Friday, September 30, 2022

Martha Conway's The Physician's Daughter follows an ambitious mid-19th-century career woman

The Physician’s Daughter is a solidly compelling story about a young woman who refuses to settle for anything less than her dream of practicing medicine like her father, a country doctor in coastal Massachusetts. It’s June 1865, and a small number of medical colleges now accept women – why not her? Her resolve sets her against her father, who wants her married off – to whoever will take her – and against society at large.

While Vita Tenney is a lively character, living up to her name, she isn’t anachronistically feminist. She strives to win her father’s approval with her obvious intelligence and devotion to science, and it’s heartbreaking to witness him cut her down. Even worse, he accuses her of trying to replace her brother: Freddy, one of the hundreds of thousands of Union soldiers who died in the Civil War.

Knowing she’ll need money and a man’s support to achieve her goal, Vita works out a secret arrangement with a would-be suitor: Jacob Culhane, a war veteran with plans to start a business. The idea is that their marriage will be in name only, but with their growing attraction, that may not last. Also, in an era when a woman’s dowry automatically becomes her husband’s when she marries, Vita needs Jacob to keep his word.

Full of little details on clothing, pastimes, and customs, Martha Conway’s novel whisks readers away to a long-ago time that somehow doesn’t seem so distant because the characters and their struggles are so relatable and timeless: Vita’s uphill battle to be taken seriously in a world that devalues female intellect, and Jacob’s efforts to surmount mental trauma, since he had been held captive in the Andersonville prison camp. We also see the path chosen by Vita’s mother, Marie, who tamped down her own scientific pursuits and found more socially acceptable outlets for them. Generations of women with stifled ambitions. Quotes from period sources start off each chapter, and they’re simultaneously amusing and sad. Freddy, though he lives only in others’ memories, has a notable presence. Even Vita’s father earns sympathy, since there are clues his mind is no longer what it was.

Vita grows throughout the book, discovering that to succeed in medicine, people skills and empathy are just as important as anatomical knowledge. She hadn’t counted on that. Learning how to listen, she realizes, is key. Although the novel lacks flashiness (not a deficit in my view), it’s replete with the richly colored emotions of ordinary people striving for a place in their changing world. This is a novel worth owning in print, too, since the physical book is gorgeous.

I reviewed this book from a personal copy, and the review forms part of the blog tour with Historical Fiction Virtual Book ToursThe Physician's Daughter was published by Zaffre in the US on September 1st.

Physician's Daughter tour banner

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Interview with Alana White, author of The Hearts of All On Fire, a mystery of 15th-century Florence

Today is publication day for my friend Alana White's The Hearts of All On Fire, an intricate historical mystery set amid the political turmoil and artistic achievements of 15th-century Florence.  It's officially the second in her series featuring lawyer Guid'Antonio Vespucci (a historical figure), but it works as a prequel to the first book (The Sign of the Weeping Virgin), and both books easily stand alone. This entry sees Guid'Antonio looking into two equally perplexing crimes: one involving a merchant who died from poisonous mushrooms at Guid'Antonio's own Saint John's Day table, and another dealing with a girl's terrible murder.  Thanks to Alana for answering my interview questions!

What initially spurred your interest in Florentine history during the Renaissance?

One day while reading National Geographic Magazine, I happened upon an article about the assassination plot to murder Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici on a Sunday morning during Mass in Florence Cathedral in 1478. At the time, the Medici family were the leaders of the most powerful political faction in Florence. One brother was killed, one escaped in a most dramatic way. Since I’ve always loved reading historical fiction, I looked for the book with this amazing event at the heart of the story. I couldn’t find one—so, I determined to write it myself.

The more research I did into the time and these fascinating people, the more hooked I became. Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici, Sandro Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, and my protagonist, Guid’Antonio Vespucci, a lawyer at the time and a bone deep Medici family supporter, were exact contemporaries. Threading together their stories has been equally challenging and enlightening.

Your first mystery with Guid’Antonio Vespucci featured the esteemed lawyer in his middle years. What inspired you to set this next volume further back in his past?

