Wednesday, December 01, 2021

Zenobia Neil's Ariadne Unraveled: A Mythic Retelling presents a new side of the classical Greek myth

Best known in Greek mythology as the Princess of Crete who helped the Athenian prince Theseus escape the labyrinth and kill the Minotaur, her half-brother, Ariadne is given fresh treatment in this new retelling.

The prologue impressively evokes her despair and fury after waking alone on the shores of Naxos, abandoned by Theseus, her lover, after betraying her family for him. Neil first moves back and then forward from this low point in Ariadne’s life, giving her agency and showing her as much more than a selfish man’s discarded mistress.

Ariadne Unraveled primarily recounts the romance between Ariadne and her husband Dionysus, the god of wine and ecstasy, among other fun qualities, and how their life together is thwarted by the capricious jealousy of the goddess Artemis, Dionysus’s half-sister, whom Ariadne serves. (Theseus comes back into the picture midway through.)

Many different versions of Ariadne’s story exist, and Neil stitches a collection of them together into a coherent whole, all written in bright and energetic prose. Alongside their love story, we witness the ebb and flow of power: how Ariadne, a high priestess used to being surrounded by eager handmaidens, contends with the gradual loss of hers, while Dionysus, a new god, learns to control his divine abilities.

The writing style is anything but dry. The Minoans are an attractive, athletic, and sensual people, and the varied sex scenes will definitely steam up your Kindle. The special effects are fabulous, too: we have creative shapeshifting, wild drunken parties, gods making trouble, and grapevines that magically twine around things.

In contrast, the author’s portrait of the underworld is hauntingly plaintive. While Dionysus and Ariadne seem to fall in love instantaneously, their relationship grows in emotional richness over time. In all, an entertaining reinterpretation of a classic story.

Ariadne Unraveled was published in July by Hypatia Books, and I'd reviewed it from my own copy for November's Historical Novels Review.  As you can infer, this was a fun book to read, and a fun review to write. Ariadne's story has been a favorite of mine for a long time, ever since reading June Rachuy Brindel's novel Ariadne (1980) when I was in high school. I've also used it as a nickname on various online bulletin boards for years, including on LibraryThing. So of course I was going to read this novel eventually. I haven't yet read Jennifer Saint's Ariadne. Historical fiction readers who enjoy Greek myth retellings now have a lot to choose from!

Friday, November 26, 2021

Some beautiful historical novel cover designs

This is a post about the aesthetics of cover design: an appreciation of the historical novel, the physical object itself, as a work of art. 

I recently ordered a copy of Alison Weir's latest book, In the Shadow of Queens, from Book Depository. It's a collection that reprints the e-shorts (digital-only short stories and novellas) the author wrote to accompany her Six Tudor Queens books, a series of full-length historical novels about Henry VIII's wives.  The e-shorts, which reveal little-known accounts taking place in the shadow of larger events from Tudor history, were only sold in UK outlets, so I, as an American reader, wasn't able to buy them until now. Even then I had to buy a copy from overseas, since the book isn't being released in the US.  There are 13 tales in the collection.

It's not apparent from the image above, but the book doesn't have a dust jacket. Instead, the design is printed directly on the cloth, and it's an absolutely gorgeous package. 

Then I got to thinking about whether I owned any other examples like this, and found only a few on my shelves... not many at all.  It seems more common for genres like cookbooks, reference books, and picture books than for historical fiction (aside from graphic novels).

Five historical novels with printed designs

All but one of these above, the graphic novel/biography about Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi at the center, was published by a British publisher. Moth by Melody Razak, at top left, a new release set during the Partition of India, has an elaborate cut-out design and a stepback cover featuring a woman's face.

Below are two other examples, older historical novels from American publishers. 

The Visionist and I, Elizabeth

Both of these feature art printed directly on the cloth and a near-transparent dust jacket with the title, author, and other elegant design elements. 

These beautiful designs represent a significant investment from their publishers. Can you think of any others like this?  I don't live within easy reach of print-and-mortar bookstores (other than Walmart and a few used bookstores downtown) so do almost all of my book shopping online, but if I saw any of these books on display, I'd be tempted to buy them for the covers alone!

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Eleanor Kuhns' Murder on Principle unravels a mystery in early 19th-century Maine

A man garbed in a bright yellow waistcoat, fawn-colored pantaloons, and red-trimmed Hessian boots is an unusual sight in the Maine woods, and the state of his body is even more so. The fashionable Mr. Randolph Gilbert lies dead, both strangled and stabbed.

In November 1800, Will Rees, weaver and amateur detective, is asked by Constable Rouge, his sometime rival, to help solve the murder, which was discovered by an elder from the nearby Shaker community. After Rees learns Mr. Gilbert’s purpose in town, he grows nervous. The man was seeking to recapture a light-skinned young woman and her baby who fled enslavement in Virginia, and Rees and his wife, Lydia, have just returned from that state on an abolitionist mission (as recounted in Death in the Great Dismal, the previous book).

The theme explored in this sharply rendered historical mystery, tenth in series, is a powerful moral question. “If the victim is a slave catcher, well then, I say thank you to his murderer,” Rees’s friend Tobias, a free man of color, tells him, requesting that he drop the investigation. Rees’s natural inclination to pursue justice causes him internal conflict, and his Black friends may not forgive him if he succeeds. Plus, he can’t help but wonder if they themselves are guilty. 

Kuhns devotes close attention to fine period details, from cooking implements to rural Shaker lifeways, while the contemporary relevance of some plot aspects is unmistakable. The late Mr. Gilbert was ill with smallpox, the pestilence is quickly spreading, and Rees moves to quickly inoculate his children using a doctor’s suggested methodology. Not everyone puts their trust in science, though.

The novel stands alone, though some characters’ backstories (the origin of Rees’s large, blended family, for instance) aren’t immediately obvious to newcomers. Recommended for readers enamored of early American settings.

Murder on Principle was published in 2021 by Severn House, and I'd reviewed it from NetGalley for November's Historical Novels Review.  The first book in the series is A Simple Murder, which won the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel competition in 2011. This latest book is the 10th in the series. The author, a fellow librarian, is the Assistant Director of the Goshen Public Library in upstate New York.

Friday, November 12, 2021

Housekeeper Mrs. Jeffries and her team solve another crime in Emily Brightwell's holiday-themed Victorian mystery

In Victorian London, Inspector Gerald Witherspoon of the Metropolitan Police Force has a reputation to uphold as a crackerjack crime-solver. But there’s a secret: he has help, and he’s unaware of it. Whenever he gets a new homicide case, his intrepid housekeeper, Mrs. Jeffries, calls meetings with her fellow servants and supportive neighbors, and they put their heads together. After Witherspoon comes home each evening, he relaxes over a glass of sherry with Mrs. Jeffries, telling her about the investigation, and she takes it from there. Even Constable Barnes, Witherspoon’s partner, is in on the ruse, which adds to the amusement.

This is the 40th book in Brightwell’s series, so their system clearly works well. The murders tend to happen around Christmastime, potentially mucking up holiday plans, so the pressure is on for a speedy resolution.

In this volume, the victim is Mrs. Harriet Andover, strangled in her home’s locked conservatory with a dressing gown sash. Harriet was an astute businesswoman who shored up her husband Jacob’s failing fortunes with her personal wealth, and none of her family or friends seem upset at her death. Inheritance swiftly rises to the top as the motive. “They are dreadful snobs, Constable, but like so many of that class, they’ve no money,” one character explains. Each suspect is hiding something, and as alibis are provided and tested, the story pokes fun at their ridiculous behavior. Harriet’s stepson Percy, for instance, is a real piece of work.

