Saturday, May 30, 2020

Katheryn Howard, The Scandalous Queen by Alison Weir depicts a sad episode in Tudor history

Katheryn Howard, Henry VIII’s “rose without a thorn,” not only deceived the king about her previous lovers but dallied with another man during their marriage. What on earth was she thinking? 

In the fifth novel in her Six Tudor Queens series, Weir convincingly imagines the answer to that question. Incorporating period sources about Katheryn (which weave smoothly into the narrative), she plunges readers into the viewpoint of a fun-loving, naive young woman whose unorthodox upbringing and poor choices precipitated her downfall. 

Raised by caring relatives after her mother’s death, the attractive, dowerless Katheryn later enters the lax household of her step-grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, and falls in with a sexually adventurous crowd. After her ambitious Catholic uncle pushes her toward King Henry VIII, she decides becoming queen has definite appeal and develops affection for her aging, devoted royal husband. 

Her past, however, leaves her vulnerable to blackmail, and it’s fascinating and disquieting to see how she justifies her decisions. Though Katheryn lacks the intellectual depth of Weir’s previous heroines, her character portrait is similarly astute.

Katheryn Howard, The Scandalous Queen was published this month by Ballantine in hardcover and ebook. In the UK, the title is Katheryn Howard, The Tainted Queen.  I reviewed it for the 4/15 issue of Booklist (reprinted with permission) and am looking forward to Katharine Parr, The Sixth Wife, next year.

Other notes: I did wonder, after reading the previous books in the series, what Weir would make of Katheryn Howard. Her life was shorter than that of her predecessors, and there just didn't seem to be as much substance to work with. With her own first cousin (Anne Boleyn) having been charged with adultery and beheaded, Katheryn could have remained faithful and enjoyed her royal position while it lasted, since she was decades younger than Henry and would likely outlive him.  But that's not what happened.  Put plainly, she didn't seem especially bright. Weir's novel didn't convince me otherwise, but she did a great job with the historical material and explained why Katheryn behaved as she did. As such, I found this novel particularly successful as an example of biographical fiction.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Africaville by Jeffrey Colvin tells a generational story anchored in Black Canadian history

Colvin’s debut novel, a literary saga spanning over seventy years, is as much about the legacy of a place as the place itself.

The story follows the lives of three generations of Black Canadians. Kath Ella Sebolt, a young woman during the Depression, leaves her home behind for a career in Montreal; her son, Omar/Etienne, distances himself further from his origins, passing as a white man in the Deep South; and his son, Warner, makes astonishing discoveries about his ancestry and reaches out to reconnect with it. In addition to their familial ties, linking them together is a shared heritage in – and estrangement from – Woods Bluff, a Black neighborhood of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Little by little, Colvin intertwines his characters’ experiences with details of his setting’s unique history (which is based on the real-life village of Africville), beginning with its original settlement by formerly enslaved Jamaicans and Americans in the late 18th century. The novel delves into the close-knit society of Woods Bluff’s many residents, focusing on their day-to-day concerns, including moments of rebellion and friendship, deeply felt tragedies, and their relationships with their skin color. They are all affected, in one or more ways, by prejudice and unequal treatment from the government. Despite this neglect and some internal strife, the neighborhood thrives as a close-knit community for over a century.

At first, the unadorned sentences left me observing the people from a close distance rather than drawn into their lives and emotions, but partway through, this opaqueness began to break down, and the storytelling flowed more easily. Colvin refuses to pass judgment on the characters’ decisions and simply presents them as they are, with their own personalities, flaws, and strengths. It’s a worthy story of perseverance that succeeds in illuminating a little-known slice of North American history.

Africaville was published by Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins, in December 2019; I reviewed it from Edelweiss for May's Historical Novels Review.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Imogen Kealey's Liberation, an action-adventure thriller featuring WWII heroine Nancy Wake

Nancy Wake, the WWII resistance heroine who died in 2011, age 98, has been having a moment. Satisfying readers’ hunger for fiction about real-life women from the 20th century, several novelists have been inspired by her daring accomplishments, including Ariel Lawhon (Code Name Hélène). Now Imogen Kealey offers their own version in the novel Liberation.

Wake was made of stronger fiber than most of us. After witnessing atrocities in Vienna in the ‘30s, she determined to do her utmost to obliterate the Nazi regime. As an agent with Britain’s SOE (Special Operations Executive) operating in the Auvergne region of central France, she organized and trained local resistance fighters (maquisards): arming them, arranging for supply drops from Britain alongside wireless operator Denis Rake, and disrupting the German supply lines in advance of D-Day. Following the war, she received multiple honors from the UK and France as well as from Australia, her adopted country, and New Zealand, where she was born.

