Saturday, October 29, 2022

New historical novels on my wishlist for winter and spring 2023

Is it just me, or is the marketing for upcoming books starting earlier than ever?  My inbox has been filling up with promotions for historical novels set to be published through next April and May.  Six months is a long time to wait, but most of the books below are available for review via NetGalley or Edelweiss now (and the others will hopefully follow soon). These will all appear early next year. 

Which ones are you interested in, or are there others you're eagerly anticipating?  I'm not sure when I'll get to these since my review schedule is packed over the next few months, but I hope to read them eventually.  For a more comprehensive look at historical fiction for 2023, please see the Historical Novel Society forthcoming title listing or this Goodreads list.

The Porcelain Moon by Janie ChangJanie Chang's newest novel (after The Library of Legends, which I enjoyed very much) takes her to WWI-era France, showing a Chinese woman's friendship with a Frenchwoman during a time of great strife, and what happens after secrets from the past are revealed. William Morrow, Feb. 2023. [see on Goodreads]

The Woman with the Cure by Lynn Cullen
We know (especially from reading historical fiction) that many women of science and medicine weren't given the respect or credit they deserved for their work.  Lynn Cullen's timely historical novel focuses on epidemiologist Dorothy Horstmann and the quest to develop a polio vaccine in the 1940s and '50s. Berkley, Feb. 2023. [see on Goodreads]

The Lioness of Boston by Emily FranklinThe "Lioness of Boston" in Emily Franklin's novel is outspoken Gilded Age philanthropist and art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner, centering on how she became a leading light of the Boston art scene. Godine, April 2023. [see on Goodreads]

Daughters of Nantucket by Julie GerstenblattAnother New England-set historical novel, and a debut for Gerstenblatt: the intertwining stories of three women of Nantucket as the island's great fire breaks out in 1846.  The trio includes a captain's wife, a free Black merchant, and astronomer Maria Mitchell.  MIRA, March 2023. [see on Goodreads]

Weyward by Emilia Hart

The tagline of "Three women. Five centuries. One secret" gets me very curious!  An Englishwoman, an ancestress of the novel's contemporary heroine, was put on trial for witchcraft in the early 17th century.  Three women are linked by the gendered violence they've all faced, and perhaps by something else. I sense this will appeal to readers of Sarah Penner's The Lost Apothecary as well as fans of witch-themed fiction. St. Martin's, March 2023. [see on Goodreads]

The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho by Paterson JosephLast week, the author was a presenter at Library Journal's latest Day of Dialog sessions for librarians. Charles Ignatius Sancho is a historical figure, a man who was born on a slave ship and became, among other achievements, an abolitionist, merchant, writer, and the first Black man to vote in Britain in the 1770s. The publisher describes his fictional diaries as "for fans of Bridgerton," which may be true, although this sounds like a very different (less fluffy, for one) sort of read. Henry Holt, April 2023. [see on Goodreads]

The Witch of Tin Mountain by Paulette KennedyBecause this title was postponed from the fall, there's been a lot of buzz about it on social media already. Kennedy's debut novel was a gothic feast, so I'm expecting the same of this new book, in addition to a deep dive into regional color and lore. It's described as a multi-period tale set partly in the Depression-era Ozarks that follows three women linked by family and an evil presence. Lake Union, Feb. 2023. [see on Goodreads]

The Secrets of Hartwood Hall by Katie LumsdenI do enjoy Gothic sagas, and this one has classic elements: a supposedly cursed old mansion in Victorian England, a governess, creepy night-time noises, and creepier secrets. But the heroine in Lumsden's novel is a recent widow rather than a naïve ingenue, and I look forward to seeing what other tropes are upended. Dutton, Feb. 2023. [see on Goodreads]

Homecoming by Kate MortonKate Morton's novels are auto-buys for me (she's among my favorite authors, and though they only appear every few years, they're worth waiting for) so of course I had to list her upcoming book here. Set mostly in Australia, Homecoming moves between contemporary times and 1959 as a journalist investigates a notorious, decades-old tragedy. Mariner, April 2023. [see on Goodreads]

