Tuesday, December 27, 2022

How Come We Can’t Get Away From Anne Boleyn? A guest post by Jeri Westerson

Today I'd like to welcome Jeri Westerson back to the blog.  I've greatly enjoyed her Crispin Guest medieval mysteries (and had posted an interview with her at the conclusion of the series last year).  The first volume of her brand new King's Fool Mystery series, Courting Dragons, set in the popular Tudor era at the court of Henry VIII, debuts on January 3rd.  She details the background to her new series below.


How Come We Can’t Get Away From Anne Boleyn?
by Jeri Westerson

Courting Dragons book cover
I think whenever anyone hears the name “Tudor” we think of three things: Elizabeth I, Henry VIII, and Anne Boleyn.

Anne, Anne, Anne. Why is she so important to the story of Henry VIII (who had four more wives after her)? And why is she important to my newly released novel Courting Dragons: A King’s Fool Mystery?

Let’s back up a bit to Prince Arthur Tudor. He was the elder brother to Henry VIII, slated to be King Arthur. Way back in 1497 he was betrothed—by proxy—to one Catherine of Aragon of Spain. The reason it was by proxy was because he and his betrothed were too young, but a treaty between England and Spain was desired by monarchs of both countries and so the kids were connected early on. They even had a wedding by proxy because they didn’t meet until October of 1501 when it was deemed they were finally old enough to get married in the flesh.

The deed was done and not long thereafter, Arthur fell ill. In fact, he died short of his sixteenth birthday.

Now enter the young Henry. Suddenly, he’s heir to the throne. And elder King Henry didn’t want all that dowry money to go back to Spain so he insisted on young Henry marrying his sister-in-law. But when Henry turned 14 he said no!

Henry VIII image

In 1509 at the ripe old age of eighteen, Henry succeeded to the throne of England. And he looked at his accounting books and decided that thousands of pounds worth of dowry was probably a good thing to have when starting a reign, not to mention keeping the Spanish treaties intact. But this was his brother’s widow. Didn’t he need papal dispensation to marry her? It’s just a little bit incesty. But the pope said no problem. You only need a dispensation if the marriage was consummated, and Catherine swore devoutly that it was not. She and Arthur were 15 years old and married for twenty weeks but didn’t consummate their legal marriage. Well...

“There is no more lovely, friendly and charming a relationship, communion or company than a good marriage.”
–Martin Luther, 1569

Henry and Catherine were happy in the beginning. It turned sour some twenty years later. She gave birth to a stillborn girl, then she gave birth to a boy, Henry, but he died after seven weeks. Then she gave birth to the Princess Mary (who was to become Queen Mary I, otherwise known as “Bloody Mary”). During this time, Henry was catting around with all sorts of women. But he was also a devout* Catholic (*can you really be devout when you’re constantly breaking one of the Ten Commandments?) So much so that in 1521 he wrote his “Defense of the Seven Sacraments” a direct argument against the protestant reforms of Martin Luther. Pope Leo X named Henry “Defender of the Faith” for that bestseller.

But by 1525, Henry was getting impatient for a legitimate male heir and certain courtiers were beginning to whisper in his ear—courtiers like Cardinal Wolsey and his secretary the commoner Thomas Cromwell. Leviticus 20:21 says that “if a man shall take his brother’s wife it is an unclean thing: they shall be childless.” Though Henry was far from childless, he preferred to interpret the text to mean “sonless” (though he had several illegitimate sons too). On this basis, Wolsey sought an annulment. The pope said nope.

Image of the English Tudor era

Henry was getting all excited that this would work, that he could divorce his wife and marry—wait for it—Anne Boleyn, with whom he had been carrying on a chaste affair after having a not-so-chaste affair with Anne’s sister Mary (talk about incesty) who gave birth to yet another dead child, but possibly another not dead child that Henry would never acknowledge. He got pretty pissed off with Wolsey, trumped up some charges, had him arrested, even though Wolsey—as a bribe—handed over his just-finished manor house estate (that became Hampton Court) and was ready to put him on trial when he had the decency to die before that. Now Cromwell moved up and still had the king’s ear.

“The less prudent the prince the more his deeds oppress.” –Proverbs 28:16

Will Somers, detail
Will Somers, close-up detail
Cromwell’s plan was to reform the Church, and since the pope wasn’t cooperating with Henry’s need for this divorce, why not break away from the Church of old and reform it into the Church of England? And who but the monarch—anointed by God—was fit to rule that? Henry then gave himself a divorce (with the new Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s support), declared his daughter a bastard, and first secretly married Anne Boleyn then publicly married her (obviously pregnant by then), who, after all that, didn’t give him the son he wanted, but another princess, Elizabeth.

Henry’s taking over the province of the Church in England meant that he could get rid of all those corrupted and wealthy monasteries where all that expensive land was just sitting there when instead it could be sold and the revenue could fill his coffers. And so that’s what he did. Cromwell was in charge of collecting officers with the cover story that they were inspecting the monasteries to root out corruption…but while they were there, they took an inventory of all the goods, too. Ya know, just to keep an inventory.

So why is it that Anne’s story endures over the other five wives?

Anne’s end is tragic. True, she was quite the coquette as an up-and-comer in court. She was affianced at least twice, carried on with a married man, but was still chaste for the marriage bed, or so it was said. But by 1536, with only three years of marriage to her, Henry wanted out of the marriage that wasn’t giving him sons, and so Thomas Cromwell, Wolsey’s old assistant, devised her downfall, not giving her merely ONE paramour, but several, including her brother, just to add that last nail to the coffin. And this is what makes her endure. It was very clear to the people of the time—despite the fact that she usurped a very well-liked queen—that she was not guilty. Lancelot de Carles, French poet, wrote in 1536, “No one to look at her would have thought her guilty” as she “protested she had never misconducted herself towards the King.” “The queen exhibited such constancy, patience, and faith towards God that all the spectators, even her enemies, and those persons who previously had rejoiced at her misfortunes…testified and proclaimed her innocence and chastity.”

