Monday, June 14, 2021

Giveaway winners, and other historical fiction news

Thanks to everyone who entered the giveaway of four books for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month at the end of May. I've been delinquent in announcing the winners, who have all been notified, and the prizes have been ordered.

Janie Chang's The Library of Legends - Michelle M.
Charmaine Craig's Miss Burma - Annette K.
Min Jin Lee's Pachinko - Nancy R.
Sujata Massey's The Widows of Malabar Hill - Donna I.

Congrats to all the winners!

In other news from the literary world:

Louise Erdrich's The Night Watchman, set in 1950s rural North Dakota and based on her grandfather's life, has won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Continuing on the subject of literary fiction: for the Sunday Book Review in the NY Times, Jonathan Lee, author of The Great Mistake, contributed an essay, "For Literary Novelists, the Past Is Pressing." Thanks to C. for the heads-up on the article.  Every so often, an author of literary fiction will discover the relevance of historical novels to today's world (usually because they've decided to write one) and produce such an essay, which will also trot out the same tired stereotypes.  I wrote about the revival of historical fiction in literary circles in my speech for the Associated Writing Programs conference in 2002, so this is all familiar ground, and it does make me wonder why the "fellow writers and editors" he spoke with haven't gotten over their aversion by now. In Lee's examination of historical novels that won the Booker and Pulitzer in recent years, it's also curious to see the criteria used:

In the 15 years before “Wolf Hall” earned Mantel her first Man Booker Prize, in 2009, only one novel set before the 20th century had been given the prize. The history of the Pulitzer is similar: In 2017, “The Underground Railroad,” Colson Whitehead’s novel about an enslaved woman in the antebellum South, became the first fiction set before World War II to win the award in more than a decade.

Why look at just those novels set before the 20th century and those set before WWII?  Doesn't Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See (Pulitzer Prize, 2015) count as historical fiction?  As we all know, WWII settings have been prevalent lately.  How about Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin (Booker Prize, 2000), set in the '30s?  In addition to this cherry-picking, there's no mention of the Walter Scott Prize, now in its twelfth year.

It is encouraging to see more writers getting an appreciation for the power of historical fiction, though, and I like the examples Lee provides in demonstrating how historical novels can grapple with today's themes while evoking times past, such as Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing.  I found this aspect especially on point:

The last few years have not been short of events that might legitimately break our faith in the readability and writability of our “now.” At the same time, they have also not been short of reminders — systemic racism, rising hate crimes, mass incarceration and the shootings of unarmed Black citizens by the police — that in America the past continues to erupt into the present and remains key to understanding it.

The piece is worth reading, both for examining the continuing perceptions about historical fiction in some literary circles, and for book recommendations.

In today's Washington Post, historical novelist Vanessa Riley, whose biographical novel Island Queen is published next month, has an important article about the importance of author's notes in historical novels written by women.  From the first paragraph:

Women-centered historical novels are having a moment, particularly when uncovering little-known histories. Resistance to these narratives, which cast heroines with agency, hidden talents and extraordinary achievements, has declined, but only after a hard-fought battle. Perhaps women have won the war and we can pen stories of our ancestors without the dreaded attack of the old guard — a patriarchy accustomed to controlling the narrative and wielding the term “historical accuracy” like a weapon.

This particularly affects, I should add, novels written by women of color, who have met with accusations of inaccuracy in depicting their characters' lives. Riley also interviews some of her author colleagues about their approach to author's notes and why they include them.

Back on May 27th, the New York Times, again, had an article from Alida Becker on new historical fiction to read this summer.  The works mentioned here aren't, generally speaking, relaxing summer reads but serious literary works exploring profound subjects.  Lots of WWII here.  I've read two of these novels myself, so far: Samantha Silva's Love and Fury and Pip Williams' The Dictionary of Lost Words. I also agree with one commenter's remarks: "Also, this list is very white and northern, isn’t it?" 

Finally, Nekesa Afia, author of the historical mystery Dead Dead Girls, her debut set in the 1920s, recommends six novels to "immerse yourself in the vibes of the past in a piece for CrimeReads. Her selections are a mix of new books and classics.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Women from Greek mythology have their say in these new historical novels

Myths are made new and relevant in these six historical novels, which should appeal to readers interested in ancient Greek settings. The Trojan War is the common event shared by many of these titles, with writers departing from Homer's Iliad to examine women's viewpoints, but other tales are used as scaffolding as well. Benchmark novels include Madeline Miller's Circe and Margaret George's The Memoirs of Helen of Troy, and there are plenty of other older novels that fit, too. The original classic stories never get old.

The Women of Troy, Pat Barker's sequel to the acclaimed The Silence of the Girls, follows the story of Briseis, a former queen who was enslaved by Achilles, beginning after Troy's defeat by the Greeks. Doubleday, August 2021.

In A Thousand Ships, her feminist retelling of the Iliad, Haynes uses the perspectives of nearly all the women in the myth (except Helen) to provide new angles on familiar events. Harper, January 2021.

The daughters of Sparta in Heywood's debut novel are Helen and her sister, Clytemnestra, princesses who are wed to powerful foreign kings and fight for the power to control their own fates. Dutton, June 2021.

Though the title of Andrews' young adult fantasy novel, Daughter of Sparta, sounds similar to the previous book, its subject is different.  The myth of Daphne and Apollo is cast into a story of female power and adventure.  Little Brown Books for Young Readers, June 2021.

Jennifer Saint's debut is the first of two reimaginings of the story of Ariadne, a Cretan princess who meets Theseus, Prince of Athens, when he visits the land of her father, King Minos, to slay the Minotaur, her half-brother. Flatiron, May 2021.

In Ariadne Unraveled, a "mythic retelling" of Ariadne, High Princess of Crete, Zenobia Neil follows the story of her romance with Dionysus, the god of wine, amid interference from the goddess Artemis, who Ariadne was bound to serve. Hypatia, July 2021. 

Tuesday, June 08, 2021

Wild Women and the Blues by Denny S. Bryce, an exciting multi-period story of Jazz Age Chicago

With her first novel, Denny S. Bryce emerges as an exciting new writer of historical fiction. The two timelines in this multi-period story are both gripping. In Chicago in 1925, “The Stroll”—a section of State Street—blazes with the sights and sounds of Black nightlife: live jazz from talented performers, speakeasies with illicit booze, and showgirls with sparkling costumes and hot dance moves.

Honoree Dalcour, a sharecropper’s daughter from Mississippi, has a regular gig dancing at Miss Hattie’s but dreams of performing at the Dreamland CafĂ©, a prestigious black-and-tan club. When her first love, Ezekiel Bailey, returns to town after a long absence, and her audition at the Dreamland turns unexpectedly risky, Honoree is plunged into dangerous waters in more ways than one.

In 2015, film student Sawyer Hayes pays a visit to Honoree, a supercentenarian in a nursing home whose fragile body holds a still-feisty spirit. In pursuit of his doctorate, Sawyer hopes Honoree can authenticate a possible lost film by pioneering Black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux showing Honoree dancing in her younger years. His conversations with Honoree, though, are hardly straightforward since she seems unusually guarded about events from 1925.

The stories dance together marvelously: the plot is in constant motion, and the interplay between them results in surprising twists. Bryce skillfully evokes place and period with vibrant descriptions of the glamorous and treacherous sides of Jazz Age Chicago and fun period slang.

The subtle characterizations are a high point as well, such as Honoree’s interactions with pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong, whose upscale society party has Honoree seeing herself in a new light, and Sawyer’s slow emergence from intense grief over his sister’s death. An especially impressive debut with a strong voice and very cool historical vibe.

