Thursday, December 31, 2020

An abundance of upcoming WWII fiction for the first half of 2021

Since I'd posted earlier about historical novels not featuring WWII, I thought it only fair to include a gallery of forthcoming fiction set during this prominent era.  All will be appearing in the first half of 2021. There are more where these came from; I selected a dozen out of personal interest and in an attempt to provide a variety of locales, without considering the cover designs.  As it happens, many offer a similar look: women in period-appropriate garb (and seriously spiffy hairdos) with their back to the reader.  Links go to the book's page on Goodreads.

Above we have a mix of debut novels and new releases from established historical novelists. Kristin Beck's Courage, My Love (Berkley, April) features two young Italian women who join the resistance during the Nazi occupation of Rome. The Historians (Harper Perennial, Jan.), from Swedish novelist  Cecilia Ekbäck, is a conspiracy thriller set amidst tensions surrounding Sweden's neutral status in the war. Saint-Malo, a historic coastal town in Brittany, is the locale for Mario Escobar's The Librarian of Saint-Malo (Thomas Nelson, June). It reveals the love story between a librarian and her longtime sweetheart and her determination to protect the library's book collections during the war.

Another debut, The Girl from the Channel Islands by Jenny Lecoat (Graydon House, Jan.), called Hedy's War in the UK, centers on a young Jewish woman, a refugee from Vienna, and the daring choices she makes to survive the Nazi occupation of the island of Jersey. Madeline Martin's first mainstream historical, The Last Bookshop in London (Hanover Square, Apr.), another novel with obvious appeal for bibliophiles, evokes the value of stories in its tale of Grace Bennett, a bookshop employee in wartime London. The Rose Code by Kate Quinn (Berkley, Mar.), her followup to The Huntress, promises to be another twisty historical novel, this time surrounding three women involved in codebreaking activity at Bletchley Park. I visited Bletchley on vacation last year, back when we could still travel, so this novel is high on my TBR.

Canadian author Jennifer Robson writes that her newest book, Our Darkest Night (Morrow, Jan.) is based on true events; it focuses on a young Jewish woman from Venice who takes refuge with a former-seminarian-turned-farmer to escape the Holocaust. Virginia Hall, an American spy who worked with Britain's SOE during WWII, is the subject of Erika Robuck's biographical novel The Invisible Woman (Berkley, Feb.). Bestselling thriller writer Lisa Scottoline's first historical novel is Eternal (Putnam, Mar.), which centers on three friends as Mussolini comes to power in Italy; it promises a story of love, loss, and tested loyalties in the heart of Rome.

The Codebreakers by Alli Sinclair (MIRA Australia, Mar.) is about the women covertly working for the intelligence organization called the Central Bureau in 1943 Brisbane, cracking codes that may shift the course of WWII in the Pacific. Deborah Swift's newest romantic WWII saga, The Lifeline (Sapere, Jan.), takes place in Nazi-occupied Norway and deals with the covert seafaring operation known as the Shetland Bus.  And the setting of S. Kirk Walsh's The Elephant of Belfast (Counterpoint, Apr.) should be obvious; the blurb reveals it's inspired by historical events and features a female zookeeper's bond with an elephant in the Belfast zoo during the Blitz.

This is my last post for this year, and I'll be glad to see 2020 gone. Thanks for reading my site, and I send my wishes for a peaceful 2021 and an upcoming year of great reading to everyone.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Fifty Words for Rain by Asha Lemmie, a dramatic coming-of-age novel set in post-WWII Japan

With her first novel, Asha Lemmie proves herself a talented writer unafraid to take chances. Her heroine’s situation is unique, and her journey to adulthood is one that won’t leave the mind quickly. 

Noriko “Nori” Kamiza is only eight when her beautiful mother brings her to her family home in Kyoto in 1948 and abandons her at the gates, making her promise to obey and keep silent. We soon learn why: Nori is illegitimate, the product of her aristocratic mother’s affair with a Black American GI, and her appearance and very existence are a deep source of shame.

For two years, Nori remains isolated in the mansion’s attic, cared for by her stern grandmother’s maid and educated well, but she’s subject to regular beatings and attempts to bleach her almond-colored skin. Her life changes when her teenage half-brother Akira arrives at the house to live after his father’s death. 

The dynamic that forms between them – the beloved heir and the accursed bastard – is mesmerizing. After being hidden away for so long, Nori is hungry for attention but afraid to misstep. She worships Akira for easing her restrictions and standing up for her, which nobody has done before. For his part, Akira clearly cares for his little sister, but he’s a brilliant violinist with plans of his own; she isn’t his entire world, like he is hers.

This is literary fiction with many quotable lines and a cinematic, fast-moving plot. Nori’s path to maturity is unorthodox and beset by dramatic, often shocking shifts in circumstance. Nori is bright, curious, and – understandably – not in good control of her emotions. Readers may struggle with some of her choices. They also won’t fail to empathize with her as she learns self-acceptance, overcomes prejudice, and emerges as a powerful force of her own.

Fifty Words for Rain was published by Dutton in September (I reviewed it for November's Historical Novels Review). Its publication was moved up after it was chosen for the Good Morning America book club, and it subsequently became a NYT bestseller.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Snow by John Banville, a chilling historical mystery set in 1950s Ireland

Snow: cold, soft, brilliantly blinding. It muffles sound and casts a thick shroud over whatever lies beneath. The symbolism is apropos in Banville’s newest crime novel, the first to be written under his own name rather than the pseudonym (Benjamin Black) he’d established for genre-fiction purposes.

Snow takes place in County Wexford, Ireland, a time when the Catholic Church reigned supreme and buried its adversaries. One frigid day in 1957, Detective Inspector St. John (pronounced “Sinjun”) Strafford arrives at Ballyglass House to investigate a murder. The body of Father Tom Lawless, longtime friend of the Osborne family, lies on the floor of the ornate library, throat cut and private parts removed. A parish priest’s killing is bizarre enough on its own, and almost no one seems upset about it. Strafford shares the privileged Protestant background of the Osbornes but finds, to his annoyance, that this doesn’t gain him any ground in his sleuthing.

The story appears to follow a standard country-house mystery plot, with a closed-in setting and characters fitting familiar types: a refined patriarch, his attractive younger wife, their rebellious adult children. Banville peels away at these tropes as the personalities behind the theatrical parts make themselves known. Strafford is himself an intriguing figure, both in his career – most policemen in the Garda are Catholic – and in his reactions to the women he meets.

That said, he’s surprisingly slow on the uptake in pinpointing motive. An interlude late in the story, seen from Father Tom’s viewpoint, makes things clear for anyone who hasn’t yet figured it out. Banville has a consummate hand with establishing atmosphere, though, in sentences of chillingly ethereal beauty: “Surely such a violent act should leave something behind, a trace, a tremor in the air, like the hum that lingers when a bell stops tolling?”

Snow was published by Hanover Square Press in October; in the UK, Faber and Faber is the publisher. I reviewed it for the Historical Novels Review from a NetGalley copy. This novel seemed apropos for this time of year in the US Midwest. This is my first time reading one of John Banville's (that is, Benjamin Black's) crime novels; if you've read others you'd recommend, please comment.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Interview with Gillian Polack, author of History and Fiction: Writers, their Research, Worlds, and Stories

I'm pleased to have Dr. Gillian Polack here today for a Q&A about her book History and Fiction: Writers, their Research, Worlds, and Stories, which is newly out in paperback from Peter Lang ($22.95/£15.00). I'm glad to see it finally available in this format, since this will encourage more individual readers and writers to check it out and pick up their own copies. 

