Saturday, July 11, 2020

The First Emma by Camille di Maio, historical fiction about a successful Texas businesswoman

By all accounts, Emma Koehler was an extraordinary woman. A prominent figure in the history of San Antonio, Texas, she was a German immigrant who ran the city’s Pearl Brewery, succeeding her late husband Otto in the role; she used her ingenuity to reinvent the business during Prohibition and keep it afloat during the Depression.

It’s fair to say that she wouldn’t have attained such success if her personal life had been less traumatic. Following a traffic accident that left her a semi-invalid, Otto took her two German-born nurses – both also named Emma – as his mistresses, installing them in their own house, and one of them murdered him in 1914.

In Camille di Maio’s fifth novel, young Baltimore native Mabel Hartley is hired in 1943 to take down the elderly Emma Koehler’s memoirs. The two women’s interactions create an intriguing dynamic: while beer is Emma’s lifeblood, Mabel avoids alcohol after seeing how it destroyed her father’s life. Mabel is a realistic character for her time, but her storyline lacks conflict. Her developing romance with Emma’s nephew, Erik, is sweet but has few surprises, and his presence in her life feels too convenient.

Emma’s story has more drama and bite – with the outline above, how could it not? Leaving her siblings behind to marry Otto at seventeen and move with him to San Antonio, Emma quickly discovers his workaholic nature. She also learns that to escape her loneliness, she must educate herself and meet Otto on his own ground: the brewery.

The lurid prologue depicting Otto’s murder feels somewhat misleading for the rest of the book, which isn’t a thriller. Comparatively few historical novels focus on successful businesswomen, however, and Emma Koehler is a deserving subject. Her position and attitude combine to create an admirable character that readers will root for.

The First Emma was published by Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing, and I'd reviewed it for May's Historical Novels Review from NetGalley.

Fun fact: the elegant and historic Hotel Emma in San Antonio, which was named after Emma Koehler, was the site of Pearl's Brewhouse starting in the late 19th century.

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Dawn Empress by Faith L. Justice introduces a powerful woman from the 5th-century Eastern Roman Empire

“You may not be able to pass laws or lead armies,” Princess Pulcheria’s religious tutor tells her as a child, “but the love of the people is no small thing. That power, used wisely… can be just as effective in ruling.”

History abounds with accomplished women whose stories have undeservedly been forgotten. Aelia Pulcheria Augusta is among them, and I hadn’t so much as heard her name until a few weeks ago, when a blog tour invitation appeared in my inbox.

A strong political force in the fifth-century Eastern Roman Empire, Pulcheria guided her younger brother, Theodosius II, during his minority and served as his influential advisor – on and off – through his decades-long reign. With Dawn Empress, second in a series about the Theodosian imperial women, Faith L. Justice gathers up the known facts about Pulcheria and offers a well-rounded, human portrait of this accomplished woman.

The story follows Pulcheria from her youth at the imperial court in Constantinople through the end of her life, with the chapter headings noting the year and place. Pulcheria is intelligent, pious, and frequently stubborn, a combination that doesn't endear her to her brother Theo’s advisors, who want her safely married and out of the picture. Pulcheria has other plans, though. She mingles with the common people, demonstrates charity toward them, and cleverly finds a way to bring honor to the Church and simultaneously remain by her brother’s side. She also persuades her two younger sisters to follow her example.

Pulcheria isn’t always a comfortable heroine. Her judgmental nature and forthrightness are off-putting (just ask her aunt, Galla Placidia), her jealousy of Theo’s wife Athenais gets her into trouble, and she sometimes missteps when it comes to Theo, too. But when it comes to ruling prudently and identifying threats to the realm, her heart is in the right place. With the Huns and other “barbarians” advancing on Rome, and Theo falling under the influence of unsuitable people, Pulcheria can’t let her guard down. The Roman Empire at this time was a hot spot for ecclesiastical heresies, and the author navigates a clear path through these theological disputes without overburdening the reader. Some character names (Anthemius, Asclepiodotus, Olympiodorus, and more) are a mouthful, but the character list helps keep track of who’s who.

It’s a recommended read for historical fiction old-timers who enjoyed the works of Gillian Bradshaw, and for anyone seeking out fresh subjects in historical fiction about world rulers or influential women.

Dawn Empress was published by Raggedy Moon Books on May 31 in hardcover, paperback, and ebook, and I reviewed it from a NetGalley copy.

Friday, July 03, 2020

Bits and pieces of historical fiction news

A new roundup of news from the historical fiction world. I've been swamped with getting oriented to a new library management system at work, so some of these updates are a bit delayed.

Back on June 12th, Christine Dwyer Hickey's The Narrow Land was named as the 2020 winner of the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.  Set on Cape Cod in 1950, it focuses on the shifting relationship between artists Jo and Edward Hopper.  Then, just over a week later, the novel was selected as the inaugural recipient of the Dalkey Literary Award's Book of the YearThe Narrow Land, published by Atlantic Books in the UK, doesn't have a US publisher but is available to US readers on Kindle.

From CrimeReads, Mariah Fredericks and Jess Montgomery, who write historical mysteries set in the early 20th century for Minotaur, have a discussion on balancing historical settings and modern themes.

For writers of Christian fiction with novels published in 2019, there's a new book prize open to submissions through July 15th: the Angel Book Award, with historical fiction as one of the categories.

Readers of the Wall Street Journal name their favorite historical fiction through the ages. This is paywalled so I can't read it at the WSJ site (I had to read it through a library subscription), but maybe you can?

From School Library Journal: a diverse list of 16 YA novels that re-envision history.

Philippa Gregory's upcoming novel Dark Tides, which follows after Tidelands, takes place partly in 17th-century New England. At Masslive, you can watch a video she filmed after her on-site visit to Hadley, Massachusetts.

And on the subject of historical fiction on film, I'll be spending tonight watching Hamilton on screen. Happy 4th tomorrow to American readers of this blog!

Monday, June 29, 2020

A Perfect Explanation by Eleanor Anstruther, a riveting historical novel about a dysfunctional aristocratic family

Anstruther’s debut centers on a shocking truth from her family history. Her paternal grandmother Enid Campbell, descendant of the Earls of Argyll, sold her younger son Ian to her sister for £500, following Enid’s divorce and bitter custody battle. Having received her father’s permission to tell his story, and infusing it with details from public court records and private sources, the author brings us into her characters’ thoughts with unvarnished candor and lays bare their flaws alongside the burdens and cruelties of aristocratic life.

The novel volleys between the 1920s and 1964, with Enid in a Hampstead nursing home before a prospective family reunion with her daughter and Ian, who she hasn’t seen since she gave him up 25 years earlier. Here she ponders a “perfect explanation” for her life choices, some of which were outside her control.

Emotionally cold, Enid is impossible to like, which makes being within her head uncomfortable. However, as we learn about the context behind her terrible decisions, we come to deeply empathize. After her older brother’s death at Gallipoli, and her sister Joan a confirmed “spinster” (who lived with her lesbian partner), Enid’s mother pushes her to provide an heir. Married to Douglas Anstruther, a man she comes to detest, Enid produces a boy and a girl, but her son Fagus’s physical challenges make him a deficient option in their view, and she feels pressured to try again.

