Sunday, August 30, 2020

Allison Montclair's newest historical mystery, A Royal Affair, delves into British royal secrets

In this second diverting Sparks & Bainbridge mystery, the two partners of the Right Sort Marriage Bureau take on a case for a very high-profile client, which leads them into correspondingly high-stakes political intrigue.

It’s 1946 in London, and Iris Sparks, a veteran of secret wartime espionage work, and Gwen Bainbridge, an upper-crust war widow, are several months into their joint venture. While hoping that business picks up sufficiently so they can move into a dreamy new office, they’re approached by Lady Matheson, a cousin of Gwen’s who “works for the Queen in some capacity.” She demands confidentiality before revealing her proposed assignment.

The relationship between HRH Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip is getting serious, but obstacles stand in their way. A fellow descendant of Queen Victoria and a cousin of Greece’s king, Philip is of sufficiently royal blood, but he has sisters who married Nazis, and his mother, Princess Alice, has a troubled past. Then Lady Matheson reveals a letter she received for Elizabeth which hints at blackmail over mysterious items that Princess Alice left behind on Corfu – but she can’t reveal more details. In effect, Gwen and Iris must vet Prince Philip as a suitor for Elizabeth’s hand, but without drawing attention to the process.

The unintentional detective duo (they solved a murder in their last outing) have plenty of snarky wit, and the repartee flows fast from the outset, whether they’re interviewing a loud-talking female client or ogling the mahogany desks in their hoped-for new office. It's cleverly done, but just when it starts to feel a bit much, the tone becomes more serious as the sleuthing gets underway. Admirers of The Crown and royalty in general should appreciate the details on Prince Philip’s Greek relations, whose backstory of political power, flight, and exile isn’t widely familiar.

Iris and Gwen have a solid dynamic. While they employ their separate talents (the former’s street-smarts, the latter’s insider knowledge of the aristocracy) to further their investigation, they’re also learning from one another. In a continuing mystery series, ongoing character development is key, and Montclair’s latest satisfies on that front.

Each is growing stronger personally, too, as Gwen continues to pursue custody of her adorable young son, and Iris debates how close she wants to get to her new gangster boyfriend. Their own reflections on how they’ve changed are on-point and wryly funny. After they've wrapped up one incident with the police in an amusingly questionable way, Gwen remarks to her partner, “Appalling... we’ve become appalling people, Iris. When did that happen?”

Reading the series opener (The Right Sort of Man) is probably necessary to get the full context of this one, but that’s no hardship at all.

A Royal Affair was published by Minotaur in July; I read it from an Edelweiss e-copy (thanks to the publisher).

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

The Daughters of Erietown by Connie Schultz chronicles a working-class Ohio family in the 20th century

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Schultz’s debut novel is completely absorbing from the opening pages through the finale. It follows a working-class family from the fictional Erietown in northeastern Ohio across the 20th century’s second half. While its situations are familiar – teenage pregnancy, generational conflict, infidelity, women’s stifled hopes – the author renders them unique through characters whose vivid inner lives make them feel as real as any of us.

In 1975, Samantha McGinty heads to Kent State, the first in her family to attend university. In the car with her parents and brother, Sam thinks back on the terrible day in 1969 that broke her family and made her see her father, Brick, in a new, critical light.

Following this hint of mystery, the narrative smoothly moves back in time to depict Sam’s parents as young people facing troubled circumstances. It’s 1956, and petite sixteen-year-old Ellie Fetters, raised by caring, old-fashioned grandparents, loves red-haired Brick McGinty, top scorer for their high school’s basketball team. Brick grows up protecting his exhausted mother from his father’s abuse and plans a future that involves Ellie, a sports scholarship, and escaping their small rural town. Ellie’s pregnancy derails their dreams, transforming Ellie into a housewife and young mother in their new house in Erietown, while Brick works a union job at the electric plant and, over time, starts feeling resentful.

The story shows how patterns from previous generations repeat themselves, despite people’s awareness of them. The historical period emerges through social attitudes and the impact of larger events; the McGintys’ “Jack and Jesus” wall, with its pictures of Christ and President Kennedy, has a somber meaning after JFK’s assassination. This deeply felt saga takes on tough subjects with profound honesty and carries readers along with the multifaceted, flawed characters as they move through and deal with life.

