Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Review and interview: Megan Campisi's Sin Eater, a dark, folklore-infused mystery in an alternate Elizabethan England

Basing her setting closely on Elizabethan England, Campisi shapes a tale of folk customs, dark superstitions, and feminine power through the life of a young outcast who uncovers evidence of terrible injustice.

Jailed for stealing bread, 14-year-old May Owens is made to become a sin eater, hearing deathbed confessions and consuming ritual foods representing the person’s recited sins, thus taking them on herself. Wearing a locked brass collar marking her macabre profession, she finds herself shunned and forced into silence, aside from her appointed role.

When she spies a deer heart atop the coffin of the royal governess, Corliss Ashton, May realizes someone wants to blame Corliss for a transgression she hadn’t confessed to. May’s illiteracy and social isolation complicate her dangerous quest to unearth answers.

Her spunky humor and determination to assert her own value, even in a dead-end occupation at society’s nadir, make her a captivating heroine. Recommend this debut, an original melding of mystery and alternate history, to admirers of Karen Maitland’s folklore-infused medieval thrillers and Diane Setterfield’s Once Upon a River.


Megan Campisi's Sin Eater was published yesterday by Atria/Simon & Schuster. I wrote the review above for Booklist's 2/15 issue (reprinted with permission). I also had the opportunity to ask the author some questions. Thanks to her publicist for arranging for the Q&A below, and to Megan Campisi for her responses.

Do you recall where you first heard about the concept of a sin eater? What inspired you to choose this unusual role for your protagonist?

I don’t recall when I first heard about sin eaters, but I know that I was fascinated (I’m a history nerd). I was drawn in by the syncretism of the ritual (part Christian and part pagan), by the essential role played by a social pariah, and by how little we know about the custom and the people who practiced it. I knew I wanted to explore the point of view of a sin eater and a young one.

In the author’s note at the beginning, you mention the historical scaffolding for Sin Eater’s background, but that it’s “spun out of fantasy… this is not history, it’s fiction.” How did you decide how closely to stick to Elizabethan England, and how far to diverge from it?

For the story I envisioned to work, I knew the world needed to be syncretic too, part historical, part fictional. Sin eating couldn’t remain an eccentric post-mortem ritual (as it was historically), but needed to transform into a deep, necessary communion between two people that was woven into the fabric of everyday society. All the fictional elements grew from this beginning.

I’ve always enjoyed reading dark, atmospheric mysteries, this book included. What appealed to you about writing in this style?

I’m drawn to gritty, visceral stories where I’m transported by the sensory elements. As a writer, the only thing you can be sure you share with your reader is the experience of living in a human body, so I try to lean on physical elements in my storytelling.

Did you find it challenging, as a novelist, working with a narrator who was socially isolated, to the point of being forbidden from speaking?

Megan Campisi
(credit: Gates Hurand)
Absolutely! This was a huge challenge, but a welcome one. When I’m not writing, I teach physical theater, which is a branch of performance that considers physicality as a language and privileges visual storytelling over verbal. This background helped immensely in working out how to communicate information between characters and to the reader.

Much creative thought must have gone into developing the “compendium of diverse sins both large and small and their according foods” that guides the sin eaters’ menu, such as it is. Can you share any insights into how you came up with it?

I spent a lot of time reading through Tudor cookbooks! In selecting pairings of sins and foods, I grouped some by types of sins (for example, sins related to envy all involve cream) and some by onomatopoeia (to me, the sound of “gristle” fits its sin, wrath). I also intended for some pairings to feel whimsical. I wanted to recreate the experience one has when hearing a nursery rhyme from hundreds of years ago: there are elements that make sense and others that simply don’t because their meaning has been lost over time.

About the Author

Megan Campisi is a playwright, novelist, and teacher. Her plays have been performed in China, France, and the United States. She attended Yale University and the L’École International de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq. The author of Sin Eater, she lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her family. Visit her website at

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

On researching artist Agnes Pelton for The Pelton Papers, a guest post by Mari Coates

Today I'm pleased to welcome author Mari Coates, whose novel The Pelton Papers, published today by She Writes Press, delves into the life and artwork of early modernist painter Agnes Pelton (1881-1961).  

Researching artist Agnes Pelton for The Pelton Papers
Mari Coates

I come from a long line of history buffs, so embarking on the research to write The Pelton Papers was like slipping into a comfortable shirt. First, I read the excellent catalogue written by Michael Zakian—Agnes Pelton: Poet of Nature—for the first ever retrospective of Pelton, where I first saw her abstracts. I had grown up with several of Pelton’s beautiful realistic paintings—portraits of my grandparents and my mother and uncle as children, a pair of desert scenes, and a stunning view of Pelton’s Long Island windmill studio.

The catalogue was a brilliantly concise 100-page summary of her life, and at every turn I found myself wanting to know more. The Peltons had been neighbors of my grandfather in Brooklyn from the 1890s to the 1910s. Because he was himself artistic, being an amateur photographer, and also, like Agnes, often in frail health, their friendship endured. I found a letter of his in which he mentions her.

Besides being a history buff, I am also someone who is profoundly affected by place. So immediately upon reading about Agnes, I started seeking out where she had been. Brooklyn, for instance, where I located her house on Pacific Street. And the Pratt Institute, where she’d studied with Arthur Wesley Dow, himself a giant who changed the way art was taught and instilled in Pelton (and his other students, such as Georgia O’Keeffe) a love of modernism. At Pratt I got a feel for the building, which seemed to shimmer with its illustrious past.

The catalogue noted Agnes’s Cathedral City address, and my wife and I took a trip down there to have a look. The shanty-like structure we found was clearly nothing like Agnes’s studio, which could be seen in a photo in the catalogue. We assumed it had been destroyed to make room for temporary housing. Later we would learn (from Ann Japenga’s website that renovators had changed the house to face the opposite street.

author Mari Coates
(photo: Lynn Shepodd)
Other excursions: a week in Taos, New Mexico, where we marveled at the light and the sense of the sacred infused in the very ground itself. And where we toured Mabel Dodge’s home, where Agnes was a visitor while it was being built. We had been to Italy, so reading about Agnes’s year in Rome allowed me to mentally revisit places she must have seen, such as Florence.

But of course there were books—on her family’s great scandal (known as the Beecher-Tilton affair); wonderful books on the Armory Show of 1913; books about the people she encountered, like the influencers John Quinn and Mabel Dodge Luhan, and artists such as Raymond Jonson, who with Emil Bisstram started the Transcendental Painting Group.

And then there were Agnes’s actual papers, which I was able to see through arrangement with our local art museum. I waited a considerable time before availing myself of that resource. I was completely in the thrall of the voice that was telling me Agnes’s story, laying it out for me as clearly as whispering in my ear. I was terrified that Agnes’s actual voice as found in her journals was entirely, shockingly, different from my version. When I finally ventured into the world of microfilm, to my enormous relief it seemed so close to mine as to be seamless. So, I think now that Agnes herself was truly whispering in my ear.


Mari Coates lives in San Francisco, where, before joining University of California Press as a senior editor, she was an arts writer and theater critic. Her regular column appeared in the SF Weekly with additional profiles and features appearing in the San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Monthly, Advocate, and other news outlets. Her stories have been published in the literary journals HLLQ and Eclipse, and she is grateful for residencies at I-Park, Ragdale, and Hypatia-in-the-Woods, which allowed her to develop and complete The Pelton Papers. She holds degrees from Connecticut College and the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. Find her online at

Saturday, April 04, 2020

Miss Austen by Gill Hornby, a novel of Cassandra Austen and her family's legacy

The subject of Gill Hornby’s book may not fit your initial guess. Cassandra Austen was the eldest sister in her large family, and it was she who was known as “Miss Austen” in her lifetime. Indeed, she outlived her beloved Jane by more than twenty-five years.