History and Fiction takes an in-depth look at the varied approaches that fiction writers take in incorporating history into their stories. This can depend on many factors, including the genre they're writing, the demands of the marketplace, their emotional involvement with their chosen subject or period, and more.

Gillian's background and expertise give her a unique perspective on the complex history-fiction relationship. A scholar based in Canberra, Australia, she writes historical and speculative fiction and has doctorates in both Medieval History and Creative Writing. Her research for the book was based on interviews she conducted with a wide spectrum of authors. I first reviewed History and Fiction for the Historical Novels Review in 2016 and was impressed by its insights. As I wrote in the original review, "This study will be an essential read for genre scholars, but the accessible writing style extends its appeal beyond academic circles. Historical novelists can consult it for deeper insight into their own writing and research choices, while anyone curious about how authors bring the past to life through fiction will come away with considerable knowledge of what goes into the crafting of the novels they enjoy."

I hope you'll enjoy this Q&A.  Please visit Gillian's website at for more background on her research and writings.

How did you first get the idea to write this book?

The relationships between history and different types of story are one of my lifelong interests. When I became a fiction writer, I read the scholarship on how history relates to novels and found a hole. I researched to fill the hole (mainly for my own benefit) and writers asked if I could explain my research to them, and History and Fiction was the result.

One of the book’s highlights, for me, was the honest commentary provided by the many authors you interviewed, and your analysis of their thoughts. How did you decide which authors to talk to?

I sent out a request through my networks for authors who had an interest in the Middle Ages to answer questions for my research. From those who expressed willingness, I chose those who represented the biggest possible range of author experience. I didn't want to focus on only famous authors or on a group of writers who were all as yet unpublished. I wanted a clear cross-section of experience and interest.

Why the Middle Ages? My first doctorate was in Medieval History, so I had the best skills for evaluating answers relating to knowledge and sources used by focusing on that period. I admit, having the Middle Ages as a focal point also gained me responses from a wider range of writers, for some writers back then knew me as a Medievalist and others as a writer of science fiction and fantasy.

I appreciated the broad focus on the types of authors who incorporate history in their fiction. This may be an American thing, but there doesn’t seem to be significant overlap between writers of historical fiction and speculative fiction, or their readerships – even though storytelling and detailed world-building are important to both genres, and authors of both are frequently inspired by real-world history. I was a fantasy reader long before I was a historical fiction reader – one genre led me to another – though that doesn’t seem typical. The genres diverge, of course, on the type of research involved, the purposes of the research, the level of historical accuracy, and other factors, as you’ve explained in the book. Do you feel that these two groups of writers (and/or communities of readers) could benefit from a greater acquaintance with one another, and if so, how?

I suspect the overlap between the two groups of writers is greater than it used to be. I am active in both, and I often find friends/fellow writers who are also. I will catch up with a couple of friends at a science fiction convention and a couple more at the Historical Novel Society Australasia conference. Our overlap group is not large in number, but it’s definitely growing. 

The genres diverge and we talk about that a lot when we meet up. Who writes what kind of story for what kind of audience, is what it boils down to. One thing that’s really clear about writers who work in both genres is that we’re all very aware of genre and how the history we need is different in each. Good editors are aware of this. I discovered this personally when I wrote a story for a mixed-genre anthology. I know the editor (Sherwood Smith) through speculative fiction but wrote historical fiction for It Happened at the Ball, because I wanted to explore what might happen after a couple of waves of plague (ironically, given this year). Sherwood edited it very much as historical fiction.

I probably should explore this area more one day. Where research meets and produces different types of fiction, and how editors handle the genre differences are fascinating questions.

The area with much less overlap is historians and historical fiction. More historians who are also fiction writers write historical fantasy, romance or literary fiction than historical fiction. I used to worry about how historians would deal with my Medieval time travel novel (Langue[dot]doc 1305) because of this, but other historians have enjoyed it. Such a relief!

As you read over the responses from the authors, did they take you in any unexpected directions with your research?

I love research because there are always unexpected directions!

It still strikes me that I went in thinking about historical fiction and historical fantasy, and that now I feel very strongly that we should not be neglecting other genres. Historical romance is critical for the way many people interpret history and why someone falls in love with one period or another, for example. It’s understudied. Too many people say, “Oh, romance,” and miss its importance. 

The responses also reminded me, over and over again, that writers are each and every one of them individuals with personal responses to history and with different publishing experience. I'm very good at interpreting the wider cultural patterns in narrative: those responses taught me that wider cultural patterns should never be divorced from real people.

Why a writer chooses a time and place and genre is critical. Who they are and what they experience plays a part in those choices. Elizabeth Chadwick's memory of her childhood has become my personal trigger for remembering that writers matter and that who they are affects what stories they tell.

Many historical fiction fans enjoy reading authors’ notes and learning more about the research and writing choices undertaken. You wisely point out, though, that the presence of bibliographies or notes doesn’t always indicate that the author has interpreted history correctly. What in your view makes for a good (or helpful, trustworthy, etc.) author’s note in a historical novel? (Feel free to provide specific examples if you’d like.)

I love this question. I don’t have a lot of opinions about the good, the helpful, the accurate, or even the trustworthy in author’s notes. I do, however, have opinions. Some writers want me to evaluate their notes. I have annoyed several of my friends because of this.

I was an historiographer before I became a Medievalist. The way historiographers interpret history is one of my favourite things, and so I don't judge bibliographies and notes on how they compare to the equivalent given by a specialist historian. This is why good and bad, helpful and unhelpful aren’t the categories that inform my judgement. 

For me, author's prologues and epilogues and notes are tools to find out how the writer thinks about the history they've used in a given novel. I want to know where their insights come from and what writers want readers to think about in relation to their stories. 

It's not about how accurate the history is, it's about how credible it is. How much do we want to believe it when we read the novel? A list of books, or an explanation of research, or a description of how an event is seen by an historian - all these things help me see a writer's relationship to history.

Some of the authors you interviewed described their strong emotional links to the periods and/or characters they wrote about, and you spoke about how this can color their research choices and their writing. Even more, they may not be aware this is happening. How can the average reader gain awareness of these potential biases? 

Reading those author’s notes is an excellent start. I also read interviews (like this one!) and blog posts by writers. I look to see where they come from and how they define that magic word ‘research’. I always, always check for their emotional response. In History and Fiction Wendy Dunn’s answers to my questions are a perfect litmus test for emotional responses. 

Emotional responses to the past are not bad things at all. What they do is help us follow a line of decisions a writer makes. If Writer A loves George IV passionately and will never hear a bad thing said about him, then they will write a very different story to Writer B who wants to express all their anger about how he treated his father or Writer C who refuses to write anything set after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Each of these writers may have identical characters, but the books will be vastly different. That’s where we see these responses at work in fiction.

The easiest way to find potential biases is to look for the trails they leave, in other words. Not all biases are bad, but we can make our own decisions about them if we understand them.

One of the statements you made in the first chapter, “The role of the fiction writer in exploring history, in creating new interpretations and in exploring old ones, cannot be underestimated,” struck me as being particularly true and relevant. What are some works of fiction you feel have been particularly influential in this respect, either for you personally or on a larger cultural level?

I have so many answers to this question.

I generally start with Lord Dunsany, William Morris, JRR Tolkien and the fantasy Middle Ages or Sir Walter Scott and the historical Middle Ages. Recently I added Maurice Druon and an entirely different historical Middle Ages to my answer, because what happens in French language historical fiction is quite different to what happens in English. I cannot count how many conversations I’ve had about the effect of Georgette Heyer and the entire rewriting of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century in the minds of many. 

