Saturday, June 25, 2022

In the Face of the Sun takes its characters on a wild road trip through Civil Rights-era America

In late May 1968, when Francine “Frankie” Saunders climbs into her Aunt Daisy’s gorgeous new Ford Mustang, her aim is to flee Chicago and her abusive husband. She fears for her safety and that of the unborn child he doesn’t know about. Frankie barely knows Daisy, an irreverent, weed-smoking woman of nearly sixty who’s been estranged from Frankie’s mother for forty years, but she desperately needs Daisy’s help.

On the wild road trip these two Black women take to Los Angeles, across two thousand miles with many bumps and detours, Frankie hopes to learn what caused the argument between Daisy and her mother. Daisy has another motive in mind for the journey’s end: revenge against someone from her past.

These two characters and their world jump off the page in radiant detail: their contrasting personalities, their distinctive looks (Daisy resembles a film star with her cat-eyed sunglasses, gingham dress, and perfect makeup), and their approaches to navigating America just two months after Martin Luther King’s assassination.

A second narrative, set in 1928, follows twenty-year-old Daisy Washington as she works as a chambermaid for L.A.’s Hotel Somerville, a prestigious facility catering to the Black elite. After her mother suffers a mental and physical breakdown, Daisy, a would-be journalist, aims to keep her younger sister, Henrietta, out of trouble while collecting celebrity gossip for a friend’s newspaper column. Both threads of this propulsive story ultimately lead to the same destination: the revelation of the terrible event that divided the Washington sisters.

In her second novel, Bryce shines light on notable people and events from American history, from civil rights activists Drs. Vada and John Somerville and the actor Stepin Fetchit to the painful wounds of Tulsa. The scenes are cinematically vivid, the language fresh and vibrant, the characters complicated and real.

Denny S. Bryce's In the Face of the Sun was published by Kensington in April (I'd reviewed it for the Historical Novels Review from a NetGalley copy). I also recommend her debut, Wild Women and the Blues.

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Marguerite Poland's A Sin of Omission evokes the repercussions of colonialism in 19th-century South Africa

A heart-wrenching story elevated through luminous writing, Marguerite Poland’s fictional tribute to a historical Black South African missionary was shortlisted for the 2020 Walter Scott Prize in its original edition.

In 1880, Stephen Malusi Mzamane, deacon at Nodyoba, a remote mission in the hills of the Eastern Cape, prepares for a difficult journey to inform his mother about his older brother’s death. Most of the novel, though, looks back to reveal the circumstances leading him to this point. Found in the Donsa bush while foraging for food at age nine, the boy baptized “Stephen” is educated at the Native College in Grahamstown and later sent to the Missionary College in Canterbury, England, as part of the Anglican church’s plans to “Christianise the native.”

Though Stephen excels with his assignments, Poland depicts, in evocative words ringing with truth, how his progress in the Church and life is agonizingly held back by the bitter, systemic effects of colonialism. As a member of the “heathen” Ngqika people granted the rare privilege of a British education, he must simultaneously confront others’ high and low expectations for his conduct.

Readers can’t help but be moved by the internal conflict Stephen feels and his reactions to the burden of gratitude weighing him down. He also feels torn because his parishioners are from a different nation than he, and his superiors assume this doesn’t matter.

All relationships are depicted with nuance: the two friendships Stephen cherishes across great distance; his challenging bond with brother Mzamo, once a promising scholar himself; and his preoccupation with a mysterious woman from a photograph. Respectful of her subject and his culture, Poland highlights the importance of Xhosa names and the language itself in Stephen’s world.

Remarkable on a sentence level and as a fully realized portrait of an honorable man, this is literary historical fiction of a high order.

A Sin of Omission was first published by Penguin Books South Africa in 2019, and the ebook version (which I had purchased) is available on Amazon (US). It was subsequently published by the British publisher EnvelopeBooks last month.  I reviewed it for the Historical Novels Review in May. In addition to the Walter Scott Prize shortlisting, the novel won the 2021 Sunday Times award for fiction.

This story is not quite biographical fiction. Stephen is based on a real person whose history was known to members of the author's family, prompting her interest and further research into his life.  Read more at the Sunday Times (South Africa) as well as Wanda Wyporska's interview with the author at the Historical Novel Society's website.

Monday, June 13, 2022

Sisters of the Sweetwater Fury evokes early 20th-century Great Lakes women's lives, at sea and on land

With a strong sense of verisimilitude, Bryan takes readers into the raging heart of a historic event best experienced through fiction: the devastating Great Lakes Storm of 1913. As November settles in, during what’s been a low-casualty shipping season thus far, three sisters with deep roots in the region quietly endure the weight of marital and family expectations, not realizing how high the stakes will soon be raised for their very survival.

For the last decade, Sunny Colvin has cooked alongside her husband Herb, ship’s steward, aboard the steel freighter Titus Brown as it plies Lake Huron. When she hears a café is for sale in her home of Port Austin, Michigan, she fears disappointing Herb with her yearning to purchase it and leave shipboard life behind. Sunny’s younger sister Cordelia, a newlywed wanting to know her stoic lake-captain husband Edmund better, joins him on his journey across Lake Superior.

Back in Port Austin, a picturesque town on Michigan’s “Thumb,” oldest sister Agnes Inby, a widow of thirty-six, spends her days painting pottery and caring for her difficult mother, not letting herself dream about anything more, such as her unexpected feelings for the lighthouse-keeper’s sister, Lizzie. Adding to the already palpable tension of suppressed words and desires, the storm erupts at sea.

This is a real hang-onto-your-seat read. The action is nonstop intense as Sunny and Cordelia endure howling winds and freezing temperatures as water seeps in and fills their living spaces while the ships pitch from side to side. Inside at the Port Austin Life-Saving Station, where she grew up, Agnes prays the building will continue to hold. Bryan illustrates the interior lives of early 20th-century Great Lakes women as adeptly as she describes a ship’s layout and the visceral experience of this destructive storm.

Sisters of the Sweetwater Fury was independently published last October; I reviewed it for May's Historical Novels Review. An author I know recommended it to me, and the subject intrigued me because part of my family is from Michigan.  It's definitely worth reading! This is the author's debut novel, and it's also received positive mentions from Publishers Weekly and the Blue Ink Review. I look forward to seeing what she writes next.

Thursday, June 09, 2022

Prepare for a TBR explosion with these guides to new and forthcoming historical novels

It's nearly summer in the US, a time when media outlets are recommending novels to read over the warmer months and through the rest of 2022 as well.  Here are links to roundups that center on historical novels.

