Monday, February 28, 2022

Louisa Morgan's The Great Witch of Brittany tells a tale of women's magic in rural 18th-century France

Morgan wrote this book in response to reader requests for more about Ursule Orchière, the elderly matriarch from A Secret History of Witches. At the beginning of that novel, Grandmère Ursule used a tremendous feat of magic to protect her descendants from witch-hunters and point their way to a safer home across the sea.

The Great Witch of Brittany
is an expansive saga that should satisfy her fans’ expectations for a prequel and then some. Like the menhirs on the field where the Orchières rest their caravan, it also stands proudly on its own.

In 1763, in a Romani settlement outside Carnac-Ville in northwest France, Ursule is a plain, dark-eyed thirteen-year-old who assists her fortune-teller mother, Agnes. Although the Orchière women have a heritage of witchcraft, none among their large clan can work magic until Ursule’s latent abilities awaken during puberty. When Ursule unknowingly blurts out a hidden truth about a client, the situation turns dangerous, forcing Ursule to flee and leave the travelers’ life behind.

We know that Ursule will become a mother and grandmother, but not how that came about. Suffice it to say that in ensuring the continuation of her line, Ursule must weigh whether to use her knowledge of spells and tonics toward this purpose. Unsurprisingly, she also faces prejudice due to her skin color throughout her long life.

Aside from repercussions from the French Revolution, historical events don’t intrude much, although the scenes of pagan festivals and daily life in the pre-industrial Breton countryside are skillfully illustrated. The book spans nearly sixty years, and Ursule and her family comes to feel like old friends as she moves from maiden to mother to crone with guidance from her ancient grimoire, scrying stone, a raven familiar, and the voices of her predecessors. For fans of feminist historical fantasy, this tale of women’s stories, power, and mysteries will greatly appeal.

The Great Witch of Brittany was published by RedHook this month, and I'd reviewed it from NetGalley for the Historical Novels Review.  I actually enjoyed it more than the original book, which I'd reviewed in 2017.

Saturday, February 19, 2022

Jane and the Year Without a Summer by Stephanie Barron takes Jane Austen to the spas of Cheltenham in 1816

In May 1816, Jane Austen and her beloved sister, Cassandra, embark on a two-week stay in the fashionable English spa town of Cheltenham to take the waters and stroll about the streets. Sadly, Jane has been plagued by illness, with little appetite, and suffering from backaches, fatigue, and an odd sallow complexion. If she can manage to distract herself from her poor health and her brothers’ personal problems, maybe Jane will find time to work on her manuscript-in-progress, “The Elliots,” while she’s away.

She and Cassandra take lodgings at Mrs. Potter’s, a boarding house on the High Street whose other guests are an eccentric and motley bunch, including a beautiful invalid heiress with a waspish temper, the companion who attends her in her wheeled chair, a middle-aged brother-sister pair whose self-centeredness knows no bounds, a young woman who gives elocution lessons to actors, and more. Meanwhile, Jane has trouble setting aside thoughts of Mr. Raphael West, a handsome past admirer, and wonders why he hasn’t renewed their acquaintance.

In her fourteenth Jane Austen mystery, Stephanie Barron smoothly interweaves real events from Jane Austen’s life with a fictional crime scenario involving her fellow lodgers, at least one of whom has murder in mind. You may be excused for forgetting, early on, about the novel’s intended genre, since the plot ambles along nicely for a while without any deadly happenings.
author Stephanie Barron

Jane and Cassandra sample the waters at the Pump House (which taste absolutely vile!), and her visit to a local physician gets her blood boiling, a reaction that women especially will identify with. The Austen sisters become curious about the mysterious “Beauty in the Bath Chair” and her reasons for being in Cheltenham. Make no mistake, though, this genteel mystery has teeth, and Jane, with her famously astute observations on human nature, is there to untangle it all.

The novel is written in the form of a period piece authored by Jane herself, complete with Regency-era diction, vocabulary, and spellings, plus historical footnotes contributed by the book’s “editor.” Through them, we’re told (or reminded, for those in the know) about the meaning of the title: following the eruption of Mt. Tambora in the Dutch East Indies the previous year, the weather across Europe in 1816 was unnaturally cold and dismal. Footnotes in historical fiction only work well in certain instances, and this is one of them.

