Friday, September 30, 2022

Martha Conway's The Physician's Daughter follows an ambitious mid-19th-century career woman

The Physician’s Daughter is a solidly compelling story about a young woman who refuses to settle for anything less than her dream of practicing medicine like her father, a country doctor in coastal Massachusetts. It’s June 1865, and a small number of medical colleges now accept women – why not her? Her resolve sets her against her father, who wants her married off – to whoever will take her – and against society at large.

While Vita Tenney is a lively character, living up to her name, she isn’t anachronistically feminist. She strives to win her father’s approval with her obvious intelligence and devotion to science, and it’s heartbreaking to witness him cut her down. Even worse, he accuses her of trying to replace her brother: Freddy, one of the hundreds of thousands of Union soldiers who died in the Civil War.

Knowing she’ll need money and a man’s support to achieve her goal, Vita works out a secret arrangement with a would-be suitor: Jacob Culhane, a war veteran with plans to start a business. The idea is that their marriage will be in name only, but with their growing attraction, that may not last. Also, in an era when a woman’s dowry automatically becomes her husband’s when she marries, Vita needs Jacob to keep his word.

Full of little details on clothing, pastimes, and customs, Martha Conway’s novel whisks readers away to a long-ago time that somehow doesn’t seem so distant because the characters and their struggles are so relatable and timeless: Vita’s uphill battle to be taken seriously in a world that devalues female intellect, and Jacob’s efforts to surmount mental trauma, since he had been held captive in the Andersonville prison camp. We also see the path chosen by Vita’s mother, Marie, who tamped down her own scientific pursuits and found more socially acceptable outlets for them. Generations of women with stifled ambitions. Quotes from period sources start off each chapter, and they’re simultaneously amusing and sad. Freddy, though he lives only in others’ memories, has a notable presence. Even Vita’s father earns sympathy, since there are clues his mind is no longer what it was.

Vita grows throughout the book, discovering that to succeed in medicine, people skills and empathy are just as important as anatomical knowledge. She hadn’t counted on that. Learning how to listen, she realizes, is key. Although the novel lacks flashiness (not a deficit in my view), it’s replete with the richly colored emotions of ordinary people striving for a place in their changing world. This is a novel worth owning in print, too, since the physical book is gorgeous.

I reviewed this book from a personal copy, and the review forms part of the blog tour with Historical Fiction Virtual Book ToursThe Physician's Daughter was published by Zaffre in the US on September 1st.

Physician's Daughter tour banner

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Interview with Alana White, author of The Hearts of All On Fire, a mystery of 15th-century Florence

Today is publication day for my friend Alana White's The Hearts of All On Fire, an intricate historical mystery set amid the political turmoil and artistic achievements of 15th-century Florence.  It's officially the second in her series featuring lawyer Guid'Antonio Vespucci (a historical figure), but it works as a prequel to the first book (The Sign of the Weeping Virgin), and both books easily stand alone. This entry sees Guid'Antonio looking into two equally perplexing crimes: one involving a merchant who died from poisonous mushrooms at Guid'Antonio's own Saint John's Day table, and another dealing with a girl's terrible murder.  Thanks to Alana for answering my interview questions!

What initially spurred your interest in Florentine history during the Renaissance?

One day while reading National Geographic Magazine, I happened upon an article about the assassination plot to murder Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici on a Sunday morning during Mass in Florence Cathedral in 1478. At the time, the Medici family were the leaders of the most powerful political faction in Florence. One brother was killed, one escaped in a most dramatic way. Since I’ve always loved reading historical fiction, I looked for the book with this amazing event at the heart of the story. I couldn’t find one—so, I determined to write it myself.

The more research I did into the time and these fascinating people, the more hooked I became. Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici, Sandro Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, and my protagonist, Guid’Antonio Vespucci, a lawyer at the time and a bone deep Medici family supporter, were exact contemporaries. Threading together their stories has been equally challenging and enlightening.

Your first mystery with Guid’Antonio Vespucci featured the esteemed lawyer in his middle years. What inspired you to set this next volume further back in his past?

At the end of the first book, The Sign of the Weeping Virgin, Guid’Antonio is appointed ambassador to Rome. Since this is, in fact, what happened, the story resolves with him going there. I did not want to take the series to Rome—I wanted us to remain in Florence. I feared I had painted myself into a corner, but then realized I could go back five years to 1473 and stay in the City of Flowers. This offered all kinds of wonderful possibilities. For one thing, I could bring back to life the characters I had fallen in love with while writing Weeping Virgin, people who, unfortunately, fell victim to the assassins in the Cathedral. Speaking of the assassination, by retreating a few years, I could show that infamous plot as it begins to swirl around Guid’Antonio while he goes about his daily life and his investigations.

As in The Sign of the Weeping Virgin, in the new title, The Hearts of All on Fire, Guid’Antonio finds himself looking into solving two different crimes – which lead him into many corners of the city and into dark territory. I enjoyed all the details of the setting and the gradual disentangling of both mysteries, but it couldn’t have been simple to plot out. Why do you find yourself gravitating towards writing novels of such scope and complexity?

This is an absolutely wonderful question. I think it comes from the many connections pulling at Guid’Antonio. As I say, these are real people; a lot of research has been done about them all. Renaissance Florence is a rich tapestry, and it is also a minefield. I can’t write about Guid’Antonio without writing about his friends; Lorenzo de’ Medici, for one, strides across a huge stage. These are mysteries, so there must be a crime, one that hits Guid’Antonio close to home, so that we care about him as he untangles the who, how, and why, while protecting those he loves and moving up the ladder of power in Florence.

Then, too, since he is a lawyer, he has court cases—this is his job, his employment. Though I managed to avoid having a court scene in Weeping Virgin, in Heart he does have a big day in court, one I wanted to reflect the tragedy of betrayal by those who should love us against the theme of hope in the end. I wanted the primary mystery and the court case to dovetail and eventually come together. This also provides my “hero’s moment,” when Guid’Antonio fights for truth and justice, digging into and baring his soul to take a personal stand in court for someone who has absolutely no power.

And no, this was not simple to plot out. Many days I wanted to tear my hair, trying to figure out how I would poison one person at a table of five men and manage to kill my intended victim in the midst of the most popular festival day of the Florentine year. I drew that trestle table with five plates on it many times over, working out the logistics. It is really a matter of making connections along with Guid’Antonio as he enters the arena of piecing things together; as he says at one point, “an untended glance here, a slip of the tongue there.” Guid’Antonio is always paying attention—something the reader may not realize until the story’s end. I enjoy working with this time in history. Guid’Antonio has no DNA samples to consult, no firearms residue. He has himself and his wit. (And he can be a little sneaky.)

