Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, the bestselling historical saga of race, privilege, family, and identity

Brit Bennett’s second novel, a national bestseller, deserves all the attention it’s been getting. Spanning over three decades, from the Jim Crow South through 1980s California, it centers on two sisters and their daughters, and how American society’s intense focus on skin color warps the natural course of their lives. 

Desiree and Stella Vignes are twins: identical, but not alike. They come of age in 1950s Mallard, Louisiana, a Black farming community too small for any map, and whose residents take pride in the lightness of their complexions. At sixteen, both girls flee their hometown for New Orleans—they have reasons—and their lives diverge not long after. 

By 1968, after an abusive marriage, Desiree returns to Mallard with her “blueblack” daughter, Jude, whose presence stands out and startles everyone in town. After cutting herself off from her past, Stella, meanwhile, has successfully passed into white society and lives with her white husband and blonde daughter, Kennedy, in a wealthy LA neighborhood. When Jude and Kennedy happen to meet as young women—in a way that manages not to feel contrived—it has major repercussions.

Bennett draws her characters with empathy while making their flaws very plain; the story depicts a variety of relationships especially well and packs a punch with its emotional realness. The story movingly explores contemporary issues of race and gender identity and the costs incurred when abandoning one’s earlier life for a new, different persona. The dialogue feels pitch-perfect, and the story moves with engrossing momentum as the mystery builds about whether Stella’s carefully built lies will unravel. This is an outstanding work of fiction, a thought-provoking literary saga that everyone should read.

The Vanishing Half was published by Riverhead this summer. I read it from a personal copy and reviewed it for August's Historical Novels Review.  As the cover indicates, the novel has been a #1 New York Times bestseller and the Good Morning America book club pick for June, and a few days ago it was chosen for the fiction longlist for this year's National Book Award.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Before the Crown by Flora Harding fictionalizes the royal courtship of Elizabeth II and Prince Philip

Tailor-made for enthusiasts of The Crown, Flora Harding’s novel explores the intricate courtship between Elizabeth II and her consort, Prince Philip, now 94 and 99 years old. They married in 1947 and who – as avid royal watchers know – recently celebrated the wedding of their granddaughter Beatrice. Both the show and the novel provide the convincing illusion of breaching the wall that separates these world-famous, ultimately unknowable people from the rest of us.

While it can be read as a prequel to the Netflix series, Before the Crown stands independently and shouldn’t be thought of as “fan fiction.” At its heart, it reveals a love story presented as both predestined (since Elizabeth’s heart is set on Philip as a teenager) and unlikely (due to their very different temperaments, and the political roadblocks in the way of their union).

Harding is an experienced historical novelist who previously wrote Elizabethan-era fiction as Pamela Hartshorne. Her research into this considerably more modern timeframe is as thorough as ever, and her multifaceted characters have well-developed interior lives. Elizabeth, the shy and steadily reliable elder daughter of King George VI, carefully hides her feelings for Philip, whom she’s adored for years, behind a polite reserve. Philip, an outgoing Greek prince and Royal Navy lieutenant uprooted from his home country at a young age, finds himself nudged toward Elizabeth by his maternal uncle, “Dickie” Mountbatten, who knows she’d be a great catch.

Philip enjoys his naval career and a social life in which he does as he pleases, but he comes to appreciate Elizabeth’s kindness and generosity of spirit. His initiation into royal life is rocky and complicated by his sisters’ marriage to prominent Germans (former SS officers, even) and his future in-laws’ antipathy toward him as a suitor. George VI is stuffy and tradition-bound, and it doesn’t help that Philip finds hunting a dull pastime. Eventually he must decide whether to continue to pursue Elizabeth, knowing how much his lifestyle will change if they marry. The scenes at Balmoral Castle, a favorite residence of their joint ancestor Queen Victoria, evoke the rustic beauty of the Scottish landscape as the pair get to know each other better.

For readers interested in imagining what it’s like to be part of the British royals’ inner circle, Before the Crown fulfills its promises. It’s satisfying escapism perfect for these stressful times.

Before the Crown will be published tomorrow (Thursday, Sept. 17th) as an ebook by One More Chapter/HarperCollins.  The paperback will be out in December.  Thanks to the publisher for access via NetGalley.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

The Forgotten Kingdom by Signe Pike continues an epic story of sixth-century Scotland

In the second book of her epic trilogy of sixth-century Scotland, Pike adeptly balances brutal power struggles and Celtic mysticism. 

Languoreth, the determined heroine from The Lost Queen (2018), is now the longtime wife of the King of Strathclyde's likely heir and a mother of four. Distraught to have her husband and twin brother, Lailoken, on opposite sides of the Battle of Arderydd, Languoreth finds her world further devastated when her eight-year-old daughter, Angharad, who was away learning druidic ways from Lailoken, vanishes in the battle’s aftermath. 

Pike interweaves their three narratives as they endure emotional losses and begin physical and inward-focused journeys to regain strength. Moving from the shaded depths of the Caledonian Wood to the Pictish kingdom in the Orkney Islands and beyond, the story delves into the beguiling religious and cultural lore of several ancient Scottish peoples. 

This book doesn’t stand alone, but ongoing readers will relish the escape into Pike’s fully developed milieu while seeing its connections to Arthurian legend grow more prominent; among other aspects, Lailoken serves as a historical model for Merlin.

