Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Receive Me Falling by Erika Robuck, a haunting multi-period Caribbean mystery

Being home so much during the pandemic has given me time to catch up with novels I’d purchased a long time ago. Erika Robuck’s Receive Me Falling is her first, self-published novel, which came out in 2009, and I’ve had it on my shelf for about that long. If you haven’t read it before, now’s a choice time to pick it up, since its setting and themes are especially timely with the craze for all things Hamilton and the current #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Skillfully jumping between the present day and the 1830s, using the popular dual-narrative format, Robuck zooms in on a sugar cane plantation, Eden, on the Caribbean island of Nevis (Alexander Hamilton’s birthplace) and its haunted history.

Meg Owen, a 33-year-old woman who works for Maryland’s controversial governor, is distraught when her parents die in a car crash the night after her engagement party. One of the properties they owned was an old plantation house on Nevis, and to clear her head, Meg travels to see her inheritance for herself. After she learns the shocking true state of her father’s financial affairs, finding the right buyer for the house and land becomes pressing.

Nearly two hundred years earlier, Catherine Dall lives with her alcoholic father, Cecil, at Eden, and oversees its sugar cane production, an operation dependent on the labor of over 200 enslaved people. Catherine believes herself to be a kind mistress and proves receptive to opinions shared by two British visitors, a father and son, who are pretending to be scoping out a site for a plantation of their own while secretly laying the groundwork for the abolitionist movement.

With its turquoise waters, cool sea breezes, and many varieties of colorful flowers filling the landscape, Nevis would be an idyllic paradise – if not for knowledge of its former residents’ slave-owning past. Meg has the option to sell to a developer who would transform the now-decrepit estate into a plantation-style resort, and she needs the money, but she finds that idea insensitive and distasteful. Catherine, meanwhile, is a wealthy young woman whose outlook reflects her time. While she may personally dislike slavery and is horrified by the actions taken by her father’s stereotypically cruel overseer, her lifestyle is so ingrained in the system that she’s unable to see a way out of it.

It’s up to Meg to sift through old artifacts and uncover, with the help of a local historian, what factors contributed to Eden’s downfall so long ago. As is rarely the case with multi-period novels, I found the modern narrative grabbed me the most, with its emphasis on sifting through the remnants of the past and its refreshingly non-standard romantic subplot.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Review of The Queen of Tuesday: A Lucille Ball Story, by Darin Strauss

The premise of Strauss’s newest literary novel is grandiose and rather wacky: that his grandfather Isidore Strauss, a Long Island real estate developer, had a secret affair with Lucille Ball. This never happened. The author describes his work as “a hybrid: half memoir and half make-believe” sparked by “an innocent dream,” although Isidore and the actress did attend the same party in which Fred Trump demolished the glass Pavilion of Fun on Coney Island. 

Their imagined meeting there, moved to 1949 from its real 1966 occurrence, opens the story. Lucille, a former B-Movie queen, has ambitious plans for television; Isidore, a handsome Jewish man with a “Cary Grant chin,” is a better listener (and lover) than the actress’s hot-tempered, unfaithful husband.

The novel follows the pair – her overnight superstardom, his struggle to maintain normality amid their romance, their progressively strained marriages – mostly separately. In between, using metafiction techniques, the author describes his grandfather’s life and his own attempts to interest his (real) agent in a screenplay Isidore and Lucille co-wrote (obviously fictional). 

The tale succeeds in entertaining, and Lucille steals the show, of course. Most moving are the scenes where she finds her comedic niche via the character of Lucy Ricardo: “Maybe she can be the audience, only funnier and a little prettier… She can conquer the world with realness.” Strauss also offers insight into celebrity culture and the difficult interplay between Lucille’s on-screen and off-screen marriages, both involving Desi Arnaz.

So much even beyond the central conceit is made up, however, that it pushes the novel into the alternate history spectrum. Even the weekday when I Love Lucy aired is off-kilter (it was Mondays, not Tuesdays). It’s best for people who value emotional over historical truth, but all the same, it should spur interest in Lucille Ball and her accomplishments. 

The Queen of Tuesday was published in August by Random House (I reviewed it for the Historical Novels Review).  I'd love to know what historical fiction readers besides me think about this premise, and about the book if you've read it.  Would you consider reading it?