Wild Women and the Blues was published by Kensington in May; thanks to the publisher for granting me access via NetGalley. I wrote this review for the Historical Novels Review's May issue.

In February, Publishers Marketplace announced deals for two new novels by the author: The Other Princess, focusing on African Egbado princess Sarah Forbes Bonetta and her life in Victorian England as the queen's goddaughter, acquired by William Morrow and out in fall/winter 2022; and A Beautiful Love Affair, about Alice Jones Rhinelander, whose Black heritage was at the center of a 1925 divorce case, to be published in 2023 by Kensington. I look forward to reading both!

Monday, June 07, 2021

When the Past Begins To Sing, an essay by Lee Zacharias, author of What a Wonderful World This Could Be

Yes, new novels set in the 1960s are considered historical fiction these days. I'm welcoming back Lee Zacharias to the blog; she has an essay about researching What a Wonderful World This Could Be, which involved visiting sites that imprint their memories on people's lives today.


When the Past Begins To Sing
Lee Zacharias

We live in history. Today becomes yesterday, last week, last year, and then, before you know it, half a century has passed. There is a challenge to writing about events that have happened in your lifetime. When are they day-old news? When do they become history?

I began What a Wonderful World This Could Be in 1981, the year after Cathy Wilkerson turned herself in. The headline caught my eye. My life had changed so much in the decade since she'd escaped the accidental bombing of her family's Greenwich Village townhouse and disappeared into the Weather Underground. I'd spent the late 1960s working in an office to support my student husband. Instead of participating in the story of my generation, I felt as if I watched it on the nightly TV news. But by the time she surrendered, I had left my first husband, earned two graduate degrees, published a book of stories, had a novel coming out, and was directing a graduate writing program. During the years I spent writing What a Wonderful World, I married my second husband and had a baby. I didn't finish a first draft until January, 1990, and after the media blitz of the '60s revisited in 1988 and 1989, the "twenty years ago today" during which much of my book took place had circled back from history to yesterday's news.

I read about the events I'd missed in that momentous decade, from journalistic reports, to histories of the New Left, to analyses, to more subjective accounts. I kept researching even after I'd finished several drafts, as more and more memoirs by participants came out. If the novel—and the creation of the main character, Alex—came from my sense of having missed out, the other characters and events required an inside feel for the seismic political and cultural changes that took place over the late 1960s. It's an over-simplification to say that the townhouse explosion on March 6, 1970 and massacre of student protestors at Kent State University less than two months later marked the end of an era; yet in a symbolic way they did. By the time I began to write the era felt long past.

Lee Zacharias, 1970
In college I'd briefly had a boyfriend who went to the 1965 Civil Rights March from Selma to Montgomery. I couldn't join him. You had to have money—you had to be able to make bail. (Later it would become an inside joke that your father had to be a millionaire for you to join Weatherman, the radical offspring of the New Left's Students for a Democratic Society.) It wasn't until 2002 that I went to Selma. I visited Brown's Chapel, walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and retraced the route of the march. In Montgomery I visited Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, at the foot of the Capitol. Every day that George Wallace served as Governor of Alabama, he looked out his window at Martin Luther King's church, a fact I might have discovered from a city map, but a map lacks the impact that standing there imparts. Just across the Pettus Bridge from Selma, I discovered a brand new Voting Rights Park. As I descended the steps, the names of the martyrs I knew so well from news I'd lived through and relived in research seemed to float up out of the darkness. 

Jimmy Lee Jackson under the Pettus Bridge, Selma, AL (2002)

It could have been a frightening experience—a lone woman who has left her car in an empty parking lot walking by herself beneath a bridge at dusk, but I felt no alarm. The plaques nailed to the trees and stuck into the ground hadn't had time to weather. They were a pale blond, the names burned so deep into the wood it felt as if the spirits they evoked were rising from their graves. That is the other side of research, when the past begins to speak. It's no longer information, but a feeling, no longer yesterday, fifty, or one hundred years ago, but now. The past becomes a chorus, lifting its voice in an everlasting song.

Fannie Lou Hamer under the Pettus Bridge, Selma, AL (2002)

About the Book:
What Alex, illegitimate daughter of an alcoholic novelist and an artist, has always wanted is family. At 15, she falls in love with a 27-year-old photographer, whom she will leave when she comes under the spell of Ted Neal, a charismatic activist on his way to Mississippi for 1964’s Freedom Summer. That fall Ted organizes a collective that turns to the growing antiwar movement. Ultimately the radical group Weatherman destroys the “family” Alex and Ted have created, and in 1971 Ted disappears while under FBI investigation. When Ted surfaces eleven years later, Alex must put her life back together in order to discover what true family means.

About the author:
Lee Zacharias is the author of four novels, a collection of essays, and a collection of short stories. She has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the North Carolina Arts Council, has twice won the North Carolina Sir Walter Raleigh Award for a book of fiction, and has received many other prizes, including two silver medals from the Independent Publisher Book Awards and the Phillip H. McMath Book Award. Her previous novel Across the Great Lake was named a 2019 Notable Michigan Book, and her essays, which have appeared in numerous journals, have been cited and reprinted in The Best American Essays. She co-edited an anthology of short fiction titled Runaway and has taught at Princeton University and the University of North Carolina Greensboro, where she is Emerita Professor of English. A native of the Midwest, she lives in Greensboro, North Carolina. Learn more at

Saturday, June 05, 2021

Eternal by Lisa Scottoline, her first historical novel, set in WWII-era Rome

Readers will emerge informed and moved from Lisa Scottoline’s first historical novel, which dramatizes WWII-era Rome via three best friends and their families. Known for her bestselling legal thrillers, Scottoline describes Eternal as “the book she was born to write.” Her passion shows in the carefully depicted setting and her compassion for her characters, whose ties are repeatedly tested.

In 1937, Sandro Simone, a Jewish mathematics student, and Marco Terrizzi, a popular, outgoing cyclist, both recognize that their longtime friendship with Elisabetta D’Orfeo has turned to love, turning them into unintended rivals. Pretty and strong-willed, but shy about romance, Elisabetta weighs a possible relationship against her desire to become a journalist.

As the trio work out their feelings, the political situation deteriorates. Sandro’s and Marco’s fathers are longtime Fascists, optimistic about the positive change they see Mussolini bringing to their country. Their futures diverge once Il Duce strengthens Italy’s bond with Nazi Germany and starts promulgating anti-Semitic race laws.

Scottoline does an exceptional job placing readers in the moment as people’s worlds are upended, and Rome, with its storied architecture and vibrant culture, grows unrecognizably dark in spirit. Sandro’s father, a lawyer so entrenched in the Fascists that his beliefs essentially define him, has difficulty comprehending this betrayal of the Jews, while Marco, employed by a rising Party official, is blind to how his loyalties affect his friendships.

These and other heartbreaking moments are juxtaposed against scenes showing the warm heart of the Roman people, including feisty Nonna, crafter of delicious pasta at the restaurant where Elisabetta works. Even Elisabetta’s cat is a delightful personality. Family secrets from decades prior – in this ancient city, the past is never far away – add additional depth to this absorbing epic evoking the worst and very best of humanity.

Eternal was published in April by Putnam (I'd reviewed it for May's Historical Novels Review). Lisa Scottoline has been enthusiastic about sharing the research she did for the novel, and you can read and view lots more via her website, which has an interactive map of Rome and eighteen episodes in her Behind the Book series. These short videos cover topics ranging from her trio of main characters to prominent Roman landmarks to food customs to the Stolpersteine, brass plaques memorializing Holocaust victims which were placed into the pavement at their last residence.

