Thursday, March 30, 2023

The Vanishing at Castle Moreau takes a gothic excursion to small-town Wisconsin in three different eras

Jaime Jo Wright has carved out an original niche in the genre landscape. Her award-winning novels are multi-period Midwestern horror with a twist of inspirational romance; how’s that for an intriguing amalgamation?

True to the gothic tradition, The Vanishing at Castle Moreau takes place at an isolated stone monstrosity – one built by an early 19th-century French émigré in small-town Wisconsin. Numerous women have vanished behind its walls over the years, so the stories go. Some generations of the Moreau-Tremblay family have capitalized on their home’s horrific legend, but its present-day owners have grown weary of the bad publicity.

Fleeing a guilty conscience over past troubles, Cleo Clemmons, who adopts a new surname to hide her identity, takes a last-chance job at Castle Moreau that requires her to organize and clear out an elderly widow’s belongings. Virgie Tremblay is a hoarder, and her loving grandson, Deacon, a sexy celebrity, is wealthy enough to pay for Cleo’s employment – and secretive enough to want his grandmother’s condition kept quiet.

Problem is, someone’s alert to Cleo’s presence. When she finds a mysterious cassette recording on her parked car, one relating to a young woman’s disappearance forty years earlier, she checks it out – and other townies get agitated once they hear it. Plus, eerie nighttime happenings have Cleo believing that the castle’s hauntings are real. (Which they are.)

Cleo’s story has a smart contemporary vibe, a contrast that plays well against the more formal Victorian style of the earlier-set tale. In 1870, Daisy François, an orphan who escaped abusive foster parents, takes a housemaid’s job at Castle Moreau out of desperation. Here, too, an elderly matriarch rules the roost: Ora (Moreau) Tremblay is a bestselling authoress of horror fiction à la Poe, and she revels in (and lives surrounded by) the atmosphere she evokes. Looking even further back, a few chapters set in 1801 introduce the chateau’s ghost, a woman with a crooked hand.

The opening chapters at Castle Moreau pull out all the stops in Gothic-ness – an eccentric male servant, beds drenched in spiderwebs, a maze of abandoned rooms, just to start – and I kept reading to see where this was all going. The mystery in the modern section is cleverly arranged with a neat twist at the end, and the story’s paranormal happenings will have you avoiding dark corners and empty hallways. The romances in Daisy’s and Cleo’s timelines are a bit sudden, but for those seeking out paranormal creepiness and mystery, this novel has both in spades.

The Vanishing at Castle Moreau is published by Bethany House on April 4th, 2023. This review forms part of the novel's blog tour via Austenprose PR.




Jaime Jo Wright is the author of eight novels, including Christy Award and Daphne du Maurier Award-winner The House on Foster Hill and Carol Award winner The Reckoning at Gossamer Pond. She's also the Publishers Weekly and ECPA bestselling author of two novellas. Jaime lives in Wisconsin with her cat named Foo; her husband, Cap'n Hook; and their two mini-adults, Peter Pan and CoCo.


Monday, March 27, 2023

Ten upcoming historical novels for 2023 with memorable cover designs

So many novels set to appear in the coming months have cover designs that entice me to buy the book for that alone. The stories within sound just as intriguing.  Here are ten examples that caught my attention.

The First Ladies by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray

The blossoming cherry trees of Washington, DC, are the backdrop for this collaborative novel by the authors of The Personal Librarian. The two heroines are First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and her friend and ally Mary McLeod Bethune. Berkley, June 2023. [see on Goodreads]

California Golden by Melanie Benjamin

The colorful cover of Benjamin's latest novel, centered on a pair of sisters trying to succeed in the world of surfing in 1960s southern California, brims with nostalgia for this not-so-long-ago time. Dell, August 2023. [see on Goodreads]

The Orchid Hour by Nancy Bilyeau

Beautiful illustrations of the title flower grace the latest novel by Bilyeau, which promises to take readers into the dark world of organized crime and a clandestine speakeasy in Jazz Age NYC. Lume, August 2023. [see on Goodreads]

The Other Princess by Denny S. Bryce

Peach and purple skies glow behind the figure of Sarah Forbes Bonetta, an African princess who became Queen Victoria's goddaughter. The author's first biographical novel is out from William Morrow in October. [see on Goodreads]

The Shining Mountains by Alix Christie

I loved Christie's first novel, Gutenberg's Apprentice; her second novel reflects her in-depth research into a character from her family history, Angus McDonald, a Scotsman who marries and raises a family with a Nez Perce woman in the 19th-century Rocky Mountains... and the cover showcases the region. High Road/Univ. of New Mexico Press, April 2023. [see on Goodreads]

