Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Stealing Roses by Heather Cooper, a Victorian tale set on the Isle of Wight

Heather Cooper’s Stealing Roses is a warmly delightful debut novel set in the small seaside town of Cowes on the Isle of Wight in 1862. Aside from brief mentions of Queen Victoria’s summer home at nearby Osborne House, major historical events and figures don’t intrude. The focus is on a young woman’s growing into adulthood amid social change in her immediate world.

The writing style enhances the sense of period, employing the Victorian tendency toward long, winding sentences and a tone of elevated formality. It makes a nice contrast with the personality of its heroine, 19-year-old Eveline Stanhope, the adventurous youngest daughter in a well-to-do family. She has two older sisters who married well, a mother she loves despite her tendency to meddle and gossip, and a caring aunt. Living with them is Eveline’s former governess, Miss Angell, who would have had nowhere else to go if the Stanhopes hadn’t taken her in.

The building of a railway line between Cowes and Newport alarms Eveline at first, since she shares her late father’s love of natural landscapes and hates to think of the ground being torn up. Over time, she comes to realize the benefits that trains will bring for local fishermen, other businesses, and even their family. Two suitors present themselves in her life: Charles Sandham, nephew of Mrs Stanhope’s good friend and social rival, and chief railway engineer Thomas Armitage, a Yorkshireman.

Eveline is an engaging heroine, a product of her time who recognizes but sets aside the limitations imposed on young women of her class. Eveline’s mother despairs of her interest in photography and desire to go sea-bathing, but as with many things, Mrs. Stanhope can be persuaded to change her mind if she’s told such pursuits are fashionable or progressive. (While she can be flighty and marriage-obsessed on Eveline’s behalf, she’s no Mrs Bennet; over the course of the novel, her character shows significant depth.)

Jane Austen fans should enjoy this novel with its emphasis on family interactions, social responsibility, and the economic position of women. The era depicted in is firmly Victorian, though, and delves into the era’s proprieties and improprieties (with examples both saucy and serious). Some parts of the ending feel too abrupt, but overall, it’s enjoyable to spend time within these pages.

Stealing Roses was published by Allison & Busby last year; I read it from a NetGalley copy.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Focusing on autumn 2020 historical fiction releases, UK edition

Well, I'd intended to post this preview of autumn 2020 titles from British publishers a while ago, but time got away from me. The good news, though, is that for interested readers, there's no need to wait to get them because many are available now.  Here are nine from my personal wishlist. Did any make it to your wishlist as well?  Links below go to Goodreads.

Suzannah Dunn has written many insightful historical novels about Tudor personalities, and in The Testimony of Alys Twist (Little Brown UK, Oct.) she chooses a laundress-turned-spy in Princess Elizabeth's household, circa 1553, as her protagonist.  Elizabeth (here writing as E.C.) Fremantle's newest historical thriller, The Honey and the Sting (Michael Joseph, Aug.) centers on three women and a secret in early Stuart-era England.  The Glorious Guinness Girls by Emily Hourican (Headline Review, Sept.) is about the three real-life Guinness sisters, Anglo-Irish socialites in 1920s Ireland and London, as seen from an outsider's perspective.

I enjoy reading novels based on family history. A More Perfect Union, Tammye Huf's debut (Myriad Editions, Oct.), tells the story of her great-great-grandparents, an Irish immigrant and an enslaved woman, in 1840s Virginia. Naomi Miller's Imperfect Alchemist (Allison & Busby, Nov.) heads back to Tudor England to reveal the life of Mary Sidney, poet and literary patron, alongside that of a maid in her family's household.  Continuing her fictional chronicles of medieval women, Anne O'Brien's The Queen's Rival (HQ, Sept.) centers on Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, a powerful figure during the Wars of the Roses (mother of Edward IV and Richard III).  Women's lives seem to be a favorite theme of mine...

