Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Ten recent and upcoming historical novels set before the 20th century

While the 20th century gets the most attention in historical fiction circles lately, and has for a while, many avid readers of the genre remain hungry for earlier settings. The following ten titles take place much further back in the past.  This is the first of two posts.  The books are in alphabetical order by author surname.

Hester by Laurie Lico Albanese

What, or who, inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne to create his iconic character, Hester Prynne, the protagonist of The Scarlet Letter?  In Albanese's imagined tale, a Scottish immigrant seamstress forms an indelible emotional bond with the young writer in a place haunted by the legacy of slavery and the Salem witch trials. St. Martin's, October 2022. [see on Goodreads]

Prize for the Fire by Rilla Askew

This biographical novel by critically acclaimed author Rilla Askew takes as its focus Anne Askew, a woman who defies political and religious convention in Henry VIII's England and pays a terrible price. Univ. of Oklahoma Press, Oct. 2022. [see on Goodreads]

An Indiscreet Princess by Georgie Blalock

The "indiscreet princess" of the title is Louise, fourth daughter of Queen Victoria, trapped between royal duty and her desire to create art... and live life (and find love) on her own terms.  William Morrow, Sept. 2022. (Louise lived well into the 20th century, though her story begins in the mid-19th century.)  [see on Goodreads]

Set in Stone by Stela Brinzeanu

For readers enamored by unique historical fiction locales, how about medieval Moldova? Brinzeanu's latest novel reveals the love story between two women and the difficult challenges they face; it's based on local folklore. Legend Press, Aug. 2022.  [see on Goodreads]

The Hemlock Cure by Joanne Burn

You may recognize the name of Eyam, the Derbyshire village which self-contained against the plague in the mid-17th century, from Geraldine Brooks'  Year of Wonders. For her second novel, Joanne Burn incorporates the same dark setting, but shifting her lens to Eyam's women and the secrets they hold. Pegasus Crime, June 2022.  [see on Goodreads]

The House of Fortune by Jessie Burton

Burton's sequel to her bestselling The Miniaturist, set in the early 18th century, can also be read on its own; it follows the members of a Dutch family, especially a mixed-race young woman and her aunt-by-marriage, in their search for love, belonging, and money to keep themselves afloat. Bloomsbury USA, July 2022. [see on Goodreads | read my review]

Joan by Katherine J. Chen

Joan of Arc is hardly new as a historical fiction subject, but Chen, in her new novel, aims for a different, secular view of the young woman who became a renowned military leader and saint. Hilary Mantel blurbed the book. Random House, July 2022.  [see on Goodreads]

The Color Storm by Damian Dibben

Renaissance-era Venice takes the stage in Dibben's tale of artistic rivalry, marital drama, and a transformative new color.  If you're in the UK, the title is The Colour Storm.  Hanover Square, Sept. 2022. [see on Goodreads]

The Last Queen by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Divakaruni travels to 19th-century India in her fictional portrait of Maharani Jindan Kaur, who rose to become regent of the Sikh Empire -- and who put up a strong resistance to the British. William Morrow, July 2022. [see on Goodreads]

The Portraitist by Susanne Dunlap

Historical novelist Dunlap, who has written many other well-received novels about women and the arts, pens a new work of fiction about Adélaïde Labille-Guiard and her determination to forge a career in 18th-century Paris, amid fierce competition and the coming of the French Revolution.  She Writes, Aug. 2022. [see on Goodreads]

Saturday, August 13, 2022

The Librarian Spy depicts two brave women finding their purpose during WWII

Like her first mainstream historical novel, Madeline Martin’s The Librarian Spy (a title designed to catch attention) is set during WWII. While continuing with her theme of the power of the written word, she moves her locale from London to Lisbon and Lyon, France, in her portrait of two women battling Nazi oppression, as well as the invisible thread that connects them.

In 1943, Ava Harper, though content in her plum job as a rare book librarian at the Library of Congress, finds herself recruited into a higher purpose due to her work ethic and facility with languages. In Lisbon, in neutral Portugal, she becomes responsible for acquiring and microfilming international news sources for shipment back home. As a librarian, it was cool to read a novel in which microfilm (which is becoming an outdated technology) was in such high demand!

While eager to help the Allies, Ava’s used to a more sedate lifestyle and is somewhat unworldly. She gets nervous when her neighbor is arrested and dragged away in the middle of the night; did a careless statement of hers get him in trouble?