Thursday, June 03, 2021

Fidelity to the Truth in Biographical Fiction, an essay by Maryka Biaggio, author of The Point of Vanishing

Novelist Maryka Biaggio, who writes historical fiction about real-life people, is visiting today with an essay about an issue that all writers of biographical novels must address.  Welcome, Maryka!


Fidelity to the Truth in Biographical Fiction
Maryka Biaggio

“The historian serves the truth of his subject. The novelist serves the truth of his tale. As a novelist, I have tools no historian should touch: I can manipulate time and space, extrapolate from the written record to invent dialogue and incident, create fictional characters to bring you close to the historical figures, and fall back on my imagination when the research runs out.”  --William Martin

Historical fiction based on real people is not unusual, and many readers love to eavesdrop on the lives of royals, celebrities, and notorious persons. Although biographies can satisfy some of that yen, fiction does something biography can’t always do—bring us inside these people’s worlds and show us their doubts, their fears, and the words they might have spoken.

But what of the importance of honesty in rendering these lives? Does the novelist owe it to his or her subjects to tell the tale true? If not, why would an author base a fictional account on an actual person in the first place? If it’s wild storytelling an author is after, why would he or she not steer clear of even insinuating that the subject of the novel is an actual person? And don’t readers expect a certain fidelity to the truth in biographical fiction? If they are led to believe a novel is based on the life of an actual person, don’t they have the right to expect they will find some resemblance to the life of that person?

I think most readers and writers would agree that, yes, novelists who base their stories on actual persons should adhere to the generally established truths about that person. And readers can reasonably expect that stories about real people not deviate wildly from the facts (unless they are labeled as alternative history).

But the “truth” and “facts” are not always easy to agree on, even among historians and biographers who aim for a high degree of accuracy. We can probably agree on the dates and certain facts about well-known events—say the particulars of a Civil War battle. But when it comes to the generals commanding their troops, we may dispute the motives behind their battle strategies. So what can readers reasonably expect and how can authors more or less hew to those expectations?

Joyce Carol Oates takes an interesting approach to this issue in her novel Blonde, which is certainly about Marilyn Monroe. Oates never refers to her subject by that name, but rather as Norma Jean Baker. Although Monroe’s affair with John F. Kennedy is a fairly well-established fact, she refers to him only as The President. Oates is not purporting to write a biography of Marilyn Monroe. She says in her Author’s Note that “Blonde is a radically distilled ‘life’ in the form of fiction, and, for all its length, synecdoche is the principle of appropriation.” She goes on to explain ways in which her account differed from her subject’s real life, and she also notes the many biographies and books on related topics she consulted. But this novel is a masterful work, portraying the inner world of its protagonist more richly than any biography ever could. In fact, I consider it Oates’ masterpiece, and she herself told me in 2009 that it is a particular favorite of hers.

Of course, there are many authors who are not shy about using their subjects’ actual names, sometimes in the titles, including Burr by Gore Vidal (about Aaron Burr) and I Was Anastasia by Ariel Lawhon. In the case of Lawhon’s book, the central question is whether the protagonist, Anna Anderson, actually was Anastasia Romanov. Lawhon explains in her Author’s Note that “it will come as no surprise . . . that I had to take liberties with this story. I did so primarily because the historical record contains a cast of hundreds, and that is simply untenable for a novel of any sort, much less one that is already complex and nonlinear.” She, like Oates, goes on to list authoritative sources and to articulate some of the ways that her novel deviates from the historical record--“all of them necessary for the sake of clarity and narrative drive.” So, again, both Oates and Lawhon are striving for a certain narrative authenticity, which sometimes necessitates deviations from the complex truth or from potentially confusing twists and turns.

I write novels about actual people, and I have had to confront questions about fidelity to the truth over and over in the telling. If I’m going to recount a story about an actual person, I believe I owe it to the reader to render the story in a way that doesn’t completely obscure that person’s actual life. But stories must make sense, they must adhere to an arc, they must take a person from one point to the next in a way that makes sense. Real life isn’t always this “logical,” but we expect a certain logic in novels. We realize Hamlet must pay a price for his indecision, we expect insight into some of the consequential decisions Marilyn Monroe made in her tragic life, and we want to know if Anna Anderson was a fraud or royalty. In the words of Iain M. Banks, “The trouble with writing fiction is that it has to make sense, whereas real life doesn't.”

So biographical fiction about historical figures has a tall order to fill—to show us the inner worlds of the character, to bring a certain fidelity to the story of their life, and to satisfy our curiosity about the meaning of their existence. Done well, biographical fiction can do all this and more—it can captivate and entertain.

About the Author: 

Maryka Biaggio is a psychology professor turned novelist who specializes in historical fiction based on real people. She enjoys the challenge of starting with actual historical figures and dramatizing their lives–figuring out what motivated them to behave as they did, studying how the cultural and historical context may have influenced them, and recreating some sense of their emotional world through dialogue and action. Doubleday published her debut novel, Parlor Games, in January 2013. She lives in Portland, Oregon, that edgy green gem of the Pacific Northwest.

About The Point of Vanishing

The Point of Vanishing is based on the true story of child prodigy writer, Barbara Follett. In 1939, at the age of 25, she vanished, never to be heard from again. Now historical novelist Maryka Biaggio brings her enigmatic story—and mysterious disappearance—to life.

Intrigued?  Check out the author's book trailer below.

Monday, May 31, 2021

Love and Fury by Samantha Silva, a galvanizing portrait of English writer Mary Wollstonecraft

The lives of trailblazing English proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter, Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, overlapped by only eleven days, as Wollstonecraft tragically died from postpartum infection in 1797. In her second novel, Silva (Mr. Dickens and His Carol, 2019) probes the perspective of another literary icon, imagining the older Mary, weakened from childbirth, telling her life story to her baby at her midwife’s suggestion.

Mary’s passionate declaration of selfhood carries readers on a wide-ranging, deep journey where she eloquently voices the circumstances shaping her views, her strong attachments to other independent thinkers, like Fanny Blood, and her struggles to escape societal constraints. Raised in a large family where her father abused her mother, she grows infuriated by gender inequality and aims to enlighten women who participate in their own diminution.

Related with superb detail on late-eighteenth-century locales and intellectual pursuits, Mary’s experiences leave her initially doubting the possibility of equal marriage between men and women. This absorbing tale of courage, sorrow, and the dance between independence and intimacy delivers a sense of triumphant catharsis.

Love and Fury was published by Flatiron in May, and I'd turned in this review for Booklist (the final version was published in their historical fiction issue on May 15th). Allison & Busby will publish the novel in the UK in mid-June. Terrific book, with a beautiful cover. You can read an excerpt at the author's website.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Historical fiction giveaway for Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month

In March, at the time of the blog's 15th anniversary, I'd mentioned I'd be posting a giveaway sometime soon. I decided to offer one during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (May), since this gives me the chance to offer up copies of four excellent historical novels, set in different countries within Asia and by writers of Asian heritage. All were five star reads for me.

Here are the books and links to my earlier reviews:

Janie Chang, The Library of Legends, which follows a real and mystical journey through war-torn 1937 China.

Charmaine Craig, Miss Burma, an engrossing novel of family, politics, and the history of modern Burma, based on the lives of the author's mother and grandparents.

Min Jin Lee, Pachinko, the bestselling, critically acclaimed novel of Korean life in 20th-century Japan.

Sujata Massey, The Widows of Malabar Hill, an original mystery (first in a series) starring the only female lawyer in 1920s Bombay.

To enter, fill in the form below. (For email subscribers, please visit the original blog post to enter the giveaway.)  Deadline is Sunday, June 6th, a week from today. The winners will be randomly chosen and notified after the deadline. This giveaway is being funded by me, and is open to all readers in countries where Amazon or Book Depository delivers, except where prohibited by local laws.