The Forgotten Kingdom will be published on September 15th by Atria/Simon & Schuster (488pp, hardcover and ebook).  I reviewed it for the August issue of Booklist (reprinted with permission). I'd previously reviewed The Lost Queen two years ago. As mentioned, interested readers will likely want to start with book one, since it provides considerable context for the interpersonal relationships and power imbalances in this novel.  I look forward to continuing the story later on. The author's website says that book three will be out in September 2023.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Bits and pieces of historical fiction news

Yesterday afternoon, Maggie O'Farrell's historical novel Hamnet took home the Women's Prize for Fiction.  It was published in the UK by Tinder Press (cover image at left) and in the US by Knopf; in Canada, the title is Hamnet and Judith.  I've read it, and it's a deserving winner. Set in Shakespeare's England, the playwright is never named, but the story movingly observes the relationships between Agnes, a wise woman in 16th-century Warwickshire; her husband, a glovemaker's son; and their three children, including twins Hamnet and Judith.  Hamnet will die at age 11, an event which devastates each of the family members, who express their sorrow in different ways.

Also in the UK, Melissa Oliver won the Romantic Novelists' Association's Joan Hessayon Award, which celebrates new writers, for her debut historical romance The Rebel Heiress and the Knight (Harlequin/Mills and Boon).

Historical novelist Susanne Dunlap has a new podcast series, It's Just Historical. Each episode contains an interview with an author or other personality in the historical fiction community, including C. W. Gortner (The First Actress), Christina Baker Kline (The Exiles), Kris Waldherr (The Lost History of Dreams), and many more.

The BBC's Books section has a feature article, The Strange World of the Royal Family, in which Hephzibah Anderson speaks to two historical novelists, Wendy Holden (The Royal Governess/The Governess) and Clare McHugh (A Most English Princess) about their new works of fiction.  Holden focuses on Marion Crawford "Crawfie," the governess for Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret during their childhood, while McHugh's subject is Victoria, Princess Royal, the eldest daughter of Queen Victoria, who became Empress of Germany.

Wendy Holden also has an article for Read It Forward on the must-haves of good historical fiction.

Sarah Penner's The Lost Apothecary (Park Row, March) will be one to watch for next winter. In an interview with Publishers Weekly, she speaks about the background to her debut, which delves into female power, lethal poisons, and mystery in Georgian London.

For Writer Unboxed, Liza Nash Taylor expresses what it's like to be a debut novelist at 60. Her novel Etiquette for Runaways (Blackstone, Aug.) is set in the Jazz Age of the 1920s.

Rebecca D'Harlingue (The Lines Between Us, set in the late 15th century and today) tells How to Do World Building Right in Historical Fiction for Writers' Digest.

And Parade Magazine has fall historical fiction recommendations from 12 other historical novelists with new books out.

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Creating verisimilitude in historical fiction, an essay by Linda Kass, author of A Ritchie Boy

Thanks to Linda Kass for contributing an essay on how she created a true-to-life historical backdrop in her fiction. Her novel A Ritchie Boy was recently published by She Writes Press.


Creating Verisimilitude in Historical Fiction
Linda Kass

As a trained journalist with two works of historical fiction under my belt (and am beginning a third), using the accurate facts of history matters to me. Also critical is that the concrete elements in the story—whether the food, the clothes, or the setting itself—are aligned with the time period. This is how a writer can create verisimilitude in a historical story.

Research plays a larger than life role in keeping authenticity on track. My novel, A Ritchie Boy, takes place between 1938 and 1948. Protagonist Eli Stoff, a character inspired by my father, journeys from Vienna to the Austrian Alps, from New York City to Columbus, Ohio. He is trained to be an Intelligence officer at a US Army camp near Hagerstown, Maryland called Camp Ritchie and the reader experiences him in action stationed in an abandoned villa in a Paris suburb called Le Vesinet. He learns all about Shanghai where his cousin Arthur had escaped at the same time Eli left Vienna for America.

This is a photo of my dad in his college ROTC uniform before enlisting.
This framed photo set to the right of my laptop as I wrote A Ritchie Boy.

In my novel of interrelated stories, the reader learns that Eli Stoff is one of thousands of “Ritchie Boys” whose understanding of the German language and culture led them to their undercover work on the European front to help the Allies win World War II. To convey his decade journey, I had to research many discrete facts. For example, I had to research skiing techniques, as well as the particulars of Alpine skiing back in the late ‘30s to write about Eli’s ski trip with classmates to the western Austrian province of Tyrol. I explored the kinds of music the characters might listen to during this time since seven of the twelve stories include different types of music—from classical to big band hits, from bebop to songs from Broadway musicals of the day. I needed to understand the local geography of all locations that stories were set, as well as the cultural norms of that time period. Through both primary and secondary sources, I learned about the details around the arrival and review process at Ellis Island, the life on the Ohio State University campus as the country prepared for war, and the nuances of a professional photographer who is my point of view character in the final story, “The Wedding.”

I found this photo and it helped me to imagine Eli’s parmy buddies at Camp Ritchie-Henry White, Bobby Salter, and Matt Schultz. My dad is second from the right.  I could imagine the camaraderie that was part of their time together.

And, while research is part of all historical fiction, it is important for the historical novelist not to let the facts of history overwhelm the story itself. In a story called “The Interrogation,” Eli Stoff faces a young German soldier who had escaped during the Ardennes Counteroffensive (what we now know as Battle of the Bulge, the last German offensive campaign on the Western Front during World War II). “Across the table, the young soldier remained silent, staring at his hands, which he clasped tightly on the cold aluminum. A lighter, a broken cigarette, and a black-and-red enameled Deutsche Jungvolk membership badge lay to the side.” Here the reader learns that the young prisoner is a member of Hitler Youth. “Eli was trained to ‘understand.’ He’d arrived in Paris in late December, part of a six-man military intelligence team. His orders were simple: arrest all Nazis impersonating Allied officers, put them through rudimentary questioning, write up a report. But something about Malcolm Schlick made this case more complex. Eli couldn’t put his finger on it.” Here we learn what a Ritchie Boy was tasked to do as the story unfolds.

My dad was always smiling even during war. It is how I remember him. 
His resilience and positive nature carries with him throughout his life, and I gave those characteristics to Eli Stoff.

