Saturday, November 28, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 22, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 19, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 15, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 05, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 02, 2020

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

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


Elizabeth Bales Frank 

1. Meet the Censorettes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Secondary Sources

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

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

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

3. Primary Sources, Librarians, and Archivists

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

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

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


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

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Focusing on autumn 2020 historical fiction releases, UK edition

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 19, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 12, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

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

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


How Research Drives Plot
Libby Fischer Hellman

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

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

Primary Research

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

The Colonel and the Translator

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

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

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

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

Refugee Silence

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

The Mekong River 

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

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

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

Cu Chi Tunnels

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

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

Secondary Sources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the Author

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

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

Saturday, October 03, 2020

The Dark Horizon by Liz Harris, a saga set between the two world wars in England and America

Spanning the post-WWI period through the Great Depression in England and America, Harris delivers an addictive saga reminiscent of early Barbara Taylor Bradford. The story follows the romance between two young people from different worlds and its dramatic fallout. 

Lily Brown had met Robert Linford when she was a land girl working near his family’s Oxfordshire estate. Enraptured with one another, they marry and have a son, James, but Joseph Linford, the intimidating and stubborn family patriarch, schemes to split them up, since he thinks Lily is inappropriate wife material and only after Robert’s money.

Joseph is a villain with depth. As head of Linford & Sons, he oversees a company building new housing developments on London’s outskirts and knows that Robert, his son and future successor, will need a partner who bolsters his social position. While beautiful Lily is a devoted wife and mother, it’s true that her naivete, lack of education, and the resulting anxiety hold her back. After Robert and Lily are driven apart and forced to rebuild their lives separately, it leaves a question open about whether they will ever reunite, and how, especially with both unaware of the deceit underlying their split.

The novel journeys along with their well-developed coming-of-age stories, told in parallel, as they form ties with others that help them grow in confidence. The backdrop of early 20th-century Hampstead, a community in north London, is an original setting, and the Jewish tenements of New York’s Lower East Side are vibrantly animated. 

The story zips along with emotional currents that make the book hard to put down. Harris also manages to navigate a path through a complicated plot maze at the end, wrapping up her tale in a satisfying manner while leaving room for future volumes in the Linford Saga.

The Dark Horizon was published by Heywood Press in 2020; I reviewed it for August's Historical Novels Review and will be reviewing the next book, The Flame Within, next month.  The next book will focus on Alice, the wife of Thomas Linford, who plays a secondary role here.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Receive Me Falling by Erika Robuck, a haunting multi-period Caribbean mystery

Being home so much during the pandemic has given me time to catch up with novels I’d purchased a long time ago. Erika Robuck’s Receive Me Falling is her first, self-published novel, which came out in 2009, and I’ve had it on my shelf for about that long. If you haven’t read it before, now’s a choice time to pick it up, since its setting and themes are especially timely with the craze for all things Hamilton and the current #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Skillfully jumping between the present day and the 1830s, using the popular dual-narrative format, Robuck zooms in on a sugar cane plantation, Eden, on the Caribbean island of Nevis (Alexander Hamilton’s birthplace) and its haunted history.

Meg Owen, a 33-year-old woman who works for Maryland’s controversial governor, is distraught when her parents die in a car crash the night after her engagement party. One of the properties they owned was an old plantation house on Nevis, and to clear her head, Meg travels to see her inheritance for herself. After she learns the shocking true state of her father’s financial affairs, finding the right buyer for the house and land becomes pressing.

Nearly two hundred years earlier, Catherine Dall lives with her alcoholic father, Cecil, at Eden, and oversees its sugar cane production, an operation dependent on the labor of over 200 enslaved people. Catherine believes herself to be a kind mistress and proves receptive to opinions shared by two British visitors, a father and son, who are pretending to be scoping out a site for a plantation of their own while secretly laying the groundwork for the abolitionist movement.

With its turquoise waters, cool sea breezes, and many varieties of colorful flowers filling the landscape, Nevis would be an idyllic paradise – if not for knowledge of its former residents’ slave-owning past. Meg has the option to sell to a developer who would transform the now-decrepit estate into a plantation-style resort, and she needs the money, but she finds that idea insensitive and distasteful. Catherine, meanwhile, is a wealthy young woman whose outlook reflects her time. While she may personally dislike slavery and is horrified by the actions taken by her father’s stereotypically cruel overseer, her lifestyle is so ingrained in the system that she’s unable to see a way out of it.

It’s up to Meg to sift through old artifacts and uncover, with the help of a local historian, what factors contributed to Eden’s downfall so long ago. As is rarely the case with multi-period novels, I found the modern narrative grabbed me the most, with its emphasis on sifting through the remnants of the past and its refreshingly non-standard romantic subplot.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Review of The Queen of Tuesday: A Lucille Ball Story, by Darin Strauss

The premise of Strauss’s newest literary novel is grandiose and rather wacky: that his grandfather Isidore Strauss, a Long Island real estate developer, had a secret affair with Lucille Ball. This never happened. The author describes his work as “a hybrid: half memoir and half make-believe” sparked by “an innocent dream,” although Isidore and the actress did attend the same party in which Fred Trump demolished the glass Pavilion of Fun on Coney Island. 

Their imagined meeting there, moved to 1949 from its real 1966 occurrence, opens the story. Lucille, a former B-Movie queen, has ambitious plans for television; Isidore, a handsome Jewish man with a “Cary Grant chin,” is a better listener (and lover) than the actress’s hot-tempered, unfaithful husband.

The novel follows the pair – her overnight superstardom, his struggle to maintain normality amid their romance, their progressively strained marriages – mostly separately. In between, using metafiction techniques, the author describes his grandfather’s life and his own attempts to interest his (real) agent in a screenplay Isidore and Lucille co-wrote (obviously fictional). 

The tale succeeds in entertaining, and Lucille steals the show, of course. Most moving are the scenes where she finds her comedic niche via the character of Lucy Ricardo: “Maybe she can be the audience, only funnier and a little prettier… She can conquer the world with realness.” Strauss also offers insight into celebrity culture and the difficult interplay between Lucille’s on-screen and off-screen marriages, both involving Desi Arnaz.

So much even beyond the central conceit is made up, however, that it pushes the novel into the alternate history spectrum. Even the weekday when I Love Lucy aired is off-kilter (it was Mondays, not Tuesdays). It’s best for people who value emotional over historical truth, but all the same, it should spur interest in Lucille Ball and her accomplishments. 

The Queen of Tuesday was published in August by Random House (I reviewed it for the Historical Novels Review).  I'd love to know what historical fiction readers besides me think about this premise, and about the book if you've read it.  Would you consider reading it?

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.

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.