River Sing Me Home by Eleanor ShearerSet in the British-ruled Caribbean following the Emancipation Act of 1834, this debut novel follows a courageous woman from a Barbados plantation in search of the five children who were sold away from her during slavery.  As with Paterson Joseph's novel, above, Shearer was a speaker at LJ's Day of Dialog. [see on Goodreads]

In the Upper Country by Kai ThomasAnother of the debuts on this list, Kai Thomas's novel also takes place in the 19th century and covers a lesser-known part of North American history: the story of the Black and Indigenous people whose life stories played out along the Underground Railroad in the U.S. and Canada.  Viking, Jan. 2023. [see on Goodreads]

Stealing by Margaret VerbleVerble is a literary historical fiction writer and Pulitzer finalist (for her debut, Maud's Line) who's an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation. In Stealing, her fourth novel, she tells the story of a Cherokee child sent to live at a Christian boarding school, the harsh treatment and abuse she endures, and her determination to break away. Important history retold as fiction. Mariner, Feb. 2023. [see on Goodreads]

Monday, October 24, 2022

Philippa Gregory's Dawnlands, third in her Fairmile series, continues her 17th-century family saga

Themes of liberty, religious conflict, and longing for one’s homeland percolate through this lively third novel in Gregory’s bestselling Fairmile series, after Dark Tides (2020). The action spans from the Protestant Duke of Monmouth’s rebellion against his Catholic uncle, James II, in 1685 to the Glorious Revolution three years later, as Alinor Reekie’s family becomes enmeshed in political intrigue.

Having risen from poor servant to respectable London matriarch, the now-elderly Alinor is a wise, knowing presence. Her brother Ned, who despises monarchical rule, returns from Boston with a courageous young Pokanoket woman he rescues from enslavement. Unsurprisingly, he takes Monmouth’s side. Livia Avery, a truly irritating character, continues her inveterate scheming as lady-in-waiting to James II’s queen.

From a moonlit march through the Somerset countryside to a Barbados sugar plantation’s brutal conditions, the sense of place is particularly strong. As in all good multigenerational sagas, the story—lengthy but never dull—offers the pleasures of seeing a family expand and flourish; Alinor’s great-granddaughters from Venice are becoming significant characters. The ending signals more to come.

Dawnlands will be published by Atria/Simon & Schuster in November, and I'd submitted this review for Booklist's Oct. 15th issue. 

Some other thoughts:

- It is odd to think of Alinor, a woman in her late sixties here, as having great-grandchildren nearly of marriageable age, and I had to do some thinking about whether the math worked out.  I believe it does, or can, when you consider how young they all were when she and her descendants had children.

- In Dark Tides (see my earlier review), Ned's adventures in the New World felt like a separate story altogether from Alinor's, but his plot thread gets reintegrated with others from the family in this novel... for a time. There are a lot of characters involved, with significant backstories by this point, so you probably don't want to start the series with this book.

- If it's not obvious, I really don't care for Livia, the character. She was clearly created to be disruptive and irritating, and she definitely is.

- Over the three books in the series thus far (and I'm assuming there'll be more based on the ending), Alinor and her family have risen in status considerably, through their own intelligence and hard work. There was no family tree in my e-ARC, and it would be a great addition to the books at this point.

- Dawnlands, the title, refers to the homeland of the Pokanoket people.

Thursday, October 20, 2022

Unnatural Creatures by Kris Waldherr takes a fresh, revelatory look at the women from Frankenstein

Even those who haven’t read Frankenstein firsthand know its premise: an obsessed scientist creates a monster and instills him with life, and in doing so he sows the seeds of his own destruction and that of the people closest to him. Conceptualized by the teenaged Mary Shelley in 1816 (its creation story has become its own legend), the novel is an early classic of science fiction and a cautionary tale about unrestrained ambition.

Reading Frankenstein and its characters isn’t strictly necessary before beginning Kris Waldherr’s stellar companion novel/tribute, Unnatural Creatures, but you’ll gain greater appreciation for the author’s accomplishment the more prior knowledge you have. (Disclaimer: I hadn’t read the original but took advantage of a summary found online.)