Mrs. Jeffries’s team is a motley bunch with different connections and talents. There are many clues of varying importance, and figuring out how they all come together makes for an enjoyable ride. The late Harriet was a sensible woman, respected by her servants; the one remaining mystery is why she’d married into such an unpleasant family.

Mrs. Jeffries and the Midwinter Murders will be published by Berkley on November 16th; I reviewed it for November's Historical Novels Review from a NetGalley copy.

For anyone worried about diving into a series in the middle (or at the end, in this case), let me allay your concerns; I had no trouble starting with this book. The series premise is neatly summarized.  This also makes me wonder about lengthy historical mystery series and if any others extend past 40 books. This one began with The Inspector and Mrs. Jeffries back in 1993, and it's stayed with Berkley as the publisher the whole time, which is notable in itself. 

Monday, November 08, 2021

Review of Paulette Kennedy's Parting the Veil, a Victorian romantic suspense debut

Paulette Kennedy’s debut, Parting the Veil, is a veritable Gothic feast. Romantic suspense is a genre the author clearly loves, and the novel’s stuffed full of its hallmarks and tropes: a single woman, a mysterious inheritance, a crumbling mansion reputed to be haunted, its broodingly handsome owner, a shocking Tarot card reading… and that’s just to start.

The fun is in recognizing which of these elements will play out as expected, and which will be given an unexpected twist.

In 1899, Eliza Sullivan and her younger, mixed-race half-sister Lydia, natives of New Orleans, arrive in the Hampshire village of Chesterbridge to take up residence at Sherbourne House, which had been left to Eliza by a great-aunt she barely knew. The terms of Tante Theo’s bequest, though, disconcert the independent-minded heiress. Eliza learns that to take possession of her fortune, she must get married within three months.

Malcolm, Viscount Havenwood, is the sole surviving member of his family after a fire three years earlier damaged his home’s south wing. An immediate physical attraction springs up between Eliza and Malcolm. She throws caution to the wind and – against the practical Lydia’s advice – weds him.

But married life perplexes Eliza. While ardent in the bedroom at night, Malcolm is cold and proper, even condescending, during the day. His behavior will have readers wondering whether Malcolm deserves a happily-ever-after with our heroine.

A profusion of mysteries drives the story along. What (or who) causes the rhythmic tapping Eliza hears at night? What happened to Malcolm’s Scottish mother, who was rumored to be mad? Why does he behave so weirdly? Why is Eliza haunted by painful childhood memories?
author Paulette Kennedy

The atmosphere is a piquant blend of Southern Gothic meets Jane Eyre. As Americans, Eliza and Lydia’s entrance into Hampshire society meets with curiosity; contrary to stereotype, though, they aren't treated like unwelcome outsiders. They form friendships with local women, including newlywed Sarah Nelson, whose candor is a breath of fresh air. There are hints of same-sex relationships in some women’s pasts, which add layers of intrigue. (One minor complaint: the pet name “darling” is overused.)

For readers on the fence about romantic suspense, the ambience may be overwhelming. But for those who adore it, settle into this compulsive read and soak it all in.

Parting the Veil is published by Lake Union this month; I read it from a NetGalley copy as part of the blog tour for Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.

Blog tour banner

Friday, November 05, 2021

The Family by Naomi Krupitsky visits mid-20th-century Mafia families from the female viewpoint

Mario Puzo meets Elena Ferrante in Krupitsky’s dynamite debut novel, a decades-spanning saga beginning in 1920s Brooklyn. “There is no easy way to untangle what is Family and what is family,” her characters realize, to their chagrin and peril.

Daughters of influential Mafiosos, fiery Sofia Colicchio and her introverted best friend, Antonia Russo, know their families aren’t typical. Schoolmates avoid them, their mothers constantly worry, and on Sundays they attend a large Italian feast at their fathers’ boss’s home.

When Antonia’s papa tries to escape his profession, he gets “disappeared,” a terrible warning against future betrayals. Sofia and Antonia are resilient, multifaceted young women whose bond occasionally strains as they test the boundaries of independence, and their choice of husbands ensnares them further in Family business.

Depicting twentieth-century Mafia families primarily from the female viewpoint is a fabulous concept that Krupitsky carries out with aplomb. Perspective shifts are smooth, and the backdrops of Prohibition and WWII are superbly realized.

Italian American traditions (including delicious casseroles) are highlighted, and the unique immigration stories show why and how Italian and Jewish newcomers get pulled into organized crime. Fans of Adriana Trigiani and Lynda Cohen Loigman will inhale this tense, engrossing novel about family ties, women’s friendships, and the treacherous complications of loyalty.

The Family was published on Tuesday by Putnam in hardcover and ebook. I read it back in May and reviewed it for the September 1st issue of Booklist, and I'm glad my editor there decided to assign it to me!  

Also, am I wrong, or does the font used on the cover remind you of the one used for Mario Puzo's The Family, his novel about the infamous Borgias of 15th-century Italy, who he called the "original crime family"? 

Monday, November 01, 2021

Carolyn Korsmeyer discusses writing and researching Charlotte's Story, her novel about Charlotte Lucas from Pride & Prejudice

Please help me welcome Carolyn Korsmeyer with a post about re-creating the world of Charlotte Lucas from Pride and Prejudice, and what she learned over the course of the writing process. Her explanation of the differences between approaching a setting from the viewpoint of a reader vs. that of a writer really resonated with me.  


Researching and Writing Charlotte's Story
Carolyn Korsmeyer

I have been drawn to historical fiction since I first learned to read, but my first attempt at writing it came when I wrote a novel in the voice of one of Jane Austen's characters, Charlotte Lucas of Pride and Prejudice. It was her realistic, dispassionate, and cool decision to wed the Reverend William Collins that interested me, because I thought reflection on that choice might resonate with contemporary readers in ways that extend beyond Austen's own times.

It was intriguing to imagine the inner life of a woman who faced some of the same choices as we do today, and yet was hindered by customs and limits that no longer exert the same force—although they have by no means disappeared. I decided to write a first-person narrative so that her own thoughts and worries were immediately accessible on the page. Her ruminations needed to conform reasonably well with early nineteenth-century sensibilities, but they also needed to ring true to readers today.

Charlotte is a middle-class woman with few financial resources of her own. She is not particularly pretty, so a stable and prosperous future more or less depends on making a good marriage. It might seem, to use contemporary language, that she "settles" on an unattractive man of means whom few others would want. That, however, is not quite the way I imagined it. Charlotte recognizes and accepts social restrictions that women today would not, and she is not inclined to be rebellious. (Unlike the heedless Lydia Bennet, for instance.) On the other hand, she is also not passive. She is strategic, in her own words "conniving," when the need arises.

Austen is still so popular that for many readers her novels almost achieve the familiarity that we find with contemporary fiction. That was my own impression when I launched into writing Charlotte's Story. But then I began to stumble over details about her household, the way she got from place to place, what she ate, what she wore, how long it took to walk from one neighbor to another, and so forth. Pretty soon I realized the difference between thinking you recognize a world as you read, and actually writing that world, when puzzles and uncertainties emerge.

The same thing, incidentally, has happened with my second historical novel, which is set in a place where I have lived for decades and whose history is very familiar. But when I actually began to write this story, its details demanded an unexpected amount of research. I think this demonstrates a deceptive and elusive distinction between reading—where you enter another world and feel at home—and writing—where inventing that world reveals your ignorance. It brings the gap between now and then into focus.

