Thursday, July 30, 2020

Vanessa Riley's multicultural Regency romance A Duke, the Lady, and a Baby

In the author’s notes at the end of her lively new historical romance, Vanessa Riley reveals that England was the home to at least ten thousand people of Black or mixed-race ancestry during Jane Austen’s time. Regency romances typically feature love stories between members of the white aristocracy. Fortunately, a growing number of writers have been creating characters representing the diversity among the English populace at the time.

This first book in the Rogues and Remarkable Women series introduces Patience Amelia Jordan, former Duchess of Repington, a courageous young heiress originally from Demerara in the West Indies (now part of Guyana). Ever since her husband Colin’s suicide, Patience has been treated abominably by Colin’s uncle, who had her thrown into Bedlam for a trumped-up reason.

Now she’s forced to sneak into her marital home, Hamlin Hall, disguised as a groom in order to feed and watch over her son, Lionel. Then the new Duke, Busick Strathmore, arrives to take up his position and Lionel’s guardianship, starting afresh by dismissing all his predecessor’s staff. With the support of the Widow’s Grace, a group of widows helping her regain custody of her child, Patience becomes Lionel’s wet nurse and nanny while seeking evidence about the true nature of Colin’s financial dealings and mysterious death. Over time, Patience and the Duke form a tentative alliance that turns flirtatious and develops into love.

Their connection may seem subdued and cerebral, at first, when compared with other romance novels. However, I found Riley’s style of subtle, character-driven love story a refreshing change. Repington is a wounded soldier who had lost his leg during the Siege of Badajoz and, while adjusting to his new situation, plans his return to the battlefield. He quickly comes to love Lionel, though as a military man, his child-rearing methods are amusingly rigid.

Patience is a loving mother who wants only to return to her island with Lionel, but the Duke may change her mind. Riley also draws on elements of Patience’s cultural heritage to illustrate who she is. I particularly liked the scenes in which she debates praying to the Demararan god of protection but wasn’t sure if he had any control over what happened in England, and another where she dons a traditional, marigold-colored dress that her beloved late mother crafted. I did wonder why the Duke didn’t uncover Patience’s real identity sooner, and the shifts between Patience’s first-person viewpoint and the Duke’s third-person perspective feel unnecessarily distancing. Overall, though, I enjoyed this romance between two courageous, kind people, both outsiders in different ways, who genuinely respect each other. Patience’s marriage with Colin seemed a bit shaky, but I sense that her new relationship will endure.

And as for “Busick” – it’s not a traditional romance name, but it fits the period. (For example, Sir Busick Harwood was a well-known English physician who died in 1814, the year this novel takes place).

A Duke, the Lady, and a Baby was published by Kensington on June 30 (I read it from a NetGalley copy).

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Love, war, and atonement: Universe of Two by Stephen P. Kiernan

Kiernan (The Baker's Secret, 2017) movingly charts a couple’s relationship alongside the development of WWII’s Manhattan Project.

In 1943 Chicago, fun-loving Brenda Dubie first meets Charlie Fish, a skinny mathematician (inspired by the historical Charles Fisk), when he visits her family’s music shop. Over time, Charlie’s increasing technical expertise leads to his reluctant transfer to Los Alamos. Ignorant of his top secret and pivotal role in building detonators, Brenda urges Charlie to do his patriotic duty.

The characterizations feel bracingly real. Brenda’s youthful, self-centered haughtiness prevents her from appreciating Charlie’s finer qualities; Charlie’s earnest devotion to his work and Brenda drives him to actions with ramifications he doesn’t understand until later. Brenda is a challenging heroine, but her wistful reminiscences, as she looks back decades later, demonstrate her emotional growth.

Kiernan recreates the zeitgeist of America leading up to the atomic bomb on a national and personal level: the eager anticipation of wartime’s end, the grimly fascinating science, and the growing sense of guilt and dread. Simultaneously tender and hard-hitting, this riveting story offers much to reflect upon.

Universe of Two will be published on August 4th by William Morrow/HarperCollins. This review ran in Booklist's April 1st issue (reprinted with permission). The novel was originally scheduled for May publication but was delayed, as has been happening frequently in the industry, due to the pandemic.  I read it from an Edelweiss e-copy.

Additional thoughts: when it comes to fictionalizing historical characters and their experiences, authors have several approaches to consider. In creating an imagined character closely based on mathematician Charles B. Fisk, but who isn't him, Kiernan grants himself the freedom to deviate from the real person's life in order to tell the story he wants. As such, readers are able to separate the two men (one real, one fictional), and also learn more about Fisk afterwards if they wish to.

