Monday, June 29, 2020

A Perfect Explanation by Eleanor Anstruther, a riveting historical novel about a dysfunctional aristocratic family

Anstruther’s debut centers on a shocking truth from her family history. Her paternal grandmother Enid Campbell, descendant of the Earls of Argyll, sold her younger son Ian to her sister for £500, following Enid’s divorce and bitter custody battle. Having received her father’s permission to tell his story, and infusing it with details from public court records and private sources, the author brings us into her characters’ thoughts with unvarnished candor and lays bare their flaws alongside the burdens and cruelties of aristocratic life.

The novel volleys between the 1920s and 1964, with Enid in a Hampstead nursing home before a prospective family reunion with her daughter and Ian, who she hasn’t seen since she gave him up 25 years earlier. Here she ponders a “perfect explanation” for her life choices, some of which were outside her control.

Emotionally cold, Enid is impossible to like, which makes being within her head uncomfortable. However, as we learn about the context behind her terrible decisions, we come to deeply empathize. After her older brother’s death at Gallipoli, and her sister Joan a confirmed “spinster” (who lived with her lesbian partner), Enid’s mother pushes her to provide an heir. Married to Douglas Anstruther, a man she comes to detest, Enid produces a boy and a girl, but her son Fagus’s physical challenges make him a deficient option in their view, and she feels pressured to try again.

Enraptured by religion, particularly Christian Science, Enid never wanted to marry or be a mother; the inside perspective of her descent into postpartum depression, which spurs her to abandon her family, feels wrenching. We also experience the views of Finetta, Enid’s daughter, yet another victim of a broken system that neglects its female children’s mental health and values money above all. This eye-opening novel is moving and psychologically shrewd throughout.

A Perfect Explanation was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in February, and by Salt (in the UK) last year. I read it from NetGalley and reviewed it for the Historical Novels Review's May issue.

For more background on the facts behind the story, the Daily Mail published an interview with the author, published when the novel came out in the UK in 2019.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

The Library of Legends by Janie Chang, a real and mystical journey set in war-torn 1937 China

A university is more than a group of buildings. It encompasses the breadth of the knowledge of its faculty, staff, and students, as well as the information held in its extensive collections. These resources will remain active and vibrant even when the buildings are inaccessible.

All this came to mind while reading Janie Chang’s The Library of Legends, after the past three months of remote work and online education. The historical situation depicted in the novel is completely different than the coronavirus pandemic, of course, but these same themes are echoed.

In 1937, with the Chinese city of Nanking under attack by Japanese bombs during the Second Sino-Japanese War, the administration of Minghua University decides to evacuate the campus and relocate to Chengdu, an inland city over a thousand miles west. Among the people making the long trek on foot are Hu Lian, a 19-year-old scholarship student; Liu Shaoming (Shao), a handsome upperclassman she admires; and his servant Sparrow Chen, a young woman who’s more than she seems.

To preserve their country’s priceless cultural heritage, the dean, Dr. Kang, asks each student to carry a volume of the Library of Legends, a centuries-old encyclopedia that records Chinese myths and folklore. They read them along the way, enhancing their worldview while attending academic lessons in formal classrooms, where and when they can, and in group lectures as they walk.

While most of the story takes place during the journey, it’s far from a standard road adventure. The interactions among the travelers drive the story. Mingling elements of ancient myths with a realistic wartime setting that transverses central China, The Library of Legends is a thoughtful literary novel with a strong, multifaceted plot based in history (the author’s father and uncle were student refugees like Lian and Shao). The group, self-dubbed “Minghua 123” for the number in their convoy, encounters dangers from above – Japanese aerial attacks – alongside travel hardships and threats from within.

Already concerned about her mother, who is traveling alone to Shanghai, Lian is blackmailed into spying on her fellow students by someone who knows her family’s secret. She also worries that Shao will be persuaded by an attractive classmate into attending Communist meetings. Enriching the novel further, divine beings from the Library of Legends, some disguised as mortals, become awakened, and some play roles in the ongoing events.