At the end of the first book, The Sign of the Weeping Virgin, Guid’Antonio is appointed ambassador to Rome. Since this is, in fact, what happened, the story resolves with him going there. I did not want to take the series to Rome—I wanted us to remain in Florence. I feared I had painted myself into a corner, but then realized I could go back five years to 1473 and stay in the City of Flowers. This offered all kinds of wonderful possibilities. For one thing, I could bring back to life the characters I had fallen in love with while writing Weeping Virgin, people who, unfortunately, fell victim to the assassins in the Cathedral. Speaking of the assassination, by retreating a few years, I could show that infamous plot as it begins to swirl around Guid’Antonio while he goes about his daily life and his investigations.

As in The Sign of the Weeping Virgin, in the new title, The Hearts of All on Fire, Guid’Antonio finds himself looking into solving two different crimes – which lead him into many corners of the city and into dark territory. I enjoyed all the details of the setting and the gradual disentangling of both mysteries, but it couldn’t have been simple to plot out. Why do you find yourself gravitating towards writing novels of such scope and complexity?

This is an absolutely wonderful question. I think it comes from the many connections pulling at Guid’Antonio. As I say, these are real people; a lot of research has been done about them all. Renaissance Florence is a rich tapestry, and it is also a minefield. I can’t write about Guid’Antonio without writing about his friends; Lorenzo de’ Medici, for one, strides across a huge stage. These are mysteries, so there must be a crime, one that hits Guid’Antonio close to home, so that we care about him as he untangles the who, how, and why, while protecting those he loves and moving up the ladder of power in Florence.

Then, too, since he is a lawyer, he has court cases—this is his job, his employment. Though I managed to avoid having a court scene in Weeping Virgin, in Heart he does have a big day in court, one I wanted to reflect the tragedy of betrayal by those who should love us against the theme of hope in the end. I wanted the primary mystery and the court case to dovetail and eventually come together. This also provides my “hero’s moment,” when Guid’Antonio fights for truth and justice, digging into and baring his soul to take a personal stand in court for someone who has absolutely no power.

And no, this was not simple to plot out. Many days I wanted to tear my hair, trying to figure out how I would poison one person at a table of five men and manage to kill my intended victim in the midst of the most popular festival day of the Florentine year. I drew that trestle table with five plates on it many times over, working out the logistics. It is really a matter of making connections along with Guid’Antonio as he enters the arena of piecing things together; as he says at one point, “an untended glance here, a slip of the tongue there.” Guid’Antonio is always paying attention—something the reader may not realize until the story’s end. I enjoy working with this time in history. Guid’Antonio has no DNA samples to consult, no firearms residue. He has himself and his wit. (And he can be a little sneaky.)

Several dogs are part of the plot of the novel, including Orsetto, Guid’Antonio’s adorable puppy. What interested you in this theme?

As a pet-lover myself, to me, it seems natural that Guid’Antonio would have a dog. As I designed the plot, I realized Orsetto, or Little Bear, could serve a real purpose in the story. In this instance, it is two-fold: Guid’Antonio is in his late thirties and not yet a father. He has no heir. In Florence at this time, this would have been a real concern for him. He has a lot of love to give and he gives a lot of love to Orsetto. At the same time, Guid’Antonio must experience a tremendous loss—or at least, temporarily. Orsetto provides that vehicle (but never fear. I don’t mind offering the spoiler that his puppy boy is fine in the end.) I also hope Guid’Antonio’s love for his dog reflects the kind of man he is without me pointedly saying that in the story.

What aspects of this novel did you enjoy researching the most? Did any subjects turn out to be especially difficult to dig into?

First, one of my supporting characters is a woman physician. I am so delighted I could create a woman doctor and stay true to the 1400s. This was possible thanks to two excellent works of nonfiction, The Renaissance Hospital, by John Henderson, and Doctors and Medicine in Early Renaissance Florence, by Katherine Park. Their work enabled me to bring Dottoressa Francesca Vernacci and the world of 15th-century medicine in Florence to life. From them I learned there were at least two women doctors in Florence.

