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.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Painting the Light by Sally Cabot Gunning examines women's freedoms on Martha's Vineyard in 1898

Gunning’s sixth historical novel, set on Martha’s Vineyard in 1898, is a luminous portrait of a woman regaining her independence.

Ida Pease wasn’t always a farm wife; she had grown up on Boston’s Beacon Hill and trained as a watercolor artist. After the tragic deaths of everyone in her family, Ida had been charmed by a sheep farmer from Vineyard Haven, Ezra Pease, and chose to marry him – thus giving him access to her money.

Two years later, left in charge of the lambing and harvest while Ezra occupies himself elsewhere, she regrets her hasty decision. When the Portland is wrecked in a storm while sailing to Maine, and Ida learns Ezra and his business partner, Mose Barstow, were aboard, she is stunned but can’t muster up grief for her unpleasant late husband.

Ezra’s death, however, opens a Pandora’s box of secrets, the gradual revelation of which drives the plot along. Ida abruptly finds herself without means and dependent on others for support and answers – among them Ezra’s flinty Aunt Ruth and Henry Barstow, Mose’s brother and executor, to whom Ida has always felt an inexplicable connection.

The pacing is unhurried, but this isn’t a weakness: depictions of the island’s pastoral beauty and the hard work of rural life encourage lingering. The characters have significant depth and multiple rough edges, Ida included.

Eager to return to Boston and resume painting, Ida is forced instead to fight for every inch of emotional ground and every dollar owed to her. She also takes up bicycling – these scenes feel wonderfully freeing – though many island residents find her actions unladylike. The background details on the women’s suffrage movement are a natural fit for this intricate tale of a woman learning to observe the true colors of the world around her.

Painting the Light is out now from William Morrow; I reviewed it from an Edelweiss e-copy for the August issue of Historical Novels Review.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Julie Klassen's A Castaway in Cornwall takes a romantic escape to Poldark country

A castaway, the dictionary tells us, is “a person who has been shipwrecked and stranded in an isolated place.”

Both the heroine and hero of Julie Klassen’s historical novel are castaways, literally or figuratively. With its picturesque backdrop of North Cornwall’s rocky shores during the Napoleonic Wars, it’s tailor-made to draw in Poldark fans, though the love story is more of a gentle, slow burn than one of smoldering passion.

In 1813, Laura Callaway, a young woman of 23, is a lost soul of sorts. Orphaned as a teenager, she had moved to Cornwall eight years earlier to live with her late aunt’s husband, Matthew Bray. Unfortunately, Matthew’s new wife has never truly accepted Laura as part of the family. As a pastime, Laura wanders along the shoreline, collects objects washed up on the sand after shipwrecks, and tries to identify their rightful owners. After the Kittiwake runs aground off the coast one evening, she guards the life of the survivor of the wreck. He calls himself Alexander Lucas and claims to be from Jersey – but he speaks English with a slight accent, and signs point to something hidden in his background. With Britain at war with France, what could his secret possibly be? And Alex may not, in fact, be the only passenger who survived…

Both Alex and Laura are wholeheartedly good people, and their falling in love, despite the obstacles thrown in their path, is a foregone conclusion. Laura’s principal flaw is that she lets her pride get in the way of getting to know her neighbors. Her discoveries over the course of the book eventually set her to rights and give her a sense of belonging.

A Castaway in Cornwall is a story where the setting is a character in its own right, and it’s the most intriguing and multifaceted one of all. The author establishes a sense of community through her large cast while blending Cornish history and customs credibly into the plot. We learn, for example, about St. Enodoc in Trebetherick, a quaint old church partly buried underneath the dunes, and how its minister (Laura's Uncle Matthew) is lowered via rope through a hatch in the roof in order to conduct services there once a year. There are more authentic Cornish names than you can shake a stick at, and the shipboard action scenes are first-rate; I wouldn’t have minded more of them.

Though marketed as Christian fiction, the biblical content is very light overall. It’s an enjoyable story, though there is one scene toward the end that adheres to genre conventions but made me uneasy, given everything that happened beforehand.

A Castaway in Cornwall was published by Bethany House in December 2020; I read it from a NetGalley copy.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

The Boy King by Janet Wertman examines the short reign of the young Tudor monarch, Edward VI

The six-year reign of Edward VI is often forgotten amid the eventful lives of his fellow Tudor monarchs. With the newest novel in her Seymour saga, Janet Wertman shows why the boy and his era are worth a closer look.

Born in 1537 as the long-sought male heir to Henry VIII and his third queen, Jane Seymour, who died days later, Edward embodied the hopes not just of his family but of the entire nation. His story in Wertman’s retelling is one of unachieved potential, a theme which Edward himself sadly acknowledges. He knows he’s too young to rule alone.

Spanning from his father’s death in 1547 to his own in 1553, aged fifteen, the novel is pure catnip for fans of Tudor politics – which are made easy to grasp because politics and character are so inextricably woven together. Lonely and overprotected, with the most private aspects of his life governed by ritual (a scene showing how his bed is freshly assembled each night to assure his safety is illuminating for both him and the reader), Edward struggles to discern his advisors’ true motives. They may have England’s best interests at heart, or they could be seeking to consolidate power.

The ongoing rivalry between the Lord Protector – his uncle Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset – and John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, plays out in powerful fashion, and the behavior of Somerset’s irresponsible brother, Tom, teaches Edward a tough lesson. Not even a nine-year-old likes to be caught off guard.

Edward’s viewpoint, shown in close third person, is utterly credible: his yearning to fulfill the promise that his birth foretold, his internal growth as he learns the threats facing his realm and rule, and his longings for aspects of a normal childhood. His insistence on viewing an acrobat’s street performance on his coronation day is meaningful and sad, “the first time since his accession that he had actually done what he wanted instead of what someone else wanted.” Edward’s cascade of emotions while seated on the Coronation Chair in Westminster Abbey, in full view of the large congregation, is magnificent:

“After a joyous time, he caught his breath and his heart returned to normal… The warm oil’s touch on his forehead was a mystical cord binding him to Christ. For a moment he was Christ, all blinding light and pulsating energy. Then the word pulled him back and from that height he tumbled through time, past the other sanctified prophets and rulers, until he was just himself sitting on the holy chair again, a boy straining to hold the heavy regalia upright.”