Wrongly accused, wrongly executed, Anne lives on as the ultimate sacrifice to Henry’s frenzied need for a male heir.

And, of course, she gave birth to England’s greatest monarch, Elizabeth I.

Henry VIII at left, with Will Somers and dog
Posthumous portrait of Henry VIII with Queen Mary,
with Will Somers and dog in center

And that’s how Anne Boleyn becomes a part of my story, the background of Will Somers’s story, jester to King Henry, and investigating some pesky murders.


King's Fool Mysteries banner

Jeri Westerson is the author of the new King’s Fool Mysteries with the reluctant sleuth Will Somers, Henry VIII’s real court jester, solving mysteries and murder at the Tudor court. She is also the author of the upcoming Sherlockian series An Irregular Detective Mystery, the multi-award-nominated Crispin Guest Medieval Noir series, paranormal books, including a gaslamp-steampunk fantasy the Enchanter Chronicles Trilogy, standalone historicals, and an LGBTQ rom/com mystery series. See it all at JeriWesterson.com.

Saturday, December 24, 2022

Review of Mimi Matthews' A Holiday by Gaslight, a historically rich Victorian romance

When the high temperature is -5º F and there’s a winter storm raging outside, the only thing to do is hunker down indoors and be glad your house hasn’t lost power. It helps if you have a Kindle loaded up with ebooks. So yesterday I decided to get in the holiday spirit by reading a novella by Mimi Matthews that I’d purchased last year.

A Holiday by Gaslight is a lovely and gently heartwarming story set in Victorian London and at a Christmas house party in remote Derbyshire.

It’s November 1861, and after two months of courtship, Miss Sophia “Sophie” Appersett decides she and Edward Sharpe don’t suit. She asks him to meet her in Hyde Park, where she breaks things off, with mutual agreement. Sophie is a baronet’s daughter who needs to marry into money. A draper's son who made his fortune in manufacturing, Ned is eminently eligible at 31 – darkly handsome, unmarried, and successful – but he has no idea how to court someone of Sophie’s class. He relies on the Gentleman’s Book of Etiquette to guide him, and it gives him bad advice. To Sophie, he appears silent and disinterested; in reality, he admires her greatly but doesn’t show it. The problem is they don’t know each other at all and have only had superficial conversations.

Within a few days, Sophie – a young woman of integrity and thoughtfulness – feels regretful and makes a surprise appearance at Ned’s offices with a proposition: that they be honest with one another, and that he visit the family home in Derbyshire at Christmas as planned to see if they can make it work. Ned also learns more about her family finances: Sophie has no dowry because her father, Sir William, spent all of it installing gaslight on his estate.

The holiday preparations at Appersett House are delightful: heading into the woods to gather greenery, decorating the house with ribbons and tinsel from the attic, finding and bringing in the Yule log. As Ned and Sophie’s relationship thaws and blossoms, the interactions among the family and guests add color and dashes of the unexpected. Sophie’s immature younger sister, Emily, flirts with Ned’s business partner; one guest talks incessantly about Prince Albert and his sad recent demise.  Ned’s mother does little but express disapproval of everything, but we don’t know if it’s her nature or something more.

I especially enjoy romances with a historical backdrop that’s more than window-dressing, and this story delivers. Appersett House has a vast library, and Sophie and Ned acknowledge how their personal reading influenced their views. Sophie ponders whether Mr. Darwin’s theories can apply to societal and technological progress, while Ned realizes how the etiquette book led him astray. The gaslight at Appersett House lends the atmosphere a soft romantic glow, but – as the author illustrates – it comes at a high monetary and emotional cost to the family.

Above all, A Holiday by Gaslight is a love story, and the protagonists’ happy ending feels authentic and well-earned.

My best wishes to all of this blog’s readers for the holiday season!

Friday, December 16, 2022

Amanda Dykes' All the Lost Places tells a haunting, multi-period story of discovery in historical Venice

Plan for sufficient time if you decide to pick up Amanda Dykes’ All the Lost Places, because the novel deserves it. A deeply immersive read set in Venice during two periods few authors have visited via fiction – 1807 and nearly a century later – the story is told through language rich in description and metaphor as it explores the journeys of two young men seeking answers to mysteries – and discovering meaning, love, and hope in the process.

In 1904 San Francisco, Daniel Goodman, having served time in jail, makes restitution to the parties he stole from during his years of thievery. Unable to face his mother, who he feels he has irreparably shamed, Daniel still suffers the aftereffects of an injury. He has lost his ability to visualize images in his mind and draw from memory, although he’s still able to create art.

To help his mother out financially, he takes an unexpected job offer: to travel to his mother’s home city of Venice, locate artifacts, sketch images of local sights, and procure and translate books for the library of a proposed “Venice of America” cultural center. One of the books on his list is a title Daniel has owned from childhood: The Book of Waters, an unfinished fairy tale. It’s a rare volume, and Daniel wonders if any other editions will tell the rest of the story. When he reaches Venice, he meets a curious bookseller named Vittoria who shows him the city and helps with his search.
author Amanda Dykes

As Daniel proceeds with his translation of The Book of Waters, that book’s story unfolds. In 1807, the former Republic of Venice is under French control following conflict with Napoleonic France and Austria, and the abdication of the last Doge. A small baby found floating alone in a basket – much like Moses – within a gondola is rescued and then raised, in shared fashion, by five individuals from different walks of life. A note with the child says his name is Sebastien, and he is given the last name of Trovato,“found.” Sebastien grows up surrounded by his foster parents’ professions – glassmaking, printing, lace-making, gardening, piloting a gondola – and is greatly loved yet always wonders about his true identity.