Original and unpredictable, The Library of Legends is an enlightening tale of arduous determination, romance, and family heritage that’s also rich in cultural details. (Of note: the publisher's blurb reveals parts of the plot you may want to discover for yourself.  Just a heads up if you prefer being surprised.)

The Library of Legends was published in May by William Morrow.  Read more about the novel's historical backdrop in the author's piece for Time Magazine: The Risky Journey that Saved One of China's Greatest Literary Treasures.

Monday, June 22, 2020

The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner, a delightful post-WWII exploration of Austen's legacy and themes

Natalie Jenner’s debut novel, which I had the opportunity to read via Edelweiss last fall, is now a Canadian bestseller, which doesn’t surprise in the least.  It ticks many boxes for the historical fiction genre, with its focus on the works of a beloved author and its post-WWII English setting – and its strong appeal to fans of book-club favorite The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.  

More than that, though, it’s an uplifting balm of a read about people working together to achieve a worthy common goal.

The gently charming story takes place in Chawton, the Hampshire village where Jane Austen lived at the end of her life. Beginning in autumn 1945, a group of individuals from various walks of life are drawn together to form a literary society to celebrate and preserve the memory of their favorite author.  

Among the lively cast are Hollywood actress Mimi Harrison, a longtime Austen devotee; pregnant war widow and former schoolteacher Adeline Grover; Dr. Benjamin Gray, Chawton’s longtime general practitioner; and shy farmer Adam Berwick, who was first introduced to Austen by Mimi on her visit to Chawton years beforehand. At this time, Chawton has no museum dedicated to its most famous resident, and the Great House and cottage owned by Austen’s family are in the hands of distant descendant James Knight, an elderly man not known for his generosity. His socially withdrawn daughter, Frances, knows his character all too well.  As such, the makeshift group’s need to serve as joint caretakers of Jane Austen’s legacy becomes pressing.

author Natalie Jenner
The characters have their own Austenesque dramas to attend to, as nearly all have endured thwarted romance or other emotional losses. While readers of Jane Austen's work will delight in spotting the parallels to individual novels, the novel can easily be enjoyed by newcomers as well.  The beautiful country setting of Chawton (population 337) makes for a lovely escape, too, and helps us remember how thoughtfulness and amity can be kindled in tranquil places.

The Jane Austen Society was published by St. Martin's Press in May in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook (narrated by actor Richard Armitage). 

This review is part of the author's blog tour; see Austenprose for their review and for the additional tour stops.

About the author:

Natalie Jenner is the debut author of The Jane Austen Society, a fictional telling of the start of the society in the 1940s in the village of Chawton, where Austen wrote or revised her major works. Born in England and raised in Canada, Natalie graduated from the University of Toronto with degrees in English Literature and Law and has worked for decades in the legal industry. She recently founded the independent bookstore Archetype Books in Oakville, Ontario, where she lives with her family and two rescue dogs.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Historical novels by Black authors: some recommendations

On June 14th, Amistad Press, the HarperCollins imprint for multicultural voices, began the #BlackoutBestsellerlist campaign on social media to lift up Black voices in the publishing industry and encourage readers to purchase two books by Black authors this week.  I'm participating in this initiative and would love to see other readers do so.  Read more about the background to the campaign at Publishers Weekly.

For those who enjoy reading historical fiction and discovering new writers and books, there's an abundance of choices available. The graphic below is just the tip of the iceberg, but here are a dozen that I've read and would recommend checking out. Mostly these are newish releases, but I couldn't resist including a few notable older titles I admire. More details and review links below.

Images in order:

Namwali Serpell, The Old Drift, a genre-defying epic of Zambian history.

Jeffrey Colvin, Africaville, a generational saga centered on a Black settlement in Nova Scotia.

Natashia Deon, Grace, an affecting novel of freedom and motherhood in the pre-Civil War South.