This is something I teach. I ask students to imagine a Richard III without Thomas More’s “History of King Richard III.” Even people who hate it and who despise Shakespeare's play and every other offshoot from More’s satire are affected by it. We can write stories that love Richard and stories that hate Richard and alternate histories that cut him out of history, but all of them are influenced by More and his followers.

I also love talking about it, because every culture uses story based on history to help shape what it is. Sometimes we take from the influential work and we add to it, but treasure its form and cultural function. Sometimes we do the opposite. This question is a well that never runs dry.  

Friday, December 11, 2020

Looking at the "best of" historical fiction lists for 2020

As the year winds down, media outlets, bloggers, and other review venues are compiling lists of their favorite novels of 2020.  Not all include historical fiction as its own category, but here are some sites that do.  I enjoy looking over these lists to see which books I've read already (usually not many, since my tastes are eclectic and my reading is partly based on what I'm assigned), to get introduced to new titles, and to see whether I agree with the choices made.

In the Goodreads Choice Awards, Brit Bennett's The Vanishing Half won the historical fiction category handily with over 100K votes.  The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner took second place.  I loved both books.  And I've actually read 7 out of the 16 that were finalists, which isn't typical.  My favorites among the finalists are The Vanishing Half, The Jane Austen Society, and Ariel Lawhon's Code Name Hélène.

The New York Times lists 10 standout novels of historical fiction.  My favorite among them is Daniel Kehlmann's Tyll.  There are a couple novels on this list I was lukewarm about.  Only two titles overlap between the NYT list and the Goodreads list (Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet and Hilary Mantel's The Mirror and the Light).

Kirkus Reviews also posted their Best Historical Fiction of 2020, with a dozen selections (Hamnet is the only one I've read).

NPR's Book Concierge is always fun to explore.  I like how they intermix adult and children's titles in their historical fiction collage, along with historical romance. This site uses the broadest umbrella for the genre, which appeals to me.  

Glancing at these lists so far, Alice Randall's Black Bottom Saints (Black Detroit from the early 20th century), Emma Donoghue's The Pull of the Stars (the 1918 flu epidemic), Jess Walter's The Cold Millions (early 20th-c Spokane), and Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet (Shakespeare's England) make multiple appearances.

She Reads has two lists of best historicals for 2020, ones chosen by their historical fiction reviewer, Cindy Burnett, and another of their winners in the official She Reads awards.

The Times (London) lists their favorite novels set in the past. You'll need a login (which gives access to some free articles) to read it.  This list includes one title I hadn't come across before, All Our Broken Idols by Paul M.M. Cooper, set in ancient Assyria and the present day.  Mantel and O'Farrell are here too.

If I missed any lists, please let me know in the comments. I'm still debating about whether to post my own list, plus my year of reading isn't over yet.

Monday, December 07, 2020

A secret WWII history comes to light in Aimie K. Runyan's Across the Winding River

I’ve revisited this novel so many times in the past few months that the characters feel like old friends. First I read it back in June, but before I could gather my thoughts together and write a review, I was assigned a different book with a very short deadline – then the same thing happened in September. After finding some time over the Thanksgiving weekend, I got my writeup done at last.

Aimie K. Runyan’s fifth novel is anchored in two historical periods – California in 2007, and Germany during WWII – and told from three perspectives. The story combines a classic plot pattern of a young woman discovering her father’s secret wartime history with his first-person account of that history, along with a third strand from the viewpoint of a German woman, a female pilot and aircraft designer who’s an aristocrat by marriage, and who has secret Jewish heritage. The stories interlock, but not the way you’d assume.

In the modern era, Beth Cohen is startled to discover a decades-old snapshot of her father, Max, gazing into the eyes of a pregnant young blonde. At the end of his life, at age 90, Max Blumenthal is finally ready to reveal his involvement with the woman he loved and lost before he met Beth’s mother, hoping to solve a mystery that’s lingered for decades. In 1944, as a newly minted dentist, Max decides to enlist rather than wait to be drafted, feeling an obligation to do his part for the war because of his lost relatives from Latvia. Part of a medical detachment during the Battle of Hürtgen Forest near the German border, he gets pulled into the resistance movement after one night when he intercepts a young woman stealing medical supplies for a friend she claims is working against Hitler. He chooses to let her go.

Of the three protagonists, Johanna Schiller is the most intriguing. As a skilled test pilot, she doesn’t fall into the Nazis’ preferred role for women, and she grows uneasy about her brother’s quick absorption into the Hitler Youth and fellow Germans’ reporting on each other’s “unpatriotic” activities. Johanna also has a younger sister, Metta, who seems resigned to the life planned out for her as a loyal wife to the Reich. The story moves from the sexism German women faced under Nazi rule to the heroism of the resistance, and the courageous paths traveled by those who actively yet covertly rebelled. The plot has a couple of incredible coincidences but wraps up in a way that enables the characters to heal from the wounds of the past.

Across the Winding River was published by Lake Union/Amazon in August (reviewed from a NetGalley copy).

Tuesday, December 01, 2020

The WWII home front from the Cherokee viewpoint: Even As We Breathe by Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle

Clapsaddle’s debut, the first novel by an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, is an impressive work of literary historical fiction. Her protagonist’s journey of first love and coming-of-age is embedded in an Appalachian setting that feels both mysterious and tangibly real. She also pens a moving ode to the many conduits of human history – people’s memories, writings, bones, the very ground under our feet – and how we learn what they teach us.

In 1942, nineteen-year-old Cowney Sequoyah, eager to escape his overbearing uncle and his home on the Cherokee reservation in the Smoky Mountains, takes a job with the grounds crew at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, two hours away. Accompanying him on the drive is Essie Stamper, a young woman whose beauty, sophistication, and self-confidence unsettle him.

Born with a twisted foot, Cowney is ineligible for military service, but he gets entangled in wartime intrigue, nonetheless. The inn is being used by the U.S. Army to house high-ranking POWs, including foreign envoys and their families. While Cowney’s immediate supervisor treats him well, others on site exhibit racist attitudes towards Indians. He and Essie become good friends and frequently meet in an unoccupied hotel room to talk and play dominos, but Essie is keeping a secret from him, and the disappearance of a Japanese diplomat’s daughter threatens to destroy his freedom. As Cowney struggles to prove his good name, he gradually learns the truth about his late father’s death in WWI.

Through Cowney, Clapsaddle presents warm, lyrical observations of Cherokee family life and traditions, such as the comfort of his grandmother Lishie’s quilts and the holiness of “ladies in boldly colored headscarves [who] sang ‘Amazing Grace’ in our language.” The concluding message about the characters’ ties to their homeland is also beautifully affecting.

Even As We Breathe was published by Fireside Industries, an imprint of the University Press of Kentucky that publishes on Appalachian themes, in July. I reviewed it from Edelweiss for the Historical Novels Review

Saturday, November 28, 2020

The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah, her forthcoming epic about women's strength during the Dust Bowl

With this emotionally charged epic of Dust Bowl-era Texas and its dramatic aftermath, the prolific Hannah has added another outstanding novel to her popular repertoire. 

In 1921, Elsa Wolcott is a tall, bookish woman of 25 whose soul is stifled by her superficial parents. By 1934, after marrying Rafe Martinelli, a young Italian Catholic who was the first man to show her affection, Elsa is a mother of two who has found a home on her beloved in-laws’ farm. Severe drought and terrible dust storms affect everyone in this proud family, and they are all forced to make tough choices. 