The Red Bird Sings by Aoife Fitzpatrick

What a cover!  I think this is my favorite of them all: the images of nature and dramatic color contrast, which hints at a story of dark violence. Irish debut novelist Fitzpatrick pens a chilling novel about a young woman's mysterious death and justice in late 19th-century West Virginia. Virago, April 2023; no US edition yet, but Americans can preorder it on Kindle. [see on Goodreads]

Disobedient by Elizabeth Fremantle
Elizabeth Fremantle's newest historical has a jacket design with the look of Elodie Harper's Wolf Den. This one examines the life and strength of 17th-century Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi, a survivor of sexual violence who refused to stay silent. Michael Joseph, July 2023; this is the UK cover. It will also be out in the US from Pegasus the same month. [see on Goodreads]

I, Julian, by Claire Gilbert

As stunning as stained glass in a cathedral window, Claire Gilbert's novel, I, Julian, is written as a first-person account by medieval anchoress and visionary Julian of Norwich.  Hodder & Stoughton, April 2023. [see on Goodreads]

Cities of Women by Kathleen B. Jones

The illustrated medieval-style design with its deep blue background entices readers into a novel centering on the era that gave birth to Christine de Pizan (b.1364), an Italian-born French poet described as "the first woman to support herself as a writer." This dual-period literary novel will focus, per the publisher's blurb, on illuminated manuscripts, feminine creativity, and self-discovery. Turner, September 2023. [see on Goodreads]

The Company by J. M. Varese

I find this cover both attractive and creepy, which must be the intended effect. I had never heard of the "arsenic wallpaper controversy of the late 19th century" before. Varese's The Company centers on a young Victorian-era wallpaper heiress at odds with a rising company employee with malevolent designs (literally). John Murray/Baskerville, March 2023. [see on Goodreads]

Friday, March 24, 2023

Songs in Ursa Major looks back to the folk scene of 1960s-70s America

Has anyone else been watching Daisy Jones & the Six on Amazon Prime? I haven’t read the novel (by Taylor Jenkins Reid), about the tumultuous relationship between the two lead singers in a ‘70s rock band, but I’ve been glued to the show, which has been dropping several new episodes each week. The final two remain unwatched as of now, and I’m anxious to see how the series ends.

When I went in search of a readalike novel, I found Emma Brodie’s Songs in Ursa Major, which has been hiding in my NetGalley queue for too long. Jane Quinn, the 19-year-old lead singer and guitarist for a band called The Breakers in 1969, isn’t Daisy Jones – while Jane has plenty of moxie and can party with the best of them, she’s more even-keeled. Plus her genre is more folk than rock.

A lifelong resident of Bayleen Island off the Massachusetts coast, Jane gets her big break at their summer folk festival, which attracts fans and tourists from across America. When the famous blue-eyed singer-songwriter Jesse Reid wrecks his car and misses his slot on the festival stage, Jane steps in, singing Jesse’s own song – and the rest is history. She seems destined for stardom, but a sexist record executive, Jane’s growing relationship with Jesse, and her own lack of songwriting confidence get in her way.

The novel, the author’s debut, is reportedly based on the affair between Joni Mitchell and James Taylor. It’s marketed as a love story, but I found it more of a celebration of feminine freedom. Jane comes from a generations-long line of unmarried, independent women.  A young woman with long, golden hair and a peasant blouse, Jane takes advantage of her opportunity on stage in a “bold as f-ck” way.  She thrives in the spotlight, and the opening scene puts you in her shimmering presence and makes you wish her performance existed on YouTube. She and Jesse have undeniable chemistry, though their relationship conceals some secrets, which of course are bound to come out eventually.

Through many ups and downs, musically and professionally, Brodie weaves the narrative around Jane's character, letting us see her from within and without – sweeping from center stage out to the audience and back. Following the great opening, it took me a while to be fully drawn into the story, and I would have liked more context. Folk music of the era spoke of politics and social change, but we don’t see much of the historical background that birthed these songs. As a portrait of a woman’s bumpy path to lasting fame, it’s much more successful, and the ending is perfect, providing a satisfying outcome for these creative characters.

Songs in Ursa Major was first published by Knopf. The cover images above come from the hardback (2021) and the paperback (2022).

Monday, March 20, 2023

The Trackers by Charles Frazier takes a propulsive journey across Depression-era America

Following Varina (2018), Frazier is in top form for his fifth novel, which traverses America in its portrait of contrasting Depression-era lives.

“The Trackers” is the name that New Deal artist Valentine “Val” Welch gives the mural he’s commissioned to paint in the post office of Dawes, Wyoming. He aims to inspire small-town pride by showcasing regional highlights.