Several dogs are part of the plot of the novel, including Orsetto, Guid’Antonio’s adorable puppy. What interested you in this theme?

As a pet-lover myself, to me, it seems natural that Guid’Antonio would have a dog. As I designed the plot, I realized Orsetto, or Little Bear, could serve a real purpose in the story. In this instance, it is two-fold: Guid’Antonio is in his late thirties and not yet a father. He has no heir. In Florence at this time, this would have been a real concern for him. He has a lot of love to give and he gives a lot of love to Orsetto. At the same time, Guid’Antonio must experience a tremendous loss—or at least, temporarily. Orsetto provides that vehicle (but never fear. I don’t mind offering the spoiler that his puppy boy is fine in the end.) I also hope Guid’Antonio’s love for his dog reflects the kind of man he is without me pointedly saying that in the story.

What aspects of this novel did you enjoy researching the most? Did any subjects turn out to be especially difficult to dig into?

First, one of my supporting characters is a woman physician. I am so delighted I could create a woman doctor and stay true to the 1400s. This was possible thanks to two excellent works of nonfiction, The Renaissance Hospital, by John Henderson, and Doctors and Medicine in Early Renaissance Florence, by Katherine Park. Their work enabled me to bring Dottoressa Francesca Vernacci and the world of 15th-century medicine in Florence to life. From them I learned there were at least two women doctors in Florence.

Guid'Antonio Vespucci
How did this come about? Although women could not attend medical school (no women, Jews, or men who were not “legitimate” allowed), women could study outside the system and take an exam. If they passed it they could practice medicine. In my books, Francesca’s path is eased by the fact her father is a doctor—she studied independently with him and brilliantly passed her exam. Together, they manage the Vespucci family hospital, and that brings Francesca into close proximity with Guid’Antonio. I was especially happy that in The Hearts of All On Fire, I could dive into their past love affair (he’s now a married man, so no more of that). However, Francesca works with Guid’Antonio on cases he is investigating; in Hearts, she performs the autopsy that leads him to the perpetrator. At story’s end, there is a wonderful surprise in store for Francesca, one I think readers will enjoy.

As for especially difficult—I don’t know what I would do without Renaissance Italy scholars. I simply could not ignore the fact that Guid’Antonio is an esteemed lawyer. But what kind of cases would he handle? What punishments were deemed appropriate for various crimes? Again, several books paved the way (for example, Criminal Justice and Crime in Late Renaissance Florence by John Brackett). I’m currently writing Book III, which involves a tricky inheritance case—one that leads directly to the animosity fueling that Cathedral assassination. In my scenario, Guid’Antonio handles the court decision favoring the Medici family. I have found one excellent article written about that decision—and it is so complicated, I plan to contact the fellow who wrote it to request his help in slicing through it for the reader. I have found that these scholars love to engage.

What attracts you to the historical mystery genre?

Historical fiction has always been my favorite genre. As a youngster, I devoured books like The Man in the Iron Mask and Ivanhoe. Later, I was drawn to the Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael mysteries set in medieval England. They have been an inspiration to me. I also especially like the more recent C. J. Sansom Matthew Shardlake series, along with S. G. MacLean’s Damian Seeker. The Shardlake novels are especially textured, and The Seeker is my kind of guy.

What has your experience with publishing with Atmosphere Press been like?

Working with this hybrid press has been wonderful in every way. The staff are friendly and immediately responsive to my every question, no matter how small. I find the fact they usually get back to me within the day amazing. And their covers are lovely. Florence Cathedral is in the background on the Weeping Virgin cover; their designer researched how the Cathedral actually looked in the 1400s to be certain his rendering was correct. At my suggestion, they added Guid’Antonio’s mastiff to that cover. And then for Hearts, at my request they included his little dog, Orsetto, who is a curly-haired Lagotto Romagnolo. In every instance, Atmosphere Press goes above and beyond for their writers. Finding them has been a blessing.

Thank you, Alana!

Find more about the author and her novels at her website,

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Harini Nagendra's The Bangalore Detectives Club introduces an intrepid female protagonist in 1920s India

“Women’s dreams were only as big as their husbands’ egos would permit them to be,” thinks Kaveri Murthy, who has recently moved to Bangalore to live with her husband, Ramu, a doctor at Bowring Hospital. It’s 1921, and Kaveri’s conservative mother-in-law would definitely not approve of her obtaining a mathematics degree or going swimming in a clingy silk costume. Fortunately for Kaveri, Ramu is progressive, supportive, and eager to make his beautiful young wife happy, just one aspect of this series launch that upends expectations.

A fan of Agatha Christie and Baroness Orczy, Kaveri puts her own deductive abilities to the test after a burly stranger, later discovered to be a pimp, is murdered in the garden of the exclusive Century Club during a dinner party. The Murthys are in attendance, as are English and Indian doctors and their wives, with Kaveri’s milkman and his wife assisting in the kitchen.

It’s a nice change to have a mystery where the police welcome an amateur detective’s help, but Deputy Inspector Mr. Ismail is pressured to solve the case, so Kaveri must work overtime to ensure the wrong person (a downtrodden woman present at the crime scene) isn’t unfairly blamed.

Kaveri is simply adorable. In her gentle, determined way, she acknowledges gender and caste barriers while brushing past them to get the job done. The cultural milieu of early ‘20s Bangalore comes to life, from an elegant mansion owned by a snobby British couple to the cowherds’ colony, where respectable women like Kaveri really shouldn’t be visiting.

To please her husband, Kaveri tries her hand at cooking new dishes (recipes are included), and her elderly neighbor, “Uma aunty,” becomes a wonderful mentor and partner-in-sleuthing. Despite occasional head-hopping and some plotting that plays to stereotype, this debut is worth embracing.

I reviewed The Bangalore Detectives Club from a personal copy (this review also appears online at the Historical Novel Society website). This is Harini Nagendra's first novel, and she's also a renowned, award-winning ecologist with her own Wikipedia page.  If you're a fan of Sujata Massey's Perveen Mistry series set in '20s Bombay, give this a try. They share common themes, but the tone of this one is more lighthearted.

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Moonlight and the Pearler's Daughter by Lizzie Pook takes readers to colonial Australia with an adventurous mystery

Bannin Bay, a pearling village on the northwestern Australian coast, is a place of extremes, which debut novelist Lizzie Pook describes in abundant sensory detail. The redness of the soil in the blinding sunlight, the insistent strength of the tides, birds’ loud cries, and the ripe odors of seaside muck and decay are a shock to the system for Eliza Brightwell, daughter of a master pearler. The rampant exploitation affects her equally. White people of English origin are a minority in this multicultural land, but they hold the wealth and power.