Despite Jane’s literary brilliance (and deductive success, as imagined here), it’s impossible, while reading this story, to set aside the sorrowful fact that her life—and by implication, perhaps this series as well—is drawing to a close. The ending, while bittersweet, feels just right for the book, and for readers who haven’t sampled Jane’s previous adventures, there are thirteen others to anticipate.

Stephanie Barron's Jane and the Year Without a Summer is published by Soho Press this month (I reviewed it from a NetGalley copy for the author's blog tour).

Jane book tour banner

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Eva Stachniak's The School of Mirrors presents a new view of 18th-century women's lives at Versailles

Stachniak casts empathetic light on a French mother and daughter whose lives are affected by royal privilege.

By 1755, Louis XV, weary of court formalities and dramas, has become a “connoisseur of innocence,” so his valet de chambre procures untouched teenage girls for his pleasures. Believing she’ll be entering domestic service, pretty, lower-class Véronique Roux arrives at a house near the Versailles palace and gets instructed in the courtesan’s arts. Her patron’s identity is kept concealed, and Véronique loses access to their daughter, Marie-Louise, after her birth.

Marie-Louise becomes a skilled midwife though often wonders about the parents she never knew. As revolutionary fervor builds, her secret royal heritage could become a liability if it’s discovered.

Stachniak combines a delicately embroidered historical world with enduring situations, like the exploitation of the less fortunate and parent-child relationships. Her multifaceted approach also showcases Queen Marie Leszczyńska’s charity work and a fascinating cloth mannequin used to train midwives.

The theme of illusion versus authenticity emerges in subtle ways. This accomplished novel should enthrall Francophiles and women’s history enthusiasts.

The School of Mirrors will be published next week by William Morrow; I turned in this review for Booklist, and the final review was published in their January 1st issue.

Some background information:

- The house where Véronique resides during her time as a mistress-in-training (and later mistress in fact) was a real place called Parc-aux-Cerfs, or Deer Park, as it's called in the novel. Read more about it at the This Is Versailles blog.

- Angelique Marguerite Le Boursier du Coudray, known as Madame du Coudray, was a pioneering midwife who trained other women across France in her profession.  Her cloth mannequin, called the "machine," is a cloth anatomical model used to demonstrate the birthing process, and a photo can be found on her Wikipedia page. Stachniak shares more information in her author's note about Madame du Coudray's revolutionary teaching methods, and how they gave young women agency in a world dominated by powerful men.

- Stachniak is also the author of other recommended historical novels about historical women, including The Chosen Maiden about choreographer Bronislava Nijinska; The Winter Palace and Empress of the Night about Catherine the Great; and Garden of Venus, about 19th-century courtesan, and later countess, Sophie Potocka.

Monday, February 14, 2022

Some romantic historical reads for Valentine's Day

In a comment to a recent post, Tiffany asked about “some recommendations or your favorite romances for some good Valentine's Day reading.” I pondered this for a while, since I don’t currently read a lot of genre romances; I enjoy them, but my reviewing schedule doesn’t allow me to dive into these books as much as I’d like.

 But if we’re talking about love stories across the entire historical fiction spectrum, I can easily provide some recommendation on that score. Many of these novels are best described as historical fiction with romantic elements. I tend to go for deeper themes in my romances, rather than lighter, fluffier fare. Also, most are older titles that could be described as classics.

These are in no particular order. Please share your own favorites in the comments.

Jojo Moyes, The Last Letter from Your Lover, a dual-period romantic mystery, set in 1960 and over forty years later, about a woman who developed amnesia after a terrible car accident, and who starts questioning the truth about her marriage after finding a mysterious love letter. The movie adaptation (which I thought was just okay) oversimplified the story and omitted one of my favorite parts. This prompted me to reread the novel, which was as good as I remembered.

Madeline Hunter’s medieval romances, including By Arrangement and By Design, set in 14th-century London and which feature characters from different social classes. I wish medieval romances were still in vogue so we could see more like this.

