Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Isabel Allende's Violeta spans 100 years in a South American woman's amazing and eventful life

Allende has crafted many unique heroines of passionate, resilient spirit in her internationally best-selling historical novels, and Violeta Del Valle is no exception.

Born during the Spanish flu outbreak in an unnamed South American country (clearly based on Chile) in 1920, Violeta addresses her memoir to a beloved relative, Camilo, during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. She spins a captivating, cinematic tale of her century-long existence, intertwining large-scale political and social transformations with reflections on her life.

The spoiled daughter in a family with five older sons, Violeta watches the Del Valles’ finances tumble into ruin during the Depression. After losing their illustrious home, her family finds refuge in a remote southern farming town with many Indigenous residents and German and French immigrants.

This supposed exile becomes an enriching experience for Violeta. Her love life is complex, tumultuous, and unpredictable for readers, who will eagerly follow her narrative, which Violeta recounts in a style that’s remarkably forthright about her own and others’ personal failings.

The characterizations are intriguingly layered, and as people’s lives are buffeted by dramatic changes, including a military coup that destroys her country’s democracy, Violeta comes into her own strength. Allende has long been renowned as an enchanting storyteller, and this emotionally perceptive epic ranks among her best.

Violeta will be published by Ballantine in January; I reviewed it from a NetGalley copy for the 12/15 issue of Booklist (I made it a starred review).

There was no room to say this in the review, but past readers of Allende's work may recognize the name Del Valle, and Violeta is indeed connected to the characters from her first novel, The House of the Spirits.  It's not a major part of this book, and you definitely don't need to read any others first, but the link is mentioned. Other Del Valle family members figure in Allende's Daughter of Fortune and Portrait in Sepia.

I'll be back after the New Year with more posts. Thanks for visiting my site, and best wishes for good reading for 2022!

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Best-of-year historical fiction roundups from around the web

Now that 2021 is drawing to a close, media outlets have been publishing their "best of" lists from the past year.  I've collected those that focus on historical fiction, though there aren't as many of these as I've found for other genres.

NPR's Best Books 2021 (which used to be called Book Concierge) has a historical fiction category with an impressively wide range of subjects and subgenres. I like how they include literary fiction (The Sweetness of Water), historical romance (Wild Rain), historical fantasy (A Marvellous Light), and books for younger readers (Finding Junie Kim) under the same umbrella. Among my own favorites on this list: Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray's The Personal Librarian and Laird Hunt's Zorrie.  Here are the NPR selections as a list rather than a visual graphic.

The New York Times presents their best new historical fiction of the season with a dozen recent releases, as well as an overall "best of" for 2021. There's a bit of overlap between them. The focus is, as you'd expect, literary fiction, and I haven't read any of these!

In The Times (London) we have critics Nick Rennison's and Antonia Senior's 15 top favorites of the year. Without a subscription you'll need to sign up for a free login, which gets you access to a limited # of articles. There's a nice mix of literary and commercial here, including Elodie Harper's The Wolf Den (set in Pompeii before the infamous eruption of Mt. Vesuvius), which I also loved. It will be published in the US next March.

In Canada, the CBC has 12 books for the historical fiction lover's shopping list, which includes some novels set in very recent history.

British magazine Woman and Home offers many historical novels (not all by women) for consideration for your TBR, conveniently divided by historical era.

Cosmopolitan has a lengthy list of 27 best historical novels from the last year. While it was posted in late October, some fall reads are included.

Lastly, Goodreads announced their most popular choices for Best Historical Fiction a few weeks ago, and I actually read nine of the nominees (but not the winner, Taylor Jenkins Reid's Malibu Rising).

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

In Protector, Conn Iggulden continues his saga of the Greco-Persian Wars with the heroic story of Themistocles

In 480 BCE, the Persians are back, more determined than ever to crush Athens. Picking up where The Gates of Athens ended, the story continues exploring how the Athenians and their Spartan allies come together, not without difficulty, to repulse Persian invasion forces on land and sea despite being vastly outnumbered.

