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 fiancĂ©, 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.


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.