By 1896, Eliza and her family have lived in Bannin Bay (a fictional locale based on Broome) for a decade. After spending six weeks alone while her father, Charles, and older brother, Thomas, are away at sea, Eliza is distraught when the White Starling, the lugger her father captains on his pearling expedition, returns to port without him. There was no blood or signs of a struggle; he simply vanished one night.

Eliza refuses to believe he’s dead, and the lack of a body doesn’t prevent the corrupt local constable from accusing Charles’s Aboriginal crewman, Balarri, of murder. Balarri wasn’t even on board at the time, so Eliza knows he’s innocent. She stops at nothing to discover what really happened, not only to bring her father home but also to clear Balarri’s name.

Congratulations to Lizzie Pook on crafting a mystery plot that feels logical in retrospect but is nearly impossible to work out in advance. What’s more, the gradual revelation of what may have happened, laid out carefully via clues such as Charles’s diary entries and Eliza’s snooping excursions, reveals much about people’s character.

Like her late mother, Eliza is neither a “white-glove wearer or a common harlot,” but though she doesn’t fit into any pre-set feminine category, there are places in Bannin Bay she can’t investigate alone. Enter Axel Kramer, a newly arrived German-born businessman who strikes a deal with Eliza: he’ll help her track down her father if she shows him around Bannin Bay. This situation may be realistic for the time and place, but Axel's presence feels too convenient all the same.

Many secondary characters, from Eliza’s disabled uncle Willem to her feckless brother Thomas to her half-Chinese, half-Scottish friend Min, a prospector’s daughter forced to fend for herself as best she can, round out the cast with more than walk-on roles. The physical hazards of pearl-diving are deadly, especially for the divers – who are mostly nonwhite. In a place that values human life so little, the narrative raises lucid questions about moral complicity: whether anyone who benefits from the cruel, corrupt pearling industry can be a decent person. As Min asks Eliza, “What can good even mean in a place like this?” In a well-plotted story that beckons with adventure, environmental beauty, and rich character development, these and other probing issues are thoughtfully explored.

The novel was published by Simon & Schuster in the US in June 2022; I reviewed it from Edelweiss. The UK publisher is Mantle, and it's also out from Viking Australia.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Woman of Light is a multigenerational Western historical novel from an Indigenous Chicano perspective

In her first novel, Kali Fajardo-Anstine weaves a sparkling constellation of stories around her heroine, Luz Lopez, an Indigenous Chicano teenager with a rich ancestral heritage. Luz comes of age in 1930s Denver amid family and romantic intrigues and systemic discrimination.

Just seventeen, she’s a tea-leaf reader and laundress for the city’s wealthy residents, working alongside her cousin Lizette. She and her brother Diego, a snake-charmer popular at the city’s outdoor festivals, have been raised by their aunt, Maria Josie, after their parents’ abandonment.

After Diego falls in love with an Anglo girl from a bigoted family and is forced to leave Denver, Luz misses him terribly. Her personality, which initially feels elusive, solidifies over the course of her transformational journey, in which she claims her place in a larger world that’s designed to exclude her. Though lacking formal education, Luz soaks up knowledge and has a talent for translation, or “moving words into words.”

The author creates evocative word-pictures, though the sections involving Luz tend to move slowly. Braided among them are tales involving Luz’s forebears in their homeland (the “Lost Territory”), whose lives she glimpses in visions. These include her entrepreneur grandfather, Pidre; his brave wife, Simodecea, a Mexican sharpshooter with a tragic backstory; and their daughters, Sara and Maria Josie, whose paths eventually diverge.

While scenes of Bonnie and Clyde—the familiar Depression-era outlaws—unfold in the background, Fajardo-Anstine creates a new Western lore, one involving a man’s dreams for a natural stone amphitheater, an elderly woman who “dreamt of stories in her sleep,” and a younger woman rising in power. Fajardo’s expansive vision of the West and its diverse, multilingual peoples is well worth experiencing, since it’s too rarely seen in fiction. Her novel is a triumphant reshaping of the Western narrative.

Woman of Light was published by One World, an imprint of Penguin Random House, in 2022. I reviewed it for August's Historical Novels Review. And doesn't it have a beautiful cover?

Saturday, September 10, 2022

Bronze Drum by Phong Nguyen introduces two military heroines from ancient Vietnam

Bronze Drum reveals the story of the Trưng Sisters, heroic young women living two millennia ago who have been revered as Vietnamese heroines ever since.

Daughters of a local lord in the northern village of Mê Linh in the year 36 CE, Trưng Trac and her younger sibling Trưng Nhị grow up in a palace, with guardsmen and other servants. While their loving, watchful parents have high expectations for them, they worry that neither has the right character to be a leader. Trưng Trac is serious and scholarly, overly so, while Trưng Nhị has an adventurous spirit that, combined with her stubborn will, makes her dangerously incautious.

By now, the Hán Chinese have ruled over the Việt people for three generations, forcing their Confucian beliefs upon the matriarchal Việt culture and dragging young Việt men away to fight in their wars. Forming a united resistance against the Hán seems impossible, until dramatic acts of violence against the Trưng sisters and their family inspire the pair to gather an army – formed of disparate groups of women – and channel their personal revenge into a force powerful enough to overcome the Hán.

This pulled-from-the-depths-of-history tale could have been transformed into a rip-roaring, immersive adventure. Bronze Drum, however, is not that. As the prologue emphasizes, the Trưng Sisters’ military accomplishments have been transmitted through the ages via oral tradition, and the novel respects that – maybe too much. The story reads like the recounting of an ancient legend, with much told instead of shown:

Lady Man Thiên and Lord Trưng left the courtyard, leaving a complicated knot of emotion behind in the room. The sisters felt their parents’ conflict, and took on their helplessness. Their sense of defeat was more profound for being borrowed. How could they alleviate a sorrow that originated outside of them, in their hearts of their mother and father?

As a result, the characters are kept at arms’ length. There’s still much to admire in this portrait, like the clear example of how powerful leaders are made, not born. Each woman is demonstrably flawed and makes poor decisions. Trained as sparring partners, the sisters don’t always see eye to eye, and they serve as checks on the other’s worst impulses. The dialogue is well-formed and helps counteract the narrative’s distancing effect. Nguyen gives Lady Man Thiện, the Trưng Sisters’ mother – who becomes one of their loyal generals – some of the most stirring lines:

“We must live as we wish to live; otherwise we are not Việts,” said Lady Man Thiện. “If the Han truly want to make Confucians out of us, at least they will have to fight for it.”

