Wednesday, July 26, 2023

In I, Julian, Claire Gilbert creates a fictional autobiography for medieval English mystic Julian of Norwich

What would motivate an ordinary medieval woman to withdraw from the world and become an anchoress, vowing to live out her remaining years in a small cell attached to a church and devote her time to spiritual contemplation?

In her first novel, I, Julian, Claire Gilbert re-creates the spiritually rich, life-affirming voice of Julian of Norwich, the 14th-15th century mystic whose writings are the first known works by a woman in English. Little is known about the particulars of her life, including her birth name, and Gilbert has filled in the gaps with this marvelous historical reconstruction.

At age 30, having narrowly survived a bout of severe illness, Julian began seeing visions of the Passion of Christ and dedicated her remaining days to soul-searching, prayer, and the sharing of what she glimpsed, realizing the importance of her knowledge for others.

Gilbert imagines a plausible autobiography for Julian, from her quiet childhood with her loving parents in a smallholding outside Norwich, through the tragic years of the Black Plague, the steady encouragement of her mother and others, the terrible grief and guilt she endures, and the transformative experience of her visions, or “showings.” Her words are taken down by a trusted Benedictine monk called Thomas.

It becomes an interesting paradox (addressed in full in the story) that Julian’s physical retreat from the world means complete reliance on others to provide for her needs: food, medical help, and the regular supply of writing materials. The author writes beautifully about Julian's religious life as well as her humanity. Through a window from her anchorhold into the church, she gives her confession and participates in religious services; through a curtained window to the outdoors, she converses with spiritual seekers, friends, her maid, and others whose purpose is less benevolent.

In the late 14th century, the followers of John Wycliffe are amassing, seeking to make the Bible more accessible via English translation, and Julian must tread carefully so as not to be associated with the controversial movement (even while quietly pondering its merits). Throughout her long life, both enclosed and not, Julian remains curious and eager to learn more about God’s feelings toward humankind, which she comes to learn is eternally loving.

Readers of Mary Sharratt’s Illuminations and Revelations (about Hildegard of Bingen and Margery Kempe, respectively) will especially want to pick up I, Julian, and it’s also recommended for anyone interested in the lives of accomplished historical women.

I, Julian was published by Hodder Faith in April in the UK; it will be released next month in the US.  You can read more about how the author came to write the book in her interview for Jesus College, Cambridge.

Coincidentally, this morning I received Mary Sharratt's latest newsletter in my email; Julian of Norwich is a character in her novel Revelations.  Mary will be participating in the Julian650 lecture series on September 2, presenting a Zoom session (free) on "how her research into women’s hidden histories inspired her to showcase Julian and Margery in her acclaimed novel."  See more and register here.

Saturday, July 22, 2023

Alison Weir's The King's Pleasure looks at Henry VIII's life story from his own viewpoint

He was a ginger-haired second son, the athletic, charismatic “spare” to his overly serious elder brother. Henry VIII wasn’t born to be king, but he has come down in history as a larger-than-life monarch, known for his marriages and role in the English Reformation.

In her mammoth biographical novel, royal expert Weir explores the viewpoint of this towering figure, beginning with the passing of his beloved mother, subject of her previous The Last White Rose (2022). The youth nicknamed Harry inherits a wealthy kingdom and indulges in tourneys, feasts, and luxurious clothing, evoked in detailed scenes of jaw-dropping extravagance.

In well-paced fashion, readers view his transformation from fun-loving Renaissance man consumed with his glorious image to an aging, tyrannical king desperate to ensure the succession. Weir meticulously illustrates his significant relationships, not just with his six wives but also his political allies and rivals and his shrewd advisers, like Wolsey and Cromwell.

Readers of her Six Tudor Queens series won’t find unexpected revelations here, but this believable tale is a solid choice for historical-fiction devotees.

The King's Pleasure was published in May by Ballantine, and I wrote this review for Booklist. The novel's called Henry VIII: The Heart and the Crown in the UK and is published by Headline Review. It's second in the Tudor Rose series, after The Last White Rose; a third novel, about Mary I, is forthcoming.