The Boy King has a serious tone befitting its subject, so the few moments of joy and kindness stand out, such as Edward’s love for his loyal dog and his friendship with Barnaby Fitzpatrick, a baron’s son whose honesty he trusts. Alas, their closeness is used against him.

In counterpoint to Edward’s perspective, Wertman also gives us that of his sister, Mary, a woman in her thirties whose devotion to her mother’s Catholicism is as fervent as Edward’s Protestant beliefs. While his councilors urge lenience with Mary’s religious expression, in the interest of international diplomacy, Edward detests “popish superstition.” Although Edward’s personal story is tragically short, one can’t help but wonder how his intolerance would have affected England in the future, had he lived longer.

The Boy King was independently published in 2020; thanks to the author for the Kindle copy. [Find it on Goodreads]

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Finding the Tracks of a Scottish Witch, an essay by Nancy Hayes Kilgore, author of Bitter Magic

A big welcome to Nancy Hayes Kilgore, who contributes an essay about her research into the life and times of a historical 17th-century Scotswoman who confessed to performing witchcraft.


Finding the Tracks of a Scottish Witch
Nancy Hayes Kilgore

How do you find the tracks of a 17th-century witch? This was my quest as I traveled to the Highlands of Scotland to research my novel, Bitter Magic.

Bitter Magic
 is inspired by the true story of Isobel Gowdie, whose witchcraft confession in 1662 is one of the most famous in Scottish history. Famous, partly because of its length – it was recorded verbatim over the course of four weeks – but mostly because of its uniqueness.

Unlike many witchcraft confessions, which contain similar elements – I made a pact with the devil, I killed someone with a curse, I stopped the milk in my neighbor’s cow – Isobel’s confession veered off significantly from the script that was often fed to and forced out of the victims.

Isobel elaborated upon and embellished her story beyond what her interrogators asked of her, describing what characters looked like and how she felt. She turned herself into a hare or a crow, she said. (The crow became a featured image in my novel.) She talked about leaving her body and flying through the night with the fairies. She knew the fairy queen. “I was in the Downie Hill and got meat there from the queen of fairy, more than I could eat. The queen of fairy is brawlie clothed in whyt linens and in whyt and browne cloathes..."

Isobel knew the devil and was “sore affrighted” of him. Nevertheless, she described having sex with him.

Before I went to Scotland, I spent several years researching and writing drafts of this tale of Isobel Gowdie and her community, including the landed gentry, who were “Covenanters.” These strict Presbyterians believed that “cunning women” like Isobel, peasants who adhered to the old folklore and beliefs, were demons in human form. I was also interested in the Christian women who may have been sympathetic to or protective of the “witches,” like my protagonist, Margaret.

I wanted to find all the places I had researched and written about in my first drafts of Bitter Magic – the castles where some of my characters lived, the “fermtoun” where Isobel lived, the Auldearn Church where she met the devil, but most of all I wanted to find the Downie Hill, Isobel’s sacred place. I wanted to climb up and stand on top of it. Would I find a special vibrational energy there? Would I sense the “Otherworld? From my research I had learned that The Downie Hill was an actual hill and that it is still where Isobel said it was, between Auldearn and Brodie. This was where the fairy queen lived, she said, and where she could enter the Otherworld of fairies, elves, and other beings. The Downie Hill would open and she would go in to see and visit them.

The Downie Hill, in actuality, is a mound, one of a number of mounds or hillocks that are now assumed to be Iron Age dun forts (750 BC – 43 AD). These were ancient dwellings or forts that scholars believe, over time, became covered with earth and buried. Some of them have been excavated to reveal artifacts, but many, like the Downie Hill, have not.

In Isobel’s time, the 1660s, the mounds were known as fairy mounds. Most people, even the church and ruling class, believed that these mounds were where the fairies were active and that magic happened there. Thus, they were, and still are, called fairy mounds.

Great Britain has a very handy mapping system, the Ordnance Survey, that plots almost every hill and valley as well as ancient sites. On the OS map, I located the Downie Hill. But finding it on the ground was not so easy.

I drove around the neighboring roads until suddenly I spied, across a wide expanse of field and almost hidden behind a thicket of trees, an enormous mound. A cone-shaped hill thrusting up out of the flat land that I would have missed if the sun hadn’t been shining directly on it. I stopped at the farmhouse across the road and knocked on the door. A friendly young man at the door said, oh yes, that’s an old hill fort. And it was okay if I walked over to it. I trudged the half mile across the stubbly field, and when I came to the tree-covered hill, discovered that the area around it was too overgrown with ferns and brush to get through.

When I told my new friend Morag about my find, she was as enthusiastic as I to visit the Downie Hill, and on this sunny July day we set out on our adventure in her little sports car with the top down. We found another path from a roadside lay-by, and began to hike in. Now we could see the hill, but the terrain was uneven and covered with six-foot ferns – bracken. I had reservations about pushing through, but Morag, a more intrepid hiker than I, said, “Of course we can forge through all of that,” and I followed her up the hill. At the top the bracken was as thick as below, but we found a small clearing and stood amidst the ferns.

A sudden quiet fell. No bagpipes playing from the clouds, no wild men in kilts, and not even flickering fairies. The sun sparkled and the ferns shone green and radiant, and we were drawn inward, to a stillness in tune with this place.

I looked down. On the ground beside me was a crow feather.

I picked it up, took it home, and tacked it on the wall above my writing desk.


Nancy Hayes Kilgore
(credit: Kathy Tarantola)
Nancy Hayes Kilgore
, winner of the Vermont Writers Prize, is the author of two other novels, Wild Mountain (Green Writers Press, 2017,) and Sea Level (RCWMS, 2011,) a ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year. She has published in a She Writes Press anthology, in Bloodroot Literary Magazine, Vermont Magazine, The Bottle Imp, and on Vermont Public Radio.