One day, while browsing one of the papers she obtains, Ava notices an apparent encoded message that turns out to be a cry for assistance, though few details are given. This note forms the link between Ava and Elaine Rousseau – not her birth name – a Frenchwoman living under the Vichy regime in Lyon who joins the resistance. Through Elaine’s story, which is the more suspenseful of the two, readers view the courage and altruism that drives Elaine and her fellow resistance members to risk their lives. Secrets are prevalent, even amongst couples and families, and the deep love between Elaine and her husband Joseph, who has gone missing, is sensitively revealed.

There are many new novels focusing on resistance activities during WWII, and on this topic, The Librarian Spy didn’t stand out from the pack for me. That said, I appreciated the angle on covert publishing and information transmission during the war and the focus on day-to-day life in the less familiar setting of wartime Lisbon.

I read this from a NetGalley copy. The Librarian Spy was published last month by Hanover Square/HarperCollins.

Monday, August 08, 2022

Review of Trust by Hernan Diaz, an intricate literary puzzle-box set in early 20th-century New York

Pulitzer finalist Diaz’s brilliantly layered epic unfolds through a quartet of accounts, each of which adds new meaning to the ones that have gone before—much in the vein of Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost, but set in the world of early 20th-century corporate finance. The authors of the four tales are given up front, but the less said about how they relate to one another, the better. Readers will derive the greatest pleasure if they uncover the revelations themselves.

First is a short novel called Bonds by Harold Vanner, a pointed morality tale about New York stock market whiz Benjamin Rask, who accumulates great wealth while remaining isolated from its impact on others. Rask’s marriage to wife Helen, an intellectual from an old Albany family, is an agreeable if emotionally distant union, and they both like it that way. In a style reminiscent of Edith Wharton, Vanner draws readers into Rask’s money-making ventures and the scandal that befell the couple after the 1929 crash.

Next comes the incomplete autobiography of financier Andrew Bevel, who puts pen to paper—with eye-opening pomposity—to counter rumors about his investments and to honor his late wife, Mildred. Paired with Vanner’s novel, Bevel appears to cover similar ground, which may cause some confusion—but keep reading.

Up third, the memoir of Ida Partenza, an Italian anarchist’s daughter, is hugely satisfying as it brings the first two accounts into focus while leaving some mysteries for the last section to reveal (which it definitely does). Each part feels smoothly calibrated to its author’s personality and historical setting as the story continues to provoke questions about which person’s truth can be relied upon. Not only a powerful commentary on the effects of unfettered capitalism, Trust also exposes the complex art of mythmaking engineered by the rich and powerful, and those erased in the process.

Trust was published by Riverhead in the US in May; the UK publisher is Picador. I read it from a NetGalley copy for August's Historical Novels Review.  I'll just add that corporate finance hasn't ever been a particular fascination of mine, but the story was riveting.  I've seen numerous spoilers in other reviews, so be aware!

Thursday, August 04, 2022

Reading the Past in a Single Document, an essay by Judith Berlowitz, author of Home So Far Away

Historical documents may be inanimate objects, yet they can still speak to us, revealing vital information to novelists writing about their subjects decades later. In the following essay, author Judith Berlowitz (Home So Far Away) explores how she gleaned details about the life of her protagonist, Clara Philipsborn, through a single document from a Spanish archive.


Reading the Past in a Single Document
Judith Berlowitz

By the time I retired – as a PhD teaching Spanish language and world cultures – I welcomed the opportunity to concentrate on other interests. Search for my ancestral origins had widened, and tools learned in academic research had led to some dizzying discoveries. At the same time, I was noticing that the standard canon of utilizing sources was also widening, shifting, fluid.

Searching the Internet for my Philipsborn relatives, I came upon an article that mentioned Clara Philipsborn, an anti-fascist volunteer translator in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). I completed the Philipsborn project, keeping in mind the compelling need to find Clara. I soon contacted people via Facebook who followed various aspects of the Spanish Civil War and was introduced to the concept of Historical Memory, a movement that arose in reaction to the Pacto del Olvido – the Pact to Forget – imposed on the people of Spain at the death of the dictator Franco in 1975.