Library Journal's first historical fiction preview, compiled by Melissa DeWild, includes a whopping 86 upcoming titles, with short blurbs and comments from publishers. They're grouped mostly by category, with considerable focus on the world wars and subgroups thereof, plus others that span a wider range of eras and global settings. If you get paywalled, try registering for a free account with LJ.

Alida Becker's New York Times review roundup with new historical fiction to read this summer includes a good mix of commercial and literary historical fiction.

In Cosmopolitan, check out their choices of best historical fiction for 2022; most of these titles are already out, but not all.

The list at Business Insider mixes classic favorites and past award-winners with brand new selections: 28 in all that, they say, promise to "whisk you away to a different world."

Book Riot's coverage of historical fiction has been particularly strong lately. Last month, writer Kelly Jensen offered a guide to the best historical fiction organized by era, subgenre, age group, and other useful categories.

Historical mysteries are a favorite subgenre of mine. Writing for CrimeReads, novelist Christopher Huang has a piece responding to the question: "How do you decolonize the Golden Age mystery?" He recommends a wealth of new novels that examine the 1920s and '30s from viewpoints other than white and/or European.  I especially liked these comments:

"... diversity is desirable because it represents a larger experience of the world and a fresh take on what we think we know. Especially in the context of historical fiction, an alternate viewpoint gives us a clearer understanding of what the world looked like. And why do we read fiction at all, if not for fresh experiences outside of what we know?"

Back in April, BuzzFeed published a guide to historical romances for Bridgerton fans.

In the Times (London), Antonia Senior has monthly roundups of the best new historical novels out that month (in the UK). Her May column is here, with settings ranging from ancient Greece to the 18th century. You can sign up for a free account to read these columns as they appear.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the Historical Novel Society's guides to forthcoming historical novels, compiled by Fiona Sheppard and Susan Firghil Park.  The guide for adult titles goes through March 2023, and the children's/YA list goes through next January; these are regularly updated.

Tuesday, June 07, 2022

Geraldine Brooks' multi-period latest novel, Horse, intertwines horse racing and hidden Black history

With exceptional characterizations, Pulitzer winner Brooks (The Secret Chord, 2015) tells an emotionally impactful tale centering on the life and legacy of Lexington, a bay colt who became a racing champion in mid-19th-century America.

Present at the horse’s birth is Jarret, an enslaved groom on Dr. Elisha Warfield’s vast Kentucky farm, and the pair develop an enduring bond. Jarret’s nuanced conversations with traveling equestrian artist Thomas Scott about the horse are mutually enlightening. Through Jarret and his father, a free Black man and expert horse trainer, readers encounter a wide range of injustices experienced by people of their race.

This perennially relevant theme extends into the 21st century via Theo, a Nigerian American art PhD student. His path intersects with Jess, an Australian-born scientist at the Smithsonian, after Theo saves an old equestrian portrait discarded by his neighbor.

Among the most structurally complex of all Brooks’ acclaimed literary historical novels, the narrative adroitly interlaces multiple eras and perspectives, including that of 1950s New York gallery owner Martha Jackson, who appears midway through.

From rural Kentucky to multicultural New Orleans, renditions of setting are pitch-perfect, and the story brings to life the important roles filled by Black horsemen in America’s past. Brooks also showcases the magnificent beauty and competitive spirit of Lexington himself.

Horse is published next Tuesday (June 14) in the US by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House. I submitted this starred review for Booklist, and it was published in the magazine's April 15th issue. 

For those interested in seeing what Lexington looked like, below is a portrait by American painter Edward Troye in 1860, when Lexington was in his tenth year:

This novel is strongly based in history, although the modern-day characters are fictional, and little has come down to us about the real Jarret (meaning Brooks had to invent much about his character). Read more about the novel's historical background in a Q&A at Geraldine Brooks' website.

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson is a Caribbean saga revealing mysteries of family heritage

In 2018, after their mother Eleanor’s death, estranged siblings Byron and Benedetta “Benny” Bennett return to their California home for the memorial and to heed Eleanor’s final requests: that they listen together, in an attorney’s presence, to a recording Eleanor made in her last days, and sit down to share their mother’s traditional rum-soaked black cake when the time is right.

After years of mutual hurt involving them and their late parents, Byron and Benny are wary of one another. They’re also unsure of their own paths forward. Byron, an African American oceanographer and TV personality, has endured a bad breakup, while Benny had distanced herself for serious personal reasons. Eleanor’s account dredges up mysteries from her youth and shakes up everything her children believed about their family.

This scenario may sound contrived, but it’s surprisingly easy to buy into because of how well the characters and their relationships are fleshed out. As Eleanor begins unspooling a tale about a young woman named Covey, a talented swimmer growing up on an unnamed Caribbean island in the ’60s, Byron and Benny are skeptical about its relevance. But the less said about the plot, the better, save that it spans miles and continents across decades and delves into themes of survival, exile, and the deep flavor of one’s heritage.

To call Black Cake innovatively layered is understating things. While the story may seem like it bounces between people and eras without a discernible pattern, soon you’ll realize that this talented debut author has her recipe under perfect control. A few pages here, a full chapter there, all added at just the right time. The revelations keep coming; by the end, every question is answered and then some. Eleanor is a marvel of a protagonist, and just like its subject, Black Cake is a satisfying dish worth sharing with others.

Black Cake was published by Ballantine in February (Michael Joseph is the UK publisher). I reviewed it for a past issue of the Historical Novels Review.  It was a NY Times bestseller and a Read with Jenna book club pick, and Amazon tells me it's in production as a Hulu limited series. Read more at Deadline. I hadn't realized the novel was partly historical until a publicist emailed and offered me a NetGalley widget, and I'm glad she did.

Friday, May 27, 2022

Seventeenth-century events echo in the present in Evie Hawtrey's historical thriller And By Fire

Evie Hawtrey’s dual-period mystery marks the debut of a new pseudonym for Sophie Perinot, who has previously written historicals about female royals (and has contributed to other collaboratively-written novels). Switching genres can pose a creative challenge for writers, though based on my experience reading And By Fire, the author's style is a natural fit for crime fiction.

The novel's modern thread takes the form of a London-based police procedural, and the historical tale (or rather, tales) takes place during the Great Fire of 1666. Somehow, the crimes in both areas are connected… but what could possibly link them across more than 350 years? For one clever perpetrator, the past clearly does not lie quietly.