So, in historical fiction, one must strike a balance between history and story by integrating the facts, so that the history lesson is there, and the reader doesn’t even notice.


Linda Kass
(credit: Lorn Spolter)
About the novel:

In this moving and memorable novel-in-stories—inspired by her father’s life—Linda Kass shares the little-known account of the Ritchie Boys. Often Jewish German-speaking immigrants, the Ritchie Boys worked in US Army Intelligence and helped the Allies win World War II. Set during the dawn of World War II and the disruptive decade to follow, A Ritchie Boy is the poignant tale of one young immigrant’s triumph over adversity as he journeys from Europe to America, and from boyhood to manhood.

About the author:

Linda Kass began her career as a magazine writer and correspondent for regional and national publications. Her work has previously appeared in Time, The Detroit Free Press, Columbus Monthly, and, more recently, Full Grown People, The MacGuffin, and Kenyon Review Online. She is the author of the historical World War II novel Tasa’s Song (2016) and is the founder and owner of Gramercy Books, an independent bookstore in central Ohio. https://www.lindakass.com/

Saturday, September 05, 2020

Old Lovegood Girls by Gail Godwin spans four decades of female friendship

Beautifully evoking a longtime friendship’s transformative power, Godwin traces two women’s intellectual development and life decisions, and how they intertwine, across four decades.

In 1958, Meredith Grace (“Merry”) Jellicoe and Feron Hood are matched as roommates at Lovegood College, a two-year school for women in North Carolina. The daughter of tobacco farmers, Merry has a welcoming personality, and the college dean, Susan Fox, believes she’ll be a comforting influence on the guarded Feron, who had a troubled home life. She’s right. The two become close; both are talented writers, sharing deep conversations on literary approaches and reading each other’s stories. Envious of Merry’s writing fluency, Feron feels she can do even better and uses this emotion to push herself forward.

Old Lovegood Girls focuses on connections rather than competition, though, and in this and other aspects, it gracefully subverts the tropes that pervade fiction about women. Likewise, Lovegood College, one of those old-fashioned, rigid-seeming institutions with longstanding rituals and values, breaks away from stereotype. Dean Fox, for example, is a wonderful character, an open, nurturing administrator with a full inner life. After the girls’ first semester, tragedy forces Merry to return home and take up family responsibilities. She and Feron correspond sporadically and rarely meet, but their friendship is of the type where they know each other’s qualities so well (they stay in each other’s “reference aura,” as Feron expresses it) that they rely on each other as guides through life.

With an unhurried pace that enables characters to develop and mature, the story delves with eloquent wisdom into a wide swath of issues: love, grief, family relationships, the value of storytelling, even (in a way that feels slyly meta) the challenges of writing historical novels. It’s a fine example of introspective fiction, and an ideal read for these uneasy times.

Old Lovegood Girls was published by Bloomsbury this year; I read it from an Edelweiss e-copy and reviewed it for August's Historical Novels Review. I became interested in it after hearing the author interviewed by Jenna Blum at A Mighty Blaze on Facebook Live in May. The historical college setting was enticing, and the discussion about the novel's themes piqued my attention. I also love the cover.

Wednesday, September 02, 2020

Death in Delft by Graham Brack opens a new mystery series set in the 17th century

Master Mercurius, a young lecturer at the University of Leiden, has joined the ranks of clerical sleuths worth following in historical mysteries. In 1671, his Rector asks him to fulfill a request from the Mayor of Delft to investigate a certain matter on that city’s behalf. They need a man with “a quick wit, a knowledge of God’s law, and abundant energy,” which fits Master Mercurius very well. He is our narrator, and his understated dry humor, combined with practical sensibilities and sincere religious devotion, make his tale infectiously readable.

Following a brief shipboard voyage along the Vliet to Delft, he arrives at the Town Hall and learns about the situation. Three girls, all about eight years old, were abducted from their families. The body of one of them, the unfortunate Gertruyd Lievens, was found buried in a field, a hand-carved cross atop the grave. The two others, a fishwife’s bastard daughter and a rich merchant’s child, remain missing, and with the harsh winter weather, one fears the worst. Mercurius goes about interviewing relevant parties while determining whether the girls, who didn’t know each other, had anything in common aside from their age.

The work gets him interacting with some of Delft’s leading citizens, including logical scientist Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, future father of microbiology, and artist Johannes Vermeer, head of a large, boisterous family. Mercurius makes the rounds of local households for dinner, and visiting Vermeer happily returns us to Girl with a Pearl Earring territory. Mercurius has his own intriguing secret: he’s a Catholic priest disguised as a Protestant clergyman (both careers were so nice, he was ordained twice), which the painter guesses and appreciates. Concisely plotted with well-placed period details, this mystery is just the right length and a promising start to this new series.

Death in Delft was published by Sapere in April in hb and ebook. It's a quick read at 232pp, and the second in the series, Untrue Till Death, is already out. As the cover denotes, it was shortlisted for the Crime Writers' Association's Debut Dagger.  I reviewed it for the latest Historical Novels Review issue. I noted as I was working on this post that a Dutch reader gave it high marks on Amazon for geographic and historical accuracy, including Dutch naming conventions - nice to see.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Allison Montclair's newest historical mystery, A Royal Affair, delves into British royal secrets

In this second diverting Sparks & Bainbridge mystery, the two partners of the Right Sort Marriage Bureau take on a case for a very high-profile client, which leads them into correspondingly high-stakes political intrigue.

It’s 1946 in London, and Iris Sparks, a veteran of secret wartime espionage work, and Gwen Bainbridge, an upper-crust war widow, are several months into their joint venture. While hoping that business picks up sufficiently so they can move into a dreamy new office, they’re approached by Lady Matheson, a cousin of Gwen’s who “works for the Queen in some capacity.” She demands confidentiality before revealing her proposed assignment.

