Saturday, September 30, 2023

A dozen intriguing historical novels published in fall 2023

This is a post I'd meant to finish before now, but time got away from me. Below are twelve historical novels appearing in the fall 2023 season. The upside is many of these novels are out now, or will be soon, so if they intrigue you  as they did me  you can get your hands on them sooner rather than later.  Attractive cover designs, atypical settings, original plots... I plan to check them out!
Babylon by Michelle CameronMichelle Cameron's Babylon, her third historical novel, is a multigenerational saga focusing on one woman of the Judean people, Sarah, exiled from Jerusalem and held in captivity in Babylon in the sixth century BCE. I've enjoyed the author's previous two historicals, and this one promises a setting rarely covered in fiction. Wicked Son, September 2023. [see on Goodreads]

The Golden Gate by Amy ChuaAmy Chua's first novel is a historical thriller set in California's Bay Area during WWII, involving the backdrop to a Presidential candidate's assassination, a mystery involving a wealthy family, and the complex social and racial environment at the time. Minotaur, September 2023. [see on Goodreads]

The General and Julia by Jon Clinch
Ulysses S. Grant, America's 18th President, looks back on his eventful life, long marriage, and evolving moral code in this multifaceted literary novel, which I loved (review to come). Atria, November 2023. [see on Goodreads]

Anything but Yes by Joie Davidow
Joie Davidow's (see An Unofficial Marriage, 2021) latest novel is subtitled "A Novel of Anna Del Monte, Jewish Citizen of Rome, 1749." It relates the true story of Anna, a young Roman Jewish woman, who was held captive in a convent while being pressured to convert to Catholicism; she kept a diary of her experiences. Monkfish, October 2023. [see on Goodreads]

The Prospectors by Ariel DjanikianThe Yukon Gold Rush looms large in both timelines (19th century and 2015) about a young woman who sees her family become immensely wealthy from mining operations, and her 21st-century descendant, who seeks to right the wrongs her ancestors created by acknowledging the pain caused to the First Nations people a century earlier and establishing restitution.  William Morrow, October 2023. [see on Goodreads]

The Frozen River by Ariel LawhonMartha Ballard, a historical woman who kept a daily journal about her household duties and midwifery practice, narrates this entrancing tale of murder and the difficult quest for justice in late 18th-century Maine; review to come. Doubleday, November 2023. [see on Goodreads]

A Beautiful Rival by Gill PaulThe glamorous business rivals in Paul's latest atmospheric novel are cosmetic entrepreneurs Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden, millionaires determined to succeed and triumph over the other in their quest to enhance female beauty. William Morrow, September 2023. [see on Goodreads]

The Caretaker by Ron RashLiterary fiction set in early 1950s Appalachia, at the time of the Korean War, and focusing on the state of being an outsider in a small community, the demands of family, friendship, and love. Doubleday, September 2023. [see on Goodreads]

The Village Healer's Book of Cures by Jennifer Sherman RobertsA traditional healer, or "cunning woman," in a 17th-century English village channels her true power after her skills attract the negative attention of witchfinder Matthew Hopkins, and a man dies mysteriously.  This suspenseful historical novel has overtones of mystery and is written by an author with a PhD in Renaissance literature.  Lake Union, November 2023. [see on Goodreads]

Hazardous Spirits by Anbara Salam

Life for a young housewife in early 20th-century Scotland suddenly becomes more intriguing and uneasy when her husband tells her he can communicate with the spirit world.  Is it true?  Tin House, October 2023. [see on Goodreads]

Queen Hereafter by Isabelle SchulerYou might guess the subject of this biographical novel from the title: the bold and determined Gruoch, better known as Lady Macbeth, a historical woman from the 11th century. Harper Perennial, October 2023.  The UK title is Lady MacBethad. [See on Goodreads]

The Fraud by Zadie SmithZadie Smith's first historical novel centers on the nature of authenticity vs. pretense via the intertwined stories of real people and events from 19th-century Britain: Mrs. Eliza Touchet, longtime housekeeper to author William Harrison Ainsworth, and the infamous court case involving the "Tichborne claimant," in which a man purported to be the lost heir to a vast estate. Penguin Press, September 2023. [see on Goodreads]

Thursday, September 21, 2023

Chris Nickson wraps up his Tom Harper series with a tightly woven novel of post-WWI Leeds

Chris Nickson brings his Tom Harper series to a satisfying, very moving close in this 11th in the series, which has followed his protagonist, his family, and fellow policemen from late Victorian times to the post-WWI era. But even if this is your first acquaintance with the recurring cast, you won’t be lost. Everyone’s role is made clear by way of deep characterizations and sufficient backstory.