Miss Austen is a gently understated story told with delicate formality and abundant wit, as you’d expect from any Austen-focused novel. In 1840, Cassandra leaves her cottage at Chawton to visit the vicarage at Kintbury, a place that would have been her home if her fiancé Tom Fowle hadn’t died young. The Fowles are longtime family friends, and Tom’s sister-in-law, Eliza, had been a close confidante of both Austen sisters. With an eye to preserving Jane’s reputation and keeping her secrets private, Cassandra needs to find and destroy the letters they exchanged with Eliza before anyone else sees them and (horrors) thinks about publishing them.

Isabella Fowle, Tom’s sister, is being made to vacate Kintbury, her family residence for nearly a century, to make room for a new vicar, and she and her watchful servant are busy with packing and moving out. Cassandra’s visit isn’t convenient, and she knows it, but she feels desperate. Though her mind is still intact at 67, Cassandra feigns occasional senility to get her way, which creates amusing scenes.

When Cassandra finds a stash of letters, she pounces on and conceals them; their correspondence (imaginatively re-created by Hornby) takes her back to her and Jane’s earlier life, when they were young women pondering their futures. “I must admit we are a quite splendidly dull bunch, to whom nothing of interest occurred,” she tells Isabella, while knowing the letters will reveal otherwise. Some details, though, are so unexpected that they make Cassandra consider what legacy she, herself, wants to leave behind.

Hornby nicely evokes common Austen themes, such as women’s dependence on their male relatives – a serious fact they can never forget – and the close bonds of sisterhood. On the latter note, Cassandra sees Isabella, a single woman of forty she’s known all her life, as a kindred spirit. As such, she doesn’t understand why Isabella doesn’t want to move in with her own sisters – “Her sisters were her future; single women have only each other… It was something else to be accomplished before she left here.” Sharing reminiscences, they seem so alike otherwise, even sharing a dryly humorous disdain of Sir Walter Scott’s novels, with their “many, many words in them,” as Isabella explains: “They seem to take up too much of everybody’s time.”

No knowledge of Jane Austen’s life or works is prerequisite to reading this novel, while those who are already fans will want to dive in. Although Jane has a pivotal role, Cassandra takes the spotlight, and Hornby persuasively imagines the circumstances that shaped both women’s lives and decisions.

Miss Austen will be published by Flatiron Books on April 7th in the US.  Thanks to the publisher for providing me with an e-galley.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

The Everlasting by Katy Simpson Smith, a multi-era portrait of the Eternal City

Strikingly original in its construction and settings, Smith’s novel interleaves four periods in Roman history with eight parts; the eras move back in time and then repeat.

An American aquatic biologist considers an extramarital affair with an Italian woman during a semester abroad and, while there, experiences disturbing neurological symptoms. Giulia de’ Medici, a sixteenth-century noblewoman of part-African descent, conceals an illegitimate pregnancy.

In gruesomely effective segments, Felix, the late ninth-century keeper of his monastery’s putridarium, or crypt, observes the decomposition of his former brethren while remembering his traumatic youth. Lastly, Prisca, a pubescent girl (and future martyr) in 165 CE, has unique personal reasons for embracing Christianity. She and Giulia are historical figures worth discovering.

Compared to the others, the modern era’s prose feels self-consciously literary, and its research less well-integrated; the earliest-set stories offer the strongest emotional resonance. The four are also linked through a small fishhook figuring in each. Together, they create a robustly earthy, strangely entrancing portrait of the Eternal City as the protagonists cope with the yearnings and frailties of the flesh.

The Everlasting was published by Harper this week; I reviewed it for Booklist's 12/1/19 issue.  What do you think of the colorful cover?

Some other comments: Wikipedia has more information on Giulia de' Medici, a historical figure who was new to me. You can also read more in a 2001 article at the Washington Post, focusing on a portrait of Giulia as a child, presumed to be the first in Europe to depict a girl of African descent.

St. Prisca was a child martyr in early Rome, and the church known as Santa Prisca is devoted to her memory. This church figures strongly in The Everlasting.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Code Name Hélène by Ariel Lawhon, a novel about real-life WWII heroine Nancy Wake

Lawhon’s magnificent fourth novel dramatizes the valor of a gutsy, real-life woman molded by war, sacrifice, and love.

In February 1944, sporting her trademark red lipstick, Nancy Wake parachutes into the French countryside on a Special Operations Executive mission to organize, fund, arm, and train the Maquis, bands of local resistance fighters, in preparation for D-Day. Back in 1936, with increasing dangers posed by Hitler, Nancy is a determined Australian expat journalist embarking on a tantalizing romance with handsome industrialist Henri Fiocca.

As these separate time lines move forward, they play off one another masterfully, pivoting at just the right moment to augment tension. Lawhon carries us into the heart of the French resistance, with the beautiful Auvergne region covertly transformed into a gritty battleground, and into the mind of a badass heroine with uncanny instincts who takes on the Nazis and men’s arrogant sexism with uncommon bravado.

With her infectious laugh and occasionally profane dialogue, Nancy’s fighting spirit shines through her propulsive narrative, and her comrades-in-arms are well-rendered secondary characters. Her journey to becoming a fierce, powerful leader is as emotionally stirring as her growing bond with Henri. Even long after the last page is turned, this astonishing story of Wake’s accomplishments will hold readers in its grip.

Code Name Hélène will be published next Tuesday by Doubleday in the US. I wrote this starred review for Booklist's 3/15 issue, and it was their review of the day today.

Interested in reading it for yourself?  I have a new, unread ARC I'd be happy to send to another reader (US only).  Please enter via the form below for a chance to win the copy. If you prefer an ebook, I'll gift it to you via Amazon.  Deadline Tuesday March 31.

Update: The giveaway period has ended. Congrats to Tammy S!  Hope you'll enjoy the book, and thanks to everyone who entered.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

The Ghost of Madison Avenue by Nancy Bilyeau, a historical novella set in a fascinating NYC library

Diverse locales of old New York are the setting for Bilyeau’s atmospheric novella, which takes place in 1912, in the days leading up to Christmas, but it can be read and enjoyed at any time of year. Helen O’Neill, an Irish American widow of thirty-five, is nervous to start her new position as a restorer in J. P. Morgan’s personal library. Her supervisor, the brilliant Belle da Costa Greene, has exacting standards, and what if Helen were to meet the famous financial titan in person?

For those who haven’t visited the Morgan Library and Museum—I haven’t, though plan to do so—reading this story feels like getting an exclusive private tour of the site, as it looked over a century ago, alongside Helen. With its secret staircases, ornate bookshelves and balconies, and elaborately painted high ceilings, it’s a fabulous place to envision. Helen lives comfortably with her brother’s family in a clapboard house in the Bronx’s Morrisania neighborhood and is agog at her new workplace. She’s puzzled, though, when she spies a young woman in an old-fashioned dress and hairstyle on the street outside; the snow doesn’t seem to touch her. Helen also feels a lingering sadness about her late husband, who died some time earlier, and neither she nor her family feels she’s likely to marry again.