For Charlotte's Story, I took off from the text of Pride and Prejudice itself, imagining myself in the Bennet rooms (oh—but what's the floor plan?), walking into Meryton (how long does that take?), perhaps riding in a coach (what, actually, is a barouche?), stitching by the fire (how do you net a purse?) Immediately, I realized that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did.

Charlotte was brought into being just as the COVID pandemic shut us all down, so I was lucky that lots of virtual resources were available. I had recently joined the Jane Austen Society, and they held their 2020 annual meeting virtually. It was full of enlightening and entertaining events. I watched lectures on conveyances, clothing, dancing, manners. I took a virtual tour of Austen's home in Chawton. Later I tuned into lectures sponsored by local chapters. With the libraries all closed, I scoured my own shelves and read every nineteenth-century English novel I could find, plus some old travel literature that had landed in my attic. I looked up maps of English cities like Bath to see how their streetscapes had changed over time. And I also watched period-style movies and TV series, noting with some alarm when they came in for criticism regarding their historical accuracy (Wrong hairstyle! Inappropriate shoes!).
author Carolyn Korsmeyer

However, the errors to guard against are far from just factual. There is also the question of style and tenor of writing, which keeps a narrative in tune with the time of its settings. For example, the dialogue exchanged in Austen's own novels is far more elaborate and repetitive than would be common now, but Charlotte and her friends needed to converse in a manner that fit their times. It isn't a good idea just to try to imitate a style; rather one needs to find a tone and vocabulary that is congenial with an older one, but that also flows naturally for contemporary readers.

Even more subtle are the distortions that might enter one's writing when developing a character from the past. It is fascinating to wonder how influenced we all are by our own times and cultures. If we lived two centuries ago, would we have the same values and attitudes and feelings? Are there universals that apply to all people at all times? Perhaps the very basic ones do: we fear danger, we worry about children, are angry at insults, and so forth. But we are by no means insulted at the same things, and our worries and fears have quite different content now. (Think of Geraldine Brooks's wonderful novel Caleb's Crossing and the way she conjures a fear of hell in her Puritan characters.) Literature that was written in the past gives us hints about those similarities and differences, and fiction can explore them still further. The historical fiction writer can be seen as a historian of emotions as well as of actions, characters, and plots from long ago.


About Charlotte's Story (TouchPoint Press; on-sale October 11th; ISBN: 978-1-952816-58-1; trade paperback and ebook editions):

Charlotte Lucas, a character first appearing in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, has made an unfortunate marriage to the loquacious William Collins, reckoning that his tedious conversation is a small price to pay for the prosperous home and family she hopes to gain. However, trouble brews within the first months of marriage, and she is upset and angered by his presumptuous tendency to interfere with her friendships.

To ease the strain of their relationship, Charlotte leaves her husband to visit the fashionable city of Bath with several women companions. The weeks in Bath prove to be a time for self-discovery and freedom, even license. Although the marital frost between Charlotte and William begins to thaw, that tranquility lasts only briefly, for events in Bath have resulted in an unfortunate, even calamitous, consequence.

Charlotte devises a solution to the advantage of all that combines bold connivance and compassionate duplicity. Some would castigate her audacious stratagem, but she believes it justified by the hope of happiness and the wit and courage to seek it.

About the author:

A longtime admiration of Jane Austen and other nineteenth-century women novelists led Carolyn Korsmeyer to write Charlotte’s Story. She is also the author of numerous philosophical works, including Things: In Touch with the Past, Savoring Disgust: The Foul and the Fair in Aesthetics, and Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy. Her website is

Thursday, October 28, 2021

New post about popular trends in historical fiction

A Writer of History banner

Author and blogger M. K. (Mary) Tod recently invited me to write a post for her site about current trends in historical fiction, and I was happy to accept. 

Please jump over to A Writer of History to read it, and thanks to Mary for the opportunity!

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Interview with Clarissa Harwood, author of the gothic novel The Curse of Morton Abbey, set in 1890s Yorkshire

I'm glad to welcome Clarissa Harwood back to Reading the Past for an interview about her new historical gothic novel, The Curse of Morton Abbey, which is out today. The heroine is Vaughan Springthorpe, a woman trained as a solicitor, who arrives at the Yorkshire estate of Sir Peter Spencer to help prepare it for future sale in his absence. Her employer's invalid brother, Nicholas, doesn't want his home sold, though. Estate gardener Joe Dixon appears to support her efforts, but there are enough mysterious happenings around Morton Abbey to make Vaughan realize that someone wants her gone. Nonetheless, she wants to prove herself and presses forward with her task, uncovering uncomfortable facts about the estate and the town in the process. I enjoyed trying to predict where the plot would lead, and the story is dark and suspenseful without edging into horror.  If you like romantic suspense, put it on your list!  

How did you choose the time and place of late Victorian Yorkshire?

This was a no-brainer for me because late-Victorian Yorkshire is my happy place! The novels of the Brontë sisters were a formative influence from my young adulthood, especially Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I know I’m not alone in considering the Yorkshire moors the most romantic, evocative place on earth because of these novels. Of course, the Brontës were early rather than late Victorian, but I have a great love for late-Victorian literature because of my academic training. My doctoral dissertation focused on fin de siècle works such as Dracula and Heart of Darkness with their highly symbolic monstrous figures that represented widespread societal fears of the era.

Vaughan has an intriguing profession for a woman of her time, having been trained as a solicitor without the official designation (and with an expertise in conveyancing – a term new to me, but an important role). How did you research her career?

Because of Vaughan’s strong personality, I knew she needed to work at something unusual for a woman, but she’s definitely an introvert and wouldn’t want to be a leader or at the forefront of a movement like Lilia in Impossible Saints, so she needed something she could do quietly while still showing her determination and strength. Also, I needed a reason for her to go to Morton Abbey that didn’t involve childcare (she is not governess material). I taxed the patience of my university’s law librarian as I researched women law clerks and lawyers for months. Since women couldn’t officially practice law in late-Victorian England, it was difficult to find anything until I stumbled upon a real-life woman who was unofficially practicing law in late-Victorian England: Eliza Orme, who ultimately became the first woman to earn a law degree in England. I couldn’t resist giving Eliza a cameo role in The Curse of Morton Abbey.

I enjoyed how you combined classic gothic elements, like the English estate and family full of secrets, with feminist touches. Who are your influences in the genre of gothic fiction and romantic suspense?

There are too many influences to list them all, but I’ll start with the gothic novelists whose work I studied and taught: Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, Mary Shelley, and Bram Stoker. Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is another iconic gothic novel, and I was scandalized by the way Netflix twisted it into a romance, which it isn’t! (I love romance, but I get testy when brilliant novels are adapted in ways that present them falsely.) For romantic suspense, Mary Stewart is a huge influence, and I re-read her brilliant novel The Ivy Tree regularly. More recent novels that draw on the gothic tradition while offering new twists include Kris Waldherr’s The Lost History of Dreams, Sarah Perry’s Melmoth, and Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic, which have contributed to the resurgence of interest in this genre.
The author visiting the Yorkshire Moors

The gardens that Joe Dixon maintains are beautiful and provide a restful atmosphere amid the mysteries of Morton Abbey. Do you have a favorite English garden?

This question made me laugh because I have no personal interest in gardens or gardening: in fact, my husband has banned me from working in our garden because I (unintentionally) kill the plants. For a while he let me do some pruning, but apparently I cut too much off the bushes. I do love sitting in a beautiful garden if the weather isn’t too hot, but I had to do a lot of research just to figure out what the names of basic plants were and what sort of work Joe would be doing in a late-Victorian Yorkshire garden.

What have been the most enjoyable and/or challenging aspects of independent publishing?