Enraptured by religion, particularly Christian Science, Enid never wanted to marry or be a mother; the inside perspective of her descent into postpartum depression, which spurs her to abandon her family, feels wrenching. We also experience the views of Finetta, Enid’s daughter, yet another victim of a broken system that neglects its female children’s mental health and values money above all. This eye-opening novel is moving and psychologically shrewd throughout.

A Perfect Explanation was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in February, and by Salt (in the UK) last year. I read it from NetGalley and reviewed it for the Historical Novels Review's May issue.

For more background on the facts behind the story, the Daily Mail published an interview with the author, published when the novel came out in the UK in 2019.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

The Library of Legends by Janie Chang, a real and mystical journey set in war-torn 1937 China

A university is more than a group of buildings. It encompasses the breadth of the knowledge of its faculty, staff, and students, as well as the information held in its extensive collections. These resources will remain active and vibrant even when the buildings are inaccessible.

All this came to mind while reading Janie Chang’s The Library of Legends, after the past three months of remote work and online education. The historical situation depicted in the novel is completely different than the coronavirus pandemic, of course, but these same themes are echoed.

In 1937, with the Chinese city of Nanking under attack by Japanese bombs during the Second Sino-Japanese War, the administration of Minghua University decides to evacuate the campus and relocate to Chengdu, an inland city over a thousand miles west. Among the people making the long trek on foot are Hu Lian, a 19-year-old scholarship student; Liu Shaoming (Shao), a handsome upperclassman she admires; and his servant Sparrow Chen, a young woman who’s more than she seems.

To preserve their country’s priceless cultural heritage, the dean, Dr. Kang, asks each student to carry a volume of the Library of Legends, a centuries-old encyclopedia that records Chinese myths and folklore. They read them along the way, enhancing their worldview while attending academic lessons in formal classrooms, where and when they can, and in group lectures as they walk.

While most of the story takes place during the journey, it’s far from a standard road adventure. The interactions among the travelers drive the story. Mingling elements of ancient myths with a realistic wartime setting that transverses central China, The Library of Legends is a thoughtful literary novel with a strong, multifaceted plot based in history (the author’s father and uncle were student refugees like Lian and Shao). The group, self-dubbed “Minghua 123” for the number in their convoy, encounters dangers from above – Japanese aerial attacks – alongside travel hardships and threats from within.

Already concerned about her mother, who is traveling alone to Shanghai, Lian is blackmailed into spying on her fellow students by someone who knows her family’s secret. She also worries that Shao will be persuaded by an attractive classmate into attending Communist meetings. Enriching the novel further, divine beings from the Library of Legends, some disguised as mortals, become awakened, and some play roles in the ongoing events.

Original and unpredictable, The Library of Legends is an enlightening tale of arduous determination, romance, and family heritage that’s also rich in cultural details. (Of note: the publisher's blurb reveals parts of the plot you may want to discover for yourself.  Just a heads up if you prefer being surprised.)

The Library of Legends was published in May by William Morrow.  Read more about the novel's historical backdrop in the author's piece for Time Magazine: The Risky Journey that Saved One of China's Greatest Literary Treasures.

Monday, June 22, 2020

The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner, a delightful post-WWII exploration of Austen's legacy and themes

Natalie Jenner’s debut novel, which I had the opportunity to read via Edelweiss last fall, is now a Canadian bestseller, which doesn’t surprise in the least.  It ticks many boxes for the historical fiction genre, with its focus on the works of a beloved author and its post-WWII English setting – and its strong appeal to fans of book-club favorite The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.  

More than that, though, it’s an uplifting balm of a read about people working together to achieve a worthy common goal.

The gently charming story takes place in Chawton, the Hampshire village where Jane Austen lived at the end of her life. Beginning in autumn 1945, 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.  

Among the lively cast are Hollywood actress Mimi Harrison, a longtime Austen devotee; pregnant war widow and former schoolteacher Adeline Grover; Dr. Benjamin Gray, Chawton’s longtime general practitioner; and shy farmer Adam Berwick, who was first introduced to Austen by Mimi on her visit to Chawton years beforehand. At this time, Chawton has no museum dedicated to its most famous resident, and the Great House and cottage owned by Austen’s family are in the hands of distant descendant James Knight, an elderly man not known for his generosity. His socially withdrawn daughter, Frances, knows his character all too well.  As such, the makeshift group’s need to serve as joint caretakers of Jane Austen’s legacy becomes pressing.

author Natalie Jenner
The characters have their own Austenesque dramas to attend to, as nearly all have endured thwarted romance or other emotional losses. While readers of Jane Austen's work will delight in spotting the parallels to individual novels, the novel can easily be enjoyed by newcomers as well.  The beautiful country setting of Chawton (population 337) makes for a lovely escape, too, and helps us remember how thoughtfulness and amity can be kindled in tranquil places.

The Jane Austen Society was published by St. Martin's Press in May in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook (narrated by actor Richard Armitage). 

This review is part of the author's blog tour; see Austenprose for their review and for the additional tour stops.

About the author:

Natalie Jenner is the debut author of The Jane Austen Society, a fictional telling of the start of the society in the 1940s in the village of Chawton, where Austen wrote or revised her major works. Born in England and raised in Canada, Natalie graduated from the University of Toronto with degrees in English Literature and Law and has worked for decades in the legal industry. She recently founded the independent bookstore Archetype Books in Oakville, Ontario, where she lives with her family and two rescue dogs.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Historical novels by Black authors: some recommendations

On June 14th, Amistad Press, the HarperCollins imprint for multicultural voices, began the #BlackoutBestsellerlist campaign on social media to lift up Black voices in the publishing industry and encourage readers to purchase two books by Black authors this week.  I'm participating in this initiative and would love to see other readers do so.  Read more about the background to the campaign at Publishers Weekly.

For those who enjoy reading historical fiction and discovering new writers and books, there's an abundance of choices available. The graphic below is just the tip of the iceberg, but here are a dozen that I've read and would recommend checking out. Mostly these are newish releases, but I couldn't resist including a few notable older titles I admire. More details and review links below.

Images in order:

Namwali Serpell, The Old Drift, a genre-defying epic of Zambian history.

Jeffrey Colvin, Africaville, a generational saga centered on a Black settlement in Nova Scotia.

Natashia Deon, Grace, an affecting novel of freedom and motherhood in the pre-Civil War South.

Ayesha Harruna Attah, The Hundred Wells of Salaga, about women's lives and internal slavery in 19th-century Ghana.

Beverly Jenkins, Tempest, historical romance set in the American West.

Rita Woods, Remembrance, about four women and a special place called Remembrance in pre-Civil War Ohio.

Sharon Ewell Foster, Abraham's Well, which focuses on the Black Cherokee along the Trail of Tears.

Maryse Condé, Victoire, My Mother's Mother, a fictionalized story of the author's light-skinned grandmother and her life in Guadaloupe.

Lalita Tademy, Citizens Creek, focusing on people of African descent in the Creek Nation.

Deborah Johnson, The Air Between Us, a saga set in 1960s small-town Mississippi.