The relationship between HRH Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip is getting serious, but obstacles stand in their way. A fellow descendant of Queen Victoria and a cousin of Greece’s king, Philip is of sufficiently royal blood, but he has sisters who married Nazis, and his mother, Princess Alice, has a troubled past. Then Lady Matheson reveals a letter she received for Elizabeth which hints at blackmail over mysterious items that Princess Alice left behind on Corfu – but she can’t reveal more details. In effect, Gwen and Iris must vet Prince Philip as a suitor for Elizabeth’s hand, but without drawing attention to the process.

The unintentional detective duo (they solved a murder in their last outing) have plenty of snarky wit, and the repartee flows fast from the outset, whether they’re interviewing a loud-talking female client or ogling the mahogany desks in their hoped-for new office. It's cleverly done, but just when it starts to feel a bit much, the tone becomes more serious as the sleuthing gets underway. Admirers of The Crown and royalty in general should appreciate the details on Prince Philip’s Greek relations, whose backstory of political power, flight, and exile isn’t widely familiar.

Iris and Gwen have a solid dynamic. While they employ their separate talents (the former’s street-smarts, the latter’s insider knowledge of the aristocracy) to further their investigation, they’re also learning from one another. In a continuing mystery series, ongoing character development is key, and Montclair’s latest satisfies on that front.

Each is growing stronger personally, too, as Gwen continues to pursue custody of her adorable young son, and Iris debates how close she wants to get to her new gangster boyfriend. Their own reflections on how they’ve changed are on-point and wryly funny. After they've wrapped up one incident with the police in an amusingly questionable way, Gwen remarks to her partner, “Appalling... we’ve become appalling people, Iris. When did that happen?”

Reading the series opener (The Right Sort of Man) is probably necessary to get the full context of this one, but that’s no hardship at all.

A Royal Affair was published by Minotaur in July; I read it from an Edelweiss e-copy (thanks to the publisher).

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

The Daughters of Erietown by Connie Schultz chronicles a working-class Ohio family in the 20th century

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Schultz’s debut novel is completely absorbing from the opening pages through the finale. It follows a working-class family from the fictional Erietown in northeastern Ohio across the 20th century’s second half. While its situations are familiar – teenage pregnancy, generational conflict, infidelity, women’s stifled hopes – the author renders them unique through characters whose vivid inner lives make them feel as real as any of us.

In 1975, Samantha McGinty heads to Kent State, the first in her family to attend university. In the car with her parents and brother, Sam thinks back on the terrible day in 1969 that broke her family and made her see her father, Brick, in a new, critical light.

Following this hint of mystery, the narrative smoothly moves back in time to depict Sam’s parents as young people facing troubled circumstances. It’s 1956, and petite sixteen-year-old Ellie Fetters, raised by caring, old-fashioned grandparents, loves red-haired Brick McGinty, top scorer for their high school’s basketball team. Brick grows up protecting his exhausted mother from his father’s abuse and plans a future that involves Ellie, a sports scholarship, and escaping their small rural town. Ellie’s pregnancy derails their dreams, transforming Ellie into a housewife and young mother in their new house in Erietown, while Brick works a union job at the electric plant and, over time, starts feeling resentful.

The story shows how patterns from previous generations repeat themselves, despite people’s awareness of them. The historical period emerges through social attitudes and the impact of larger events; the McGintys’ “Jack and Jesus” wall, with its pictures of Christ and President Kennedy, has a somber meaning after JFK’s assassination. This deeply felt saga takes on tough subjects with profound honesty and carries readers along with the multifaceted, flawed characters as they move through and deal with life.

The Daughters of Erietown was published by Random House in June, and I'd reviewed it from NetGalley for August's Historical Novels Review. I haven't seen it mentioned on many historical fiction sites as yet and would encourage readers of family sagas to go check it out.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Facts in Fiction: Truth in Estelle, a guest essay by Linda Stewart Henley

Welcome to Linda Stewart Henley, whose novel Estelle, a multi-period novel that focuses on Edgar Degas' stay in New Orleans, is out today.


Linda Stewart Henley

When most people think of Edgar Degas, what comes to mind are images of ballerinas. So when I went to the local library to find books about the artist, I was not surprised to find that most of them turned out to be children’s picture books with reproductions of dancers. But the book I planned to write about Degas wasn’t about those subjects. I wanted to write about him when he was thirty-eight, not yet famous, during his five-month visit to New Orleans to visit French Creole relatives in 1872-73.

I ordered piles of books. Books about Impressionist painters, Creole society in New Orleans, Mardi Gras, the architecture on Esplanade Avenue, Louisiana cooking, and Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel The Awakening. I found few volumes on the subject of Degas’s time in New Orleans until I discovered one absolute gem. It came from AbeBooks and cost an unbelievable ninety-nine cents plus three dollars postage. This book, published by the New Orleans Museum of Art entitled Degas and New Orleans: A French Impressionist in America by Gail Feigenbaum and Jean Sutherland Boggs, proved indispensable in providing facts that I wanted for my novel.

A well-researched and documented catalogue written by curators and art historians to accompany a 1999 exhibit, it provided the threads I needed to tell my tale. As I read essays written by the contributors to the catalogue, I learned not only about Degas’s work but also about his family members, fourteen of them, who lived in New Orleans at the time. Degas’s French Creole mother, who died when he was thirteen, had been born there. Estelle, his cousin, was married to his brother René. This was his first and only visit to America and it had a profound effect on him. While there, he painted portraits of the family, but he thought those unimportant and hardly worth his time until he finished A Cotton Office in New Orleans, a large painting depicting his family’s cotton business, which is considered a masterpiece.