All the characters are poignantly human, and their social and cultural backgrounds add rich shadings to their actions. The warmhearted theme of second chances is well balanced with the mysteriousness of the woman’s identity, which Helen gets in trouble trying to uncover. Add a touch of Irish magic to the plot—Helen’s unusual dexterity with her hands reminded her late mother and husband of the aes sidhe—and you have an entrancing ghost story with a touching message.

The Ghost of Madison Avenue is a digital original novella available from Amazon; I reviewed it from a personal copy and included it in February's Historical Novels Review.

Also read my reviews of two earlier books by Nancy Bilyeau: The Blue and Dreamland.

Friday, March 13, 2020

A Fall of Shadows by Nancy Herriman, a historical mystery set in the Elizabethan-era countryside

Bess Ellyott is a widowed herbalist in late-Elizabethan Wiltshire. As historical fiction readers will foresee, this means she’s an easy target for suspicion when misfortunes befall her neighbors. Her brother Robert’s status as a prosperous merchant provides protection, as does the friendship of Constable Kit Harwoode, but Bess also has a stubborn curiosity that gets her into trouble.

One autumn evening while Robert’s away in London, two odd events take place, and Bess finds herself entangled in determining what happened. A traveling actor and playwright is found stabbed to death atop a druid’s mound just outside the village, and a young woman collapses near Bess’s back gate after suffering an apparent miscarriage.

A drunk vagrant is quickly arrested in the actor’s murder, but Kit finds that solution much too convenient. The suspects are numerous, from the man’s jealous fellow players to enemies he’d made after returning to town; the dead man had been a local farmer’s son who left to make his fortune on the stage. Bess uncovers a possible connection between the two incidents, too.

In this second of the Bess Ellyott mysteries, Herriman has taken admirable care in re-creating her characters’ historical world, from the folk beliefs and accoutrements of the period to the Shakespearean-flavored dialogue. The plot is that of a classic English village mystery, with characters from various walks of life mingling, gossiping, and creating dramas among themselves.

As a relative newcomer to town, Bess really should know better than to be so forthright about asking questions – her approach isn’t subtle – and she has substantial unfinished business from the first book that new series readers may stumble over. This entry is still recommended for the historical atmosphere alone, especially for Tudorphiles wanting time away from the royal court and its usual personalities.

A Fall of Shadows was published by Crooked Lane in 2019; I reviewed it from NetGalley for February's Historical Novels Review. Searcher of the Dead is the title of book 1 in this ongoing series.

Monday, March 09, 2020

More historical fiction award news! Walter Scott Prize longlist and Langum Prize honorees

I've said before that I look forward to the announcement of the Walter Scott Prize longlist more than the ultimate winner: more new books to be introduced to. And aren't these covers beautiful?  Below are the 12 on the longlist for the 2020 prize. Most are from the UK editions, while some are from their US counterparts.  US editions exist for the majority of the books.

Read more about the longlist at the Walter Scott Prize site, including their plot and setting details: medieval England, 1940s Singapore, colonial South Africa, 20th-century Palestine, and more.  Look for the shortlist next month.


And on the American historical fiction front, the 2019 Langum American Historical Fiction Prize winner and two finalists were revealed yesterday.

Watershed by Mark Barr (Hub City, 2019), the author's debut novel, takes place in small-town Tennessee during the Depression and "is an immersive historical experience, a pitch-perfect evocation of a time, a place, and a culture," reads the award announcement.

The two finalists for the Langum Prize are Ann Weisgarber's The Glovemaker, set in the Utah territory in the 1880s, and Stephanie Marie Thornton's American Princess, biographical fiction about Alice Roosevelt Longworth.

Congratulations to all the honorees!

Saturday, March 07, 2020

Bits and pieces of historical fiction news: HNSA and RNA awards, the upcoming Mantel, and lists of genre favorites

Big news from the Historical Novel Society's Australasian chapter: The HNSA has announced the ARA Historical Novel Prize 2020.  "With prize money of $30,000," reads the announcement, "the new ARA Historical Novel Prize gives Australian and New Zealand historical novelists the chance to be recognised in a class of their own, with the most significant prize purse for any genre-based prize in Australasia." The ARA Group is the principal partner.

Novels published between January 1, 2019, and June 30, 2020 are eligible, and the prize uses the definition of historical fiction from the Historical Novel Society. A longlist and shortlist will be announced later this year, with the winner to be selected this November. For more details on rules and eligibility, see the link above.

This will be a great opportunity for historical novelists in Aus and NZ, and for the genre as a whole.


Also, from the main branch of the Historical Novel Society, registration for the 2020 conference in Durham, UK, this September is now open. Keynote speakers are Pat Barker, Graeme Macrae Burnet, Julie Cohen, and Emma Darwin.


In the UK, the winners of the Romantic Novelists' Association's 2020 Romantic Novel Awards were announced on March 2. Among the works of historical fiction which garnered prizes:

- The Forgotten Village by Lorna Cook, a multi-period novel (WWII & present day), won the Katie Fforde Debut Romantic Novel Award.

- Jenni Fletcher's Miss Amelia's Mistletoe Marquess, a Victorian romance, won the the Libertà Books Shorter Romantic Novel Award.

- Winner of the Romantic Saga award was Tania Crosse's The Street of Broken Dreams, set in London and south-east England in 1945.

Natasha Lester's The French Photographer, set during WWII, won the Goldsboro Books Historical Romantic Novel Award.  In the US, this book has the title The Paris Orphan.


With the imminent release of the concluding volume of Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, the media has been focusing its gaze on the historical fiction genre.

From the BBC's History Extra: nine excellent historical novels, as chosen by historians. I haven't heard of a couple of these; jump over to the link to read more about the books and the historians who selected them.

Last week, the New York Times published a piece on seven great young adult historical novels, a diverse list with both new releases and recent classics.

From the Guardian on February 29th: Beyond Mantel: the historical novels everyone must read. The works described and celebrated here are works of literary historical fiction.

And from Publishers Weekly, an interview by John Maher with Mantel herself, with some terrific quotes.

On her subject of Thomas Cromwell: "There’s so much we will never know, and what attracts me as a novelist is the combination of documented fact—the heavily-inked paper—and what’s missing and unknown—the white space."

And on history and the past, what she wishes more readers would realize: "The past has to be respected and valued for its own sake. It is not a rehearsal for the present, and its people are not us in a primitive form."

Monday, March 02, 2020

Re-Creating the 1960s and '70s in Bells for Eli, an essay by Susan Beckham Zurenda

Welcome to Susan Beckham Zurenda, who is stopping by with a post about weaving cultural elements from the 1960s-70s into the backdrop of her historical novel Bells for Eli, which is published today by Mercer University Press.


Re-Creating the 1960s and '70s in Bells for Eli
Susan Beckham Zurenda

Who recalls eating Moon Pies in the sun with chocolate dripping down your fingers at the local swimming pool while the Eagle landed on the moon’s Tranquility Base? Or junior high parties where black lights made your teeth glow green while Agent Orange laid waste to jungles in Vietnam? Or making out at drive-in movies in high school while hippies gathered for love-ins at Golden Gate Park? This was my era, a contradictory time teetering between devotion to 1950s conventional values and the “do what you feel” '60s and '70s.

In my novel Bells for Eli, the town and settings are largely imagined, but based on the time and locale of my own youth. My main characters Delia Green and her first cousin Eli Winfield live in the fictitious small town of Green Branch, South Carolina, during this momentous period. Their joys, sorrows, conflicts, and decisions are deeply affected by this time and place.