As a story about courageous real-life women who triumphed over oppression, if only for a too-brief period, Bronze Drum has value for today’s readers, but the occasionally stiff writing style makes it a novel that’s best approached with tempered expectations.

Bronze Drum was published by Grand Central in August; I read it from a NetGalley copy.

Monday, September 05, 2022

Maggie O'Farrell's The Marriage Portrait reimagines the life of Renaissance duchess Lucrezia de' Medici

Following the critically acclaimed Hamnet (2020), O’Farrell creates another mesmerizing portrait of a Renaissance-era woman whose life is shrouded in mystery.

My Last Duchess,” Robert Browning’s poem about Lucrezia de’ Medici (1545-1561), gave voice to the longstanding rumors that its subject was murdered by her husband, Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara. Was she, and if so, why?

Daughter of Florence’s large ruling family, Lucrezia, a restless dreamer who adores animals and creating art, is devastated to learn, at age 12, about plans for her to wed her late sister’s fiancé. While Alfonso appears charming, she later witnesses a cruel streak in his character.

O’Farrell shines at instilling exquisitely tactile scenes with human feeling, such as Lucrezia’s wedding preparations and her sense of inner strength while viewing the sunrise transform the sky one morning at Alfonso’s country villa.

The author proves equally skilled at evoking suspense. This she accomplishes by alternating between Lucrezia’s earlier life and the time when Alfonso brings Lucrezia, his sixteen-year-old bride, to an isolated stone fortress—perhaps to kill her. The potential motive won’t surprise anyone familiar with noblewomen’s dynastic roles.

Historical-fiction readers will love the cultural details, while Lucrezia’s plight speaks to modern themes of gaslighting and women’s agency. The leitmotif of “underpainting”—truths hidden beneath the surface—echoes throughout this poetically written, multilayered novel.

My recommendation for YAs: Literary-fiction readers who enjoy female-centered narratives will sympathize with Lucrezia’s quest to evade a terrible fate; includes sexual situations. 

The Marriage Portrait will be published on Tuesday in the U.S. by Knopf.  I contributed this (starred) review for Booklist's Sept. 1 issue.

Thursday, September 01, 2022

Danielle Daniel's Daughters of the Deer tells a story from her 17th-century Indigenous ancestors' history

Canadian writer Daniel’s poignant historical novel, her adult fiction debut, reveals important truths about Indigenous women’s lives. The daughters of the title are Marie and Jeanne of the Weskarini Algonkin people – the deer clan – in the place now called Quebec.

“In the year they call 1657, I am to marry a white man. A white man whose blood will flow in the veins of my children and my children’s children,” says Marie, a talented healer. She agrees to wed French trader Pierre Couc to save her tribe, most of whose men were killed fighting the Iroquois. Among the coureurs de bois, Pierre seems kind and respectful of her ways, yet theirs isn’t an alliance of equals.

Marie’s narrative is deeply empathetic as she worries about the white settlers’ greed – they take from the land without showing respect for its gifts – and their supplanting of Native traditions in favor of Catholicism, a religion the Weskarini chief asks his people to follow for their protection.

Marie and Pierre raise a large family, and the future of their eldest daughter, Jeanne, is always on Marie’s mind thanks to an elder’s prophecy. By the laws of the French king, thousands of miles distant, Jeanne must marry by a certain age or Pierre will be fined, but Jeanne’s beloved is her neighbor and best friend, Josephine. Although same-sex romantic relationships are honored among the Algonkins, the whites consider them shameful at best.

Daniel’s crystalline prose ensures a smoothly elegant read that emphasizes the pristine beauty of the region and her compassion for what her ancestors endured (Marie and Jeanne are on her family tree). Her story also lays bare the deliberate erasures made by colonialism, which has left a tragic, long-lasting legacy. Deservedly a Canadian bestseller, this novel exemplifies historical fiction’s noble purpose of revivifying important voices from the past.

Daughters of the Deer was published by Random House Canada this spring (I reviewed it for August's Historical Novels Review based on a NetGalley copy).  The novel is published in Canada, but sold in the US as a paperback or Kindle ebook for anyone interested in getting their own copy.

Monday, August 29, 2022

Emma Donoghue's Haven, set in early 7th-century Ireland, explores the demands of faith and obedience

Skellig Michael, a steep, rocky island off the southwestern Irish coast, is the setting for this atmospheric work, an imagined story about its early human inhabitants.

In the seventh century, Artt, a scholar-priest guided by a dream, asks two monks to join him on a pilgrimage to an empty isle “less tainted by the world’s breath.” Excited at achieving a greater life purpose, the elderly Cormac, a talented storyteller and mason, agrees to go, as does Trian, a lanky, adventurous younger man.

From the days-long boat journey through their mission to establish an island settlement and worship God appropriately, their work is arduous. Donoghue’s (The Pull of the Stars, 2020) prose glimmers with images of the pristine natural world, including many varieties of sea birds, but as Artt’s sanctimonious piety increasingly challenges common sense, Cormac and Trian wonder if their vows of obedience will doom them.

As always, Donoghue extracts realistic emotions from characters interacting within close quarters and delicately explores the demands of faith. This evocative historical novel also works as a cautionary tale about the dangers of religious control.

I wrote this review for the June 1st issue of BooklistHaven was published by Little, Brown (US) last Tuesday, August 23rd.  Isn't the cover art gorgeous?  I'm a fan of Emma Donoghue's work, and my favorites are Frog Music and The Wonder, the latter of which is soon to be available as a Netflix film starring Florence Pugh

For additional perspectives (which are also positive recommendations), please check out Kristen McDermott's review of Haven for the Historical Novels Review as well as Ron Charles's review for the Washington Post.  I always enjoy seeing other reviewers' takes on novels I've read myself.  Charles's description of Haven as "Room with a view" is an inspired, smart observation that's remarkably accurate!  

Emma Donoghue was also interviewed by Margaret Skea for the Historical Novels Review's August issue, and you can read that piece here.

Saturday, August 27, 2022

Ten more recent and upcoming historical novels set before the 20th century

Here's the second part of my focus on historical novels with pre-20th century settings.  If you missed part 1 or want to get back to it, you can find it here.  The following ten novels all have 2022 publication dates. Some are already out, and others are forthcoming this fall. They're in reverse alphabetical order because Blogger uploaded them that way, and changing them while leaving the images centered proved to be complicated.  Besides, it seemed fair to list authors with surnames toward the end of the alphabet first for a change.  Hope you enjoy browsing through these!