Lawrence Hill, The Book of Negroes (also called Someone Knows My Name), a young woman's journey from Africa to enslavement in South Carolina to freedom up north.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad, the Pulitzer winner and Oprah pick that imagines the Underground Railroad's physical reality.

I also recommend Edward P. Jones' The Known World, Margaret Cezair-Thompson's The Pirate's Daughter, Piper Huguley's romantic fiction (especially the Home to Milford College series), Alice Randall's The Wind Done Gone, and other novels by Lalita Tademy and Beverly Jenkins.  For other ideas, see the list of Best Black Historical Fiction on Goodreads, though be aware that some of the titles there are not by Black writers.  

Please leave other recommendations in the comments.

Monday, June 15, 2020

An Elegant Woman by Martha McPhee, a century-spanning saga of American women's history and family legacies

A richly animated work, McPhee’s enthralling new novel glides through American history, from early 20th-century Billings, Montana, to a Prohibition-era Adirondacks lakeside retreat and beyond, alongside fabulous characters.

Sorting through the family home in present-day New Jersey, Isadora, a novelist, tells her late Grammy’s story as she would have wished, mingling realistic happenings with embellished ancestral lore. As a stocky child standing with her pretty younger sister, Katherine, on an Ohio train platform in 1910, awaiting their long journey to Montana with their mother, Thelma “Tommy” Stewart seems unlikely to develop into an elegant East Coast matriarch, but circumstances drive her to become a mistress of self-invention.

This quality she picks up from her mother, the fascinating Glenna (“cultivation and wilderness combined in her”), who takes charge of her own life, even depositing her daughters with kindly neighbors while away teaching in a tiny Western town. Later, Tommy raises Katherine alone; while her sister attends school, Tommy earns money by begging and selling coyote pelts. Both make choices that shift their paths in surprising ways.

The frequent mentions of hereditary artifacts feel overdone at times. Overall, however, McPhee elevates the generational saga into a dazzling, artfully detailed presentation of self-determination, women’s responsibilities and freedoms, and how people craft family legacies.

An Elegant Woman is published by Scribner this month; I'd reviewed it for Booklist's annual historical fiction issue, which came out on May 15th.

Other notes:
This novel one of my favorites of 2020 so far. I especially loved the portraits of the girls' daily lives out West in the early 20th century, in railroad towns and out-of-the-way homesteads while Glenna was off being an itinerant schoolteacher (a job for which she had to be a single woman) and advocate for women's suffrage. This was an angle on Western history I'd rarely seen in fiction, and not from a female perspective.  I hadn't initially realized, either, that McPhee based the novel so closely on her own ancestors' experiences and stories.

Booklist is currently available for free online due to the pandemic, and you can read the full May 15th issue here, for additional reviews and essays on historical novels (as well as the magazine's regular coverage across the genres).

Thursday, June 11, 2020

The Air Between Us by Deborah Johnson examines disparities and connections in Civil Rights-era Mississippi

I downloaded a copy of Deborah Johnson’s The Air Between Us after seeing it advertised on Bookperk last week (it’s also on BookBub today). It was first published in 2008, and its themes resound as clearly as ever.

Despite the escalating civil rights movement, little has changed over the years in Revere, Mississippi. However, it's 1966, and school integration is on the horizon. Many citizens are staking out their positions, sometimes surprisingly. Dr. Cooper Connelly, a handsome blond doctor with an appropriately elegant socialite wife, comes out in favor of it, which irritates his father, a bigoted state senator.

Racial issues in town get stirred up further when “Critter” Tate, a ten-year-old African-American boy, drives his daddy’s truck up to the whites-only entrance of Doctors Hospital in order to save Billy Ray Puckett, who unintentionally shot himself falling out of a deer stand. Billy Ray was an accident-prone drunk, a poor white man from out in the country, so the incident doesn’t astonish anyone – not right away. Then circumstances persuade the sheriff’s office to investigate his case more deeply.

From this bare-bones plot summary, you’d be tempted to categorize The Air Between Us as a mystery, and it is, in the end – but you’d also be forgiven for getting caught up in the character portrayals and setting genre expectations aside. The focus moves from one fascinating resident of Revere to another with comfortable ease, reminiscent of sitting out on the veranda on a summer evening and hearing a fluent storyteller.

Among the prominent personalities in this tale are the wealthy Dr. Spencer Reese Jackson, who takes pride in being Revere’s only Black doctor; his wife, Deanie, whose self-possessed demeanor masks personal pain; and Miss Melba Obrenski, a light-skinned “Creole card reader” from New Orleans who doesn’t tell anyone, including her next-door neighbor and best friend Deanie, what race she is. Cooper finds that Miss Melba’s a good listener, and with the experience gained in her earlier career, she knows how to handle men – but Cooper seems different. There’s also a hospital administrator, Ned Hampton, “the very embodiment of the whole Mississippi contradiction,” who doesn’t see anything odd about supporting segregation while singing regularly with a Black church choir.

Turns out everyone in Revere has something they choose to keep quiet about, and the story takes its time revealing exactly what that is and why. That’s not to say it’s dull in the least. The multifaceted characters and their concealed back stories lend the story a deep richness. The mysteries wrap up satisfyingly (if a bit too neatly in places), with an underlying message in this absorbing saga: that nobody’s exempt from the responsibility of addressing racial inequities.

The Air Between Us was published in 2008 by Amistad/HarperCollins; in the US, it's currently selling for $1.99 as an ebook.

Monday, June 08, 2020

The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite, romance set in the scientific world of Regency England

This superb novel, set during Regency times, unveils the love story between two intelligent women who, in different ways, struggle to be taken seriously by the male scientific establishment. 

In 1812 Lyme, England, Lucy Muchelney is crushed when her lover, Priscilla, weds a man for financial reasons. Lucy had been the uncredited collaborator of her late astronomer father, handling his calculations and correspondence. 

When she receives a letter from Catherine St. Day, Countess of Moth, who seeks a translator for a French astronomy masterwork, Lucy, confident in her mathematical and language skills, pays a visit to Lady Moth in London. In the widowed Catherine, a skilled embroiderer whose artistic talents were stifled by her boorish husband, Lucy discovers a benefactor and kindred spirit, but their dissimilar personal histories complicate matters. 

Beyond the delicately rendered romance between the more forthright Lucy and Catherine, a gently bred aristocrat, Waite gives full voice to the unfair prejudice that women faced. She also provides a multi-ethnic Regency world that comes alive with scientific curiosity. 

Highly recommended for fans of both Remarkable Creatures and Gentleman Jack, this first in the Feminine Pursuits series deserves widespread attention.

The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics was published by Avon in 2019; I reviewed it from Edelweiss for February's Historical Novels Review. If you're a historical fiction fan looking for a new romance to read for Pride Month this June, it's a good place to start. The author has a second novel in the series, The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows, out later this summer.