Caroline Scott's first WWI novel, The Poppy Wife / The Photographer of the Lost, stood out in a crowded field. Her second, When I Come Home Again (Simon & Schuster, Oct), reveals the story of a man with amnesia in a Durham hospital and three women who claim to know him. Acclaimed novelist Rose Tremain's latest work, Islands of Mercy (Chatto & Windus, Sept.) takes place in Bath, England, and in Borneo in 1865; it makes me curious how the novel's settings and characters will intertwine. Lastly Jeremy Vine's The Diver and the Lover, another "inspired by real events" novel, journeys with two English sisters over to Spain in 1951, as Dali begins a new artistic work.

Monday, October 19, 2020

We All Fall Down: Stories of Plague and Resilience, nine historically rich tales

I wasn’t always a fan of historical short stories. The format seemed too concise to support the world-building and character depth necessary for the genre. But the more I read, the more I grew to appreciate them. Short stories are powerfully concentrated in terms of character, plot, and historical detail. When done right, the length suits the material perfectly.

Several weeks ago, I watched a Zoom panel, “Stories of Plague in the time of Covid,” sponsored by the Historical Novel Society NYC Chapter, over my lunch hour. A collection of international authors who contributed to the We All Fall Down anthology spoke about their stories and took questions. It was one of the best online panels I’ve seen, and now that I’ve read the book, I’m tempted to watch it again.

The book was conceptualized long before the current pandemic, and it’s eerie how well some situations in the nine tales reflect our time. All are set during periods of the Black Death between the 14th and 17th centuries: stories of sorrow, grief, family, love, art, beauty, and the strength to survive after immense loss.

Kristin Gleeson’s “The Blood of the Gaels,” set in Ireland in 1348, follows a young novice as she travels home to her family after getting word of her father’s illness. This unpredictable story has hints of mystery as it showcases the religion, folk beliefs, and laws of the time.

“The Heretic” by Lisa J. Yarde introduced me to a less familiar period, 14th-century Moorish Spain, and to the historical figure of Ibn al-Khatib, personal secretary to the sultan, who observes how the plague is spreading and develops controversial views about how to lessen its severity. I highlighted multiple passages that felt historically relevant and uncannily familiar to today. 

Following a girl as she hawks elixirs with her motley group of faith-healers and fraudsters on their travels through 14th-century Siena, Laura Morelli’s “Little Bird” draws readers into the world of the Lorenzetti painters as the “Great Mortality” lands in the city – perhaps, as was thought, as punishment for its residents’ sins. This was one of my favorites, for its re-creation of the tools of the artists’ workshop and the glories of medieval Siena: “The cathedral is a chamber of echoing footsteps and pigeon wings, lit by dozens of gilded altarpieces shimmering in the candlelight.”

As a reader interested in fiction about little-known royal figures, I appreciated J. K. Knauss’s illustration of the life of Leonor de Guzmán, mistress of Alfonso XI of Castile, and the challenges she faces after he dies of plague in 14th-century Seville.

With the poignantly meditative “On All Our Houses,” set in Gargagnago, Italy, in 1362, David Blixt revisits his character Pietro Alighieri (Dante’s son) later in life. Aged 64, Pietro reflects on his existence and the fearsome inevitability of death as his eldest daughter Betha lies dying of plague.

Moving ahead to Venice (Venezia) in 1576, Jean Gill’s “A Certain Shade of Red,” replete with historical detail and symbolism, is narrated by Death himself as he observes the famous painter, Tician (Titian), dying of pestilence, and at earlier moments in his life. Then, as now, political leaders make choices about public health vs. the economy; these passages hit home.

“The Repentant Thief” by Deborah Swift stars an Irish immigrant boy in 1645 Edinburgh who steals a coin and locket from a tenement he’s broken into and then, as plague spreads, worries he’s brought God’s wrath down on his family. Historical atmosphere, well-wrought characters, realistic dialogue, pertinent themes, and a great ending: they’re all here.

Demonstrating the state of health care at the time, Katherine Pym’s “Arrows that Fly in the Dark” takes the perspective of time-traveling youths who inhabit the bodies of a physician’s apprentices in 1665 London. They find their master’s techniques for protecting against plague distasteful and sometimes ridiculous. 