I feel as if I have the best of both worlds because my first two novels were traditionally published. If I’d started with indie publishing, I think I would have been completely overwhelmed, but because I knew generally how the process worked and how long it would take, I constructed a reasonable timeline for The Curse of Morton Abbey. Another advantage of having two published novels already under my belt was being able to draw on the knowledge and experience of my wonderful community of authors. They have saved me from making plenty of bad decisions!

The best part of independent publishing has been having control over every aspect of the process. It was especially fun working with my cover designer, Tim Barber at Dissect Designs (he was a dream to work with and I highly recommend him). The hardest part of independent publishing has been the stigma that still exists in the industry. It’s difficult and expensive to be reviewed by one of the big trade publications if you’re an indie author. The self-doubt that every author experiences from time to time is also worse if you’re an indie author because you don’t have the gatekeepers of the publishing world validating your work. What has helped me the most in this respect has been the support and encouragement of my agent, Laura Crockett. In fact, The Curse of Morton Abbey is the novel that first got her attention and prompted her offer of representation.

Thank you so much for inviting me to do this interview!

My pleasure, and thanks for answering my questions!


For more information about Clarissa Harwood and her books, please see her website, or find it on Goodreads here.

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Eye of a Rook by Josephine Taylor explores women's pain and health, past and present

Australian writer Josephine Taylor’s first novel is a psychologically penetrating and honest read that juxtaposes two women, one Victorian and one modern-day, who suffer from the same debilitating medical condition.

In 1866, newlyweds Emily and Arthur Rochdale visit the London office of a physician who proposes a drastic cure for Emily’s chronic gynecological pain. Emily and Arthur are despondent; she can barely function and has withdrawn from society, and he struggles to help her. From boyhood on, Arthur has strived to speak up for those who cannot, but he isn’t sure whether to trust the surgeon and his diagnosis of “hysteria.”

In 2009, a Perth-based academic, Alice Tennant, is struck down by the same disorder, which makes sitting excruciatingly painful and prevents physical intimacy with her older husband, Duncan.

Taylor places readers in the moment with Arthur, Emily, and Alice as they process the pain they all endure and how it changes their outlook on life. An emotional support system can make a big difference. Emily writes letters (which read as believably Victorian) to her sister-in-law, Bea, who provides reassurance and understanding. Alice sees many traditional and alternative medicine practitioners but finds few answers – this hasn’t changed over time – and Duncan’s patience soon wears thin. In researching the history of women’s health, however, Alice taps into a new vein of creativity.

Eye of a Rook dares to travel to uncomfortable places of the flesh and spirit, and does so with lyricism and visceral empathy. It beautifully describes landscapes, like England’s Peak District and the Australian countryside, and the mental respite they offer. Toward the end, the two timelines intersect in an ingenious way. The novel should prove validating for anyone suffering from an invisible illness, and eye-opening for anyone unfamiliar with vulvodynia, which is little-known but not as rare as one would guess.

This novel, for which the author's personal experiences provided source material, was published by Fremantle Press in Australia in 2021; I reviewed it for the Historical Novels Review, based on a personal purchase (it's sold in the US as well). In Australia, the price is $32.99 in paperback. Read more about the novel's background in the author's interview for The Nerd Daily.

Josephine Taylor is a speaker at this weekend's Historical Novel Society Australasia virtual conference, which I'm attending, though the time zone differences between here and Sydney meant I wasn't able to attend her session in person. Fortunately, everything is being recorded for viewing over the next few months.

Monday, October 18, 2021

A visual preview of the winter 2022 season in historical fiction

Here's my latest seasonal preview of forthcoming historical novels, covering books to be published between January and March next year. I'm featuring 15 titles of personal interest (and I'll be lucky to have time to read them all!), and have aimed to include a range of settings and time periods. They're listed in alpha order by author surname. Will you be adding any to your TBR piles also?  Links below go to the books' Goodreads pages.

Kianna Alexander's Carolina Built (Gallery, Feb.) is biographical fiction about Josephine Leary, a woman born into enslavement who achieved huge success in the business world as a real estate developer in late 19th-early 20th-century North Carolina. Another American-set historical is Leah Angstman's Out Front the Following Sea (Regal House, Jan.), which follows a young woman accused of witchcraft in 17th-century New England. Yonder by Jabari Asim (Simon & Schuster, Jan.), called "The Water Dancer meets The Prophets" by the publisher, takes place on a plantation in the Southern states in the mid-19th century.

Karen Brooks always incorporates intriguing settings and plots, and her latest, The Good Wife of Bath (William Morrow, Jan.; already out in Australia) retells Chaucer's classic story of pilgrimage from the title character's viewpoint.  Danielle Daniel's Daughters of the Deer (Random House Canada, Mar.) has been on my list ever since I saw the publishing deal reported in Publishers Marketplace. Set in New France in the 1600s, it focuses on a Algonquin woman who agrees to marry a French settler in an alliance to save her people. Interestingly, Agatha Christie (and her mysterious 11-day disappearance in 1926) has been the subject of several novels of late. Nina de Gramont's The Christie Affair (St. Martin's, Feb.) delves into the mystery from the perspective of Christie's husband's mistress. Lots of buzz for this one.

Basing her first novel on the true story of Queen Victoria's Yoruba goddaughter Sarah Forbes Bonetta, Anni Domingo's Breaking the Maafa Chain (Pegasus, Feb.; already out in the UK from Jacaranda Books) traces the separate journeys of two African sisters from their homeland to England and America, countries which have different views on slavery in the mid-19th century.  Melissa Fu's debut Peach Blossom Spring (Little, Brown, Mar.) promises to be a moving saga of about three generations of a family in China and America beginning in the 1930s.  A Ballad of Love and Glory by Reyna Grande (Atria, Mar.) is described as a "sweeping historical saga," which the title emphasizes; it centers on the unexpected love story between a Mexican healer and an Irish immigrant during the Mexican American War.

Stephen Harrigan is an excellent prose stylist (his Remember Ben Clayton is a favorite of mine), and his upcoming novel The Leopard Is Loose (Knopf, Feb.), set in 1952 Oklahoma, shows the tumult of the postwar era through a child's eyes. Skipping over the Atlantic to England just after the Black Death, Peter Manseau's The Maiden of All Our Desires (Arcade, Feb.) plunges into the dramas of faith and flesh within a community of nuns. Louisa Morgan's The Secret History of Witches was a word-of-mouth hit, and her newest, The Great Witch of Brittany (Redhook, Feb.) is a prequel beginning in 18th-century Brittany that reveals the backstory of the powerful clan's magical matriarch, Ursule Orchière.

The wide-ranging, glamorous, hard-working 20th-century life of cereal heiress and socialite Marjorie Merriweather Post is depicted in Allison Pataki's The Magnificent Lies of Marjorie Post (Ballantine, Feb.)  Eva Stachniak, who most recently chronicled the life of Polish dancer-choreographer Bronislava Nijinska, moves to 18th-century France with The School of Mirrors (William Morrow/Doubleday Canada, Feb.), about the young women selected as potential mistresses for Louis XV. Lastly, The Last Grand Duchess by Bryn Turnbull (MIRA, Feb.) reveals the inner life of Romanov grand duchess Olga, eldest daughter of Nicholas and Alexandra.

Friday, October 15, 2021

When I Come Home Again by Caroline Scott, a beautifully written post-WWI novel of mystery, loss, and hope

Caroline Scott’s The Photographer of the Lost (US title The Poppy Wife) is one of my favorite recent novels about WWI, so when I had some free time, her follow-up, When I Came Home Again, rose to the top of my TBR. Like its predecessor, it’s a gorgeously melancholy depiction of the era, evoking the personal and national losses of the Great War and their enduring aftereffects – not just on returning soldiers but on the families left behind.