Nancy is a graduate of the Radcliffe Writing Seminars and holds a Master of Divinity degree and a Doctorate in Pastoral Counseling. She is a former parish pastor, a psychotherapist, a writing coach, and leads workshops on creative writing and spirituality. Find her online at

Sunday, August 08, 2021

A gallery of twelve new ancient and medieval historical novels

While the WWII trend in historical fiction is still riding high, novels set in the more distant past still exist and have a strong readership base. Here are a dozen new and upcoming novels taking place in ancient and medieval times, all of which I've either read or have my eye on.  (On a personal note, I'm typing this, or trying to, while the newest addition to the household, a formerly stray tortie named Cocoa, is attacking my legs and climbing all over my desk and keyboard.  It's a challenge!)  On to the books...

In From the Ashes, Melissa Addey presents a colorful behind-the-scenes view of the Roman Colosseum's construction and grand opening through the eyes of an enslaved young woman, Althea, who must take charge after her master is subsumed with grief following the loss of his family during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. I've read this one and found it highly entertaining and moving, especially the scenes showing the startling disappearance of Pompeii. Letterpress Books, Feb. 2021. [see on Goodreads]

Karen Brooks always chooses singular heroines and intriguing historical periods for her fiction. The Good Wife of Bath, set in 14th-century England, promises to cast new light on the well-known, multi-married character from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.  HQ Australia, July 2021; it will be published in the US next winter. [see on Goodreads]

Setting her debut in thirteenth-century Mongolia, F. M. Deemyad recounts the story of three princesses from different lands whose fates were closely linked to the empire of Genghis Khan. History Through Fiction, March 2021. [see on Goodreads]

The protagonist of Annie Garthwaite's debut novel is Cecily Neville, future matriarch of the Yorkist branch of the Plantagenet family, as she seizes the opportunity to see her political fortunes rise during England's War of the Roses. Viking UK, July 2021. [see on Goodreads]

There's been considerable buzz about Lauren Groff's Matrix, which retells the story of Marie de France, a rebellious young woman of seventeen when she's exiled to England to take charge of a faltering abbey of nuns in the late 12th century. Riverhead, Sept. 2021. [see on Goodreads]

In Elodie Harper's new novel, the "wolf den" of the title is the lupanar (brothel) in ancient Pompeii; this is an absorbing, fast-paced story recounting the lives of the women who live and work there, and it does so without delving into salaciousness. Yes, another novel on this list that's set in that well-known, tragic city.  The eruption of Vesuvius is still a few years in the future for this book, which is first in a series. Head of Zeus, May 2021. [see on Goodreads]

Johnson's romantic novel features two strong-willed leads: an heiress from Carthage and a Roman centurion, whose lives come together during the time of Hannibal's crossing of the Alps in 218 BCE. Bellastoria, April 2021. [see on Goodreads]

I enjoyed Fortune's Child, first in James Conroyd Martin's two-book series about Empress Theodora in 6th-century Byzantium, and am looking forward to reading this sequel, which centers on her years as empress as opposed to her earlier life. Hussar Quill Press, June 2021. [see on Goodreads]

Carol McGrath is skilled at bringing forth the personalities of lesser-known medieval royal women. Her subject in The Damask Rose, second in her She-Wolves trilogy, is Eleanor of Castile, queen of Edward I and prominent businesswoman in the thirteenth century. Headline Accent, April 2021. [see on Goodreads]

Christina of Markyate, not her birth name, was a 12th-century English anchoress from a wealthy family who denied herself worldly pleasures and dedicated herself to a spiritual life.  Having just finished Mary Sharratt's Revelations, I'm intrigued by Ruth Mohrman's novel about an earlier medieval mystic; the author has a doctorate in medieval literature. Cadoc Publishing, Jan. 2021. [see on Goodreads]

I've been looking forward to Anne O'Brien's novel about the 15th-century Pastons for some time. The Royal Game follows three women from this famous English family during their surprising rise to power.  HQ, September 2021.  [see on Goodreads]

Last but not least (the books in this post are alphabetized by author surname), The Moon God's Wife is also set the furthest back in time: the setting is Mesopotamia of 2300 BCE.  Shauna Roberts' novel imagines the story of Enheduanna, a high priestess of the goddess Inanna whose name has come down in history as the first recorded poet. Nicobar Press, July 2021. 

And here's Miss Cocoa, posing on a historical fiction book pile which has since been dismantled because I bought more shelves.  Happy International Cat Day from both of us!

Wednesday, August 04, 2021

The Bohemians by Jasmin Darznik, a shimmering portrait of Dorothea Lange's early years in San Francisco

In her second novel, Darznik presents a shimmering portrait of little-known histories: that of an iconic American photographer, a culture, and a city, all at a time of pivotal transformation.

In May 1918, 22-year-old Dorothea “Dorrie” Lange arrives in San Francisco, full of ambition and dreams. Almost immediately, she’s robbed of her savings and forced to hock her beloved Graflex camera to survive. Through her tight friendship with the effervescent Caroline Lee, a Chinese American woman who speaks unaccented English and wears her own beautifully tailored clothing, Dorrie gets introduced to Monkey Block, a four-story structure that withstood the 1906 fire and earthquake and hosts an enclave of bohemians: talented and freewheeling artists, writers, and performers.

Following months of hard work, Dorrie opens her own portrait studio, with Caroline as her assistant, and weighs pursuing a relationship with Western painter Maynard Dixon. The story compellingly narrates her journey as she learns to observe places and people with a candid eye and present them as they wish to be seen.

“What had struck me most about San Francisco so far wasn’t the newness of the place—that I’d expected—but the absence of the past,” Dorrie relates. In many ways, San Francisco seems to be a city where difference is celebrated, but it treats its Chinese residents abominably and doesn’t acknowledge the incongruity; Caroline has developed a tough exterior to protect against internal pain.

As a character, Caroline has a basis in history (Lange did work alongside a Chinese woman), and her personality as imagined by Darznik is deeply multifaceted and unforgettable. Donaldina Cameron and Consuelo Kanaga are among other real-life secondary figures whose courageous lives are worth heralding.

With its themes of female self-invention and empowerment, xenophobia, and people’s enforced separation during the Spanish flu pandemic, readers will find this novel uncannily relevant for today’s world.

The Bohemians was published by Ballantine this year, and I'd reviewed it initially for August's Historical Novels Review.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Revelations by Mary Sharratt illuminates the remarkable life of medieval English mystic Margery Kempe

“My story is not a straightforward one. Women’s stories never are.”