Overseas by Beatriz Williams, her first novel, a complex time-travel story about a modern American woman and a British officer in the Great War. Julian Ashford is a wonderful, honorable hero in this timeless love story.

Tempest by Beverly Jenkins, a mail-order bride romance with plenty of surprises, featuring African American characters in the Old West.

Meredith Duran’s Duke of Shadows, another first novel (from 2008), a meaty Victorian romance with a biracial hero, set in India and England, with exquisite writing which is unafraid to delve into darker issues.

Jeannie Lin’s My Fair Concubine, part of her Tang Dynasty series, a nuanced love story about honor, duty, and class differences with a new take on the classic “My Fair Lady” scenario.

Passing Glory by Reay Tannahill, one of my favorites of her sprawling romantic sagas, which begins in early 20th century England and spans fifty years. It won the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s Novel of the Year, and the ending is most definitely earned.

The Dutch Girl by Donna Thorland, which I read last year; it’s a full-bodied historical novel of American Revolution-era New York, with strong romantic elements and a plotline involving adventure, secret identities, and the history of Dutch settlement in America. The attention to historical detail is impressive.

Piper Huguley’s Home to Milford College series, romantic historical fiction set in the Reconstruction-era South, about the love story between two African American characters who found a fictional historically Black college. Start with The Preacher’s Promise.

Pamela Belle’s Heron Saga, a family saga and star-crossed love story of 17th-century England, published in the 1980s and reissued by Lume Books, so new readers will get a chance to discover them. The Moon in the Water is book one.

Beau Crusoe by Carla Kelly, a Regency romance involving a troubled hero suffering from PTSD and a widow struggling to overcome a scandalous past. I first wrote about it here.

Friday, February 11, 2022

Interview with Heather Webb, author of The Next Ship Home: A Novel of Ellis Island

Thanks to author Heather Webb for stopping by Reading the Past for an interview about her new novel The Next Ship Home (Sourcebooks, Feb. 2022), which offers a unique lens on the American immigration story. Through the perspectives of two young women in the early 20th century -- aspiring translator Alma, the daughter in a German family who becomes a matron at Ellis Island, and Francesca, a newly arrived Italian immigrant -- I was quickly drawn into a sweeping story about cultural prejudice, corruption, the complications of family, and a surprising friendship.

I’ve read many historical novels dealing with immigration to America, but yours is the first that centered on operations at Ellis Island itself. All the details were fascinating to read about. What inspired you to focus your attention on what took place there?

The very first time I visited Ellis Island I was a high school teacher on a field trip with students. I was absolutely riveted by the place. There’s a real presence in those halls…so many people, so many stories to be told. I think, also, being a lover of language and culture—and a military brat—has always made the study of those trying to assimilate to a culture not their own has always fascinated me. I could relate in many ways. It’s funny that when I first started writing, I knew I wanted to write a book about Ellis Island but I also knew I wasn’t ready. Something inside me warned me that I needed to practice more, try other books and ideas, before it was time to sit down and tackle such a grand, challenging topic. I’m glad I listened to my intuition.

What resources did you use to re-create the duties and mindset of Alma, a matron at Ellis Island whose job involved assisting female immigrants and families?

I read several books about the operations at Ellis Island and I also mined information from a ton of immigrant interviews. Though there weren’t a lot of specifics on the day-to-day of a matron, there was just enough that I could glean the basics and fill in the rest. I also found helpful information on the plaques and in the videos at the immigration center on Ellis Island.

As a language aficionado myself, I rooted for Alma and her yearning to become a translator. I also enjoyed seeing her improve her repertoire of world languages, and the theme of how languages are a bridge to cultural understanding. How did you get interested in this topic?

I’m a former French and Spanish teacher and I thoroughly love language-learning in all its forms. I’m really fascinated by the way language reflects culture and how, in kind, culture shapes language. I enjoy studying how language has changed over time as well. I suppose you could say Alma was my ode to the language teacher inside me.

How did you decide on the approach to tell the story from two women’s alternating perspectives?