Ayesha Harruna Attah, The Hundred Wells of Salaga, about women's lives and internal slavery in 19th-century Ghana.

Beverly Jenkins, Tempest, historical romance set in the American West.

Rita Woods, Remembrance, about four women and a special place called Remembrance in pre-Civil War Ohio.

Sharon Ewell Foster, Abraham's Well, which focuses on the Black Cherokee along the Trail of Tears.

Maryse Condé, Victoire, My Mother's Mother, a fictionalized story of the author's light-skinned grandmother and her life in Guadaloupe.

Lalita Tademy, Citizens Creek, focusing on people of African descent in the Creek Nation.

Deborah Johnson, The Air Between Us, a saga set in 1960s small-town Mississippi.

Lawrence Hill, The Book of Negroes (also called Someone Knows My Name), a young woman's journey from Africa to enslavement in South Carolina to freedom up north.

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad, the Pulitzer winner and Oprah pick that imagines the Underground Railroad's physical reality.

I also recommend Edward P. Jones' The Known World, Margaret Cezair-Thompson's The Pirate's Daughter, Piper Huguley's romantic fiction (especially the Home to Milford College series), Alice Randall's The Wind Done Gone, and other novels by Lalita Tademy and Beverly Jenkins.  For other ideas, see the list of Best Black Historical Fiction on Goodreads, though be aware that some of the titles there are not by Black writers.  

Please leave other recommendations in the comments.

Monday, June 15, 2020

An Elegant Woman by Martha McPhee, a century-spanning saga of American women's history and family legacies

A richly animated work, McPhee’s enthralling new novel glides through American history, from early 20th-century Billings, Montana, to a Prohibition-era Adirondacks lakeside retreat and beyond, alongside fabulous characters.

Sorting through the family home in present-day New Jersey, Isadora, a novelist, tells her late Grammy’s story as she would have wished, mingling realistic happenings with embellished ancestral lore. As a stocky child standing with her pretty younger sister, Katherine, on an Ohio train platform in 1910, awaiting their long journey to Montana with their mother, Thelma “Tommy” Stewart seems unlikely to develop into an elegant East Coast matriarch, but circumstances drive her to become a mistress of self-invention.

This quality she picks up from her mother, the fascinating Glenna (“cultivation and wilderness combined in her”), who takes charge of her own life, even depositing her daughters with kindly neighbors while away teaching in a tiny Western town. Later, Tommy raises Katherine alone; while her sister attends school, Tommy earns money by begging and selling coyote pelts. Both make choices that shift their paths in surprising ways.

The frequent mentions of hereditary artifacts feel overdone at times. Overall, however, McPhee elevates the generational saga into a dazzling, artfully detailed presentation of self-determination, women’s responsibilities and freedoms, and how people craft family legacies.

An Elegant Woman is published by Scribner this month; I'd reviewed it for Booklist's annual historical fiction issue, which came out on May 15th.

Other notes:
This novel one of my favorites of 2020 so far. I especially loved the portraits of the girls' daily lives out West in the early 20th century, in railroad towns and out-of-the-way homesteads while Glenna was off being an itinerant schoolteacher (a job for which she had to be a single woman) and advocate for women's suffrage. This was an angle on Western history I'd rarely seen in fiction, and not from a female perspective.  I hadn't initially realized, either, that McPhee based the novel so closely on her own ancestors' experiences and stories.

Booklist is currently available for free online due to the pandemic, and you can read the full May 15th issue here, for additional reviews and essays on historical novels (as well as the magazine's regular coverage across the genres).

Thursday, June 11, 2020

The Air Between Us by Deborah Johnson examines disparities and connections in Civil Rights-era Mississippi

I downloaded a copy of Deborah Johnson’s The Air Between Us after seeing it advertised on Bookperk last week (it’s also on BookBub today). It was first published in 2008, and its themes resound as clearly as ever.