“Imogen Kealey” is the pseudonym for Hollywood screenwriter Darby Kealey and British novelist Imogen Robertson, and their jointly written novel is unabashedly a thriller; its fast-paced, suspenseful scenes should fulfill anyone’s desire for an adrenaline rush. It opens in 1943 as Nancy, concealing herself amid the rubble of destroyed buildings in Marseille’s Old Quarter, narrowly escapes the German patrol, who don’t realize that one of their prime targets – the so-called “White Mouse,” Nancy herself – is nearby. Following this close call, she returns home to prepare for her wedding to rich industrialist Henri Fiocca. Later, needing to leave France quickly, she valiantly pursues her mission to fight against Nazi dominance all the while knowing she’s left her beloved husband in danger.

Many episodes taken from Nancy’s return to France as an agent are excitingly described in the novel’s pages, from her ongoing difficulties in convincing the maquisard leader, Gaspard, that she, a woman, deserves to be in charge; to her awe-inspiring bicycle ride, traveling 500km in three days to locate a radio operator for re-establishing contact with Britain for future supply drops.

That said, the fictional liberties taken in Liberation are numerous and explained over three pages in the author’s note. For example, by 1943, Nanci and Henri had already been married for several years. Many other aspects of the timeline are rearranged for dramatic purposes, and one critical member of her three-person team, agent John Hind Farmer (“Hubert”), is omitted. While Nancy shows vulnerability in her constant worry about her husband’s safety, and she’s internally tough and fond of swearing, as she was in life, there’s little evidence of the “irrepressible, infectious, high spirits [that] were a joy to everyone who worked with her,” as recounted by the SOE’s official historian. Her cover name of “Madame Andree” isn’t used; puzzlingly, Nancy gives out her real name freely throughout her covert resistance activities.

While this story may appeal to readers wanting a suspenseful action-adventure novel, those interested in the historical Nancy Wake should pay close attention to the author’s note and follow up with their own research (there’s a forthcoming movie based on this book, too). For fiction readers seeking more nuanced character depictions and stronger adherence to biographical details, Code Name Hélène will be a better option.

Liberation was published on April 28 by Grand Central; thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Research in Nebraska's Legacy of the Plains Museum for Answer Creek, an essay by Ashley E. Sweeney

Research in museums and archives can reveal important details for historical novelists. Contributing an essay on this topic is author Ashley Sweeney, whose second novel, Answer Creek, is published by She Writes Press today.


Research in Nebraska's Legacy of the Plains Museum for Answer Creek
Ashley E. Sweeney

On a broad swath of prairie grassland just outside Scott’s Bluff, Nebraska, there’s a little-known gem of a place that’s a veritable mother lode for western memorabilia and research.

The Legacy of the Plains Museum in Gering, Nebraska houses The Paul and Helen Henderson Collection, an amazing compilation of the Hendersons' 50 years documenting the Oregon Trail. In addition to 100 boxes filled with slides, maps, photographs, manuscripts, pioneer diaries, guides, and letters spanning the 19th century, the collection also includes notes, correspondence, maps, diagrams, and photographs from the Hendersons themselves.

As I was traveling the length of the Oregon-California Trail doing research for Answer Creek, I made an appointment at the museum to check out their collection. My parameters: reading original journals and diaries from 1845-1859. Little did I know that what might have taken a couple of hours turned into an entire day! So it was, for more than six hours on a sweltering day in mid-July 2018, I spread out the contents of seven boxes of material in the museum’s conference room and raced the clock to copy, photograph (with permission), and cite document after document. Hour turned to hour and I didn’t even have time—or the inclination—to take a break.

Thursday, June 12 1845
The weather being extremely hot, and there being not a single drop of water to be obtained before we got to the gorge, we suffered a great deal from the thirst, as did our poor animals . . .
—J. Henry Carleton

April 23 1847
Made 19 miles; traveled until dark. Ate a cold bite and went to bed chilly and cold, which is very disagreeable with a parcel of little children . . .
—Elizabeth Dixon Smith Geer

June 29th 1847
To day our cattle complained; much of the dust is very bad. The road to day is very uneven, and winds amongst the Black Hills. The emigrants now begin to see that they have loaded too heavy . . .
—Chester Ingersoll

Thursday, May 26th 1859
Rather cold. Continued our journey up the South Side of the South Platte. We haven’t anything to lose by going, and nothing to make by going back . . .
—J. A. Wilkinson

Quite a bit of the information I gleaned from my day at Legacy of the Plains found its way into Answer Creek. My favorite was a passage where the journal writer describes emigrants “swilling rot-gut whiskey for spiritual consolation.” Through the words of tired and dust-covered overland pioneers, I could almost taste it.

