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.