Both are slow-burning mysteries, though atypical ones. There’s no formal detective, just a natural unfolding of events. The Photographer of the Lost has the stronger plot of the two, though this one is still very good.

The story opens in November 1918 in Durham Cathedral. A man is caught desecrating its Galilee chapel by drawing chalk illustrations on the flagstones. Though clearly a former soldier, he has no memory of who he is. The police give him the name “Adam Galilee” and place him into the care of Dr. James Haworth, who brings him to a convalescent hospital in Westmorland called Fellside, in the hopes he’ll recall his name and previous life. It doesn’t work; the trauma he experienced is so terrible that it remains buried.

In 1920, when a newspaper publishes a collection of photographs, including Adam’s, under the strapline “the living unknown warriors,” a parade of women comes forth, all wanting Adam to be their lost loved one.

Three women feel certain he belongs with them. Scott conveys their desperate eagerness to claim Adam as their son, brother, or spouse, and Adam’s panicked reaction since he doesn’t recognize any of them. But who is he? Is it possible none are right? Memories can be unreliable. And James, in wanting to identify Adam, may be pushing him down an incorrect path. James is also facing his own wartime demons, which affect his marriage to Caitlin, a talented potter.

The principal mystery involves Adam, but because he’s initially a blank slate upon which others project their hopes, the women’s tragic stories resonate more strongly. There’s Celia, who refuses to believe her son Robert will never come home. Anna hopes for a fresh start with her missing, troubled husband, Mark. Lucy was left to raise her brother’s children after he failed to return from France and resents her stifling existence. Caitlin is the only woman Adam feels comfortable with, since she doesn’t want anything from him except friendship.

Over time, Adam’s character gets colored in. He’s a gentle soul with artistic talent who knows the Latin names for plants, but not his own name, or the name of the woman whose image he draws.

At the end, some clues are left unexplained, which bothered me a bit. But I did appreciate how well the novel transported me to the post-WWI era, and into the minds of men and women searching for an exit to the holding patterns of their lives.

When I Come Home Again was published by Simon & Schuster UK in 2020 (I read it from a personal copy I purchased on Kindle).

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers unveils the hidden lives of ordinary people in '50s Britain

Can Gretchen Tilbury’s tale about her 10-year-old daughter be true, and if so, how is it scientifically possible?

In 1957, reporter Jean Swinney, pushing 40, has a tedious home life caring for her irritable, reclusive mother. In investigating a claim of parthenogenesis, a virgin birth, for her suburban London newspaper, Jean sees her world unexpectedly transformed.

Surprisingly, she finds no apparent holes in Gretchen’s story. Gretchen had been bedridden in a clinic alongside others when Margaret was conceived. As mother and daughter undergo laboratory tests to prove or debunk the hypothesis, Jean’s intrinsic loneliness leads her to respond to the Tilburys’ friendly overtures.

Margaret is a charming girl, and Howard, Gretchen’s older husband, has a disarming manner that attracts Jean. As Jean’s personal and professional circles become enmeshed, the plot takes dramatic, even shocking turns.

British novelist Chambers penetrates the secret hopes and passionate inner lives of ordinary working people throughout her gripping novel, while its locked-room-style medical mystery calls to mind Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder (2016). The characters provoke so much empathy, readers may have trouble remembering that they’re fictional.

Small Pleasures will debut in the US on Tuesday this week; the publisher is Custom House, a HarperCollins imprint.  In the UK, where it's been out since last July, it was longlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction and was a breakout hit.  I reviewed it for Booklist's September 1 issue from an Edelweiss e-copy.

I thought about this book for days after I finished and wasn't able to read anything else during that time. If you've read it, you'll likely understand why; I'll say no more!

Tuesday, October 05, 2021

Historical Research: A Many-Faceted Jewel, an essay by Catherine Gentile, author of Sunday's Orphan

Catherine Gentile's Sunday's Orphan, a novel of a woman's self-discovery and family history set in 1930s Jim Crow-era Georgia, was published in September. I'm pleased to welcome the author here today for a post about her research.


Historical Research: A Many-Faceted Jewel
Catherine Gentile

The historical fiction of Pulitzer Prize winner Edward P. Jones, The Known World, inspired me to fulfill my desire to write about the complexities of life during 1930. I envisioned a novel set on a plantation on a fictional island town off the coast of Georgia. Little did I realize the scope and depth of research needed to support the characters who would live in that island town, from the weather, topology, flora, and fauna, to the modes of transportation, the embracing issues of politics and religion, and squirmy birthing and funeral practices—I researched every detail. As painstaking a process as it was, I loved every second!

To gain a deeper appreciation for the layout and management of Southern plantations, I visited plantations in Louisiana, South Carolina, and Georgia. I then designed Mearswood Plantation and located the cabins, barns, and outbuildings, pastures, and gardens within a sketch. This primitive drawing served as an invaluable map that helped me maintain consistency of locations and positions of structures relative to one another.

Shack in woods, side view

I wasn’t sure what the simple cabins and privies on the plantation looked like. Fortunately, while hiking in Georgia, taking photos of the flora and fauna within the marshes, I came upon the serendipitous answer: cabins in varying stages of decay. These pretty much substantiated my imaginings, but the fact that they were situated on raised posts was a revelation.

Shack in woods, front view

I didn’t have the same luck with privies, thank goodness! Again, I resorted to my primitive sketching ability, which gave me enough information to address the privies that appeared in the novel more often than I had anticipated!

Hiking proved invaluable from recreational and research points of view, as I gained understanding of the poor soil quality, the variety of trees, the construction of shell middens, and intensity of forest growth. The abundance of Old Man’s Beard, aka Spanish Moss, became an important detail for the novel. Naughty as this was, I confess to secreting samples of pine straw and other plants home for me to study.

Shell-packed dirt road in the woods

The idyllic nature of hiking found its polar opposite in the unsettling research on Jim Crow “law” and its soul-crushing abuses. Try as I did to circumvent incorporating such information in my novel, fellow authors in my writing group argued that they were essential to the story. Gilbert King’s The Devil in the Grove helped me adjust my attitude and hence, set the stage for writing those chapters. I needn’t go into detail here. Suffice it to say, online offerings, memorials to victims of lynching, helped in this regard. Acts of hanging and reports of the celebratory atmosphere—bands, parties, picnics—surrounding these acts captured the cruelty. Postcards of individuals on whom these acts were committed captured its heart-searing insensitivity. As much as I loved research, working these pieces of human history into Sunday’s Orphan was dispiriting.

Later, during an antiquing trip, the research gods smiled on me when I happened across a 1927 copy of Successful Farming. This treasure trove contained articles on farming, raising livestock and children, putting up preserves, and farm finances. Loaded with ads, these primarily black and white pictures provided close ups of furnishings, kitchen tools and appliances, and gave me a peek at work-a-day clothing and their more fashion conscious cousins, hats and dresses. And yes, I bought that copy of Successful Farming.

Marsh's edge

I located internet photos depicting the scandalous decrease in the post Roaring Twenties length of women’s skirts, and incorporated this small, but telling detail into Sunday’s Orphan, when a fashionable Bostonian visits Mearswood Plantation in Georgia and relinquishes her city clothing for hand-sewn country attire. Fascinating sociological details such as women’s horrified responses to manufactured undergarments replacing those that were hand-made appeared as well, but those had to be saved for another story.