Guid'Antonio Vespucci
How did this come about? Although women could not attend medical school (no women, Jews, or men who were not “legitimate” allowed), women could study outside the system and take an exam. If they passed it they could practice medicine. In my books, Francesca’s path is eased by the fact her father is a doctor—she studied independently with him and brilliantly passed her exam. Together, they manage the Vespucci family hospital, and that brings Francesca into close proximity with Guid’Antonio. I was especially happy that in The Hearts of All On Fire, I could dive into their past love affair (he’s now a married man, so no more of that). However, Francesca works with Guid’Antonio on cases he is investigating; in Hearts, she performs the autopsy that leads him to the perpetrator. At story’s end, there is a wonderful surprise in store for Francesca, one I think readers will enjoy.

As for especially difficult—I don’t know what I would do without Renaissance Italy scholars. I simply could not ignore the fact that Guid’Antonio is an esteemed lawyer. But what kind of cases would he handle? What punishments were deemed appropriate for various crimes? Again, several books paved the way (for example, Criminal Justice and Crime in Late Renaissance Florence by John Brackett). I’m currently writing Book III, which involves a tricky inheritance case—one that leads directly to the animosity fueling that Cathedral assassination. In my scenario, Guid’Antonio handles the court decision favoring the Medici family. I have found one excellent article written about that decision—and it is so complicated, I plan to contact the fellow who wrote it to request his help in slicing through it for the reader. I have found that these scholars love to engage.

What attracts you to the historical mystery genre?

Historical fiction has always been my favorite genre. As a youngster, I devoured books like The Man in the Iron Mask and Ivanhoe. Later, I was drawn to the Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael mysteries set in medieval England. They have been an inspiration to me. I also especially like the more recent C. J. Sansom Matthew Shardlake series, along with S. G. MacLean’s Damian Seeker. The Shardlake novels are especially textured, and The Seeker is my kind of guy.

What has your experience with publishing with Atmosphere Press been like?

Working with this hybrid press has been wonderful in every way. The staff are friendly and immediately responsive to my every question, no matter how small. I find the fact they usually get back to me within the day amazing. And their covers are lovely. Florence Cathedral is in the background on the Weeping Virgin cover; their designer researched how the Cathedral actually looked in the 1400s to be certain his rendering was correct. At my suggestion, they added Guid’Antonio’s mastiff to that cover. And then for Hearts, at my request they included his little dog, Orsetto, who is a curly-haired Lagotto Romagnolo. In every instance, Atmosphere Press goes above and beyond for their writers. Finding them has been a blessing.

Thank you, Alana!

Find more about the author and her novels at her website,

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Harini Nagendra's The Bangalore Detectives Club introduces an intrepid female protagonist in 1920s India

“Women’s dreams were only as big as their husbands’ egos would permit them to be,” thinks Kaveri Murthy, who has recently moved to Bangalore to live with her husband, Ramu, a doctor at Bowring Hospital. It’s 1921, and Kaveri’s conservative mother-in-law would definitely not approve of her obtaining a mathematics degree or going swimming in a clingy silk costume. Fortunately for Kaveri, Ramu is progressive, supportive, and eager to make his beautiful young wife happy, just one aspect of this series launch that upends expectations.

A fan of Agatha Christie and Baroness Orczy, Kaveri puts her own deductive abilities to the test after a burly stranger, later discovered to be a pimp, is murdered in the garden of the exclusive Century Club during a dinner party. The Murthys are in attendance, as are English and Indian doctors and their wives, with Kaveri’s milkman and his wife assisting in the kitchen.

It’s a nice change to have a mystery where the police welcome an amateur detective’s help, but Deputy Inspector Mr. Ismail is pressured to solve the case, so Kaveri must work overtime to ensure the wrong person (a downtrodden woman present at the crime scene) isn’t unfairly blamed.

Kaveri is simply adorable. In her gentle, determined way, she acknowledges gender and caste barriers while brushing past them to get the job done. The cultural milieu of early ‘20s Bangalore comes to life, from an elegant mansion owned by a snobby British couple to the cowherds’ colony, where respectable women like Kaveri really shouldn’t be visiting.