Monday, July 20, 2020

The Patron Saint of Pregnant Girls by Ursula Hegi, a tale of women's connections in 19th-century Germany

Perennial book-club favorite Hegi’s (Children and Fire, 2011) compassionately observant new novel takes place on Nordstrand island in North Frisia, Germany, where the line between fact and centuries-old myth can feel as blurred as that between sea and sky. The offbeat characters enhance the quasi-dreamlike effect, but the scenarios they face are starkly real.

After a giant wave sweeps her three oldest children into the Nordsee in 1878, Lotte Jansen withdraws from life and from her infant son, Wilhelm. While Lotte’s husband, Kalle, a toymaker, runs away with a traveling circus, Wilhelm is nursed by Tilli, an 11-year-old resident of the St. Margaret’s Home for Pregnant Girls, whose own baby is adopted at birth.

The nuns at St. Margaret’s are an unorthodox bunch who instruct their young charges in art and scholarly pursuits. Meanwhile, Sabine, the circus’ seamstress, seeks a husband for her cognitively impaired daughter.

The plot ambles along while threading together the stories of the women, who have the heaviest burdens to bear. Their emotional hardships are satisfyingly leavened by softer moments of romantic and familial love.

The Patron Saint of Pregnant Girls was published by Flatiron in June; I reviewed it for Booklist's May 15th issue (reprinted with permission).  Doesn't it have a beautiful cover? It reflects the setting and storyline well.  I read it from an Edelweiss copy, which didn't have the jacket art, so I hadn't taken a close look before now.  It really does get across the blurred borders between sky and sea that Hegi emphasizes within the text.

Hegi has written many other historical novels set in 19th- and 20th-century Germany, including the Oprah pick Stones from the River (1994). This was my first experience reading one of her novels.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

More Miracle than Bird by Alice Miller, fiction about Georgie Hyde-Lees, wife of poet W. B. Yeats

The lens through which a story is told makes all the difference. Miller’s revelatory debut novel, written in crisp, elegant prose, focuses on Georgie Hyde-Lees, wife of Anglo-Irish poet W. B. Yeats.  Though Georgie isn’t his greatest love (Maud Gonne has that distinction), she turns out to be his ideal partner, which he takes a long time realizing.

The story initially moves between 1916, as Georgie nurses wounded WWI officers in a dreary London hospital, and 1914, when she approaches the eccentric, much older Yeats at a soirĂ©e and requests an invitation to a clandestine occult society. Missing her late father, Georgie longs for proof of the soul’s immortality, and her quest draws readers into the perennially intriguing theme of spiritualism and the reasons why people pursue it.

Though slowly paced, the novel offers ample conflict as Georgie faces difficult choices. The bleak atmosphere aptly suits the wartime backdrop, and Miller deftly presents a portrait of Georgie, a young woman calibrating her place in the world, and her shifting relationship with the man she adores.

More Miracle Than Bird was published by Tin House in June.  I reviewed it for the 5/15/20 issue of Booklist (reprinted with permission).  The intriguing title comes from a line in Yeats' poem "Byzantium."

Saturday, July 11, 2020

The First Emma by Camille di Maio, historical fiction about a successful Texas businesswoman

By all accounts, Emma Koehler was an extraordinary woman. A prominent figure in the history of San Antonio, Texas, she was a German immigrant who ran the city’s Pearl Brewery, succeeding her late husband Otto in the role; she used her ingenuity to reinvent the business during Prohibition and keep it afloat during the Depression.

It’s fair to say that she wouldn’t have attained such success if her personal life had been less traumatic. Following a traffic accident that left her a semi-invalid, Otto took her two German-born nurses – both also named Emma – as his mistresses, installing them in their own house, and one of them murdered him in 1914.

In Camille di Maio’s fifth novel, young Baltimore native Mabel Hartley is hired in 1943 to take down the elderly Emma Koehler’s memoirs. The two women’s interactions create an intriguing dynamic: while beer is Emma’s lifeblood, Mabel avoids alcohol after seeing how it destroyed her father’s life. Mabel is a realistic character for her time, but her storyline lacks conflict. Her developing romance with Emma’s nephew, Erik, is sweet but has few surprises, and his presence in her life feels too convenient.

Emma’s story has more drama and bite – with the outline above, how could it not? Leaving her siblings behind to marry Otto at seventeen and move with him to San Antonio, Emma quickly discovers his workaholic nature. She also learns that to escape her loneliness, she must educate herself and meet Otto on his own ground: the brewery.