Dark Earth by Rebecca Stott

Rebecca Stott's latest novel Dark Earth, a fantasy-tinged story, focuses on two sisters living in early 6th-century (post-Roman) Britain struggling to survive and escape possible enslavement by a local lord after their father's death. Random House, July 2022.  [see on Goodreads]

Moonlight and the Pearler's Daughter by Lizzie Pook

An Englishwoman who had relocated to Australia in the late 19th century with her family goes in search of her father a decade later, after an accident at sea during which he, the captain of the pearl-diving boat, had mysteriously disappeared. What really happened?  A friend recommended this to me, and I can't wait to read it. Simon & Schuster, June. [see on Goodreads]

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O'Farrell

In this suspenseful literary novel, Lucrezia de' Medici, 16th-century Duchess of Ferrara and the tragic subject of a haunting poem by Robert Browning centuries later, is aware that the husband she recently married will try to kill her.  What will she do next?  Look out for my review soon.  Knopf, Sept. 2022.  [see on Goodreads]

Ithaca by Claire North

Tapping into the current reading craze featuring women from classical mythology, North homes in on Penelope and other women left behind in Ithaca after King Odysseus sailed away to the Trojan War.  First in a series.  Redhook, Sept. 2022. [see on Goodreads]

Bronze Drum by Phong Nguyen

Phong Nguyen, in Bronze Drum, presents the story of the legendary Trưng sisters, daughters of a Vietnamese lord, who rose up against the oppressive Han Chinese rulers of the land in the first century CE.  I'm reading this one now (review up soon).  Grand Central, Aug. 2022. [see on Goodreads]

Benevolence by Julie Janson

An Australian Aboriginal author from the Darug nation tells a story of her own people from the early 19th century: a tale of first contact with British settlers, colonialism, and endurance as seen from the viewpoint of a girl, Muraging, just ten years old as the novel begins. HarperVia, Aug. 2022. [see on Goodreads]

We Should Not Be Afraid of the Sky by Emma Hooper

The story of five young women who push back against the restrictions of era: Portugal during the time of the Roman Empire. From the epigraphs in the beginning, it looks to dramatize the lives of early Christian saints. Penguin Canada, Aug. 2022. [see on Goodreads]

The Fire and the Ore by Olivia Hawker

Hawker (who has also written as Libbie Hawker and Libbie Grant) has turned to writing historical fiction about her pioneer ancestors. The Fire and the Ore takes place in mid-19th century Utah Territory and follows three women - each with her own individual story - who become sister-wives to the same Mormon settler. Lake Union, Oct. 2022. [see on Goodreads]

The House with the Golden Door by Elodie Harper

The first book in Elodie Harper's trilogy about the enslaved women in a Pompeii brothel in the first century, The Wolf Den, was a terrific read, so I'm looking forward to this sequel, which follows her heroine Amara as she navigates her way in her new life. The UK edition was published in May. Union Square, Sept. 2022. [see on Goodreads]

The Thread Collectors by Shaunna J. Edwards and Alyson Richman

A growing number of historical novels are co-written by two or more authors. A multilayered story about love and liberty, The Thread Collectors, set in New York and New Orleans during the US Civil War, focuses on two women (one Black, one Jewish) as their paths intertwine. Graydon House, Aug. 2022 [see on Goodreads].

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Beginning Research for Historical Fiction, an essay by Adele Holmes, author of Winter's Reckoning

Please help me welcome debut novelist Adele Holmes, who has a guest post about the steps she took in getting started with research for Winter's Reckoning (She Writes Press, Aug. 9).  There are many good tips and recommended sites included here!


Beginning Research for Historical Fiction
Adele Holmes, M.D.

There is so much to consider when writing historical fiction. Where is one to begin with the research? In this post, I will share how I gleaned historical information for my debut novel, Winter’s Reckoning, set in the Southern Appalachians in 1917.

The key takeaway from the first paragraph might be the word “debut.” I’d never written a novel before, so I’d never had to figure how to gather the historical facts. Like most of us, I turned to reading a textbook about it and also taking an online course. The course was through Writers Digest University, and the instructor was Donna Russo Morin. The textbook, recommended by Ms. Morin, was How to Write and Sell Historical Fiction, by Persia Woolley. These were valuable in my process, and I strongly recommend this as a minimum base for other newbies in the field.

The next step I took was to prepare a skeleton outline of the historical information I would need. My novel was set in the rural Appalachians, but it also referred to Boston quite a bit. These are both places I’d visited frequently, so I knew what they were like now—but what about in 1917? I did elaborate web searches on roads, railroads, housing, schools, etc. There’s so much information here that it is not able to be covered adequately in a short writing, but the reader will be familiar with the rabbit holes internet searches can take them into. Remember to leave a trail of breadcrumbs and also use only trusted, well-vetted sites.

After much consideration of my skeletal outline, these were the areas I decided I needed to look into, in no specific order:

1) Utilities. Turns out that electricity was in fact in place in Boston, but not in the rural South. After scrolling through several sites, I decided that this one was best for all things electrical I’ve bookmarked it for future use. And so my stockpile of reliable information was begun. Likewise, for most of my scenes, plumbing was unheard of—though in the cities it was commonplace.

2) Clothing. This is a very easy on-line find, and searching old catalog pictures can get the creative juices flowing. In fact, perusing old photos of-the-time caused me to turn one of my characters into a classic Gibson girl. It will be up to the author to make sure the trend is appropriate for the setting, i.e., country mouse vs city slicker.

3) Literature. As novels are frequently referenced in Winter’s Reckoning, I turned to an old favorite of mine, Here I was able to see the covers of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and the very first set of World Books. I even found a copy of the page on Pasteur that I needed to tell about in the story, and used the page number in dialogue in the novel. That’s pretty authentic!

4) Medicine. Being a physician, I was well linked-in to research sites for medicine, including medicine from that era. But I had to refresh myself on things such as when antibiotics were first used, etc. A quick google search of trusted medical sites gave straightforward answers. But finding the herbal substitute for medical treatment was a whole different ballgame. I spent days and weeks reading modern and old books on herbalism, and purchased a book that was very useful to show what plants grow in what areas of the US.

5) Legal issues/amendments to the constitution/laws. led me to all the information I needed. I read, printed, reviewed several articles regarding not only the passage of the pertinent amendments to my novel (13th, 15th, 19th), but also the Jim Crow Laws.