The Daughters of Erietown was published by Random House in June, and I'd reviewed it from NetGalley for August's Historical Novels Review. I haven't seen it mentioned on many historical fiction sites as yet and would encourage readers of family sagas to go check it out.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Facts in Fiction: Truth in Estelle, a guest essay by Linda Stewart Henley

Welcome to Linda Stewart Henley, whose novel Estelle, a multi-period novel that focuses on Edgar Degas' stay in New Orleans, is out today.


Linda Stewart Henley

When most people think of Edgar Degas, what comes to mind are images of ballerinas. So when I went to the local library to find books about the artist, I was not surprised to find that most of them turned out to be children’s picture books with reproductions of dancers. But the book I planned to write about Degas wasn’t about those subjects. I wanted to write about him when he was thirty-eight, not yet famous, during his five-month visit to New Orleans to visit French Creole relatives in 1872-73.

I ordered piles of books. Books about Impressionist painters, Creole society in New Orleans, Mardi Gras, the architecture on Esplanade Avenue, Louisiana cooking, and Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel The Awakening. I found few volumes on the subject of Degas’s time in New Orleans until I discovered one absolute gem. It came from AbeBooks and cost an unbelievable ninety-nine cents plus three dollars postage. This book, published by the New Orleans Museum of Art entitled Degas and New Orleans: A French Impressionist in America by Gail Feigenbaum and Jean Sutherland Boggs, proved indispensable in providing facts that I wanted for my novel.

A well-researched and documented catalogue written by curators and art historians to accompany a 1999 exhibit, it provided the threads I needed to tell my tale. As I read essays written by the contributors to the catalogue, I learned not only about Degas’s work but also about his family members, fourteen of them, who lived in New Orleans at the time. Degas’s French Creole mother, who died when he was thirteen, had been born there. Estelle, his cousin, was married to his brother René. This was his first and only visit to America and it had a profound effect on him. While there, he painted portraits of the family, but he thought those unimportant and hardly worth his time until he finished A Cotton Office in New Orleans, a large painting depicting his family’s cotton business, which is considered a masterpiece.

A Cotton Office in New Orleans, Edgar Degas (1873)

Although Estelle is a work of fiction, I tried to build the story around many of the true events surrounding the family’s life and times. Surprising to me was the number of buildings and businesses from Degas’s time that still exist today: Arnaud’s and Antoine’s restaurants, the Café du Monde, and the house on Esplanade Avenue where his family lived.

The lavish lifestyle enjoyed by the French Creoles has long since disappeared and the street with fine buildings fallen into disrepair, but if you walk today along the wide boulevard with its neutral ground in the middle planted with spreading live oaks and magnolias, you can almost hear the streetcar rumbling along the tracks and breathe the air of bygone days. New Orleans is a city you don’t forget. The fact that Degas was there, and painted his family’s portraits, can only add to its allure.


Linda Stewart Henley is an English-born American who moved to the United States at sixteen. She is a graduate of Newcomb College of Tulane University in New Orleans. She currently lives with her husband in Anacortes, Washington. Estelle, her first novel, is published by She Writes Press.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Spindle and Dagger by J. Anderson Coats depicts a woman's necessary charade in 12th-century Wales

Coats’ newest historical novel is a penetrating portrait of women’s resilience and how they work through violent trauma. It’s based around a historical incident likely unfamiliar to its intended young adult audience: the abduction of Nest of Deheubarth by her second cousin Owain, Prince of Powys, during the increasing conflict between Welshmen and the land’s Norman invaders. Nest was married to Gerald of Windsor, leader of the Norman forces.

The tale’s narrator is Elen, a richly complex fictional character. In 1109, Elen has solidified a place for herself in Owain’s warband as his nightly bedmate. Three years earlier, Owain and his men had attacked her family’s steading, killing her two sisters. Seeing no other alternative for survival, Elen healed Owain of his injury and declared—falsely—that Saint Elen would faithfully guard Owain’s life if he always kept her namesake close by. Owain believes in the saint’s protection, but his men are more dubious.

Tension remains high, evoking the political strain, and Owain augments it after his penteulu (right-hand man) is killed by the Normans, and he captures Nest and her three young children in revenge. This angers his father, Cadwgan ap Bleddyn, who fears paying the price for his hotheaded son’s act. Elen faces her own battles. The flashbacks to her earlier ordeal are delicately handled, and even now, Elen’s mind vies between the status quo—staying with Owain and remaining alive and cared for—and wanting to take a dagger and stab him. Elen desperately wants a female ally. While Owain’s stepmother, Isabel, proves hostile to the idea, Elen sees how Nest bravely endures her captivity and envisions how to escape her longtime charade.