The settings have a very British feel in all aspects, including the characters’ vocabulary. Nigella Parker, Detective Inspector with the City of London Police in the present, won me over with her no-nonsense attitude and wry wit. She and her counterpart at Scotland Yard, former lover Colm O’Leary, get called in to investigate a case of nuisance arson: a human-shaped wooden figure is found, burned, at the base of the monument to the Great Fire. Nigella’s specialty is arson cases, and her intuition tells her the crimes will escalate, since the “weird ones have a habit of getting weirder,” she says. She’s right. All too soon, Nigella and O’Leary are tracking a murderer who seemingly wants to stick it to Sir Christopher Wren, the legendary English architect.

And in the 17th century, Margaret Dove, lady-in-waiting to Charles II’s Portuguese queen, Catherine of Braganza, is falling in love with a lower-born man, Etienne Belland, His Majesty’s fireworks-maker. Margaret is a woman of science, or would be if her gender didn’t prevent formal study. She struggles to avoid being matched with an unwanted suitor and to overcome the poor prognosis for her health. When a bookseller friend of the couple goes missing amid the conflagration that engulfs London, they need to learn what happened.

Vivid scenes of the Great Fire placed me amid the chaos as flames sweep through the city, people flee with their families and goods, and the King and his brother try in vain to halt the spread. Tension literally and figuratively heats up, since for some, the destruction proves to be an all-too-tempting opportunity. I also appreciated the attention to social class, such as the reaction of Etienne’s family once they realize Margaret is a noblewoman. In the present day, Nigella and O’Leary use all the tools at their disposal, like interviews with witnesses, CCTV footage, and the work of a forensic sketch artist. The two have obvious chemistry, which Nigella – who has moved on to a new lover, James – chooses to ignore for the time being.

Briskly paced and sharply written with multilayered characters, the story left me thinking about the factors that motivate people to commit crimes, and the strategies it takes to solve them in different eras.

And By Fire was published by Crooked Lane in May (I read it from a NetGalley copy).

Saturday, May 21, 2022

Fiona Mountain's The Keeper of Songs movingly evokes the folk music heritage of the '60s

Downton Abbey meets Sharyn McCrumb in swinging 1960s Britain.

In 2002, when Silva Brightmore’s father John passes away unexpectedly in his fifties, she gets pulled into solving the mystery posed by his last words for her: “Find Molly.” Silva’s mum had abandoned their family years beforehand, and after finding a record album sleeve with a photo of a beautiful raven-haired folksinger, Molly Marrison, Silva begins wondering if her dad had had a romance with this young woman as well.

Silva works as a housemaid (or more accurately put, conservation assistant) at Chatsworth House, the stately home of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire in the Peak District. Beautiful views of this idyllic setting fill the novel’s pages. As she searches for where Molly might be, Silva sorts through her feelings for an old boyfriend from her teenage years, Robbie Nightingale, a traveling song-collector who returns to support her in her grief.

The story wanders back periodically to the watershed year of 1967, a time of experimentation with free love and drugs, when folk music spoke directly to young people’s souls. Fiona Mountain places readers in the moment as Molly casts a spell over her audience with her passionate interpretation of an old ballad involving runaway lovers and a terrible murder. While stirring up nostalgia for this long-ago time, the author adds a good dose of realism, since women in particular were both romanticized and stigmatized for their personal choices in the late ‘60s.

One aspect of the mystery feels predictable (though not to Silva), but working out the “why” is just as interesting as the “what.” The story exhibits the author’s deep affection for Chatsworth and the villages within the picturesque estate setting. With the skill of an eloquent balladeer, she makes you think about how aspects of family and regional history turn into local legends and songs, and what truths can be gleaned from them.

The Keeper of Songs was independently published by SnowGlobe Books in 2021; this was a personal purchase.  There are many angles to delve into for readalikes for this novel.  In addition to the details mentioned above, if you've enjoyed other recent music-infused historical fiction like Taylor Jenkins Reid's Daisy Jones and the Six, Dawnie Walton's The Final Revival of Opal and Nev, or Emma Brodie's Songs in Ursa Major, add this one to your list.  Fiona Mountain has written other historical novels previously, including Isabella; Lady of the Butterflies, about 17th-century scientist Eleanor Glanville; and Cavalier Queen, about Queen Henrietta Maria.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Natalie Jenner's Bloomsbury Girls, set in 1950s London, celebrates bookishness and women's ingenuity

Perfect for historical fiction readers who enjoy literary topics mixed with period-appropriate feminism, Natalie Jenner’s second novel is a charmingly triumphant read. Bloomsbury Girls is more a spin-off than a sequel to her first book, The Jane Austen Society. Knowledge of the first book isn’t necessary (though if you haven’t read it yet, you should!).

Most of the plot takes place within Bloomsbury Books, a century-old establishment located on a cobblestone side street in London’s Bloomsbury district in 1950. Vivien Lowry and Grace Perkins, the shop’s cashier and secretary respectively, are the only female employees. Even though World War II had greatly expanded women’s career horizons, at this shop, “new opportunities for women were still being rationed along with the food.” The general manager, Mr. Herbert Dutton, is famously conservative in his ways and has designed 51 rules for employees to adhere to. Each chapter begins with a different rule, and they’re as amusingly rigid as you’d expect.

author Natalie Jenner
Into this atmosphere comes Evelyn "Evie" Stone, a new Cambridge grad who recently lost a job to a male colleague. Evie is the ultimate introvert, though she has many supporters – in the form of her fellow Jane Austen Society members, men and women who’d come together in the previous book to save their favorite author’s legacy. Evie is about to find new allies in Vivien and Grace. With Mr. Dutton at home recovering from an extended illness, Vivien gets temporarily promoted to Head of Fiction and institutes changes (books by women writers! literary luncheons!) that prove very successful. Newly hired at Bloomsbury Books under unusual circumstances, Evie also has secret motives for being there.

Through her mix of characters, Jenner demonstrates her familiarity with gender, class, and racial differences and the tensions they created. Vivien’s aristocratic fiancé had been killed overseas, and his parents never approved of her. Grace’s two sons are the only high points of her home life, and she’s learned to tamp down her frustrations with her overbearing husband. Though her passion is cataloging books, Evie – to her surprise – develops a rapport with Ash Ramaswamy, an Indian-born entomologist who heads up the science department in Bloomsbury’s basement since he couldn’t find another job in England.