A Cotton Office in New Orleans, Edgar Degas (1873)

Although Estelle is a work of fiction, I tried to build the story around many of the true events surrounding the family’s life and times. Surprising to me was the number of buildings and businesses from Degas’s time that still exist today: Arnaud’s and Antoine’s restaurants, the Café du Monde, and the house on Esplanade Avenue where his family lived.

The lavish lifestyle enjoyed by the French Creoles has long since disappeared and the street with fine buildings fallen into disrepair, but if you walk today along the wide boulevard with its neutral ground in the middle planted with spreading live oaks and magnolias, you can almost hear the streetcar rumbling along the tracks and breathe the air of bygone days. New Orleans is a city you don’t forget. The fact that Degas was there, and painted his family’s portraits, can only add to its allure.


Linda Stewart Henley is an English-born American who moved to the United States at sixteen. She is a graduate of Newcomb College of Tulane University in New Orleans. She currently lives with her husband in Anacortes, Washington. Estelle, her first novel, is published by She Writes Press.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Spindle and Dagger by J. Anderson Coats depicts a woman's necessary charade in 12th-century Wales

Coats’ newest historical novel is a penetrating portrait of women’s resilience and how they work through violent trauma. It’s based around a historical incident likely unfamiliar to its intended young adult audience: the abduction of Nest of Deheubarth by her second cousin Owain, Prince of Powys, during the increasing conflict between Welshmen and the land’s Norman invaders. Nest was married to Gerald of Windsor, leader of the Norman forces.

The tale’s narrator is Elen, a richly complex fictional character. In 1109, Elen has solidified a place for herself in Owain’s warband as his nightly bedmate. Three years earlier, Owain and his men had attacked her family’s steading, killing her two sisters. Seeing no other alternative for survival, Elen healed Owain of his injury and declared—falsely—that Saint Elen would faithfully guard Owain’s life if he always kept her namesake close by. Owain believes in the saint’s protection, but his men are more dubious.

Tension remains high, evoking the political strain, and Owain augments it after his penteulu (right-hand man) is killed by the Normans, and he captures Nest and her three young children in revenge. This angers his father, Cadwgan ap Bleddyn, who fears paying the price for his hotheaded son’s act. Elen faces her own battles. The flashbacks to her earlier ordeal are delicately handled, and even now, Elen’s mind vies between the status quo—staying with Owain and remaining alive and cared for—and wanting to take a dagger and stab him. Elen desperately wants a female ally. While Owain’s stepmother, Isabel, proves hostile to the idea, Elen sees how Nest bravely endures her captivity and envisions how to escape her longtime charade.

This gritty tale of feminine strength deserves attention from all medieval history enthusiasts, from YAs through adults.

Spindle and Dagger was published by Candlewick in 2020; I'd reviewed it for August's Historical Novels Review based on a publisher-supplied ARC.

Some other notes:

- This novel is classified as YA, and the heroine is seventeen, I believe, but the themes are hardly juvenile. It would work well as a crossover novel, in the vein of Julie Berry's The Book of Dolssa and Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity.  Along these lines, the cover art is attractive, yes, but it's clearly aimed at teen readers. Adult readers of historical novels shouldn't be dissuaded from picking it up by the art or the marketing category.

- I've been fascinating by the story of Nest of Deheubarth ever since reading Eleanor Fairburn's 1966 novel The Golden Hive, a biographical novel about her.  Nest/Nesta has been called the "Helen of Wales" as she was a woman whose beauty supposedly drove men to war, but the reality was likely far different than the romanticized legend. Soon after I'd reviewed The Golden Hive for this blog in 2010, I'd received an email from the author, which was a nice surprise. As I recall, she had been debating finding a publisher to bring her work back into print, but this never happened.  She died in 2015.  I'd still love to see her work made more widely available.  Getting back to the subject at hand, when Spindle and Dagger became available for review, I knew I'd have to read it.

- The author's earlier The Wicked and the Just is also set in medieval Wales, specifically the 13th century. It's on my list to read.

- You can find Spindle and Dagger on Goodreads, but be aware that many readers gave it a low rating because the e-ARC had more than the usual number of typos.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

The Summer Fields by LP Fergusson, romantic adventure set in the 18th century

Fergusson’s unique historical romance reads like many novels in one: it patches together a creepy gothic story, horror fiction, and entertaining historical romantic adventure. In Radnorshire, Wales, in 1704, dairymaid Elen Griffiths is summoned from her father’s cottage by a local physician, Dr Argyll, who needs someone to tend to Viscount Mordiford at Duntisbourne Hall during his bout with smallpox. Elen is immune from the “red plague,” having had cowpox before, and her education means she’s well suited to be an aristocrat’s caregiver.

Mordiford is disagreeable and the Hall exceedingly sinister, and Elen’s hopes of broadening her horizons vanish in the face of arduous nursing tasks and enforced isolation. Nearly a quarter of the novel takes place under these circumstances, which feel intensely claustrophobic. As Mordiford recovers his strength and sense of wit under Elen’s care (the methods are creatively unorthodox), Elen faces danger from another avenue. She befriends valet Ned Harley, and their connection turns romantic, but the Hall hosts debauched gatherings, and this time it’s Mordiford’s turn to save Elen from harm.

Following unusual circumstances, Elen boards a ship for The Hague with Dr Argyll, acting as his nurse as he travels with the army during the Duke of Marlborough’s campaign against the French. By then, she and Mordiford have acknowledged their attraction, although she despairs of finding him again on the war-torn Continent, and any shared future seems doubtful.

Fergusson brings to life Marlborough’s campaign up to his victory at Blenheim from the viewpoint of medical personnel, who deal with the traumatic aftermath of battle. The ending is too neat, and Elen and Mordiford have few chances to spend time together when he’s healthy, but it’s a well-researched story, particularly regarding early 18th-century medical treatments. Recommended for romance readers wanting a change of pace.

