/19 issue.

I'll admit it: the heft of Ulitskaya's novels have been rather daunting (this one clocks in at 560pp), but the story is very approachable, and the translation fluid. I would suggest reading it as an ebook, as I did, if you find that format agreeable.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

The Flight Portfolio by Julie Orringer, a fictional take on Varian Fry's courageous WWII years

Orringer’s (The Invisible Bridge, 2010) gripping second novel centers on Varian Fry, the American editor who undertook great risk to rescue endangered European artists and intellectuals from the Holocaust.

Overseeing the Emergency Rescue Committee’s work in 1940 Marseille, Varian and his fellow activists use delicate personal connections to ensure high-profile refugees’ escape from Vichy France through legal and illegal means, amid limited finances and a less-than-supportive State Department.

Into this high-pressure atmosphere arrives Elliott Grant, Varian’s (imaginary) former lover, requesting a complicated favor. Through their revived affair, the story explores issues of identity and living one’s authentic self. Grant is a convincing creation, but readers may be uneasy that considerable emotional weight and suspense hinge on a historical character’s fictional relationship and its repercussions.

Still, Orringer is a beautiful prose stylist who captures depth of meaning about complex human issues, and she addresses head-on the moral dilemma of making value judgments on individual lives. She crafts a vivid portrait of wartime Marseille, its innate sophistication darkened by Nazi oppression, and of Fry’s heroic real-life accomplishments.

I read The Flight Portfolio back in February for review in Booklist's 4/15 issue; the book was published in May by Knopf.

For additional perspectives, which are worth reading, please see Novel Historian's review of The Flight Portfolio -- not dissimilar in our conclusions, but more detailed and with some different points -- and Cynthia Ozick's review in The New York Times (though heads up about a spoiler midway through).

Even if you skip Ozick's review, in which she says "For the historical Fry, beyond hunches and hints, there is no evidence of homosexuality," if you're interested in biographical novels and the fact vs. fiction debate, you'll want to read the letters to the editor sent to the NYT in response: "Was Varian Fry Gay -- and Should It Matter?  Readers respond." Notably, Varian Fry's son is the author of one of these letters.

Saturday, July 06, 2019

A collection of #HNS2019 links - summaries of the latest Historical Novel Society conference

As I mentioned last week, I recently returned from a two-for-one conference trip that saw my two worlds colliding (or at least coming closer together).  National Harbor, Maryland, the site of the 8th Historical Novel Society North American conference, and Washington, DC, where ALA Annual was held, are about 15 miles apart, so I went to first one, then the tail end of the other.

The conference had about 420 people attend, which was great to see.  Having co-founded the North American conferences along with Ann Chamberlin (and marketing coordinator Claire Morris) back in 2005, when we had half as many participants, I enjoy seeing how the conferences have grown and expanded since then. There were a plethora of panels to choose from, two wonderful keynote speakers in Dolen Perkins-Valdez and Jeff Shaara, a massive afternoon book signing, and cocktail parties that let me catch up with old friends and meet people I'd been in contact with only on social media or email. Based on the attendee list, there were many people I never saw; the hotel, the Gaylord, was enormous.  My friend Alana White and I co-presented a session on research for historical novelists that was scheduled as a small group Koffee Klatch session, but we had almost 70 people show up and stay for the full hour, sitting or standing.  Not bad at all!

Although I didn't end up taking detailed notes, some of my fellow #HNS2019 attendees fortunately did.

At A Writer of History, M. K. (Mary) Tod summarizes the panel The State of Historical Fiction, in which the conference's participating editors and agents discussed the current picture and future of the genre. Two takeaways: publishers are on the lookout for unique takes on WWII and diverse perspectives on historical times.

Mary also provides an overview of Tips on Writing a Series, with panelists Donna Russo Morin, Nancy Bilyeau, Patricia Bracewell, and Anne Easter Smith.

Novelist J. D. Davies attended the conference while visiting America for the first time.

Betty Bolte wrote about the top 5 lessons she learned from #hns2019.

The latest of Kate Quinn's conference recaps, which are always entertaining to read.

Highlights of the conference from debut novelist Kip Wilson, author of White Rose.

More highlights from the Secret Victorianist, aka novelist Finola Austin, whose upcoming novel Bronte's Mistress will be one to watch for.

Janna Noelle has some tips on getting the most out of a writers' conference such as HNS.

Liza Nash Taylor's experiences at the HNS conference and the Nantucket Book Festival. She spoke about women's fashion in history.

A newspaper writeup from the Prince George's Sentinel that focuses on the readers' festival.

And here's my book pile from the ALA exhibit hall.  Some of these will be offered for review for the Historical Novels Review, while others I'll be keeping for readers' advisory or review purposes later this year.