6) Transportation. I like to visit the Smithsonian Museums in D.C. whenever possible. Their historical information for the US is phenomenal, and you get to see so much, making your prose so much more genuine. Most of my transportation research for this novel was gathered at a visit to the National Museum of American History. When a visit is not possible, there is a ton of information shared online through their links at Often world information outside of the US is also available. For example there is currently a Tibetan Buddhist Shrine Room Exhibit that is completely viewable online.

The above list is the overarching information I needed to gather to begin to write my historical novel—yours will be quite different, depending on the setting of your book. I give this as an example only. The point is that I felt I must find out a lot about a few things, then I could fill in the remainder of the research needed as I came across it. For instance, I didn’t even know I was going to have a newspaper as a focus of my book. When one jumped right onto the page, I took a couple of days off to learn about newspaper history, linotype machines, etc. You’ll find areas to stop and research, too.

But don’t get lost in the rabbit holes! And remember: leave a trail of breadcrumbs and visit only trusted, well-vetted sites. After your first novel, you’ll have your own collection to go back to.

About the novel:

In the 1917 Southern Appalachians, Maddie’s herbal healing is welcome, though people disagree with her belief in equal rights for all. Then a new preacher arrives, igniting racial tensions and accusing her of witchcraft. Threatened and knowing others are at risk, Maddie hesitates. What does she risk in taking a stand? What does she risk if she doesn’t? 

About the author:

Adele Holmes author photo
Adele Holmes, M.D.
(credit: Lori Sparkman Photography)
Adele Holmes graduated from medical school in 1993. After twenty-plus years in private practice pediatrics, her unquenchable desire to wander the world, write, and give back to the community led her to retire from medicine. Her fun-loving family includes a rollicking crew of her husband Chris, two adult children and their spouses, five grandchildren of diverse ages and talents, a horse, and a Bernedoodle. Winter’s Reckoning, Adele’s debut novel, won Honorable Mention in the 2021 William Faulkner Literary Competition. She is currently at work on her second novel in her resident town of Little Rock, Arkansas.

Find her online at the following:
Instagram: Adele Holmes, MD 

Sunday, August 21, 2022

French Braid by Anne Tyler evokes the ties and idiosyncrasies in a 20th-century Baltimore family

Anne Tyler knows families: the ebb and flow of relationships across decades, the strengths and foibles of individual members, and the ties connecting them even if they don’t particularly like each other. The chance meeting of two cousins in the Philadelphia train station in 2010 invigorates this smoothly paced, emotionally piercing saga of a Baltimore family over three generations. “Even when the Garretts did get together, it never seemed to take, so to speak,” reflects one granddaughter early on, wondering “what makes a family not work.”

The year 1959 marks the first group vacation for parents Robin and Mercy Garrett and their three children, who spend a week together at a cabin on Deep Creek Lake. Reliable Alice, just seventeen, isn’t thrilled about the trip. Lily, two years younger, has a summer romance with a college guy, which her parents are surprisingly blasé about; and David is a sharp-eyed seven-year-old. Mercy’s attitude toward her children and husband is one of distant fondness. After her children grow up and pursue their own lives, she relocates full-time into her art studio, acknowledging only to herself (not to her adoring husband) that the move isn’t temporary.

The Garretts’ actions range from quirkily amusing (Alice’s talent for cooking meals out of random odds and ends) to scandalous to sad and upsetting. Mercy is ironically named, since readers—animal lovers especially—may feel that she deserves very little of it, given her self-centeredness. It’s also fair to recognize that she fulfills the era’s expectations of marriage and motherhood despite being cut out for neither role.

In her wryly observant way, Tyler grants Greta, the older, foreign-born divorcee David marries, to his family’s befuddlement, the wisdom to see her in-laws’ hopes and fears more clearly than anyone. This story shines with grace and compassion as it reflects oft-unspoken truths about human nature.

French Braid was published by Knopf in May, and I reviewed it for August's Historical Novels Review. In the UK, it's published by Chatto & Windus. Most of Anne Tyler's novels are contemporary literary fiction, but some others have historical elements, like The Amateur Marriage (which starts during WWII) and A Spool of Blue Thread (1920s-present).

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Ten recent and upcoming historical novels set before the 20th century

While the 20th century gets the most attention in historical fiction circles lately, and has for a while, many avid readers of the genre remain hungry for earlier settings. The following ten titles take place much further back in the past.  This is the first of two posts.  The books are in alphabetical order by author surname.

Hester by Laurie Lico Albanese

What, or who, inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne to create his iconic character, Hester Prynne, the protagonist of The Scarlet Letter?  In Albanese's imagined tale, a Scottish immigrant seamstress forms an indelible emotional bond with the young writer in a place haunted by the legacy of slavery and the Salem witch trials. St. Martin's, October 2022. [see on Goodreads]

Prize for the Fire by Rilla Askew

This biographical novel by critically acclaimed author Rilla Askew takes as its focus Anne Askew, a woman who defies political and religious convention in Henry VIII's England and pays a terrible price. Univ. of Oklahoma Press, Oct. 2022. [see on Goodreads]

An Indiscreet Princess by Georgie Blalock

The "indiscreet princess" of the title is Louise, fourth daughter of Queen Victoria, trapped between royal duty and her desire to create art... and live life (and find love) on her own terms.  William Morrow, Sept. 2022. (Louise lived well into the 20th century, though her story begins in the mid-19th century.)  [see on Goodreads]

Set in Stone by Stela Brinzeanu

For readers enamored by unique historical fiction locales, how about medieval Moldova? Brinzeanu's latest novel reveals the love story between two women and the difficult challenges they face; it's based on local folklore. Legend Press, Aug. 2022.  [see on Goodreads]

The Hemlock Cure by Joanne Burn

You may recognize the name of Eyam, the Derbyshire village which self-contained against the plague in the mid-17th century, from Geraldine Brooks'  Year of Wonders. For her second novel, Joanne Burn incorporates the same dark setting, but shifting her lens to Eyam's women and the secrets they hold. Pegasus Crime, June 2022.  [see on Goodreads]

The House of Fortune by Jessie Burton

Burton's sequel to her bestselling The Miniaturist, set in the early 18th century, can also be read on its own; it follows the members of a Dutch family, especially a mixed-race young woman and her aunt-by-marriage, in their search for love, belonging, and money to keep themselves afloat. Bloomsbury USA, July 2022. [see on Goodreads | read my review]

Joan by Katherine J. Chen

Joan of Arc is hardly new as a historical fiction subject, but Chen, in her new novel, aims for a different, secular view of the young woman who became a renowned military leader and saint. Hilary Mantel blurbed the book. Random House, July 2022.  [see on Goodreads]