This wide-ranging saga ticks all the boxes for deeply satisfying historical fiction. Elsa is an achingly real character whose sense of self-worth slowly emerges through trying circumstances, and her shifting relationship with her rebellious daughter, Loreda, is particularly moving. Hannah brings the impact of the environmental devastation on the Great Plains down to a personal level with ample period-appropriate details and reactions, showing how people’s love for their land made them reluctant to leave. 

The storytelling is propulsive, and the contemporary relevance of the novel’s themes—for example, how outsiders are unfairly blamed for economic inequities—provides additional depth in this rich, rewarding read about family ties, perseverance, and women’s friendships and fortitude.

The Four Winds will be published by St. Martin's Press in February 2021. I'd reviewed it from an Edelweiss e-copy for Booklist's 10/15/20 issue.  Hannah's earlier historical novel, The Nightingale, was the historical fiction category winner in the Goodreads Choice awards for 2015 (I haven't read it yet, so no spoilers, please!).  Will you be reading this one, and which among her works is your favorite so far?  Happy to hear your recommendations.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Twelve upcoming historical novels for 2021 that aren't set during WWII

Here's the first in a series of previews of upcoming 2021 releases. As you've no doubt noticed, publishers' interest in World War II as a historical fiction setting continues unabated. I've been keeping an eye on current publishing deals, and the trend looks to last through 2022 at least. For readers who prefer earlier settings, or who enjoy focusing on a wide variety of eras, this post is for you.  These dozen titles will be appearing from US publishers in the first half of next year. Links go to the books' Goodreads pages.

Hope Adams' first novel Dangerous Women (Berkley, Feb.) follows 180 Englishwomen on a convict ship to Van Diemen's Land (modern Tasmania) in 1841. Along the way, they assemble a giant quilt, an artifact that can be viewed today, and evade a potential murderer on board. The setting for Melanie Benjamin's The Children's Blizzard (Delacorte, Feb.) is the Dakota Territory in January 1888. Young people and their teachers were in school as a sudden blizzard hit, leaving them with tough decisions to make. Moving to an earlier period than his usual, Chris Bohjalian's Hour of the Witch (Doubleday, Apr.) delves into the life of a young Puritan woman in 1660s Boston who's desperate to end her violent marriage. And for her debut, Wild Women and the Blues (Kensington, Mar.), Denny S. Bryce intertwines the stories of a chorus girl in Jazz Age-Chicago and a modern film student who interviews her decades later, when she's 110 years old.

Incorporating another pulled-from-history subject, Patti Callahan (Becoming Mrs. Lewis) focuses on the sinking of the steamship Pulaski in 1838, a family affected by the tragedy, and a contemporary professor researching the topic, in her Surviving Savannah (Berkley, Mar). Ben Hopkins' Cathedral (Europa, Jan.) looks tailor-made for Ken Follett fans, with its subject the bustling community surrounding the construction of a Gothic cathedral in 13th-century Germany. When Stars Rain Down by Angela Jackson-Brown (Thomas Nelson, Apr.) takes us to small-town, Depression-era Georgia with the story of a young Black woman coming of age during a time when the KKK is wreaking havoc in her community. Sadeqa Johnson's Yellow Wife (Simon & Schuster, Jan.), set in the mid-19th century, recounts the tale of a young woman hoping to be granted her freedom but who finds herself returned to slavery and working in a notorious Virginia jail (based on a true story).

Mitchell James Kaplan's third novel, Rhapsody (Gallery, Mar.) centers on the decade-long affair between composers George Gershwin and Kay Swift in the 1920s-30s.  In the Palace of Flowers by Victoria Princewill (Cassava Republic, Feb.) takes place in the royal court of Iran in the 1890s, with two enslaved people as its protagonists. (The UK release date was this August.)  Mary Sharratt's historical novels are always excellent, and I'm looking forward to Revelations (HMH, Apr.), her take on English mystics Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe in the 15th century. Lastly, Leaving Coy's Hill by Katherine A. Sherbrooke (Pegasus, May) is another work of biographical fiction, illuminating the life of Lucy Stone, a 19th-century American orator and abolitionist.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Millicent Glenn's Last Wish by Tori Whitaker, a multi-period novel about family secrets and family ties

Tori Whitaker is an avid reader of novels that juggle past and present-day timelines, highlighting worthy examples on social media and penning a feature article on multi-period fiction (Historical Novels Review, Issue 83). In her debut, she demonstrates mastery of this popular historical fiction format herself. 

Her heroine is Millicent Glenn, a spry widow of 90 who readers will come to care for right away. Family means everything to Millie, so when her daughter Jane moves back home to Cincinnati in 2015, and granddaughter Kelsey announces her pregnancy, she couldn’t be happier. Millie’s relationship with Jane is strained, and she knows that to repair it, she must find the courage to reveal a traumatic time from the Glenns’ past and hope for Jane’s forgiveness.

Back in mid-century Ohio, Millie is a former tenement girl of German heritage newly married to her sweetheart, Dennis Glenn. Remembering her mother’s admonishment to earn her own income, she’s excited to help Dennis spread the word about his prefab home dealership. When she becomes pregnant after years of trying, they feel their prayers are answered. Millie’s dreams of a large family never materialize, though, for a terrible reason that becomes a secret too painful to reveal.

Both timelines are equally gripping, and the shifts between them keep the suspense level high. Whitaker notices the small details that make the 1950s Midwest feel tangible, such as metal milk-delivery boxes, radio soap operas, and two-tone Chevrolets. In addition to nostalgic elements of vintage décor and pastimes, though, the story illustrates the weight of expectations women faced, pressured to be perfect wives and mothers while seeing their career hopes stifled. Millie can’t even open a savings account without Dennis’s permission (sadly, historically accurate). This tenderly written, fast-moving tale of marriage, women’s friendships, and family reconciliation is satisfying and extremely moving.

Millicent Glenn's Last Wish was published by Lake Union in October 2020. There are over 8000 ratings on Amazon, which is pretty amazing; the novel was chosen for their First Reads program over the summer, which got it into many readers' hands early. I reviewed it from a PDF for November's Historical Novels Review.

If you're interested in dual-timeline novels, Tori Whitaker's article "Multi-Period Novels: The Keys to Weaving Together Two Stories from Different Time Periods" will be worth reading. She describes several plot patterns used in these stories and interviews authors Chanel Cleeton, Jane Johnson, James Carroll, and Ariel Lawhon about their writing.  The other day, the author announced a deal for her upcoming book, another multi-generational novel set in Prohibition-era Detroit and modern Kentucky. I await it eagerly.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

The Tainted by Cauvery Madhavan, a novel of Ireland, India, and their intersecting histories

Madhavan describes an era long gone which continues to make an impact. An Indian-born writer who has lived in Ireland for over thirty years, she conveys her extensive familiarity with both countries’ histories and how they intersected. The first half of this thought-provoking novel opens in 1920, as Private Michael Flaherty settles into life in the Indian hill town of Nandagiri along with his regiment, the Royal Irish Kildare Rangers.

While assisting the local priest with Sunday Mass preparations, Michael meets Rose Twomey, a pretty Anglo-Indian who serves as the lady’s maid to the wife of his commanding officer, Colonel Aylmer. In her diary, Rose shares her feelings about Michael, her role in the Aylmer family, and her longing for Ireland, which she considers her true homeland. Her naivete is heartbreaking, for readers know that even with her elegant handwriting, fair skin, and her utter rejection of her Indian heritage, she’ll never be accepted into Irish society. When Michael and his fellow soldiers get word about the atrocities committed by the Black and Tans during the Irish war for independence, they take drastic action that affects his relationship with Rose.