While lodging at the expansive ranch of aspiring politician John Long and his younger wife, Eve, Val gets pulled into their drama. Not long after a stressful dinner party, Eve takes off, a small Renoir from Long’s collection in hand, and doesn’t return. Long asks Val to find her. Events turn more dangerous and puzzling than expected.

From an exhausting trip to wild rural Florida to the newly constructed, cinnabar-hued Golden Gate Bridge, the locales feel period-authentic, and the writing hums with spectacular word-images. While Val narrates, using a light folksy style that Frazier’s fans will recognize, the novel’s primary hero is Eve. An inscrutably captivating woman from impoverished origins who became a teenage hobo and sang in cowboy bands, she has reasons for fleeing wealthy married life, and the mystery ignites the plot.

The Old West still lingers in this propulsive tale of individualistic characters striving to beat the odds.

The Trackers will be published by Ecco/HarperCollins on April 11th, and this review was originally written for Booklist's Feb. 15th issue. You can find my review of Varina in an earlier blog post.  Read more about the background to The Trackers  and the author's long writing career, in his interview with Publishers Weekly. I love the illustration on the cover, too, which suits the material.

Monday, March 13, 2023

Review of T. Greenwood's Such a Pretty Girl, a daring novel of childhood fame, responsibility, and family in 1970s NYC

Click. Ryan Flannigan still flinches at the sound of a camera shutter, since it recalls her formative years as a child model and actress and the unwelcome attention she received from adults wanting to exploit her pre-teen prettiness. Now, in 2019, Ryan is a single mother in her early fifties living in rural Vermont, where she’s helped run a summer stock theater and quietly raised her daughter.

When an old friend alerts her to a news article with a risqué portrait from the worst night of her life, one taken during the New York City blackout of 1977, Ryan is shocked and confused. How did the photo come to resurface in the Paris apartment of billionaire Zev Brenner, a man recently unmasked as a pedophile? And why does it bear an affectionate inscription from Ryan’s mother, Fiona, on the back?

The subsequent suicide of Henri Dubois, an elderly photographer who’d been a father figure to young Ryan, draws her back to Greenwich Village for his memorial and in search of answers. Ryan never knew Brenner, but now she wonders how much her mother knew about his crimes. Fiona, however, has disappeared.

As the story shifts between eras, tension keeps this question open as Greenwood explores the fraught relationship between Ryan and Fiona, a would-be actress who moved the pair to New York in 1976 and lived through her daughter when her own auditions led nowhere. Adult novels with child narrators can be tricky, but Greenwood mostly stays within 10-year-old Ryan’s worldview in the 1970s sections. Introverted and anxiety-prone, Ryan adjusts well to the Westbeth complex, a real-life artists’ community, where she lives with a Hispanic American family who cares for her during Fiona’s too-frequent absences.

Ryan takes joy in doing kid things, and we feel her disconnect with the roles some adults manipulate her into, alongside her reluctance to disappoint. Alternately loving, neglectful, protective, and jealous of her daughter, Fiona herself is multifaceted and disturbingly drawn, a woman whose “need was like a balloon, stretched to its limits.”

Several elements distract from the mystery, like the adult Ryan’s unwillingness to read a note left for her by Fiona, thus delaying some revelations for plot convenience. Also, the name Ryan was almost never used for girls born in ’66, and I wish Greenwood had let Ryan ponder some of Henri’s actions in greater depth.

Other cultural references to a ‘70s childhood – decorating shoeboxes for school Valentine’s Day activities, the Hall of Gems at the American Museum of Natural History, watching American Bandstand on Saturdays – all check out. It wasn’t surprising to learn the author is my age and lived through the time she re-creates.

With Jeffrey Epstein’s crimes and Brooke Shields’ painful childhood experiences still circulating in the news, the novel’s theme of the “battle against a world in which girls are still often in peril” continues to strongly resonate. The novel offers much to ponder about what it means to be complicit.

T. Greenwood's Such a Pretty Girl was published by Kensington in October 2022; this was a personal purchase.

Wednesday, March 08, 2023

In the Upper Country reveals aspects of Black and Indigenous histories on both sides of the Canadian border

In 1859, in an all-Black town in Canada West (now called Ontario), a hub for the Underground Railroad, a female journalist agrees to interview an old woman who was imprisoned after killing a white slave catcher on her trail. Their conversation reveals much in the way of unexpected history.