The Summer Fields was published by the digital publisher Canelo in the spring; I reviewed it for May's Historical Novels Review from a NetGalley copy.  Find it on Goodreads here.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Book review: The Secret Music at Tordesillas by Marjorie Sandor

“Inside one note, many more are hidden.” For her first novel, National Jewish Book Award winner Sandor imagines the life of a converso musician in the retinue of the Spanish queen Juana I of Castile.

After his sovereign lady’s death during her long confinement at Tordesillas in 1555, Juan de Granada tells his richly poetic account to two inquisitors of the Holy Office charged with finding secret Jews. Juana was never meant to be her parents’ heir, and her unrequited devotion to her handsome husband and others’ desire for control of her realm prompt rumors about her mental state. Her lady-in-waiting Inés de Castro, who becomes Juan’s love interest, is a complicated woman with dangerous secrets.

Infusing her work with elements from a unique confluence of cultures and religions in Spanish history, Sandor vividly contrasts people’s public roles with their covert beliefs and desires. At times, the language’s abstractness may have readers longing for greater clarity, but Sandor’s prose is seductive, akin to musical notes expressed on the page, and she presents a new, affecting view of a tragic royal figure.

The Secret Music at Tordesillas was published by Hidden River Arts as a paperback in June; this review first ran in Booklist Online this week. The book was the first winner of the publisher's Tuscarora Award in Historical Fiction. I recognize some other authors' names among the finalists and semifinalists and hope to see their books in print one day, too.

Monday, August 10, 2020

A gallery of 12 forthcoming historical novels for summer and autumn 2020

I don't know about you, but I'm looking ahead to late summer and fall reads. Forthcoming in the next few months are a bumper crop of historical novels, ranging from new releases by longtime reader favorites to debuts from talented newcomers.  While WWII settings are still holding steady in popularity within the genre, there's plenty on offer for readers seeking to expand beyond this time frame and the 20th century in general.  Below are just a dozen among many that caught my attention, in order by author surname.

Cathy Marie Buchanan moves back in time to pagan 1st-century Britain with Daughter of Black Lake (Riverhead, Oct.) while Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle's Even As We Breathe (Univ Press of Kentucky, Sept.) follows a young man from the Cherokee Nation into WWII-era intrigue. The Glass House (Flatiron, Sept.), the final novel from the late Scottish novelist Beatrice Colin, tells a story of secrets and friendship in early 20th-century Scotland.

The Evening and the Morning (Viking, Sept.), the highly anticipated prequel to The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett's best known epic, focuses on the English settlement not yet known as Kingsbridge around the time of the first millennium CE. Another series entry, Dark Tides (Atria, Nov.) by Philippa Gregory, picks up her heroine Alinor's story, following her trials in Tidelands, in Restoration-era London. The Mermaid of Jeju (Alcove, Dec), Sumi Hahn's debut novel, centers on the haenyeo, female deep-sea divers, on Korea's Jeju Island after WWII.

There are three debut novels in this second collage. Denise Heinze's The Brief and True Report of Temperance Flowerdew (Blackstone, Sept.), the first of these, takes its name from the historical woman who married two Governors of Virginia in the early 17th century. Confessions in B-Flat by the prolific Donna Hill (Sideways, Nov.), is a love story taking place in New York during the 1960s civil rights movement and Vietnam War years. For The Deadly Hours (Sourcebooks, Sept.) newest in a growing collection of multi-author collaborative projects, Susanna Kearsley, C.S. Harris, Anna Lee Huber, and Christine Trent trace the story of a mysterious gold watch and those it affects, beginning in the 18th century.

Two more debuts: Asha Lemmie's Fifty Words for Rain (Dutton, Sept.) has the unique viewpoint of a young girl of African-American and Japanese heritage in post-WWII Japan, and her search for her rightful place in a world that continually rejects her. The Company Daughters (Bookouture, Oct.) by Samantha Rajaram journeys along with its two heroines on their voyage from Amsterdam to marry settlers in the Dutch East Indies in the early 17th century. And, last alphabetically, Alice Randall's Black Bottom Saints (Amistad, Aug.) is set amid Detroit's historic Black Bottom neighborhood in the 1930s-40s and centers on the stars of this locale's famous art and culture scene.

Friday, August 07, 2020

The original Mrs. Robinson's story: Brontë’s Mistress by Finola Austin

Finola Austin’s perceptive debut imagines the first-person viewpoint of Lydia Robinson: the woman notorious in Brontë lore for supposedly having seduced her son’s tutor, Branwell Brontë, with the end of their affair leading to his dissolution, depression, and early death. But is this a fair assessment?

Among historical fiction subjects, this is about as “high concept” as it gets. It’s surprising no other novelist has previously claimed her as a protagonist, and it’s also fortunate that this character – the original Mrs. Robinson – was taken on by a writer capable of doing justice to this troubling, baggage-laden historical figure. 

The main setting is Thorp Green Hall in Little Ouseburn, a village not far from York, beginning in 1843. Having lost her beloved youngest daughter and her mother in close succession, Lydia is overcome by grief. With her twenty-year marriage to Edmund Robinson having gone cold, her teenage daughters occupied with their own concerns, and the family governess (the overly serious Anne Brontë) spurning any hope of friendship, Lydia feels like nobody sees her for herself. Even her own name, in a sense, has been supplanted, as she shares it with her pretty eldest daughter.  

When Miss Brontë’s flame-haired poet brother, Branwell, appears on the scene to tutor Lydia’s son, Ned, their shared interests in music, theatre, and literature create a spark between Branwell and Lydia, even though he’s twenty-five, while she’s eighteen years older.  Their romantic encounters demonstrate Austin’s skill as a writer; there’s an awkwardness about them that evokes less of a grand, perfect passion than the result of two people’s desperate and individual cries for attention.  Both come alive as real people with many flaws and rough edges, between Branwell’s neediness and alcoholism and Lydia’s selfishness, especially since her daughters are of an age when they need a mother’s loving guidance. 