The novel’s second half is even better. In 1982, Richard Aylmer, the colonel’s grandson, travels to Nandagiri for a photography project, and the friendships he establishes allow for open cross-cultural dialogue about the region’s complicated history. A key contributor to the discourse, May Twomey, Rose’s granddaughter, wryly observes Anglo-Indians’ misplaced sense of nostalgia for the days of the Raj: “We’re tainted – we were never white enough then and will never be brown enough now.” She’s a terrific character, a woman with a clear-eyed view of the past and present. The story offers a lot to unpack about colonialism and social belonging and is recommended for its insights and thoughtful writing.

The Tainted was published by Hope Road in 2020, and I reviewed it from a purchased copy for November's Historical Novels Review.  

The Royal Irish Kildare Rangers are based on the historical Connaught Rangers. As I learned on Twitter afterward, on November 3rd, 2020, the Embassy of Ireland in New Delhi hosted a virtual conference with Jawaharlal Nehru University entitled India, Ireland, and World War I: The Connaught Rangers 1920 Mutiny and its Socio-Political Dimensions. Author Cauvery Madhavan was a featured speaker, discussing the historical background to The Tainted and how she wove it into her story. The archived presentation is available on Facebook. Her session begins around the three-hour, 29-minute mark (3:29:00). Having just finished the novel, I found it absolutely fascinating.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

The Flame Within by Liz Harris, an English family saga set between the wars

The pages turn swiftly in The Flame Within, second in Liz Harris’s Linford Saga. Rather than a sequel to The Dark Horizon, it works as a companion volume, revealing the full story of a secondary character: Alice Foster Linford, aunt-by-marriage of the first book’s protagonists.

In the prologue, set in Belsize Park, London, in 1923, Alice takes a new position as companion to an elderly woman while debating how to win back her estranged husband, Thomas Linford, whom she had somehow wronged. The scene then reverts to 1904, with young Alice growing up in the small Lancashire town of Waterfoot. 

Wanting a future beyond mill or factory work, Alice aims to lose her local accent and improve her education. Life interferes with her plans, though, until her training with the British Red Cross, and the outbreak of war, introduce her to Thomas, youngest son of a prominent family of suburban London builders. After suffering injuries in France, Thomas, who uses a wheelchair and prosthetic leg, has difficulty adjusting to life at home. A patient, caring woman, Alice becomes worn down by her formerly cheerful husband’s moodiness and jealousy and the restrictions he imposes on her.

For readers of The Dark Horizon, some of the plot in the middle will be familiar, but the new angle enhances the earlier picture. (The book will also read well on its own.) Joseph Linford, head of the family firm, remains a daunting figure, but because he likes and approves of Alice, his nefarious side doesn’t emerge here. Harris deftly interweaves many social issues of the day, including how wartime trauma can affect a marriage, legal issues affecting women, and the difficulties of crossing class lines. Alice is a sympathetic heroine who makes realistic choices for a woman in her position. Without giving spoilers, the conclusion is very satisfying.

The Flame Within was published by Heywood Press in October, and I first reviewed it for November's Historical Novels Review.  If you missed reading The Dark Horizon, I posted a review last month. I'm curious to see who Liz Harris's next protagonist will be as the series continues.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Dark Tides continues Philippa Gregory's Fairmile saga in 17th-century England and America

Gregory continues her Fairmile saga, following the atmospheric Tidelands (2019), by casting a broad arc spanning the Old and New Worlds and adding a mysterious, disruptive new character. 

In 1670, Alinor Reekie and her daughter, Alys, reside in London, where Alinor practices herbalism and Alys runs a small wharf. Then Sir James Avery, Alinor’s faithless former lover, returns hoping to marry her, and Livia, her son Rob’s Italian wife, shows up with her baby, claiming that Rob drowned in Venice. Expressing disappointment in her in-laws’ low social status, Livia settles into their home and insinuates herself into the family business, and Alinor doesn’t trust her. 

In distant New England, Alinor’s brother, Ned, seeks peace as tension stirs between colonists and the Indians. His tale, while evocatively illustrating English-Native relations and the English Civil War’s far-reaching aftereffects, feels disconnected from the juicier story of uncovering exactly what Livia’s endgame is. 

Resolute and proud of her working-class heritage, Alinor remains enigmatically compelling. Answers arrive via an unexpected avenue as the plot heats up, with dramatic twists aplenty.

Dark Tides is published this month by Atria/Simon & Schuster; I reviewed it initially for the 10/15/20 issue of Booklist (reprinted with permission).  

I'd previously reviewed Tidelands last September. Comparing the two, I prefer Tidelands.  Livia is a character I found extremely irritating, although to be fair, Alinor feels the same (in other words, she's written that way). And I expected the stories set in New England and London to connect more than they did, but apart from letters and occasionally goods moving across the Atlantic, they're essentially separate.  I did appreciate the New World storyline, though, as it delves into an aspect of history rarely covered in historical fiction.

Thursday, November 05, 2020

The Evening and the Morning, Ken Follett's epic prequel to The Pillars of the Earth

Over a century before The Pillars of the Earth, the future English cathedral town of Kingsbridge is a mere hamlet with a stone church, ferry, alehouse, and a scattering of humble buildings. Follett’s supremely entertaining prequel centers on the locale known then as Dreng’s Ferry – named after a surly business owner – and the city of Shiring, while dramatizing their inhabitants’ interactions around the first millennium CE.

Three plucky protagonists have ambitious dreams that set them apart. Edgar, an illiterate boatbuilder with an engineer’s mind, loses his lover to a brutal Viking raid and works to raise his family out of poverty. Lady Ragna, the Count of Cherbourg’s daughter, leaves Normandy to marry her wealthy betrothed but is dismayed by her new life’s reality. And a monk, Brother Aldred, seeks to develop his abbey’s scriptorium and library into an educational beacon. However, with political influence held by a trio of wily brothers and their relatives, anyone stepping outside their societal role risks having their hopes, indeed their very lives, crushed. Wynstan, Bishop of Shiring, is a notably formidable nemesis.

Bursting with personality and detailed re-creations of daily life in historic England, this story is vintage Follett. Anyone who loved Pillars will want to scoop it right up. The characters, while belonging to their era, are recognizable types that make it easy to identify with or hiss at them. The momentum never flags, an impressive achievement in a tome that sprawls in length but not setting or time. Two pervasive themes are the corruption of power, and how average people have few choices. King Ethelred is a distant presence, and justice depends on leaders’ personalities and whims. Slave girls suffer particularly violent fates. It is frustrating to see our heroes’ plans so frequently thwarted, but one can’t help but read on, hoping for a better future – as the evocative title signifies.

The Evening and the Morning was published in the US by Viking in September.  The UK publisher is Macmillan.  I reviewed it from a NetGalley copy for November's Historical Novels Review.  At 928pp long, the e-version was easier on my wrists/hands, and the story moved quickly.  If you're feeling frazzled with all the election drama, rising Covid rates, and doomscrolling on social media, this book will make a good distraction. Hope you're all holding up OK during these stressful times.

Monday, November 02, 2020

The background to Censorettes, a historical novel of WWII-era Bermuda, a post by author Elizabeth Bales Frank

Elizabeth Bales Frank is here today with a guest post about the path she took in writing her novel, Censorettes, which is out on November 5th from Stonehouse Press. The author is a fellow librarian, and the subject she's chosen is fascinating: the young women involved in reading and censoring mail in Bermuda during WWII.  Please read on...


Elizabeth Bales Frank 

1. Meet the Censorettes

I first learned of the Censorettes from a brief description of the Princess Hamilton Hotel. In the spring of 2006, I was in Bermuda, visiting a friend. I was flipping through one of her guidebooks to find something amusing to do when I came across this description of the Princess Hamilton, “during the war, the basement of the Princess served as a station for the Imperial Censorship Detachment. It was nicknamed the ‘Bletchley of the Tropics.’”