I knew I wanted to explore different classes of Americans from the newly-arrived immigrants to the first-generation Americans, as well as the wealthy, more established. As well, I wanted to depict the opposing perspectives of immigrant and worker to show the complexity of the immigration system. It’s very rarely a simple thing.

Ellis Island is enshrined in many family histories as a place of hope and new beginnings. Human nature being what it is, I shouldn’t have been surprised at the corruption and abuse that took place at Ellis Island, and which the immigrant characters unfortunately deal with. Were there any facts that took you by surprise as you researched this aspect of the novel?

author Heather Webb
Many! I really enjoyed reading about Teddy Roosevelt’s place in shaping immigration reform as well as his visit to the island in the fall of 1903. It was a horrible, stormy day and the boat carrying him and his staff nearly capsized in the swell of the bay. When he arrived to the island, very late to the elaborate lunch they’d planned, the food was cold but they did manage to serve oysters for which the Hudson Bay used to be famous, and also champagne. There are so many more facts, too, about the anarchists like Emma Goldman, President McKinley’s assassination, and much more. In truth, I had a hard time narrowing down what the story was truly about during the first few drafts.

Reproducing international languages and accents in dialogue can be tricky, because the effect can easily be overdone, but this isn’t the case with Francesca. Everything read as very natural to me. What suggestions do you have for other authors about writing dialogue for characters still gaining fluency in English?

First of all, thank you for the compliment. It’s not an easy thing and yet, I think it’s important to distinguish differences in the characters’ language. I’m a freelance editor and teacher as well so I usually recommend to my students to think of dialect and foreign language as a seasoning in a dish. Salt makes a dish delicious with just the right amount but it must be sprinkled with caution. Too much makes the dish inedible.

Since The Next Ship Home takes place in the United States, did you find the research any easier or different than it was for your previous novels?

Overall, I’d say it wasn’t easier because I’m always interested in international travel and I’m the first one on that plane, but it’s certainly true that living not far from New York City made my research much more accessible (and cheaper!). I took many trips to Ellis Island and into the city itself, and I also used the public library and its archives in the city to gather information and photos, trinkets, etc.

The Next Ship Home blog tour banner

About the author:

Heather Webb is a USA Today bestselling and award-winning author of historical fiction. In 2017, Last Christmas in Paris won the Women’s Fiction Writers Association award, and in 2019, Meet Me in Monaco was shortlisted for both the RNA award in the UK and also the Digital Book World Fiction prize. Heather’s new solo novel The Next Ship Home is about unlikely friends that confront a corrupt system, altering their fates and the lives of the immigrants who come after them. When not writing, Heather flexes her foodie skills, geeks out on pop culture and history, or looks for excuses to head to the other side of the world. For more information, please visit Heather’s website

Sunday, February 06, 2022

The Magnolia Palace by Fiona Davis offers an exciting, artistic escape into New York City's past

Fiona Davis’s novels offer the vicarious pleasures of getting an exclusive tour of New York City’s iconic landmarks. Her latest work centers on the Henry Clay Frick House, once a Gilded Age mansion, now a public museum and art library. While envisioning the gorgeous paintings, sculptures, and other precious objects inside the building (whose Fifth Avenue garden is adorned by large magnolias) is a highlight, the colorful personalities could carry the novel on its own.

By 1919, Lillian Carter has spent six years posing for public sculptures across New York under the name “Angelica.” While she’s enjoyed contributing to the city’s art scene, a murder scandal involving her landlord forces her to go into hiding.

A twist of fate propels Lillian into the role of private secretary to Helen Clay Frick, the industrialist’s mercurial 31-year-old daughter, who’s torn between pursuing her own interests and seeking her critical father’s approval. Lillian proves remarkably successful in her tasks, but while she dreams of a silent movie career, a secret assignment, one that’s too temptingly profitable to resist, ensnares her in longstanding Frick family tensions.

Decades later, in 1966, English model Veronica Weber secures a lucrative modeling assignment at the Frick Collection, but after the job turns sour, she finds herself accidentally trapped in the building overnight alongside a handsome African American museum intern. Initially watchful of one another, they team up to follow clues in a scavenger hunt created long ago.