Friday, June 05, 2020

The Orphan's Gift by Renita D'Silva, set in India and England across the 20th century

Spanning over 70 years, Renita D’Silva’s newest novel is a touching generational saga about women searching for belonging, falling in love, enduring loss, and learning from past mistakes. Daughter of the deputy commissioner for her region, Alice Harris lives in an elegant compound in the small city of Jamjadpur in early 20th-century India, knowing every material comfort but lacking parental affection. She grows up cocooned in the constant love of her nanny, a local woman she calls Ayah, and Ayah’s son, Raju, who is her playmate and best friend.

In the 1940s, Janaki is raised by Carmelite nuns in a poor orphanage in the city center. While she dreams of being adopted by kind parents, that chance seems progressively more unlikely over time. Sister Shanthi often tells Janaki the story of how the nuns first found her, a blue-eyed newborn wrapped in a cardigan and left at the gate of St. Ursula’s during the Hindu-Muslim riots of 1936.

The viewpoint alternates between Alice and Janaki, whose connection should be obvious, and the author doesn’t pretend otherwise. Rather, the story follows both girls’ separate journeys and keeps us wondering whether they’ll ever meet.

Some characterizations aren’t subtle: Alice’s cold-hearted father offers statements about India like “They want independence, self-rule, but without us they would not manage at all.” Her mother is a wilting English flower who revives only to party in the cool evenings. More layered is the portrait of blind privilege that D’Silva creates for Alice. As adolescents, she and Raju act on their mutual attraction, sharing a brief kiss, and the repercussions are more dire for him and his family.

With its fast-moving plot and evocation of the sights, scents, and flavors of India, the novel should please fans of commercial women’s fiction and atmospheric settings.

The Orphan's Gift was published by Bookouture in 2020; I reviewed it for the Historical Novels Review in May.

Renita D'Silva, an author from the South of India, has written historical, contemporary, and multi-period novels. Here are links to two others I've reviewed on this site:

A Daughter's Courage, about four women's stories in South India, past and present.
Beneath an Indian Sky, about a childhood friendship between British and Indian girls in the '30s and after.

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

Martha Washington's wedding attire, a guest post by Betty Bolté, author of Becoming Lady Washington

Today I'm welcoming historical novelist Betty Bolté to Reading the Past.  Her essay, focused on the attire that Martha Washington wore for her wedding, also delves into fashion trends in the 18th century and how they reflected the wearer's social background and other factors.  Hope you'll enjoy reading her post.


Martha Washington's Wedding Attire
Betty Bolté

British author L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between gives us a popular quote: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” In many ways that is true. On the other hand, there are similarities in those differences. The language of clothing is one of those areas where you can see similar desires and expectations between the 18th century and what we do today. For example, what we wear depends on what we’re going to do (workout at the gym, go to the office, graduate from college, etc.), how much we want to conform to society’s expectations of appropriate attire and modesty, and how much we can afford to spend on our apparel to meet that expectation. The same was true in the past.

I’d like for you to consider Martha Washington’s wedding attire as one example, but first let me share some insights into what clothing says about the wearer.

In the 18th century, how you dressed spoke volumes about your status in the community and society. The fashionableness of the style, the quality and hue of the fabric, as well as the wearer’s movements and stance combined to tell others the person’s status, whether high or low or somewhere in between. Keeping up with fashion trends then, as now, meant following the European fashion magazines which were sent to the colonies regularly. Indeed, it’s recorded that Thomas Jefferson sent Parisian fashion magazines to his daughter when he was visiting France.

The style could also indicate, though not always, where the person was from, either by American colony or another country. Clothing suggested the gender and occupation, how rich or poor, and what kind and amount of activity they engaged in. And much like today, what a person wears can also reveal their attitude toward the society they live in. Consider how differently a person would dress if she were a scullery maid versus a personal maid to a planter’s wife versus the planter’s wife, for instance. The same would be true of a field hand versus a dancing tutor versus a lawyer in town.

At the time of Martha and George Washington’s marriage on January 6, 1759, women of a higher status preferred silks brocaded with colorful flowers on a white background. (Brocade is an intricate design on fabric, often raised.) Martha was no exception in preferring silk, especially on her wedding day. Who wouldn’t want the gentle swish and sway of silk, right? Another aspect of choosing her gown is that she would have wanted something she could wear again for other special occasions. They didn’t buy a gown to wear once and put away as a keepsake then. Nor would she have considered a white gown; that fashion came later, in the 19th century.

According to the Mount Vernon historians, Martha’s gown was made of yellow silk damask (meaning reversible) with a petticoat of cream silk highlighted with interwoven silver threads with (perhaps Dresden) lace trim. Her dainty high-heeled shoes were made of purple satin with silver ornamentation. They interpret the message of her outfit as, “The combination of expensive, imported yellow and purple silks with silver and gold decorations would have produced a regal appearance that conveyed her elevated social and economic standing.” You can see a photo of the dress and shoes at the above link. I’ve been to the museum where the outfit is on display and it is far lovelier in person than in the photo. But I do agree with their interpretation.

Wedding of George and Martha Washington

The cover of my historical fiction story of Martha’s life, Becoming Lady Washington, includes an artist’s interpretation of George and Martha’s wedding, an image housed in the Library of Congress. It is not accurate, though, in portraying her attire. In 1759, there were no photographs (obviously) and no sketch artist or portraitist hired to create an image, at least not one that has been found to date. I imagine the man who created the image based it on other similar weddings he’d attended. I particularly enjoy the group of women to the right, apparently oohing and ahhing over the proceedings!

Another portrait in the LOC comes from the C.M. Bell collection, dated between 1873 and 1916, and shows how fashionably dressed Martha was as a young woman. Please note that Martha died in 1802. The LOC dated this image based on the fact that it is contained in Bell’s collection and those were the years he was a photographer. I think he likely took a photo of an earlier oil portrait. You can see in the picture the fine fabric and bows and lace, her posture and hair style all speak to her status. Women wearing such attire would not be working in the kitchen, but have the wealth necessary to support a more leisurely lifestyle.

Martha W as a young woman

So while the styles and fabrics we wear today have changed, the way we interpret another’s position in society hasn’t changed all that much. We still tend to believe the clothes make the man/woman, that we “dress for success,” or to reveal our rebellion toward societal expectations by wearing clothing others deem in appropriate. I think that attribute of people will likely never change. What do you think about the similarities and differences in interpreting the language of clothing?


About Becoming Lady Washington (Published June 2)

Martha “Patsy” Custis manages an immense eighteenth-century plantation in the Virginia colony. But as a young widow she’s hard pressed to balance her business and to care for her two young children. They need a father and protector. She needs a husband and business partner…one she can trust, especially now as tensions rise between the motherland and the American colonies. Her experience and education have sustained her thus far but when her life veers in an unexpected direction, she realizes she has so much more to learn.

Colonel George Washington takes an interest in her and she’s surprised to find him so sociable and appealing. They form an instant bond and she is certain he’ll be a likeable and loving husband and father figure for her children. She envisions a quiet life at Mount Vernon, working together to provide for their extended family.

But when trouble in the form of British oppression, taxes, and royal arrogance leads to revolt and revolution, George must choose between duty to country and Martha. Compelled to take matters into her own hands, Martha must decide whether to remain where she belongs or go with her husband… no matter what the dangerous future may hold. 

