Friday, November 26, 2021

Some beautiful historical novel cover designs

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

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

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

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

Five historical novels with printed designs

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

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

The Visionist and I, Elizabeth

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

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

Sunday, November 21, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 12, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 08, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blog tour banner

Friday, November 05, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 01, 2021

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

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


Researching and Writing Charlotte's Story
Carolyn Korsmeyer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

About the author:

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