Good luck!

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead, an adventurous historical fiction epic about daring, unconventional women

Great Circle
is a richly spacious novel about a bold female pilot who feels simultaneously larger-than-life and intimately real. Marian Graves leaves behind a logbook from her final flight in 1950, when she attempted to circumnavigate the globe longitudinally. “My last descent won’t be the tumbling helpless kind but a sharp gannet plunge,” she writes, just before disappearing over Antarctica. A fictional character, Marian sits alongside historic aviators like Amy Johnson and Elinor Smith, whose tales are highlighted in asides, but her path is her own.

Marian’s early life is similarly dramatic. As infants in 1914, she and twin brother Jamie are saved from a burning ship and sent to Missoula, Montana, to stay with their uncle, an artist with a gambling problem. Two barnstormer pilots ignite Marian’s urge to expand her world, but flying lessons are costly and inappropriate for girls.

Seeking direction and funding, she forms a reluctant attachment to Barclay McQueen, a wealthy, controlling bootlegger. Jamie, a vegetarian and pacifist, is equally captivating. Like Marian, he enters into relationships that spur him to confront his values.

Their stories run alongside that of Hadley Baxter, a contemporary actress whose messy love life is sabotaging her career. By playing Marian in a new biopic, she hopes to begin anew. Hadley’s account initially feels superficial in comparison, but as she researches her subject, the timelines have an exciting interplay, and missing pieces click into place.

The characters’ journeys encompass many locales – 1920s Montana, wild remote Alaska, WWII England with the Air Transport Auxiliary, a cloud’s opaque, dizzying interior – yet the research feels weightless. The vast black crevasse Marian glimpses while flying over western Canada comes to symbolize life’s darknesses: how do we move past situations that threaten to swallow us whole? Imbued with adventurous spirit and rendered in gorgeous language, this is an epic worth savoring.

Great Circle was published by Knopf this month, and I'd reviewed it for May's Historical Novels Review from a NetGalley copy. If you're not convinced yet to put it on your TBR, read Ron Charles's review at the Washington Post, which recommends it as "perfect summer novel." All of his reviews are terrific and worth reading regardless.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Edward Rutherfurd's China takes an epic, multi-perspective look at 19th-century Chinese history

For his newest epic about an intriguing world locale, Rutherfurd (Paris, 2013) dives into seventy years of Chinese history, beginning in 1839, as circumstances lead to the First Opium War, through the Boxer Rebellion and after.

The novel has a tighter scope, time-wise, than his usual canvas, which allows for in-depth exploration of an overarching theme: China’s subjugation by Western powers, particularly Britain.

Taking the long view, Rutherfurd adeptly dramatizes the impact of and fallout from major events, including the Taiping Rebellion and the destruction of Beijing’s Summer Palace. His characters, among them British merchants, missionaries, Chinese government officials, peasants, pirates, and an artisan who rises high in service at the imperial palace through unusual means, assert their individuality while embodying beliefs on different sides of China’s internal and external conflicts.

The protagonists are predominantly men, but many fascinating women also feature in the story. Though the first third feels overly drawn-out, the novel takes an entertaining, educational journey through China’s rich and complex history, geography, art, and diverse cultures across a tumultuous epoch.

Edward Rutherfurd's China was published by Doubleday this May in the US, and I wrote this review (based on a PDF sent to me) for Booklist.  The novel is 800pp long, and these days I find longer books easier to read in electronic form, so the PDF worked just fine. Your mileage may vary, though, and I have most of Rutherfurd's earlier novels in hardcover.  My favorite among his work is The Princes of Ireland, the first in his two-book Dublin saga.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

A note for email subscribers to Reading the Past: mailing list migration next weekend

On April 14, I got an email from Google letting me know that its FeedBurner email subscription feature would be discontinued in July.  FeedBurner is the application that powers the "Subscribe by email" widget used by Blogger, which I've been using for the past dozen years.

Software changes can be annoying, but free technology services don't last forever, and I'm glad FeedBurner has been up and running reliably for so long.

Since I got the news about the change, I've been looking for another product so that readers could receive new blog posts via email, and finally settled on Mailchimp.  

I plan to migrate the list of email subscribers to the new Mailchimp platform over Memorial Day weekend in the US (May 29-31).  If you're currently subscribed via email, you'll continue to be subscribed after the move. I expect everything will go smoothly (fingers crossed!).

The new emails will be coming from my address rather than from, so if you're a subscriber, you may want to add my email (sarah at readingthepast dot com) to your approved senders list so you don't miss anything.

Anyone who signed up for email updates within the last two weeks is already on the new mailing list.  Also, anyone who doesn't receive new posts via email but would like to, please sign up via the Subscribe by Email box on the left-hand sidebar of the blog.

Thanks so much for reading my posts, however you choose to do so!

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Review of the final book in Alison Weir's Six Tudor Queens Series: Katharine Parr, The Sixth Wife

Henry VIII was neither her first nor her last husband, yet it’s Katharine Parr’s status as his sixth wife, naturally, that commands the most attention. Weir’s admirable conclusion to her Six Tudor Queens series reveals Katharine as a woman of intellect, kindness, and strategic acumen who plays the long game to attain her heart’s desires.

Twice-widowed when she marries Henry, she brings a diverse range of experiences to her queenship. Weir smoothly knits all these life segments together, showing how Katharine’s background shapes her character and beliefs.

Raised amid a loving family that respects women’s education, she first weds a nobleman’s son and secondly an older, Catholic baron. The story strikes a clear path through the complicated political and religious circumstances of 1520s-40s England as the action sweeps from Lincolnshire to Yorkshire during the Pilgrimage of Grace to dazzling London.

In choosing Henry over personal happiness, Katharine, secretly Protestant, seeks to guide the realm in that direction. She comes to love the King, despite his age and infirmities, but influential women tend to acquire enemies.

Her relations with her stepchildren are handled with realistic nuance, and Henry’s death drops her into intense romantic intrigue. This wide-ranging novel expertly showcases Katharine’s courageous, eventful life and many noteworthy accomplishments.

Katharine Parr, The Sixth Wife was published by Ballantine this month in the US, and by Headline Review in the UK.  I wrote this review for Booklist and it appeared in the April 15th issue. 

This is the fifth book in the series I've reviewed... all except the first book, which focused on Katherine of Aragon. This book and the third, Jane Seymour, The Haunted Queen, are my favorites. With this one, I particularly liked how Weir devoted so much time to Katharine's life before her marriage to Henry VIII; she was well-educated and traveled quite a bit within England. She had five stepchildren in all, including, of course, the future Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I.

Now that this series is complete, I wonder what direction Weir will take next with her fiction.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Trendspotting: the many new historical novels with "Last" in their titles

Have you noticed that the titles of many new historical novels have a certain air of finality?
The novels above are all from 2021. And that's not the last of them.  It wasn't until I'd read and reviewed a few of these that I realized how many "Last" titles there were. 

(Shown above: The Last Tiara by M.J. Rose; The Last Garden in England by Julia Kelly; The Last Green Valley by Mark Sullivan; The Last Night in London by Karen White; The Last Bookshop in London by Madeline Martin; The Last One Home by Shari J. Ryan.)

But that's not all.  Searching online quickly brought up many more. There were so many titles to choose from that I had to be selective.

(Above: Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo; The Last Bathing Beauty by Amy Sue Nathan; The Last Dance of the Debutante by Julia Kelly, forthcoming; The Last Days of Ellis Island by Gaelle Josse; The Last Mona Lisa by Jonathan Santlofer; The Last Checkmate by Gabriella Saab. These last two are out later this year.)