Margery Kempe, born in the small town of Bishop’s Lynn in Norfolk circa 1373, was a woman who confounded and transformed her medieval world. Married to a much older man, she left her family life behind after bearing fourteen children, taking a vow of celibacy and choosing to pursue a spiritual path.

Following her first pregnancy, she had suffered a mental breakdown and was brought out of it after seeing a radiant vision of Christ which instilled her with a feeling of divine love. Later, as a middle-aged woman, after receiving support and understanding from the anchoress Julian of Norwich, Kempe took a pilgrimage route to the Holy Land and later to Santiago de Compostela. Toward the end of her life, she composed a book thought to be the first English-language autobiography.

Mary Sharratt’s Revelations brings us acutely into the interior life and outward experiences of Margery Kempe, who narrates her story in the first person. It’s a wonderful evocation of an extraordinary figure and the medieval mindset in general. The author is an eloquent chronicler of historical women’s thorny paths to self-fulfillment, and Margery faces significant obstacles on her journey, as a sole female disrupting the gender status quo, and traveling through a world designed for men.

“A questing soul with a hungry mind,” Margery challenges sumptuary laws by dressing in white, as her visions direct her to, and narrowly avoids convictions of heresy at a time when Lollards – followers of John Wycliffe, who translated the Bible into English – are burned at the stake. On her wanderings throughout Europe, Margery sees many strange and wondrous sights (the landscapes are beautifully described), comes into the company of other travelers, and must quickly decide how much she can trust them. Trouble accompanies her everywhere. She remains a sympathetic figure, and at the same time, it’s clear how some of her actions and beliefs are incomprehensible to those around her.

Revelations is an illuminating read for anyone interested in stepping back into a long-ago time and envisioning its main character’s life and accomplishments. Though both are separate stories, it makes for a nice pairing with the author’s earlier novel Illuminations, about Hildegard of Bingen. 

was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt earlier this year (I read it from a NetGalley copy).

Sunday, July 25, 2021

The Women's March by Jennifer Chiaverini relates three women's roles in the 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession

On March 3, 1913, a day before President Wilson’s inauguration, suffragists marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC, to advocate for a constitutional amendment. Chiaverini’s impassioned account pulls readers into the organization, staging, and aftermath of this large, historic event, making the details feel freshly alive.

The perspective alternates among three historical figures. Procession co-organizer Alice Paul grows impatient with the national suffrage organization’s focus on state-by-state legislation and pushes for a federal solution. Activist Ida Wells-Barnett, whose background is abundantly illustrated, works to ensure Black women’s rightful place at the voting booth and in the parade. So-called “militant suffragist librarian” Maud Malone challenges politicians to take a stance.

As their plans come together, the story adeptly evokes the obstacles they all face, including Wilson’s opposition, inadequate police protection, and internal divisions about appeasing bigoted Southern white women.

Although some expressions feel overly modern, this politically aware novel about a historic quest for democratic justice compels readers to contemplate everything that has and hasn’t changed over time with voting rights and gender and racial equality.

The Women's March will be published this coming Tuesday by William Morrow; I wrote this review for Booklist's historical fiction issue (5/15/2021). Needless to say, this is a very timely novel.  All three women are historical figures, though only Wells-Barnett's name had been known to me previously.

Friday, July 23, 2021

What Happens Next Is Anyone’s Guess, an essay by Jonathan Harries, author of The Carpet Salesman from Baghdad

Today I'm welcoming author Jonathan Harries with an entertaining post about his writing process for what sounds like an equally entertaining historical adventure series.


What Happens Next Is Anyone’s Guess
Jonathan Harries

“Come, come,” my wife’s brother said to me. “Surely you plot out your novels. What sort of idiot embarks on a novel without any idea where it will end up?” Well, that’s the gist of what he said. He didn’t use words like “come, come,” but he definitely used “idiot” or it could have been “moron,” I forget. Or perhaps I wasn’t listening.

The Carpet Salesman from Baghdad
is my sixth novel, and I’m in the process of putting the finishing touches to my seventh, The Bodyguard of Sarawak. In none have I developed a plotline on the appropriate app nor pinned an outline to a cork board. I have no notebook with character sketches and elaborate ideas for how they’d develop as the novel plods its way to the finish. I’m sure someone who may have picked one up in the past will be making some sort of disparaging sound and thinking, “Well, there you go. That explains a lot.”

My first novel, Killing Harry Bones, began as a biography of a childhood friend who lived the most colorful—and irresponsible—life imaginable. My initial flirtation with his story happened to coincide with a particularly nasty incident at work involving a despicable swine whose actions I felt were in dire need of redress. I am not by nature a vindictive person, but in his case, I felt a dollop of vengeance was justified. So, I combined the two stories, threw in animal traffickers, poachers, big-game hunters, and ex-Nazis for good measure and began to write with absolutely no idea where the story would end, other than that the bad guys would get their comeuppance. Two other books in the series followed a similar theme.

Now, I imagine the mere mention of the word “theme” means there is some plotting involved. In that respect I suppose there is. All my books have unimaginably awful people getting their just deserts. In the Roger Storm books – Killing Harry Bones, Killing Bobby Fatt, and Killing Valerian Zolotov, trophy hunters and animal traffickers are creatively dispatched by a group of vigilantes hell-bent on saving the planet’s dwindling wildlife. In the Tales of the Sica series—The Tailor of Riga, The Carpet Salesman from Baghdad, and the soon-to-be-completed Bodyguard of Sarawak—a family of assassins who can trace their origin back nearly two thousand years (and just happen to be my own family) take out some of the biggest rotters in history—including Jack the Ripper. The weapon of choice? A millennia-old dagger called a sica, once used in the Jewish uprising against the Romans in around 70 AD.