To please her husband, Kaveri tries her hand at cooking new dishes (recipes are included), and her elderly neighbor, “Uma aunty,” becomes a wonderful mentor and partner-in-sleuthing. Despite occasional head-hopping and some plotting that plays to stereotype, this debut is worth embracing.

I reviewed The Bangalore Detectives Club from a personal copy (this review also appears online at the Historical Novel Society website). This is Harini Nagendra's first novel, and she's also a renowned, award-winning ecologist with her own Wikipedia page.  If you're a fan of Sujata Massey's Perveen Mistry series set in '20s Bombay, give this a try. They share common themes, but the tone of this one is more lighthearted.

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Moonlight and the Pearler's Daughter by Lizzie Pook takes readers to colonial Australia with an adventurous mystery

Bannin Bay, a pearling village on the northwestern Australian coast, is a place of extremes, which debut novelist Lizzie Pook describes in abundant sensory detail. The redness of the soil in the blinding sunlight, the insistent strength of the tides, birds’ loud cries, and the ripe odors of seaside muck and decay are a shock to the system for Eliza Brightwell, daughter of a master pearler. The rampant exploitation affects her equally. White people of English origin are a minority in this multicultural land, but they hold the wealth and power.

By 1896, Eliza and her family have lived in Bannin Bay (a fictional locale based on Broome) for a decade. After spending six weeks alone while her father, Charles, and older brother, Thomas, are away at sea, Eliza is distraught when the White Starling, the lugger her father captains on his pearling expedition, returns to port without him. There was no blood or signs of a struggle; he simply vanished one night.

Eliza refuses to believe he’s dead, and the lack of a body doesn’t prevent the corrupt local constable from accusing Charles’s Aboriginal crewman, Balarri, of murder. Balarri wasn’t even on board at the time, so Eliza knows he’s innocent. She stops at nothing to discover what really happened, not only to bring her father home but also to clear Balarri’s name.

Congratulations to Lizzie Pook on crafting a mystery plot that feels logical in retrospect but is nearly impossible to work out in advance. What’s more, the gradual revelation of what may have happened, laid out carefully via clues such as Charles’s diary entries and Eliza’s snooping excursions, reveals much about people’s character.

Like her late mother, Eliza is neither a “white-glove wearer or a common harlot,” but though she doesn’t fit into any pre-set feminine category, there are places in Bannin Bay she can’t investigate alone. Enter Axel Kramer, a newly arrived German-born businessman who strikes a deal with Eliza: he’ll help her track down her father if she shows him around Bannin Bay. This situation may be realistic for the time and place, but Axel's presence feels too convenient all the same.

Many secondary characters, from Eliza’s disabled uncle Willem to her feckless brother Thomas to her half-Chinese, half-Scottish friend Min, a prospector’s daughter forced to fend for herself as best she can, round out the cast with more than walk-on roles. The physical hazards of pearl-diving are deadly, especially for the divers – who are mostly nonwhite. In a place that values human life so little, the narrative raises lucid questions about moral complicity: whether anyone who benefits from the cruel, corrupt pearling industry can be a decent person. As Min asks Eliza, “What can good even mean in a place like this?” In a well-plotted story that beckons with adventure, environmental beauty, and rich character development, these and other probing issues are thoughtfully explored.

The novel was published by Simon & Schuster in the US in June 2022; I reviewed it from Edelweiss. The UK publisher is Mantle, and it's also out from Viking Australia.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Woman of Light is a multigenerational Western historical novel from an Indigenous Chicano perspective

In her first novel, Kali Fajardo-Anstine weaves a sparkling constellation of stories around her heroine, Luz Lopez, an Indigenous Chicano teenager with a rich ancestral heritage. Luz comes of age in 1930s Denver amid family and romantic intrigues and systemic discrimination.