Despite the escalating civil rights movement, little has changed over the years in Revere, Mississippi. However, it's 1966, and school integration is on the horizon. Many citizens are staking out their positions, sometimes surprisingly. Dr. Cooper Connelly, a handsome blond doctor with an appropriately elegant socialite wife, comes out in favor of it, which irritates his father, a bigoted state senator.

Racial issues in town get stirred up further when “Critter” Tate, a ten-year-old African-American boy, drives his daddy’s truck up to the whites-only entrance of Doctors Hospital in order to save Billy Ray Puckett, who unintentionally shot himself falling out of a deer stand. Billy Ray was an accident-prone drunk, a poor white man from out in the country, so the incident doesn’t astonish anyone – not right away. Then circumstances persuade the sheriff’s office to investigate his case more deeply.

From this bare-bones plot summary, you’d be tempted to categorize The Air Between Us as a mystery, and it is, in the end – but you’d also be forgiven for getting caught up in the character portrayals and setting genre expectations aside. The focus moves from one fascinating resident of Revere to another with comfortable ease, reminiscent of sitting out on the veranda on a summer evening and hearing a fluent storyteller.

Among the prominent personalities in this tale are the wealthy Dr. Spencer Reese Jackson, who takes pride in being Revere’s only Black doctor; his wife, Deanie, whose self-possessed demeanor masks personal pain; and Miss Melba Obrenski, a light-skinned “Creole card reader” from New Orleans who doesn’t tell anyone, including her next-door neighbor and best friend Deanie, what race she is. Cooper finds that Miss Melba’s a good listener, and with the experience gained in her earlier career, she knows how to handle men – but Cooper seems different. There’s also a hospital administrator, Ned Hampton, “the very embodiment of the whole Mississippi contradiction,” who doesn’t see anything odd about supporting segregation while singing regularly with a Black church choir.

Turns out everyone in Revere has something they choose to keep quiet about, and the story takes its time revealing exactly what that is and why. That’s not to say it’s dull in the least. The multifaceted characters and their concealed back stories lend the story a deep richness. The mysteries wrap up satisfyingly (if a bit too neatly in places), with an underlying message in this absorbing saga: that nobody’s exempt from the responsibility of addressing racial inequities.

The Air Between Us was published in 2008 by Amistad/HarperCollins; in the US, it's currently selling for $1.99 as an ebook.

Monday, June 08, 2020

The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite, romance set in the scientific world of Regency England

This superb novel, set during Regency times, unveils the love story between two intelligent women who, in different ways, struggle to be taken seriously by the male scientific establishment. 

In 1812 Lyme, England, Lucy Muchelney is crushed when her lover, Priscilla, weds a man for financial reasons. Lucy had been the uncredited collaborator of her late astronomer father, handling his calculations and correspondence. 

When she receives a letter from Catherine St. Day, Countess of Moth, who seeks a translator for a French astronomy masterwork, Lucy, confident in her mathematical and language skills, pays a visit to Lady Moth in London. In the widowed Catherine, a skilled embroiderer whose artistic talents were stifled by her boorish husband, Lucy discovers a benefactor and kindred spirit, but their dissimilar personal histories complicate matters. 

Beyond the delicately rendered romance between the more forthright Lucy and Catherine, a gently bred aristocrat, Waite gives full voice to the unfair prejudice that women faced. She also provides a multi-ethnic Regency world that comes alive with scientific curiosity. 

Highly recommended for fans of both Remarkable Creatures and Gentleman Jack, this first in the Feminine Pursuits series deserves widespread attention.

The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics was published by Avon in 2019; I reviewed it from Edelweiss for February's Historical Novels Review. If you're a historical fiction fan looking for a new romance to read for Pride Month this June, it's a good place to start. The author has a second novel in the series, The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows, out later this summer.