This novel will let you indulge in unabashed bookishness while joyfully seeing the smart plans of the “Bloomsbury girls” come to fruition – with the ready assistance of women from London’s renowned literary circles, including Daphne du Maurier. It takes you back to an era when “old fashioned” often referred to socially acceptable misogyny. However, none of the men, even the annoying fellows, are stereotyped; all have issues to overcome. The story also serves as a good reminder that people should never underestimate the quiet ones.

Bloomsbury Girls is published by St. Martin's Press today; I read it from an Edelweiss e-copy for the author's online book tour.

book tour image

Author bio:

Natalie Jenner is the author of the instant international bestseller The Jane Austen Society and Bloomsbury Girls. A Goodreads Choice Award runner-up for historical fiction and finalist for best debut novel, The Jane Austen Society was a USA Today and #1 national bestseller and has been sold for translation in twenty countries. Born in England and raised in Canada, Natalie has been a corporate lawyer, career coach and, most recently, an independent bookstore owner in Oakville, Ontario, where she lives with her family and two rescue dogs. Visit her website to learn more.


Friday, May 13, 2022

The Ladoux Mystery - the spy who framed Mata Hari? A guest post by Alan Bardos

In today's guest post, historical novelist Alan Bardos examines the facts behind the enduring legend of Mata Hari (the photos are his own). His latest novel, Enemies and Allies, third in his Johnny Swift series of historical thrillers, is out now from Sharpe Books (UK).


The Ladoux Mystery: The Spy Who Framed Mata Hari?
Alan Bardos

Marguerite Zelle MacLeod, better known as Mata Hari, was a sensation in the last years of the Belle Epoque with her wild and exotic dances. However, it was her espionage activities that have ensured her name is a household word, over a hundred years after her execution in 1917 as a spy. The question as to whether she was actually a double agent is still a contentious issue and may never be resolved.

The Folies Bergère, where Mata Hari performed in 1913.

By 1914, Mata Hari’s popularity had begun to decline in Paris; she had to cast her net further afield and rely more on the favour of rich and powerful men to support her lavish lifestyle. It was this that many of her biographers believe she was ultimately judged on.

In August 1914, Mata Hari was performing in Berlin with a string of lovers. When war was declared, the mood against foreigners changed. Desperate to return to France and escape the war fever sweeping through Germany, she broke her contracts and fled. Unable to get to France and forced to leave her money and possessions behind, she returned to her native Holland.

While there she was approached by Carl Cremer, an honorary German consul, who offered her 20,000 francs to spy for Germany. Mata Hari accepted the money, but whether or not she actually considered herself recruited as a spy is questionable. She may actually have taken the money in compensation for everything she left in Germany.

When Mata Hari returned to Paris in 1916, she was recruited to spy for the French by Captain George Ladoux, the head of French Counterintelligence. She planned to pull off an intelligence coup by going to Belgium and seducing the German Governor-General. She would then cultivate him as an intelligence source and sell the information to Ladoux for a million francs.

282 Boulevard St Germain, where Mata Hari was recruited by French intelligence.

However, on her way to Belgium, Mata Hari’s steamer had to pass through British waters, and during a routine customs check she was mistaken for the spy Clara Benedix. She was interviewed in Scotland Yard by ‘Blinker’ Hall, the head of Naval Intelligence, and Sir Basil Thompson, the head of Special Branch. At the end of it, they were convinced that she was not Benedix, but thought she was suspicious. They contacted Ladoux, who informed them that he thought she was a spy and that he was pretending to use her in the hope that she might give herself away as a spy. Hall and Thompson released her but would not allow her to travel on to Belgium, and sent her to Spain. On her own and ignored by Ladoux, Mata Hari used her initiative and seduced Major Arnold Kalle, the German military attaché in Spain. He gave her some low-grade information, which Ladoux did not consider worth a million francs. She was arrested not long after her return to Paris; Ladoux had by this time compiled a dossier of evidence against her.

The former Élysée Palace Hotel, where Mata Hari was arrested.

Kalle had sent telegrams to his superiors in Berlin that incriminated Mata Hari. They were sent in a code known to have been broken by the French, so it is possible that he was deliberately trying to cast doubt on her. These telegrams had been intercepted by French intelligence and were the only real evidence presented at her trial that she was a double agent. French detectives followed Mata Hari when she was in Paris, but found no evidence that she actually gathered information or passed it on to Germany. However, she admitted to taking their money on the understanding that she would.

France was swept with spy mania at the time, rocked by scandals of German plots to buy newspapers in an effort to undermine France's will to fight; unrest was rife and the government needed to regain control. Ladoux was therefore under considerable pressure to catch spies, and there is evidence to suggest he doctored the telegrams to make them more incriminating and ensure her conviction. He certainly believed a ‘woman of the world’ like her to be guilty and her promiscuous lifestyle proved it.

However, Ladoux was also arrested as a spy three days after Mata Hari’s execution. This has given rise to speculation that he framed Mata Hari as a way of deflecting attention from his own espionage activities. Ladoux had been denounced by his former driver, Pierre Lenoir, who had been arrested for buying a French newspaper with German money. When Lenoir was interrogated, he claimed that he had been set up by the Germans and that he was working for Ladoux.

Vincennes. Mata Hari was executed in the grounds of this castle.
Ladoux's and Lenoir’s files are in the archive attached to the complex.

While Lenoir was executed, Ladoux was subject to extensive investigation but was never put on trial, and after his release continued to serve in the French army after the war. It is therefore unlikely that he was a spy. Nonetheless, a cloud has hung over him ever since.

The investigations into Ladoux and Lenoir are still sealed, over a hundred years after the event, while Mata Hari’s file is now open, giving rise to a lot of speculation... but the truth may never be known.  

About Enemies and Allies:

November 1916:  The war of attrition is taking its toll on the Allied powers and cracks are starting to appear.

Captain ‘Blinker’ Hall, Head of Naval Intelligence, must strive to keep the alliance with France alive - and use all his guile to bring the Americans into the war.  Johnny Swift, a reckless former diplomat turned soldier, is convalescing in London, working for Naval Intelligence. Hall knows how to use Swift’s talents for duplicity to their fullest and sends him to Paris to flush out a traitor undermining the French war effort.

Room 40, the Royal Navy’s code breaking unit, deciphers a telegram that presents Hall with a dilemma. Its use could recruit America to their cause - but also give away the secret that the codes have been broken and cost Britain the war. Swift takes up his role in Paris and is soon caught in a web of intrigue involving Mata Hari, the Dreyfus Affair, and the catastrophe of the Nivelle Offensive.

The fate of the conflict rests on a knife edge. The traitor still lurks in the shadows of Paris’s Art Nouveau grandeur, and Swift must locate him before he can betray the Allied cause.