Three major battles – first Salamis, then Plataea and Mycale the following year – are skillfully choreographed, giving readers an overarching picture of the many moving parts alongside firsthand perspectives of the military commanders. The starring role belongs to Themistocles, an Athenian statesman and general whose tactical genius is matched by pride in his own abilities, a flaw which irritates his fellow leaders.

Iggulden makes a persuasive case for recognizing Themistocles as Western civilization’s ultimate savior. Being inside this heroic character’s head as he strategizes is a breathtaking experience.

The dialogue feels realistic while offering a sense of the momentous through many quotable lines and stirring oratory, particularly from the politician Aristides. Devotees of the ancient world will relish this exciting historical novel.

Protector was published in November by Pegasus, and it was out in the UK in May from Michael Joseph. I wrote this review for Booklist's Oct. 1 issue.  As with the previous book, The Gates of Athens, this series isn't just for military history fans (a group I don't consider myself part of), although the battle scenes really are sharply done. The characterizations are first-rate, and it was great to have the sense of being there while history was being shaped.

Thursday, December 09, 2021

Review of Diane Gaston's holiday-themed Regency romance, Lord Grantwell's Christmas Wish

In her Regency romance featuring two estranged lovers, Gaston adds a dash of Christmas spice to a heartwarming story about the meaning of home and family.

When Lillian Pearson arrives at the palatial Yorkshire estate of Lord Grantwell in December 1817, she’s freezing, starving, and utterly frantic. Her Portuguese former brother-in-law is tailing her, convinced that she murdered her late husband.

Lillian knows she’s innocent, and she takes risks in asking Grant to hide her. They’d had a passionate affair years earlier, in Lisbon, until he caught her giving Wellington’s secret plans to the French—or so he believes. He’s never forgiven her.

Having recently become the guardian of his late brother’s orphaned stepchildren, Grant’s hands are full. But when he sees how well Lillian cares for young William and Anna, his heart starts softening.

The children are adorable, though traumatized from their earlier life; frustratingly, we don’t get the full backstory for their odd situation (they’d previously lived with their hard-hearted grandfather, not their mother and stepfather). Readers get to experience the joy of Regency-era Christmas traditions and children’s pastimes as Lillian and Grant try to give William and Anna a happy holiday, falling in love in the process.

Lord Grantwell's Christmas Wish is a Harlequin Historical title and the second in the author's Captains of Waterloo series, though it stands alone. I reviewed it initially for the Historical Novels Review last month. The first book, Her Gallant Captain at Waterloo, told the love story of Grant's estate manager and good friend Rhys Landon, a fellow soldier he'd met in Portugal, and the woman he married.  Rhys and his wife are major secondary characters in this volume. This romance has impressive depth for a novel of just over 200 pages.

Monday, December 06, 2021

Interview with Jeri Westerson about The Deadliest Sin and wrapping up her Crispin Guest medieval mystery series

With her appearances on this blog during the publication of her Crispin Guest medieval mystery series, Jeri Westerson is coming full circle. Back in 2008, I'd published her guest post about Veil of Lies, in which Crispin made his first appearance in print, and this week the 15th and final book, The Deadliest Sin, will appear from Severn House. I've also reviewed a couple of the books here, including Cup of Blood (the prequel) and The Deepest Grave (book 11).  So including an interview with the author for this series finale seemed like a neat idea.

To briefly recap for newcomers: Crispin Guest is a disgraced knight turned detective on the streets of late 14th-century London. He had lost his noble title and fortune after joining with others to place his mentor John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, on the throne, thus committing treason against King Richard II. Over time, Crispin's successful pursuit of justice under the nickname "the Tracker" has gained him a certain level of renown.