The majesty and history of the islands and waterways of Venice permeate the novel’s pages as it explores both protagonists’ quests for belonging.

And always, in the distance or all around him, the city rose from the sea in a hundred and more fragmented pieces, cobbled together with bridges and boats.
I am like you, Venice seemed to say. A patchwork life, whole and yet broken.

The novel’s pacing is unhurried, proceeding much like a gondola as it wends its way through Venice’s storied canals and lagoons. Amanda Dykes is an expert at shaping words into moods, and her writing expresses the oft-cited theme of chiaroscuro – the interplay of light and shadow, both in art and in life. While some of the symbolism will have additional meaning for Christian readers, All the Lost Places doesn’t require a religious background to be appreciated as a haunting and emotionally fulfilling read.

All the Lost Places is published by Bethany House this month; I reviewed it from a NetGalley copy for the author's blog tour.

Saturday, December 10, 2022

The Circus Train explores a young woman's coming of age in a 1930s traveling circus and during WWII

One expects circus-themed novels to be escapist entertainment filled with interesting characters. Parikh’s debut, a Canadian bestseller, satisfies on that score, and it also thoughtfully explores two young people’s connection and quests for belonging.

In the 1930s, Lena Papadopoulos, whose overprotective father Theo is a brilliant illusionist, spends her childhood traveling across Europe with the World of Wonders. But as a polio survivor using a wheelchair, Lena doesn’t fit in, and her self-esteem suffers.

At nine, she rescues an older Jewish boy, Alexandre, who becomes Theo’s apprentice. Alexandre and Lena become close friends, but secrets reside within both their families. As Europe grows darker, terrible circumstances force them apart and leave Lena to forge her path alone.

The circus train is the novel’s backdrop, not the starring attraction, and much about its operation goes unexplained; at times, the story feels light on descriptive details. Incorporating research into medical treatments for polio and the Theresienstadt camp’s role in Nazi propaganda, Parikh creates storytelling magic in her absorbing tale of a young woman discovering her own capabilities.

This novel is also recommended for YAs: Teens who enjoy coming-of-age journeys will be drawn to Lena’s story and the intriguing traveling-circus setting. 

Amita Parikh's The Circus Train was published by Putnam in the US this past week, and I'd written this review for Booklist's November 2022 issue.  In Canada, the novel was published by HarperCollins back in March. It's being promoted as "Water for Elephants meets The Night Circus." It was also a #1 LibraryReads pick.

I'd be interested in hearing thoughts from other historical fiction readers on this book. Re: my comments that it was light on descriptions, I also found this to be true when it came to WWII and the Holocaust; in particular, the horrors of Theresienstadt are left underexplored. The story works well as a coming-of-age story, but historical fiction readers may yearn for more details and depth.

Sunday, December 04, 2022

'Tis the season for compilations of the year's best historical fiction

The Sleeping Car Porter, Trust, Shrines of Gaiety, Haven

Many conversations I've had in the last week have begun with "Can you believe it's December already?" I haven't read as many books as I'd planned to in 2022, and all of the end-of-year compilations of the best historical fiction aren't helping to keep my TBR to a manageable size.  (Realistically, that battle was lost long ago...)

Here are the lists and sites I've found so far.

For the New York Times, Alida Becker, who reviews the genre regularly, includes ten favorites which she calls "sturdy time machines" with enduring appeal. Three are from Nobel laureates, and Suzette Mayr's The Sleeping Car Porter, the recent Scotiabank Giller Prize winner, is also on the list.  I'm a NYT subscriber and created the link as a gift article, so you should be able to read it without hitting a paywall.  See also Becker's latest roundup of historical fiction, from Dec. 2.

NPR's annual Books We Love feature (formerly called Book Concierge) presents a visual array of 35 books in their Historical Fiction category, each of which links to a short review.  You can also read their historical fiction selections as a list. What I like about NPR is how they proudly include entries from a variety of subgenres and age categories: literary fiction, thrillers, romance, dark fantasy, young adult historicals, and more. Historical graphic novels are in the mix as well (this isn't a subgenre, but a format). The settings and eras are notably diverse.

The CBC has a piece on "24 Canadian books to get the historical fiction fan." I especially enjoy seeing lists from outside the US since they introduce me to titles I haven't come across before. Many were published only in Canada. There are some favorites of mine from 2022 here also, including Eva Stachniak's The School of Mirrors and Natalie Jenner's Bloomsbury Girls.  Settings, overall, range from South Asia and Rome in ancient times to Canada in the '70s and '80s.

The Goodreads Choice Awards for 2022 are now in their last day of voting for the final round (by the time you see this, voting may have ended).  There are two novels set in the mid-1990s on the list of finalists, and while they wouldn't fit as historical fiction in my view, different platforms have different definitions for the genre.

Writing for The Times (London), critics Antonia Senior and Nick Rennison offer 14 best historical fiction books for 2022. You can read a limited number of articles per month with a free account, if you don't subscribe, and I recommend getting one, if only so you can read their ongoing reviews and roundups!  Novels mentioned here which appear in other such lists include Robert Harris's Act of Oblivion (17th c England and America), Emma Donoghue's Haven (monks on a remote Irish island, 7th century), and Anthony Marra's Mercury Pictures Presents (1940s Hollywood).

Cosmopolitan's 17 best historical fiction books of 2022 is predominantly female-focused, with the latest novels by Isabel Allende, Chanel Cleeton, and Heather Webb, among others, but also includes Marra's novel, above, as well as Hernan Diaz's Trust, which was high on my 2022 list as well.

You'll also find many historical novels on the Guardian's list of best fiction for 2022, though they aren't separated out by category as in the other lists above.

I'll update this post if I spot any more favorites lists from 2022, and please let me know about others in the comments.