In March 1920, Harper, Chief Constable of Leeds City Police, approaches the future with guarded optimism. The Great War is over, although memories of the countless losses and suffering remain fresh. Likewise, the presence of fewer gauze masks indicates that Spanish flu cases are dropping. After a distinguished forty-year career that saw him rise to the top rank in his profession, retirement is in sight, a mere six weeks away. But getting there won’t be easy. In fact, it becomes a personal and professional mission for Harper to wrap up three brand new, unlinked cases before he exits his Town Hall office for good.

The first crime is one he needs to keep secret: Alderman Thompson, the city council head who’d recommended Harper for his current post, is in hot water after letting himself be “distracted by a lass” and getting blackmailed for the indiscreet love letters he wrote her, which were subsequently stolen. As Harper arranges to talk with Thompson’s former mistress, a new mystery lands: an elusive team of thieves holding up jewelry stores. Lastly, police in other cities are troubled by organized groups of female pickpockets wreaking havoc on local businesses, and word is that they’re heading for Leeds soon. At home, Harper’s wife, Annabelle, is sinking progressively deeper into senility; on good days, she speaks with him, and her original personality briefly surfaces. Other times, she remains silently lost in her own world.

There are multiple cases to untangle alongside the wrapping-up of character arcs, and no words are wasted in the process. The suspense revs up throughout, keeping readers guessing about what will happen next with each case. Alongside the tight plot, we get immersed in the postwar atmosphere of Leeds. Harper’s daughter, Mary, who lost her fiancé overseas, has a close bond with her father – they meet for lunch regularly – and is working through her feelings of loss, planning a visit to the battlefield while choosing to dress again in brighter colors. Nickson’s portrait of Annabelle’s dementia is entirely realistic and affecting, as is Tom’s emotional reaction to the heartbreaking changes he sees in his beloved partner.

This novel is highly recommended, though if you wish to start at the very beginning of Tom’s story, pick up volume 1, Gods of Gold.

Rusted Souls appears from Severn House this month; I reviewed it from a NetGalley copy.

Monday, September 18, 2023

Night Watch by Jayne Anne Phillips offers a unique take on recovery from the U.S. Civil War

Phillips (Quiet Dell, 2013) excels in crafting original takes on human circumstances, like mother-daughter relationships and women’s vulnerabilities and resilience. Her setting here is equally striking: the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in rural West Virginia.

In 1874, 12-year-old ConaLee and her mother, Eliza, whom trauma has rendered mute, are dropped off there by a man ConaLee calls Papa, although he isn’t her father. They are brought inside by the night watchman, one of many characters with a hidden past.

Contrary to reader expectations, the facility (an actual place) provides humane treatment for mental illness. Posing as her mother’s maid, ConaLee sees her make improvements under the compassionate doctor’s care.

The story unflinchingly reveals the tragedy that befell them after Eliza’s husband never returned from the Civil War, and how a wandering con man invaded their isolated mountain sanctuary. We also learn about Eliza’s and her husband’s origins. From vivid battle scenes to the asylum’s social refinements, the historical milieu comes alive in all its facets as Phillips evokes the enduring bonds of both blood and chosen families.

Night Watch is published by Knopf on September 19th; I wrote this review for Booklist's July 2023 issue. The novel was recently longlisted for the National Book Award in Fiction.  I first read Jayne Anne Phillips's work as a judge for the first Massachusetts Book Award in 2001; her novel Motherkind (not historical fiction) was the winner that year.

Want to read more about the history of the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum?  If you visit in person, you can attend a historic/heritage tour or a ghost tour of the site.