Against this background, the novel is inspired by a tragic accident my own first cousin suffered as a toddler in the late 1950s. Similar to Eli, my cousin drank from a Coca-Cola bottle filled with Red Devil Lye, a chemical with properties like helium my uncle used to inflate balloons for my cousin’s birthday party. Like Eli, my cousin survived, but his life forever changed.

The cousins in Bells for Eli become unusually close during childhood and adolescence, partly because they live across the street from one another but more because of Eli’s accident. As Eli encounters bullying schoolmates who don’t understand and mock his disfigurement and frailty, Delia becomes his best friend, defender, and his love. In adolescence, the relationship blossoms into an intimacy that cannot be, for they know to love one’s cousin in that way is taboo.

If you’re a Boomer like me, or even if you’re not, you likely think of the 1960s—loosely beginning around 1963 with Kennedy’s assassination and ending around 1974 with Watergate—as a period of rebellion and social change. The era was defined by the counterculture and social revolution involving music, drugs, dress, sexuality, and formality, and the relaxation of social taboos concerning race and gender.

Yet amid this extreme social flux, the small-town South of the 1960s and '70s largely remained an insular time and place. The parents had grown up as children of the Great Depression and wanted their kids to have more. With the US the world’s leading industrial power after WWII, and government support for education, home loans, and a booming economy, achieving the American Dream was a given in the middle to upper middle-class small-town South. A time I well remember.

The '60s activists—culturally significant as they were—occupied the margins of American society. The mainstream in my South Carolina town conducted their business as usual: climbing the career ladder, driving their kids to school, eating dinner together at the same time every evening, living the American Dream of home ownership, nuclear family, and social prestige.

As '60s children, Eli and Delia (like me) are Baby Boomers—the largest single generation until that point in American history. Boomers tremendously affected popular culture and sought to define their identities in numerous ways, particularly through music. And though Delia’s and Eli’s musical tastes sometimes intersect in the songs portrayed in Bells for Eli, their differing preferences contrast the status quo in their small town, and the counterculture’s nonconformity.

Emerging from 1950s rock and roll that celebrated young love and freedom (think Bill Haley and His Comets’ anthem for rebellion in “Rock Around the Clock,” and Elvis’ gyrating hips censored on the Ed Sullivan Show), 1960s music split into several genres, one major divide between soft and hard rock. Exhibiting his rebelliousness, Eli gravitates toward hard rock’s emphasis on overt masculinity and sexuality. Led Zeppelin, The Who, and The Grateful Dead typify his taste.

Unlike her cousin, Delia’s music reflects a more conservative bias. She’s attracted to the soft rock of Three Dog Night and The Temptations, and even admits liking Bubble Gum music, a subgenre highlighting innocuous themes like sunshine, toys, and sugary foods.

Still, Delia isn’t completely content, not like her friend Nealy, secure the way things are. Delia desires independence, beginning in grammar school when she chooses a career outfit for her Barbie, not a house dress and apron like her mother wears. Delia has no notion of the coming Women’s Liberation Movement, but she knows herself.

Television also provided Americans with accepted social patterns. Unlike music, however, few shows projected the antiestablishment. Not until 1967’s The Smothers Brothers’ political satire and 1968’s Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in—a play on the “love-ins” of hippie culture—did programming suggest the counterculture of civil rights and antiwar demonstrations. In the small-town South, people watching these shows often did so on the sly.

More often, television presented idealized white suburban family life. Happy housewife mothers, wise fathers, mischievous but not dangerously rebellious children were constants in shows like Leave it to Beaver, My Three Sons, and Andy of Mayberry. As in these programs, traditional family values, hospitality and proper behavior are expectations in 1960s Green Branch. Pretending life is good is a given, even if it isn’t.

Eli’s everyday family life is not the norm, but his mother knows how to make everything seem right. Mary Lily epitomizes graciousness and decorum, rarely confronting her husband’s alcoholic rants and violence. She is mostly passive toward Gene’s dysfunction, common for 1960s wives when divorce was rare, especially in the small-town South.

The frictions between expected conduct in that era’s South,  and the looming rebellion during Delia and Eli’s late adolescence, propel Bells for Eli toward its dramatic conclusion, when Delia discovers a shocking secret and truths about Eli she has never known.


More about Bells for Eli (Mercer University Press; March 2, 2020):

First cousins Ellison (Eli) Winfield and Adeline (Delia) Green are meant to grow up happily and innocently across the street from one another amid the supposed wholesome values of small-town Green Branch, South Carolina, in the 1960s and 1970s. But Eli's tragic accident changes the trajectory of their lives and of those connected to them. As Eli struggles for acceptance in childhood, Delia passionately devotes herself to defending him. Both are determined to safeguard the other.
Susan Beckham Zurenda
(photo credit: Anna Beckham)

Bells for Eli is a lyrical and tender exploration of the coming of age relationship between cousins drawn together through tragedy in a love forbidden by social constraints and a family whose secrets must stay hidden. Susan Beckham Zurenda masterfully transports readers into a small Southern town where quiet, ordinary life becomes extraordinary.

About the author

Susan Beckham Zurenda taught college and high school English for many years and now works as a publicist for Magi Time Literary Publicity. A recipient of several regional awards for her fiction, including The South Carolina Fiction Project, The Alabama Writers Conclave First Novel Chapter, The Porter Fleming Literary Competition, and The Southern Writers Symposium, she has also published numerous stories and nonfiction pieces in literary journals. Zurenda lives in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Her website is

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Spying for the Tudor realm: Arthur Phillips' The King at the Edge of the World

On matters of religion, Elizabeth I famously said she didn’t desire to “make windows into men’s souls.” To preserve her Protestant realm and prevent future bloodshed, however, her intelligencers devise a scheme to do exactly that to her likely successor, Scotland’s James VI.

In Phillips’ (The Tragedy of Arthur, 2011) inventively multilayered novel, their chosen agent, Mahmoud Ezzedine, is a Muslim physician in the Ottoman ambassador’s contingent who was left behind in bleak England. In 1601, with Elizabeth old and ailing, Ezzedine is approached with a delicate proposal: determine whether James is at heart Protestant or Catholic, and he can rejoin his wife and son in Constantinople. Getting close to the Scots king isn’t easy, though.

Phillips crafts a believable late-Elizabethan backdrop laced with intrigue and juxtaposes it with a deep dive into the emotions of an intelligent man in exile from country, family, even a sense of hope. Evoked in exquisite language full of subtle shadings and theatrical references, the plot grows suspenseful, and readers will appreciate how it lets them grasp on their own where it leads.

Arthur Phillips' The King at the Edge of the World was published by Random House on February 11th.  I contributed this review for Booklist's January 1 issue.

Some other notes:
James VI, the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, was Elizabeth I's cousin twice removed, and history records that he succeeded her on England's throne in 1603 (as James I). Despite the prevalence of novels set in Elizabethan times, few delve into the details of the royal succession at the end of Elizabeth's life, George Garrett's classic The Succession (1983) is one, and this is another.  Phillips' novel takes a unique viewpoint compared to other Elizabethan-set fiction. I also greatly admire novels that take a subtle approach to historical suspense.

Read more in the reviews at the New York Times (by Dominic Dromgoole) and Washington Post (by Ron Charles).

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

The Last Passenger by Charles Finch shows the growth of a brilliant Victorian detective

This last of the three prequels to Finch’s Charles Lenox mysteries finds our aristocratic detective in his late twenties, in 1855, feeling the strains for his unorthodox career choice (many of his social equals and members of Scotland Yard consider him a dilettante) and for his persistent unmarried state. While he and his loyal valet, Graham, study criminal patterns in newspapers to establish his bona fides with the former, Lenox’s mother and his good friend, Lady Jane Grey, attempt to remedy the latter.