Writing historical fiction combines the first great love of Alan Bardos’s life, making up stories, with the second, researching historical events and characters. He currently lives in Oxfordshire with his wife… the other great love of his life.

There is still a great deal of mystery and debate surrounding many of the events of the First World War, which he explores in his historical fiction series through the eyes of Johnny Swift, a disgraced and degenerate diplomat and soldier.

The series starts with the pivotal event of the twentieth century: the Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The second book, The Dardanelles Conspiracy, is based on an attempt by Naval Intelligence to bribe Turkey out of the First World War. In the third book Johnny will be employed as a useful idiot to flush out a traitor working to undermine the Allies.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Review of The Last White Rose: A Novel of Elizabeth of York, by Alison Weir

Following her successful Six Tudor Queens series, Weir moves back one generation with this comprehensive fictional take on Henry VIII’s mother, Elizabeth of York.

The adored eldest daughter of Edward IV during the tumultuous Wars of the Roses, Elizabeth spends part of her childhood in sanctuary with her mother and siblings. The early sections move slowly, with outside events mostly recounted to her.

However, her personality blossoms over time, and Weir provides a realistic feel for the worry Elizabeth’s family experiences as their fortunes shift, especially after Richard III usurps the throne following King Edward’s death and her brothers disappear while in his custody. The story gives a coherent, convincing picture of the treacherous political climate’s many players, showing why Elizabeth plots to marry Henry Tudor.

Weir doesn’t anachronistically superimpose a feminist viewpoint on Elizabeth, who knows her value yet prefers being a supportive wife and mother, but her female characters are overly prone to weeping. Weir’s thorough approach to her subject is impressive, as is the sumptuously recreated atmosphere of late-medieval royal life.

The Last White Rose was published by Ballantine this week.  In the UK, the publisher is Headline Review, where the title is Elizabeth of York: The Last White Rose (the title and subtitle are switched).  I wrote this review for Booklist's May 1st issue.

Some additional comments:

- The novel is 544pp long and about evenly divided between Elizabeth's childhood/adolescence and her marital life. The story gives a realistic sense of the political scene from a child's perspective, but it does mean that Elizabeth isn't an active participant in events until a good ways in. Some readers will appreciate the evenly-paced comprehensiveness; others may feel the beginning sections could have been pruned.

- This novel is first in a projected trilogy of novels: first Elizabeth of York, then Henry VIII (whose wives we've already gotten to meet in Weir's previous series), then Mary Tudor.  Three generations, in other words.

- If you've read Philippa Gregory's The White Princess, also about Elizabeth of York, this story is quite different, especially regarding Elizabeth's feelings toward her uncle, Richard III, and her eventual husband, Henry Tudor (the future Henry VII).  I prefer Weir's version.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Research in the Digital Age is Sometimes Analog, an essay by Connie Hertzberg Mayo

Historical novelist Connie Hertzberg Mayo, the author of The Sharp Edge of Mercy, is here today with an essay about her research methods, which reminds us of the importance of visiting physical archives for relevant source material.


Research in the Digital Age is Sometimes Analog
Connie Hertzberg Mayo

During the long car ride from Massachusetts to Philadelphia to drop off our oldest at college, I unearthed a tiny notebook that been bouncing around in my purse for years, and I wrote down a writing schedule. I had been putting off the commitment to writing my second novel until our nest became a little emptier, and even though I knew I wouldn’t religiously stick to any schedule, this helped me draw a line between I’m-not-writing and I’m-writing.

But a big part of writing historical fiction isn’t writing at all. Any good historical novel is backed up by a truckload of research. Wise novelists know to be very judicious in deciding what ends up in the book – the right answer is: a small fraction of all you’ve learned – but all of that “unused” research is, in a way, used. It’s as if you drink in all that detail and then let a small amount of it seep through your pores.

So if you need to do extensive research while you happen to have a job and a family, the internet becomes your best friend. I learned this while writing my first book, The Island of Worthy Boys, when I discovered that The Beacon, the monthly newsletter written by the boys at the Boston Farm School, had been digitally scanned by some persistent soul at the UMass archives. Hundreds of issues, each several pages, were available dating from 1890, just a year after the time period of my book. I spent hours reading about the daily lives of the boys I wanted to write about – their job polishing lamp chimneys, their pet parrot and goat, their copious time spent in chapel.

After we arrived home from Philadelphia, I therefore fired up my laptop to start research for The Sharp Edge of Mercy, which is set at the New York Cancer Hospital in 1890. And I found… less than I had expected. Looking back, I can see that my expectations had been built on The Beacon, but the counterpart at this hospital was a series of dry annual reports. They dutifully reported how many beds were filled, even how many of which type of cancers were treated, but where were the details about the daily lives of the nurses? What did the patients eat? What was the building like? Who did the laundry?

I realized I had to go to the physical archives to see if there was anything I could use that had not been hoisted onto the internet. Given that the hospital was in Manhattan and had evolved into Sloan Kettering when it moved from Central Park West to the East Side, I assumed I would be taking a trip to somewhere in New York City. But much to my surprise, I discovered that what I needed was housed at the Rockefeller Archive Center in Sleepy Hollow, NY – the town where I went to high school! I took this weird coincidence as a sign from the universe confirming that this was the book for me to write.

author Connie Mayo
(credit: Sivan Lahav)
At the archives, I found two things that were instrumental in writing the book. The first was a set of blueprints of all the hospital floors. I could see the dining room, the parlor, the wards. I started to walk through the hospital in my mind. And on the bottom floor was a room labeled "Crematorium," which was not something they advertised in the annual reports. I knew immediately that my story would include the crematorium, even though there was no information about how it was used – that would have to come from my imagination (and a whole separate line of research about cremation in 1890).

The other thing I found that was tremendously useful was surgical notes. Captured on microfiche, the typed words on yellowed pages were a window into the state of surgery at the time. Never would I have imagined that whiskey would have been administered with a hypodermic needle when a patient was fading on the operating table, but there it was in black and white (well, black and yellow). Half of surgeries seemed to be about removing infected tissue from a prior surgery. There was certainly awareness that infection was as fierce an enemy as cancer, but not much ability to control it.

All this is not to say that the first book was produced only with digital research and the second with analog. Surfing for pictures of nurses uniforms and caps worn at the turn of the century, for example, was easy enough to do from the comfort of my desk chair. But it’s also true that if you want to find every gem of information, there is still no substitute for showing up in person.