Unnatural Creatures – the title has several meanings – homes in on the perspective of three women who were secondary characters in Shelley’s novel. Caroline, Victor Frankenstein’s devoted mother and the wife of one of Geneva’s syndics (city officials), worries about her family’s future. Elizabeth Lavenza, Caroline’s exquisitely beautiful ward, has been raised alongside Victor and, out of love and gratitude for being rescued as a child, knows that she’ll marry him after she’s grown. Fate steps in, however, and Elizabeth find her loyalties divided when her affections turn in a different direction. The third viewpoint is that of Justine Moritz, a disabled servant  Caroline takes in after saving her from an abusive mother.

This is no thinly derivative work of fan fiction but a fully realized historical novel that takes advantage of the tensions in the setting of late 18th-century Geneva, as revolutionary unrest spills over from Paris. By drawing the spotlight away from Victor and toward the women in his life, we gradually view evidence for the monster's creation. This amplifies the sense of brooding dread. He lurks in the background – sensed, perhaps glimpsed in shadow, but initially unseen by our protagonists until the terrible truth is made clear.

Further details about the plot are best left for you to discover on your own, save that Waldherr adds considerable dimension to characters from the original work that will have you considering it, and them, in a fresh way going forward. Electrifying and creepy, with considerable insight into societal roles and expectations for women, Unnatural Creatures is a perfect read for the spooky season.

Unnatural Creatures was released by Muse Publications this month, and thanks to the author for sending me a PDF.

Thursday, October 13, 2022

Review of Harlem Sunset by Nekesa Afia, second in the Harlem Renaissance mystery series

This novel, second in the Harlem Renaissance Mystery series, is a continuation, not a standalone. Not having read Dead Dead Girls first, it took a while for the characters and plot to become clear in my mind; in addition, the culprit from the first book is (surprise!) named in Chapter 2. Nonetheless, I found myself drawn into the life of Louise Lloyd, manager at the Dove, a popular nightclub in 1927 Harlem.

Things should be looking up for Louise: besides her job, she just moved in with her girlfriend, Rosa Maria Moreno, and loves dancing the night away in a bright red dress and heels. But despite having solved the Girl Killer case, Louise remains haunted by its resolution. Also, after being kidnapped as a teenager, she had saved herself and her fellow victims and still deals with the resulting fame and trauma.

Afia presents a credible portrait of a young 1920s-era Black woman striving to overcome PTSD and reclaim her life. Then Louise’s situation becomes more troublesome. On the morning after her 27th birthday celebration, Louise awakens on the floor of the Dove next to her friends, with one of the girls she’d rescued years ago—who she’d just met again the night before—stabbed to death alongside them. To the cops, Rosa Maria appears guilty, so Louise turns detective to clear her lover’s name.

The pace is snappy, the historical atmosphere cleanly evoked without excessive detail. As Louise ponders a motive, she combs through the dead woman’s past as well as her own.

This novel works better as a character-centered crime novel than a traditional amateur sleuth tale, since the mystery plot gets digressive and has some implausible aspects. Louise’s friends and family members are an intriguing bunch with realistically drawn relationships, though, so much so that I find myself eager to pick up Dead Dead Girls to see them again—even knowing whodunit.

Harlem Sunset was published by Berkley in August, and I'd reviewed it for August's Historical Novels Review.

Friday, October 07, 2022

Jess Kidd's The Night Ship takes an innovative approach to a 17th-century maritime disaster

The 1629 maritime disaster of the Dutch East India flagship Batavia has been fictionalized before, as in Arabella Edge’s The Company (2001), but Kidd’s approach is especially innovative. She imagines the voyage and terrible aftermath from the viewpoint of nine-year-old Mayken, who leaves the Netherlands with her nursemaid to join her father across the globe.

A parallel story depicts Gil, also nine, who comes to stay with his cantankerous fisherman grandfather on Beacon Island off Australia’s west coast, the site of the Batavia shipwreck, in 1989. Both children are inquisitive, motherless misfits with active imaginations. While Mayken explores the lower decks in male disguise, worried about a reported monster, Gil’s presence inflames an ongoing feud with another family.