One of the trilogy’s highlights is how it shows Lenox’s professional and emotional growth into urbane, self-confident maturity. Along these lines, The Last Passenger has the heaviest weight to pull and does so impressively. In terms of Lenox’s ongoing character arc, it’s the strongest of the three books.

His newest case is puzzling for several reasons. Late one October evening at Paddington Station, a young man on the 449 train from Manchester is found stabbed to death in the third-class carriage, with no luggage or identifying papers. Curiously, all the clothing labels on the body had been carefully cut out. Asked to help investigate by a bumbling Yard inspector who’s come to rely on his perspicacity, Lenox quickly deduces some facts about the murderer and the dead man’s origins, which make the case assume a much greater significance than the gang-related murder it was originally figured as.

His investigation draws readers into the inner workings of Parliament and the international shipping industry while Lenox slowly comes to grips with the truth that he’s lonely, meaning he should start listening to the women in his life. The supporting characters burst with personality, and the short historical digressions are delightful enhancements. The title has a poignant double meaning, too, that fits the novel’s more serious themes.

The Last Passenger is published today by Minotaur. Thanks to the publisher for approving my access on Edelweiss; I reviewed the book for February's Historical Novels Review. If you missed the first two books in this prequel trilogy, check them out: The Woman in the Water (book 1) and The Vanishing Man (book 2). I'll miss keeping company with the younger Lenox though look forward to catching up with him later in life.  I haven't yet read all the later entries in the series, which opened with A Beautiful Blue Death, set in 1865.

Friday, February 14, 2020

The Past's Second Life as Fiction: a guest post by Philip Cioffari

Today I'm welcoming Philip Cioffari, who has contributed an essay on writing and researching historical fiction set during an era he lived through himself. His newest novel If Anyone Asks, Say I Died from the Heartbreaking Blues is published today by Livingston Press of the University of West Alabama. For more information, please visit the publisher's site or


The Past's Second Life as Fiction
Philip Cioffari

It’s sobering—and in the right light, amusing—to regard an earlier period of one’s life as historical. Yet that is the reality if what one is writing is set more than fifty years ago. So then (he asks, tongue-in-cheek) does that make the writer himself an historic figure?


At least not in my case: an ordinary guy who grew up in a middle-class housing project in the East Bronx in the 1950s and '60s, and who writes about those days in my new novel, If Anyone Asks, Say I Died from the Heartbreaking Blues. In summary, it is the story of an eighteen-year-old boy’s serio-comic, twenty-four hour journey into manhood.

When I take a more objective look at things, I can acknowledge that those days are clearly of another period in history. I realize that with absolute clarity when I talk to my students or, for that matter, my nieces and nephews. How little they know of what life was like in that time. How different it is from the world they live in.

Here’s an irony: a writer like me lives as much in the past as he does in the present. So for me those days are less a part of history as they are living things, as alive and real on some level—and this will sound odd—as if they were happening to me now. At least that became true once I began writing this book. One memory led to another. A door opened to reveal another door. And so on. I was given the gift of time-travel.

Which is not to say I didn’t do my research. There are things one forgets—details of people and places and of the culture at large. And although the book is fiction, I want it to read as if it were true—every word of it. I want it to be, in its way, a document of history, particularly with regard to the feelings of the characters, the pulse of that time and place. As the country singer, Patsy Cline, once said: “I want every song I sing to be like an entry in my diary. I want the listener to know what I did and felt, exactly what it was like.”

author Philip Cioffari
(credit: Ken Haas)
To achieve that end, I began with my memories which, as I’ve said, there are many. Then I did my field research which consisted, first of all, of re-visiting the places of my youth. Though the demographics of the Bronx may have changed—different people, different cultures now—the streets and buildings and parks and playgrounds have not. They still throb with feeling, echoes of what lives inside me. Because my novel takes place on my main character’s birthday, which also happens to be his prom night, I made it a point to re-visit the church where dances were held in the basement, the places I went to post-dance, the beach where I worked one summer, and of course the housing project with its playgrounds and handball courts and ball field, and its uniform 7 to 12 story red-brick buildings. Some things, though, have been lost: the corner candy stores, for example, replaced now by bodegas; the newsstands, where the neighborhood men would wait after dinner for the evening edition of the Daily News; the Italian Pork stores with skinned rabbits hanging in the window; the German deli’s with their pretzels and barrels of dill pickles; the Irish pubs with the sour reek of beer that would greet us from their open doors in the morning on our way to school.

For the vanished past, I did another kind of research: old photos, newspaper clippings, school yearbooks, shared stories with friends and family members whose memories, for certain things, were even sharper than mine. And, most assuredly, one last tool I should mention: my collection of old 45’s, scratched and dusty, which I replayed often. Like the places I re-visited, those songs, those oldies but goodies, each and every one of them, was a reliquary of memories.

And each memory was another door that opened.

Philip Cioffari grew up in the Bronx. He is the author of the novels: Catholic Boys; Dark Road, Dead End; Jesusville: The Bronx Kill; and the story collection, A History of Things Lost or Broken, which won the Tartt First Fiction Prize, and the D.H. Lawrence Award. His stories have appeared widely in anthologies, literary journals and commercial magazines. He wrote and directed the independent feature film, Love in the Age of Dion, which won a number of film festival awards, including Best Picture at the Long Island International Film Expo, and Best Director at the NY Film & Video Festival. He is professor of English at William Paterson University in New Jersey. Find him online at

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

The Bermondsey Bookshop by Mary Gibson, an inspiring saga of working-class 1920s London

The Bermondsey Bookshop was a real place. During its nine-year existence (1921-30), the venue, under direction of the forward-thinking Ethel Gutman, provided working-class Londoners with literary and artistic sustenance through its reading room, author lectures, elocution lessons, drama readings, and other programming. Mary Gibson has taken this inspiring subject and woven it into a historical saga evoking an impoverished young woman’s dreams and struggles.

Kate Goss grows up in a violent household in South London’s Bermondsey district in the 1920s. Raised by her harsh Aunt Sylvie since her Romany mother’s death and her father’s abandonment for parts unknown, she’s forced to leave school and begin work at a tin factory, where the camaraderie is warm but the pay meager and the work brutally hard on young bodies. After a vicious fight with her cousin and aunt, 17-year-old Kate is thrown out and left to depend on her own resources and pluck – and the latter she has in abundance. She takes multiple jobs, including one as a cleaner at a bookshop catering to local residents, one meant to be “common ground for the Mean Streets and the Mayfairs.” Throughout, she dreams about her father returning and lifting her away from her dreary life.

Kate is initially suspicious of the shop’s kindly proprietor, Ethel Gutman, who treats her with respect and asks to be called by her first name, as if they were equals. Through her bookshop role, Kate makes connections that prove important: Johnny Bacon, her former schoolgirl crush, a dockworker who contributes articles to the quarterly Bermondsey Book; Nora, a French teacher; and Martin North, a wealthy woman’s artist nephew. It’s clear that Johnny and Martin will develop into rivals for Kate’s affections. Both are rounded characters with visible flaws, making Kate’s decision complicated.