When you think about it, "Last" titles are a natural fit for historical novels, as they signal the depiction of a time or event that has since faded into the past.

(Above: The Last Train to London by Meg Waite Clayton; Her Last Flight by Beatriz Williams; Millicent Glenn's Last Wish by Tori Whitaker; The Last Passenger by Charles Finch; The Last Tea Bowl Thief by Jonelle Patrick; The Last Train to Key West by Chanel Cleeton.)

I'm sure we aren't seeing the last of this title trend.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Chanel Cleeton's The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba follows three bold women during the Cuban War of Independence

Chanel Cleeton’s fourth historical novel explores the nature of freedom on multiple levels, from the dynamics of international politics to the individual dilemmas of three bold women. They all become embroiled, in different ways, in Cuba’s fight for independence. They also find themselves caught between society’s expectations and the images they want to craft for themselves.

Set in the late 19th century, the book’s subject is the lead-up to the Spanish-American War, an event rarely touched upon in historical fiction, especially from the female viewpoint.

As the Cuban people strive to overturn the repressive rule of their Spanish colonizers, Evangelina Cisneros, a young Cuban woman, is thrust into a grim women’s prison in Havana under false political charges. She’s a historical figure, and her plotline aligns with real-life history. The other two protagonists are Grace Harrington, an American newspaper journalist working for William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, and Marina Perez, a Cuban farmer’s wife forced to leave her home with her family, travel across the ruined countryside, and endure dire conditions in a reconcentration camp.

It takes a little while to get used to all three viewpoints and the switches among them, but the stories come together in a powerful way.

Competition between Hearst’s paper and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World is cutthroat, and Grace places herself in the thick of it. Operating under the principle that it’s important not just to report on the news, but act on it, the Journal aims to pressure the United States into backing Cuban independence. When Hearst learns about Evangelina languishing in prison, the paper takes her up as a symbol of injustice, declares her the “most beautiful girl in Cuba,” and plans to break her out. Under the guise of a laundress, Marina delivers secret messages for the rebels while worrying desperately about her beloved husband, who’s separated from her and their daughter while fighting for freedom.

I thoroughly enjoyed this multifaceted view of this pivotal historical time: the view of late 19th-century Cuba from the Cuban and American perspectives, the action-intensive plot, and the women’s different but equally touching love stories. Their emotionally grabbing quests for self-determination run alongside that of Cuba in this wide-ranging and page-turning tale.

The Most Beautiful Girl in Cuba was published by Berkley on May 4th; I read it from a NetGalley copy.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Books shine a light during dark times in The Last Bookshop in London by Madeline Martin

As you can guess, Madeline Martin’s The Last Bookshop in London is a book about books. It celebrates the power of literature to whisk you out of “real life” and into a different, wholly realized world filled with characters you come to care about. Furthermore, it accomplishes this feat itself.

Martin is a prolific writer of historical romance; this is her first work of mainstream historical fiction, and I hope she stays in this new genre a while longer. Her story manages to be simultaneously inspiring and unflinchingly realistic in its depiction of Londoners enduring the Blitz.

In 1939, Grace Bennett and her best friend, Viv, leave their sleepy Norfolk village and head to London, where they share a room in the comfortable house owned by Mrs. Weatherford, a childhood friend of Grace’s late mother. They both need work, and Grace needs a reference, since her unpleasant uncle, whose shop she worked in, refused to give her one.

Mrs. Weatherford cajoles the grumpy proprietor of the Primrose Hill Bookshop, Mr. Evans, into employing Grace as an assistant for six months. He warns Grace not to get attached to the place, whose dusty, disorganized shelves have their own eccentric charm. Grace works hard in cleaning and rearranging the books, and one frequent customer, the handsome George Anderson, introduces her to the love of reading. As for Mr. Evans, one quickly suspects he has a soft heart under all the bluster.

Through Grace, Martin presents an on-the-ground view of London’s people and streets as the rumbles of war grow louder. Men are called up, including Mrs. Weatherford’s gentle son; children line up to be evacuated to the countryside; wives and mothers join service organizations while worrying about their loved ones’ safety. Many images here will stay with me, thanks to well-placed period details. We see the white chairs and bright yellow towels in Mrs. Weatherford’s homely kitchen and the Anderson air-raid shelter (the “Andy”) in her back garden. During the Blitz, as German bombs fall, we see the various ways Londoners react to these devastating strikes on their neighborhoods: some readily seek shelter, while others, tired of these nightly occurrences, start refusing to leave their homes.

Through it all, Grace and her customers take refuge in stories, which they find a wonderful distraction. We get to experience the appeal of many classic novels as Grace discovers them for herself. Being interested in literary history, I found it especially enlightening to learn about the new books that became top sellers at the bookshop, which ones flopped, and why. After reading about it here, Winifred Holtby’s South Riding is the latest addition to my to-be-read stack.

It’s not surprising that The Last Bookshop in London has been on bestseller lists. It’s an absorbing crowd-pleaser of a novel about preserving hope during dark times, a theme that many of us today can get behind.

The Last Bookshop in London was published by Hanover Square in April. Thanks to the publisher for approving a NetGalley copy.

Sunday, May 09, 2021

Those Who Are Saved by Alexis Landau, a tense novel of motherly love during WWII

Times of war force people into agonizing decisions with haunting repercussions. In her uneven yet hard-hitting sophomore novel, Landau (The Empire of the Senses, 2015) introduces Vera Volosenkova, a wealthy Russian Jewish immigrant in 1940 France.

After receiving notice to report for internment, she and her husband, Max, worried about conditions in the camp, place their four-year-old daughter, Lucie, into her governess Agnes’ care. They assume they won’t be away long, and Agnes “can always bring Lucie home with her to Oradour-sur-Glane,” Vera reasons.

Nearly five years later, in California, Vera contemplates her broken marriage and stalled writing career. She and Max were unable to reclaim Lucie before escaping, and Vera constantly second-guesses her choice. Subsumed by anxiety and feeling lost, Vera begins an affair with a Hollywood screenwriter, Sasha, a kind man with a complicated past.

The plot feels fragmented and slow midway through, and anyone familiar with French WWII history will guess the basic outline. Landau confidently illuminates her settings and her characters’ psyches, though, and Vera’s unwavering resolve to find Lucie amid the chaos of postwar France feels arrestingly real.

Those Who Are Saved was published by Putnam in February; I wrote this review for Booklist's Jan 1 issue (reprinted with permission). 

The novel is interlinked with the author's debut, The Empire of the Senses (which I loved), via its secondary characters. It can easily be read alone.

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Hour of the Witch by Chris Bohjalian, a thrilling novel of 17th-century New England

How far will a woman go to escape an abusive husband? In Puritan Boston in 1662, divorces are rarely granted, but Mary Deerfield, a beautiful 24-year-old goodwife, sees no alternative. Barren after five years of marriage to Thomas, a prosperous miller in his mid-forties, Mary conceals bruises beneath her coif and brushes off concerns from her adult stepdaughter.

Thomas has a pattern of returning “drink-drunk” from the tavern, taking his anger out on Mary, and apologizing the next morning. Their indentured servant, who admires Thomas, never sees any violence, only a husband properly correcting his wife. Then comes the evening when Thomas attacks Mary’s left hand with a fork.

Mary has allies, most notably her caring, wealthy parents. But in a culture that views women as subservient helpmeets, and with no witnesses to Thomas’s cruelty, Mary’s petition has slim chances. She must also tread carefully: the Hartford witch-hunts weigh on people’s minds, some of her behavior appears suspicious, and Satan’s temptations lurk everywhere.