Who would have bestowed such a nickname? Bletchley’s activities were not made public knowledge until decades later. Further, the employees of Bletchley focused their activities on computing and code-breaking, while those of the Imperial Censorship Detachment, initially at least, concentrated on the interception of correspondence and cargo between warring Europe and the neutral United States. And, Bermuda is not in the tropics. It is approximately 700 miles east of Wilmington, North Carolina. Its location was helpful in many American wars, including the Civil War in which, you may recall from Gone with the Wind, Rhett Butler secured his fortune as a blockade runner by diverting shipments of cotton, almost certainly using Bermuda as a way station.

But I am getting ahead of myself. What fascinated me was the description, scant as it was, of the “Censorettes,” young European women hired because of their knowledge of languages or, in some cases, chemistry.

I walked from my friend’s house to the Bermuda Historical Society, passing the Princess Hamilton Hotel, reminding myself that it had during the war been known as the Princess Louise Hotel, after one of Queen Victoria’s many daughters. I stood in its driveway, caressed by (sub) tropical breezes and asked myself, how would a Censorette have felt, to be here, in this demi-paradise, reading mail in a basement, knowing that ‘out there’ – and life on Bermuda must surely consist of a lot of speculation regarding ‘out there’ – the world was in flames? Would she feel relieved at her own safety? Worried about the people back home? Would she be made frantic by her own isolation and helplessness?

I addressed the man at the Bermuda Historical Society, “I’m looking for anything you might have on Bermuda during the Second World War?”

“Won’t find much,” he replied. (In fairness, he was probably a volunteer. He certainly looked weary enough to have lived through the war himself.)

My Censorette was lonely. Perhaps bereaved. Perhaps she studied the ocean, wishing she could swim back home. 

At the Bermuda Maritime Museum, I was advised to look into Sir William Stephenson’s book A Man Called Intrepid. I received the same advice at the Bermuda Library. Then, I tucked away my notebook. I was on vacation, after all.

2. Secondary Sources

Won’t find much were prophetic words. A Man Called Intrepid devotes a scant five pages to the entire Bermuda operation. The Censorettes receive an even briefer account, described by their shapely legs and their presumed “romantic” notions of a posting to Bermuda. A story in World War II magazine, “How Bermuda’s ‘Censorettes’ Made a Nest of Spies Disappear,” provided my central mystery. A cover story in the August 18, 1941 edition of Life magazine described the social activities of the Censorettes while focusing a photo spread on the blasting on the island by American troops, the U.S. Navy and the Army Corps of Engineers, who had arrived on the island as a result of the Destroyer for Bases Act (later folded into the Lend-Lease Act) to create a Navy air base and Kindley Field, the airfield which is still in use today.

Handsome men, clever girls with “shapely” legs – I began to presume “romantic” notions myself.

I would call my heroine Lucia, I decided. Lucy to her friends.

3. Primary Sources, Librarians, and Archivists

Elizabeth Bales Frank photo
author Elizabeth Bales Frank
I wrote to the curator of the U.S. Naval Museum, the historian for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a librarian at the Bermuda National Library, who was kind enough to photocopy several issues of the Royal-Gazette from 1941 so I could see what kind of public information would be available to my homesick Censorettes. An inquiry to the Imperial War Museum in London resulted in the location of an account of her time as a Censorette by Gwendolyn Peck (née Owen) tucked away in a folder. 

I decided that Lucy, in addition to being fluent in Italian due to her Italian mother, should also have fluency in French and German and an education from Girton College, Cambridge (one of the few colleges that accepted women at the time). What did I know of the Girton College curriculum in 1939? Nothing, but Hannah Westall, the archivist of Girton College, supplied all the information I needed.

Each librarian and archivist I reached out to was not only courteous and thorough in their response, devoting hours to my questions, but encouraging and enthusiastic about the novel. Their professionalism was not the only factor, but certainly a major one, in my decision to attend library school myself in the spring of 2014. It is now fourteen years since I first studied that pink hotel, fourteen years of researching, correspondence and why not, while I’m at it, pursuing a master’s degree in library science. Now I have a novel and an MLIS, and will be someday in the position to return the favor to another novelist.


Elizabeth Bales Frank is the author of the historical novel Censorettes (Stonehouse Publishing, November 5, 2020). Her previous novel was Cooder Cutlas, published by Harper & Row. Her essays have appeared in Glamour, Cosmopolitan, The Sun, Barrelhouse, Post Road, Epiphany, The Writing Disorder and other literary publications. She was awarded a residency at Ragdale. Frank earned a BFA in film from New York University, and an MLIS from the Pratt Institute. She lives in New York City. Her website is

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Stealing Roses by Heather Cooper, a Victorian tale set on the Isle of Wight

Heather Cooper’s Stealing Roses is a warmly delightful debut novel set in the small seaside town of Cowes on the Isle of Wight in 1862. Aside from brief mentions of Queen Victoria’s summer home at nearby Osborne House, major historical events and figures don’t intrude. The focus is on a young woman’s growing into adulthood amid social change in her immediate world.

The writing style enhances the sense of period, employing the Victorian tendency toward long, winding sentences and a tone of elevated formality. It makes a nice contrast with the personality of its heroine, 19-year-old Eveline Stanhope, the adventurous youngest daughter in a well-to-do family. She has two older sisters who married well, a mother she loves despite her tendency to meddle and gossip, and a caring aunt. Living with them is Eveline’s former governess, Miss Angell, who would have had nowhere else to go if the Stanhopes hadn’t taken her in.

The building of a railway line between Cowes and Newport alarms Eveline at first, since she shares her late father’s love of natural landscapes and hates to think of the ground being torn up. Over time, she comes to realize the benefits that trains will bring for local fishermen, other businesses, and even their family. Two suitors present themselves in her life: Charles Sandham, nephew of Mrs Stanhope’s good friend and social rival, and chief railway engineer Thomas Armitage, a Yorkshireman.

Eveline is an engaging heroine, a product of her time who recognizes but sets aside the limitations imposed on young women of her class. Eveline’s mother despairs of her interest in photography and desire to go sea-bathing, but as with many things, Mrs. Stanhope can be persuaded to change her mind if she’s told such pursuits are fashionable or progressive. (While she can be flighty and marriage-obsessed on Eveline’s behalf, she’s no Mrs Bennet; over the course of the novel, her character shows significant depth.)

Jane Austen fans should enjoy this novel with its emphasis on family interactions, social responsibility, and the economic position of women. The era depicted in is firmly Victorian, though, and delves into the era’s proprieties and improprieties (with examples both saucy and serious). Some parts of the ending feel too abrupt, but overall, it’s enjoyable to spend time within these pages.

Stealing Roses was published by Allison & Busby last year; I read it from a NetGalley copy.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Focusing on autumn 2020 historical fiction releases, UK edition

Well, I'd intended to post this preview of autumn 2020 titles from British publishers a while ago, but time got away from me. The good news, though, is that for interested readers, there's no need to wait to get them because many are available now.  Here are nine from my personal wishlist. Did any make it to your wishlist as well?  Links below go to Goodreads.

Suzannah Dunn has written many insightful historical novels about Tudor personalities, and in The Testimony of Alys Twist (Little Brown UK, Oct.) she chooses a laundress-turned-spy in Princess Elizabeth's household, circa 1553, as her protagonist.  Elizabeth (here writing as E.C.) Fremantle's newest historical thriller, The Honey and the Sting (Michael Joseph, Aug.) centers on three women and a secret in early Stuart-era England.  The Glorious Guinness Girls by Emily Hourican (Headline Review, Sept.) is about the three real-life Guinness sisters, Anglo-Irish socialites in 1920s Ireland and London, as seen from an outsider's perspective.