All the while, my husband (and usual research assistant), toured the museum, videotaped an authentic threshing bee on the museum grounds, and shot the breeze with some older locals. Michael spent his summers as a child in nearby Bayard, Nebraska on his great aunt and uncle’s farm so there’s a deep connection for him in that particular part of the world.

I was also particularly taken with western Nebraska—its wide skies, unusual monoliths, and amazing cloud formations. At the top of Scott’s Bluff National Monument, you can almost touch the sky. And then we bedded down at a bed and breakfast that rivals any we’ve ever stayed at, with each guest room appointed with authentic trail memorabilia and antiques. And the hospitality! As a native New Yorker, I’d never given Nebraska the time of day before then. Not anymore.


About Answer CreekShaped by Sweeney’s thorough research and vivid prose, this memorable and moving novel of the Donner Party rises above the scandalous to deliver a compassionate portrayal of families pushed to the edge of their humanity and of a determined young woman carving her own path toward love and independence.

 Award-winning author Ashley E. Sweeney received the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for her debut novel, Eliza Waite. Sweeney is a former journalist and educator. A native New Yorker, she now divides her time between the Pacific Northwest and Tucson, Arizona. Answer Creek (She Writes Press, May 2020) is her second novel. Find her online at, @ashleysweeney57,, and Instagram at ashleysweeney57.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

The Course of All Treasons by Suzanne M. Wolfe continues an entertaining Elizabethan espionage series

In his second entertaining outing, the Honorable Nicholas “Nick” Holt confronts a twisted web of peril in 1586 England and gets caught in the thick of it.

Novels about Elizabethan-era espionage often delve into threats against England from Catholic Spain and Her Majesty’s sister-monarch to the north, Mary Queen of Scots. Suzanne M. Wolfe spices up the brew by incorporating rival English spy networks and an exiled Irish noblewoman from a powerful, embattled clan.

After his recent success in finding the killer of royal ladies-in-waiting, Nick is asked by Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, to find out who murdered a fellow agent and dropped his body in the Thames. A Spanish diplomat appears to be linked to the crime, and events transpire that make it seem like other agents are being targeted.

Amidst all the plotting and counter-plotting, Nick gets stuck with the company of Edmund Lovett, an overly-eager-to-please former Oxford schoolmate who saves his life on the road. Edmund works for the Earl of Essex, a foppish high-ranking aristocrat who’s set up his own team of spies. With both Essex and Walsingham serving Elizabeth, one hopes they’d be on the same side, but the competition between them means that’s only partly true.

This is a series where you’ll arrive for the intrigue and period atmosphere and stay for the multifaceted characters. The author knows her way around Tudor London, from a muddy riverside wharf to the inner sanctum of Sir Robert Cecil, Walsingham’s redoubtable young future successor. Almost everyone near the royal court has secrets, including Nick, younger brother of the Earl of Blackwell, who keeps his identity as a spy (and his family’s Catholic past) closely hidden. Even Essex has more depth than it initially seems, and then there’s Lady Annie O’Neill, a tall, dangerous redhead with hidden talents.

While Nick’s relationship with Kat, madam of a Bankside brothel, remains strong, this novel sees him getting more serious about Rivkah, a young doctor working alongside her twin brother. He admires her forthrightness and dislikes having to keep his status as an agent from her. Reading the first book (A Murder By Any Name) isn’t needed to appreciate this one, and if you haven’t yet, there aren’t any spoilers here. Both are definitely recommended.

The Course of All Treasons was published by Crooked Lane in March; thanks to the author and publisher for the review copy.

Friday, May 08, 2020

The Florios of Sicily, a saga based on a 19th-century entrepreneurial family

In her first novel translated into English, Auci has fashioned a classic saga out of authentic Sicilian history.

This fluidly written Italian bestseller follows three generations of Florios, who rose to become entrepreneurs on a massive scale in the nineteenth century. After an earthquake strikes their Calabrian village in 1799, brothers Paolo and Ignazio Florio relocate with their family to Palermo, Sicily’s capital, and open a spice shop. Over seven decades, Paolo’s son, Vincenzo, and grandson, Ignazio, learn the ropes of the business, establishing connections and vanquishing rivals as Italy’s turbulent politics swirls around them.