Thursday, December 01, 2022

In Jane Smiley's A Dangerous Business, two enterprising women unravel crimes in Gold Rush-era California

In Smiley’s short but impactful latest, two sex workers get caught up in a crime-novel scenario, one calling to mind the Edgar Allan Poe stories they devour, and decide to solve the murders before they become victims themselves.

In 1852, the small town of Monterey, California, bubbles with prosperity and secrets. New arrivals pour in, seeking fortunes or a new start; people depart just as frequently.

Eliza Ripple, a young widow from Kalamazoo who doesn’t miss her abusive husband one whit, has settled in at her job at Mrs. Parks’s brothel. She makes a good living, and the proprietress looks out for her health and safety. Then the first girl disappears, prompting Mrs. Parks to hire a bouncer, Carlos, a kind Mexican immigrant.

The community, which relies on informal (vigilante) justice since they don’t have constables, decides the missing-person crime isn’t worth the bother. Other disappearances follow, bodies are found, and Eliza and her best friend, Jean—a fellow prostitute working at an establishment serving other women—grow concerned. How would Poe’s hero Dupin (or DuPANN, as Eliza calls him) handle this?

Rich in wit and human observation, Smiley’s telling is as matter-of-fact as Eliza’s approach to her profession. While Eliza is skilled, her encounters aren’t erotic and illustrate much about all the characters. Among her clients are farmers, a shy teenager, many sailors, and older men, all with their own preferences. With a killer still at large, Eliza analyzes each man carefully, wondering if he’s guilty.

“Being a woman is a dangerous business,” Mrs. Parks tells her, accurately, and Eliza grows annoyed at having to uncover the truth because nobody else cares. As heroic, self-reliant young women who accomplish what needs doing, she and Jean make great partners in a town where a supportive female network is the key to success and survival.

Jane Smiley's A Dangerous Business is published on December 6th by Knopf.  In the UK, it will be published by Abacus in January 2023. I'd reviewed it initially for the Historical Novels Review. I believe this is my first time reading one of the author's novels since The Greenlanders, a literary epic set in the 14th century (fascinating and grim, as I recall).

Monday, November 28, 2022

The Godmother's Secret by Elizabeth St.John presents a new angle to the Princes in the Tower story

The Wars of the Roses between the Lancaster and York dynasties, and the fate of the Princes in the Tower, have been the subject of numerous historical novels. Each posits its own solution to this real-life mystery from 15th-century England, but the larger story has become well-known to readers of the genre. With her latest novel inspired by women from her family tree, Elizabeth St.John manages to shine an entirely new light on familiar happenings.

The author’s heroine – Lady Elysabeth (St.John) Scrope, who narrates – is someone who would have had a front-row seat to key events and was linked by blood, marriage, or promise to nearly all the major players. Yet I hadn’t heard of her. It feels like her story has been hiding in plain sight all these years, just waiting for someone to discover it. The Godmother’s Secret is a wonderful novel: well-paced, richly characterized, and infused with the author’s theme of how loyalties can influence choices and divide families.

The wife of Yorkist baron John “Jack” Scrope of Bolton Castle, Elysabeth is also the older half-sister of Lancastrian heiress Margaret Beaufort. In the year 1470, Henry VI, last king of the Lancastrian branch of the Plantagenets, asks Elysabeth to witness the birth of, and stand as godmother to, the newborn York heir, thus “placing a cuckoo in the York nest,” as Margaret puts it. Though wary of this undesired responsibility, Elysabeth takes her holy oath to safeguard young Ned's welfare very seriously, even as it sets her against family members and even her husband. Her narrative charts the complex, dangerous path that follows the rise and fall of Fortune’s wheel, as various individuals from the York and Lancaster contingents challenge one another, often with subterfuge, and seek ascendancy.

Besides Elysabeth herself, one of the few who holds the York princes’ welfare close to her heart, there are many other finely delineated characters. The incessant scheming of Margaret Beaufort, with her unique blend of piety and maternal ambition, proves incredibly vexing for her older sister. That said, Elysabeth feels protective towards Margaret, who was forced to marry too young and remains devoted to her only son, Henry Tudor. The love story between Elysabeth and husband Jack unfolds in a moving way, even as she weighs whether to assert her will and flout his wishes. This is also the rare story that fleshes out the personalities of the young princes, Ned and Dickon. The era was an uneasy time for royal children.

This epic novel moves quickly, though it’s worth slowing down to savor the language (“men may fight across hill and dale, but the women draw their own York and Lancaster battle lines across planked and herb-strewn chamber floors”). Elysabeth has multiple secrets to keep, including the Princes’ fate, but another is the existence of her own sovereynté – the agency to decide things for herself. Her determination to chart her own path underlies her actions in this well-researched and engrossing book.

The Godmother's Secret was published in October; thanks to the author for sending me a Kindle copy.  See also my earlier reviews of the author's Lydiard Chronicles: The Lady in the Tower, By Love Divided, and Written in Their Stars.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Mademoiselle Revolution by Zoe Sivak presents the Haitian and French Revolutions from a new viewpoint

Sivak’s bold debut is an original take on the Haitian and French Revolutions, seen from the viewpoint of a biracial woman awakening to her privilege and learning how to wield it in liberty’s name.

In 1791, Sylvie de Rosiers, eighteen and beautiful, is the cosseted only daughter of a coffee planter in Saint-Domingue, a French colony in the West Indies. Her father’s status means she was born free, unlike the Black mother she never knew, and she disdains politics in favor of standard feminine pursuits. But the island’s enslaved people are rising in rebellion. After she sees Vincent Ogé executed for his racial justice activism, Sylvie realizes her complicity in the horrific system.