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, the bestselling historical saga of race, privilege, family, and identity

Brit Bennett’s second novel, a national bestseller, deserves all the attention it’s been getting. Spanning over three decades, from the Jim Crow South through 1980s California, it centers on two sisters and their daughters, and how American society’s intense focus on skin color warps the natural course of their lives. 

Desiree and Stella Vignes are twins: identical, but not alike. They come of age in 1950s Mallard, Louisiana, a Black farming community too small for any map, and whose residents take pride in the lightness of their complexions. At sixteen, both girls flee their hometown for New Orleans—they have reasons—and their lives diverge not long after. 

By 1968, after an abusive marriage, Desiree returns to Mallard with her “blueblack” daughter, Jude, whose presence stands out and startles everyone in town. After cutting herself off from her past, Stella, meanwhile, has successfully passed into white society and lives with her white husband and blonde daughter, Kennedy, in a wealthy LA neighborhood. When Jude and Kennedy happen to meet as young women—in a way that manages not to feel contrived—it has major repercussions.

Bennett draws her characters with empathy while making their flaws very plain; the story depicts a variety of relationships especially well and packs a punch with its emotional realness. The story movingly explores contemporary issues of race and gender identity and the costs incurred when abandoning one’s earlier life for a new, different persona. The dialogue feels pitch-perfect, and the story moves with engrossing momentum as the mystery builds about whether Stella’s carefully built lies will unravel. This is an outstanding work of fiction, a thought-provoking literary saga that everyone should read.

The Vanishing Half was published by Riverhead this summer. I read it from a personal copy and reviewed it for August's Historical Novels Review.  As the cover indicates, the novel has been a #1 New York Times bestseller and the Good Morning America book club pick for June, and a few days ago it was chosen for the fiction longlist for this year's National Book Award.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Before the Crown by Flora Harding fictionalizes the royal courtship of Elizabeth II and Prince Philip

Tailor-made for enthusiasts of The Crown, Flora Harding’s novel explores the intricate courtship between Elizabeth II and her consort, Prince Philip, now 94 and 99 years old. They married in 1947 and who – as avid royal watchers know – recently celebrated the wedding of their granddaughter Beatrice. Both the show and the novel provide the convincing illusion of breaching the wall that separates these world-famous, ultimately unknowable people from the rest of us.

While it can be read as a prequel to the Netflix series, Before the Crown stands independently and shouldn’t be thought of as “fan fiction.” At its heart, it reveals a love story presented as both predestined (since Elizabeth’s heart is set on Philip as a teenager) and unlikely (due to their very different temperaments, and the political roadblocks in the way of their union).

Harding is an experienced historical novelist who previously wrote Elizabethan-era fiction as Pamela Hartshorne. Her research into this considerably more modern timeframe is as thorough as ever, and her multifaceted characters have well-developed interior lives. Elizabeth, the shy and steadily reliable elder daughter of King George VI, carefully hides her feelings for Philip, whom she’s adored for years, behind a polite reserve. Philip, an outgoing Greek prince and Royal Navy lieutenant uprooted from his home country at a young age, finds himself nudged toward Elizabeth by his maternal uncle, “Dickie” Mountbatten, who knows she’d be a great catch.

Philip enjoys his naval career and a social life in which he does as he pleases, but he comes to appreciate Elizabeth’s kindness and generosity of spirit. His initiation into royal life is rocky and complicated by his sisters’ marriage to prominent Germans (former SS officers, even) and his future in-laws’ antipathy toward him as a suitor. George VI is stuffy and tradition-bound, and it doesn’t help that Philip finds hunting a dull pastime. Eventually he must decide whether to continue to pursue Elizabeth, knowing how much his lifestyle will change if they marry. The scenes at Balmoral Castle, a favorite residence of their joint ancestor Queen Victoria, evoke the rustic beauty of the Scottish landscape as the pair get to know each other better.

For readers interested in imagining what it’s like to be part of the British royals’ inner circle, Before the Crown fulfills its promises. It’s satisfying escapism perfect for these stressful times.