Monday, September 11, 2023

Katharine Beutner's Alcestis puts a feminist spin on the tale of a princess from ancient Greek myth

In Greek mythology, Alcestis is known for her great love for her husband, choosing to take his place when death came for him. Her story isn’t one I knew before, though my ignorance didn’t prevent my  enjoyment of Katharine Beutner’s feminist retelling. 

mixes elements of Mycenaean culture with the fantastic in its sensitive portrait of a woman too rarely given credit for her heroism. 

Alcestis, the youngest daughter of the King of Iolcus, comes into the world as her mother dies. Neglected by her father, she forms a tight bond with her next oldest sister, Hippothoe, a sickly girl who dies young. Alcestis never gets over the loss. She hopes for better things from her marriage to Admetus, King of Pherae, especially since he invokes the help of Apollo in his desire to win her hand, but the reality of their union proves disappointing.

Reimaginings of old stories continue to gain reader interest, and this one certainly leaves room for imaginative interpretation. How did Alcestis spend those three days in the underworld, anyway? In Beutner’s version, it’s not devotion to her husband that prompts her choice but a yearning to reunite with her beloved sister and the desire to avoid shame.

The novel’s first half reads like a traditional retelling, though one enhanced with well-placed details on ancient Greek customs and rituals and the occasional presence of capricious gods. When Alcestis arrives in the underworld, however, her journey becomes truly otherworldly. In this seasonless place of shifting landscapes, thousands of shades are condemned to perpetual wandering, their dull, gray faces displaying their fading memories of their former lives.

Alcestis is the granddaughter of Poseidon – only two generations separate her from divinity – though only in the underworld does she discover the truth behind myths she’d grown up believing, and the feminine power she never knew she possessed. She also falls in love with the goddess Persephone, raising questions about whether a divine creature is truly capable of such a human emotion. The tale is rendered with strength and delicacy, a rare combination of qualities also found in Alcestis herself.

Alcestis, Beutner's debut novel, was originally published in 2010, and I read it from my own copy.  With myth-based historicals proving so popular, the time is right for a re-release; it also has a brand new cover. The author's second novel, Killingly, about a real-life unsolved crime from late 19th-century New England, was published in June, and I hope to read it in the coming months.

Friday, September 08, 2023

Interview with Trish MacEnulty, author of Cinnamon Girl, a 15-year-old girl's picaresque journey through the tumultuous early '70s

Trish MacEnulty's Cinnamon Girl takes its heroine, 15-year-old Eli Burnes, on a wild, wide-ranging ride through the social and political atmosphere of her era. The story opens in Augusta, Georgia in 1970. After her step-grandmother Mattie dies, Eli hops a ride north with her best friend's brother, who's running away from the Vietnam War draft. Her adventures continue from there. Eli's father Billy, a DJ in St. Louis, had remarried and has another family but eventually re-enters the picture; he comes to serve as a role model in ways Eli doesn't expect. The book is a fantastic read: fast-moving, full of smoothly woven historical detail and rich characterizations, all told in Eli's appealing voice. I know Trish through the Historical Novel Society and was glad for the opportunity to speak with her about her latest release, which is out today from Livingston Press of the Univ. of West Alabama.

You’ve written other works of historical fiction, but did you find the process any different for this one, since the era is more recent? Did your own memories from having lived through the early ‘70s help as far as researching the historical backdrop to Cinnamon Girl?

Also, you’d mentioned in an interview with the HNS that Cinnamon Girl is a rewritten version of an earlier novel of yours. What did the rewriting process involve, as far as what you felt needed updating?

I've combined your two questions. I wrote a version of this book at least ten years before I wrote my historical fiction. And so it was a very different process. Much of Eli's life is rooted in my own experiences—first love, running away from home, going to rock festivals and concerts, hanging out in headshops.

In my earlier version of the book, I didn't set the historical context as well as I could have. But after writing several historical mysteries and learning how important history is to the narrative, I went back and did the research—searching out news stories about the Weathermen, Vietnam, and racial oppression. I also learned a lot about the advent of FM radio! I actually looked up the set lists and venues for various rock concerts that are in the book. And yes, having lived through the era definitely informed my choices as to which historical events to include. For example, I remembered the Kent State killings, which became an important event in the background of Eli's story. The killing of those four students by the National Guard was so emblematic of what the counterculture faced at the time.