The action scenes are strikingly written as Sylvie and her half-brother Gaspard narrowly escape being killed and, eventually, sail to Paris, where they stay with their kindly aunt. Among their neighbors are the Duplay family and their soon-to-be-famous tenant, Maximilien Robespierre. As Sylvie’s mind expands through their conversations, she falls into an affair with Robespierre’s confidante and mistress, Cornélie Duplay, though admires Robespierre deeply and can’t get him off her mind.

It takes audacity to insert a fictional character amidst the French Revolution’s major players, but Sivak manages to pull it off. That said, Sylvie can be reckless—leaving the house in pearls with impoverished sans-culottes nearby isn’t the brightest move—and the prose occasionally lands heavily. The scope is impressively wide-ranging as Sylvie, from her unique vantage as a woman of color, observes the shifts between different political factions and realizes her power and its limitations.

Cinematic details unfold on the page as violent discord plays out on Paris’s streets and Sylvie ponders the similarities and differences between the two revolutions. Thought-provoking and passionate, this story marks Sivak as an author worth watching.

Mademoiselle Revolution was published by Berkley in August (I reviewed it for the Historical Novels Review, from a NetGalley copy).  

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Historical novel showcase for University Press Week 2022, part 2

Here's the second half of the University Press Week celebration at Reading the Past, with nine other new and forthcoming historical novels (by seven authors) from a variety of university presses.

A story of local dramas and racism in a "sundown town" (where Black people were warned to stay away after dark) in rural Illinois in the 1960s, James Janko's What We Don't Talk About is out this month from the University of Wisconsin Press.  (Published November 2022)

Code of Honor is the 16th novel in the Peter Wake nautical adventure series from award-winning novelist Robert N. Macomber.  Over the past twenty years, the series has moved from small, Florida-based Pineapple Press to McBooks Press, a publisher of adventure fiction, and now to the Naval Institute Press. This latest entry follows Wake, now Rear Admiral after a decades-long career in the U.S. Navy, through the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05.  (Published April 2022)

Mercer University Press in Macon, Georgia, publishes multiple historical novels each year. John Pruitt's Tell It True centers on the murder of a Black lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army reserve and the subsequent investigation, which pulls in the stories of journalists, politicians, the police, and more during a time of Civil Rights protests in summer 1964.  (Published October 2022)

Laura Secord's An Art, a Craft, a Mystery is unusual for the genre is that it's a work of adult fiction written as poetry.  It comes from Livingston Press, the literary imprint at the University of West Alabama.  Set in mid-17th-century Connecticut, the novel reveals the little-known stories of two real-life women who were accused of witchcraft. (Published February 2022)

In terms of literary works, Stephen F. Austin State University (SFA) Press specializes in East Texas and regional settings. Anne Sloan's Her Choice features a female journalist covering the 1928 Democratic National Convention in Houston as the city attempts damage control after a lynching takes place there days before the crowds arrive. (Published November 2022)

The lives of early 20th-century residents of the Southwest also figure in C. W. Smith's Girl Flees Circus, about an aviatrix making a sudden appearance in a tiny New Mexican town, upending everyone's lives (and her own).  From the University of New Mexico Press, which has an active fiction list and has also published juvenile fiction.  (Published September 2022)

Norwegian-Danish novelist Sigrid Undset won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928; her best-known work is her three-volume epic of a woman's tumultuous life in medieval Norway, Kristin Lavransdatter. Tiina Nunnally received acclaim for the modern translation. More recently, she took on the project of translating Undset's Olav Audunssøn saga, also set in 13th-century Norway.  (The previous translation was published as The Master of Hestviken.)  Details at the website of its publisher, the University of Minnesota Press, mention that their edition of Olav Audunssøn is the first English version of this series in nearly 100 years. The first three volumes have appeared so far.  Read more at The Modern Novel website. (Published 2020-2022)

University Press Week logo

Monday, November 14, 2022

Celebrating University Press Week 2022 with a historical novel showcase (and resources for potential authors)

Happy University Press Week!  Held this year on November 14-18, this annual celebration recognizes the excellence and innovations in university press publishing.  The event is sponsored currently by the Association of University Presses, which revived it in 2012, meaning it's now in its 11th year. 

University presses are known for publishing the latest in scholarly research via monographs and journals.  Authors and readers may not realize, though, that many university presses are also active publishers of fiction for a general readership. The historical novels from these presses often have a regional focus or common theme, such as Western fiction or international fiction in English translation. That said, university presses don't chase the latest trends, so you'll find topics and settings treated here that may not be picked up by large commercial publishers.  As such, they make an integral contribution to the historical fiction landscape.

Interested in considering a university press for your historical fiction manuscript?  Please see Finding a Publisher at the AUP site, and look especially at the subject area grid to see which member presses publish fiction.  You typically won't need a literary agent, but if you have one, they can assist with the process.  Also see Who can be published by a university press?  While authors of scholarly monographs may need a terminal degree, this varies by genre and doesn't usually apply to fiction.

Now on to the books!  Below are eight new and upcoming historical novels from university presses.  This is the first of two posts.

Hoopoe is the fiction imprint of the American University in Cairo Press, and they specialize in novels from the Middle East, especially works in translation. Ibrahim al-Koni's The Night Will Have Its Say, translated by Nancy Roberts, is set in the late seventh century CE amid the Arab conquests of North Africa.  Read an interview with the author at the Hoopoe Fiction blog.  (Published November 2022)

Bison Books, the trade imprint of the University of Nebraska Press, emphasizes literature of the "trans-Mississippi West."  Kate Anger's debut The Shinnery, inspired by historical events, tells a coming-of-age story about a young woman in 1890s Texas who gets mixed up with the wrong man. (Published September 2022)

Native Oklahoman (and English professor at the University of Oklahoma) Rilla Askew went with the University of Oklahoma Press for publication of her newest historical novel, Prize for the Fire, biographical fiction about Tudor-era writer and preacher Anne Askew (no known relation), who was burned at the stake for heresy in 1546. The author's Depression-era historical novel Harpsong was published by the same press in 2007.  Read her launch interview with Anne Easter Smith at the Historical Novel Society website. (Published October 2022)  