The lurid prologue depicting Otto’s murder feels somewhat misleading for the rest of the book, which isn’t a thriller. Comparatively few historical novels focus on successful businesswomen, however, and Emma Koehler is a deserving subject. Her position and attitude combine to create an admirable character that readers will root for.

The First Emma was published by Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing, and I'd reviewed it for May's Historical Novels Review from NetGalley.

Fun fact: the elegant and historic Hotel Emma in San Antonio, which was named after Emma Koehler, was the site of Pearl's Brewhouse starting in the late 19th century.

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Dawn Empress by Faith L. Justice introduces a powerful woman from the 5th-century Eastern Roman Empire

“You may not be able to pass laws or lead armies,” Princess Pulcheria’s religious tutor tells her as a child, “but the love of the people is no small thing. That power, used wisely… can be just as effective in ruling.”

History abounds with accomplished women whose stories have undeservedly been forgotten. Aelia Pulcheria Augusta is among them, and I hadn’t so much as heard her name until a few weeks ago, when a blog tour invitation appeared in my inbox.

A strong political force in the fifth-century Eastern Roman Empire, Pulcheria guided her younger brother, Theodosius II, during his minority and served as his influential advisor – on and off – through his decades-long reign. With Dawn Empress, second in a series about the Theodosian imperial women, Faith L. Justice gathers up the known facts about Pulcheria and offers a well-rounded, human portrait of this accomplished woman.

The story follows Pulcheria from her youth at the imperial court in Constantinople through the end of her life, with the chapter headings noting the year and place. Pulcheria is intelligent, pious, and frequently stubborn, a combination that doesn't endear her to her brother Theo’s advisors, who want her safely married and out of the picture. Pulcheria has other plans, though. She mingles with the common people, demonstrates charity toward them, and cleverly finds a way to bring honor to the Church and simultaneously remain by her brother’s side. She also persuades her two younger sisters to follow her example.

Pulcheria isn’t always a comfortable heroine. Her judgmental nature and forthrightness are off-putting (just ask her aunt, Galla Placidia), her jealousy of Theo’s wife Athenais gets her into trouble, and she sometimes missteps when it comes to Theo, too. But when it comes to ruling prudently and identifying threats to the realm, her heart is in the right place. With the Huns and other “barbarians” advancing on Rome, and Theo falling under the influence of unsuitable people, Pulcheria can’t let her guard down. The Roman Empire at this time was a hot spot for ecclesiastical heresies, and the author navigates a clear path through these theological disputes without overburdening the reader. Some character names (Anthemius, Asclepiodotus, Olympiodorus, and more) are a mouthful, but the character list helps keep track of who’s who.

It’s a recommended read for historical fiction old-timers who enjoyed the works of Gillian Bradshaw, and for anyone seeking out fresh subjects in historical fiction about world rulers or influential women.

Dawn Empress was published by Raggedy Moon Books on May 31 in hardcover, paperback, and ebook, and I reviewed it from a NetGalley copy.

Friday, July 03, 2020

Bits and pieces of historical fiction news

A new roundup of news from the historical fiction world. I've been swamped with getting oriented to a new library management system at work, so some of these updates are a bit delayed.

Back on June 12th, Christine Dwyer Hickey's The Narrow Land was named as the 2020 winner of the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.  Set on Cape Cod in 1950, it focuses on the shifting relationship between artists Jo and Edward Hopper.  Then, just over a week later, the novel was selected as the inaugural recipient of the Dalkey Literary Award's Book of the YearThe Narrow Land, published by Atlantic Books in the UK, doesn't have a US publisher but is available to US readers on Kindle.

From CrimeReads, Mariah Fredericks and Jess Montgomery, who write historical mysteries set in the early 20th century for Minotaur, have a discussion on balancing historical settings and modern themes.

For writers of Christian fiction with novels published in 2019, there's a new book prize open to submissions through July 15th: the Angel Book Award, with historical fiction as one of the categories.

Readers of the Wall Street Journal name their favorite historical fiction through the ages. This is paywalled so I can't read it at the WSJ site (I had to read it through a library subscription), but maybe you can?

From School Library Journal: a diverse list of 16 YA novels that re-envision history.

Philippa Gregory's upcoming novel Dark Tides, which follows after Tidelands, takes place partly in 17th-century New England. At Masslive, you can watch a video she filmed after her on-site visit to Hadley, Massachusetts.

And on the subject of historical fiction on film, I'll be spending tonight watching Hamilton on screen. Happy 4th tomorrow to American readers of this blog!