Just seventeen, she’s a tea-leaf reader and laundress for the city’s wealthy residents, working alongside her cousin Lizette. She and her brother Diego, a snake-charmer popular at the city’s outdoor festivals, have been raised by their aunt, Maria Josie, after their parents’ abandonment.

After Diego falls in love with an Anglo girl from a bigoted family and is forced to leave Denver, Luz misses him terribly. Her personality, which initially feels elusive, solidifies over the course of her transformational journey, in which she claims her place in a larger world that’s designed to exclude her. Though lacking formal education, Luz soaks up knowledge and has a talent for translation, or “moving words into words.”

The author creates evocative word-pictures, though the sections involving Luz tend to move slowly. Braided among them are tales involving Luz’s forebears in their homeland (the “Lost Territory”), whose lives she glimpses in visions. These include her entrepreneur grandfather, Pidre; his brave wife, Simodecea, a Mexican sharpshooter with a tragic backstory; and their daughters, Sara and Maria Josie, whose paths eventually diverge.

While scenes of Bonnie and Clyde—the familiar Depression-era outlaws—unfold in the background, Fajardo-Anstine creates a new Western lore, one involving a man’s dreams for a natural stone amphitheater, an elderly woman who “dreamt of stories in her sleep,” and a younger woman rising in power. Fajardo’s expansive vision of the West and its diverse, multilingual peoples is well worth experiencing, since it’s too rarely seen in fiction. Her novel is a triumphant reshaping of the Western narrative.

Woman of Light was published by One World, an imprint of Penguin Random House, in 2022. I reviewed it for August's Historical Novels Review. And doesn't it have a beautiful cover?

Saturday, September 10, 2022

Bronze Drum by Phong Nguyen introduces two military heroines from ancient Vietnam

Bronze Drum reveals the story of the Trưng Sisters, heroic young women living two millennia ago who have been revered as Vietnamese heroines ever since.

Daughters of a local lord in the northern village of Mê Linh in the year 36 CE, Trưng Trac and her younger sibling Trưng Nhị grow up in a palace, with guardsmen and other servants. While their loving, watchful parents have high expectations for them, they worry that neither has the right character to be a leader. Trưng Trac is serious and scholarly, overly so, while Trưng Nhị has an adventurous spirit that, combined with her stubborn will, makes her dangerously incautious.

By now, the Hán Chinese have ruled over the Việt people for three generations, forcing their Confucian beliefs upon the matriarchal Việt culture and dragging young Việt men away to fight in their wars. Forming a united resistance against the Hán seems impossible, until dramatic acts of violence against the Trưng sisters and their family inspire the pair to gather an army – formed of disparate groups of women – and channel their personal revenge into a force powerful enough to overcome the Hán.

This pulled-from-the-depths-of-history tale could have been transformed into a rip-roaring, immersive adventure. Bronze Drum, however, is not that. As the prologue emphasizes, the Trưng Sisters’ military accomplishments have been transmitted through the ages via oral tradition, and the novel respects that – maybe too much. The story reads like the recounting of an ancient legend, with much told instead of shown:

Lady Man Thiên and Lord Trưng left the courtyard, leaving a complicated knot of emotion behind in the room. The sisters felt their parents’ conflict, and took on their helplessness. Their sense of defeat was more profound for being borrowed. How could they alleviate a sorrow that originated outside of them, in their hearts of their mother and father?

As a result, the characters are kept at arms’ length. There’s still much to admire in this portrait, like the clear example of how powerful leaders are made, not born. Each woman is demonstrably flawed and makes poor decisions. Trained as sparring partners, the sisters don’t always see eye to eye, and they serve as checks on the other’s worst impulses. The dialogue is well-formed and helps counteract the narrative’s distancing effect. Nguyen gives Lady Man Thiện, the Trưng Sisters’ mother – who becomes one of their loyal generals – some of the most stirring lines:

“We must live as we wish to live; otherwise we are not Việts,” said Lady Man Thiện. “If the Han truly want to make Confucians out of us, at least they will have to fight for it.”