Before the Crown will be published tomorrow (Thursday, Sept. 17th) as an ebook by One More Chapter/HarperCollins.  The paperback will be out in December.  Thanks to the publisher for access via NetGalley.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

The Forgotten Kingdom by Signe Pike continues an epic story of sixth-century Scotland

In the second book of her epic trilogy of sixth-century Scotland, Pike adeptly balances brutal power struggles and Celtic mysticism. 

Languoreth, the determined heroine from The Lost Queen (2018), is now the longtime wife of the King of Strathclyde's likely heir and a mother of four. Distraught to have her husband and twin brother, Lailoken, on opposite sides of the Battle of Arderydd, Languoreth finds her world further devastated when her eight-year-old daughter, Angharad, who was away learning druidic ways from Lailoken, vanishes in the battle’s aftermath. 

Pike interweaves their three narratives as they endure emotional losses and begin physical and inward-focused journeys to regain strength. Moving from the shaded depths of the Caledonian Wood to the Pictish kingdom in the Orkney Islands and beyond, the story delves into the beguiling religious and cultural lore of several ancient Scottish peoples. 

This book doesn’t stand alone, but ongoing readers will relish the escape into Pike’s fully developed milieu while seeing its connections to Arthurian legend grow more prominent; among other aspects, Lailoken serves as a historical model for Merlin.

The Forgotten Kingdom will be published on September 15th by Atria/Simon & Schuster (488pp, hardcover and ebook).  I reviewed it for the August issue of Booklist (reprinted with permission). I'd previously reviewed The Lost Queen two years ago. As mentioned, interested readers will likely want to start with book one, since it provides considerable context for the interpersonal relationships and power imbalances in this novel.  I look forward to continuing the story later on. The author's website says that book three will be out in September 2023.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Bits and pieces of historical fiction news

Yesterday afternoon, Maggie O'Farrell's historical novel Hamnet took home the Women's Prize for Fiction.  It was published in the UK by Tinder Press (cover image at left) and in the US by Knopf; in Canada, the title is Hamnet and Judith.  I've read it, and it's a deserving winner. Set in Shakespeare's England, the playwright is never named, but the story movingly observes the relationships between Agnes, a wise woman in 16th-century Warwickshire; her husband, a glovemaker's son; and their three children, including twins Hamnet and Judith.  Hamnet will die at age 11, an event which devastates each of the family members, who express their sorrow in different ways.

Also in the UK, Melissa Oliver won the Romantic Novelists' Association's Joan Hessayon Award, which celebrates new writers, for her debut historical romance The Rebel Heiress and the Knight (Harlequin/Mills and Boon).

Historical novelist Susanne Dunlap has a new podcast series, It's Just Historical. Each episode contains an interview with an author or other personality in the historical fiction community, including C. W. Gortner (The First Actress), Christina Baker Kline (The Exiles), Kris Waldherr (The Lost History of Dreams), and many more.

The BBC's Books section has a feature article, The Strange World of the Royal Family, in which Hephzibah Anderson speaks to two historical novelists, Wendy Holden (The Royal Governess/The Governess) and Clare McHugh (A Most English Princess) about their new works of fiction.  Holden focuses on Marion Crawford "Crawfie," the governess for Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret during their childhood, while McHugh's subject is Victoria, Princess Royal, the eldest daughter of Queen Victoria, who became Empress of Germany.

Wendy Holden also has an article for Read It Forward on the must-haves of good historical fiction.

Sarah Penner's The Lost Apothecary (Park Row, March) will be one to watch for next winter. In an interview with Publishers Weekly, she speaks about the background to her debut, which delves into female power, lethal poisons, and mystery in Georgian London.

For Writer Unboxed, Liza Nash Taylor expresses what it's like to be a debut novelist at 60. Her novel Etiquette for Runaways (Blackstone, Aug.) is set in the Jazz Age of the 1920s.

Rebecca D'Harlingue (The Lines Between Us, set in the late 15th century and today) tells How to Do World Building Right in Historical Fiction for Writers' Digest.

And Parade Magazine has fall historical fiction recommendations from 12 other historical novelists with new books out.

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Creating verisimilitude in historical fiction, an essay by Linda Kass, author of A Ritchie Boy

Thanks to Linda Kass for contributing an essay on how she created a true-to-life historical backdrop in her fiction. Her novel A Ritchie Boy was recently published by She Writes Press.