I enjoy reading novels based on family history. A More Perfect Union, Tammye Huf's debut (Myriad Editions, Oct.), tells the story of her great-great-grandparents, an Irish immigrant and an enslaved woman, in 1840s Virginia. Naomi Miller's Imperfect Alchemist (Allison & Busby, Nov.) heads back to Tudor England to reveal the life of Mary Sidney, poet and literary patron, alongside that of a maid in her family's household.  Continuing her fictional chronicles of medieval women, Anne O'Brien's The Queen's Rival (HQ, Sept.) centers on Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, a powerful figure during the Wars of the Roses (mother of Edward IV and Richard III).  Women's lives seem to be a favorite theme of mine...

Caroline Scott's first WWI novel, The Poppy Wife / The Photographer of the Lost, stood out in a crowded field. Her second, When I Come Home Again (Simon & Schuster, Oct), reveals the story of a man with amnesia in a Durham hospital and three women who claim to know him. Acclaimed novelist Rose Tremain's latest work, Islands of Mercy (Chatto & Windus, Sept.) takes place in Bath, England, and in Borneo in 1865; it makes me curious how the novel's settings and characters will intertwine. Lastly Jeremy Vine's The Diver and the Lover, another "inspired by real events" novel, journeys with two English sisters over to Spain in 1951, as Dali begins a new artistic work.

Monday, October 19, 2020

We All Fall Down: Stories of Plague and Resilience, nine historically rich tales

I wasn’t always a fan of historical short stories. The format seemed too concise to support the world-building and character depth necessary for the genre. But the more I read, the more I grew to appreciate them. Short stories are powerfully concentrated in terms of character, plot, and historical detail. When done right, the length suits the material perfectly.

Several weeks ago, I watched a Zoom panel, “Stories of Plague in the time of Covid,” sponsored by the Historical Novel Society NYC Chapter, over my lunch hour. A collection of international authors who contributed to the We All Fall Down anthology spoke about their stories and took questions. It was one of the best online panels I’ve seen, and now that I’ve read the book, I’m tempted to watch it again.

The book was conceptualized long before the current pandemic, and it’s eerie how well some situations in the nine tales reflect our time. All are set during periods of the Black Death between the 14th and 17th centuries: stories of sorrow, grief, family, love, art, beauty, and the strength to survive after immense loss.

Kristin Gleeson’s “The Blood of the Gaels,” set in Ireland in 1348, follows a young novice as she travels home to her family after getting word of her father’s illness. This unpredictable story has hints of mystery as it showcases the religion, folk beliefs, and laws of the time.

“The Heretic” by Lisa J. Yarde introduced me to a less familiar period, 14th-century Moorish Spain, and to the historical figure of Ibn al-Khatib, personal secretary to the sultan, who observes how the plague is spreading and develops controversial views about how to lessen its severity. I highlighted multiple passages that felt historically relevant and uncannily familiar to today. 

Following a girl as she hawks elixirs with her motley group of faith-healers and fraudsters on their travels through 14th-century Siena, Laura Morelli’s “Little Bird” draws readers into the world of the Lorenzetti painters as the “Great Mortality” lands in the city – perhaps, as was thought, as punishment for its residents’ sins. This was one of my favorites, for its re-creation of the tools of the artists’ workshop and the glories of medieval Siena: “The cathedral is a chamber of echoing footsteps and pigeon wings, lit by dozens of gilded altarpieces shimmering in the candlelight.”

As a reader interested in fiction about little-known royal figures, I appreciated J. K. Knauss’s illustration of the life of Leonor de Guzmán, mistress of Alfonso XI of Castile, and the challenges she faces after he dies of plague in 14th-century Seville.

With the poignantly meditative “On All Our Houses,” set in Gargagnago, Italy, in 1362, David Blixt revisits his character Pietro Alighieri (Dante’s son) later in life. Aged 64, Pietro reflects on his existence and the fearsome inevitability of death as his eldest daughter Betha lies dying of plague.

Moving ahead to Venice (Venezia) in 1576, Jean Gill’s “A Certain Shade of Red,” replete with historical detail and symbolism, is narrated by Death himself as he observes the famous painter, Tician (Titian), dying of pestilence, and at earlier moments in his life. Then, as now, political leaders make choices about public health vs. the economy; these passages hit home.

“The Repentant Thief” by Deborah Swift stars an Irish immigrant boy in 1645 Edinburgh who steals a coin and locket from a tenement he’s broken into and then, as plague spreads, worries he’s brought God’s wrath down on his family. Historical atmosphere, well-wrought characters, realistic dialogue, pertinent themes, and a great ending: they’re all here.

Demonstrating the state of health care at the time, Katherine Pym’s “Arrows that Fly in the Dark” takes the perspective of time-traveling youths who inhabit the bodies of a physician’s apprentices in 1665 London. They find their master’s techniques for protecting against plague distasteful and sometimes ridiculous. 

Lastly, “778” by Melodie Winawer, a tale of regret and resilience, shows how the rapidly shifting political climate in 17th-century Mystras, Greece, affects everyone in a Turkish man’s household. The arrival of plague adds to the heightened tensions.

A wide-ranging, rich collection of human experiences, all contained in a collection of fewer than 200 pages. This was a personal purchase. Hope this post encourages others to check it out for themselves.  You can watch the YouTube recording of the panel below.

Monday, October 12, 2020

A Wild Winter Swan by Gregory Maguire, a fairy-tale sequel set in 1960s NYC

New York at Christmastime can be an enchanting place. With his newest literary fantasy, a sort-of sequel to Hans Christian Andersen's “Wild Swans” fairy tale set in the 1960s, Maguire adds new facets of wonder to this locale. 

Raised by her stern Italian grandparents, Laura Ciardi is a lonely fifteen-year-old recently expelled after retaliating against a school bully. Her main company is their cook, the delightful Mary Bernice, and two friendly workmen repairing the family brownstone before a big holiday feast. 

There, Laura’s grandparents hope to entice their rich Irish brother-in-law into investing in her Nonno’s grocery, while Laura wants a guardian angel to rescue her from potential boarding school in Montreal. Appearing instead on the roof, one stormy night, is a dirty, bedraggled young man with a swan’s wing for an arm. 

Hilarity and awkwardness ensue as Laura tries to care for him and build him another wing without anyone noticing. Sensitive portraits of generational conflict and coming-of-age intertwine with whimsy as Maguire touchingly shows how people invoke stories to help elucidate their complicated world.

YA/General Interest: YAs will easily identify with Laura and her journey towards maturity while finding the fantasy elements intriguing.

A Wild Winter Swan was published last week by William Morrow/HarperCollins. I reviewed it for the 9/1/20 issue of Booklist (reprinted with permission). A number of Maguire's novels incorporate historical settings: Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (17th-c Holland), Hiddensee (early 19th-c Germany), Mirror Mirror (16th-c Italy). It was a nice change to see an American setting used for this latest imaginative tale.

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

How Research Drives Plot, an essay by Libby Fischer Hellman, author of the historical novel A Bend in the River

I'm very happy to have Libby Fischer Hellman here today with a guest post about the primary and secondary source research she undertook for her new novel, A Bend in the River, which is out today. She also includes many wonderful photographs from her trip to Vietnam. I enjoy novels that transport me to different places and am looking forward to reading her book.  Hope you'll enjoy the insights in her post as much as I did.