Lastly, “778” by Melodie Winawer, a tale of regret and resilience, shows how the rapidly shifting political climate in 17th-century Mystras, Greece, affects everyone in a Turkish man’s household. The arrival of plague adds to the heightened tensions.

A wide-ranging, rich collection of human experiences, all contained in a collection of fewer than 200 pages. This was a personal purchase. Hope this post encourages others to check it out for themselves.  You can watch the YouTube recording of the panel below.

Monday, October 12, 2020

A Wild Winter Swan by Gregory Maguire, a fairy-tale sequel set in 1960s NYC

New York at Christmastime can be an enchanting place. With his newest literary fantasy, a sort-of sequel to Hans Christian Andersen's “Wild Swans” fairy tale set in the 1960s, Maguire adds new facets of wonder to this locale. 

Raised by her stern Italian grandparents, Laura Ciardi is a lonely fifteen-year-old recently expelled after retaliating against a school bully. Her main company is their cook, the delightful Mary Bernice, and two friendly workmen repairing the family brownstone before a big holiday feast. 

There, Laura’s grandparents hope to entice their rich Irish brother-in-law into investing in her Nonno’s grocery, while Laura wants a guardian angel to rescue her from potential boarding school in Montreal. Appearing instead on the roof, one stormy night, is a dirty, bedraggled young man with a swan’s wing for an arm. 

Hilarity and awkwardness ensue as Laura tries to care for him and build him another wing without anyone noticing. Sensitive portraits of generational conflict and coming-of-age intertwine with whimsy as Maguire touchingly shows how people invoke stories to help elucidate their complicated world.

YA/General Interest: YAs will easily identify with Laura and her journey towards maturity while finding the fantasy elements intriguing.

A Wild Winter Swan was published last week by William Morrow/HarperCollins. I reviewed it for the 9/1/20 issue of Booklist (reprinted with permission). A number of Maguire's novels incorporate historical settings: Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (17th-c Holland), Hiddensee (early 19th-c Germany), Mirror Mirror (16th-c Italy). It was a nice change to see an American setting used for this latest imaginative tale.

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

How Research Drives Plot, an essay by Libby Fischer Hellman, author of the historical novel A Bend in the River

I'm very happy to have Libby Fischer Hellman here today with a guest post about the primary and secondary source research she undertook for her new novel, A Bend in the River, which is out today. She also includes many wonderful photographs from her trip to Vietnam. I enjoy novels that transport me to different places and am looking forward to reading her book.  Hope you'll enjoy the insights in her post as much as I did.


How Research Drives Plot
Libby Fischer Hellman

Novelists drive plot by developing conflicts, actions, and dialogue. But I’d add another element to the mix: research. Especially when the story has an historical angle. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve discovered an actual historical event, person, or situation that I’ve woven into my fiction. Indeed, that was the case in A Bend in the River, my new historical novel about two Vietnamese sisters struggling through the “American War” (the Vietnam War to us) in quite different ways.

I divide my research into primary and secondary sources. Primary sources include what I see, people to whom I talk, and visual materials that include film, photographs, videos, speeches, or interviews. That might be the reason my historical novels are largely based on Twentieth Century events, a time during which visual materials proliferated. I am, or was, a filmmaker and video producer. Secondary sources are, of course, books, including fiction written about the time period, documents, interview transcripts, articles, and historiography about the period. In both types of research, I found some fascinating nuggets that I included in Bend.

Primary Research

I was lucky enough to go to Vietnam for three weeks. Our trip included five days in Hanoi, another five in Saigon, and a river cruise up the Mekong River to Cambodia and beyond. Along the way I talked with as many Vietnamese people as I could.

The Colonel and the Translator

One of my most curious interviews was in Hanoi where I had the opportunity to speak to a former Colonel in the North Vietnamese army. I wanted to get his perspective on the war and his most vivid memories. Our tour guide served as translator, and we wove through the maze of narrow back alleys of Hanoi on his motor scooter to a ramshackle shack sandwiched between others.