Rather than developing a story about Lydia’s downfall and redemption, which would feel both simplistic and false, Austin creates in Lydia a multifaceted portrait of an unhappy, neglected wife and mother whose passionate nature is suppressed by everyone around her: her distant husband, her overbearing mother-in-law, and society as a whole.  Once she begins acting on her desires, though, she discovers she wants more from a partner than what Branwell can give. At the same time, alas, the rumors of adultery become impossible to contain. Lydia’s questionable choices make her difficult to admire, while at the same time, one can’t help but hope she’ll find fulfillment. One can also appreciate how Lydia's impressions of all her relationships shift over the course of the story, as she looks back on what each of them brought her.

The language and dialogue have a Victorian feel without seeming archaic, and the characters’ social milieu reflects the period, too.  Lydia Robinson may be best known as “Brontë’s mistress,” but as Austin shows, she's much more than this. In fact, one of the novel’s greatest accomplishments is its moving illustration of how women are diminished when defined by their relationships to men. 

Brontë’s Mistress was published by Atria this week (I reviewed it from an Edelweiss copy).

Another quick note: comments re-enabled

Comments are now enabled as before. My attempt to restrict them had the unfortunate effect of turning off commenting altogether for most readers; the Blogger platform allows for few choices in how to configure it. As for the spam, it's back, but I'll continue dealing with it while exploring other options for controlling it.  Thanks for your understanding!

Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Passing Fancies by Marlowe Benn, a Jazz Age mystery set amid the Harlem Renaissance

The title of this sophisticated second entry in the Julia Kydd mystery series (after Relative Fortunes) is cleverly apropos. It’s set in Manhattan during the freewheeling Jazz Age, circa 1924, which conjures up images of frivolous, fun-loving pursuits, but here, “passing” also refers to racial identity and crossing the color line.

Julia, a wealthy 25-year-old recently recovered from the near loss of her inherited fortune, is a bibliophile with ambition. She dreams of expanding her small private press, and for this, she needs authors.

At a publishing soiree, she meets the tall, fair Eva Pruitt, an up-and-coming novelist, and they develop a close rapport. Later, Julia is startled to learn that Eva is Black; Eva’s debut, it’s implied, will be a roman à clef about her experiences as a Harlem nightclub performer. When Eva’s manuscript (she only had one copy; one can sense all authors cringing) goes missing, and her boss is found dead, Eva’s the most likely suspect, but Julia can’t believe she did it.

Set amid the Harlem Renaissance, the themes of this novel taking place nearly a century ago are also unerringly modern, including police brutality, African American writers’ difficulties with the publishing industry, and white blindness to racial inequities. Eva is a well-rounded character with a complicated past, though her friendship with Julia blossoms too swiftly. Those enamored of fine bindings and quality fonts can indulge in their passions along with Julia, and language aficionados will appreciate the cultured writing.

As with the previous book, Julia’s one-time nemesis and half-brother, the urbane Philip, who helps to solve puzzlers for the police, is probably the most interesting character of all. He and Julia make a good investigating team, a revelation Julia slowly catches onto.

Passing Fancies was published by Lake Union in 2020 (I reviewed it from NetGalley for August's Historical Novels Review).

Quick note: Comment policy temporarily changed

I appreciate it when blog readers take the time to comment on one of my posts.  Over the last few weeks, though, so many unpleasant spam comments have been arriving that I've had to take action. Comments are moderated, so the spam never shows up on the blog, but I still have to manage and delete them all, and they were getting through even with word verification turned on.  In order to deter the bots, I've temporarily set comments to blog members/followers only, and it seems to be working.  Apologies for the inconvenience. I plan to lift this later on and see if the situation has improved.

I also welcome thoughts and comments via the blog's Facebook page.

Thanks for continuing to read my reviews and other posts!

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Vanessa Riley's multicultural Regency romance A Duke, the Lady, and a Baby

In the author’s notes at the end of her lively new historical romance, Vanessa Riley reveals that England was the home to at least ten thousand people of Black or mixed-race ancestry during Jane Austen’s time. Regency romances typically feature love stories between members of the white aristocracy. Fortunately, a growing number of writers have been creating characters representing the diversity among the English populace at the time.

This first book in the Rogues and Remarkable Women series introduces Patience Amelia Jordan, former Duchess of Repington, a courageous young heiress originally from Demerara in the West Indies (now part of Guyana). Ever since her husband Colin’s suicide, Patience has been treated abominably by Colin’s uncle, who had her thrown into Bedlam for a trumped-up reason.

Now she’s forced to sneak into her marital home, Hamlin Hall, disguised as a groom in order to feed and watch over her son, Lionel. Then the new Duke, Busick Strathmore, arrives to take up his position and Lionel’s guardianship, starting afresh by dismissing all his predecessor’s staff. With the support of the Widow’s Grace, a group of widows helping her regain custody of her child, Patience becomes Lionel’s wet nurse and nanny while seeking evidence about the true nature of Colin’s financial dealings and mysterious death. Over time, Patience and the Duke form a tentative alliance that turns flirtatious and develops into love.

Their connection may seem subdued and cerebral, at first, when compared with other romance novels. However, I found Riley’s style of subtle, character-driven love story a refreshing change. Repington is a wounded soldier who had lost his leg during the Siege of Badajoz and, while adjusting to his new situation, plans his return to the battlefield. He quickly comes to love Lionel, though as a military man, his child-rearing methods are amusingly rigid.