Themes of women’s agency in a patriarchal society are common in historical novels, but this fast-moving, darkly suspenseful novel stands out with Bohjalian’s extraordinary world-building skills. From speech patterns to the detailed re-creation of colonial households to the religious mindset, the historical setting is very credible.

The rich have finer options—Mary’s mother wears vivid colors, for instance—but her father struggles to get across that the three-pronged forks he imports from abroad are just utensils, not the “Devil’s tines.” Mary isn’t an outspoken iconoclast but a product of her era, and readers will worry for her—for many reasons, which become clear as the story progresses.

The quotes opening each chapter, taken from court proceedings occurring later on, diminish some of the novel’s surprises. Nonetheless, the plot moves with increasing urgency that will have readers racing toward the ending.

Hour of the Witch is published today by Doubleday; I reviewed it from NetGalley for the Historical Novels Review.  If this doesn't convince you to read it, also check out Diana Gabaldon's recent review for the Washington Post.

Saturday, May 01, 2021

The Mermaid from Jeju by Sumi Hahn, a story of war and family in 20th-century Korea

Korean-born, New Zealand-based author Hahn debuts with a poignant, original book about women’s strength, the human cost of war, and how people come to terms with painful memories. Korea’s Jeju Island is the stunningly rendered setting.

Goh Junja is a young diver of Jeju who, like her mother and grandmother, plunges to the sea floor to collect delicacies to feed her village. Lisa See (The Island of Sea Women) and Mary Lynn Bracht (White Chrysanthemum) have also written novels about these female divers, called haenyeo, and anyone who enjoyed either should read this one, too. They share a wartime setting but differ in style and theme.

The Mermaid from Jeju opens, unusually, with the death of the main character, a doctor’s wife in 2001 Philadelphia, then jumps back to 1944. Eighteen-year-old Junja, having come into her power as a haenyeo after surviving a near-drowning, convinces her mother to let her make the annual trek to Hallasan, a distant mountain, in her place to trade abalone for a piglet. While there, Junja grows intrigued by Suwol, the noble eldest son of the house, and he with her. She returns to Jeju to face her mother’s tragic death, reportedly after a fatal dive. Meanwhile, in the postwar era, the political situation throughout Korea has grown treacherous: the Japanese occupiers have fled, the Americans are landing, and Nationalist forces are tracking down potential communist sympathizers.

The story immerses readers wholly in the culture and history of Jeju, from a terrible real-life tragedy to local myths and elements of Korean spirituality. On the one hand, it’s never didactic; on the other, some aspects don’t become clear to Junja until later, which creates a certain vagueness. When Junja’s widower visits Korea to lay his ghosts to rest, it crystallizes the plot and brings events full circle in a satisfying and meaningful way.

The Mermaid from Jeju was published by Alcove Press in 2020; I reviewed it from a purchased copy for May's Historical Novels Review.

When my husband saw the title of this book, he asked about the setting and then mentioned he'd been to the island, which he called Cheju-do (Cheju island), when he was stationed in Korea with the US Army in 1979-80.  Below is one picture he took there, to provide a sense of the geographic landscape. Jeju, a volcanic island, is a UNESCO World Heritage site

300-foot cliff on Jeju island, off the southern coast of Korea

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

A "patchwork of souls": Dangerous Women by Hope Adams

On April 5, 1841, the convict ship H.M.S. Rajah set sail from England for Van Diemen's Land (modern Tasmania). In addition to the captain and crew, on board were 180 women, convicted of petty crimes, who were sentenced to transportation. Accompanying them was young matron Miss Kezia Hayter, who was responsible for providing the women with practical skills for their new lives on the other side of the world.

During the three-month voyage, a selection of women, under Miss Hayter's guidance, stitched an impressively detailed quilt. It was presented to Jane, Lady Franklin, wife of the Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen's Land, upon their arrival. The quilt was returned to Britain, lost for a time, then rediscovered in 1989. It now resides in the National Gallery of Australia. Due to its fragile condition, it's made available for public viewing just once annually.

public domain photo of the Rajah quilt (via Wikimedia Commons)

Dangerous Women
, a new novel by Hope Adams (pseudonym for veteran novelist Adele Geras), embroiders a fictional mystery plot onto the Rajah's real-life voyage. Kezia Hayter is a principal character, and other real-life figures, like Captain Charles Ferguson, play important roles. As Adams reveals in her afterword, the names of the convict women were changed, as they have descendants living in Australia.

The novel works as a combination of locked room-style crime novel (although aboard ship) and thought-provoking adventure story. Both of these elements are evenly balanced. 

Toward the end of the journey, one of Kezia's needlewomen, Hattie Matthews, the mother of a young son, is stabbed while standing at the railing on deck. The motive is unknown, and Hattie is too badly wounded to reveal who did it. One of the women, though, is hiding her past and impersonating someone else; we know her birth name, Clara, but not the name she assumed on board. There are plenty of secrets stirring.

The story then looks back to follow the women as they settle into their cramped quarters, form alliances, and find ways of passing the time. Two seem to be in a sexual relationship, and drama unfolds after one of them acts on her attraction to another. As the crew's investigation continues, everyone feels on edge since the attacker could easily strike again. Multiple perspectives show the backgrounds of some of the women who, Kezia realizes, "were often victims... women who'd fallen into petty crime through association with criminal men, or had been put to work as thieves by brutal husbands and fathers."

The chapters, labeled "Then" and "Now," alternate between the beginning of the voyage and the aftermath of the crime. I had to pay close attention to the labels and dates in the chapter openings or risk getting confused.

Despite the terrible circumstances some women endure, Hattie included, this is ultimately a hopeful story about new beginnings and what disparate women can accomplish when working toward a common goal. As one of them remarks: "We're many small pieces, each of us different but now stitched together. A patchwork of souls."

Dangerous Women was published in February by Berkley; I read it from an OverDrive copy through my library.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Researching a conspiracy: an essay by Alan Bardos, author of The Dardanelles Conspiracy

Today, on the 106th anniversary of the Gallipoli landing, I'm welcoming author Alan Bardos to Reading the Past. He contributes an essay about researching the historical backdrop for his newly released historical novel The Dardanelles Conspiracy, a thriller set during the WWI era.


Researching a Conspiracy
Alan Bardos

In January 1915, Captain ‘Blinker’ Hall, Director of British Naval Intelligence, launched an operation to bribe members of the Ottoman Government into making peace. It was hoped that would open the Dardanelles Strait to the Allies. Allowing them to supply Russia and bypass the stalemate on the Western front. It was however superseded by the Allies attempt to open the Straits by force. The ensuing naval and land campaigns resulted in a second stalemate in the East.

My novel The Dardanelles Conspiracy charts these missed opportunities through the eyes of Johnny Swift, a disgraced soldier and diplomat. Swift finds himself in the middle of the attempts to open the Straits, by both negotiation and force. It was the attempt at a negotiated peace that attracted me to the story and caused the greatest amount of difficulty in researching the novel. This was because it’s a fairly obscure footnote to what is largely considered to be a disastrous ‘side show’ to the Western Front.

It was in the footnotes of Gallipoli by James Robert Rhodes that I got the first big break in my research. He made reference to two articles in the Royal United Service Institution Journal, from 1963. The first was called ‘A Ghost from Gallipoli’ by Captain G.R.G. Allen. The second was a response to this article written by Admiral Sir William James. My other break was that a friend of mine could actually get hold of the articles for me.

These articles gave a detailed overview of the negotiations and why they failed, but did not give a great deal of colour about the ins and outs of the discussions. I was able to find further details in books about naval intelligence in the First World War, most notably in two biographies of Hall written by Admiral James and David Ramsay.

