Thursday, April 30, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 25, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 18, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Some early 2020 historical novels that caught my attention

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

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

Beyond the Ghetto Gates

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

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

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

The Henna Artist

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

Glorious Boy

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

Mexican Gothic

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


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

A Hundred Suns

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

How Much Of These Hills Is Gold

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

Friday, April 10, 2020

Monica Hesse's They Went Left, a propulsive novel set in postwar Europe

Zofia Lederman is eighteen when she’s liberated from the Gross-Rosen concentration camp in August 1945. Broken in body and spirit (she’s self-aware enough to admit “my mind is still soft”), she shuffles along as Red Cross workers process her information and release her to return home to the Polish city of Sosnowiec in the company of Dima, the Red Army soldier who rescued her.

Her one goal is to reunite with her younger brother, Abek, from whom she was separated at Birkenau. Zofia pours all her hope into the possibility that Abek still lives, since she knows her other relatives are dead. In 1942, after all the Jews from Sosnowiec were ordered to the soccer stadium by Nazi officials, their family was transported to Birkenau, where lines formed. She and Abek were sent to the right, towards a work camp, while her parents, grandmother, and aunt were directed left, into the gas chambers.

Written in straightforward prose, Monica Hesse’s propulsive novel has an extremely well-depicted setting, one which forms the backdrop of the mystery driving her protagonist. Post-World War II Poland and Germany are a chaotic mess, and with no central information repository, Holocaust survivors like Zofia must navigate through a maze of individual hospitals, relief organizations, and displaced-persons camps in their search for living relatives, while they’re still fragile from their own traumas. Locating one twelve-year old boy seems an impossible task, and there’s no guarantee Abek even made it out of Birkenau. Readers will know this, but Zofia can’t admit it.

Under these circumstances, how can anyone move forward? I admire how Hesse depicts, with humane sensitivity, a variety of characters working out the answer to this complicated question for themselves. Desperately following crumbs on her brother’s trail, Zofia courageously makes her way alone to Foehrenwald, an American-run displaced-persons camp in Bavaria, where she joins a community of young people rebuilding their shattered lives. Here, small roots are planted with the goal of growing future happiness. Zofia shares a cottage with the talkative Breine, who’s planning a wedding with a man she barely knows, and grows intrigued by Josef, a man who seems as damaged as she herself is.

Zofia is an unreliable narrator, a literary technique that can annoy me if it comes to light that the author’s holding material back from the reader to create a more impactful plot. Here, Zofia’s faulty memories make sense given the terrible hand she’s been dealt. There were times, in her search for Abek, when I sensed I was being misled (and was right), while other aspects of the mystery came as a surprise. Aimed at YAs, They Went Left works well as a crossover novel; while young, the characters are adults, and the emotions they face as they determine how to face life again are realistically mature.

Monica Hesse's They Went Left was published by Little Brown Books for Young Readers this week. Thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy.

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.