Gibson plunges readers deeply into the crushing poverty of Bermondsey’s streets through Kate’s hand-to-mouth existence, including the exhaustion of fourteen-hour days and the “Monday morning fever” that soldering girls got from breathing metal dust. Kate has admirable energy and courage that see her through hard times – there are many – though has a blind spot where her missing father is concerned. The novel also shows how difficult bridging social divides can be. At times I found myself wishing that the bookshop was more central to the storylines, and the novel's ending feels a bit fragmented. But I found myself fully involved in Kate’s refusal to admit defeat, and appreciative of the chance to learn more about an innovative historical bookshop and its social success.

The Bermondsey Bookshop was published on 6 February by the UK publisher Head of Zeus. This review is the latest stop on the blog tour for the novel, and thanks to the publisher for approving me on NetGalley.

For more about the book:  Amazon UK | Amazon US | Amazon Canada | Amazon Aus | Goodreads.  Visit the author's website at

Monday, February 10, 2020

Dreamland by Nancy Bilyeau, an opulent and dangerous trip to 1911 Coney Island

Peggy Batternberg is an American heiress, the granddaughter of a Jewish immigrant who made his fortune in mining. Tall, dark-haired, and elegant, she knows how to dress for the occasion and move in upper-crust Manhattan society in 1911. All her life, she’s been sheltered within her overprotective family, and her lack of experience with day-to-day practicalities (drawing her own bath, handling money) will make you shake your head. But she has gumption and a desire for self-improvement, which count for a lot.

Sadly for Peggy – but fortunately for readers of her entertaining narrative – she gets dragged away, reluctantly and literally, from her job as shopgirl at the Moonrise Bookstore and installed in Brooklyn’s posh Oriental Hotel on the Atlantic shoreline. Her family will be spending the summer there at the request of her younger sister Lydia’s rich fiancé, Henry Taul, whose mother supposedly wants to get to know them. Since Peggy and Lydia’s late father was a black sheep who died in debt, they need to do their utmost to ensure that Lydia’s marriage happens. Peggy’s past entanglement with Henry is conveniently never mentioned by her relatives.

The Oriental Hotel is close by Coney Island, called America’s Playground, which promises grand amusements and amazing sights, all new experiences for Peggy – one of which involves Stefan Chalakoski, a Serbian immigrant and artist with old world manners that surprise and delight her. He’s a dream of a character, his feelings and experienced worldview subtly expressed through his dialogue and actions. Midway through, Peggy even finds herself drinking Coca-Cola and enjoying it, to her family’s embarrassment. The plot delves into much more than her coming-of-age summer, though.

The prologue, the only part of the novel not in Peggy’s lively voice, depicts a chilling scene – a woman’s beachfront murder – and gets readers noticing the dark undercurrents threaded through her story. Other bodies turn up later, too. Peggy’s cousins Ben and Paul exhibit shifty behavior, and Henry’s preoccupation with Lydia’s youthful purity is worrisome. Themes of class prejudice and police misconduct make themselves known, along with the unbreakable bond of sisterhood. Although unspoken, there’s also some mystery about Peggy’s past romantic history that I couldn’t help wondering about.

The impressive world-building begins on page one, easily conveying the world of Coney Island’s Dreamland park, with its hubbub of activity, brilliantly lit attractions, and popcorn-scented air. This is no sepia-tinted distant past but a sensation-filled present I felt I could step right into. Peggy is a sassy delight who grows in knowledge and confidence, and her transformation from sheltered socialite to take-charge amateur detective is smoothly done. I’d love to meet Peggy again, later on in life, to see the changes she wrought in the world.

Dreamland was published by Endeavour Quill on January 16th in paperback and ebook. Thanks to the publisher for approving my NetGalley access for the tour with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.


During the Blog Tour, we are giving away a paperback copy of Dreamland! To enter, please use the Gleam form below.

Giveaway Rules

– Giveaway ends at 11:59 pm EST on February 16th. You must be 18 or older to enter.
– Paperback giveaway is open to US only.
– Only one entry per household.
– All giveaway entrants agree to be honest and not cheat the systems; any suspicion of fraud will be decided upon by blog/site owner and the sponsor, and entrants may be disqualified at our discretion.
– The winner has 48 hours to claim prize or a new winner is chosen.


Thursday, February 06, 2020

Daniel Kehlmann's Tyll, a darkly humorous picaresque of the Thirty Years' War

Update:  The original post that was here no longer exists.  In early April 2020, I got a notice from Google that someone (acting on behalf of an international authors' organization) filed a DMCA takedown notice for the post, alleging that it violated the copyright of someone they represented. 

I was asked to remove the "offending content" (which baffled me, because it doesn't exist).  The entirety of my post consisted of a review I wrote myself, plus some additional commentary on the historical context of the Thirty Years' War, which I also wrote myself. Booklist (to whom I'd submitted the original review) has given me permission to repost content I write for them.

Google (who owns Blogger) doesn't evaluate these notices; they simply pass them along to the original party.

I can't help but wonder if something was lost in translation, since most of the other DMCA notices they filed seem to deal with removing illegal PDF copies of the full novel.  If the organization does represent Mr. Kehlmann in some way, I do wonder what purpose it served to demand removal of a starred book review of his work, since reviews (especially positive ones) generally help to get the word out...

In any case, anyone looking to read the original review can find it online at Booklist.

Monday, February 03, 2020

A Long Petal of the Sea, Isabel Allende's epic of the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath

Allende’s fluidly written saga conveys her deep familiarity with the events she depicts, and her intent to illustrate their human impact in a moving way. The scope spans most of the lives of Victor Dalmau, a Republican army medic in 1936 Spain, and Roser Bruguera, a music student taken in by Victor’s family and, later, his brother Guillem’s lover and the mother of Guillem’s child.

The story follows them over nearly sixty years, beginning with the tumult of the Spanish Civil War. Guillem is killed fighting against the Fascists, news that Victor can’t bear to tell Roser initially. After surviving separate and terrible circumstances that leave them refugees in France, where authorities treat them with contempt and worse, the two marry for practical reasons in order to join Pablo Neruda’s mission transporting over 2000 Spanish exiles to Chile aboard the S.S. Winnipeg. In Santiago, the Dalmaus find many Chileans sympathetic to the Spaniards, while others make them unwelcome.

With a poetic title coming from a poem of Neruda’s referring to Chile as “a long petal of sea and wine and snow,” the novel prompts readers to reflect on the timely themes of cultural adaptation and political refugees’ shared experiences across eras and continents. It also illustrates Victor and Roser’s unusual marriage, which begins out of duty, ripens into affection and mutual admiration, and transforms into something more.

Allende frequently steps away from her characters to relay the larger historical picture, as in this memorable passage: “The exodus from Barcelona was a Dantesque spectacle of thousands of people shivering with cold in a stampede that soon slowed to a straggling procession traveling at the speed of the amputees, the wounded, the old folks and the children.” Incidents from the Dalmaus’ lives are sometimes recited rather than shown, which can be distancing, but Allende’s storytelling abilities are undeniable.

A Long Petal of the Sea was published last week by Ballantine (this review first appeared in February's Historical Novels Review). It was translated from Spanish by Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson.

For two other takes, contrasting ones, on Allende's novel (her 17th), see the reviews in the New York Times, by Paula McLain, and in the Washington Post, by Kristen Millares Young.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Historical fiction award winners from ALA Midwinter 2020

The American Library Association Midwinter conference took place last weekend in Philly. I'm a bit late in reporting on the book awards there, so without further ado: here are the historical novels that garnered honors at the conference.