The Carpet Salesman from Baghdad, which launches on July 27, features a distant relative, Elias Smulian-Hasson, who is summoned from Baghdad to Bombay by David Sassoon, the “Rothschild of the East,” on behalf of the Maharaja of Kutch. The year is 1858, soon after the end of the Sepoy Uprising against the British occupiers of India, and the man Elias is tasked with whacking is an English officer whose cruelty towards the Indian survivors of the rebellion are too much even for his own men. What seems like a standard hit at first turns out to be a lot more complicated, and after surviving an ambush in some caves outside of Bombay, Elias pursues his quarry to the southern Kingdom of Travancore. Here, beneath a magnificent temple in amongst troves of gold and jewels and nests of giant cobras, a fierce battle takes place. Will justice be served up like a fiery chicken vindaloo? Aha, you’ll just have to find out.

I don’t believe I knew who would be in the book initially (other than Elias) or who he’d meet or where he’d meet them until shortly before he did. I really like it when my characters make their own decisions as to where they’re going, and I become no more than a chauffeur dropping them off at their destination and picking them up when they’re ready to leave. It’s more fun for me—which is why I write—and I hope more entertaining for my readers.

If you’re one of them, then I appreciate you very much. You may also like to know that every cent I make on all my books go to different animal and wildlife charities.


Jonathan Harries began his career as a trainee copywriter at Foote, Cone & Belding in South Africa and ended it as Chairman of FCB Worldwide with a few stops in between.

After winning his first Cannes Lion award, he was offered a job at Grey Advertising in South Africa, where he worked as a copywriter and ended up as CEO at age 29, just before emigrating to the US. Like most immigrants in those days, he started once again from scratch. After a five year stint as Executive Creative Director of Hal Riney in Chicago, he was offered a senior position at FCB. Within ten years, he became the Global Chief Creative Officer and spent the next ten traveling to over 90 countries, racking up 8 million miles on American Airlines alone.

He began writing his first novel, Killing Harry Bones, in the last year of his career and transitioned into becoming a full-time author three years ago, just after retiring from FCB. He’s been writing ever since while doing occasional consulting work for old clients.

Jonathan has a great love of animals, and he and his wife try to go on safari every year. They’ve been lucky enough to visit game reserves in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Tanzania, India, and Sri Lanka.


What if my highly dubious story of a two-thousand-year-old family of assassins turned out to be true?

Can you blame a chap for wanting to turn his otherwise humdrum family into a bunch of assassins?

It turns out you can.

I found this out soon after my novel The Tailor of Riga was published, and I received a bunch of beastly emails and threats from incensed family members horrified that I’d portrayed them as the descendants of bloodthirsty hitmen.

Then, out of the blue, a package arrived from a long-lost cousin in Argentina that changed everything.

It was the diary of an unknown ancestor, Elias Smulian-Hasson, summoned from Baghdad to Bombay by the enormously wealthy David Sassoon to take on an assignment for the Maharajah of Kutch.

His mission was to find and kill a British officer responsible for some of the most brutal acts of retribution against Indian survivors of the Great Sepoy Uprising and retrieve a fortune in stolen gemstones. Elias pursues his quarry from Bombay to the Kingdom of Travancore, where the contemptible swine is planning to rob the vaults of the richest temple in the world.

Priceless treasures, mysterious maharajahs, unspeakably evil villains, and the beautiful Mozelle Jacob, a woman Elias will pursue to the ends of the earth, all blend together like a spicy chicken vindaloo in the next saga of the sica.

The Tailor of Riga (see the review at Kirkus), the first book in the Tales of the Sica, is free on Kindle between July 23-27, for anyone interested in getting started with the series.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

The Lengthening Shadow by Liz Harris, a saga set in England and Germany between the world wars

The title of this fast-paced and memorable saga, spanning from 1914 through 1934 in England and Germany, reflects the historical atmosphere: the darkness spreading across the land as the Nazis rise in power and influence, and its chilling effect on the people living beneath it.

Each volume in the Linford series focuses on different characters. In this third entry, the protagonists are Dorothy Linford, eldest daughter of Joseph, chairman of a prominent London-based building company; and her troubled younger cousin, Louisa. Although some material overlaps with the previous two books, they can all be read independently, and readers familiar with the saga will appreciate how Harris has avoided spoilers for The Dark Horizon (book one) and The Flame Within (book two) – this is very skillfully done!

Serving as a nurse with the Voluntary Aid Detachment during WWI, Dorothy meets and falls in love with one of her hospital patients, Franz Hartmann, a German internee. Disowned by her parents after their marriage, Dorothy moves with Franz to Germany, where they raise two children. Although she misses England dreadfully, she loves the friendliness and religious amity in their small town, Rundheim.

Through the experiences of the Hartmanns and their neighbors, the novel shows the subtle and, later, overt pressures that ordinary German citizens felt to support Hitler, even against their better judgment. One scene set in 1933, where the view from a mountain hike sweeps from the beauteous natural backdrop to the swastika flags flying from windows below, evokes an unsettling contrast.

As her worry and fear grow, Dorothy has painful decisions to make. Back in England, Louisa, a surly teenager, must reassess her priorities after a major wrongdoing. The characters realistically grow and change, and readers will turn the pages eagerly, hoping for optimistic endings for them all.

The Lengthening Shadow was published by Heywood Press in 2021; I reviewed it for May's Historical Novels Review. This is the third and last book in the Linford series.  The author's next historical novel, The Darjeeling Inheritance, out in October, is set in India in 1930.  I look forward to reading it.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Those I Have Lost by Sharon Maas, a wartime saga set in India and Ceylon

Sharon Maas is a novelist whose works I’ve been meaning to read for some time, since her books promised to bring me to places beyond the familiar sites we see so often in historical fiction.

Set in India and Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka) before and during the WWII years, Those I Have Lost takes an angle on the war that will be new for many readers. Events are seen through the eyes of Rosalind (Rosie) Todd, who narrates a heartfelt story of coming of age, love, and loss.

A girl of English heritage raised in a household free of cultural prejudice in pre-Partition India, Rosie loses her beloved mother at age 10, and her passing leaves her and her father, an academic scholar, in deep grief. When her late mother’s good friend, Silvia Huxley, pays a visit and asks to take Rosie to live with her family in Ceylon, sharing proof that it’s what her mother would have wanted, her father reluctantly agrees that a girl of Rosie’s age needs a woman’s guiding touch, and lets her go.