Through hard work and clever innovations, plus boatloads of determination, their trade steadily expands, encompassing commodities like quinine powder, canned tuna in oil, and Marsala wine. One can simultaneously admire their ingenuity, bemoan the snobbery they face (despite their wealth, aristocrats look down on them as laborers), and sympathize with the Florio women, whose wishes are often sacrificed to male ambition.

For fans of big, meaty epics chock full of drama and intriguing characters, Auci’s fictionalized tale of the real-life Florios delivers in spades.

The Florios of Sicily was published by HarperVia, HarperCollins' new imprint for translated literature, in April. The translator is Katherine Gregor, and the book's subtitle is "the story of the uncrowned kings of Sicily."

Read more about the author in an interview she did for the Made in Egadi site.  I hope there'll be a sequel!  This review was written for the 3/15/20 issue of Booklist (reprinted with permission).

Saturday, May 02, 2020

Online events from historical fiction authors during the pandemic

Among the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic in the literary sphere, in-person author events have been canceled, including signings, launch parties, festivals, and conference appearances. This will be the case for a long time to come.

As a result, online author events have been springing up, many of which feature historical novelists discussing their books and the genre, followed by Q&A. I've attended a few of these, have signed up for more, and plan to watch recordings of others I wasn't able to view live.  Because I live in a small, rural college town where the nearest non-used bookstore is 50 miles away, I almost never got to attend author events unless the university was sponsoring one or if I traveled to attend a conference. I've been enjoying these meetings and webinars -- there isn't a bad seat in the house -- and getting the opportunity to hear from authors about their works.

Here are some online HF events I've come across.  Fellow readers:  have you caught any of these, and are there any others you especially enjoyed or would recommend?

Last week, I received an email invite to a Thursday night Zoom session at the Unbound Book Festival out of Columbia, Missouri -- renamed Housebound Unbound for this year -- featuring novelists Alex George (The Paris Hours), Meg Waite Clayton (The Last Train to London) and Whitney Scharer (The Age of Light).  I'm not sure how I got on the mailing list, but thanks to whoever added me!

Among other topics, the trio and the moderator talked about writing historical fiction about real people. Clayton, who wrote about WWII heroine Truus Wijsmuller's role in the Kindertransport, spoke about wanting to honor the real person in her writing and the importance of having the novel reflect what her historical characters actually did. George, who was also the festival organizer, discussed conducting research not just for facts, but for adding color (a great way of expressing it), and Scharer, a student of photography and admirer of the work of Man Ray, spoke of discovering Lee Miller through him and being astonished she hadn't come across her subject earlier.  The session was recorded, and it looks like you can register to watch it on demand.

Library Love Fest, from HarperCollins' library marketing department, had a Facebook Live session last week with appearances from Stephen P. Kiernan (Universe of Two) and Beatriz Williams (Her Last Flight).  Please click on the link above to watch the video since my attempts to embed things from FB aren't working.

I especially enjoyed this one after having read Universe of Two earlier this year; review to come. It's about the lives of a young couple during the development of the Manhattan Project.

Although I didn't get to see "Drinks with Dames" live on April 25th on Zoom due to high demand and technical limitations on attendance, it's on YouTube (embedded below) for all to see.  Participating authors are historical novelists Georgie Blalock, Janie Chang, Chanel Cleeton, Laura Kamoie, Eliza Knight, Kerri Maher, Kate Quinn, Alix Rickloff, Jennifer Robson, Erika Robuck, Renee Rosen, Stephanie Thornton, and Bryn Turnbull.  They all talk about how they've had to readjust their lives and writing schedules, their latest book releases, and what they're working on.

As part of their Herstory tour, Harlequin Australia had a Facebook Live session on April 23rd with Australian HF authors Karen Brooks (The Chocolate Maker's Wife), Mary Anne O'Connor (Where Fortune Lies), Kerri Turner (The Daughter of Victory Lights), and Tea Cooper (The Woman in the Green Dress).

Canadian historical novelist Genevieve Graham organized the Our View from Here live Facebook session with fellow authors Roxanne Veletzos, Ellen Keith, Kristen Harmel, Jennifer Robson, and Julia Kelly.

Upcoming tomorrow (Sunday, May 3rd), you can register for various free sessions at the Newburyport Literary Festival, including a 3:15pm EST panel with Anne Easter Smith and C.C. Humphreys talking about researching other pandemics during medieval times and the 17th century.

And on Thursday May 7th: Left Bank Books in St. Louis will be hosting a HF panel with Jennifer Rosner, Lisa Wingate, and Jan Eliasberg at 7pm CST on Facebook Live, and Alex George (The Paris Hours) will be chatting about his new release on May 6th, also at 7pm.