Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Kathleen Kent's The Wolves of Andover offers a suspenseful vision of colonial Massachusetts

Given its subject, “The Wolves of Andover” is the evocatively perfect title for Kathleen Kent’s second novel, which serves as a prequel to her bestselling debut, The Heretic’s Daughter. It also stands well on its own. The book was released in paperback as The Traitor’s Wife, probably because the original seemed too obscure to non-New Englanders or insufficiently trendy, but I’m glad that my copy reflects the publisher’s initial choice. It was published in 2010, and I finally had the opportunity to dust it off and read it.

Martha Allen, a young woman in colonial Massachusetts in 1673, has a sharp tongue that discourages potential suitors. In the hopes of getting her married off, her father, a stingy old man from Andover, carts her over to Billerica to place her as a servant to her cousin Patience and her husband, Daniel Taylor, who will be adding a new child to their family soon. Strangely, Martha’s brusque outspokenness doesn’t seem to discourage the curious interest of their farm’s hired man, Thomas Carrier, a tall, taciturn Welshman.

The precariousness of life in Puritan New England is made very clear. Dangers creep in from many sides: the wolves that encroach on the Taylors’ farm at nighttime; the stern admonishments of a local clergyman, with his pronouncements about sin; and for women in particular, the knowledge that they risk their lives with each childbirth. Among the most menacing of threats are four Englishmen sailing from London to hunt down a rogue Puritan soldier who had a hand in executing the late Charles I during the English Civil War… a man rumored to be of great physical stature. The viewpoint shifts between Martha and these pursuers, each vile in his own way, with a few other perspectives emerging to round out the picture. A heads up to the squeamish that there are some violent scenes.

If you’ve read Robert Harris’s recent Act of Oblivion (I haven’t yet), you’ll be familiar with this little-known link between England and its American colonies: the transatlantic pursuit of the men responsible for Charles I’s death after his son gains the throne. Dark and haunting, The Wolves of Andover adds to the historical picture, showing not only the suspenseful chase but also how the so-called regicides remain concealed among their fellow Puritans. On top of that, the novel gives us a tender love story based in history (both Martha and Thomas once lived), and rooted in mutual respect and acceptance.

The Wolves of Andover was published by Reagan Arthur Books/Little Brown in 2010.

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

An ailing Jane Austen takes one last case in Stephanie Barron's Jane and the Final Mystery

Historical mysteries in which famous people transform into amateur detectives can be minefields for their authors. If the protagonist’s personality drifts from the recorded reality, readers will get cranky, since the illusion that fiction provides will be broken.

The background details should be faithfully re-created and, for literary sleuths, their narration and dialogue should plausibly reflect their actual writings. Bonus points if the invented mystery scenarios feel neatly enfolded into settings or situations the starring character would have – or could have – personally encountered.

The successful execution of all these precepts has made Stephanie Barron’s Jane Austen Mysteries such a winning series, of which we’ve now arrived – alas! – at the fifteenth and last volume. The historic Austen didn’t really solve mysteries, but with the workings of her ever-agile mind on each case, Barron has us willingly accepting the fictional premise that she could have.

Once past the scene-setting prologue, we’re at Jane’s home of Chawton Cottage, Hampshire, in late March 1817 – and anyone aware of her historical biography will know the sad truth that the esteemed author hasn’t much time left. Still, as she says, “I refuse to spend my final months in a fog of benign stupidity,” refusing to take laudanum so her mind will remain sharp.
author Stephanie Barron

When Jane’s favorite nephew, Edward, receives an alarming letter from his friend William Heathcote, son of her friend Elizabeth, Jane willingly boards a pony trap to Winchester with Edward to see how she can help. A fifteen-year-old boarding school pupil who’s been bullied for his stutter, William is seemingly being framed for the drowning of a fellow student at Winchester College, one with a reputation for cruelty. William’s baffling refusal to supply an alibi for the time of death hinders his family’s and friends’ pursuit of justice.

Investigating the mystery gets Jane and her readers immersed in the dangerous rivalries and arcane rituals and in-jokes of a British boys’ boarding school, as well as some courtroom drama – complicated by the fact that most potential witnesses are on holiday and absent. In this environment and Jane’s wider social world, social class and money underlie many relationships, realistically reflecting the time and place (and the environs of Austen’s own novels).

In the background, with the recent passing of Jane’s uncle, James Leigh-Perrot, she and her widowed mother await news of a potential inheritance. Jane’s concerns for her family’s financial future, as she reflects on her own ill health, lend even more emotion to this final volume of her fictional adventures, which is well worth reading – regardless of whether you’re a longtime fan or a newcomer to the series.