Librarians were generous in helping me locate information. One knowledgeable research librarian at Tybee Library plied me with stacks of resources containing answers to questions I had amassed while drafting Sunday’s Orphan. Another librarian loaned me audio tapes of interviews conducted with rural Southern midwives, describing their practices and experiences.

Catherine Gentile
(credit: Lesley McVane)
There, however, was little documentation to prove that people living in 1930 actually farmed the scrappy soil on Georgia’s barrier islands. I couldn’t find the answer in the library, and residents with whom I spoke weren’t sure. Farming played an important role in Sunday’s Orphan, and I wanted to be sure it had, in fact, occurred on the barrier islands. Walking through a local cemetery, I considered my authorial options should this piece be untrue. Again, the research gods smiled on me: there, in Tybee Island Memorial Cemetery, was the headstone of Nameless Brown, husband, father, and farmer.

Research deepened my experience of Georgia; now, I’m anxious to draft my next work of historical fiction. Learn more at

Thursday, September 30, 2021

V for Victory by Lissa Evans, a darkly comic tale of WWII London

This darkly comic novel is the third in a loose trilogy, following Crooked Heart (2015) and Old Baggage (2019), and the characters’ backstories are revealed as the plot progresses.

In 1944, London’s neighborhoods lie battered from attacks by German bombers. Known as an efficient Hampstead landlady, Mrs. Margery Overs is actually an impostor whose real name is Vera (Vee) Sedge, and her 14-year-old “nephew,” Noel, is a former child evacuee she has taken in.

A charmingly sharp lad, Noel cooks for Vee’s lodgers, who tutor him in various subjects. After Vee witnesses a traffic accident, and Noel meets someone who knew his beloved late godmother, their true identities are at risk of being exposed.

Evans excels at portraying war-weary Londoners conducting their lives while death arrives with terrible randomness; among them is air-raid warden Winnie Crowther, whose husband is a prisoner of war. Many are forced to weigh the cost of keeping secrets. The eclectic characters are all uniquely human, and their interactions—there are no dull conversations—make the novel witty and moving.

V for Victory was published by Harper in May in the US, and I'd reviewed it for the April 15 issue of Booklist.  I hadn't read the previous two books, but that proved not to be a problem.

Crooked Heart
 won the ALA's Reading List Award in the historical fiction category in 2016. It tells the story of how Noel ended up living with Vee, and how they become small-time criminals during the Blitz. Old Baggage, set in the late '20s, is the tale of Noel's unofficial godmother, Mattie Simpkin, "a woman with a thrilling past and a chafingly uneventful present" (per the publisher's blurb), a former militant suffragette figuring out what to do with her life now that the vote has been won. Judging by V for Victory, Evans mingles dark humor and serious subjects very well, and her older books promise a similar experience.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Messages in the Air: The Watch House by Bernie McGill, set on Rathlin Island in the late 19th century

The enduring struggle between ancient traditions and modern technology is given a Northern Irish flair in Bernie McGill’s The Watch House.

The setting is Rathlin Island, a rugged, picturesque isle just seven miles from the town of Ballycastle on the mainland. Not having heard of it before, I was glad for the opportunity to learn more about the place and its people through historical fiction.

In 1898, as thirty-year-old Nuala Byrne agrees to wed Ned McQuaid, a tailor nearly twice her age, two foreign engineers arrive on Rathlin to test the capabilities of Guglielmo Marconi’s newest marvel – wireless telegraphy. These subplots quickly intersect.

Just a child when her parents and siblings left for a supposedly better life in Canada, Nuala had cared for her aging grandparents until their deaths and hopes for a stable life with her new husband. She doesn’t realize the Tailor and his crabby sister, Ginny, come as a package deal, or that Ginny will treat her as a drudge. Asked to prepare lunches for Marconi’s associates, she develops a rapport with one of them, Gabriel, who teaches her Morse code – and more.

One can guess how their relationship will develop. The novel opens in April 1899 with a scene of Nuala recovering from childbirth, and Ginny planning to take drastic measures to save her brother from raising an illegitimate child. Her traumatic actions almost put me off the rest of the book, but I kept reading and am glad I did.

This evocative novel centers on the mysteries of communication. Introducing Nuala to the notion of electromagnetic waves using layman’s terms, Gabriel, in the island’s watch house, demonstrates how the technological gadgetry can be made to ring a bell. The concept amazes her: “I shake my head and stare at the empty space between the table and a bell. He is asking me to believe in the invisible…

Likewise, Nuala switches easily between Gaelic and English, though never saw herself as a translator before. Plus, there’s a dark-haired girl at the Tailor’s home that no one but Nuala can see. Maybe Nuala is tuned into a special frequency that lets the dead communicate with her, but she isn’t comfortable talking to anyone about it.

The islanders’ dialogue, and Nuala’s lilting narrative voice, complements the small-town Irish locale, and the ending is both satisfying and unsettling. One character’s impressions of Nuala are so different from the quick-minded, brave woman we’ve come to know that it startles. Some communication gaps just seem too deep to bridge.

The Watch House
 was published in 2018 by Tinder Press in the UK. I've been making a point to read and review more of my own books, even if I've had them for a while, and this is one of them.

Rathlin Island
Rathlin Island Harbour
Credit: Brian O'Neill, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Review of The Bombay Prince by Sujata Massey, a mystery of 1920s India

The “Bombay prince” is the future Edward VIII, who in November 1921 took a four-month tour of India, one of the many colonial lands he expected to rule one day. Many Indians supporting independence were angry about the visit, which led to calls for boycotts and agitation in the streets.

This historic event is the setting for the third in Sujata Massey’s excellent mysteries of 1920s India featuring Perveen Mistry, the country’s first female solicitor (she’s fictional but based on a real-life figure).

Miss Freny Cuttingmaster, a talented student at Woodburn College, stops by Mistry Law for a legal consultation with Perveen. She and her classmates are required to attend the parade celebrating the Prince of Wales’s arrival in Bombay, but Freny detests what he symbolizes and wants to stay away. Impressed by her principles, Perveen advises her as best she can. Then, on the day of the procession, poor Freny’s body is found on the ground, beneath a balcony on her campus. Was her death suicide-as-protest, a political murder, or something else?

Massey admirably directs a cast of dozens, all with distinct personalities and with a range of religious backgrounds. The amount of cultural information smoothly woven through these pages is astounding and is exhibited via the characters’ interactions. The Cuttingmasters are Parsis, like Perveen, which leads her and her lawyer father, Jamshedji, to advocate for Freny’s distraught parents during the coroner’s inquest and ensure her funeral at Doongerwadi isn’t improperly delayed. Feeling an affinity for their late daughter, Perveen wants to see justice done, but she’s disconcerted by Mr. Cuttingmaster’s abruptness (he’s a tailor, as his name suggests) and tries to act without causing offense. She doesn’t always succeed.

Perveen’s manner feels stiff at times, which she acknowledges; it feels appropriate to her status as a pioneering woman in her field who happens to be separated from an abusive husband. Both on the job and within society, her behavior must be above reproach, plus Jamshedji disapproves of her socializing with men. This includes Colin Sandringham, an English political agent helping to arrange the prince’s itinerary. Readers of the previous book will be happy to see him again. Perveen and Colin had become close during her trip to Satapur, but as for a relationship between them – there be danger ahead, she knows.

Followers of the series should delight in how this book ends, and anyone tempted by mentions of the delicious Indian dishes consumed by the characters can find recipes on the author’s website.

The Bombay Prince was published by Soho in 2021; thanks to the publisher for approving me on NetGalley.