About the Author

Award-winning author Betty Bolté is known for authentic and accurately researched American historical fiction with heart and supernatural romance novels. She’s been published in essays, newspaper and magazine articles, and nonfiction books but now enjoys crafting entertaining and informative fiction. She earned a Master’s Degree in English in 2008, emphasizing the study of literature and storytelling, and has judged numerous writing contests for both fiction and nonfiction. 

She is a member of the Romance Writers of America, Historical Novel Society, Women’s Fiction Writers Association, and Authors Guild. Get to know her at

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Katheryn Howard, The Scandalous Queen by Alison Weir depicts a sad episode in Tudor history

Katheryn Howard, Henry VIII’s “rose without a thorn,” not only deceived the king about her previous lovers but dallied with another man during their marriage. What on earth was she thinking? 

In the fifth novel in her Six Tudor Queens series, Weir convincingly imagines the answer to that question. Incorporating period sources about Katheryn (which weave smoothly into the narrative), she plunges readers into the viewpoint of a fun-loving, naive young woman whose unorthodox upbringing and poor choices precipitated her downfall. 

Raised by caring relatives after her mother’s death, the attractive, dowerless Katheryn later enters the lax household of her step-grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, and falls in with a sexually adventurous crowd. After her ambitious Catholic uncle pushes her toward King Henry VIII, she decides becoming queen has definite appeal and develops affection for her aging, devoted royal husband. 

Her past, however, leaves her vulnerable to blackmail, and it’s fascinating and disquieting to see how she justifies her decisions. Though Katheryn lacks the intellectual depth of Weir’s previous heroines, her character portrait is similarly astute.

Katheryn Howard, The Scandalous Queen was published this month by Ballantine in hardcover and ebook. In the UK, the title is Katheryn Howard, The Tainted Queen.  I reviewed it for the 4/15 issue of Booklist (reprinted with permission) and am looking forward to Katharine Parr, The Sixth Wife, next year.

Other notes: I did wonder, after reading the previous books in the series, what Weir would make of Katheryn Howard. Her life was shorter than that of her predecessors, and there just didn't seem to be as much substance to work with. With her own first cousin (Anne Boleyn) having been charged with adultery and beheaded, Katheryn could have remained faithful and enjoyed her royal position while it lasted, since she was decades younger than Henry and would likely outlive him.  But that's not what happened.  Put plainly, she didn't seem especially bright. Weir's novel didn't convince me otherwise, but she did a great job with the historical material and explained why Katheryn behaved as she did. As such, I found this novel particularly successful as an example of biographical fiction.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Africaville by Jeffrey Colvin tells a generational story anchored in Black Canadian history

Colvin’s debut novel, a literary saga spanning over seventy years, is as much about the legacy of a place as the place itself.

The story follows the lives of three generations of Black Canadians. Kath Ella Sebolt, a young woman during the Depression, leaves her home behind for a career in Montreal; her son, Omar/Etienne, distances himself further from his origins, passing as a white man in the Deep South; and his son, Warner, makes astonishing discoveries about his ancestry and reaches out to reconnect with it. In addition to their familial ties, linking them together is a shared heritage in – and estrangement from – Woods Bluff, a Black neighborhood of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Little by little, Colvin intertwines his characters’ experiences with details of his setting’s unique history (which is based on the real-life village of Africville), beginning with its original settlement by formerly enslaved Jamaicans and Americans in the late 18th century. The novel delves into the close-knit society of Woods Bluff’s many residents, focusing on their day-to-day concerns, including moments of rebellion and friendship, deeply felt tragedies, and their relationships with their skin color. They are all affected, in one or more ways, by prejudice and unequal treatment from the government. Despite this neglect and some internal strife, the neighborhood thrives as a close-knit community for over a century.

At first, the unadorned sentences left me observing the people from a close distance rather than drawn into their lives and emotions, but partway through, this opaqueness began to break down, and the storytelling flowed more easily. Colvin refuses to pass judgment on the characters’ decisions and simply presents them as they are, with their own personalities, flaws, and strengths. It’s a worthy story of perseverance that succeeds in illuminating a little-known slice of North American history.

Africaville was published by Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins, in December 2019; I reviewed it from Edelweiss for May's Historical Novels Review.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Imogen Kealey's Liberation, an action-adventure thriller featuring WWII heroine Nancy Wake

Nancy Wake, the WWII resistance heroine who died in 2011, age 98, has been having a moment. Satisfying readers’ hunger for fiction about real-life women from the 20th century, several novelists have been inspired by her daring accomplishments, including Ariel Lawhon (Code Name Hélène). Now Imogen Kealey offers their own version in the novel Liberation.

Wake was made of stronger fiber than most of us. After witnessing atrocities in Vienna in the ‘30s, she determined to do her utmost to obliterate the Nazi regime. As an agent with Britain’s SOE (Special Operations Executive) operating in the Auvergne region of central France, she organized and trained local resistance fighters (maquisards): arming them, arranging for supply drops from Britain alongside wireless operator Denis Rake, and disrupting the German supply lines in advance of D-Day. Following the war, she received multiple honors from the UK and France as well as from Australia, her adopted country, and New Zealand, where she was born.

“Imogen Kealey” is the pseudonym for Hollywood screenwriter Darby Kealey and British novelist Imogen Robertson, and their jointly written novel is unabashedly a thriller; its fast-paced, suspenseful scenes should fulfill anyone’s desire for an adrenaline rush. It opens in 1943 as Nancy, concealing herself amid the rubble of destroyed buildings in Marseille’s Old Quarter, narrowly escapes the German patrol, who don’t realize that one of their prime targets – the so-called “White Mouse,” Nancy herself – is nearby. Following this close call, she returns home to prepare for her wedding to rich industrialist Henri Fiocca. Later, needing to leave France quickly, she valiantly pursues her mission to fight against Nazi dominance all the while knowing she’s left her beloved husband in danger.

Many episodes taken from Nancy’s return to France as an agent are excitingly described in the novel’s pages, from her ongoing difficulties in convincing the maquisard leader, Gaspard, that she, a woman, deserves to be in charge; to her awe-inspiring bicycle ride, traveling 500km in three days to locate a radio operator for re-establishing contact with Britain for future supply drops.

That said, the fictional liberties taken in Liberation are numerous and explained over three pages in the author’s note. For example, by 1943, Nanci and Henri had already been married for several years. Many other aspects of the timeline are rearranged for dramatic purposes, and one critical member of her three-person team, agent John Hind Farmer (“Hubert”), is omitted. While Nancy shows vulnerability in her constant worry about her husband’s safety, and she’s internally tough and fond of swearing, as she was in life, there’s little evidence of the “irrepressible, infectious, high spirits [that] were a joy to everyone who worked with her,” as recounted by the SOE’s official historian. Her cover name of “Madame Andree” isn’t used; puzzlingly, Nancy gives out her real name freely throughout her covert resistance activities.

While this story may appeal to readers wanting a suspenseful action-adventure novel, those interested in the historical Nancy Wake should pay close attention to the author’s note and follow up with their own research (there’s a forthcoming movie based on this book, too). For fiction readers seeking more nuanced character depictions and stronger adherence to biographical details, Code Name Hélène will be a better option.