Tension runs high in both tales, which are closely interwoven. There are whimsical, even funny moments, but physical and psychological horrors flourish in this well-researched, spellbindingly dark and folklore-infused novel as the plot advances. As one character opines, “The greatest shame of humankind is the failure of the strong to protect the weak.” Recommended especially to Alma Katsu’s fans.

The Night Ship is published this month by Atria/Simon & Schuster, and I reviewed it for Booklist's Sept. 1 issue.  

Some other notes:  When this book arrived as an assignment, I was a little nervous, since the historical event it's based around is... pretty horrific.  The wreck of the Batavia is terrible enough, but things get worse from there (see more at Wikipedia, but be alert to potential spoilers).  But I am glad I read the book, since the approach the author took was very creative, and each of the timelines pulls equal weight.  Even though the protagonists are children, the book isn't aimed at that age group.  There are hints at background events in the story that only adult readers are likely to catch and understand. And if you're looking for a creepy, atmospheric read for the spooky season, this will fit.  

Tuesday, October 04, 2022

Heather B. Moore's In the Shadow of a Queen introduces Queen Victoria's rebellious daughter Princess Louise

Princess Louise, sixth child and fourth daughter of Queen Victoria, was a trailblazer within the British royal family. Not only did she marry a commoner, a highly unusual circumstance at the time, but she was a talented sculptor who pursued a career as an artist, enrolling in the National Art Training School and attending classes – when her schedule allowed – alongside ordinary people. But getting her devoted Mama’s permission took work. So did essentially everything else in her highly regulated, scrutinized, and isolated existence within royalty’s privileged cocoon.

“Nothing is private when you are the daughter of England’s sovereign,” writes Heather B. Moore in her biographical novel about Princess Louise, succinctly stating her heroine’s predicament and illustrating the difficult path she navigates as she gingerly moves out of Queen Victoria’s shadow and into a role that offers greater fulfillment.

Sadly, Louise’s childhood is dominated by her father Prince Albert’s early death and her mother’s stifling control and refusal to emerge from mourning. Each of Victoria’s unmarried daughters, in turn, is expected to serve as her personal secretary, a role she thinks Louise is too excitable and strong-willed to handle. Louise’s few friendships are supervised, and her associations with outsiders strictly limited.

A good part of the novel involves the husband hunt, a challenging task since there are few good options. Moore nimbly sketches in the political background that overshadows Louise’s choices (many potential fiancés are objectionable to either the Danes or the Prussians, whose families Louise’s older siblings married into, and who are in a territorial dispute). Also, the Queen doesn’t want her to reside abroad. Louise finds the whole process embarrassing, and it’s clear why that is. How could anyone possibly be themselves while dating – to use a modern term – under the view of multiple chaperones?

The standout scenes are those where Louise asserts her independence: perfecting her sculpting abilities to the point where she wears down her mother’s objections to further training; stepping from her carriage into the halls of the art school; daring to visit physician Elizabeth Garrett at her home and pose questions about women in medicine. Queen Victoria’s sense of royal dignity is such that, when Louise does get engaged, she demands that her future husband call her “Princess Louise” all the time – even in private! Louise is her own woman, though, and knows that’s not the type of marriage she wants.

author Heather B. Moore
Following Louise from ages 12 through 23, In the Shadow of a Queen uses excerpts from historical letters to start each chapter, and the author’s prose approximates the same tone and characterizations. Moore has done careful research, and her endnotes – which are so detailed that the actual novel ends at the 90% mark on my Kindle – emphasize her dedication to the source material. Readers hoping to find secret love affairs or other juicy rumors brought to life should look elsewhere. Instead, they’ll find a well-rendered, convincing portrait of a talented young woman’s efforts to balance her royal role with her need for independence.

The novel is published by Shadow Mountain Publishing today, October 4th, and my review is part of the blog tour with Austenprose PR (I read it from a NetGalley copy).



Heather B. Moore is a USA Today best-selling and award-winning author of more than seventy publications, including The Paper Daughters of Chinatown. She has lived on both the East and West Coasts of the United States, as well as Hawaii, and attended school abroad at the Cairo American Collage in Egypt and the Anglican School of Jerusalem in Israel. She loves to learn about history and is passionate about historical research.