Jane and the Final Mystery is published by Soho Crime this month; purchasing details below.

Book tour graphic





Stephanie Barron is a graduate of Princeton and Stanford, where she received her Masters in History as an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellow in the Humanities. Her novel, That Churchill Woman (Ballantine, January 22, 2019) traces the turbulent career of Jennie Jerome, Winston Churchill's captivating American mother. Barron is perhaps best known for the critically acclaimed Jane Austen Mystery Series, in which the intrepid and witty author of Pride and Prejudice details her secret detective career in Regency England. A former intelligence analyst for the CIA, Stephanie—who also writes under the name Francine Mathews—drew on her experience in the field of espionage for such novels as Jack 1939, which The New Yorker described as "the most deliciously high-concept thriller imaginable." She lives and works in Denver, CO.



Friday, October 13, 2023

Rachel Eliza Griffiths' debut, Promise, tells the story of two Black sisters in Civil Rights-era Maine

A searing account of how racism reaches its long arm into all corners of American life, Griffiths’ first novel also honors the love cradled within Black families and how it grants them inner strength and the power of defiance.

opens with glorious scenes of a late summer idyll in coastal New England in 1957. It’s the day before school begins in Salt Point, Maine, and Hyacinth “Cinthy” Kindred and her sister Ezra, thirteen and fifteen, are becoming young women, which their devoted parents, Heron and Lena, realize will make the world look at them differently. Ezra’s best friend Ruby Scaggs, a poor white neighbor whose father beats her, refuses to acknowledge their differences, but Ezra knows their closeness will soon run its course. The world is too much with them.

Within a week, life turns threatening. Cinthy’s favorite teacher commits suicide and is replaced by a snooty bigot. Ruby makes an unforgiveable mistake. The Kindreds’ good friends, the Junketts – the only other Black family nearby – are terrorized by a white police deputy. President Eisenhower has just signed the Civil Rights Act, and repercussions bubble forth.

Realizing he can no longer shelter his daughters as he’d prefer, Heron reveals the personal and ancestral tragedies that spurred his move from Delaware to the isolated north, a supposedly safer place. Cinthy and Ezra must decide how to react to it all.

Promise holds nothing back in terms of circumstance, language, and emotion, creating a hard-hitting read that compels with its fully fleshed-out characters: Black and white, old and young. Griffiths’ background as a multi-published poet shows in many quote-worthy lines (“To claim herself was the sweetest and most dangerous theft”), and the ending, full of sadness and triumph, sings like an invocation. An assured debut about generational trauma, finding home, and the importance of nourishing joy.

Promise was published by Random House (US) in July, and I reviewed it initially for the Historical Novels Review.  Read more about the novel and its beautiful cover (with art by Megan Gabrielle Harris) at LitHub. In the UK, the publisher is John Murray.

Monday, October 09, 2023

The Time It Takes, a guest post by Jessica McCann, author of Bitter Thaw (plus US giveaway)

Welcome to historical novelist Jessica McCann, who discusses the time involved in writing a historical novel, from the original concept to the completion of the manuscript. Her new novel Bitter Thaw will be published later this month. There's a giveaway opportunity (for US readers) for a signed ARC... details at the end.


The Time It Takes
By Jessica McCann

“How long does it take you to write a novel?” It’s one of the most frequent questions I’m asked. Yet, I struggle for the answer every time. When does the clock begin ticking? When research commences? When the first sentence is written? Or, perhaps, when the first blur of a story idea clicks into focus?

There’s a thick manila file folder in my office with bits and pieces that catch my eye from one day to the next – pages torn from magazines, quotes jotted down while watching TV or reading a book, articles printed from the Internet. Every so often I peruse the file and see how these random snippets may fit together or spark an idea with enough depth to become a novel. I can spend months, even years, ruminating before the final snippet falls into place and inspiration strikes.

Case in point: the conception of my historical novel, Bitter Thaw.

In 2013, I came across a news article about members of a prison work crew who dove into a cold, fast-moving river to rescue three young brothers whose canoe had capsized. When asked by the reporter why they’d risked their lives to save the boys, inmate Jon Fowler said, “You see three helpless kids in a river, you help. Just because we’re incarcerated, doesn’t mean we’re bad people.” That brief news piece – and Fowler’s quote in particular – grabbed me. I wanted to know more. What crimes had those men committed? Why was it the inmates who jumped in to rescue the boys, and not the correctional officers on the scene? I printed the article and tucked it into my idea folder.

