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 https://conniemayo.com.

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.