A writer for The Coloured Canadian, Lensinda “Sinda” Martin doesn’t know what to make of the woman, who speaks in riddles, or her perplexing situation. The old woman and her companion, a young seamstress named Emma, had been hiding at a farmer’s cabin when a white man and his Indian partner showed up, claiming the pair were fugitive slaves from Lincoln County, Kentucky. Strangely, the woman was seen talking to the Indian and somehow convinced him to back off.

Profoundly frustrated (“Would I ever get anything of value from this woman?” she wonders), Sinda proposes a “tale for a tale,” bartering her own stories for the woman’s revelations about the past. These tales involve love, family, painful separation, and multiple quests for freedom—and the drastic lengths people will go to obtain it.

Stretching from 1795 Montreal through the pivotal War of 1812 to the characters’ present day, this debut novel paves a previously uncharted path through North America, uncovering deep affinities between Black and Indigenous peoples, who shared the pain of bondage and “quietly celebrated each escape; it mattered not whence they fled.”

The writing isn’t uniformly fluid. Some pages move speedily, while others require careful, slow perusal in order to make connections with earlier events. Many of the secondary characters—including Sinda’s employer and landlady, an abolitionist speaker; the seamstress Emma; and Sinda’s father, Dred, who can “talk Indian”—are intriguing enough to potentially carry their own novel.

While In the Upper Country isn’t an effortless read, it makes an original and valuable contribution to the historical fiction genre.

Kai Thomas's In the Upper Country was published by Viking in January; I reviewed it initially for the Historical Novels Review.

Saturday, March 04, 2023

Being female is treacherous in these ten new and upcoming novels about historical witchery

Witches are an increasingly popular subject in historical fiction. Incorporating themes of misogyny and women's power, strength, and wisdom, these ten new and upcoming historical novels are set at various times in history. Many dramatize actual events. In some of them, the women's magic is real.

The Witches of Vardo by Anya Bergman

To secure her own liberty from the fortress on Vardø Island in remote northern Norway, the disgraced former mistress of Denmark's king agrees to help identify suspected witches... but the accused women won't make it easy for her. Set in the 1660s, about historical events. Bonnier, Jan. 2023.  [see on Goodreads]

The Weaver and the Witch Queen by Genevieve Gornichec

The two main characters here are Gunnhild, soon to be Queen of Norway in the 10th century, and Oddny, her childhood friend, in this novel of spells, sisterhood, and survival in the dangerous Viking age. Ace, July 2023. [see on Goodreads]

The Devil's Glove by Lucretia Grindle

Set in what's now Maine in the late 17th century, The Devil's Glove looks at the historical events that led up to the Salem Witch trials from the viewpoint of a young woman caught between the worlds of the Puritans and local Native American tribes. Casa Croce, May 2023. [see on Goodreads]

Weyward by Emilia Hart

Three Englishwomen are linked by the gendered violence they've faced, and perhaps by something else. This multi-period tale spanning five centuries takes place in 2019, 1619, and during the WWII years.  St. Martin's, March 2023. [see on Goodreads]

The Burnings by Naomi Kelsey

This debut novel dramatizes the North Berwick witch trials of late 16th-century Scotland through the story of two women, one Scots and one Danish, and the quest for power during a time of fear and superstition. HarperNorth, June 2023. [see on Goodreads]

The Witch of Tin Mountain by Paulette Kennedy

In the Ozarks during the Great Depression, three women are linked by family connections and an evil presence that threatens to overshadow them all.  Lake Union, Feb. 2023. [see on Goodreads]

The Witching Tide by Margaret Meyer

Fictionalizing the witch trials of mid-17th-century East Anglia, this debut centers on a village healer, a woman unable to speak, who gets drawn into assisting a traveling witchfinder and who must search her own conscience for a path forward. Scribner, July 2023. [see on Goodreads]

The Last Witch of Scotland by Philip Paris

Two newcomers to a remote locale in the 18th-century Scottish Highlands, a mother and daughter, face unpleasant scrutiny and worse in a novel about the last person put to death for witchcraft in Britain. Black & White, April 2023. [see on Goodreads]

Solstice by Helen Steadman

This third novel in a trilogy, all of which deal with historical events, looks at the Riding Mill witch trials of 1673 Northumberland, in which a young servant girl gave testimony about suspected witches. One of the accused, in this version, is a woman whose family members had been executed for witchcraft. Bell Jar, Sept. 2023. [see on Goodreads]

The Scandalous Confessions of Lydia Bennet, Witch, by Melinda Taub

Even Jane Austen's characters are dabbling in witchcraft. The youngest Bennet sister from Pride & Prejudice, Lydia, is a witch and gets entangled in an entirely different sort of trouble. Mr. Wickham, for example, is a demon (literally). Grand Central, Oct. 2023. [see on Goodreads]