Friday, June 05, 2020

The Orphan's Gift by Renita D'Silva, set in India and England across the 20th century

Spanning over 70 years, Renita D’Silva’s newest novel is a touching generational saga about women searching for belonging, falling in love, enduring loss, and learning from past mistakes. Daughter of the deputy commissioner for her region, Alice Harris lives in an elegant compound in the small city of Jamjadpur in early 20th-century India, knowing every material comfort but lacking parental affection. She grows up cocooned in the constant love of her nanny, a local woman she calls Ayah, and Ayah’s son, Raju, who is her playmate and best friend.

In the 1940s, Janaki is raised by Carmelite nuns in a poor orphanage in the city center. While she dreams of being adopted by kind parents, that chance seems progressively more unlikely over time. Sister Shanthi often tells Janaki the story of how the nuns first found her, a blue-eyed newborn wrapped in a cardigan and left at the gate of St. Ursula’s during the Hindu-Muslim riots of 1936.

The viewpoint alternates between Alice and Janaki, whose connection should be obvious, and the author doesn’t pretend otherwise. Rather, the story follows both girls’ separate journeys and keeps us wondering whether they’ll ever meet.

Some characterizations aren’t subtle: Alice’s cold-hearted father offers statements about India like “They want independence, self-rule, but without us they would not manage at all.” Her mother is a wilting English flower who revives only to party in the cool evenings. More layered is the portrait of blind privilege that D’Silva creates for Alice. As adolescents, she and Raju act on their mutual attraction, sharing a brief kiss, and the repercussions are more dire for him and his family.

With its fast-moving plot and evocation of the sights, scents, and flavors of India, the novel should please fans of commercial women’s fiction and atmospheric settings.

The Orphan's Gift was published by Bookouture in 2020; I reviewed it for the Historical Novels Review in May.

Renita D'Silva, an author from the South of India, has written historical, contemporary, and multi-period novels. Here are links to two others I've reviewed on this site:

A Daughter's Courage, about four women's stories in South India, past and present.
Beneath an Indian Sky, about a childhood friendship between British and Indian girls in the '30s and after.

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

Martha Washington's wedding attire, a guest post by Betty Bolté, author of Becoming Lady Washington

Today I'm welcoming historical novelist Betty Bolté to Reading the Past.  Her essay, focused on the attire that Martha Washington wore for her wedding, also delves into fashion trends in the 18th century and how they reflected the wearer's social background and other factors.  Hope you'll enjoy reading her post.


Martha Washington's Wedding Attire
Betty Bolté

British author L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between gives us a popular quote: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” In many ways that is true. On the other hand, there are similarities in those differences. The language of clothing is one of those areas where you can see similar desires and expectations between the 18th century and what we do today. For example, what we wear depends on what we’re going to do (workout at the gym, go to the office, graduate from college, etc.), how much we want to conform to society’s expectations of appropriate attire and modesty, and how much we can afford to spend on our apparel to meet that expectation. The same was true in the past.

I’d like for you to consider Martha Washington’s wedding attire as one example, but first let me share some insights into what clothing says about the wearer.

In the 18th century, how you dressed spoke volumes about your status in the community and society. The fashionableness of the style, the quality and hue of the fabric, as well as the wearer’s movements and stance combined to tell others the person’s status, whether high or low or somewhere in between. Keeping up with fashion trends then, as now, meant following the European fashion magazines which were sent to the colonies regularly. Indeed, it’s recorded that Thomas Jefferson sent Parisian fashion magazines to his daughter when he was visiting France.

The style could also indicate, though not always, where the person was from, either by American colony or another country. Clothing suggested the gender and occupation, how rich or poor, and what kind and amount of activity they engaged in. And much like today, what a person wears can also reveal their attitude toward the society they live in. Consider how differently a person would dress if she were a scullery maid versus a personal maid to a planter’s wife versus the planter’s wife, for instance. The same would be true of a field hand versus a dancing tutor versus a lawyer in town.