Connie Hertzberg Mayo grew up in Westchester County, New York, but moved to Massachusetts to get a Literature degree from Tufts University and never ended up leaving. Her first book, The Island of Worthy Boys (She Writes Press, 2015) won the 2016 Gold Medal for Best Regional Fiction in the Independent Publisher Book Awards. Connie’s short story, “Little Breaks”, was published by Calyx Journal in 2017. Her latest novel, The Sharp Edge of Mercy, is published by Heliotrope Books in May 2022. Connie works as a Systems Analyst and empty-nests with her husband and two feuding cats. Visit her website at

Thursday, May 05, 2022

Donna Everhart's The Saints of Swallow Hill, an engrossing tale of the Depression-era South

This novel is a terrific find—an engrossing example of Southern historical fiction that’s full of gritty realism, heart, and hope. Everhart introduces readers to the rarely-encountered setting of the pine forests near Valdosta, Georgia during the Depression, in the company of three people seeking a way out of their troubles.

Del Reese, a traveling farmhand who’s good-looking and knows it, juggles affairs with three married women until one farmer catches him with his wife and takes revenge. Rae Lynn Cobb has been happy with her older husband, Warren, with whom she runs a small North Carolina turpentine farm, until Warren’s clumsiness and stubbornness lead to a terrible accident and a moral dilemma. Both she and Del are drawn separately to the large Swallow Hill turpentine camp down in southern Georgia, where longleaf pines are tapped for their gum.

Their presence arouses curiosity. The woods rider supervising the camp, a cruel fellow named Crow, enforces the color line and disapproves of Del taking on work designated for Black men. Having disguised herself as a young man called Ray, Rae Lynn can’t keep up with the others and has trouble making quota; that and her scrappy attitude get her in hot water. (She makes a puzzling mistake in using the call name “Tar Heel” for her work while wanting to conceal her origins.) Then there’s Cornelia, the local commissary’s abused wife. It’s clear she needs rescuing.

The three characters elicit sympathy with their yearnings for something more; Swallow Hill is a nasty place run by mostly nasty people, though the villains aren’t stereotyped. With the intense summer heat, the rich scent of evergreens, and the hum of cicadas filling the air, the atmosphere rises off the page, and the folksy Southern-accented dialogue invites the reader in.

The Saints of Swallow Hill was published by Kensington in January, and I'd reviewed it for the Historical Novels Review's May issue. Donna Everhart has written many other Southern historical novels which I'm now determined to read.

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Twelve intriguing historical fiction debuts for 2022

In the publishing world, debuts command a lot of attention. Media outlets appreciate hearing about new voices and learning what these authors bring to their chosen genre and to literature in general. Readers get introduced to new authors whose careers may be worth following. With this in mind, below are twelve works of historical fiction written by first novelists, with settings ranging from medieval times through the 20th century.  (Look out for a subsequent post focusing on second novels.)

The Hacienda by Isabel Canas

Promoted as Mexican Gothic meets Rebecca, The Hacienda is suspenseful Gothic fiction set around a (literally) haunted house in 1820s Mexico, at the time of the country's war for independence. Berkley, May 2022.  [see on Goodreads

Beheld by Christopher M. Cevasco

Christopher Cevasco, former publisher of the historical-speculative magazine Paradox (I was a longtime subscriber), debuts with Beheld: Godiva's Story, a dark re-imagining of the legend of Lady Godiva (Godgyfu) and her naked ride through the town of Coventry in the 11th century. Lethe Press, April 2022. [see on Goodreads]

Theatre of Marvels by Lianne Dillsworth

Theatre of Marvels is Lianne Dillsworth's debut about a young mixed-race actress from London's East End confronting issues of identity and violence against women in Victorian times. Harper, April 2022. [see on Goodreads]

Woman of Light by Kali Fajardo-Anstine

Kali Fajardo-Anstine's first novel Woman of Light is described as a multigenerational western saga about an indigenous Chicano family and their ancestral stories, set in the 1930s and earlier; the heroine, Luz Lopez, is a tea-leaf reader who sees visions of those who came before her. One World, June. [see on Goodreads]

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

Bonnie Garmus's debut is currently on the NYT bestseller list, an impressive feat! Lessons in Chemistry takes on 1960s-era misogyny with sly humor via the tale of a scientist, Elizabeth Zott, who becomes the star of a cooking show and develops an avid following.  Doubleday, April 2022. [see on Goodreads]

The Book of Everlasting Things by Aanchal Malhotra

Aanchal Malhotra's debut is a multi-layered novel about art, politics, and cross-cultural romance, set against the backdrop of the struggle for Indian independence and the subsequent Partition in the 1930s-40s. Flatiron, December 2022. [see on Goodreads]

The Tobacco Wives by Adele Myers

The Tobacco Wives by Adele Myers delves into the lives of the bigwigs in North Carolina's tobacco industry in the '40s. A young seamstress notices increasing health problems among their wives (her clients) and faces a difficult choice; should she speak up? William Morrow, March 2022. [see on Goodreads]

I Am Not Your Eve by Devika Ponnamballam

The lead title from UK publisher Bluemoose for 2022, Devika Ponnambalam's debut novel takes the historical figure Teha’amana, the young teenage bride of painter Paul Gauguin in late 19th-century Tahiti, seeing events from her viewpoint. A story of identity, art, and colonialism. Bluemoose, March 2022. [see on Goodreads]

The Whalebone Theatre by Joanna Quinn

This coming-of-age epic spans from the post-WWI period through occupied France in WWII and follows a girl and her eccentric family on a large Dorset estate as she grows up and finds her own place in the world. Knopf, October 2022.  [see on Goodreads]

Mademoiselle Revolution by Zoe Sivak

The French Revolution and Reign of Terror are seen from a new angle in this debut which features a biracial heiress from Saint-Domingue (later called Haiti) who flees violence in her home country and travels across the globe, only to be engulfed in another revolution. Berkley, August 2022. [see on Goodreads]

Briefly, A Delicious Life by Nell Stevens

An interesting premise: in Mallorca in the 19th century, when writer George Sand and her lover Chopin  visit in the hopes he'll recover his health, another presence encounters them: the ghost of a young woman who died in the 15th century, and who falls in love with Sand (who can't see her). Scribner, July 2022. [see on Goodreads]

Pandora by Susan Stokes-Chapman

Secrets surrounding an ancient Greek vase spill over into Georgian London when Pandora "Dora" Blake, a would-be jewellery designer, investigates the vase following its arrival at her uncle's antique shop. Harvill Secker (UK), January 2022. [see on Goodreads]

Sunday, April 24, 2022

The Eleventh Commandment by Mary F. Burns delves into a Victorian-era archaeological scandal

On March 9, 1884, a Jerusalem-based antiquities dealer named Moses Wilhelm Shapira was found dead in his Rotterdam hotel room. He had presumably killed himself in despair, following revelations that the leathery scroll fragments he’d tried to sell to the British Museum for a million pounds were forgeries. But did he, in fact, commit suicide? And were the documents fake?