Douglas Bauer's The Beckoning World, just out from the University of Iowa Press, tells the story of a coal miner who achieves his dream of playing major-league baseball in the early 20th century, against the background of the Spanish influenza pandemic.  (Published November 2022) 

Dead Reckoning, the U.S. Naval Institute's graphic novel imprint, has been publishing military-themed historical fiction and nonfiction for several years.  Read about the background to their publishing program at Publishers Weekly. The Stretcher Bearers by brothers Reid Beaman and Ryan Beaman centers on a group of young men who strive to save their fellow soldiers during WWI's Meuse-Argonne Offensive.  (Published April 2022)

From the University of Virginia Press comes Crusoe's Footprint by Martinique-born French novelist Patrick Chamoiseau (trans. Jeffrey Landon Allen and Charly Verstraet), a novel that incorporates Creole history in its magical-realism retelling of the story of Daniel Defoe's character Robinson Crusoe.  (Published November 2022)

Columbia University Press has published translations of many works of literature from Asia.  Translated into English by Pao-fang Hsu, Ian Maxwell, and Tung-jung Chen, Puppet Flower by Yao-Chang Chen dramatizes the Rover incident of 1867, a political crisis ignited by the wreck of an American merchant ship in southern Taiwan and subsequent acts of retaliation, as seen from multiple viewpoints.  (To be published April 2023)

Patricia L. Hudson's debut novel, Traces, reveals American frontier history from the viewpoints of Rebecca Boone, wife of Daniel, and two of their daughters, Susannah and Jemima, combining detailed historical research with logical supposition. Read more about it in the author's interview for The Southern Review of Books and in the Historical Novels Review's New Voices column.  It was published by the University of Kentucky Press's Fireside Industries imprint, which focuses on stories of rural America and Appalachia. (Published November 2022)

Saturday, November 12, 2022

Review of Olesya Salnikova Gilmore's The Witch and the Tsar, myth-inspired historical fantasy set in 16th-century Russia

In the vein of Madeline Miller’s Circe and other feminist takes on long-enduring myths, Gilmore’s debut novel takes a fresh look at Baba Yaga, depicting her not as an evil hag but as a half-mortal woman who shoulders the burden of saving Russia’s people from tyranny and malevolent gods during Ivan the Terrible’s reign.

Daughter of Mokosh, an ancient earth goddess, Yaga is a skilled healer who helps clients who visit her hut in the remote Russian woods. Though centuries old, she appears no more than thirty and misses living in a community, but she’s learned her lesson about involving herself in human affairs. That is, until Anastasia Romanovna, the tsaritsa, calls upon their longtime friendship. Anastasia has been poisoned, and after healing her, Yaga returns to Moscow and the royal court to safeguard Anastasia’s life—and finds herself facing characters with whom she has a painful history, and who may be manipulating Tsar Ivan to their own dreadful purposes.

Set amid the political turmoil of 16th-century Russia, a woefully underutilized setting in fiction, The Witch and the Tsar incorporates impressive world-building—the necessary scaffolding for an immersive experience in both historical fiction and fantasy. The novel is about as ideal a crossover between the genres that it’s possible to achieve, with vivid details on colorful period clothing, palace décor, and the brooding taiga as well as otherworldly rituals and capricious divine beings. Though packed with bursts of action, the story is quite thoughtful and paced accordingly.

The overall tone is dark, though Yaga’s chicken-legged hut, Little Hen, is adorable and lightens the mood on occasion. Yaga can be overly naïve, given her true age and experience, though Gilmore succeeds in showing her emotional growth and the full range of her mortal and divine natures. This deep-dive into Russian history and folklore presents a rich cultural panorama.

The Witch and the Tsar was published by Berkley/Ace on September 20; I reviewed it for November's Historical Novels Review.  The novel will be published in the UK by HarperVoyager in December.

Tuesday, November 08, 2022

The historical novels of Irish writer Eleanor Fairburn are available again

Cecily quartet by Eleanor Fairburn

Eleanor Fairburn (1928-2015), whose real name was Eva (Lyons) Fairburn, was a highly regarded historical novelist and mystery writer. She wrote under various pseudonyms; you can find a lengthy biography of her, with details on her work, at the National Museum of Ireland. Within the historical fiction genre, she specialized in re-creating the lives of medieval and Renaissance women who had unfairly been forgotten and whose actions were frequently deemed scandalous in their time.

Most of her historical novels were never published in the United States, and I only became aware of them because I'd been collecting fiction about royalty. Novels about royal women were in vogue in the UK in the 1960s-1980s, and among them, Fairburn's novels stand out for their deft portraits of complex heroines and the circumstances they lived through.  The books weren't easy to find (many were published before I was born), and some never appeared on the secondhand market because they were so rare. 

Eleanor Fairburn's historical novels - Crowned Ermine, The Golden Hive, The Green Popinjays, The White Seahorse

In 2010, I wrote a review of Fairburn's The Golden Hive for this blog, as part of one of the reading challenges that were so popular then. Its subject is Nesta of Deheubarth, an 11th-century Welsh noblewoman who became a mistress of England's King Henry I.  The Golden Hive was published in 1966, and the writing still had a freshness that drew me in. If you follow Elizabeth Chadwick on social media, you'll know that she's also written a novel about Nesta (The King's Jewel) that will be out in April 2023, and I look forward to seeing her take on the character. 

After my post went up, I was excited to get an email from the author herself. She thanked me for the review, said it was a nice surprise to find it, and that she was hoping to interest her publisher in reprinting. I wrote back that I hoped that would happen. Fast forward twelve years, and the other day I came upon new editions of Fairburn's novels on Amazon, published by the Fairburn Estate, with new introductions and beautifully designed covers. Thanks to the rise of indie publishing, more readers today will be able to easily obtain her books without going through used book dealers.