However, they did not contain any further information about the negotiations themselves, which appear to have been conducted rather vicariously. ‘Blinker’ Hall sent two emissaries to bribe Talat Pasha, the Turkish Minister of the Interior. The delegation was unable to gain entry to Turkey and had to use the Grand Rabbi of Constantinople as an intermediary, corresponding via messengers.

I had hoped to read this correspondence and gain a greater insight into the negotiations by studying the old Admiralty files. I spent a day or so at the National Archive in Kew, searching the old Foreign Office FO37 card index, which was where the Admiralty files had been archived.

National Archive
National Archive (photo by the author)

I found a number of references on the index cards that could have been interesting, but when I searched the actual files they related to, the documents had been removed. When I queried this I was told that files are often subject to ‘worming’, where documents not thought to be of value are removed.
author Alan Bardos

Unable to gather any firsthand material, I invented the scenes where the Grand Rabbi and Talat Pasha negotiate, dropping my lead character into the mix. While doing this I located another firsthand source in the memoir of Henry Morgenthau. Morgenthau was the American Ambassador in Constantinople in 1915 and had negotiated with Talat Pasha. His descriptions of this and of Talat’s home really helped enrich these scenes. Geoff Berridge’s biography, Gerald Fitzmaurice (1865-1939), Chief Dragoman of the British Embassy in Turkey, also had details of the negotiation strategies employed by British diplomats when dealing with Ottoman officials, which helped build tension in these scenes.

Ultimately the negotiations failed, because of promises made to Russia about the future of Constantinople. This was where my trip to the National Archive came into its own. I was able to find some interesting cabinet papers around the future of Constantinople and War Council minutes, about the decision to open the Dardanelles Strait by force. This is when Johnny Swift’s troubles really begin.

About The Dardanelles Conspiracy:

January 1915. The Western Front has descended into trench warfare. In the East an opportunity arises for the Allies to bypass the stalemate. Desperate to preserve a truce in his sector of the front and with it the lives of his men, Johnny Swift a reckless former diplomat is caught warning the Germans of a trench raid. Sir George Smyth, Swift’s former superior has negotiated a stay of execution. In return, Swift is dispatched to Constantinople on a perilous mission to bribe the Turkish government and open the backdoor into Germany. This does not stop the disgraced diplomat enjoying the delights of the orient, while trying to negotiate the labyrinthine power struggles within the Turkish government.

Swift uses all his guile to complete his mission, but finds his efforts blocked by his old friend and nemesis Lazlo Breitner, now an official at the Austro-Hungarian Embassy. The agent moves from the drinking dens at the crossroads of the world to the opening battles of the Gallipoli campaign - and with it a chance to redeem his reputation.  See more at: | Amazon UK

About the Author:

Alan Bardos studied an MA in TV Script Writing at De Montfort University. He has experimented in different genres and media, and has found his voice in writing historical fiction.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Historical novels in verse, in celebration of National Poetry Month

National Poetry Month is celebrated in the US each April, and 2021 marks the event's 25th anniversary. For all the time this blog's been in existence, I haven't posted about historical novels taking the form of poetry, so I figured it was time to take a closer look.

The form, though, really hasn't been very popular in adult historical fiction. I knew of two examples, neither of which is recent, and searched WorldCat to see what else was out there (not much).  

Darlington's Fall
 by Brad Leithauser (Knopf, 2002) follows the travels and complex personal relationships of a fictional naturalist, Russel Darlington, born in the late 19th century.  Growing up in Indiana, he pursues his interest in the natural world out West, where he also finds himself pulled toward a woman seemingly out of his reach. It's a novel about the love of nature and science, self-discovery, and the mysteries they hold.

The Marlowe Papers by English writer Ros Barber (St. Martin's Press, 2013) takes place further back in time. It takes as premise that Christopher Marlowe was the true author of Shakespeare's works, and that he faked his death to evade arrest and execution for heresy. I haven't read this novel, which was longlisted for the 2013 Women's Prize for Fiction.

Historical novels in verse are more on-trend in the Young Adult arena. In terms of YA titles, a favorite is Blood Water Paint (Dutton, 2018) by Joy McCullough, which I'd read from my library's copy.  Italian Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi narrates an empowering tale about the joy she finds in art, her rape by her father's apprentice, and her strength in proclaiming the truth about this terrible event to the world. This is all based on historical fact. This novel can be appreciated by adults equally well.

Other powerfully written YA novels in verse include Kip Wilson's White Rose, about young German anti-Nazi political activist Sophie Scholl; Allan Wolf's The Watch That Ends the Night, which gives voice to many people involved in the Titanic tragedy; Patricia Hruby Powell and Shadra Strickland's Loving vs. Virginia, about the interracial love story between Richard and Mildred Loving in the '50s; and Karen Hesse's award-winning Out of the Dust, set in Oklahoma during the Great Depression.

Have you read any of these, or other historical novels written in verse?  Does the form appeal to you?

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

A Man at Arms by Steven Pressfield, a novel of danger and faith in the 1st century Roman Empire

Telamon of Arcadia, an unaffiliated mercenary, gets caught up in matters of urgent importance to early Christianity in Pressfield’s latest, which sees the celebrated historical novelist returning to territory in the ancient world after a long absence. The dark, violent atmosphere and spiritual overtones create an unusual and intriguing mix. 

In 55 CE Jerusalem, Telamon is hired to find a courier with an epistle written by Paul the Apostle to members of his fledgling church at Corinth, since its contents threaten the Roman Empire’s supremacy. However, after encountering and getting to know the messenger, the Nazarene Michael, and the nonverbal girl accompanying him, Telamon surprisingly decides to help them. 

The journey and its treacherous obstacles are uncompromisingly realistic and evoke the region’s diverse landscapes and peoples. Pressfield also impresses upon readers the physical agility and mental discipline required for the warrior’s art. 

The omniscient viewpoint allows him to drop in background information about history, geography, and weaponry. Not everything gets explained, but such is the nature of communion and faith in this well-wrought, meaningful tale.

A Man at Arms was published by W.W. Norton in March, and I'd reviewed it from an e-copy for Booklist's Feb. 1 issue this year.  Pressfield is renowned for his military fiction set in the ancient world, including the 1998 novel Gates of Fire, about the Battle of Thermopylae. This novel is partly action-oriented, but it also has a strong spiritual/religious element. 

Telamon of Arcadia has been described by the author as a "recurring fictional character." He also appears as a solitary mercenary, a man who believes in fighting "for the fight alone," in Pressfield's Tides of War (the story of Alcibiades, ancient Greek hero) and The Virtues of War (about Alexander the Great). No mention is made here of his supposed immortality, and you can easily read this book without having read any of the others.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Women in the margins: Pip Williams' The Dictionary of Lost Words

Some historical novels forever change the way you think about their subjects. Pip Williams’ debut novel is one of these.

Moving from the late Victorian period through the suffrage movement, World War I, and after, The Dictionary of Lost Words examines with a questioning eye the painstaking process involved in producing the Oxford English Dictionary. Scholars are so used to regarding this masterwork as an authoritative reference for meanings and etymologies that it’s easy to forget that, as a product of human labor, its contents reflected the fallibility and biases of its compilers and its era.

The narrator, Esme Nicoll, is the daughter of one of the OED’s lexicographers. Her mother had died in childbirth, so Esme’s father, Harry, is obliged to bring her with him to his office in Oxford. As Harry and his male colleagues collect words, definitions, and quotes on slips of paper, young Esme spends her days concealed under their worktables in the Scriptorium (a building resembling a garden shed) near the house of the dictionary’s principal editor, James Murray.