These tantalizing questions circle through Mary F. Burns’ latest historical mystery. Her amateur detectives – this is fourth in a series, though it stands fine on its own – are good friends Violet Paget (noted writer under the pseudonym Vernon Lee) and John Singer Sargent (the successful portrait painter).

The Eleventh Commandment imagines that before his death, Shapira had mailed some of the scrolls to Sargent, a sympathetic acquaintance, for safekeeping since he feared for his life. After receiving them and learning about Shapira’s death, John and Violet join forces with Lord James Parke, a mutual friend on the board of the British Museum, to discover the truth. They board a train to Rotterdam, where their adventures begin. Scenes of their investigation alternate with an account written by Myriam Harry, Shapira’s daughter, describing her father’s life and sharing her concerns about his welfare.

In all my years of reading historical fiction, this was my first acquaintance with Moses Shapira and the controversy over the “Shapira Scrolls,” which mysteriously vanished from sight long ago. Debates about their authenticity still percolate today. Shapira had believed they’d command a high price because one fragment, with text written in ancient Hebrew, appeared to contain an early version of Deuteronomy from the Old Testament, with an unfamiliar new commandment.

Shapira was a colorful character, a Polish-born Jew who converted to Christianity, moved to the Holy Land, developed a passion for Biblical artifacts, and opened a shop catering to other “good Christians who yearn for evidence of the truths in the Bible,” as his wife describes in the novel. His life was highly dramatic, and it’s all here: treasure-seeking excursions into the Middle Eastern desert, cutthroat academic rivalry, thievery, scandal… and that’s all before the scrolls come into the picture.

Regarding the fictional aspects, Violet and John form a good team. In real life, the pair were childhood friends, and their warm, mutually supportive relationship is fun to witness. Both have other preoccupations, too. John is struggling to perfect his Madame X portrait, and Violet amusingly maneuvers through awkward situations with the parents of her romantic interest, poet Mary Robinson. The suspect list is limited in comparison to other mysteries, though because it avoids simplistic solutions, the story is particularly thought-provoking. The circumstances of what might have happened when, how, and by whom are interesting to puzzle out.

The Eleventh Commandment was published by Word by Word Press in March (thanks to the author for sharing a PDF with me).

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Sarah Bird's Last Dance on the Starlight Pier takes you into the world of Depression-era dance marathons

Awakening exhausted on the Galveston beach after a dance marathon, Evie Grace Devlin witnesses the fiery destruction of the Starlight Palace, the performance venue, while recalling a terrible mistake she made.

Following this striking opening, the story rewinds three years to 1929, as Evie flees her traumatic vaudeville past and her vain, abusive mother by enrolling in nursing school in Galveston. Here she finds friendship and her calling. When her nursing pin is unjustly withheld, Evie grudgingly returns to the entertainment world as nurse for a dance marathon group, including its dashing star, Zave.

Bird (Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen, 2018) is a master at crafting narrative voices, and Evie’s is an irresistible blend of scrappy determination and vulnerability. Despite her street smarts, her instincts sometimes lead her astray.

The Depression is a multifaceted character in this addictive tale, which evokes ferocious dust storms, dance marathons’ demanding rules, and Chicago nightlife as acutely as the emotions of desperate Americans seizing happiness wherever they can. As the novel stirringly demonstrates in multiple ways, home can be found amid people who accept us for ourselves.

Last Dance on the Starlight Pier is published this month by St. Martin's; I wrote this review for Booklist's March 1 issue. 

Some additional comments:

- Interestingly, one aspect of the text has changed since I read it. The Edelweiss e-copy had "Starlite Palace" and "Starlite Pier," although the title spelled it Starlight. I checked against the Look Inside on Amazon just now, and the book now has "Starlight," so I've adjusted it in my review above. The publisher must have decided before publication to use the more conventional spelling throughout.  Confusing for those of us who read it early!  (I prefer the original spelling, fwiw)

- No room to say this in the review, but one favorite character was Sofie Amadeo, Evie's best friend and fellow nursing student, and the daughter of the Italian crime family that essentially runs Galveston. If you're expecting a stereotypically pampered Mafia princess, you won't find it here. Sofie's determined to chart her own course in life.

- The world of Depression-era dance marathons is so alluring and strange. There's a reason Evie is brought on board as a nurse (the performers' feet get tired, and they're susceptible to injuries). In order to outlast their opponents on the dance floor, and earn the big cash prize, couples take turns sleeping in each other's arms while the awake partner shuffles them around. Participants also received free meals, one big perk at a time when hunger and poverty were widespread.  Read more at Atlas Obscura.

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Four Treasures of the Sky by Jenny Tinghui Zhang revisits the American West from a compelling new viewpoint

How do you restore agency over your life when you have few choices and you’re forced to hide your identity to survive? Such is the central question within Four Treasures of the Sky, an enlightening and haunting coming-of-age tale about a Chinese teenager trying to outpace what she believes is a tragic destiny.

Lin Daiyu has always hated her name, taken from a legendary heroine who sadly died young after a romantic betrayal. Even so, she enjoys an idyllic childhood with her loving parents and grandmother in a coastal fishing village. Her world changes in an instant after her mother and father, talented tapestry-makers, suddenly vanish. For Daiyu’s safety, her grandmother sends her off alone, disguised as a boy, to the city of Zhifu, where she’s taken in by a master calligrapher and surreptitiously picks up his skills. The lessons that calligraphy teaches her remain throughout her life.

Once again, her time of peace and learning isn’t to last. While visiting a fish market in 1882, at age thirteen, she’s kidnapped, forced to learn English (for greater appeal to her future white customers), and shipped inside a coal bucket to San Francisco, where she’s sold into a prosperous brothel run by the ambitious Madam Lee and renamed “Peony.” Her adventures, such as they are, don’t end there.

With her outer persona – her name, clothing, gender – repeatedly changed, Daiyu must conceal her true self, with the ghost of the long-dead Lin Daiyu echoing in her head yet unable to help her. The way Zhang portrays Daiyu’s interior life is breathtakingly complex and works well in keeping with the trials she endures. Daiyu speaks in first-person present tense, without quotation marks for dialogue, which causes only rare confusion between her narrative and others’ speech.