Eli’s narrative voice is really appealing. She’s adventurous and spirited but still naïve in some ways, and she has an infectious sense of humor. How did her voice come to you?

I used to teach creative writing at a summer arts camp in Rock Hill, South Carolina. And each year as I wrote the book, I would read chapters to the kids. I think being surrounded by teenagers and raising one while I was writing the book helped me get in the right mindset. Eli also embodies a lot of my own naiveté from that age. It was a more innocent era, for sure.

I do like to include a thread of humor in all of my writing.

You’ve included a quote from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road to introduce the novel, and the book itself makes some appearances—plus, Eli spends a good amount of time on the road herself in early '70s America. How have Kerouac and his novel influenced your work?

(At first I had a quote from Neil Young's song "Cinnamon Girl" as an epigraph but then I found out how much the rights would cost so I changed it.) But yes, Kerouac was the perfect choice because On the Road is almost quintessentially picaresquea sort of plotless, episodic story of the adventures of ne'er-do-wells. I think of this book as a picaresque as well.

I'll never forget when I first read On the Road. I was in college, and my life wasn't exactly going smoothly. I was living the darker side of the 1970s by then. My future didn't look all bright and shiny. I had this vague idea of being a writer, and then reading that book ignited the internal catalyst. I knew that I had to be a writer after that. It didn't matter if my life wasn't pretty and perfect because someday I'd write my stories. I just had to survive long enough to get there.

So when Eli is on the road herself, of course someone comes along and gives her a copy. In a way, it will be her talisman.

Eli gets a front-and-center view of many important cultural moments during a key year in her life. What were some of the most memorable parts of the research process along these lines?

The most memorable part of the research was when I learned about the riots in Augusta that occurred in 1970. I actually grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, and I remember several riots. I never witnessed a killing but I heard about them and I knew they happened. I set Eli's early story in Augusta because I wanted that smaller city feel and because it has a river. (Rivers seem to show up in everything I write.) It was only after I had chosen that locale, that I learned about the riot, in which six Black men were gunned down by law enforcement. I knew that event would have to inform the rest of the book. It would make an impression.

Some research came about by happenstance. Several years ago I got the chance to interview a woman who had been in the Weather Underground, and her experiences helped me understand — and sympathize with—their motivations. That led me to read about the Days of Rage and other actions during the anti-war protests. Another episode I learned about years ago was the murder of Freddy Hampton in Chicago, again by law enforcement, while his pregnant wife lay in bed next to him. The killing of that brilliant young leader haunts me.

I loved the character of Billy, who’s an atypical father figure in many ways, but he and Eli come to develop a natural rapport. Is he based on anyone? How did you develop his character?

Billy is very loosely based on my older brother, who was a symphony musician in St. Louis, Missouri. I lived with him and his wife and two kids (a boy and a girl) for a year. He was adamantly opposed to the war in Vietnam, and his wife was a proponent of La Leche League, an organization that promotes breastfeeding. He wasn't involved with the Weatherman organization, but he did attend protests and worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC). Some of my other brother's experiences are also part of Billy's past. I didn't have a good relationship with my own father, so both of my brothers fulfilled that role in my life.

If Cinnamon Girl had an accompanying soundtrack, which songs would be on it?

This answer almost writes itself. Of course, Neil Young's "Cinnamon Girl," and Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin," Elton John's "Your Song" as well as the Dead and the Allman Brothers, and B.B. King. When I was that age, most of the concerts we attended were those in which the band members were all young guys, and it's too bad that I don't have any concerts with women performers in the book. But Grace Slick's "White Rabbit" would have to be one of the major songs on the soundtrack and also Janis Joplin's "Me and Bobby McGee." Now, there would also have to be some opera. Definitely Mimi. Maybe something from Carmen as well.

Thanks very much, Trish!

Visit Trish MacEnulty's website for more information on all of her books, which include standalone novels, short stories, a memoir, and a four-book historical mystery series set in early 20th-century Manhattan.