Monday, September 20, 2021

My notebook and I got drenched and my story was born: an essay by Joanna FitzPatrick, author of The Artist Colony

Joanna FitzPatrick, whose latest novel The Artist Colony is published this month by She Writes Press, is here today with an essay about the research which inspired her fiction.


"My notebook and I got drenched and my story was born"
Joanna FitzPatrick

For me, born to travel, research takes me on a journey into the past, and that's why I love writing historical fiction. And it's a journey packed with surprises. Final destination unknown.

After writing an historical novel based on the letters and journals of the short story writer, Katherine Mansfield, which required a strict adherence to her biographical point of view, I looked forward to wandering freely into my next historical novel, creating new characters, and this time I wanted to write a mystery.

After you find an era that appeals to you, mine is the 1920s, one of the joys of research is intentionally falling down rabbit holes to find out everything you can about your subject: Prohibition, women's voting rights, rum runners, suffragettes, artists and artist colonies are some of my favorite subjects. And I feel a tremendous responsibility to my readers to thoroughly know these historical facts before I build a story around them.

As you can tell, I love reading history, but as a fiction writer the real exhilaration comes when I resuscitate history through the characters I create and then let them loose to see how they will behave.

One pathway in my research led me to the history of Asian communities in Monterey. The more I read about how these migrants were punished for their self-reliance and determination to make a good life for themselves in America, I knew my historical novel wouldn't be complete without including their powerful, but tragic voices.

In my research into the Portuguese whalers' and immigrant fishermen's stories, I was particularly intrigued by the Japanese abalone divers, which led me to the amas, women divers who also became characters in my novel.

Once I had embedded myself in Monterey's history, it was time to close those weighty books and head out to where that history took place.

As I entered the creaky wooden door into Whalers Cabin at Point Lobos, I felt my story take hold of me. Whalers Cabin was originally built in the mid-1800s and is currently a historical museum with artifacts and photographs of the many people who came to Monterey from long distances and settled on these shores.

Later, standing outside under the canopy of an ancient cypress, I thought, what if . . . and my plot began to percolate. My imagination on fire, pencil in hand, my fingers wrote down my ideas as quickly as I came up with them.

In my own cloud, I wasn't aware of the approaching storm until the heavy clouds burst overhead. It was my first shoreline squall and its dramatic energy added to my own excitement. While my notebook and I got drenched, my story was born.

When the sun broke through and the rain stopped as quickly as it had started, I took the trail outside Whalers Cabin to the unmarked Kodani Village. Gennosuke Kodani, a Japanese abalone diver, made his home on a bluff above Whalers Cove and he caught and canned abalone for a lucrative international market. His Pacific Grove Cannery was built on the opposite side of his village. There are no remnants left of the Kodani Village. But there are sepia photographs of his home, guest houses, bunk rooms, and Japanese women drying abalone on racks. It was easy to put my character Sarah on the bluff watching the women work and smelling the stinky abalones.

Reading history is not always a delicious piece of cake. Historical facts can be heartbreaking when doors open into the past where dark forces are released. In my research, horrible facts were exposed that rattled my strong belief in justice for all. These facts could not be ignored. My characters would have to work through the rampant racism in their own community–to ignore these facts would be a different story.

I went back to the drawing board and expanded my research to our country's treatment of Asian immigrants during the early 20th century so I could better understand the blatant discrimination in this idyllic artist colony on the Pacific shore. These facts would force my characters to question their own humanity. And because of this expanded research, what started out as a plot-driven mystery became a character-driven historical novel with an element of mystery.

I had started The Artist Colony journey before the COVID-19 pandemic, but as I was working on the last revisions, events took place outside my writing studio that linked my hundred-year-old story to the racial discrimination happening today.

I know I don't have the power to change the course of history, but perhaps the readers of The Artist Colony might choose to question their own humanity so that a writer a hundred years from now won't be telling the same story I wrote, because it's true: Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it.


Joanna FitzPatrick
(credit: Michelle Magdalena)
Joanna FitzPatrick
was raised in Hollywood. She started her writing habit by applying her orange fountain pen and a wild imagination to screenplays, which led her early on to produce the film White Lilacs and Pink Champagne. Accepted at Sarah Lawrence College, she wrote her MFA thesis Sha La La: Live for Today about her life as a rock ’n’ roll star’s wife. Her more recent work includes two novels, Katherine Mansfield, Bronze Winner of the 2021 Independent Publisher Book Award (IPPY) in Historical Fiction, and The Drummer’s Widow. The Artist Colony is her third book. Presently, FitzPatrick divides her time between a cottage by the sea in Pacific Grove, California and a hameau in rural southern France where she begins all her book projects. Find her online here:

Author website:

Thursday, September 16, 2021

The Floating Book by Michelle Lovric, a sensual novel of 1460s Venice

Set mostly in 1460s Venice, the atmosphere of M. R. Lovric’s The Floating Book resembles dark chocolate: alluring, richly decadent, and somewhat bittersweet.

The novel is an older title which I’d bought just after its publication but hadn’t read until now – my bad. The copy on my shelves is the Virago (UK) edition, from 2003 (with the gorgeous painting at left), but it was also published in the US under the author’s full name, Michelle Lovric (below at right). The Goodreads reviews are all over the place: some readers adored it, while others couldn’t finish. I decided to ignore the critics and dive in, and I’m glad I did.

The story follows a collection of intriguing characters as their lives become entangled. Sosia Simeon, a troubled young Jewish woman from Dalmatia, has a series of sexual liaisons with men – she prefers Venetians – while ignoring the older husband she detests, a caring Jewish doctor. Wendelin von Speyer arrives from Germany with his brother, Johann, and they secure a monopoly on the newfangled, controversial trade of mechanical printing. Several men grow obsessed with Sosia, including Wendelin’s editor Bruno Uguccione (she becomes his first lover), while there’s one who doesn’t, to her dismay: the scribe Felice Feliciano.

In Italian, we learn, the word sosia means a lookalike, a theme Lovric skillfully plays with. The woman Sosia becomes the dark reflection of another character: Wendelin’s bright-haired Venetian bride, Lussièta, whose first-person narrative enters the story partway through. Their marriage, blissful at first, grows progressively more strained. Wendelin’s decision to publish the work of the Latin poet Catullus, whose frank eroticism shocked the ancient Romans and Renaissance-era Venetians alike, seems to shadow all the characters like a dark cloud. Letters from Catullus himself, in unrequited love with the scandalous Roman noblewoman Clodia, add interesting parallels, since Clodia and Sosia have much in common.

What hits you first is the language, which reads like poetry:

“In certain light-suffused mists, Venice deconstructs herself. One sees faint smears of silhouettes, and in these the architect's early sketches: the skeletons of the palazzi as he saw them on paper when they were only dreams. When the haze lifts, those buildings swell again with substance, as if freshly built. But until that happens the Venetians nose their way around their city…”

The Floating Book has as many moods as Venice herself: by turns romantic, industrious, seductive, joyous, and sinister. Lovric gives us many funny moments by introducing Wendelin’s thieving cat and a letter from Wendelin to his former mentor at home, in which he despairs of his patrons’ and employees’ involvement with unsuitable women, not realizing they all are Sosia. We also have a multi-page rant by a Venetian priest against the ungodly book, which is both hilarious in its over-the-top pomposity, and frightening in its fanaticism.