In The Deadliest Sin, opening in 1399, Crispin is asked by the prioress of St. Frideswide's to investigate the deaths of nuns whose murders depict two of the Seven Deadly Sins. At the same time, the political scene is heating up: Henry Bolingbroke, his late mentor's son, is returning from exile abroad and aiming to secure his inheritance. 

So, there's a lot that The Deadliest Sin needs to do: solve a complicated murder mystery, present the historical backdrop and engage with Crispin as he decides whether to side with King Richard or Bolingbroke, and wrap up the whole series.  It accomplishes all three of these goals superbly.  Plus, we get to see a new side to Jack Tucker, Crispin's apprentice, and his former lover Philippa also plays a role. While I'm sorry to say goodbye to Crispin, Jack, and company, the series ends on a terrific note. If you wanted, you could start with this book, since each novel is self-contained, and the necessary backstory is laid out in the beginning of each.

Hope you'll enjoy this Q&A, and thanks to Jeri for answering my questions!

The Deadliest Sin
takes place in 1399, which followers of English history will recognize as a turning point for the country. This created a lot of anticipation as I guessed how that would affect Crispin and his loyalties. You’ve written that you’d known from the beginning that the series would wrap up at this time. That said, did any elements about the storyline (or series as a whole) play out differently than planned when you sat down to write it?

Well, I didn't have any idea what the mystery would be in the last book. That had to come in its time. And with all that had come before in Crispin's life. I had planned his lady love from the beginning, too, but not other details. As for the series as a whole, I hadn't intended Jack as a continuing character, but when my editor asked if he'd be in the next book because readers liked him so well, I was all on board. And serendipitous it was, because Jack stood in for the reader, asking the questions readers wanted to know about the plot, and being the person in Crispin's life who was able to change him for the better, just by his presence. After all, when Crispin reluctantly took in this street urchin and cutpurse (Jack was eleven at the beginning), Crispin had no idea he'd have to raise the boy; teach him to read and write, and begin to look upon him like a son rather than a servant, as close as they had become.

In some ways, St. Frideswide Priory is an unusual and pretty disturbing place for a community of nuns. How did you come up with the setting and the crimes committed there?

Cloistered life is always fodder for disturbing stories, especially for nuns, many of whom had had no desire to be there but were forced by parents because of circumstances; not being able to marry them off, etc. Some of these places were the making of these women, while others were dark and unwholesome places. The women only learned the rudiments of the prayers, some having no skills with Latin with no time to really teach them except for what they needed to know to get by. It seemed a natural place for crimes. And the Seven Deadly Sins...a no-brainer. But really...what is the deadliest sin? Probably not what you think.

You’ve clearly accumulated a vast array of knowledge about daily life and politics in 14th-century England. What new research, if any, did you have to undertake to write this last volume?

There's always something I need to concentrate on for each volume, whether it's the relics or biographies of the real people, and this one I certainly had to get right about both Richard and Henry. Richard had gone to fight in Ireland and later met up with a chronicler poet from France who was an unwitting witness to his downfall. And Henry amassed an army and didn't really meet any opposition when he decided to make for England from his exile in France. It was all very interesting. Originally, I had begun the book in chapters alternating between Richard's venture and Henry's across England as he returned to take back his lands and title and then start the mystery, but the powers that be didn't want that. I still think readers would have easily immersed in it, but... *shrug* All in all, I can see that point of view because though there is an arc of the characters' lives running through the series, each book can technically stand alone, and this could have confused new readers.

Aside from perhaps Jack Tucker, do you have a favorite secondary character (or characters) from the series?

Absolutely. I really got to like John Rykener, a real person from the late fourteenth century. We know about him from one document of his arrest. He was a cross-dressing male prostitute and serviced both men and women. He was arrested not for prostitution, but for dressing as a woman. A big no-no. When he wasn't plying his trade, he served as an embroideress. And really looking deeply at him between the lines of the document, it's possible he is an example of a trans person in a time when such a notion was entirely foreign. Of course, so was homosexuality. He did say in the document when he was embroiled in an altercation with another man about a gown, that he would sic his "husband" on the man. And it was only later that I decided he would get his husband in the person of my fictional lawyer Nigellus Cobmartin, one of my favorite names for a character. They got their own story in Spiteful Bones, the penultimate book in the series.