About a year later, I read a news piece about authorities in California hoping to solve a 25-year-old murder. They shared a photo of the quilt found with the body of woman who had been strangled. The hope was that someone might be able to identify the owner or maker of the quilt and provide a break in the cold case.

Then, in 2017, I read a National Geographic article about the five coldest rivers on earth. Among them was the Rainy River, which runs through the rugged wilderness along the Canadian and U.S. border in Minnesota. I live in Phoenix, one of the hottest places on earth (our average daily temperature this summer was 100 degrees). So, I was intrigued by a place where the “warm season” of mid-May to mid-September has an average daily temperature of 65 degrees.

One afternoon, while flipping through these articles and other snippets in my idea folder, my mind suddenly clicked… on the ability and motivations of people who keep secrets for decades, the love represented by a handmade quilt, the primal instinct of a convicted criminal to risk his life to save a child, the way lives often intersect in unexpected ways, and the untold stories behind them all. In a matter of minutes – after years of thinking – the characters, setting, hook, and title of a novel snapped together in my mind.

Bitter Thaw: Fresh news of the cold case reopens old wounds for an Arizona family, from a time when gender stereotypes, racial bigotry, and small-town gossip led to tragedy. Now, three generations – a mother, son, and granddaughter – embark on a cross-country journey home, in a search for truth and a hope of redemption.

Then began the research – on Minnesota’s social and geological history, on the correctional system and small-town law enforcement, on the psychology of secrets and false memories, and so much more. Character sketches. Potential themes. Key plotlines. Creation of a fictional small town, Bitter Rapids, where the bulk of the story would take place.

I chose the year 1990 for the family to make their cross-country journey because, while it’s in the modern era, it was still a time before online maps, GPS, and smartphones became the norm. With 1990 as my starting point, I used my remedial math skills to move backward, calculating the ages of my characters and factoring in key historical events that would add context to their stories. Finally, sometime in 2018, I began to write. I wrote, revised, and researched some more – a circular process that spanned about three years. That’s when the serious revisions began on the completed manuscript.

Bitter Thaw will hit bookstore shelves on October 23, 2023 – roughly a decade after an article about a prison work crew first tickled my imagination. So, what’s the best answer to, “How long does it take you to write a novel?”

author Jessica McCann
About the Author:
Jessica McCann has worked for 35 years as a professional freelance writer, journalist, and creative nonfiction author. Her historical novels have won the Freedom in Fiction Prize and Arizona Book of the Year, as well as being shortlisted for numerous literary awards, including the international Rubery Book Award. Bitter Thaw is her third novel. Jessica enjoys connecting with readers and writers.

Find her online: www.jessicamccann.com, @JMcCannWriter (Twitter/X, Instagram, TikTok), @jessicamccannnovels (Facebook and YouTube)

Bitter Thaw

Minnesota, 1956: Unknown human remains are discovered deep within the mosaic of rugged forests and interconnected waterways once home to the native Ojibwe people.

More than 30 years later, fresh news of the cold case reopens old wounds for an Arizona family, from a time when gender stereotypes, racial bigotry, and small-town gossip led to tragedy. Now, three generations – a mother, son, and granddaughter – embark on a cross-country journey in a search for truth and a hope of redemption.

As long-buried secrets are unearthed, they each begin to question their memories, motives, and basic notions of good and evil.

You can pre-order your copy today:


Fill out the form below, and you’ll be entered in a giveaway for a signed advance reader copy of Bitter Thaw (US only).  Please share your thoughts in the blog comments for an additional entry.  Deadline Monday, October 16th.

Update: Congrats to Shelly!  Thanks to all who entered the giveaway.

Tuesday, October 03, 2023

Why "who" is so important in historical fiction, a guest essay by Susanne Dunlap

Thanks to multi-published historical novelist Susanne Dunlap for writing the following guest post, which explores the decisions she makes when writing fiction about historical people. Her latest release, The Adored One, focuses on Lillian Lorraine, a famous Broadway star from the early 20th century.


Why Who Is So Important in Historical Fiction 
Susanne Dunlap

All the choices we make as writers when crafting a novel are important: where to start the story, what kind of a story to tell, the style, the pace, etc. etc. But in historical fiction, there’s one choice that underpins all the others, that influences every other choice along the way. That is, simply, will your protagonist be historical or invented—a question that doesn’t arise in any other category of fiction.

I will be the first to admit that I approach having a historical protagonist with some trepidation for one reason: Real life doesn’t arrange itself in satisfying story arcs, and finding an arc within an actual human being’s existence can be a stretch.