The first thing I noticed was a photo of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin on the wall of his tiny parlor. The second was the fact that he was wearing his army jacket, adorned with patches and medals. Even after fifty years, in a country that embraces rapid growth and (dare I say it) capitalism, the colonel was still a committed Communist. I found that fascinating! I recorded the interview on my iPhone and asked all sorts of questions, to which the colonel made long responses in Vietnamese. However, my translator synthesized his comments into short ten second summaries. I was surprised he could do that so succinctly but didn’t say anything. 

When I got home, I had the recording translated by a bilingual Vietnamese student. She emailed me with her concern: Apparently my translator was not relaying to me what the colonel had said. The Colonel’s answers to my questions were being filtered and adulterated through our guide who worked, of course, for the Communist government, and he had “interpreted” questions in a way that was acceptable either to the government, or western tourists, or both.

That told me, after the fact, that anything and everything said by Vietnamese citizens was monitored carefully and that true freedom of expression is an illusion. It was a cautionary lesson and one that I remembered when I interviewed other people back in the US.

Refugee Silence

In fact, it was probably that very circumstance that made it difficult to find Vietnamese-Americans who would talk to me back when I came home. I was looking specifically for “Boat People” who had escaped Vietnam—legally or not—by ship, boat, barge, or another vessel. But one after another declined to talk. I understood. Even after forty years, many refugees still fear that what they say might cause harm from either the US or the Vietnamese government. Or maybe they just want to forget. Happily, I eventually found one woman who agreed to talk and even allowed me to use her name in the acknowledgements.

The Mekong River 

Our journey up the river was the heart of my trip. We stopped at villages where the wealthiest people in the village were the sampan maker, or the woman making non-las, the conical hats. 

A family business where everyone helped out making rice candy, from cooking the rice, to adding the ingredients, to boxing and preparing it for distribution. Other villages boasted a wet market, or a Catholic church and school (the result of missionary work from prior decades), or small farms. 

These were fascinating “slices of life,” and all the photos I took helped me create a sense of place. Of course, the people we saw were pre-selected by our tour operators, and undoubtedly had been cleared by the government. Still, the explosion of sights, sounds, and particularly smells, for example at the Binh Tay market in Saigon, were unforgettable. So were unplanned events like cockfights and school children flocking around us. 

Cu Chi Tunnels

Perhaps the most consequential site I visited were the Cu Chi Tunnels outside Saigon. Two hundred kilometers of tunnels originally built by the French but upgraded and expanded by the North, the tunnels, not far from the southern tip of the Hồ Chí Minh Trail, became the major transit route between North Vietnam and the Saigon area. 

North Vietnamese fighters often lived in the tunnels for weeks. I spent hours at the tunnels, exploring them carefully, as they became an indispensable element of my plot. 

Secondary Sources

In Stanley Karnow’s exceptional Vietnam: A History is a discussion about a female Vietnamese pediatrician who was in the inner circle of the Diem administration in the early Sixties. She was also a committed Communist and spied for the North. After the war, she renounced Communism, but she was not penalized by either the South or the North. I found her to be such a mysterious, absorbing person, that I fictionalized her as Dr. Đường Châu Hằng, a major character who recruited for the Viet Cong and also was a double agent in my book.

Part of A Bend in The River references the Cao Dai religion. Knowing nothing about it, I researched it online and read several articles about its history. The center of Cao Daism is in a city in which one of my characters spends quite a bit of time, so I gave that character a job in the kitchen of the temple campus where she spies on specific Cao Dai clergymen who might be aiding the South surreptitiously.

In the middle of writing Bend, a book called Fire Road was published. Its author, Kim Phuc Phan Thi, was the little girl who appeared in many photos at the time. She had been burned by a napalm attack and was naked, running down the road while screaming. Now in her fifties, the author came to Chicago; I met her and bought her book. While she is not directly part of my novel, her story gave me information about Vietnamese responses to American attacks and how profound those consequences could become.

