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.