Why does that matter? When it comes to writing fiction, the arc—at least in the western European tradition—is fundamental. Your protagonist has to start out as one person with one set of beliefs and ambitions and problems and be changed through the events of the novel to become something wiser, better, in some cases worse—or someone who finally has the ability to overcome certain obstacles. It’s possible to build a story around a protagonist who doesn’t do any of this, but very risky if you want to keep a reader caring about the story and turning the pages.

The Adored One is my fourteenth published historical novel, but it’s only the third I’ve written featuring a historical protagonist.

The first was Anastasia’s Secret, which came out in 2010. Twelve years later I published The Portraitist, about the French 18th-century artist, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard.

The protagonist of The Adored One—Lillian Lorraine, the love of producer Florenz Ziegfeld’s life—is historical too. Not only that, but with few exceptions, all the characters in the novel lived, and every event actually happened. But you’ve probably never heard of Lillian, correct? So why did I choose to write about her?

Lillian Lorraine was a rock star in her time. As a performer whose looks were her stock in trade, her image graced magazines and sheet music covers, and her antics fed the hunger for sensational news stories. When she outgrew her early stardom, she faded away from the public eye—as so often happens with women entertainers.

Thus the image of Lillian that has come down to posterity is that of a ditzy, thoughtless ingenue who wrecked her own life. But what about the world she existed in? How did those expectations shape her?

Lillian went on stage for the first time when she was four years old. Her ambitious mother pushed her and dragged her around the country—something that wasn’t very conducive to a well-rounded education.

She rocketed to stardom at the age of 16, and soon after was bedded and controlled by one of the most powerful figures on the Broadway stage of the early 20th century. A lot for a teenager of any period to handle.
author Susanne Dunlap

She fell in and out of love, got involved with the bad boys, experienced the underbelly of early 20th-century New York City. She drank all night, came late to rehearsals, and made her share of enemies. Her mother’s death when she was still a teen left her alone and unprotected.

She also made the switch to Vaudeville when she was blacklisted by Abe Erlanger—and loved it there.

While on Vaudeville she worked on the side with Alice Guy Blaché—a pioneering woman filmmaker—and Lillian is also credited with directing some early films after she made the move to Hollywood.

She became a close friend of Bert Williams, the first Black man allowed to perform on Broadway.

In fact, Lillian had many loyal friends. Throughout her life, she did all she could to help friends in need, and even remained on good terms with Ziegfeld until his death.

Yet Lillian refused Ziegfeld’s offers of marriage not once or twice, but four times. She said no to one of the most powerful men in show business before she was even twenty years old. Marrying him would have assured her a comfortable and safe life. Why didn’t she want that?

This was just one of the questions that intrigued me about Lillian, and led me to believe she had hidden depths and reserves of strength.

The Adored One takes place from 1906 to 1913, from when Lillian and her stage mother arrived in New York until she finally split from Ziegfeld at a New Year's Eve party. That allowed me to trace the arc that took her from naïve teenager to young woman fully in control of her own destiny. It enabled me to show her many mistakes and missteps, but also her growth.

Because the image of Lillian that has come down through history illustrates, for me, the way stories have been written by the powerful men in any sphere. Biographical historical fiction provides an opportunity to explore lesser-known individuals who had roles to play in history, whose contributions in their sphere deserve to be better known, but who were ignored—or whose contributions were distorted—by those powerful men.

Today’s historical fiction has broadened and deepened our understanding of the past by exploring the interstices, daring to investigate what might have been but isn’t in the historical record, resurrecting forgotten individuals whose stories are engaging and inspiring.

That’s why who is such an important question to ask before writing a historical novel. It’s tied closely not only to the research you’ll do, but to your intentions as a novelist.

I hope readers of The Adored One not only enjoy learning about and being entertained by the wild and crazy world of the early Ziegfeld Follies, but also fall in love with Lillian Lorraine the way I did. Like so many other forgotten women, she deserves a chance.


Susanne Dunlap is the author more than a dozen historical novels for adults and teens. Her work has won and been nominated for many awards, including the Bank Street Books Children’s Book of the Year, the Utah Book Award, and the Missouri Gateway Readers’ Prize. Most recently, her novel The Portraitist won its category in the Eric Hoffer Book Awards, and The Paris Affair won first place in the CIBA Dante Rossetti awards for Young Adult Fiction. Susanne earned her PhD in music history from Yale, and her BA and MA (musicology) from Smith College. She lives and writes in Biddeford, Maine.