The Huxleys, who live in a “bungalow” (really a mansion) at a tea plantation in the green hills near the city of Kandy, are the parents of three boys, the younger two of whom, Andrew and Victor, were Rosie’s playmates on her earlier visits there. Graham, considerably older than his brothers, was a more distant figure and now works as a surgeon. As the war approaches, all three brothers sign on, to their mother’s anguish. Furthermore, Andrew has fallen in forbidden love with Usha, Rosie’s friend and the Huxleys’ housekeeper's daughter, whose marriage had been arranged with another man. And Rosie’s father vanishes after an enigmatic note, leading her to think he’s away in the mountains following an Indian guru. In other words, her personal life and the world around her are in turmoil.

Those I Have Lost is a briskly paced saga enhanced by its colorful, lush setting of mango trees and sweetly scented frangipani and its richly developed secondary characters and social contexts. The viewpoint of Usha’s mother, Sunita, is never seen firsthand, but we sense her thoughts based on her reactions to events, and her admonition to Usha to “remember her place.” The Catholic priest called “Father Bear,” an old friend of Rosie’s family, is refreshingly different from stereotype; he’s a self-described “Christian freethinker” who tells amusing dad-jokes.

I found the story most gripping during the war years, as Rosie and the Huxleys wait on tenterhooks to hear news of the three sons. A couple of the plot twists (there are many) were too much for my taste, but I did enjoy this story and the interactions among its multicultural cast.

Those I Have Lost was published by Bookouture this month; I read it from a NetGalley copy, and this review forms part of the publisher's blog tour.

Author Bio:

Sharon Maas was born into a prominent political family in Georgetown, Guyana, in 1951. She was educated in England, Guyana, and, later, Germany. After leaving school, she worked as a trainee reporter with the Guyana Graphic in Georgetown and later wrote feature articles for the Sunday Chronicle as a staff journalist.

Her first novel, Of Marriageable Age, is set in Guyana and India and was published by HarperCollins in 1999. In 2014 she moved to Bookouture, and now has ten novels under her belt. Her books span continents, cultures, and eras. From the sugar plantations of colonial British Guiana in South America, to the French battlefields of World War Two, to the present-day brothels of Mumbai and the rice-fields and villages of South India, Sharon never runs out of stories for the armchair traveller.

Please visit the author at: and at

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Her Heart for a Compass, a Victorian coming-of-age novel by Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, and Marguerite Kaye

Ferguson, the well-known former British royal, in collaboration with romance author Marguerite Kaye, has crafted a debut historical novel of thought-provoking escapism. She bases her protagonist, Lady Margaret Montagu Douglas Scott, on a distant great-aunt and, incorporating autobiographical elements, weaves a fictional coming-of-age adventure for her.

In 1865, flame-haired Margaret, the Duke of Buccleuch’s second daughter, ignites a scandal after fleeing her betrothal party. Torn between duty and personal desires, she shares confidences with other women weighing these issues, including best friend Princess Louise, and is forced to make difficult choices that leave her seeking self-reflection. She also learns to use her privilege for good.

In contrast with the Victorian nobility’s mannered world, Margaret moves through life with disarming candor. The pages turn swiftly, and as Margaret travels from London to Scotland, Ireland, and New York City, readers will bask in the lush details on fashion and architecture. The writings interspersed throughout the narrative – gossipy society columns, letters, and more – heighten this captivating novel's theme of a woman gaining confidence and learning to direct her own story.

Her Heart for a Compass will be published by William Morrow (US) and Mills and Boon (UK) in August. I reviewed it for Booklist's May 15th issue from an Edelweiss copy.  There aren't many reviews out there so far, but I'm sure we'll be seeing more as the pub date gets closer. 

At the end of the novel, Sarah Ferguson writes her own author's note, explaining how she's been wanting to write Lady Margaret's story for fifteen years, and that her heroine was the daughter of her 3x great-grandparents. Both authors also contribute a historical note, detailing which parts of the book are historical and which are invented.

Read more about the book and the authors' collaboration at Town and Country and The Bookseller, where the publication was originally announced.

Monday, July 05, 2021

Angela Jackson-Brown's When Stars Rain Down explores coming-of-age in a segregated, Depression-era Georgia town

Angela Jackson-Brown’s When Stars Rain Down is a Southern historical novel I’ve posted about here before. Once I got the opportunity to read it, the story consumed my attention for a full day and a half. It whisked me right out of my own time and into the viewpoint of Opal Pruitt, a girl of nearly eighteen whose coming of age in the small, segregated town of Parsons, Georgia, gets complicated.

It’s the summer of 1936, and Opal has never kept company with boys before. Miss Birdie, her Granny who raised her after her mother left, won’t allow it. But two different young men she has known for years begin stirring up unexpected romantic feelings. The “Colored” and white residents of Parsons stay pretty much separate, although the elderly white widow, Miss Peggy, who employs both Granny and Opal as housekeepers, treats them both like family, and the two groups attend the Founder’s Day celebration every year.

When local KKK members decide to ride through Opal’s neighborhood, Colored Town, one night, the property destruction and subsequent brutality forces them all into a reckoning. Opal’s large, close-knit family is divided on what to do: should they trust in God and look out for one another, or should they retaliate and risk more violence?

Opal is an endearing character I admired and wanted to protect. Like other Southern girls of her age, she respects her elders (replying “yes, ma’am” to her Granny’s requests) but knows they don’t have all the answers. Opal takes pride in her cooking and cleaning work, which she enjoys, and in her beautiful homemade clothes, stitched from patterns shared by Miss Peggy. The story addresses racial tensions head-on, including the pain inflicted on Black people by well-intentioned but clueless white folks.

The characters’ joys and warm sense of community – Opal has a strong support system – also spring from the page. Many elements combine to enfold readers in the setting of Depression-era Georgia: the oppressive heat, the local vernacular, the smell of peaches and barbecue, and the thrill of the crowd as they see baseball star Satchel Paige play in a Negro League exhibition game. One favorite character is Miss Lobelia, the “hoodoo woman,” who has difficulty convincing Opal that her medicine doesn’t go against Christian ways.

When Stars Rain Down has themes obviously relevant for today, and it also speaks to the value of people listening to one another, and to what their own heart is telling them.