On the Reading List for 2020, which selects the best in genre fiction for adult readers:

In the Historical Fiction category, the winner was Lara Prescott's The Secrets We Kept (Knopf), focusing on two women on a secret mission to smuggle Pasternak's manuscript of Dr. Zhivago out of the USSR so it can be published and finally reach readers worldwide.

On the shortlist for Historical Fiction are: City of Flickering Light by Juliette Fay (1920s Hollywood), The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins (Georgian London), The Song of the Jade Lily by Kirsty Manning (WWII-era Shanghai), and Where the Light Enters by Sara Donati (late 19th-century NYC).

Also for the Reading List awards, the winner in Fantasy was Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, set in Mexico during the Jazz Age.  The Mystery winner was Alison Sinclair's The Right Sort of Man (see my review), taking place in post-WWII London.

On to the ALA Notable Books for 2020, which (in the Fiction category) are principally novels of a literary bent. Those receiving accolades include:

Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Water Dancer (slavery in 19th-c America)
Michael Crummey, The Innocents (19th-century Newfoundland)
Colson Whitehead, The Nickel Boys (Jim Crow-era Florida)

Among the winners of the Alex Awards, adult books suitable for young adults, was Dominicana by Angie Cruz, an immigrant story set in 1960s New York.  The Nickel Boys appears on the winners' list here, too.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Review of Cesare: A Novel of War-Torn Berlin by Jerome Charyn

The 1920 German silent horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari featured a mad scientist and a somnambulist named Cesare who did his bidding. Adding to his repertoire of unique historical interpretations, Charyn transplants this scenario into Nazi Germany, a setting with nightmarish qualities made real.

His “Cesare” is Erik Holdermann, who survives childhood trauma to become the henchman of Wilhelm Canaris, head of Germany’s military spy network, after saving the older man’s life. Acting against the Nazi regime from within, they quietly try to help individual Jews escape, but in a place rife with revenge murders and double and triple agents, discovery is inevitable; the only question is when.

The taut story line is full of surreal visuals and elaborate illusions, from Berlin’s Weisse Maus cabaret, reborn as a Gestapo club, to the purported Jewish cultural center at Theresienstadt. The toxic atmosphere distorts everyone’s nature, and if that’s not disturbing enough, there are too many superficially depicted, sex-obsessed female characters who enjoy physical abuse. Inventive, intense, and repellent in equal measure.

Cesare was published this month by Bellevue Literary Press, and I wrote this review for Booklist's Nov 15th issue.

Charyn writes in many styles and has specialized in creative mixtures of fact and fiction focusing on historical characters, such as Teddy Roosevelt (The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King) and writers Jerzy Kosinski (Jerzy) and Emily Dickinson (The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson). This was one of those novels I admired more than I enjoyed. It received starred reviews in Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, and is getting raves elsewhere, but I haven't seen other reviews that mention its depiction of women. I appreciated the creative thought behind the presentation of the setting, and the blurb described it as a love story, in part, but I can't say I read it that way.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Remembrance by Rita Woods, a unique debut saga of American history

In Rita Woods’ imaginative debut novel, the title refers to an important state of being and a special place.

Remembrance is historical fiction more in the vein of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad than a traditional narrative, although little from the blurb gives this away. It has a firm thread of fantasy within, or what you might call magical realism. Several of its central female characters – there are four – have abilities, perhaps related to the ancestral practice of Haitian vodun, they can use to protect themselves and others from harm, if they’re able to control them (not always possible). The secret haven called Remembrance, created by one strong-willed woman for this purpose, sits within the borders of antebellum Ohio and shelters a group of the formerly enslaved; white people aren’t permitted to enter.

These four women, past and present, all face varying degrees of racism and its devastating effects and must rely on themselves and one another. Gaelle, an aide in a modern-day Cleveland nursing home, still deals with the tragic aftermath of the Haitian earthquake while devotedly caring for an elderly resident who has the odd ability of dispersing heat, which she also shares. In 1857, in defiance of the freedom she was promised on her 18th birthday, a house slave named Margot and her younger sister are sold away from the Hannigans’ Louisiana plantation after the family’s fortunes fall into ruin. And back in 1791, an African-born enslaved woman called Abigail – not her birth name – is forced to leave Saint Domingue with her mistress, leaving her sons behind, as maroons (escaped slaves) on the island join forces in violent rebellion.

The themes of unpredictable futures, empty promises, and family separations emerge in all three eras. Most beguiling here are the elements of Creole culture woven into the women’s experiences, the original mélange of time periods, and Woods’ ability to describe sights, sounds, and feelings so evocatively. For example, a scene with Abigail encountering brutal cold for the first time in ice-encrusted New Orleans: She blew out a breath and watched it fog in the frigid air, both intrigued and horrified, as it hovered a moment in front of her lips, like some restless winter spirit.

As if often the case in multi-period fiction, the historical settings and personages hold the greatest interest. Gaelle’s story, set so much later than the other two, is less fully developed and seems tangential to the plot at times, while Abigail’s account, which sees her from young womanhood through old age, is an affecting tale that also presents the mysterious legacy she leaves behind. There are also some subtle mistakes in French usage.

Don’t expect to have all your questions answered about how the supernatural world-building works, but for anyone interested in a unique presentation of American history and heritage, the novel is impressively detailed and worthy of note.

Remembrance is published today by Forge; thanks to the publisher for sending me an ARC.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Orphans are everywhere in today's historical fiction

From Oliver Twist to Anne Shirley, and from Jane Eyre to Cosette from Les Misérables, orphans play starring roles in many classic works of literature. The hooks for these stories practically write themselves: what circumstances left these young people alone in the world, and how do they learn to survive? Their coming-of-age and ongoing character growth can result in gripping fiction.

And so it may not be surprising to see orphans trending in historical novels. Helping to spur this focus is the huge success of Christina Baker Kline's Orphan Train (2013), a multi-period novel about the homeless and abandoned children from America's eastern cities who were sent out West on trains, in hopes they'd find a better life with foster parents there (the reality, though, was sometimes grim).

Here are a dozen recent historical novels with a distinctive title commonality. Many, though not all, take place during the early decades of the 20th century.  How many have you read?

Here are a few more — all very popular with historical fiction readers and book clubs — that incorporate similar themes: children who endure traumatic circumstances during historical times.

For a full list of authors, titles, and settings in the collages above, here's a historical orphan reading list.  Please add additional suggestions in the comments.

Elizabeth Brooks, The Orphan of Salt Winds (Tin House, 2019). 1939 England.

Shirley Dickson, The Orphan Sisters (Bookouture, 2019). WWII-era England.

Joanna Goodman, The Home for Unwanted Girls (Harper, 2019).  1950s Quebec.

Stacey Halls, The Lost Orphan (MIRA, April 2020).  1750s London.

Pam Jenoff, The Orphan's Tale (MIRA, 2017). WWII-era Europe.

Jeanne Kalogridis, The Orphan of Florence (St. Martin's Griffin, 2017). 15th-century Florence, Italy.

Lauren Kate, The Orphan's Song (Putnam, 2019).  18th-century Venice.

Natasha Lester, The Paris Orphan (Forever, 2019).  WWII-era Paris.

Gemma Liviero, Pastel Orphans (Lake Union, 2015).  1930s Berlin.

Kristina McMorris, Sold on a Monday (Sourcebooks, 2018).  Depression-era Pennsylvania.

Glynis Peters, The Secret Orphan (One More Chapter, 2019). WWII-era England.

Sandy Taylor, The Little Orphan Girl (Bookouture, 2018). 1901 Ireland.