Tuesday, September 05, 2023

Interview with Kathleen B. Jones, author of Cities of Women, her multi-period debut about women's creativity and medieval art

In this first of two interviews this week, I'm speaking with Kathleen B. Jones about her debut novel, Cities of Women, which interweaves two stories, centuries apart.  In 2018, history professor Verity Frazier shifts the course of her research to focus on the manuscripts of 14th/15th-century writer Christine de Pizan, with the goal of proving that the beautiful illuminations accompanying the text were painted by a woman named Anastasia.

Alongside Verity's pursuit, the long-forgotten life story and career of a medieval artist named Béatrice (later called Anastasia) are revealed. The novel is itself vividly detailed, with reflections on women's determined pursuits throughout the ages and a well-researched atmosphere of medieval France.  And as a researcher myself, I enjoyed following where Verity's discoveries led her, both academically and emotionally, as she begins a new relationship with a woman whose scholarly interests in the Middle Ages intersect with hers. Thanks to Kathy for her responses to my questions! Cities of Women is published today by Keylight Books/Turner Publishing.

What inspired you to begin writing historical fiction? Had it been an interest of yours during your academic career, or did the subject pique your attention afterward?

Academic historians often begin their academic essays and books with a story. That style of writing has been less prominent in my academic field—political theory. During the decades I taught about women’s political movements, I learned students connected with the past much more and saw its relevance to the present when I brought historical conflicts into focus through narratives, stories filled with flawed though relatable characters struggling against the odds to achieve personal and political change. I began to experiment with a different kind of writing in my own academic publications and finally moved into creative nonfiction and then fiction to be able to fully express the complexity of what I wanted to say about the human condition.

I’ve always been a reader of fiction and gravitated toward writing historical fiction because it satisfied two loves of mine at once—doing deep research and letting one’s imagination visit and try to understand unfamiliar times, people and places. In this regard, the political theorist Hannah Arendt has been a major influence in all my writing. Storytelling was a key element in her work.

So, for me, there’s been a kind of parallel trajectory between the progression of my academic writing and the urgency I’ve felt to write fiction set in the past that still resonates with the present.

I hadn’t been familiar with Anastasia, the historical manuscript illuminator about whom little is known, and appreciated the narrative you created for her. She seems to have been very well known in artistic circles in her time. How did you get into the mindset of a female artist from medieval times?

I’m excited you found the medieval Anastasia both a convincing and intriguing character because we don’t really know whether she actually existed or was merely someone Christine de Pizan invented to call attention to the work of female artists in the Middle Ages.

With no more of a clue than a name found in Christine’s Book of the City of Ladies, I invented the character of Béatrice/Anastasia and the entirety of her storyline. Since Christine had written City of Ladies as a defense of women’s worldly contributions and was known to oversee very closely the production of her books, I speculated she would have chosen a woman artist to illuminate images of her imagined city. Research into the medieval Parisian book trade identified the existence of women artists of the book, giving me a factual basis for my speculation, though only in the most general sense. I gave this speculation to Verity, in the modern timeline, to drive forward her quest to document Anastasia’s role in Christine’s work.

Kouky Fianu, a Canadian historian who researched medieval book production in Paris, pointed me in the direction of a GIS map of medieval Paris available online that located the ateliers of various artists, including women who illuminated manuscripts. That visual, combined with all the books and articles I read about medieval women’s lives, helped me imagine what it might have been like for a young woman in fourteenth-century France who’d been exposed to art as a girl and then had experienced her family’s life and livelihood being decimated by the plague, become driven to become an artist. Her determination to create something luminous in the face of looming disaster drives her to overcome all odds and make it to Paris.

How did you decide on the parallel narrative structure for the book, with both medieval and contemporary timelines?

I wanted to generate a plot illuminating linkages between past and present. As Faulkner once wrote in Requiem for a Nun, “the past is never dead; it’s not even past.”

On the deepest level, I wanted the novel to explore the human experience of time, how we mortals live in a world that persists beyond our life span. But, because we can produce things—stories, both written and oral, works of art, etc.—we leave behind traces of who we were and what we did. Remembrance gives us a kind of immortality.

Verity’s effort to document Anastasia’s work as an artist memorializes her. Her quest transforms Verity in the present as much as it dignifies Anastasia’s life in the past.