The novel was published by Thomas Nelson in April.

Saturday, July 03, 2021

Review of The Librarian of Saint-Malo, set in Nazi-occupied Brittany

Saint-Malo, a picturesque walled seaside port in Brittany, is the setting for Mario Escobar’s newest novel, which focuses on the efforts of a French librarian, Jocelyn Ferrec, to preserve the books in her beloved town during its occupation by the Germans in World War II. Knowing the importance of the written word, but feeling unable to chronicle her experiences for posterity, Jocelyn addresses letters to a famous French author describing the deteriorating situation around her, hoping he’ll transform them into a book for others to read.

It’s an odd concept, and the epistolary format is just one among many aspects of this novel that don’t make sense. The chapters of The Librarian of Saint-Malo are the letters themselves; they read like a traditional narrative, except for occasional, awkwardly inserted references to the addressee (“Marcel Zola,” a novelist the author imagines as a fictional version of Albert Camus).

Newly married to her childhood sweetheart, Antoine, Jocelyn discovers she’s suffering from tuberculosis, and she’s left alone, in her weakened state, after Antoine leaves to join the fighting. She takes solace in the books of the library where she works and does her best to save them when the Nazis arrive with lists of prohibited literature, intending to destroy whatever they deem subversive. The cruel and lecherous Adolf Bauman, an SS officer, demands lodging in Jocelyn’s home, while another German, Hermann von Choltiz, a medieval literature scholar, tries to protect Jocelyn from his compatriot’s attentions. Jocelyn is touched by his kindness and develops a rapport with him that she isn’t sure she can trust.

Saint-Malo is hauntingly described, with its storied history as a pirate haven contrasting with the traumatic Nazi occupation as neighbors turn on one another, food becomes scarce, and Jews are carted away. The novel’s characters, however, behave in unrealistic ways and have perplexing emotional reactions. In just one early example: Jocelyn sees a horrific event and learns awful news while on an out-of-town trip. That same evening sees her attending a fancy dinner party, in a borrowed gown, feeling that the war was an “ephemeral dream.”

Jocelyn is beyond naïve at times, and her tuberculosis symptoms appear and disappear when it’s convenient for the plot. Hermann is hardly a heroic individual, and the author's attempts to make a Nazi into a sympathetic or even romantic figure simply don’t work. The actions of one Jewish character ring particularly false as well.

The Librarian of Saint-Malo has an intriguing setting and theme, saving literature in a time of war, so it's disappointing that I'm not able to recommend this novel.  

The Librarian of Saint-Malo was published by Thomas Nelson in June. I read it from a NetGalley copy.

Friday, June 25, 2021

The Women of Chateau Lafayette by Stephanie Dray, an inspiring saga of French history across 150 years

This ambitious saga follows three distinctive women across 150 years and four different wars: the American and French Revolutions and World Wars I and II. Each would have been impressive on its own, but braided together, they create a multifaceted anthem of Franco-American relations and feminine courage. The tales are united across time by a common theme – the tireless pursuit of liberty – and a special place which comes to symbolize it: the Chateau de Chavaniac, a large manor house in the Auvergne region of central France where the Marquis de Lafayette was born.

Marthe Simone had grown up at the orphanage at Chavaniac, and now, in 1940, she teaches the children recuperating from illness at the preventorium there. A talented artist, she accepts a commission to paint portraits of the chateau’s best-known mistress, Adrienne Lafayette, since the Vichy regime may find the 18th-century marquise less objectionable than her famous husband. As times grow darker, and Marthe’s interpersonal relationships shift in surprising ways, she must decide what risks to take, and who to trust.

In July 1914, colorful American socialite Beatrice Chanler debates separating from her estranged millionaire husband as war erupts in Europe. A caring mother who’s aghast at seeing wounded children while traveling through Amiens, Beatrice determines to back the war effort despite President Wilson’s declaration of neutrality. Over a century earlier, Adrienne de Noailles, only a teenager when she marries Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, makes innumerable sacrifices to support her husband while he fights for the American colonists, but her husband’s principles imperil the couple as tides turn during their country’s own revolution.

Based on original research, as explained in the wonderful author’s note, this novel provides satisfying, deep immersion into all three timelines. All three heroines (two are real, one fictional) feel dimensionally real, and their actions are truly inspiring.

The Women of Chateau Lafayette was published by Berkley in March; I'd reviewed it via NetGalley for May's Historical Novels Review.

If you're curious about some of the amazing discoveries the author made about one of her heroines, read this article in the New York Post, which began with her contacting one of her subject's living descendants for more information (I'm not listing the title in case of possible spoilers).  If you've already read the novel, please click away to learn more.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Rereading Anya Seton's Katherine after 35 years

This past week, I found myself in the rare situation of having no pressing review deadlines. I had just purchased a Kindle copy of Anya Seton's Katherine after seeing it on BookBub, figuring it would be easier to read than the small-print paperback I'd bought at a used bookstore as a teenager. So the timing worked all around to dive back into this medieval epic, which had been a favorite read long ago, and which I hadn't read in full since writing about it for a high school book report.  (Though I had skimmed it, back in 2004, in order to include it in Historical Fiction: A Guide to the Genre.)

Some aspects of Katherine have remained with me all this time, in particular the emotional impact of the unlikely-but-true love story between Katherine Swynford, born a herald's daughter in Picardy, and John of Gaunt, third son of England's Edward III. Their numerous royal descendants include the Tudors, Stuarts, and current members of Britain's royal family.

Multiple scenes and specific lines have stuck with me. I was especially pleased to see that the same family tree from my 1950s-era paperback was reproduced in the Kindle edition, which was published by Seton's original publisher, Houghton Mifflin (now also Harcourt). Sadly, this venerable publishing name will soon cease to exist for fiction.

Family tree from Anya Seton's Katherine

Novels with genealogical charts have always interested me, since they reveal a story in themselves. In the case of Katherine, its presence at the very beginning means that a good part of the storyline is given away ahead of time, a fact which concerned Seton. After finishing Katherine, I flipped through Lucinda H. MacKethan's recent biography of the author, Anya Seton: A Writing Life (Chicago Review Press, 2020), and avidly read the excerpts from Seton's personal journals at the time, including her words: "There's no suspense, how can there be when the genealogical table shows Katherine gets her duke in the end."