In an era where almost everyone seeks to crush her humanity – we see many examples of bigotry, and of how Chinese girls are considered disposable – Daiyu’s voice sings out clearly. In her author’s note, Zhang writes of her purpose in bringing the history of systemic discrimination and violence against the Chinese into the popular consciousness, especially with the rising number of hate crimes against Asians in the U.S. today. Historical fiction is an ideal vehicle for revealing little-known stories such as this, and Daiyu’s personal story – which she fiercely owns at last – is one people need to hear.

Four Treasures of the Sky was published by Flatiron/Macmillan this month; I read it from an Edelweiss e-copy.

Thursday, April 07, 2022

The Italian Girl's Secret by Natalie Meg Evans draws readers into wartime Naples

This story offers an intensely powerful view of wartime Naples and surrounding towns from an Italian woman’s perspective. By 1943, it has been four years since Carmela del Bosco returned from England, where she attended school and experienced terrible loss. She now lives in a farmhouse with her Nonna in the hills outside Naples, growing tomatoes and raising animals, while the occupying Germans roam the countryside, rooting out dissent.

When her half-brother Danielo, a resistance fighter, asks her to conceal a wounded soldier, Sebastiano, she resists bringing the stranger into her home, fearing her Fascist second cousins’ wrath. Instead, she reluctantly agrees to harbor Sebastiano nearby within an abandoned vedetta, a stone watchtower. His wits confused by morphine, the man speaks in English to Carmela and reveals his mission to find a wireless operator to communicate crucial information to the Allies. From that point on, every action Carmela takes draws her into danger.

Despite the publisher’s blurb (which is partly inaccurate), this story is not primarily a romance but a tale of a woman’s and family’s struggle for survival when there are no safe places—not even a beloved home—and split-second decisions have major repercussions. Knowing who to trust is paramount, and while Carmela may seem annoyingly naïve in letting some secrets slip, her flawed nature makes her seem more real in the end.

The family interactions are riveting. Carmela’s father, Don Gonzago, is a minor nobleman with a messy romantic history, and his palazzo, with its underground vaults, is the scene for many vivid moments. Carmela’s beloved dog, Renzo, is part of her family, too, and her concern for his welfare is heartwarming. In a taut, action-filled style, Evans exposes the unsentimental brutality of wartime and digs deep in revealing her characters’ emotions as Carmela faces her past and makes choices that affect her future.

The Italian Girl's Secret was published by Bookouture in 2021; I'd reviewed it from NetGalley for the Historical Novels Review.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Toto Koopman—Model and Spy, a guest post from historical novelist Maryka Biaggio

I'm extending a welcome today to Maryka Biaggio, who has an essay about a WWII heroine, Toto Koopman, you likely won't have heard of, as she explains below.  She also provides insight into why Toto's life story is well worth knowing. Maryka's novel The Model Spy was published yesterday (find it on Amazon and Goodreads).


Toto Koopman—Model and Spy
Maryka Biaggio

Some years ago, I came across a biography of Toto Koopman, a woman largely unknown today. The Many Lives of Miss K by Jean-Noël Liaut was originally published in France. It’s a slight biography, covering all of Toto Koopman’s life in 230-some pages, and opens with this:

‘It’s Mademoiselle! I never wanted to marry,’ countered Catharina ‘Toto’ Koopman to anyone who dared to address her as Madame. It was the same answer she gave throughout her life, a long life of adventure, peril, conflict and intrigue; a life where petty rancor and timid imagination had no place and simplistic dualism had no voice—the extraordinary journey of a beguiling woman.

I was hooked. Thus began my quest to fashion a novel about Toto’s World War II ventures.

Toto was arguably the first woman to spy for the British Intelligence Service. Her life is not well documented, and she left no letters or diaries. That presented challenges and opportunities for me as a writer. I wanted, as much as possible, to accurately portray her experiences during the war, but I had little to go on. I spent over five years chasing down the clues nested in her biography and immersing myself in fiction and nonfiction about Italy’s fractured politics, Mussolini’s reign, the economic state of Italy leading up to and through the war, Mussolini’s son-in-law and Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano, female spies, and Allied strategies in the European theater.

Toto Koopman was born in Indonesia to a Dutch father and Indonesian mother. Educated in Holland and London, she had it all—beauty, brains, and fame. She took up the life of a bon vivant in 1920s Paris and modeled for Vogue magazine and Coco Chanel. Fluent in six languages, she was adventurous and daring. Still, I wondered, why did she walk away from a successful modeling career—and the prospect of an even more successful career in the nascent but burgeoning film industry of the 1930s? I had to answer this question if I was going to accurately portray her immersion in the world of espionage.

In the mid-1930s, Toto left Paris for London, where she attracted the attention of Lord Beaverbrook, the William Randolph Hearst of England. She soon became his confidante, companion and translator, traversing Europe and finding herself caught in the winds of impending war. Beaverbrook introduced her to influential people, including a director at the British Intelligence Service, who schooled her in espionage.

On the eve of World War II, Toto gave up her exciting and comfortable life in London and moved to Florence. There she joined the Italian resistance and began sending intelligence to London. This was not without significant risks—she was a public figure, photographed by some of Europe’s most famous photographers, and featured in social columns in London, Paris, and Berlin newspapers. Biracial, elegant, and vivacious, she could not simply melt into anonymity.

Toto Koopman obviously held strong beliefs about the war effort. I believe that her childhood experiences with prejudice and her tutelage in world politics under Beaverbrook ignited a fervent interest in the hate-mongering and authoritarian movements sweeping the Continent at that time. This I considered the key to her decision to spy. But that didn’t mean she would have an easy time of it. As she bravely took up the role of spy, Mussolini’s Blackshirts and the Nazi’s military intelligence pursued her. Operating in the hotbed of Mussolini's Italy, she courted danger every step of the way. And as the war entered its final stages, she faced off against the most brutal of forces—the Abwehr, Germany's Intelligence Service. It was not easy to write about her harrowing experiences, but it was worth the effort. Toto was one of the many brave souls who fought the good fight and sacrificed much to see the Allies through the darkness of that terrible war.


Maryka Biaggio, Ph.D., is a psychology professor turned novelist who specializes in historical fiction based on real people. Her most recent novel, The Model Spy, is based on the true story of Toto Koopman, who spied for the Allies and Italian Resistance during World War II. Her website is, and for more information on the novel, please check out the book trailer.