Kim van Alkemade, Orphan #8 (William Morrow, 2015). 1920s Manhattan; multi-period.

Ellen Marie Wiseman, The Orphan Collector (Kensington, July 2020). WWI-era Philadelphia.

Lisa Wingate, Before We Were Yours (Ballantine, 2019). 1930s-40s Tennessee; multi-period.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

The Daughters of Ironbridge by Mollie Walton, a saga of friendship and class differences in 1830s Shropshire

This is the debut saga from Walton, a successful transition for the author, who also pens historical fiction under her real name, Rebecca Mascull. She writes with admiration for the ordinary people whose toil fueled industrial growth in mid-19th-century England.

The setting is Shropshire in the 1830s, over 50 years since the world’s first iron bridge—which gave the nearby town its name—was constructed over the River Severn. The two protagonists, Anny Woodvine and Margaret King, are unlikely friends. Anny is the amiable, well-loved daughter of a furnace filler at the ironworks, while Margaret, whose ironmaster father despairs of her shyness, lives in privilege at Southover, the wealthy estate overlooking the town.

When the girls first meet by accident in the woodland, Anny, whose mother taught her to read and write, has just taken a job running errands for Mr. King’s estate manager. She is nervous about speaking with the daughter of the house, but Margaret, a lonely girl abused by her older brother, Cyril, tries to put her at ease. They get to know one another through meetings and secret letters, but problems arise years later due to Cyril’s actions, and when a handsome artist comes to town.

Their story is rooted in the history of Ironbridge and the local region, with many examples of the class divide. Anny’s parents take pride in a good day’s work, while Mr. King (somewhat stereotypically) is cold and stern, aiming for profit above all. There’s also some mystery about a baby whose young mother died while carrying her across the iron bridge late one evening, but the plot doesn’t take the obvious route here. Despite some head-hopping which gives away people’s motives too early, The Daughters of Ironbridge is an engaging read with surprising twists, and the ending sets events up nicely for the next in the series.

The novel was published by Zaffre in 2019; this was a personal purchase I'd reviewed for the Historical Novels Review. The next book, The Secrets of Ironbridge, will be published in April 2020. Some history: the town of Ironbridge is described and promoted as the "birthplace of the Industrial Revolution."

View of the Iron Bridge, 2015, with its previous grey color.
Photo by Simon Hark, via Wikimedia Commons - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Monday, January 06, 2020

Written in Their Stars by Elizabeth St. John, her newest English Civil War family saga

Spanning fifteen years, from the height of the English Civil War to after the Restoration, Elizabeth St. John’s third volume of her Lydiard Chronicles is the most complex yet. It continues to add new shadings of personality to her ongoing cast of characters while homing in on three women from her family tree whose actions strongly influenced their times, and vice versa.

Luce Hutchinson, daughter of Lucy (St. John) Apsley, heroine of the first book, The Lady of the Tower, sits firmly on the side of Parliament and yearns for a world without oppressive monarchical rule. As one of the signers of the warrant for Charles I’s execution, Luce's husband Colonel John Hutchinson, a well-known Puritan leader, makes a mark on history that can’t be undone.

With that action, John further alienates Luce’s brother, Allen, a fervent Cavalier who chooses to go into exile in France rather than remain in Cromwell’s England. With him goes his wife, Frances, and young daughter, Isabella; they risk being called traitors for joining the court of Charles I’s queen in Paris, but Allen has his eye on the long game, planning to bide his time and working toward the restoration of Prince Charles. Their cousin Nan Wilmot, the intelligent and crafty Countess of Rochester, does what she must to survive the tumultuous era, playing both sides to ensure her sons’ inheritance is kept intact. Nan sits at the heart of a spy network and enlists Frances in her secret mission to re-establish the monarchy.

For readers most familiar with the English Civil War though its accounts of battles and prominent men, this evocative saga will shift your impressions. St. John has based her novel on family memoirs, and their stories are worth knowing. She also weaves in other little-known facets of history, such as the unsung role of Susan Hyde (sister of the Earl of Clarendon, the future James II’s father-in-law). Barbara Villiers looms large in history as Charles II’s favorite mistress, but in Written in Their Stars, readers also see her as the lissome St. John cousin who comes to play a surprising part not just in the royal court but in her family’s future.

Despite the political leanings that divide them, the characters remain emotionally close to each other as family—a delicate balance evoked well in the writing. The relationships between three sets of spouses are also a highlight. While this novel can stand alone, I recommend reading the previous two books first to fill in all of the background to the characters, and what led them to the paths they chose.

Written in Their Stars was published by Falcon Historical in November (ebook and paperback, 384pp).


During the Blog Tour, we are giving away two signed copies of Written in their Stars! To enter, please use the Gleam form below.

Giveaway Rules

– Giveaway ends at 11:59 pm EST on January 10th. You must be 18 or older to enter.
– Paperback giveaway is open to US residents only.
– Only one entry per household.
– All giveaway entrants agree to be honest and not cheat the systems; any suspicion of fraud will be decided upon by blog/site owner and the sponsor, and entrants may be disqualified at our discretion.
– The winner has 48 hours to claim prize or a new winner is chosen.

Written in Their Stars

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

Emuna Elon's House on Endless Waters, a unique and ruminative WWII novel

Yoel Blum, a prominent Israeli writer, had promised his mother that he’d never visit Amsterdam, the city where he was born. But she has passed on, and when his agent persuades him to attend a literary event there at his Dutch publisher’s invitation, he feels obliged to accept. Yoel knows little about the circumstances of his birth, other than that his mother left the Netherlands with him and his older sister, Nettie, during WWII, never speaking of the place where she lost her husband and other relatives.

While there, Yoel and his wife, Bat-Ami, pay a visit to the Jewish Historical Museum and, in a film clip from a long-ago wedding, catch a glimpse of his mother as a young woman with her husband and daughter, and holding an unfamiliar male infant. This spurs Yoel to visit Nettie back in Israel to find out who the baby was. The startling story Nettie tells him inspires him to return to Amsterdam alone, several days later, on a journey to research and craft a very personal novel he feels will be his most significant work.

Elon chooses to withhold the full details of Nettie’s revelations, a decision that feels frustrating initially for a character-centered literary novel, since it creates even more distance between readers and the protagonist. Yoel, we learn, has closed himself off emotionally throughout his life, even from his wife, children, and grandchildren. But what the author does instead is use a technique, I decided later, that proves to be much more original.

While perambulating around Amsterdam and observing venues central to his family story, Yoel hand-writes scenes for his novel in a series of notebooks. These imagined scenes follow his young mother, Sonia, who he now feels he never really knew; her physician husband, Eddy; and their two young children, who live in a basement apartment owned by a wealthy couple, the de Langes, as increasing restrictions are imposed upon Amsterdam’s Jewish residents. Both families believe they’ll be immune from the dreadful events happening to Jews elsewhere.

Yoel’s thoughts and experiences are closely intercut with episodes from his manuscript, which increases the pacing of this ruminative work and creates continual interactions between today and the past, often multiple times in the same chapter. This enhances Elon’s themes about the long-term effects of trauma, the suffering and persecution carved into Jewish collective memory, and mothers’ desperate instincts to protect their children. For me, one aspect of the mystery in Yoel’s past was never in doubt from one point forward, but the images of wartime Amsterdam are beautifully evoked and heart-rending.

House on Endless Waters, translated from Hebrew by Anthony Berris and Linda Yichiel, will be published by Atria/S&S on January 7th; thanks to the publisher for sending the review copy.