This gritty tale of feminine strength deserves attention from all medieval history enthusiasts, from YAs through adults.

Spindle and Dagger was published by Candlewick in 2020; I'd reviewed it for August's Historical Novels Review based on a publisher-supplied ARC.

Some other notes:

- This novel is classified as YA, and the heroine is seventeen, I believe, but the themes are hardly juvenile. It would work well as a crossover novel, in the vein of Julie Berry's The Book of Dolssa and Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity.  Along these lines, the cover art is attractive, yes, but it's clearly aimed at teen readers. Adult readers of historical novels shouldn't be dissuaded from picking it up by the art or the marketing category.

- I've been fascinating by the story of Nest of Deheubarth ever since reading Eleanor Fairburn's 1966 novel The Golden Hive, a biographical novel about her.  Nest/Nesta has been called the "Helen of Wales" as she was a woman whose beauty supposedly drove men to war, but the reality was likely far different than the romanticized legend. Soon after I'd reviewed The Golden Hive for this blog in 2010, I'd received an email from the author, which was a nice surprise. As I recall, she had been debating finding a publisher to bring her work back into print, but this never happened.  She died in 2015.  I'd still love to see her work made more widely available.  Getting back to the subject at hand, when Spindle and Dagger became available for review, I knew I'd have to read it.

- The author's earlier The Wicked and the Just is also set in medieval Wales, specifically the 13th century. It's on my list to read.

- You can find Spindle and Dagger on Goodreads, but be aware that many readers gave it a low rating because the e-ARC had more than the usual number of typos.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

The Summer Fields by LP Fergusson, romantic adventure set in the 18th century

Fergusson’s unique historical romance reads like many novels in one: it patches together a creepy gothic story, horror fiction, and entertaining historical romantic adventure. In Radnorshire, Wales, in 1704, dairymaid Elen Griffiths is summoned from her father’s cottage by a local physician, Dr Argyll, who needs someone to tend to Viscount Mordiford at Duntisbourne Hall during his bout with smallpox. Elen is immune from the “red plague,” having had cowpox before, and her education means she’s well suited to be an aristocrat’s caregiver.

Mordiford is disagreeable and the Hall exceedingly sinister, and Elen’s hopes of broadening her horizons vanish in the face of arduous nursing tasks and enforced isolation. Nearly a quarter of the novel takes place under these circumstances, which feel intensely claustrophobic. As Mordiford recovers his strength and sense of wit under Elen’s care (the methods are creatively unorthodox), Elen faces danger from another avenue. She befriends valet Ned Harley, and their connection turns romantic, but the Hall hosts debauched gatherings, and this time it’s Mordiford’s turn to save Elen from harm.

Following unusual circumstances, Elen boards a ship for The Hague with Dr Argyll, acting as his nurse as he travels with the army during the Duke of Marlborough’s campaign against the French. By then, she and Mordiford have acknowledged their attraction, although she despairs of finding him again on the war-torn Continent, and any shared future seems doubtful.

Fergusson brings to life Marlborough’s campaign up to his victory at Blenheim from the viewpoint of medical personnel, who deal with the traumatic aftermath of battle. The ending is too neat, and Elen and Mordiford have few chances to spend time together when he’s healthy, but it’s a well-researched story, particularly regarding early 18th-century medical treatments. Recommended for romance readers wanting a change of pace.

The Summer Fields was published by the digital publisher Canelo in the spring; I reviewed it for May's Historical Novels Review from a NetGalley copy.  Find it on Goodreads here.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Book review: The Secret Music at Tordesillas by Marjorie Sandor

“Inside one note, many more are hidden.” For her first novel, National Jewish Book Award winner Sandor imagines the life of a converso musician in the retinue of the Spanish queen Juana I of Castile.

After his sovereign lady’s death during her long confinement at Tordesillas in 1555, Juan de Granada tells his richly poetic account to two inquisitors of the Holy Office charged with finding secret Jews. Juana was never meant to be her parents’ heir, and her unrequited devotion to her handsome husband and others’ desire for control of her realm prompt rumors about her mental state. Her lady-in-waiting Inés de Castro, who becomes Juan’s love interest, is a complicated woman with dangerous secrets.

