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.