Different religious relics are another element linking the series together, and it’s always interesting to see how they’ll appear within the books. How did this idea originate?

I was originally writing historical fiction stand alones, with ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. But these were not the kinds of books publishers wanted to publish. They wanted recognizable characters in the courts and I just felt that was done to death. A former agent of mine suggested I write medieval mysteries, and it seemed that this kind of conceit worked better as a mystery, with fictional characters killing fictional victims amid the backdrop of real people of the time period. So I had to learn to write a mystery. And I didn't want your Brother Cadfael or nuns investigating, I wanted a man who had been set adrift from all that he had known, a knight who was banished from court and had lost it all. A hardboiled detective in a medieval setting, so I turned to one of my favorite books, The Maltese Falcon, and literally tore the book apart to see what made it tick; beat by beat, climax by climax, paragraph by paragraph. And during all that research, I really liked the idea of the falcon, the McGuffin that propels the plot and has with it its own mystique. In the fourteenth century, that translated to religious relics or venerated objects. They added a little something extra. It could be the center of the action, or something tangential, or even a red herring. We've had all sorts of things: the Crown of Thorns, the Virgin's Tears, Christ's blood, and even the Philosopher's Stone and Excalibur.

Over the fifteen books, the series has moved from Minotaur to Severn House with a dip into self-publishing for the prequel, Cup of Blood, and it’s great to see how well Crispin has survived today’s complicated publishing climate. What are some takeaways you’ve learned about the industry, given your experience? 

Yes, and I was lucky to be at that juncture when all was changing. After all, once upon a time when a big publisher dropped a series, that was it! It was done. But my agent felt there was still some life yet in it and I was definitely not done writing it. I knew it would take some time for him to find another publisher, so I picked up the real first book in the series that St. Martin's rejected--Cup of Blood--dusted it off, rewrote a lot of it, got it edited, and self-published it as a "prequel." My agent, of course, didn't want me to do that since he would have no stake in it, but it garnered two mystery award nominations and it had the added bonus of not letting a year go by without a Crispin book on the shelves. I always liked that story anyway, and it is where Crispin encounters Jack for the first time. So I'm certainly glad I did it. It got a boost because it belonged to an already established series, and I marketed heavily to libraries and knew it would still have the imprimatur of St. Martin's still attached to it. It's always done well and continues to do well. I can't necessarily say that for some of the others I have self-published, though they are in a different genre, that of paranormal.

Now that Crispin’s investigations have come to an end, at least on paper, what’s next for you in historical mysteries or historical fiction in general?

Well, I had just finished my gaslamp-steampunk fantasy series, the Enchanter Chronicles Trilogy, with the last book just released called Library of the Damned. That got me into researching the Victorian era (yes, even though it's fantasy, the era must be researched to give readers a foundation while they navigate all the paranormal things that are going on.) And so I didn't want to waste all that research and I got to thinking about a new Sherlock Holmes pastiche with one of his Baker Street Irregulars--all grown up--who starts his own consulting detective agency, with Holmes being one step ahead of him, and my detective trying to keep a step ahead of the law. It's a humorous mystery series where Holmes makes his appearance every now and then.

And then there is a Tudor mystery series that has been percolating a while in my head, and I finally completed the first in that series, Courting Dragons. Will Somers, Henry VIII's real court jester is the amateur sleuth. This also has a lot of humor, being in the pov of a court jester, and we see Henry through Will's eyes. It's called the King's Fool Mysteries and I hope my agent can sell it next year and to see the first published by the end of 2022 or in 2023. So I think I'll be busy for a bit.

Thank you for hosting me here. I appreciate the opportunity to talk about my Crispin series and upcoming series.

Wednesday, December 01, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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