At the time of Martha and George Washington’s marriage on January 6, 1759, women of a higher status preferred silks brocaded with colorful flowers on a white background. (Brocade is an intricate design on fabric, often raised.) Martha was no exception in preferring silk, especially on her wedding day. Who wouldn’t want the gentle swish and sway of silk, right? Another aspect of choosing her gown is that she would have wanted something she could wear again for other special occasions. They didn’t buy a gown to wear once and put away as a keepsake then. Nor would she have considered a white gown; that fashion came later, in the 19th century.

According to the Mount Vernon historians, Martha’s gown was made of yellow silk damask (meaning reversible) with a petticoat of cream silk highlighted with interwoven silver threads with (perhaps Dresden) lace trim. Her dainty high-heeled shoes were made of purple satin with silver ornamentation. They interpret the message of her outfit as, “The combination of expensive, imported yellow and purple silks with silver and gold decorations would have produced a regal appearance that conveyed her elevated social and economic standing.” You can see a photo of the dress and shoes at the above link. I’ve been to the museum where the outfit is on display and it is far lovelier in person than in the photo. But I do agree with their interpretation.

Wedding of George and Martha Washington

The cover of my historical fiction story of Martha’s life, Becoming Lady Washington, includes an artist’s interpretation of George and Martha’s wedding, an image housed in the Library of Congress. It is not accurate, though, in portraying her attire. In 1759, there were no photographs (obviously) and no sketch artist or portraitist hired to create an image, at least not one that has been found to date. I imagine the man who created the image based it on other similar weddings he’d attended. I particularly enjoy the group of women to the right, apparently oohing and ahhing over the proceedings!

Another portrait in the LOC comes from the C.M. Bell collection, dated between 1873 and 1916, and shows how fashionably dressed Martha was as a young woman. Please note that Martha died in 1802. The LOC dated this image based on the fact that it is contained in Bell’s collection and those were the years he was a photographer. I think he likely took a photo of an earlier oil portrait. You can see in the picture the fine fabric and bows and lace, her posture and hair style all speak to her status. Women wearing such attire would not be working in the kitchen, but have the wealth necessary to support a more leisurely lifestyle.

Martha W as a young woman

So while the styles and fabrics we wear today have changed, the way we interpret another’s position in society hasn’t changed all that much. We still tend to believe the clothes make the man/woman, that we “dress for success,” or to reveal our rebellion toward societal expectations by wearing clothing others deem in appropriate. I think that attribute of people will likely never change. What do you think about the similarities and differences in interpreting the language of clothing?


About Becoming Lady Washington (Published June 2)

Martha “Patsy” Custis manages an immense eighteenth-century plantation in the Virginia colony. But as a young widow she’s hard pressed to balance her business and to care for her two young children. They need a father and protector. She needs a husband and business partner…one she can trust, especially now as tensions rise between the motherland and the American colonies. Her experience and education have sustained her thus far but when her life veers in an unexpected direction, she realizes she has so much more to learn.

Colonel George Washington takes an interest in her and she’s surprised to find him so sociable and appealing. They form an instant bond and she is certain he’ll be a likeable and loving husband and father figure for her children. She envisions a quiet life at Mount Vernon, working together to provide for their extended family.

But when trouble in the form of British oppression, taxes, and royal arrogance leads to revolt and revolution, George must choose between duty to country and Martha. Compelled to take matters into her own hands, Martha must decide whether to remain where she belongs or go with her husband… no matter what the dangerous future may hold. 

About the Author

Award-winning author Betty Bolté is known for authentic and accurately researched American historical fiction with heart and supernatural romance novels. She’s been published in essays, newspaper and magazine articles, and nonfiction books but now enjoys crafting entertaining and informative fiction. She earned a Master’s Degree in English in 2008, emphasizing the study of literature and storytelling, and has judged numerous writing contests for both fiction and nonfiction. 

She is a member of the Romance Writers of America, Historical Novel Society, Women’s Fiction Writers Association, and Authors Guild. Get to know her at