When one slip floats down to her on the floor, forgotten, she claims it, reads the word – “bondmaid” – and learns what it means. (This word really did slip through the cracks.) Thus begins Esme’s private collection of words omitted from the dictionary. She becomes attuned to the reasons that words are left out: for example, if they’re quoted only in books written by women (and considered of lower importance), or if they have the potential to offend (such as those referring to female body parts). Slang only spoken aloud doesn’t get included, either.

As she grows up, Esme takes it upon herself to gather as many of these “lost words” as possible, using the local community of women as her informants. These include the Murrays’ illiterate maid, Lizzie, who loves her like a younger sister, and Mabel O’Shaughnessy, a poor, shabbily dressed woman with a raunchy vocabulary who has a stall at the Covered Market. These women, terrific characters both, have their own hard-earned wisdom. Who’s to say that their words aren’t worth recording?

Esme’s journey is not just an intellectual exercise but also an emotional one, related with deep empathy by the author. She soaks up life along with the words describing it, feeling their joys and many sorrows. Meanwhile, work on the OED continues, and Esme yearns to be a full contributor. Pip Williams also manages to create an overtly feminine-centered narrative without stereotyping its men. Harry Nicoll obviously loves his daughter, encourages her curiosity, and supports her in times of strife. Sometimes the story is almost too sad to bear, but there’s beauty within the melancholy, and hope shines through at the end.

Esme is a fictional character, but her presence in this historically based story isn’t too much of an imaginative stretch. Women did play roles in the OED’s creation, although they didn’t receive proper acknowledgment. In The Dictionary of Lost Words, Pip Williams lifts them out of the margins of the OED and gives them, and their words, the recognition they deserve.

If you’ve read this far, and are curious to learn more, please jump over to the author’s website to read her blog post on the real history, Reflecting on the work of women in compiling the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Dictionary of Lost Words is published by Ballantine this month in the US. In Australia, where it became a bestseller, the publisher is Affirm Press. I read it from a NetGalley copy.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

The Ballad of Hattie Taylor, a romantic coming-of-age novel set in early 20th-century Oregon

Around the turn of the 20th century, an eleven-year-old red-headed orphan arrives in a small town, and her irrepressible curiosity and outspokenness shake things up. There are echoes of Anne of Green Gables in Andersen’s first historical novel, which is both a spirited romance and a complex coming-of-age story, but it aims to comment primarily on how societal pressures stifle women – with mixed results.

In 1899, young Hattie Taylor travels to Mattawa, Oregon, to stay with a distant cousin, Aurelia Murdock. Aurelia’s 22-year-old son, Jake, a lawyer and rancher, is charmed by the petite firebrand, whom he treats like a sister. He guides her through puberty – nobody, even his mother, informs her about her changing body – and becomes her trusted confidant. Her only other friend is a male schoolmate, Moses Marks, and their closeness causes tongues to wag, too. 

As Hattie turns eighteen, her childhood crush on Jake continues, and Jake, unhappily married to a gentle woman who fears intimacy, begins seeing Hattie’s passionate nature in a startling, uncomfortable new light. When Jake takes a drastic action intending to protect Hattie, it has awful consequences.

As a feminist romance, the story offers conflicting messages. Hattie is a multifaceted, resilient character who credibly works through personal pain and emerges even stronger. Yet a subplot about her beloved career goes unaddressed, and part of the conclusion is disconcerting for many reasons. Descriptions overemphasize the brawny physicality of both Jake and Moses, and for a sensitive friend, Jake can be inexcusably clueless; he doesn’t feel like Hattie’s intellectual equal. 

To the author’s credit, though, the story holds nothing back, however awkward the situation. This blatantly honest approach is admirable, and the strong plot keeps the pages turning despite the inconsistencies. By turns, it will have you grinning, cringing, shaking your head in sorrow, and swelling with pride at Hattie’s courage.

The Ballad of Hattie Taylor was published by Berkley this winter; I'd reviewed it for February's Historical Novels Review.

So, yes, I was conflicted by this novel, which was an awkwardly compelling read. In many ways, it felt like a throwback to historical novels published decades ago. Has anyone else read it?  I'd love to hear your thoughts.  I tried to avoid spoilers in the review, but feel free to mention the plot/characters/themes in more depth in the comments.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Revisiting Bletchley Park through Kate Quinn's The Rose Code

In July 2019, my husband and I took a week's trip to London, back when vacations were a thing. On a friend's suggestion, we planned a visit to Bletchley Park in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, taking the London Northwestern Railway from Euston Station. After arriving at the Bletchley stop, we walked down a long flight of stairs, exited the station, crossed the street, and the entrance to Bletchley Park was a short walk away.

From watching The Bletchley Circle, I knew what had taken place during WWII at Bletchley, the center of codebreaking activities, and the heroic acts of the thousands of very smart people employed there during the war, most of them women. Their work was key to the Allied victory and reportedly shortened the length of the war by two years.

Bletchley Park mansion from a distance, and small lake, which
appears in the story early on. Photo taken by me (7-15-19)

So of course when I first heard about Kate Quinn's The Rose Code, I knew I'd have to read it. When I had a break between review assignments this past week, I dived right in.

The Rose Code is a smart, character-driven historical thriller about three women who become unlikely friends and allies while working at Bletchley during the war, and the terrible betrayals that destroyed their strong bond. 

Desk in Bletchley Park hut
Work tables inside one of the huts

Mab Churt is a tall, self-sufficient East Ender worried about her mother and younger sister in London. Canadian-born Osla Kendall, a character based on Osla Benning, an early girlfriend of Prince Philip, runs in elite social circles and has led a relatively sheltered life. She has a talent for languages and wants the world to know she's more than a "silly deb." Lastly, shy Beth Finch, a whiz with puzzles, escapes her overbearing mother's insults and abuse when she discovers, to her astonishment, that she fits in with the other codebreakers at Bletchley. Their work is so secret that each worker only knows their own task.

Alternating chapters set in 1947, in the days leading up to the royal wedding, follow the trio as they're forced to reunite, with one of them held against her will in a sanitarium, in order to unmask a spy within their earlier ranks.

Bombes at Bletchley Park
Exhibit on operating the Bombes

The story takes you right inside the huts at Bletchley where all the codebreaking takes place and also inside the characters' heads as they try to crack the codes used by the Germans. You feel their exhaustion as they push themselves to their physical and mental limits, and rejoice when they succeed in finding the right pattern. Mab becomes one of the women operating the decryption machine known as the Bombe (image above).  When I visited in summer, the huts were cool, but all of the rooms are fairly small, with narrow corridors connecting them. One could easily imagine how hot and cramped they were, with the women constantly in motion as they put the heavy drums in their slots and adjusted the wires to keep the Bombe running.

The setup at Bletchley, in July 2019, made it appear as if the huts' occupants had just stepped away from their desks for lunch.

The story makes for compulsive reading as it interweaves the women's friendships with several poignant love stories and the intense race-against-time atmosphere of the earlier and later timelines.

Inside the Bletchley Park mansion
The office inside the Bletchley Park mansion

It does feel rather startling to have just finished this novel as Prince Philip's death was announced, as he's a major character.  In The Rose Code he's the dashing and tanned Prince Philip of Greece, Royal Navy officer and distant relative of the British royals. He and his girlfriend, Osla, set up by a mutual friend, share the feeling of having no real home. His depiction feels realistic and respectful.

I'd love to see the novel as a film, and with the recent announcement of a TV adaptation, hopefully that will happen in the near future.  Both a visit to Bletchley and the novel itself are definitely recommended.  (Thanks to the publisher, William Morrow, for approving an e-copy via Edelweiss.)