The pages breeze by as potential romances develop (maybe not the ones you’d expect) and a mystery involving the whereabouts of the Magnolia Diamond unfolds. Deeper issues also undergird both narratives, which confront stereotypes about models and explore how a tragedy can warp family relationships years later. The two narratives dovetail in a satisfying way. Mystery and art lovers should relish this exciting escape into New York’s past.

The Magnolia Palace was published by Dutton in January; I reviewed it from NetGalley for February's Historical Novels Review.

The Frick Collection
Credit: Gryffindor, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia

Read more about the Frick Collection at their website. Although I've been to NYC many times, I hadn't been familiar at all with this institution or the personalities surrounding it before reading this book. Now I have a long list of places to visit once travel is possible again.

Tuesday, February 01, 2022

The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk, her magnum opus about a controversial 18th-century Jewish figure and his world

Described as Polish Nobel laureate Tokarczuk’s magnum opus, this impressively sprawling story reveals the life and times of Jacob Frank, an 18th-century Jewish messianic figure. Frank is enigmatically charismatic and incredibly disruptive: a self-described “simpleton,” sporting Turkish garb, who violates social norms.

Opening in 1752 in Rohatyn, a Polish market town, and passing through numerous other European and Ottoman locales, the narrative expertly delves into the circumstances that shaped and elevated him. Forbidden from buying land and overburdened by taxes, many Jews seek deliverance. In this bizarre, intricate journey based in history, Frank and his followers come to reject the Talmud and, eventually, convert to Catholicism.

With language that’s engaging, erudite, and spiced with witty colloquialisms and wonderful turns of phrase via Jennifer Croft’s supple translation, Tokarczuk explores the state of being an outsider in places with fixed cultural boundaries and how Frank tries to work the system to advantage. Among the intriguing, diverse cast are Nahman, Frank’s ardent supporter, and Yente, a dying woman whose spirit views events from above.

There’s so much fine quotidian detail you’ll feel you’ve stepped into the novel’s canvas, while the overarching threads connect brilliantly. With its length, dozens of characters (some of whom adopt new names), and theological discussions, this panoramic tale requires commitment, but it’s masterfully done.

The Books of Jacob is published today by Riverhead in the US; it appeared in the UK last year from Fitzcarraldo Editions. I submitted this review for Booklist, and it was published (in shorter form) in the Dec. 1, 2021 issue.

This book is 992pp long, and the lengthiest novel I've ever read on my Kindle (I got it from NetGalley). It took me three weeks to read, and my Goodreads challenge definitely suffered.  A note from the publisher says:  "In a nod to books written in Hebrew, The Books of Jacob is paginated in reverse, beginning on p. 955 and ending on p. 1 – but read traditionally, front cover to back." This wasn't apparent from my copy, but it's an appropriate and cool feature. The translation from Polish by Jennifer Croft reportedly took seven years to complete.

As you can imagine, writing a 200-odd word review of a nearly thousand-page historical novel necessitates leaving out a lot, so tough decisions had to be made on what to include in my writeup. I was given a choice as to what I might like to review and selected The Books of Jacob because (1) the historical period is one I knew very little about beforehand; (2) a branch of my family comes from the area where part of this book takes place; (3) I couldn't resist the opportunity to be among the first to read this internationally acclaimed novel in English, as I'd heard a lot about it; and (4) after reading through the first chapter of the NetGalley copy, I was sold and wanted to continue.

Jacob Frank is a historical character, and his story as presented by Tokarczuk is utterly strange and based in truth. His story, and that of religious and social life at the time, is related through the eyes of numerous other characters, and it's left to interpretation as to whether Jacob is a charismatic con artist or a shrewd observer who determines an ingenious, unorthodox way to raise the Jews' status in society. There are no references to Jacob himself until a good ways in.  You may find yourself wondering when he'll finally make an appearance on the page, but by the time he does, you'll have a detailed picture of the unique circumstances surrounding him and the movement he creates.

Reviewing for the New York Times, Dwight Garner calls it "sophisticated and overwhelming," both of which are true. His conclusion also agrees with my experience.  Read his take on the novel here.