I confess I found the last part of the novel the least compelling, since the darkness that befalls nearly everyone doesn’t always make sense, other than it’s a plot direction the author wanted to take. In other ways, though, the mysteriousness of the Venetian setting adds to its fascination. Even with so many facets of the city brilliantly illustrated, some aspects remain filmy and tantalizingly unknowable.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Early Hollywood is a family affair in The Limits of Limelight by Margaret Porter

Margaret Porter’s newest historical novel introduces the early life of Helen Brown Nichols, a teenager from Oklahoma City whose family connections led her to modest success as an actress during the Depression – but who found enduring professional achievement in a different artistic field.

Helen’s Aunt Lela and her first cousin, Virginia “Ginger” Rogers, see potential in the dark-haired beauty, and it doesn’t take much convincing for Helen to accept their invitation to live with them in Hollywood, the idea being that the pair will look out for her while helping open doors to opportunities. Before Helen even arrives in the big city, Ginger persuades her to take the stage name “Phyllis Fraser,” and Porter refers to her as Phyllis from that point forward.

The tale moves with a light, steady pace as it nimbly illustrates Phyllis’s professional successes and disappointments, including her securing a contract with RKO and her hopes to appear on-screen beyond all-too-brief appearances (some of her initial performances end up on the cutting-room floor).

In a competitive atmosphere notorious for overlarge egos and backstabbing, The Limits of Limelight stands out as a story of female friendship and mentorship. Aunt Lela and Ginger steer Phyllis away from casting couches and other pitfalls, and Phyllis’s level-headed nature serves her well, also, even as a minor. Many future screen stars establish a firm presence on the page – Boris Karloff, Katharine Hepburn, Fred Astaire – giving readers a glimpse of their personalities and lives before they became famous.

Phyllis becomes good friends with Peg Entwistle and Mary Blackford, actresses whose lives and careers deserve to be better known. She also grows close to the actress Dawn O’Day/Anne Shirley.  Both of these are stage names, a practice that’s treated as nonchalantly as the rest of Hollywood does. Dawn/Anne takes her name from the part she played in Anne of Green Gables, and even her real-life mother adopts the last name of “Shirley” going forward! Although Phyllis does her best, she feels her true talent lies in writing and pursues opportunities as she’s able.

While it may lack the dramatic twists and turns of juicier Hollywood sagas, this shouldn’t be seen as a defect. The Limits of Limelight is solid, well-researched historical fiction providing a behind-the-scenes look at the screen stars who entertained Depression-era America.

The Limits of Limelight is published tomorrow, Sept. 14th, by Gallica Press; thanks to the author for a PDF copy.  [Find it on Goodreads]

Saturday, September 04, 2021

Gayl Jones's Palmares, an immersive epic of seventeenth-century colonial Brazil

After a 21-year absence, Jones makes a strong return with her mesmerizing epic of late 17th-century Brazil. Her narrator is a Black woman, Almeyda – a name spelled differently than that of a former Portuguese colonial governor (de Almeida), which she tells people who note the similarity.

Educated by a priest on the plantation where she is enslaved as a child, Almeyda soaks up stories and keenly observes everything. Following many significant and traumatic life changes, she flees to Palmares, a legendary community promising liberty for the enslaved, and marries her husband there. After Palmares is demolished, Almeyda travels widely to find him, hoping he survived.

Jones’s storytelling exerts a powerful pull, and readers will achieve complete immersion into a setting whose African and Indigenous cultures are memorably delineated. Through richly woven prose, Almeyda’s journey compels reflection on how freedom must always be defended and how women bear extra societal burdens.

The mystical sequences give the plot additional depth and texture. While overly long in parts, Jones’s novel is a superb reclamation of the historical narrative.

Gayl Jones' Palmares will be published by Beacon Press on Sept. 14th; I'd reviewed it from an Edelweiss copy for Booklist's September 1 issue. 

Some additional notes:

It's hard to encompass an epic novel of 500 pages in a review of 175 words. There are dozens of characters, with new people introduced in nearly every chapter, which has the potential for confusion. Each is so distinct, however, that they're not difficult to remember, and some make later appearances, too.

Palmares (or the Quilombo dos Palmares, "quilombo" meaning a community of former enslaved people) was a real settlement in eastern Brazil that thrived for most of the 17th century; read more at Black Past. My e-copy of the novel didn't have a map, but I made use of ones I found online as I was reading.

I especially appreciated how Palmares upends the traditional narrative about colonial history by centering the viewpoint of a multilingual Black woman along a personal journey, and by showcasing the cultures, religions, and languages (Portuguese, Tupi-Guarani, English, and more) mingling at this place and time. Almeyda's mother describes their family as "Sudanese with a touch of Moorish blood." Her grandmother also plays a memorable role.

Read more about Gayl Jones' life and literary accomplishments at Publishers Weekly and in The Atlantic ("The best American novelist whose name you may not know"), as profiled by Calvin Baker. Her first editor was Toni Morrison, who championed her work after reading her first manuscript in 1975. Jones wrote, revised, and polished Palmares over the course of more than 40 years, and readers will soon get the opportunity to experience it for themselves. She is reportedly a private person who doesn't do interviews, but you can expect to be hearing more about the book in literary circles after it's published in two weeks.

Monday, August 30, 2021

The Perfume Thief by Timothy Schaffert takes an original look at Nazi-occupied Paris

Incorporating the tense setting of Nazi-occupied Paris, Schaffert concocts a memorable work that oozes atmosphere and originality.

Her criminal past behind her, the stylishly dapper Clementine, a queer American in her early seventies, runs a thriving perfume shop supplying fragrances for the women of the cabarets. Then Zoé St. Angel, the headlining chanteuse at Madame Boulette’s, pleads for Clem’s help in retrieving a diary with the secret formulas used by a missing perfumer, Monsieur Pascal.

Clem accepts this dangerous challenge, which involves keeping company with the Nazi living in Pascal’s house, Oskar Voss, who adores French culture. “Perfume isn’t only about chemistry. It’s also about psychology,” she says, and the novel is redolent with exquisite scents, the meanings they convey, and the memories they evoke.

The plot sometimes gets buried underneath all the descriptions, but it boasts beguiling characters who gain depth with each unveiled layer. Schaffert creates a lasting impression through his tribute to these unique artists – the “alchemists of the city’s very soul” – and their courageous and creatively daring methods of resistance.

The Perfume Thief is published by Doubleday this month. I wrote this review for the July issue of Booklist, based on a NetGalley copy.  Even if you're feeling weary of WWII settings, this title is different and well worth reading.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

My Policeman by Bethan Roberts depicts a complex love triangle in 1950s Brighton

Roberts’ dramatic novel, first published in the UK in 2012 and now adapted for a forthcoming film starring Harry Styles, Emma Corrin, and David Dawson, poignantly depicts a love triangle that tears apart three lives.

In 1950s Brighton, England, schoolteacher Marion Taylor has had a longtime crush on her friend’s older brother, the blond, athletic Tom Burgess. They grow close as he gives her swimming lessons, but Marion ignores signs that something is amiss.

To achieve respectability and hide his romantic relationship with museum curator Patrick Hazelwood, Tom, a police constable, marries Marion. Jealousy soon rears its head.

Roberts tells the story through Patrick’s journal and Marion’s confessions, which she pens in 1999 while caring for Patrick following his stroke. Their accounts make for riveting but occasionally uncomfortable reading. Marion doesn’t seem particularly kind, while Patrick endangers himself by writing about his feelings and actions, since being gay was illegal at the time.

Both call Tom “my policeman,” and one senses love and defiant possessiveness in the word my. Scenes of seaside Brighton and the era’s repressive attitudes are skillfully rendered.

My Policeman is published by Penguin this month in the US; I reviewed it for Booklist in July. According to IMDB, the film version is currently in post-production. Read more about the film at Vogue UK.