Doesn't the fellow on the cover resemble Prince Harry considerably? The similarities in the backgrounds of the two Harrys are clear early on, but quickly diverge once the novel gets going. 

Decades ago, Norah Lofts wrote her own novel called The King's Pleasure, and its focus was Katharine of Aragon, Henry's first queen. Prolific royal chronicler Jean Plaidy also wrote a novel with this title, focused on Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard; it was later retitled Murder Most Royal.

Saturday, July 15, 2023

Murder Under a Red Moon mixes family and detection in a mystery set in 1921 Bangalore

Even with a devoted husband and a police captain ally, establishing yourself as an amateur detective in 1921 South India isn’t easy when your socially conservative, grumpy mother-in-law—who resides in your home—disapproves. Fresh from her crime-solving success in the series opener, The Bangalore Detectives Club, Kaveri Murthy has been finding new clients and increased name recognition in Bangalore. To say she’s surprised when her athe (mother-in-law), Bhargavi, requests her help is an understatement, but Kaveri welcomes the opportunity for them to develop a stronger relationship.

But this new case is complicated. Bhargavi’s cousin, Mrs. Shanthi Sharma, and her husband, who own a large mill, are losing money and suspect embezzlement, potentially by their future son-in-law. Kaveri finds herself trapped in a giant family mess, and one terrible night, tensions escalate into murder.

Despite the seemingly limited list of potential killers, the plotting is even stronger in this second book. Besides her obligations to Bhargavi and the increasing danger for her personally, Kaveri has members of the Sharma household pointing fingers at each other while worrying that Bhargavi is being taken in by a charismatic swami. The presence of a particularly ugly stray dog lightens the mood, although Bhargavi thinks canines are dirty, so there’s stress there too. Kaveri has an analytical mind (and studies math in secret) but misses one clue that readers should catch onto more quickly.

The story offers abundant color, literally so, like Kaveri’s beautiful saris and the rangoli peacock design she creates on her doorstep from different hues of rice flour. Full of details on customs, tempting recipes, and social expectations for women, which Kaveri works around in her own shrewdly gentle way, this series is recommended for fans of Sujata Massey and historical mysteries in general.

Murder Under a Red Moon was published in late March by Pegasus; I wrote this review for the Historical Novels Review's May issue. The link for "rangoli" takes you out to a New York Times article showing some of the beautiful designs of this "ornate floor art."

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Paris, Marseille, Banyuls-sur-mer—Scenes from a Novel, a guest post by Linda Joy Myers

Linda Joy Myers, author of The Forger of Marseille, is here with an essay about her on-site research for her novel—which is published today by She Writes Press. 


Paris, Marseille, Banyuls-sur-mer—Scenes from a Novel
Linda Joy Myers

There’s nothing like the thrill of approaching Paris on the train and seeing the Eiffel Tower rising into the sky. Finally, I’ve arrived to “research” my book in the City of Light. This is work? I chide myself as I pay the driver who stopped at my hotel in the Marais. Yes, I need to see and feel and smell Paris, and imagine it eighty years earlier. Paris is a city that speaks of history and centuries of traditions on every block, and I’m all in. Three locations are on my list to research my book The Forger of Marseille: Paris, Marseille, and a coastal village at the edge of the world, Banyuls-sur-mer, near the border of France and Spain where the shoulders of the Pyrenees rise from the sea into the sky.

My story is about three characters who find their way to Paris in 1938-39 as WWII ticks up toward conflagration. Cesar, a Spanish Republican, knows the gritty ways of survival having escaped over the border into France dodging machine guns wielded by Franco’s soldiers.

Sarah, a young Jewish art student and her father figure, Mr. Lieb, escaped Berlin just before Kristallnacht and feels safe in Paris. But the threat of war means they’re in danger again. In August 1939, France rounded up all “enemy aliens,” refugees who were from enemy countries, to be herded into internment camps.