Finally, I found a series of interviews with girls who worked in Saigon GI bars during the Sixties (Maclean’s, 1968). Since one of my characters does exactly that, the articles were the pot of gold I’d been hoping to find. Again, my preconceptions were wrong. Most of the girls loved their jobs and felt liberated for the first time in their lives. They found American GIs courteous and respectful, as well as great tippers. They did not want to settle down with Vietnamese men.

This is not the first time that my research opened up possibilities for plot development, but it is the first time I found so many opportunities to weave history into the story. Each time I find a nugget that works, it’s immensely satisfying. For me it’s a way to keep history alive and fresh; for readers, I hope it whets their appetite for more. 

More about A Bend in the River by Libby Fischer Hellmann
(The Red Herrings Press, on-sale October 7, 2020)

In 1968 two young Vietnamese sisters flee to Saigon after their village on the Mekong River is attacked by American forces and burned to the ground. The only survivors of the brutal massacre that killed their family, the sisters struggle to survive but become estranged, separated by sharply different choices and ideologies. Mai ekes out a living as a GI bar girl, but Tâm’s anger festers, and she heads into jungle terrain to fight with the Viet Cong. For nearly ten years, neither sister knows if the other is alive. Do they both survive the war? And if they do, can they mend their fractured relationship? Or are the wounds from the paths they took too deep to heal? In a stunning departure from her crime thrillers, Libby Fischer Hellmann delves into a universal story about survival, family, and the consequences of war.

About the Author

Libby Fischer Hellmann left a career in broadcast news in Washington, DC and moved to Chicago over 35 years ago, where she, naturally, began to write gritty crime fiction. Many novels and short stories later, she claims they'll take her out of the Windy City feet first.

She has been nominated for many awards in the mystery and crime writing community and has even won a few. She has been a finalist twice for the Anthony and three times for Foreword Magazine's Book of the Year. She has also been nominated for the Agatha, the Shamus, the Daphne, and has won the IPPY and the Readers' Choice Award multiple times. Libby hosts both a TV interview show and conducts writing workshops at libraries and other venues. She was the national president of Sisters In Crime, a 3500-member organization dedicated to the advancement of female crime fiction authors. Her books have been translated into Spanish, German, Italian, and Chinese. All her books are available in print, e-book, and audiobook formats. More information can be found online at

Saturday, October 03, 2020

The Dark Horizon by Liz Harris, a saga set between the two world wars in England and America

Spanning the post-WWI period through the Great Depression in England and America, Harris delivers an addictive saga reminiscent of early Barbara Taylor Bradford. The story follows the romance between two young people from different worlds and its dramatic fallout. 

Lily Brown had met Robert Linford when she was a land girl working near his family’s Oxfordshire estate. Enraptured with one another, they marry and have a son, James, but Joseph Linford, the intimidating and stubborn family patriarch, schemes to split them up, since he thinks Lily is inappropriate wife material and only after Robert’s money.

Joseph is a villain with depth. As head of Linford & Sons, he oversees a company building new housing developments on London’s outskirts and knows that Robert, his son and future successor, will need a partner who bolsters his social position. While beautiful Lily is a devoted wife and mother, it’s true that her naivete, lack of education, and the resulting anxiety hold her back. After Robert and Lily are driven apart and forced to rebuild their lives separately, it leaves a question open about whether they will ever reunite, and how, especially with both unaware of the deceit underlying their split.

The novel journeys along with their well-developed coming-of-age stories, told in parallel, as they form ties with others that help them grow in confidence. The backdrop of early 20th-century Hampstead, a community in north London, is an original setting, and the Jewish tenements of New York’s Lower East Side are vibrantly animated. 

The story zips along with emotional currents that make the book hard to put down. Harris also manages to navigate a path through a complicated plot maze at the end, wrapping up her tale in a satisfying manner while leaving room for future volumes in the Linford Saga.

The Dark Horizon was published by Heywood Press in 2020; I reviewed it for August's Historical Novels Review and will be reviewing the next book, The Flame Within, next month.  The next book will focus on Alice, the wife of Thomas Linford, who plays a secondary role here.