Related to the human experience of time is how we understand history, whether on a grand scale or at the level of an individual life. In my novel, historical events, both personal and political, appear to drive the plot of Christine’s story. Yet, Verity’s quest intersects the story of Anastasia, a fictional character, with the story of Christine, a factual character, and changes what we think we know about the past. If there was an artist named Anastasia with whom Christine worked on her manuscripts, how does that relationship affect each woman’s life, how we make sense of their lives, and how we understand the broader history in which these women lived?

I especially enjoyed the descriptions of the illuminated manuscripts and the process by which they were created. In the acknowledgments, you credit the assistance of librarians in the British Library’s manuscript reading room, and in the novel, Verity strives to see the manuscripts of Christine de Pizan’s work in person. Were you able to view any original manuscripts, and if so, what did you take away from the experience?

I wasn’t able to view “in person” Harley 4431, the collection of Christine’s writings known as The Queen’s Book that features so prominently in the novel. The entire manuscript is available online. Like Verity, I spent hours and hours staring at its folios. But I was able to touch several other copies of Christine’s books, which are held in the Manuscript Reading Room of the British library. I also attended a workshop on manuscript making at the Morgan Library in New York, similar to the one in the novel that Verity takes part in. In that workshop, I learned about parchment making, about medieval inks, and the work of scribes and illuminators. I also got to touch several rare manuscripts held in the Morgan’s collection, which were on display during the workshop. That tactile experience deeply affected my writing about the creation of those amazing illuminated manuscripts. I actually wrote an essay about this for LitHub.

What were some of the most memorable parts of the research or writing process for you?

Besides wandering the streets of medieval Paris via the GPS maps I mentioned earlier, some of the most memorable parts of the research never made it into the novel! I cut three chapters I’d written about fourteenth-century Venice, where Christine was born when he father worked as advisor to the Doge. In the course of researching that period of Venetian history, I came across information about prostitution in Venice that surprised me: because there had been so much corruption when men ran the brothels, the leaders of the city changed the law and put women in charge of the trade.

I might go back to that research and resurrect those characters and their stories for another novel. For the moment, though, I’m halfway through my second novel, stimulated by what I learned about another medieval manuscript, a Book of Hours the Nazis stole during World War II from the collection of the Parisian Rothschilds. The book was later recovered under mysterious circumstances and donated to the Bibliotheque Nationale.

As for the writing process, most memorable was becoming so deeply immersed in the story that by the time I finished writing I wasn’t exactly sure any more where the boundary was between what I had invented and what was historical fact.

One remark made by Béatrice/Anastasia in the novel, in relation to her paintings, struck me as especially poignant with regard to writing as well: “How far would my imagination be allowed to stretch composition to reveal things not yet known about women’s lives?” How do you see the role of historical fiction as it relates to the hidden history of women?

That’s such a great question, Sarah! Archives and artifacts can tell us a lot about women’s lives that traditional history has kept hidden or distorted. Tiya Miles’s All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake, is a remarkable example of the hidden history that one artifact can reveal. Miles writes how that sack, now displayed in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, “filters a light of remembrance on the viewer’s own familial bonds, leading any one of us to ask what things our own families possess that connect us to our past and wonder what we might gain from contemplation of that connection.”

I think fiction set in the past filters a similar “light of remembrance” but amplified by the powers of imagination. Fiction can take the reader on a more embodied and emotionally resonant journey into the history of yet unknown or lesser-documented experiences. Nonfiction tells us about the past; fiction—at least the kind I’m writing— invites us to experience the textures, smells, tastes, sounds of the past more viscerally by empathizing with characters’ conflicts, whether those characters, likeable or not, are human or non-human or even inanimate objects or historical events in women’s history.


Born and educated in New York City, Kathleen B. Jones taught feminist theory for twenty-four years at San Diego State University. In addition to many scholarly books, she penned two memoirs: Living Between Danger and Love (Rutgers University Press, 2000) and the award-winning Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt (Thinking Women Books, 2015). Her essays and short fiction have appeared in Fiction International, Humanities Magazine, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. Among numerous awards, she received multiple grants from the National Endowment of the Humanities, writers’ grants to the Vermont Studio Center, an honorary doctorate from Örebro University, Sweden, and a distinguished alumni award from CUNY Graduate Center. She lives in Stonington, Connecticut. Visit her website at