Because of a chance meeting in a Paris café between Cesar and Sarah, he’s able to help them avoid that fate. Cesar knew that roundups were imminent and gave them forged identities just before war was declared. In May 1940 when the Germans threatened to occupy Paris, the three fled to Marseille located in the “Free Zone.” But nothing is free in Vichy France.

Linda Joy Myers
(credit: Reenie Raschke)
Through my research, I learned about the terrible danger to refugees, especially Jews, in the collaborationist Vichy government run by Phillippe Petain. And I learned there were heroes who risked their lives to save the refugees. One of those men was an American, Varian Fry. He arrived in Marseille with $3000 taped to his leg and a list in his pocket. His job was to save the crème de la crème of European intellects, artists, and writers, but once he arrived, thousands of desperate refugees lined up outside his hotel. Most were “stateless” and had no papers, in danger of arrest and internment. The underground and the rescuers were trying to save refugees, which meant they needed forgers to produce papers. The best forgers were artists who knew how to render and wield a pen.

As a fiction writer, on-site research invites me to enrich the story. I explored cobblestone back streets of the left Bank and felt the spiritual balm of the Notre Dame cathedral. Watched the sun set on the Seine. Ate baguettes and drank wine at Le Deux Magots café as an accordion played nearby.

Paris was the site of Part I of my book, then Marseille, and finally, the village of Banyuls-sur-mer. There, in the early part of the war, courageous rescuers risked their lives to guide refugees over the Pyrenees and out of France.

St. Charles train station, Marseille

Another thrill was arriving in the Marseille train station and looking out over the city. The Mediterranean sparkled shimmery blue beyond the Vieux Port at the bottom of the main street, the Canabiere. From my research I knew how frightening it must have been to arrive in Marseille where passport control and police were on the lookout for anyone whose papers were not in order. Even if they were able to get into Marseille, how would they escape France? Soon after France fell, all the ports were closed, but people still clung to hope that at the edge of the world in Marseille, they’d find a way to escape. The underground helped them get the necessary papers, and Varian Fry, among others, provided safe houses, money, and food. Guides would lead the refugees over the Pyrenees, and in Lisbon they’d eventually get a ship to America.

My heart beat hard as I stood on the sidewalk in front of the Hotel Splendide where Varian Fry first set up his rescue operation. A few months later he moved to offices at 62 Rue Grignon. Tears came to my eyes as I witnessed this place. I stood at the doorway where crowds of desperate refugees had begged for help.

The train to Banyuls-sur-mer follows the same route it did in 1940. With stops at Montpellier and Perpignan, I imagined how the breath caught in the throats of refugees, knowing that at any moment the police could haul them off the train. Finally, we arrived at the village, with its quiet winding one lane road that led to a safe house in the foothills. It was raining that day, and the slate was shiny, which meant the rocks climbing to the top of the Pyrenees would be slippery.

Safe house at the foot of the Pyrenees

I shuttered my eyelids and imagined the refugees wearing rope soled shoes, following the vignerons as they went up early in the morning to avoid being spotted by the Gestapo or the Vichy police. The wine workers would tend the vines as they had for hundreds of years, and quietly protect the refugees whose lives were being saved. I experienced a moment of reverence and gratitude that there were so many who risked their lives to save others in peril. In that same place where I stood. Witnessing history.


Linda Joy Myers has always been deliciously haunted by the power of the past to affect people in the stream of time. She has integrated her passion for history and her own struggles with intergenerational trauma into her work as a therapist and writer. The power of the truth to educate current generations about the past led Linda Joy to explore the little-known history of WWII in the weeks following the fall of France—which in turn led her to write The Forger of Marseille. She is the author of two memoirs, Don’t Call Me Mother and Song of the Plains, and four books on memoir writing. She’s also the founder of the National Association of Memoir Writers. You can learn more about Linda Joy’s work at and She lives in Berkeley, CA.