Seton also worried her prose was insufficiently polished and that her adherence to historical fact made her story less dramatic than it could have been. None of these concerns held true in the final product, in my view. Knowing the outcome in advance doesn't lessen the power of the story at all. Her portrait of 14th-century England simply glows, like light through a stained-glass window, bringing alive the colors and personalities of this centuries-old era.  

Scene from Jean Froissart's Chronicles
Richard II meets the rebels on 14 June 1381, from illustrations
in a miniature from a 1470s copy of Jean Froissart's Chronicles.
(public domain: Wikipedia)

What I hadn't remembered about Katherine is its detailed presentation of the Black Death and its deadly effects, and its socioeconomic repercussions years later, culminating with the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. Neither Katherine nor her John are present in many of these scenes, which serve to provide an overarching picture of the English fourteenth century. Julian of Norwich plays a prominent role toward the end, providing Katherine with religious advice, and I look forward to meeting her again in Mary Sharratt's new novel Revelations (coincidentally, another Houghton Mifflin Harcourt publication).

If a classic is a novel that stands the test of time, Anya Seton's Katherine is certainly that. It's never been out of print, and is worth discovering, and rediscovering, by many generations of readers.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

It Started with a Druid and a Nun Having a Conversation, an essay by A. M. Linden, author of The Oath

The setting of early medieval Britain has always interested me, and so does the topic of A. M. Linden's guest post, which discusses how she conceptualized and researched her novel The Oath, which is out today from She Writes Press.


It Started with a Druid and a Nun Having a Conversation
A. M. Linden

The Oath
is the first book of the Druid Chronicles, a quasi-historical fiction series set in Anglo-Saxon Britain and based on the premise that a secretive and secluded Druid cult has persisted into the eighth century despite the otherwise inexorable spread of Christianity. The start of the story that turned into a saga—and one which took over more of my life than I ever intended it to—was an image that came to me when I was toying with the idea of writing a medieval murder mystery.

I did not have a particular plot or an exact time in mind, but pictured a tall, dark-haired Druid and a short, nervous nun having a conversation in a small underground chamber. While I didn’t yet have any idea why they were there or what they were talking about, I was certain that the nun was Saxon and that the chamber was underneath a Christian shrine. Those “facts” set the story’s timeframe, fixing it between the completion of the Saxon conversion to Christianity in the late 600s and the Viking invasions that began a century later—something I can say now, although I will also say that I began this work with what was at best a sketchy understanding of early British history.

Rather than being taken up with the big picture of characters contending with ethnic and religious conflicts in the Middle Ages, I was curious about who these two people were, why they were in the chamber, and what happened to them after that. Somehow it seemed that the only way to find out was to start writing, so I spent the next several months dashing off what was to become the Druid Chronicle’s first draft and didn’t begin any serious research into the period until I knew how things came out.

At that point I put the manuscript’s draft aside, and started to read whatever I could find at the library, in my local bookstore and on-line about Celts and Saxons, life in monasteries and convents, medieval farming and folktales, cooking over firepits and treating medical problems with herbs and incantations, as well as accounts of the Anglo-Saxon takeover of what is now England by writers on both sides of that struggle.

While the Anglo-Saxon period is generally counted as starting with the withdrawal of Roman forces at the end of the fourth century and ending with the Norman invasion in 1066, it quickly became apparent that to understand the people I envisioned as living in a hidden valley and continuing to practice a pre-Christian, polytheistic religion, I had to go back to the European Iron Age, a period during which our understanding of Celtic culture relies on a mix of archaeology, linguistics, and a limited number of accounts by foreign commentators. Then, in order to have a plausible explanation for how the small outcast cult could have sustained itself over the eight centuries between the last report of a Druidic center in the first century AD and the time of my “chronicles,” I needed to gain a reasonable grasp on the subsequent Romano-British and Anglo-Saxon periods, including the conversion first of the native Britons and later of the Saxon kingdoms to Christianity.

It was during this phase of my research that I traveled to the United Kingdom with my husband and the Ordnance Survey map of ancient monuments in Great Britain, Scotland and Wales. Already entranced by the early history and archeology of the British Isles, we started each of three trips at the British Museum. Then we rented a car, unfolded our map, and set out across country, taking in several of the well-maintained and highly informative heritage sites—including the awe-inspiring Stonehenge—but also following back roads, stopping at local museums in small towns with amazing displays of finds from nearby excavations, and taking advantage of the UK’s system of public access walkways to visit the vestiges of iron age hill forts or secluded standing stones in the company of grazing sheep. Beyond the wealth of knowledge gained from those trips, we had the experience of sitting in a pub in northern Wales and hearing teenagers in a nearby booth talking to each other in one of the oldest extant languages in Europe.

The reason that I didn’t do the historical research before I wrote the first draft was fear that the vibrancy I sensed in those two characters might not survive the rigors of dry documents and academic controversies. While I still think I made the right decision, the opportunity to immerse myself in the richness of a past age accounts for whatever depth and color I have been able to instill in their story.

About the book: The Oath opens a few months after Caelym, the youngest of his shrine’s remaining priests, has left their hidden sanctuary in search of their chief priestess’s sister, who’d been abducted by a Saxon war band fifteen years earlier. With only a rudimentary grasp of English and the ambiguous guidance of an oracle’s prophecy, Caelym manages to find Annwr living in a hut on the grounds of a Christian convent. Annwr has spent her years of captivity caring for the timid Aleswina, a Saxon princess consigned to the cloistered convent by her cousin, King Gilberth, after he assumed her father’s throne. Just as Caelym and Annwr are about to leave together, Aleswina learns that Gilberth, a tyrant known for his cruelty and vicious temper, means to take her out of the convent and marry her. Terrified, she flees with the two Druids, beginning an adventure that unfolds in ways none of them could have anticipated.

More information about this series can be found on the website

About the author: A. M. (Ann Margaret) Linden is currently completing the final book in the Druid Chronicles. Retired from a career as a nurse practitioner, she lives with her husband, two dogs and a cat. Books that have been influential in her research are included on her Goodreads Author page.