Infusing her work with elements from a unique confluence of cultures and religions in Spanish history, Sandor vividly contrasts people’s public roles with their covert beliefs and desires. At times, the language’s abstractness may have readers longing for greater clarity, but Sandor’s prose is seductive, akin to musical notes expressed on the page, and she presents a new, affecting view of a tragic royal figure.

The Secret Music at Tordesillas was published by Hidden River Arts as a paperback in June; this review first ran in Booklist Online this week. The book was the first winner of the publisher's Tuscarora Award in Historical Fiction. I recognize some other authors' names among the finalists and semifinalists and hope to see their books in print one day, too.

Monday, August 10, 2020

A gallery of 12 forthcoming historical novels for summer and autumn 2020

I don't know about you, but I'm looking ahead to late summer and fall reads. Forthcoming in the next few months are a bumper crop of historical novels, ranging from new releases by longtime reader favorites to debuts from talented newcomers.  While WWII settings are still holding steady in popularity within the genre, there's plenty on offer for readers seeking to expand beyond this time frame and the 20th century in general.  Below are just a dozen among many that caught my attention, in order by author surname.

Cathy Marie Buchanan moves back in time to pagan 1st-century Britain with Daughter of Black Lake (Riverhead, Oct.) while Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle's Even As We Breathe (Univ Press of Kentucky, Sept.) follows a young man from the Cherokee Nation into WWII-era intrigue. The Glass House (Flatiron, Sept.), the final novel from the late Scottish novelist Beatrice Colin, tells a story of secrets and friendship in early 20th-century Scotland.

The Evening and the Morning (Viking, Sept.), the highly anticipated prequel to The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett's best known epic, focuses on the English settlement not yet known as Kingsbridge around the time of the first millennium CE. Another series entry, Dark Tides (Atria, Nov.) by Philippa Gregory, picks up her heroine Alinor's story, following her trials in Tidelands, in Restoration-era London. The Mermaid of Jeju (Alcove, Dec), Sumi Hahn's debut novel, centers on the haenyeo, female deep-sea divers, on Korea's Jeju Island after WWII.

There are three debut novels in this second collage. Denise Heinze's The Brief and True Report of Temperance Flowerdew (Blackstone, Sept.), the first of these, takes its name from the historical woman who married two Governors of Virginia in the early 17th century. Confessions in B-Flat by the prolific Donna Hill (Sideways, Nov.), is a love story taking place in New York during the 1960s civil rights movement and Vietnam War years. For The Deadly Hours (Sourcebooks, Sept.) newest in a growing collection of multi-author collaborative projects, Susanna Kearsley, C.S. Harris, Anna Lee Huber, and Christine Trent trace the story of a mysterious gold watch and those it affects, beginning in the 18th century.

Two more debuts: Asha Lemmie's Fifty Words for Rain (Dutton, Sept.) has the unique viewpoint of a young girl of African-American and Japanese heritage in post-WWII Japan, and her search for her rightful place in a world that continually rejects her. The Company Daughters (Bookouture, Oct.) by Samantha Rajaram journeys along with its two heroines on their voyage from Amsterdam to marry settlers in the Dutch East Indies in the early 17th century. And, last alphabetically, Alice Randall's Black Bottom Saints (Amistad, Aug.) is set amid Detroit's historic Black Bottom neighborhood in the 1930s-40s and centers on the stars of this locale's famous art and culture scene.

Friday, August 07, 2020

The original Mrs. Robinson's story: Brontë’s Mistress by Finola Austin

Finola Austin’s perceptive debut imagines the first-person viewpoint of Lydia Robinson: the woman notorious in Brontë lore for supposedly having seduced her son’s tutor, Branwell Brontë, with the end of their affair leading to his dissolution, depression, and early death. But is this a fair assessment?

Among historical fiction subjects, this is about as “high concept” as it gets. It’s surprising no other novelist has previously claimed her as a protagonist, and it’s also fortunate that this character – the original Mrs. Robinson – was taken on by a writer capable of doing justice to this troubling, baggage-laden historical figure. 

The main setting is Thorp Green Hall in Little Ouseburn, a village not far from York, beginning in 1843. Having lost her beloved youngest daughter and her mother in close succession, Lydia is overcome by grief. With her twenty-year marriage to Edmund Robinson having gone cold, her teenage daughters occupied with their own concerns, and the family governess (the overly serious Anne Brontë) spurning any hope of friendship, Lydia feels like nobody sees her for herself. Even her own name, in a sense, has been supplanted, as she shares it with her pretty eldest daughter.  

