Tuesday, April 27, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 25, 2021

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

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


Researching a Conspiracy
Alan Bardos

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

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

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

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

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

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

National Archive
National Archive (photo by the author)

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

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

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

About The Dardanelles Conspiracy:

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

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

About the Author:

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

Friday, April 23, 2021

Historical novels in verse, in celebration of National Poetry Month

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 18, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Revisiting Bletchley Park through Kate Quinn's The Rose Code

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bombes at Bletchley Park
Exhibit on operating the Bombes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

While Paris Slept by Ruth Druart, a novel of family and courage in Nazi-occupied France

To what lengths would you go to ensure your child’s survival? What would you sacrifice in yourself to preserve their well-being? With her accomplished first novel, Druart penetrates to the heart of these emotional questions, exploring them in multiple ways through the interlinked stories of two couples. 

In 1953 Santa Cruz, California, Jean-Luc and Charlotte Beauchamps are the proud parents of a son, Sam, who loves burgers and chocolate-chip cookies as much as any American kid. They’ve strived to adapt to their new country, speaking only English, and never revisiting the trauma they fled in Paris nine years earlier. The tone is ominous as a car pulls up to their house. Inspectors take Jean-Luc in for questioning, and his carefully built life begins unraveling.

Back in March 1944, Jean-Luc maintains tracks for the French national railway, now under German control. He’s nervous after being transferred to the Drancy station, as rumors float about forced deportations of Jews. He never sees any trains, but evidence left on the platform – a stuffed toy, a broken shoe, and something much worse – implies passengers are being transported to a dreadful end. Jean-Luc feels he must act but doesn’t know how. Then one day a train does stop, and a frantic young mother, Sarah Laffitte, thrusts her weeks-old son into his arms.

Druart keeps suspense thrumming throughout, even with readers’ prior knowledge about some characters’ fates. The crushing weight of the Nazi occupation and its impact on Sarah and husband David, as well as Jean-Luc and Charlotte, a nurse he meets at a German hospital, come through clearly. Sam’s physical and emotional reactions are particularly convincing. It catches at the heart that there are no villains among the five main characters, but their choices cause pain, nonetheless. The ending is as beautiful as one could wish.

While Paris Slept was published by Grand Central in February; I'd reviewed it for February's Historical Novels Review.  It's also published in the UK by Headline Review, and in Australia by Hachette.

Friday, April 02, 2021

A historical fiction microtrend: World War II, librarians, and books

Historical fiction's enduring focus on World War II has been good for my profession. No longer stereotyped as prim and mousy spinsters, librarians in today's novels are multifaceted heroes who work tirelessly to preserve the written word and undertake other daring exploits. Within the collage of nine novels below, I've also included WWII-set fiction about booksellers, book clubs, the publishing industry, and literature's power to endure.


When We Meet Again by Caroline Beecham (Putnam, Jul. 2021), her first novel to be published in the US, focuses on a woman employed in London's publishing industry in 1943 and her plight following an unintended pregnancy. Antonio Iturbe's The Librarian of Auschwitz (2017), marketed towards YAs but suitable for adults as well. reveals the story of Holocaust survivor Dita Kraus who, as a teenager, courageously guarded eight books within the Auschwitz death camp. Nancy Mitford, one of the famous Mitford sisters, stars in Michelle Gable's The Bookseller's Secret (Graydon House, Aug.), a multi-period novel which depicts her time as a bookshop manager and literary salon hostess in 1940s London.

So many of these novels are set in London and Paris!  Janet Skeslien Charles' The Paris Library (Atria, Feb. 2021) reveals the heroic actions of the staff at the American Library in Paris during the Nazi occupation. Third in her Sunrise at Normandy series, The Land Beneath Us by Sarah Sundin (Revell, 2020) tells the romantic story of a library worker at Camp Forrest, Tennessee, who exchanges letters with her new husband after he's sent to fight overseas. And Mario Escobar's The Librarian of Saint-Malo (Thomas Nelson, June 2021) takes place in Nazi-occupied Brittany and a woman who dares to save books that the Nazis are purging from St.-Malo's libraries.

Kristin Harmel's multi-period The Book of Lost Names (Gallery, Jul. 2020), like the previous book, focuses on Nazi soldiers' looting of European libraries; in contemporary times, a librarian comes across a book that holds codes only she can decipher.  Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows' The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2008), now a modern classic with a film version, revolves around a book club on Guernsey during wartime and celebrates how books can unite people. Lastly, Madeline Martin's The Last Bookshop in London (Hanover Square, Apr. 2021), set during the Blitz, centers on a young bookshop employee and how storytelling can keep hope alive.