Sunday, July 09, 2023

The Beasts of Paris by Stef Penney presents a wide-ranging portrait of war-torn 1870s Paris

Despite its significance for the European balance of power, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 is a neglected historical fiction setting. For her fourth novel, Penney illustrates its impact on Parisian residents.
The story itself isn’t overtly political, instead focusing on daily life amid the chaos and deprivations of war, the humiliating French defeat, and the subsequent rise and fall of the Paris Commune.

Canadian photographer Lawrence Harper works at the portrait studio of the Lamy family while wondering if an intriguing male artist returns his affection. Anne Petitjean, a half-Haitian ward girl at the Salpêtrière hospital, finds respite at the Paris zoo, where assistant veterinarian Victor Calmette cares for the menagerie. The privileged Ellis Butterfield, former U.S. Civil War surgeon, is a realistic mix of bravado and vulnerability.

Journeys of self-discovery and survival unfold alongside a heartfelt love story. Penney presents a sweeping look at Paris under siege while showing how innocents, human and animal alike, suffer during wartime. Well-rounded characters and brisk pacing are strong points in this involving tale about a volatile time.

The Beasts of Paris was published by Pegasus in the US in July 2023; I wrote this review for Booklist, and it was published in the March 1 issue.  The UK publisher is Quercus.

Scottish writer Stef Penney has chosen many intriguing settings for her historical fiction, including the 19th-century Arctic for Under a Pole Star [see my review].  Her first novel The Tenderness of Wolves takes place in 1867 Canada, while The Invisible Ones is a contemporary private eye novel. In an interview for Amazon, she wrote: "I definitely do feel a pull toward people and places that are far from my own life." 

She's currently writing an as-yet-untitled novel nicknamed "The Book of Nordland," which will  commemorate the city of Bodø in northern Norway being named a European Capital of Culture in 2024. Residents of the county of Nordland are asked to contribute stories that could be incorporated into her writing process.  Fascinating!  The book is slated to be published next year, and you can read more about it on the author's website.

Sunday, July 02, 2023

Shelley Read's Go As a River, a poignant coming-of-age story set in wild, rustic 20th-century Colorado

Read creates an alluring sense of place in her coming-of-age story for protagonist Victoria “Torie” Nash, whose life takes a detour after a chance meeting with a handsome boy.

In 1948, Torie is seventeen, a young woman who had assumed her late mother’s household chores after a tragic accident five years earlier. Her family has a farm in the ranch town of Iola in western Colorado, along the Gunnison River, where they’ve grown the region’s finest peaches for generations. I lingered over these scenes: the rocky inclines and deep valleys, the bright yellow aspens, the cool mountain air scented with sage and ripening fruit.

The downside is the human element. Prejudice against nonwhites is pervasive, and Wilson Moon, the dark-eyed drifter who becomes Torie’s rescuer and lover, is Native American. While he cares for her, Torie’s undemonstrative father keeps his distance. Her Uncle Og, disabled from his WWII injuries, is a sour presence, and her younger brother, Seth, is actively hostile.

When Torie’s romance with Wil turns heartbreaking, she’s forced into a drastic form of independence. Through much adversity and hard-won acumen, Torie finds a way to thrive economically, but her personal pain stays with her.

Despite the stunning atmosphere, some plot elements felt not-quite real to me. A small circle of stones Torie creates, in remembrance of a life-changing moment, remains undisturbed outdoors for years; some metaphors try too hard; and there are several other contrivances.

The novel’s principal truths lie in people’s relationships with the land and each other, and Torie’s realization of the courage needed for approaching life’s unknowns, which arrive “mapless and without invitation.” America’s wars play a larger role than one might expect initially, and the actual history of Iola, flooded in 1966 to build a reservoir, adds poignancy. While not completely immersive, this is an eloquent debut.

Shelley Read's Go As a River was published in March by Spiegel & Grau, and by Doubleday in the UK. It's been compared to Delia Owens' Where the Crawdads Sing for its lyrical style and focus on the main character's immersion in the natural world. The novel was based on the true history of the forgotten small town of Iola, which re-emerged into sight during a drought several years ago. 

This review is cross-posted to the Historical Novel Society website. This is my 1800th blog post!