When Miss Brontë’s flame-haired poet brother, Branwell, appears on the scene to tutor Lydia’s son, Ned, their shared interests in music, theatre, and literature create a spark between Branwell and Lydia, even though he’s twenty-five, while she’s eighteen years older.  Their romantic encounters demonstrate Austin’s skill as a writer; there’s an awkwardness about them that evokes less of a grand, perfect passion than the result of two people’s desperate and individual cries for attention.  Both come alive as real people with many flaws and rough edges, between Branwell’s neediness and alcoholism and Lydia’s selfishness, especially since her daughters are of an age when they need a mother’s loving guidance. 

Rather than developing a story about Lydia’s downfall and redemption, which would feel both simplistic and false, Austin creates in Lydia a multifaceted portrait of an unhappy, neglected wife and mother whose passionate nature is suppressed by everyone around her: her distant husband, her overbearing mother-in-law, and society as a whole.  Once she begins acting on her desires, though, she discovers she wants more from a partner than what Branwell can give. At the same time, alas, the rumors of adultery become impossible to contain. Lydia’s questionable choices make her difficult to admire, while at the same time, one can’t help but hope she’ll find fulfillment. One can also appreciate how Lydia's impressions of all her relationships shift over the course of the story, as she looks back on what each of them brought her.

The language and dialogue have a Victorian feel without seeming archaic, and the characters’ social milieu reflects the period, too.  Lydia Robinson may be best known as “Brontë’s mistress,” but as Austin shows, she's much more than this. In fact, one of the novel’s greatest accomplishments is its moving illustration of how women are diminished when defined by their relationships to men. 

Brontë’s Mistress was published by Atria this week (I reviewed it from an Edelweiss copy).

Another quick note: comments re-enabled

Comments are now enabled as before. My attempt to restrict them had the unfortunate effect of turning off commenting altogether for most readers; the Blogger platform allows for few choices in how to configure it. As for the spam, it's back, but I'll continue dealing with it while exploring other options for controlling it.  Thanks for your understanding!

Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Passing Fancies by Marlowe Benn, a Jazz Age mystery set amid the Harlem Renaissance

The title of this sophisticated second entry in the Julia Kydd mystery series (after Relative Fortunes) is cleverly apropos. It’s set in Manhattan during the freewheeling Jazz Age, circa 1924, which conjures up images of frivolous, fun-loving pursuits, but here, “passing” also refers to racial identity and crossing the color line.

Julia, a wealthy 25-year-old recently recovered from the near loss of her inherited fortune, is a bibliophile with ambition. She dreams of expanding her small private press, and for this, she needs authors.

At a publishing soiree, she meets the tall, fair Eva Pruitt, an up-and-coming novelist, and they develop a close rapport. Later, Julia is startled to learn that Eva is Black; Eva’s debut, it’s implied, will be a roman à clef about her experiences as a Harlem nightclub performer. When Eva’s manuscript (she only had one copy; one can sense all authors cringing) goes missing, and her boss is found dead, Eva’s the most likely suspect, but Julia can’t believe she did it.

Set amid the Harlem Renaissance, the themes of this novel taking place nearly a century ago are also unerringly modern, including police brutality, African American writers’ difficulties with the publishing industry, and white blindness to racial inequities. Eva is a well-rounded character with a complicated past, though her friendship with Julia blossoms too swiftly. Those enamored of fine bindings and quality fonts can indulge in their passions along with Julia, and language aficionados will appreciate the cultured writing.

As with the previous book, Julia’s one-time nemesis and half-brother, the urbane Philip, who helps to solve puzzlers for the police, is probably the most interesting character of all. He and Julia make a good investigating team, a revelation Julia slowly catches onto.

Passing Fancies was published by Lake Union in 2020 (I reviewed it from NetGalley for August's Historical Novels Review).

Quick note: Comment policy temporarily changed

I appreciate it when blog readers take the time to comment on one of my posts.  Over the last few weeks, though, so many unpleasant spam comments have been arriving that I've had to take action. Comments are moderated, so the spam never shows up on the blog, but I still have to manage and delete them all, and they were getting through even with word verification turned on.  In order to deter the bots, I've temporarily set comments to blog members/followers only, and it seems to be working.  Apologies for the inconvenience. I plan to lift this later on and see if the situation has improved.

I also welcome thoughts and comments via the blog's Facebook page.

Thanks for continuing to read my reviews and other posts!