Their subjects are as follows.  Links go to the Kindle editions, but they're also available in paperback.

The Cecily Quartet, photo at top, is a series of four novels about Cecily of York, mother of Edward IV and Richard III during England's War of the Roses, imagining her life from childhood through old age. The note on Amazon says the series was republished for its 50th anniversary. 

Crowned Ermine reveals the life story of heiress Anne of Brittany, who became twice queen of France in the 15th century.

Fairburn's The Green Popinjays is about Lady Lucia de Thweng, termed the "Helen of Cleveland." The author's first historical novel, it delved into the life and motivations of a woman of notoriety from 13th-century Yorkshire who married three times, divorced one of her husbands, and had several children out of wedlock. Read more about Lucia at the Cleveland & Teesside Local History Society.

The White Seahorse covers the life of Graunya "Grace" O'Malley, Irish pirate queen during the Elizabethan era.

and The Golden Hive is detailed as above. Three of Fairburn's mysteries written as Catherine Carfax, with settings ranging from Victorian England to then-contemporary France and Ireland, are also newly available.  If you decide to pick any of these up, please let me know your thoughts!

Sunday, November 06, 2022

Serena Burdick's The Stolen Book of Evelyn Aubrey tells a Victorian tale of family mystery and delicious revenge

If you could get back at someone who profoundly wronged you, even if it upends your life, would you do it? This is the question facing Evelyn Aubrey, a once-adored wife in turn-of-the-20th-century Oxfordshire, England. For her, the opportunity proves too seductive to resist.

In 1898, after ditching her stolid fiancé, Evelyn dives headlong into a passionate marriage with William Aubrey, a writer basking in the success of his recent debut novel. She expects their life at his ancestral home, Abbington Hall, to center on their shared literary interests—Evelyn is penning her own book—but a bout of writer’s block transforms William into a cold, jealous creature who steals her manuscript and publishes it under his own name.

Much later, in 2006 Berkeley, California, Abigail Phillips finds a photograph of her late mother with a young man—the father she knew nothing about—and learns he was the great-grandson of Evelyn Aubrey, a redhead with Gibson Girl looks who she strongly resembles. Abigail travels to England to learn about the mysterious Evelyn, who vanished the same day William’s scandalous final book was published.

As with many multi-period novels, the historical thread is the more compelling, with twists aplenty and a period-accurate theme of sexist double standards. “It still surprises him that I am his equal, and it surprises me that he would think of me as anything less,” writes Evelyn about her new husband in her journal—words that hit home.

To give her a deeper character arc, Burdick makes Abigail a directionless woman in her early thirties (she seems much younger), and Abbington Hall’s current residents accept her story with astonishing ease. Abigail’s journey toward maturity is ultimately touching, and the mystery of Evelyn’s fate unfolds in both timelines with growing suspense. This gothic-tinged novel tells an empowering tale of betrayal and delicious revenge.

The Stolen Book of Evelyn Aubrey was published by Park Row/HarperCollins in the US on November 1 (I reviewed it for November's Historical Novels Review).

Tuesday, November 01, 2022

Gill Hornby's Godmersham Park takes a witty, observant look at Jane Austen's family

Within the umbrella of historical fiction, one finds the category of biographical novels, works re-imagining the stories of real-life people from the past. Gill Hornby’s Godmersham Park, centering on a woman who worked for Jane Austen's family, ranks among the best of them.

Hornby’s protagonist is Anne Sharp, who arrives at the comfortable estate of Godmersham Park in rural Kent in 1804 to become governess to Fanny Austen, eldest daughter of Jane’s brother Edward. Anne is brand new to this role; she was raised as the beloved only daughter of a respectable man who mysteriously cast her off after her mother’s death, leaving her only a small annual income of £35. (We learn why as the novel progresses. Although little is known of the historical Anne Sharp’s background, Hornby makes a logical guess at the reason.)

Perplexed by her unexpected circumstances, Anne, aged 31, needs to walk a fine line with her exacting new mistress, Elizabeth Austen. “Miss Sharp” must be intelligent but not too clever; she must be proper and respectable without attracting male attention. Most of all, she should avoid all excesses, including – ironically – any enthusiasm for female education: “You are not here to turn my daughter into a bluestocking,” Mrs. Austen tells her. “Oh, but of course—” she replies, though we learn that “Anne could think of little else finer.”

Although Anne must tamp down her passionate nature with the large Austen brood – as Fanny informs her, new babies arrive with regularity – Hornby brings Anne’s complex persona alive for readers, who can delight in the keen observations and wry remarks she isn’t allowed to speak aloud. Anne’s status as not-quite-family, not-quite-servant makes her an outsider in nearly all respects, which gives her a uniquely perceptive viewpoint on household goings-on. As a boy, Edward Austen had the advantage of being adopted by wealthy distant relatives, and his fortune, when compared to his siblings, creates an unbridgeable divide that Hornby describes with crisp, elegant detail: “The Austens, she now saw, were of the same family and yet two distinct classes. She was witnessing here both sides of the fairy tale.”

author Gill Hornby
author Gill Hornby
As governess, “Miss Sharp” faces other challenges. She is plagued by severe headaches, and the below-stairs servants hate her, but she can’t risk losing her position by complaining about either. On his visits, Henry Austen, Edward’s brother, poses difficulty as well. He recognizes Anne’s intelligence, and she’s alternately vexed and intrigued by his combination of clueless male privilege and thoughtful kindness. Through Fanny’s correspondence with her Aunt Jane, Anne comes to feel an affinity for this Austen relation, which develops into firm friendship when the women meet in person. And while Jane plays a major role later in the story, she doesn’t steal the spotlight. Anne is such a vibrant character that she more than holds her own.