Liberation was published on April 28 by Grand Central; thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Research in Nebraska's Legacy of the Plains Museum for Answer Creek, an essay by Ashley E. Sweeney

Research in museums and archives can reveal important details for historical novelists. Contributing an essay on this topic is author Ashley Sweeney, whose second novel, Answer Creek, is published by She Writes Press today.


Research in Nebraska's Legacy of the Plains Museum for Answer Creek
Ashley E. Sweeney

On a broad swath of prairie grassland just outside Scott’s Bluff, Nebraska, there’s a little-known gem of a place that’s a veritable mother lode for western memorabilia and research.

The Legacy of the Plains Museum in Gering, Nebraska houses The Paul and Helen Henderson Collection, an amazing compilation of the Hendersons' 50 years documenting the Oregon Trail. In addition to 100 boxes filled with slides, maps, photographs, manuscripts, pioneer diaries, guides, and letters spanning the 19th century, the collection also includes notes, correspondence, maps, diagrams, and photographs from the Hendersons themselves.

As I was traveling the length of the Oregon-California Trail doing research for Answer Creek, I made an appointment at the museum to check out their collection. My parameters: reading original journals and diaries from 1845-1859. Little did I know that what might have taken a couple of hours turned into an entire day! So it was, for more than six hours on a sweltering day in mid-July 2018, I spread out the contents of seven boxes of material in the museum’s conference room and raced the clock to copy, photograph (with permission), and cite document after document. Hour turned to hour and I didn’t even have time—or the inclination—to take a break.

Thursday, June 12 1845
The weather being extremely hot, and there being not a single drop of water to be obtained before we got to the gorge, we suffered a great deal from the thirst, as did our poor animals . . .
—J. Henry Carleton

April 23 1847
Made 19 miles; traveled until dark. Ate a cold bite and went to bed chilly and cold, which is very disagreeable with a parcel of little children . . .
—Elizabeth Dixon Smith Geer

June 29th 1847
To day our cattle complained; much of the dust is very bad. The road to day is very uneven, and winds amongst the Black Hills. The emigrants now begin to see that they have loaded too heavy . . .
—Chester Ingersoll

Thursday, May 26th 1859
Rather cold. Continued our journey up the South Side of the South Platte. We haven’t anything to lose by going, and nothing to make by going back . . .
—J. A. Wilkinson

Quite a bit of the information I gleaned from my day at Legacy of the Plains found its way into Answer Creek. My favorite was a passage where the journal writer describes emigrants “swilling rot-gut whiskey for spiritual consolation.” Through the words of tired and dust-covered overland pioneers, I could almost taste it.

All the while, my husband (and usual research assistant), toured the museum, videotaped an authentic threshing bee on the museum grounds, and shot the breeze with some older locals. Michael spent his summers as a child in nearby Bayard, Nebraska on his great aunt and uncle’s farm so there’s a deep connection for him in that particular part of the world.

I was also particularly taken with western Nebraska—its wide skies, unusual monoliths, and amazing cloud formations. At the top of Scott’s Bluff National Monument, you can almost touch the sky. And then we bedded down at a bed and breakfast that rivals any we’ve ever stayed at, with each guest room appointed with authentic trail memorabilia and antiques. And the hospitality! As a native New Yorker, I’d never given Nebraska the time of day before then. Not anymore.


About Answer CreekShaped by Sweeney’s thorough research and vivid prose, this memorable and moving novel of the Donner Party rises above the scandalous to deliver a compassionate portrayal of families pushed to the edge of their humanity and of a determined young woman carving her own path toward love and independence.

 Award-winning author Ashley E. Sweeney received the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for her debut novel, Eliza Waite. Sweeney is a former journalist and educator. A native New Yorker, she now divides her time between the Pacific Northwest and Tucson, Arizona. Answer Creek (She Writes Press, May 2020) is her second novel. Find her online at, @ashleysweeney57,, and Instagram at ashleysweeney57.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

The Course of All Treasons by Suzanne M. Wolfe continues an entertaining Elizabethan espionage series

In his second entertaining outing, the Honorable Nicholas “Nick” Holt confronts a twisted web of peril in 1586 England and gets caught in the thick of it.

Novels about Elizabethan-era espionage often delve into threats against England from Catholic Spain and Her Majesty’s sister-monarch to the north, Mary Queen of Scots. Suzanne M. Wolfe spices up the brew by incorporating rival English spy networks and an exiled Irish noblewoman from a powerful, embattled clan.

After his recent success in finding the killer of royal ladies-in-waiting, Nick is asked by Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, to find out who murdered a fellow agent and dropped his body in the Thames. A Spanish diplomat appears to be linked to the crime, and events transpire that make it seem like other agents are being targeted.

Amidst all the plotting and counter-plotting, Nick gets stuck with the company of Edmund Lovett, an overly-eager-to-please former Oxford schoolmate who saves his life on the road. Edmund works for the Earl of Essex, a foppish high-ranking aristocrat who’s set up his own team of spies. With both Essex and Walsingham serving Elizabeth, one hopes they’d be on the same side, but the competition between them means that’s only partly true.

This is a series where you’ll arrive for the intrigue and period atmosphere and stay for the multifaceted characters. The author knows her way around Tudor London, from a muddy riverside wharf to the inner sanctum of Sir Robert Cecil, Walsingham’s redoubtable young future successor. Almost everyone near the royal court has secrets, including Nick, younger brother of the Earl of Blackwell, who keeps his identity as a spy (and his family’s Catholic past) closely hidden. Even Essex has more depth than it initially seems, and then there’s Lady Annie O’Neill, a tall, dangerous redhead with hidden talents.

While Nick’s relationship with Kat, madam of a Bankside brothel, remains strong, this novel sees him getting more serious about Rivkah, a young doctor working alongside her twin brother. He admires her forthrightness and dislikes having to keep his status as an agent from her. Reading the first book (A Murder By Any Name) isn’t needed to appreciate this one, and if you haven’t yet, there aren’t any spoilers here. Both are definitely recommended.

The Course of All Treasons was published by Crooked Lane in March; thanks to the author and publisher for the review copy.

Friday, May 08, 2020

The Florios of Sicily, a saga based on a 19th-century entrepreneurial family

In her first novel translated into English, Auci has fashioned a classic saga out of authentic Sicilian history.

This fluidly written Italian bestseller follows three generations of Florios, who rose to become entrepreneurs on a massive scale in the nineteenth century. After an earthquake strikes their Calabrian village in 1799, brothers Paolo and Ignazio Florio relocate with their family to Palermo, Sicily’s capital, and open a spice shop. Over seven decades, Paolo’s son, Vincenzo, and grandson, Ignazio, learn the ropes of the business, establishing connections and vanquishing rivals as Italy’s turbulent politics swirls around them.

Through hard work and clever innovations, plus boatloads of determination, their trade steadily expands, encompassing commodities like quinine powder, canned tuna in oil, and Marsala wine. One can simultaneously admire their ingenuity, bemoan the snobbery they face (despite their wealth, aristocrats look down on them as laborers), and sympathize with the Florio women, whose wishes are often sacrificed to male ambition.