As a story about courageous real-life women who triumphed over oppression, if only for a too-brief period, Bronze Drum has value for today’s readers, but the occasionally stiff writing style makes it a novel that’s best approached with tempered expectations.

Bronze Drum was published by Grand Central in August; I read it from a NetGalley copy.

Monday, September 05, 2022

Maggie O'Farrell's The Marriage Portrait reimagines the life of Renaissance duchess Lucrezia de' Medici

Following the critically acclaimed Hamnet (2020), O’Farrell creates another mesmerizing portrait of a Renaissance-era woman whose life is shrouded in mystery.

My Last Duchess,” Robert Browning’s poem about Lucrezia de’ Medici (1545-1561), gave voice to the longstanding rumors that its subject was murdered by her husband, Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara. Was she, and if so, why?

Daughter of Florence’s large ruling family, Lucrezia, a restless dreamer who adores animals and creating art, is devastated to learn, at age 12, about plans for her to wed her late sister’s fiancé. While Alfonso appears charming, she later witnesses a cruel streak in his character.

O’Farrell shines at instilling exquisitely tactile scenes with human feeling, such as Lucrezia’s wedding preparations and her sense of inner strength while viewing the sunrise transform the sky one morning at Alfonso’s country villa.

The author proves equally skilled at evoking suspense. This she accomplishes by alternating between Lucrezia’s earlier life and the time when Alfonso brings Lucrezia, his sixteen-year-old bride, to an isolated stone fortress—perhaps to kill her. The potential motive won’t surprise anyone familiar with noblewomen’s dynastic roles.

Historical-fiction readers will love the cultural details, while Lucrezia’s plight speaks to modern themes of gaslighting and women’s agency. The leitmotif of “underpainting”—truths hidden beneath the surface—echoes throughout this poetically written, multilayered novel.

My recommendation for YAs: Literary-fiction readers who enjoy female-centered narratives will sympathize with Lucrezia’s quest to evade a terrible fate; includes sexual situations. 

The Marriage Portrait will be published on Tuesday in the U.S. by Knopf.  I contributed this (starred) review for Booklist's Sept. 1 issue.

Thursday, September 01, 2022

Danielle Daniel's Daughters of the Deer tells a story from her 17th-century Indigenous ancestors' history

Canadian writer Daniel’s poignant historical novel, her adult fiction debut, reveals important truths about Indigenous women’s lives. The daughters of the title are Marie and Jeanne of the Weskarini Algonkin people – the deer clan – in the place now called Quebec.

“In the year they call 1657, I am to marry a white man. A white man whose blood will flow in the veins of my children and my children’s children,” says Marie, a talented healer. She agrees to wed French trader Pierre Couc to save her tribe, most of whose men were killed fighting the Iroquois. Among the coureurs de bois, Pierre seems kind and respectful of her ways, yet theirs isn’t an alliance of equals.

Marie’s narrative is deeply empathetic as she worries about the white settlers’ greed – they take from the land without showing respect for its gifts – and their supplanting of Native traditions in favor of Catholicism, a religion the Weskarini chief asks his people to follow for their protection.

Marie and Pierre raise a large family, and the future of their eldest daughter, Jeanne, is always on Marie’s mind thanks to an elder’s prophecy. By the laws of the French king, thousands of miles distant, Jeanne must marry by a certain age or Pierre will be fined, but Jeanne’s beloved is her neighbor and best friend, Josephine. Although same-sex romantic relationships are honored among the Algonkins, the whites consider them shameful at best.

Daniel’s crystalline prose ensures a smoothly elegant read that emphasizes the pristine beauty of the region and her compassion for what her ancestors endured (Marie and Jeanne are on her family tree). Her story also lays bare the deliberate erasures made by colonialism, which has left a tragic, long-lasting legacy. Deservedly a Canadian bestseller, this novel exemplifies historical fiction’s noble purpose of revivifying important voices from the past.

Daughters of the Deer was published by Random House Canada this spring (I reviewed it for August's Historical Novels Review based on a NetGalley copy).  The novel is published in Canada, but sold in the US as a paperback or Kindle ebook for anyone interested in getting their own copy.