Brimming with the perennial Austen themes of social class and the precariousness of women’s financial situations, Godmersham Park presents a richly evoked Georgian atmosphere, nuanced family dynamics, and numerous quotable lines of witty dialogue. The novel is a treasure for all lovers of character-centered historical fiction, both Austen devotees and not.

Godmersham Park is published in the U.S. by Pegasus Books today, and this review is part of the author's blog tour with Austenprose PR.

Austenprose book tour banner





Gill Hornby is the author of the novels Miss Austen, The Hive, and All Together Now, as well as The Story of Jane Austen, a biography of Austen for young readers. She lives in Kintbury, England, with her husband and their four children.


Saturday, October 29, 2022

New historical novels on my wishlist for winter and spring 2023

Is it just me, or is the marketing for upcoming books starting earlier than ever?  My inbox has been filling up with promotions for historical novels set to be published through next April and May.  Six months is a long time to wait, but most of the books below are available for review via NetGalley or Edelweiss now (and the others will hopefully follow soon). These will all appear early next year. 

Which ones are you interested in, or are there others you're eagerly anticipating?  I'm not sure when I'll get to these since my review schedule is packed over the next few months, but I hope to read them eventually.  For a more comprehensive look at historical fiction for 2023, please see the Historical Novel Society forthcoming title listing or this Goodreads list.

The Porcelain Moon by Janie ChangJanie Chang's newest novel (after The Library of Legends, which I enjoyed very much) takes her to WWI-era France, showing a Chinese woman's friendship with a Frenchwoman during a time of great strife, and what happens after secrets from the past are revealed. William Morrow, Feb. 2023. [see on Goodreads]

The Woman with the Cure by Lynn Cullen
We know (especially from reading historical fiction) that many women of science and medicine weren't given the respect or credit they deserved for their work.  Lynn Cullen's timely historical novel focuses on epidemiologist Dorothy Horstmann and the quest to develop a polio vaccine in the 1940s and '50s. Berkley, Feb. 2023. [see on Goodreads]

The Lioness of Boston by Emily FranklinThe "Lioness of Boston" in Emily Franklin's novel is outspoken Gilded Age philanthropist and art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner, centering on how she became a leading light of the Boston art scene. Godine, April 2023. [see on Goodreads]

Daughters of Nantucket by Julie GerstenblattAnother New England-set historical novel, and a debut for Gerstenblatt: the intertwining stories of three women of Nantucket as the island's great fire breaks out in 1846.  The trio includes a captain's wife, a free Black merchant, and astronomer Maria Mitchell.  MIRA, March 2023. [see on Goodreads]

Weyward by Emilia Hart

The tagline of "Three women. Five centuries. One secret" gets me very curious!  An Englishwoman, an ancestress of the novel's contemporary heroine, was put on trial for witchcraft in the early 17th century.  Three women are linked by the gendered violence they've all faced, and perhaps by something else. I sense this will appeal to readers of Sarah Penner's The Lost Apothecary as well as fans of witch-themed fiction. St. Martin's, March 2023. [see on Goodreads]

The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho by Paterson JosephLast week, the author was a presenter at Library Journal's latest Day of Dialog sessions for librarians. Charles Ignatius Sancho is a historical figure, a man who was born on a slave ship and became, among other achievements, an abolitionist, merchant, writer, and the first Black man to vote in Britain in the 1770s. The publisher describes his fictional diaries as "for fans of Bridgerton," which may be true, although this sounds like a very different (less fluffy, for one) sort of read. Henry Holt, April 2023. [see on Goodreads]

The Witch of Tin Mountain by Paulette KennedyBecause this title was postponed from the fall, there's been a lot of buzz about it on social media already. Kennedy's debut novel was a gothic feast, so I'm expecting the same of this new book, in addition to a deep dive into regional color and lore. It's described as a multi-period tale set partly in the Depression-era Ozarks that follows three women linked by family and an evil presence. Lake Union, Feb. 2023. [see on Goodreads]

The Secrets of Hartwood Hall by Katie LumsdenI do enjoy Gothic sagas, and this one has classic elements: a supposedly cursed old mansion in Victorian England, a governess, creepy night-time noises, and creepier secrets. But the heroine in Lumsden's novel is a recent widow rather than a naïve ingenue, and I look forward to seeing what other tropes are upended. Dutton, Feb. 2023. [see on Goodreads]

Homecoming by Kate MortonKate Morton's novels are auto-buys for me (she's among my favorite authors, and though they only appear every few years, they're worth waiting for) so of course I had to list her upcoming book here. Set mostly in Australia, Homecoming moves between contemporary times and 1959 as a journalist investigates a notorious, decades-old tragedy. Mariner, April 2023. [see on Goodreads]

River Sing Me Home by Eleanor ShearerSet in the British-ruled Caribbean following the Emancipation Act of 1834, this debut novel follows a courageous woman from a Barbados plantation in search of the five children who were sold away from her during slavery.  As with Paterson Joseph's novel, above, Shearer was a speaker at LJ's Day of Dialog. [see on Goodreads]

In the Upper Country by Kai ThomasAnother of the debuts on this list, Kai Thomas's novel also takes place in the 19th century and covers a lesser-known part of North American history: the story of the Black and Indigenous people whose life stories played out along the Underground Railroad in the U.S. and Canada.  Viking, Jan. 2023. [see on Goodreads]

Stealing by Margaret VerbleVerble is a literary historical fiction writer and Pulitzer finalist (for her debut, Maud's Line) who's an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation. In Stealing, her fourth novel, she tells the story of a Cherokee child sent to live at a Christian boarding school, the harsh treatment and abuse she endures, and her determination to break away. Important history retold as fiction. Mariner, Feb. 2023. [see on Goodreads]