Clara, 1910 Wildbad
(credit: Gene Dannen,
originally posted
on his website 
These friends assisted me in locating documents about Clara in Soviet archives, which were conflicting, as were stories from other relatives I was able to reach. There were grave accusations against which she could not defend herself. I had to give her a voice that would break through the Pacto del Olvido. I would write her diary, as an homage to historical memory. The result is my first novel, Home So Far Away, published by She Writes Press, June 2022.

An institution in Spain called the Centro Documental de la Memoria Histórica found and sent me a precious document, Clara’s identity card from the Fifth Regiment of Popular Militias. Each of the static images on the document served as doors that opened to yet more sources, more material for Clara’s story:

• Clara’s typed name – her surname in all caps, is spelled correctly, in contrast to many other documents about her. This fact adds credibility to the source.
• The number at the top shows me that there were 6835 volunteers to the Fifth Regiment who applied ahead of Clara.
• Clara’s photograph reveals her attention to her appearance. The pressed hair, the tweezed eyebrows: a major departure from the wild look shown in photos from her youth. Clara’s hair plays a significant role in my novel as it connects her to her Jewish identity.
• Clara’s address as typed detracts from the credibility. There is no “Dionisio Cortes” Street in Madrid. But a search revealed the correct name, “Donoso Cortés,” and I was able to visit the location at number eight.
• Clara’s marital status is listed as single. Correct.
• But her age? She was born in Kiel in 1890, according to all German records. Other records from Spain show wildly varying dates, definitely material for my novel!
• Clara’s profession is first typed (with carbon paper) as a registered nurse, with the later addition – entered twice – of her title or degree of practicante, practitioner or PA, rare for women of this time and representing more prestige and more advanced duties.
• The space for the organization Clara belonged to is left blank and replaced by the inserted fragment of the colored stamp of the elite Fifth Regiment. This item opened up hours of research on this renowned unit.
• The date of Clara’s enrollment in the Regiment is added: just three days after the uprising against the elected government of the Spanish Republic. Essential proof of Clara’s eagerness to dedicate her skills to defend her new homeland. And the August date marks the beginning of Clara’s duties.
• Clara’s assignment to La Cabrera opened up research on a tiny town in Madrid’s Sierra Norte. The wartime field hospital was created in a monastery taken over by the Loyalists. Contact with the local high school history teacher informed me that the famed Rosario “la Dinamitera” had been treated there, leading to my placing her under Clara’s care during the necessary amputation. And a Facebook friend provided me with a copy of the surgeon’s report, providing me with that important name and with Rosario’s political affiliation.
• Clara’s clear signature completes the card, as if authorizing me to venture through all the doors it has opened.


About the novel:

A fictional diary set in interwar Germany and Spain allows us to peek into the life of Klara Philipsborn, the only Communist in her merchant-class, German-Jewish family.

Klara’s first visit to Seville in 1925 opens her eyes and her spirit to an era in which Spain’s major religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, shared deep cultural connections. At the same time, she is made aware of the harsh injustices that persist in Spanish society. By 1930, she has landed a position with the medical school in Madrid. Though she feels compelled to hide her Jewish identity in her predominantly Christian new home, she finds that she feels less “different” in Spain than she did in Germany, especially as she learns new ways of expressing her opinions and desires. And when the Spanish Civil War erupts in 1936, Klara (now “Clara”) enlists in the Fifth Regiment, a step that transports her across the geography of the embattled peninsula and ultimately endangers a promising relationship and even Clara’s life itself.

A blending of thoroughly researched history and engrossing fiction, Home So Far Away is an epic tale that will sweep readers away.

About the author:

Author Judith Berlowitz at Clara's Madrid home. 
Photo by Armando Mauleón, 2018, with his permission.
Los Angeles–born author Judith Berlowitz had just retired from her Spanish-teaching position at Oakland’s Mills College when her genealogical research uncovered a Gestapo record mentioning a relative, Clara Philipsborn, who was the only woman anti-fascist volunteer in the Spanish Civil War from the German state of Schleswig-Holstein. The few details of the report led to more research, which led to Home So Far Away. In addition to her career teaching Spanish and world cultures, and a stint as a tour guide, Judith is a card-carrying translator and has published in the field of ethnomusicology (Sephardic balladry) and Jewish identity. She sang for years with the Oakland Symphony Chorus and is now a member of the San Francisco Bach Choir. She lives in San Francisco with her husband, not far from her three daughters and three grandsons.