For fans of big, meaty epics chock full of drama and intriguing characters, Auci’s fictionalized tale of the real-life Florios delivers in spades.

The Florios of Sicily was published by HarperVia, HarperCollins' new imprint for translated literature, in April. The translator is Katherine Gregor, and the book's subtitle is "the story of the uncrowned kings of Sicily."

Read more about the author in an interview she did for the Made in Egadi site.  I hope there'll be a sequel!  This review was written for the 3/15/20 issue of Booklist (reprinted with permission).

Saturday, May 02, 2020

Online events from historical fiction authors during the pandemic

Among the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic in the literary sphere, in-person author events have been canceled, including signings, launch parties, festivals, and conference appearances. This will be the case for a long time to come.

As a result, online author events have been springing up, many of which feature historical novelists discussing their books and the genre, followed by Q&A. I've attended a few of these, have signed up for more, and plan to watch recordings of others I wasn't able to view live.  Because I live in a small, rural college town where the nearest non-used bookstore is 50 miles away, I almost never got to attend author events unless the university was sponsoring one or if I traveled to attend a conference. I've been enjoying these meetings and webinars -- there isn't a bad seat in the house -- and getting the opportunity to hear from authors about their works.

Here are some online HF events I've come across.  Fellow readers:  have you caught any of these, and are there any others you especially enjoyed or would recommend?

Last week, I received an email invite to a Thursday night Zoom session at the Unbound Book Festival out of Columbia, Missouri -- renamed Housebound Unbound for this year -- featuring novelists Alex George (The Paris Hours), Meg Waite Clayton (The Last Train to London) and Whitney Scharer (The Age of Light).  I'm not sure how I got on the mailing list, but thanks to whoever added me!

Among other topics, the trio and the moderator talked about writing historical fiction about real people. Clayton, who wrote about WWII heroine Truus Wijsmuller's role in the Kindertransport, spoke about wanting to honor the real person in her writing and the importance of having the novel reflect what her historical characters actually did. George, who was also the festival organizer, discussed conducting research not just for facts, but for adding color (a great way of expressing it), and Scharer, a student of photography and admirer of the work of Man Ray, spoke of discovering Lee Miller through him and being astonished she hadn't come across her subject earlier.  The session was recorded, and it looks like you can register to watch it on demand.

Library Love Fest, from HarperCollins' library marketing department, had a Facebook Live session last week with appearances from Stephen P. Kiernan (Universe of Two) and Beatriz Williams (Her Last Flight).  Please click on the link above to watch the video since my attempts to embed things from FB aren't working.

I especially enjoyed this one after having read Universe of Two earlier this year; review to come. It's about the lives of a young couple during the development of the Manhattan Project.

Although I didn't get to see "Drinks with Dames" live on April 25th on Zoom due to high demand and technical limitations on attendance, it's on YouTube (embedded below) for all to see.  Participating authors are historical novelists Georgie Blalock, Janie Chang, Chanel Cleeton, Laura Kamoie, Eliza Knight, Kerri Maher, Kate Quinn, Alix Rickloff, Jennifer Robson, Erika Robuck, Renee Rosen, Stephanie Thornton, and Bryn Turnbull.  They all talk about how they've had to readjust their lives and writing schedules, their latest book releases, and what they're working on.

As part of their Herstory tour, Harlequin Australia had a Facebook Live session on April 23rd with Australian HF authors Karen Brooks (The Chocolate Maker's Wife), Mary Anne O'Connor (Where Fortune Lies), Kerri Turner (The Daughter of Victory Lights), and Tea Cooper (The Woman in the Green Dress).

Canadian historical novelist Genevieve Graham organized the Our View from Here live Facebook session with fellow authors Roxanne Veletzos, Ellen Keith, Kristen Harmel, Jennifer Robson, and Julia Kelly.

Upcoming tomorrow (Sunday, May 3rd), you can register for various free sessions at the Newburyport Literary Festival, including a 3:15pm EST panel with Anne Easter Smith and C.C. Humphreys talking about researching other pandemics during medieval times and the 17th century.

And on Thursday May 7th: Left Bank Books in St. Louis will be hosting a HF panel with Jennifer Rosner, Lisa Wingate, and Jan Eliasberg at 7pm CST on Facebook Live, and Alex George (The Paris Hours) will be chatting about his new release on May 6th, also at 7pm.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Death of an American Beauty by Mariah Fredericks, a stylish mystery of 1913 Manhattan

In the latest in Mariah Fredericks’ Jane Prescott novels, murder meets Mr. Selfridge in 1913 Manhattan.

Any heroine in an amateur detective series should expect disruptions of her vacation plans, since crime doesn’t wait for R&R to end. Jane, the lady’s maid to the newlywed Mrs. Louise Tyler, anticipates taking a week’s holiday that involves seeing the Armory Show’s shocking modern art exhibition and then staying with her uncle, the Reverend Tewid Prescott, who raised her at the boardinghouse he runs for former prostitutes in the Bowery district. There’s a lot going on (which makes the plot seem busy at first). Jane finds herself in the thick of the action.

Her uncle’s refuge is surrounded daily by holier-than-thou religious protesters – the “Purity Brigade,” Jane amusingly dubs them – and defiant counter-protesters. When one of the young women at the refuge is found dead in an alley, her face cut up like in a Cubist painting, Jane’s sure the killer is the abusive boyfriend, but circumstances prove otherwise. Jane’s uncle is perplexingly tight-lipped about his whereabouts at the time of death. With her mind reeling over the ghastly crime and related newspaper reports, Jane gets called back to help her employer, who’s participating in a play commemorating the Emancipation Proclamation’s 50th anniversary and a related beauty pageant at Rutherford’s department store. Their seamstress has quit, leaving the society ladies in desperate straits (“desperate” is a relative term).

Amid the developments with both the pageant and the crime, Jane finds her attention returning to two intriguing individuals: Leo Hirschfeld, a witty piano player who enjoys a good time, and Otelia Brooks, a talented Black artisan with a painful past who’d left the refuge years ago. As Jane realizes what Miss Brooks has had to face, she doesn’t become “woke” exactly – this would be unrealistic – but she does come to a greater awareness about racial disparities. As for the mystery itself, Jane carefully considers the many likely suspects before the truth sinks in.

Third in a series, the book stands well on its own. Full of a period-appropriate social consciousness and apt cultural references (like the craze for “animal dances”), this is a fine portrait of late Gilded Age New York and its pertly appealing young heroine.

Death of an American Beauty was published by Minotaur this month; thanks to the publisher for the review copy. Coincidentally, the day before the review copy arrived, I attended an online launch for the book via Facebook, which got me interested in the characters and historical setting.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Sue Monk Kidd's The Book of Longings boldly imagines a wife for Jesus of Nazareth

Historical novelists build their works around recorded history, creatively inventing characters and scenarios to fill liminal spaces. Along these lines, in a daring what-if, Kidd imagines Jesus Christ’s missing years, speculating that he followed Jewish tradition and therefore was married.