The Color Storm by Damian Dibben

Renaissance-era Venice takes the stage in Dibben's tale of artistic rivalry, marital drama, and a transformative new color.  If you're in the UK, the title is The Colour Storm.  Hanover Square, Sept. 2022. [see on Goodreads]

The Last Queen by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Divakaruni travels to 19th-century India in her fictional portrait of Maharani Jindan Kaur, who rose to become regent of the Sikh Empire -- and who put up a strong resistance to the British. William Morrow, July 2022. [see on Goodreads]

The Portraitist by Susanne Dunlap

Historical novelist Dunlap, who has written many other well-received novels about women and the arts, pens a new work of fiction about Adélaïde Labille-Guiard and her determination to forge a career in 18th-century Paris, amid fierce competition and the coming of the French Revolution.  She Writes, Aug. 2022. [see on Goodreads]

Saturday, August 13, 2022

The Librarian Spy depicts two brave women finding their purpose during WWII

Like her first mainstream historical novel, Madeline Martin’s The Librarian Spy (a title designed to catch attention) is set during WWII. While continuing with her theme of the power of the written word, she moves her locale from London to Lisbon and Lyon, France, in her portrait of two women battling Nazi oppression, as well as the invisible thread that connects them.

In 1943, Ava Harper, though content in her plum job as a rare book librarian at the Library of Congress, finds herself recruited into a higher purpose due to her work ethic and facility with languages. In Lisbon, in neutral Portugal, she becomes responsible for acquiring and microfilming international news sources for shipment back home. As a librarian, it was cool to read a novel in which microfilm (which is becoming an outdated technology) was in such high demand!

While eager to help the Allies, Ava’s used to a more sedate lifestyle and is somewhat unworldly. She gets nervous when her neighbor is arrested and dragged away in the middle of the night; did a careless statement of hers get him in trouble?

One day, while browsing one of the papers she obtains, Ava notices an apparent encoded message that turns out to be a cry for assistance, though few details are given. This note forms the link between Ava and Elaine Rousseau – not her birth name – a Frenchwoman living under the Vichy regime in Lyon who joins the resistance. Through Elaine’s story, which is the more suspenseful of the two, readers view the courage and altruism that drives Elaine and her fellow resistance members to risk their lives. Secrets are prevalent, even amongst couples and families, and the deep love between Elaine and her husband Joseph, who has gone missing, is sensitively revealed.

There are many new novels focusing on resistance activities during WWII, and on this topic, The Librarian Spy didn’t stand out from the pack for me. That said, I appreciated the angle on covert publishing and information transmission during the war and the focus on day-to-day life in the less familiar setting of wartime Lisbon.

I read this from a NetGalley copy. The Librarian Spy was published last month by Hanover Square/HarperCollins.

Monday, August 08, 2022

Review of Trust by Hernan Diaz, an intricate literary puzzle-box set in early 20th-century New York

Pulitzer finalist Diaz’s brilliantly layered epic unfolds through a quartet of accounts, each of which adds new meaning to the ones that have gone before—much in the vein of Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost, but set in the world of early 20th-century corporate finance. The authors of the four tales are given up front, but the less said about how they relate to one another, the better. Readers will derive the greatest pleasure if they uncover the revelations themselves.

First is a short novel called Bonds by Harold Vanner, a pointed morality tale about New York stock market whiz Benjamin Rask, who accumulates great wealth while remaining isolated from its impact on others. Rask’s marriage to wife Helen, an intellectual from an old Albany family, is an agreeable if emotionally distant union, and they both like it that way. In a style reminiscent of Edith Wharton, Vanner draws readers into Rask’s money-making ventures and the scandal that befell the couple after the 1929 crash.

Next comes the incomplete autobiography of financier Andrew Bevel, who puts pen to paper—with eye-opening pomposity—to counter rumors about his investments and to honor his late wife, Mildred. Paired with Vanner’s novel, Bevel appears to cover similar ground, which may cause some confusion—but keep reading.

Up third, the memoir of Ida Partenza, an Italian anarchist’s daughter, is hugely satisfying as it brings the first two accounts into focus while leaving some mysteries for the last section to reveal (which it definitely does). Each part feels smoothly calibrated to its author’s personality and historical setting as the story continues to provoke questions about which person’s truth can be relied upon. Not only a powerful commentary on the effects of unfettered capitalism, Trust also exposes the complex art of mythmaking engineered by the rich and powerful, and those erased in the process.

Trust was published by Riverhead in the US in May; the UK publisher is Picador. I read it from a NetGalley copy for August's Historical Novels Review.  I'll just add that corporate finance hasn't ever been a particular fascination of mine, but the story was riveting.  I've seen numerous spoilers in other reviews, so be aware!

Thursday, August 04, 2022

Reading the Past in a Single Document, an essay by Judith Berlowitz, author of Home So Far Away

Historical documents may be inanimate objects, yet they can still speak to us, revealing vital information to novelists writing about their subjects decades later. In the following essay, author Judith Berlowitz (Home So Far Away) explores how she gleaned details about the life of her protagonist, Clara Philipsborn, through a single document from a Spanish archive.


Reading the Past in a Single Document
Judith Berlowitz

By the time I retired – as a PhD teaching Spanish language and world cultures – I welcomed the opportunity to concentrate on other interests. Search for my ancestral origins had widened, and tools learned in academic research had led to some dizzying discoveries. At the same time, I was noticing that the standard canon of utilizing sources was also widening, shifting, fluid.

Searching the Internet for my Philipsborn relatives, I came upon an article that mentioned Clara Philipsborn, an anti-fascist volunteer translator in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). I completed the Philipsborn project, keeping in mind the compelling need to find Clara. I soon contacted people via Facebook who followed various aspects of the Spanish Civil War and was introduced to the concept of Historical Memory, a movement that arose in reaction to the Pacto del Olvido – the Pact to Forget – imposed on the people of Spain at the death of the dictator Franco in 1975.

Clara, 1910 Wildbad
(credit: Gene Dannen,
originally posted
on his website 
These friends assisted me in locating documents about Clara in Soviet archives, which were conflicting, as were stories from other relatives I was able to reach. There were grave accusations against which she could not defend herself. I had to give her a voice that would break through the Pacto del Olvido. I would write her diary, as an homage to historical memory. The result is my first novel, Home So Far Away, published by She Writes Press, June 2022.