How Research Drives Plot
Libby Fischer Hellman

Novelists drive plot by developing conflicts, actions, and dialogue. But I’d add another element to the mix: research. Especially when the story has an historical angle. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve discovered an actual historical event, person, or situation that I’ve woven into my fiction. Indeed, that was the case in A Bend in the River, my new historical novel about two Vietnamese sisters struggling through the “American War” (the Vietnam War to us) in quite different ways.

I divide my research into primary and secondary sources. Primary sources include what I see, people to whom I talk, and visual materials that include film, photographs, videos, speeches, or interviews. That might be the reason my historical novels are largely based on Twentieth Century events, a time during which visual materials proliferated. I am, or was, a filmmaker and video producer. Secondary sources are, of course, books, including fiction written about the time period, documents, interview transcripts, articles, and historiography about the period. In both types of research, I found some fascinating nuggets that I included in Bend.

Primary Research

I was lucky enough to go to Vietnam for three weeks. Our trip included five days in Hanoi, another five in Saigon, and a river cruise up the Mekong River to Cambodia and beyond. Along the way I talked with as many Vietnamese people as I could.

The Colonel and the Translator

One of my most curious interviews was in Hanoi where I had the opportunity to speak to a former Colonel in the North Vietnamese army. I wanted to get his perspective on the war and his most vivid memories. Our tour guide served as translator, and we wove through the maze of narrow back alleys of Hanoi on his motor scooter to a ramshackle shack sandwiched between others.

The first thing I noticed was a photo of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin on the wall of his tiny parlor. The second was the fact that he was wearing his army jacket, adorned with patches and medals. Even after fifty years, in a country that embraces rapid growth and (dare I say it) capitalism, the colonel was still a committed Communist. I found that fascinating! I recorded the interview on my iPhone and asked all sorts of questions, to which the colonel made long responses in Vietnamese. However, my translator synthesized his comments into short ten second summaries. I was surprised he could do that so succinctly but didn’t say anything. 

When I got home, I had the recording translated by a bilingual Vietnamese student. She emailed me with her concern: Apparently my translator was not relaying to me what the colonel had said. The Colonel’s answers to my questions were being filtered and adulterated through our guide who worked, of course, for the Communist government, and he had “interpreted” questions in a way that was acceptable either to the government, or western tourists, or both.

That told me, after the fact, that anything and everything said by Vietnamese citizens was monitored carefully and that true freedom of expression is an illusion. It was a cautionary lesson and one that I remembered when I interviewed other people back in the US.

Refugee Silence

In fact, it was probably that very circumstance that made it difficult to find Vietnamese-Americans who would talk to me back when I came home. I was looking specifically for “Boat People” who had escaped Vietnam—legally or not—by ship, boat, barge, or another vessel. But one after another declined to talk. I understood. Even after forty years, many refugees still fear that what they say might cause harm from either the US or the Vietnamese government. Or maybe they just want to forget. Happily, I eventually found one woman who agreed to talk and even allowed me to use her name in the acknowledgements.

The Mekong River 

Our journey up the river was the heart of my trip. We stopped at villages where the wealthiest people in the village were the sampan maker, or the woman making non-las, the conical hats. 

A family business where everyone helped out making rice candy, from cooking the rice, to adding the ingredients, to boxing and preparing it for distribution. Other villages boasted a wet market, or a Catholic church and school (the result of missionary work from prior decades), or small farms. 

These were fascinating “slices of life,” and all the photos I took helped me create a sense of place. Of course, the people we saw were pre-selected by our tour operators, and undoubtedly had been cleared by the government. Still, the explosion of sights, sounds, and particularly smells, for example at the Binh Tay market in Saigon, were unforgettable. So were unplanned events like cockfights and school children flocking around us. 

Cu Chi Tunnels

Perhaps the most consequential site I visited were the Cu Chi Tunnels outside Saigon. Two hundred kilometers of tunnels originally built by the French but upgraded and expanded by the North, the tunnels, not far from the southern tip of the Hồ Chí Minh Trail, became the major transit route between North Vietnam and the Saigon area. 

North Vietnamese fighters often lived in the tunnels for weeks. I spent hours at the tunnels, exploring them carefully, as they became an indispensable element of my plot. 

Secondary Sources

In Stanley Karnow’s exceptional Vietnam: A History is a discussion about a female Vietnamese pediatrician who was in the inner circle of the Diem administration in the early Sixties. She was also a committed Communist and spied for the North. After the war, she renounced Communism, but she was not penalized by either the South or the North. I found her to be such a mysterious, absorbing person, that I fictionalized her as Dr. Đường Châu Hằng, a major character who recruited for the Viet Cong and also was a double agent in my book.

Part of A Bend in The River references the Cao Dai religion. Knowing nothing about it, I researched it online and read several articles about its history. The center of Cao Daism is in a city in which one of my characters spends quite a bit of time, so I gave that character a job in the kitchen of the temple campus where she spies on specific Cao Dai clergymen who might be aiding the South surreptitiously.

In the middle of writing Bend, a book called Fire Road was published. Its author, Kim Phuc Phan Thi, was the little girl who appeared in many photos at the time. She had been burned by a napalm attack and was naked, running down the road while screaming. Now in her fifties, the author came to Chicago; I met her and bought her book. While she is not directly part of my novel, her story gave me information about Vietnamese responses to American attacks and how profound those consequences could become.

Finally, I found a series of interviews with girls who worked in Saigon GI bars during the Sixties (Maclean’s, 1968). Since one of my characters does exactly that, the articles were the pot of gold I’d been hoping to find. Again, my preconceptions were wrong. Most of the girls loved their jobs and felt liberated for the first time in their lives. They found American GIs courteous and respectful, as well as great tippers. They did not want to settle down with Vietnamese men.

This is not the first time that my research opened up possibilities for plot development, but it is the first time I found so many opportunities to weave history into the story. Each time I find a nugget that works, it’s immensely satisfying. For me it’s a way to keep history alive and fresh; for readers, I hope it whets their appetite for more. 

More about A Bend in the River by Libby Fischer Hellmann
(The Red Herrings Press, on-sale October 7, 2020)

In 1968 two young Vietnamese sisters flee to Saigon after their village on the Mekong River is attacked by American forces and burned to the ground. The only survivors of the brutal massacre that killed their family, the sisters struggle to survive but become estranged, separated by sharply different choices and ideologies. Mai ekes out a living as a GI bar girl, but Tâm’s anger festers, and she heads into jungle terrain to fight with the Viet Cong. For nearly ten years, neither sister knows if the other is alive. Do they both survive the war? And if they do, can they mend their fractured relationship? Or are the wounds from the paths they took too deep to heal? In a stunning departure from her crime thrillers, Libby Fischer Hellmann delves into a universal story about survival, family, and the consequences of war.

About the Author

Libby Fischer Hellmann left a career in broadcast news in Washington, DC and moved to Chicago over 35 years ago, where she, naturally, began to write gritty crime fiction. Many novels and short stories later, she claims they'll take her out of the Windy City feet first.

She has been nominated for many awards in the mystery and crime writing community and has even won a few. She has been a finalist twice for the Anthony and three times for Foreword Magazine's Book of the Year. She has also been nominated for the Agatha, the Shamus, the Daphne, and has won the IPPY and the Readers' Choice Award multiple times. Libby hosts both a TV interview show and conducts writing workshops at libraries and other venues. She was the national president of Sisters In Crime, a 3500-member organization dedicated to the advancement of female crime fiction authors. Her books have been translated into Spanish, German, Italian, and Chinese. All her books are available in print, e-book, and audiobook formats. More information can be found online at