The daughter of Herod Antipas’ head scribe, Ana narrates her engrossing, briskly paced story in an appealing voice. Well-educated and impetuous, she loves to write, learns about women’s secret histories from her courageous Aunt Yaltha, and chafes against gender restrictions.

Shared intellectual curiosity and mutual respect mark her marriage to Jesus, a caring, devout stonemason who champions the downtrodden, and Kidd warmly presents their relationship. When God calls Jesus, however, Ana must, sadly, be left behind.

From wealthy Sepphoris to humble Nazareth to Alexandria and beyond, Kidd describes a first-century world full of political and religious tensions, which feels simultaneously ancient and freshly awake with spiritual possibility. Ana’s feminist beliefs and pursuits may stretch credulity at times, but the message about the importance of kindness and the power of women’s voices should resonate strongly with today’s readers.

The Book of Longings was published this week by Viking; I reviewed it for Booklist's Feb. 15th issue.

It's interesting to see that, 17 years after the publication of Dan Brown's mega-bestselling The Da Vinci Code—which was reviled and even banned due to its premise that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and had a child with her—the notion of a married Jesus no longer causes the same level of controversy.  In this case, it helps that Ana is an invented character, putting this book clearly in the realm of historical fiction, and she, not her husband, is the center of the tale.  Also, Kidd deliberately chose to focus on Jesus's humanity rather than write a religious novel.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Beyond the Ghetto Gates by Michelle Cameron examines Jewish life in late 18th-century Italy

Michelle Cameron’s Beyond the Ghetto Gates is a novel I’ve been looking forward to for some time; I’ve been following along with its publication process via social media. The author’s debut, The Fruit of Her Hands, focusing on the wife of rabbi Meir ben Baruch of Rothenberg in the 13th century, illuminated a historical era previously untouched in historical fiction. Her new novel does the same for another untapped period: Napoleon’s Italian campaign in the 1790s, as experienced by both Jewish and Catholic characters.

Mirelle is the daughter of Simone d’Ancona, proprietor of a prestigious ketubah (Jewish marriage contract) workshop in their Italian seaport town. Their handiwork is renowned across Europe. She quietly balances the accounts while her father, younger brother, and other craftsmen focus on their designs. With a realistic blend of tradition and rebelliousness in her character makeup, Mirelle is a respectable Jewish daughter who yearns to use her mathematical gifts with her father’s business, but the local rabbi forbids her from involvement in men’s holy work, and her mother complaints that her willfulness will repel marriage prospects.

The beautiful ketubot produced by Mirelle’s family sits in contrast to the narrow, overcrowded streets of the quarter where Ancona’s Jewish population lives, and whose gates are locked at night. Outside the ghetto resides Francesca Marotti, a young Catholic mother married to an abusive bully. The women meet only briefly at the market (where Mirelle receives scornful looks from those viewing the yellow kerchief and armband denoting her religion), but events entangle and complicate their lives going forward: the city’s occupation by French troops during France’s war against the Austrians and their allies, and the sight of a miraculous weeping portrait of the Madonna. Cameron also dramatizes how the French forces’ removal of Ancona’s ghetto gates enables Jews to move more freely, while hardly erasing the city’s longstanding religious divisions.

The setting isn’t one that’s generally familiar, and I appreciate how Cameron expands the canvas beyond Ancona to provide views of military maneuvers and a detailed political backdrop to the characters’ actions and choices. Daniel, a Jewish man from France, and his Catholic friend Christophe are soldiers marching with General Bonaparte’s troops, and they first meet Mirelle at a masked ball in Venice that she’s attending with her wealthy friend, Dolce Morpurgo, and her widowed father David (a historical character). All are atypical guests at this gathering, and the relationships that form there – especially the attraction between Christophe and Mirelle – set the stage for more drama to come.

Beyond the Ghetto Gates is a solidly told story combining intercultural conflict, religious violence, and a thread of unpredictable romance, all with a young woman at its center who’s finding her own path between traditions and personal freedom.

The novel was published by She Writes Press this month (thanks to the publicist for a review copy).

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Some early 2020 historical novels that caught my attention

Hope you're all coping OK during this odd, unsettling time.  I started writing this post in mid-December last year, having picked out the novels and covers and included them.  Then my schedule got busy and I forgot that I'd never published it. By now, four months later, many of these novels are out in the world, or soon to be, so when I found the draft post, I figured I might as well write up some descriptions and get it out there. The following ten historical novels, which take readers to places and eras not frequently written about, are published in the first half of 2020.  Have you read any?

Longlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction (UK), this debut novel takes place in Philadelphia, in 1910, as an African American woman named Spring recounts her family's history to her son Edward as he lies in a hospital bed; comparisons have been made to Beloved (see the cover image above). Blackstone, February 2020. [see on Goodreads]

Beyond the Ghetto Gates

Cameron adds to her repertoire of historical novels about lesser-known eras in European Jewish history with this work about a young woman, Mirelle d'Ancona, living in a ghetto in coastal Italy at the time of the French occupation in the late 18th century. Review coming soon.  She Writes, April 2020. [see on Goodreads]

In the aftermath of the bombing of Nanking by the Japanese, a large group of Chinese university students and professors travel across their country, refugees all, while carrying the valuable writings of the book's title (the Library of Legends).  William Morrow, May 2020. [see on Goodreads]

Set amid the Vardø witch trials of 1621 Norway, Hargrave's adult fiction debut centers on two women in this tiny northern fishing village after most of its men are killed in a storm, their unexpected relationship, and their struggle to survive both external and internal forces. Little, Brown, February 2020. [see on Goodreads]

The Henna Artist

A young henna artist pursuing an independent life in 1950s Jaipur, India, eight years after the British left her country, finds her existence in upheaval after her estranged husband and a previously unknown sister track her down. MIRA, March 2020. [see on Goodreads]

Glorious Boy

Readers of WWII fiction set in far-flung locales should take note: Liu's newest novel takes place in India and on a penal colony on the Andaman Islands in 1942, as a family searches for their missing, mute four-year-old son at the height of wartime. Red Hen, May 2020. [see on Goodreads]

Mexican Gothic

As a fan of Gothic fiction, I find this title and cover hard to resist. Set in 1950s Mexico, the story centers on an elegant debutante who discovers sinister secrets at her cousin's mansion.  Del Rey, June 2020. [see on Goodreads]


The author's followup to The Wives of Los Alamos is set considerably further back in time: ten years after the Mayflower's landing in Plymouth, Massachusetts, recasting the Pilgrim fathers (and mothers) in a new light in its recounting of a crime that transformed their community. Bloomsbury, March 2020. [see on Goodreads]

A Hundred Suns

I've been hearing positive buzz about Karin Tanabe's newest novel, set in Indochine in the 1930s, and featuring a French heir to the Michelin family, his American wife, their glamorous friends, and dangerous political intrigue. St. Martin's, April 2020. [see on Goodreads]

How Much Of These Hills Is Gold

The protagonists of Zhang's debut novel are two orphaned Chinese siblings during the California Gold Rush years; it's been receiving rave reviews from the New York Times, Washington Post, and elsewhere.  Riverhead, March 2020. [see on Goodreads]