An institution in Spain called the Centro Documental de la Memoria Histórica found and sent me a precious document, Clara’s identity card from the Fifth Regiment of Popular Militias. Each of the static images on the document served as doors that opened to yet more sources, more material for Clara’s story:

• Clara’s typed name – her surname in all caps, is spelled correctly, in contrast to many other documents about her. This fact adds credibility to the source.
• The number at the top shows me that there were 6835 volunteers to the Fifth Regiment who applied ahead of Clara.
• Clara’s photograph reveals her attention to her appearance. The pressed hair, the tweezed eyebrows: a major departure from the wild look shown in photos from her youth. Clara’s hair plays a significant role in my novel as it connects her to her Jewish identity.
• Clara’s address as typed detracts from the credibility. There is no “Dionisio Cortes” Street in Madrid. But a search revealed the correct name, “Donoso Cortés,” and I was able to visit the location at number eight.
• Clara’s marital status is listed as single. Correct.
• But her age? She was born in Kiel in 1890, according to all German records. Other records from Spain show wildly varying dates, definitely material for my novel!
• Clara’s profession is first typed (with carbon paper) as a registered nurse, with the later addition – entered twice – of her title or degree of practicante, practitioner or PA, rare for women of this time and representing more prestige and more advanced duties.
• The space for the organization Clara belonged to is left blank and replaced by the inserted fragment of the colored stamp of the elite Fifth Regiment. This item opened up hours of research on this renowned unit.
• The date of Clara’s enrollment in the Regiment is added: just three days after the uprising against the elected government of the Spanish Republic. Essential proof of Clara’s eagerness to dedicate her skills to defend her new homeland. And the August date marks the beginning of Clara’s duties.
• Clara’s assignment to La Cabrera opened up research on a tiny town in Madrid’s Sierra Norte. The wartime field hospital was created in a monastery taken over by the Loyalists. Contact with the local high school history teacher informed me that the famed Rosario “la Dinamitera” had been treated there, leading to my placing her under Clara’s care during the necessary amputation. And a Facebook friend provided me with a copy of the surgeon’s report, providing me with that important name and with Rosario’s political affiliation.
• Clara’s clear signature completes the card, as if authorizing me to venture through all the doors it has opened.


About the novel:

A fictional diary set in interwar Germany and Spain allows us to peek into the life of Klara Philipsborn, the only Communist in her merchant-class, German-Jewish family.

Klara’s first visit to Seville in 1925 opens her eyes and her spirit to an era in which Spain’s major religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, shared deep cultural connections. At the same time, she is made aware of the harsh injustices that persist in Spanish society. By 1930, she has landed a position with the medical school in Madrid. Though she feels compelled to hide her Jewish identity in her predominantly Christian new home, she finds that she feels less “different” in Spain than she did in Germany, especially as she learns new ways of expressing her opinions and desires. And when the Spanish Civil War erupts in 1936, Klara (now “Clara”) enlists in the Fifth Regiment, a step that transports her across the geography of the embattled peninsula and ultimately endangers a promising relationship and even Clara’s life itself.

A blending of thoroughly researched history and engrossing fiction, Home So Far Away is an epic tale that will sweep readers away.

About the author:

Author Judith Berlowitz at Clara's Madrid home. 
Photo by Armando Mauleón, 2018, with his permission.
Los Angeles–born author Judith Berlowitz had just retired from her Spanish-teaching position at Oakland’s Mills College when her genealogical research uncovered a Gestapo record mentioning a relative, Clara Philipsborn, who was the only woman anti-fascist volunteer in the Spanish Civil War from the German state of Schleswig-Holstein. The few details of the report led to more research, which led to Home So Far Away. In addition to her career teaching Spanish and world cultures, and a stint as a tour guide, Judith is a card-carrying translator and has published in the field of ethnomusicology (Sephardic balladry) and Jewish identity. She sang for years with the Oakland Symphony Chorus and is now a member of the San Francisco Bach Choir. She lives in San Francisco with her husband, not far from her three daughters and three grandsons.

Friday, July 29, 2022

The Crimson Thread by Kate Forsyth tells a multilayered story of WWII Crete

Partway through reading The Crimson Thread, which takes place on Crete during WWII, I exclaimed to myself, This is a retelling of the Greek myth of Ariadne and the labyrinth! I had read the US publisher’s blurb, which didn’t include this, but the Australian publisher does. Kate Forsyth is known for her creative reworkings of ancient tales (she has a PhD in fairytale studies), so I should have figured this out sooner. Knowing the underlying structure added even more dimension to a story I had already been enjoying.

Among the abundance of WWII novels, I seek out those with underexplored characters or settings, and this one qualifies. The story focuses on the underground resistance on Crete and three young people caught in a love triangle while trying to survive and repel the Nazi invaders.

Alenka Klothakis lives near the Ariadne Villa in the village of Knossos and works as a translator for the curator at the archeological site there. With her mother near-mute after past trauma, and her twelve-year-old half-brother Axel, whose father was German, obsessed with Hitler and sympathetic to the Nazis, Alenka’s home life is tense. She is at heart a rebel (“It infuriated her that Greece was the home of democracy, but she was not allowed to vote”), and when her life becomes entwined with two Australian soldiers, she risks much to save them both.

Teddy Lloyd and Jack Hawke were childhood friends and fellow Classics students at the University of Melbourne before deciding to join up. Otherwise, the men are very different; Teddy is dashing and flirtatious, seeing Alenka as a possible conquest, while Jack is thoughtful though no less courageous, and he has a special affinity for the history and stories of the Greek isles—as does Alenka. Their connection ignites Teddy’s jealousy and leads him to lash out against his supposed “best mate.” Meanwhile, Axel moves from bratty adolescent rebellion to actual collaboration with the enemy.

author Kate Forsyth
The novel spans the entirety of the war, beginning with the German invasion and subsequent occupation to the Allied forces’ retreat over the White Mountains and the evacuation from Crete—which Teddy and Jack are unable to join, for separate reasons. The on-the-ground action feels vividly real, but what sets the novel apart is the cultural history and symbolism woven through the story in the form of music, dance, and colorful embroidery.

Jack has a talent for playing the lyra and finds that the stammer he has when speaking disappears when he sings. And Alenka, an experienced needlewoman, employs her skill in her work with the Resistance, literally and figuratively deciding which threads to spin—and which to snip. She is a wonderfully nuanced character, a young woman torn between caring for her family and saving her homeland, and she hates the idea of being any man’s possession.

Steeped in the alluring history of Crete, both ancient and modern, The Crimson Thread can be appreciated on many levels. It is a worthy addition to the author’s oeuvre and to WWII-era historical fiction.

The Crimson Thread is published in the US by Blackstone; it's also out from Penguin Random House in Australia. I reviewed it from a NetGalley copy as part of the blog tour with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.

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