Creating Verisimilitude in Historical Fiction
Linda Kass

As a trained journalist with two works of historical fiction under my belt (and am beginning a third), using the accurate facts of history matters to me. Also critical is that the concrete elements in the story—whether the food, the clothes, or the setting itself—are aligned with the time period. This is how a writer can create verisimilitude in a historical story.

Research plays a larger than life role in keeping authenticity on track. My novel, A Ritchie Boy, takes place between 1938 and 1948. Protagonist Eli Stoff, a character inspired by my father, journeys from Vienna to the Austrian Alps, from New York City to Columbus, Ohio. He is trained to be an Intelligence officer at a US Army camp near Hagerstown, Maryland called Camp Ritchie and the reader experiences him in action stationed in an abandoned villa in a Paris suburb called Le Vesinet. He learns all about Shanghai where his cousin Arthur had escaped at the same time Eli left Vienna for America.

This is a photo of my dad in his college ROTC uniform before enlisting.
This framed photo set to the right of my laptop as I wrote A Ritchie Boy.

In my novel of interrelated stories, the reader learns that Eli Stoff is one of thousands of “Ritchie Boys” whose understanding of the German language and culture led them to their undercover work on the European front to help the Allies win World War II. To convey his decade journey, I had to research many discrete facts. For example, I had to research skiing techniques, as well as the particulars of Alpine skiing back in the late ‘30s to write about Eli’s ski trip with classmates to the western Austrian province of Tyrol. I explored the kinds of music the characters might listen to during this time since seven of the twelve stories include different types of music—from classical to big band hits, from bebop to songs from Broadway musicals of the day. I needed to understand the local geography of all locations that stories were set, as well as the cultural norms of that time period. Through both primary and secondary sources, I learned about the details around the arrival and review process at Ellis Island, the life on the Ohio State University campus as the country prepared for war, and the nuances of a professional photographer who is my point of view character in the final story, “The Wedding.”

I found this photo and it helped me to imagine Eli’s parmy buddies at Camp Ritchie-Henry White, Bobby Salter, and Matt Schultz. My dad is second from the right.  I could imagine the camaraderie that was part of their time together.

And, while research is part of all historical fiction, it is important for the historical novelist not to let the facts of history overwhelm the story itself. In a story called “The Interrogation,” Eli Stoff faces a young German soldier who had escaped during the Ardennes Counteroffensive (what we now know as Battle of the Bulge, the last German offensive campaign on the Western Front during World War II). “Across the table, the young soldier remained silent, staring at his hands, which he clasped tightly on the cold aluminum. A lighter, a broken cigarette, and a black-and-red enameled Deutsche Jungvolk membership badge lay to the side.” Here the reader learns that the young prisoner is a member of Hitler Youth. “Eli was trained to ‘understand.’ He’d arrived in Paris in late December, part of a six-man military intelligence team. His orders were simple: arrest all Nazis impersonating Allied officers, put them through rudimentary questioning, write up a report. But something about Malcolm Schlick made this case more complex. Eli couldn’t put his finger on it.” Here we learn what a Ritchie Boy was tasked to do as the story unfolds.

My dad was always smiling even during war. It is how I remember him. 
His resilience and positive nature carries with him throughout his life, and I gave those characteristics to Eli Stoff.

So, in historical fiction, one must strike a balance between history and story by integrating the facts, so that the history lesson is there, and the reader doesn’t even notice.


Linda Kass
(credit: Lorn Spolter)
About the novel:

In this moving and memorable novel-in-stories—inspired by her father’s life—Linda Kass shares the little-known account of the Ritchie Boys. Often Jewish German-speaking immigrants, the Ritchie Boys worked in US Army Intelligence and helped the Allies win World War II. Set during the dawn of World War II and the disruptive decade to follow, A Ritchie Boy is the poignant tale of one young immigrant’s triumph over adversity as he journeys from Europe to America, and from boyhood to manhood.