Patience is a loving mother who wants only to return to her island with Lionel, but the Duke may change her mind. Riley also draws on elements of Patience’s cultural heritage to illustrate who she is. I particularly liked the scenes in which she debates praying to the Demararan god of protection but wasn’t sure if he had any control over what happened in England, and another where she dons a traditional, marigold-colored dress that her beloved late mother crafted. I did wonder why the Duke didn’t uncover Patience’s real identity sooner, and the shifts between Patience’s first-person viewpoint and the Duke’s third-person perspective feel unnecessarily distancing. Overall, though, I enjoyed this romance between two courageous, kind people, both outsiders in different ways, who genuinely respect each other. Patience’s marriage with Colin seemed a bit shaky, but I sense that her new relationship will endure.

And as for “Busick” – it’s not a traditional romance name, but it fits the period. (For example, Sir Busick Harwood was a well-known English physician who died in 1814, the year this novel takes place).

A Duke, the Lady, and a Baby was published by Kensington on June 30 (I read it from a NetGalley copy).

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Love, war, and atonement: Universe of Two by Stephen P. Kiernan

Kiernan (The Baker's Secret, 2017) movingly charts a couple’s relationship alongside the development of WWII’s Manhattan Project.

In 1943 Chicago, fun-loving Brenda Dubie first meets Charlie Fish, a skinny mathematician (inspired by the historical Charles Fisk), when he visits her family’s music shop. Over time, Charlie’s increasing technical expertise leads to his reluctant transfer to Los Alamos. Ignorant of his top secret and pivotal role in building detonators, Brenda urges Charlie to do his patriotic duty.

The characterizations feel bracingly real. Brenda’s youthful, self-centered haughtiness prevents her from appreciating Charlie’s finer qualities; Charlie’s earnest devotion to his work and Brenda drives him to actions with ramifications he doesn’t understand until later. Brenda is a challenging heroine, but her wistful reminiscences, as she looks back decades later, demonstrate her emotional growth.

Kiernan recreates the zeitgeist of America leading up to the atomic bomb on a national and personal level: the eager anticipation of wartime’s end, the grimly fascinating science, and the growing sense of guilt and dread. Simultaneously tender and hard-hitting, this riveting story offers much to reflect upon.

Universe of Two will be published on August 4th by William Morrow/HarperCollins. This review ran in Booklist's April 1st issue (reprinted with permission). The novel was originally scheduled for May publication but was delayed, as has been happening frequently in the industry, due to the pandemic.  I read it from an Edelweiss e-copy.

Additional thoughts: when it comes to fictionalizing historical characters and their experiences, authors have several approaches to consider. In creating an imagined character closely based on mathematician Charles B. Fisk, but who isn't him, Kiernan grants himself the freedom to deviate from the real person's life in order to tell the story he wants. As such, readers are able to separate the two men (one real, one fictional), and also learn more about Fisk afterwards if they wish to.

Monday, July 20, 2020

The Patron Saint of Pregnant Girls by Ursula Hegi, a tale of women's connections in 19th-century Germany

Perennial book-club favorite Hegi’s (Children and Fire, 2011) compassionately observant new novel takes place on Nordstrand island in North Frisia, Germany, where the line between fact and centuries-old myth can feel as blurred as that between sea and sky. The offbeat characters enhance the quasi-dreamlike effect, but the scenarios they face are starkly real.

After a giant wave sweeps her three oldest children into the Nordsee in 1878, Lotte Jansen withdraws from life and from her infant son, Wilhelm. While Lotte’s husband, Kalle, a toymaker, runs away with a traveling circus, Wilhelm is nursed by Tilli, an 11-year-old resident of the St. Margaret’s Home for Pregnant Girls, whose own baby is adopted at birth.

The nuns at St. Margaret’s are an unorthodox bunch who instruct their young charges in art and scholarly pursuits. Meanwhile, Sabine, the circus’ seamstress, seeks a husband for her cognitively impaired daughter.

The plot ambles along while threading together the stories of the women, who have the heaviest burdens to bear. Their emotional hardships are satisfyingly leavened by softer moments of romantic and familial love.

The Patron Saint of Pregnant Girls was published by Flatiron in June; I reviewed it for Booklist's May 15th issue (reprinted with permission).  Doesn't it have a beautiful cover? It reflects the setting and storyline well.  I read it from an Edelweiss copy, which didn't have the jacket art, so I hadn't taken a close look before now.  It really does get across the blurred borders between sky and sea that Hegi emphasizes within the text.

Hegi has written many other historical novels set in 19th- and 20th-century Germany, including the Oprah pick Stones from the River (1994). This was my first experience reading one of her novels.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

More Miracle than Bird by Alice Miller, fiction about Georgie Hyde-Lees, wife of poet W. B. Yeats

The lens through which a story is told makes all the difference. Miller’s revelatory debut novel, written in crisp, elegant prose, focuses on Georgie Hyde-Lees, wife of Anglo-Irish poet W. B. Yeats.  Though Georgie isn’t his greatest love (Maud Gonne has that distinction), she turns out to be his ideal partner, which he takes a long time realizing.

The story initially moves between 1916, as Georgie nurses wounded WWI officers in a dreary London hospital, and 1914, when she approaches the eccentric, much older Yeats at a soirée and requests an invitation to a clandestine occult society. Missing her late father, Georgie longs for proof of the soul’s immortality, and her quest draws readers into the perennially intriguing theme of spiritualism and the reasons why people pursue it.

Though slowly paced, the novel offers ample conflict as Georgie faces difficult choices. The bleak atmosphere aptly suits the wartime backdrop, and Miller deftly presents a portrait of Georgie, a young woman calibrating her place in the world, and her shifting relationship with the man she adores.

More Miracle Than Bird was published by Tin House in June.  I reviewed it for the 5/15/20 issue of Booklist (reprinted with permission).  The intriguing title comes from a line in Yeats' poem "Byzantium."

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.