About the author:

Linda Kass began her career as a magazine writer and correspondent for regional and national publications. Her work has previously appeared in Time, The Detroit Free Press, Columbus Monthly, and, more recently, Full Grown People, The MacGuffin, and Kenyon Review Online. She is the author of the historical World War II novel Tasa’s Song (2016) and is the founder and owner of Gramercy Books, an independent bookstore in central Ohio. https://www.lindakass.com/

Saturday, September 05, 2020

Old Lovegood Girls by Gail Godwin spans four decades of female friendship

Beautifully evoking a longtime friendship’s transformative power, Godwin traces two women’s intellectual development and life decisions, and how they intertwine, across four decades.

In 1958, Meredith Grace (“Merry”) Jellicoe and Feron Hood are matched as roommates at Lovegood College, a two-year school for women in North Carolina. The daughter of tobacco farmers, Merry has a welcoming personality, and the college dean, Susan Fox, believes she’ll be a comforting influence on the guarded Feron, who had a troubled home life. She’s right. The two become close; both are talented writers, sharing deep conversations on literary approaches and reading each other’s stories. Envious of Merry’s writing fluency, Feron feels she can do even better and uses this emotion to push herself forward.

Old Lovegood Girls focuses on connections rather than competition, though, and in this and other aspects, it gracefully subverts the tropes that pervade fiction about women. Likewise, Lovegood College, one of those old-fashioned, rigid-seeming institutions with longstanding rituals and values, breaks away from stereotype. Dean Fox, for example, is a wonderful character, an open, nurturing administrator with a full inner life. After the girls’ first semester, tragedy forces Merry to return home and take up family responsibilities. She and Feron correspond sporadically and rarely meet, but their friendship is of the type where they know each other’s qualities so well (they stay in each other’s “reference aura,” as Feron expresses it) that they rely on each other as guides through life.

With an unhurried pace that enables characters to develop and mature, the story delves with eloquent wisdom into a wide swath of issues: love, grief, family relationships, the value of storytelling, even (in a way that feels slyly meta) the challenges of writing historical novels. It’s a fine example of introspective fiction, and an ideal read for these uneasy times.

Old Lovegood Girls was published by Bloomsbury this year; I read it from an Edelweiss e-copy and reviewed it for August's Historical Novels Review. I became interested in it after hearing the author interviewed by Jenna Blum at A Mighty Blaze on Facebook Live in May. The historical college setting was enticing, and the discussion about the novel's themes piqued my attention. I also love the cover.

Wednesday, September 02, 2020

Death in Delft by Graham Brack opens a new mystery series set in the 17th century

Master Mercurius, a young lecturer at the University of Leiden, has joined the ranks of clerical sleuths worth following in historical mysteries. In 1671, his Rector asks him to fulfill a request from the Mayor of Delft to investigate a certain matter on that city’s behalf. They need a man with “a quick wit, a knowledge of God’s law, and abundant energy,” which fits Master Mercurius very well. He is our narrator, and his understated dry humor, combined with practical sensibilities and sincere religious devotion, make his tale infectiously readable.

Following a brief shipboard voyage along the Vliet to Delft, he arrives at the Town Hall and learns about the situation. Three girls, all about eight years old, were abducted from their families. The body of one of them, the unfortunate Gertruyd Lievens, was found buried in a field, a hand-carved cross atop the grave. The two others, a fishwife’s bastard daughter and a rich merchant’s child, remain missing, and with the harsh winter weather, one fears the worst. Mercurius goes about interviewing relevant parties while determining whether the girls, who didn’t know each other, had anything in common aside from their age.

The work gets him interacting with some of Delft’s leading citizens, including logical scientist Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, future father of microbiology, and artist Johannes Vermeer, head of a large, boisterous family. Mercurius makes the rounds of local households for dinner, and visiting Vermeer happily returns us to Girl with a Pearl Earring territory. Mercurius has his own intriguing secret: he’s a Catholic priest disguised as a Protestant clergyman (both careers were so nice, he was ordained twice), which the painter guesses and appreciates. Concisely plotted with well-placed period details, this mystery is just the right length and a promising start to this new series.

Death in Delft was published by Sapere in April in hb and ebook. It's a quick read at 232pp, and the second in the series, Untrue Till Death, is already out. As the cover denotes, it was shortlisted for the Crime Writers' Association's Debut Dagger.  I reviewed it for the latest Historical Novels Review issue. I noted as I was working on this post that a Dutch reader gave it high marks on Amazon for geographic and historical accuracy, including Dutch naming conventions - nice to see.