Sunday, January 28, 2024

Three recent nonfiction works for historical fiction readers to check out

Multiple works of critical reflection about historical fiction have been published in the last few months, a sign of the genre's vibrancy and relevance to the current moment. Two of them focus exclusively on historical novels, and a third goes behind the scenes in the American publishing industry in the modern era. Although the last one has a more general focus, a great many historical novels are mentioned in the text. I have library copies of the first and last checked out to me.

Historical Fiction Now (Eaton/Holsinger) and Big Fiction (Sinykin)

Historical Fiction Now, edited by Mark Eaton and Bruce Holsinger (both English professors, the latter an author of historical fiction himself), contains essays by a diverse selection of authors – novelists, critics, academics – about the present state of the genre. Some authors discuss the background to their novels’ creation, like Geraldine Brooks on The Secret Chord, Namwali Serpell on The Old Drift, Tiya Miles on The Cherokee Rose (which was recently reissued), and Katherine Howe on The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. Other contributors examine the notion of supposed anachronisms (Holsinger), their relationship with their role in chronicling the past (Jessie Burton), and views on writing biographical fiction (Michael Lackey). Some of the essays were previously published as journal articles or introductions from the authors’ novels. Historical Fiction Now appeared from Oxford University Press in Oct. 2023.

Writing Backwards: Historical Fiction and the Reshaping of the American Canon
by Alexander Manshel (Columbia Univ. Press, Nov. 2023) has gotten a terrific amount of coverage in the popular press already, including the Wall Street Journal and Esquire. Historical novels frequently appear on syllabi for English courses at universities, and Manshel explores how and why that came to be. This volume, which I had the opportunity to browse through before mailing it off to a reviewer, focuses on literary historical fiction and how a once-denigrated genre became the genre of choice for novelists, particularly writers of color, interested in wrestling with serious themes. I hope to read the book in full more thoroughly in the coming months.

I had discussed the popularity of literary historical fiction in a 2002 speech for the AWP conference – it’s not exactly new for bestseller lists or literary prize lists to be filled with historical novels – so the line from the Esquire piece that “the genre is suddenly everywhere” made me roll my eyes a bit.

Dan Sinykin’s Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature (Columbia Univ. Press. Oct. 2023) is the book I’ve been most excited to see, and I got a good start via my library's copy last night. It provides entertaining insights into how consolidations in publishing have come to shape the landscape of American fiction, including how bestsellers happened, the changing roles of editors and agents at a time when larger companies are gobbling up smaller ones, and how nonprofit and independent publishers made their mark. Highlights from the historical fiction arena include how W. W. Norton made Patrick O’Brian a huge success in the U.S., and how and why E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime became a literary sensation. As someone who grew up reading classic historical novels and mass-market paperback fiction of many varieties, and who has followed the comings and goings of publishers’ imprints for many years as a book review editor, the topic of this book fascinates me. I’m looking forward to reading the rest.

If you've read any of these in full, let me know your thoughts!

Monday, January 22, 2024

Historical fiction award winners announced at the 2024 ALA LibLearnX conference

Lady Tan's Circle of Women book cover
The 2024 Book and Media Award announcements from the American Library Association's LibLearnX conference in Baltimore were broadcast over the weekend, and here are the historical novels that took home prizes. 

On the Reading List, the ALA's annual awards in eight genre fiction categories, the award for Historical Fiction award went to Lady Tan's Circle of Women by Lisa See, focusing on a female doctor navigating her career and an arranged marriage in 15th-century China.

On the Historical Fiction shortlist are:

The Bookbinder by Pip Williams - two young women in WWI-Oxford who work in the university press's bindery find their lives transformed by war.
Essex Dogs by Dan Jones - high-octane adventure during the Hundred Years' War.
Hang the Moon by Jeannette Walls - a young woman reclaims her place in the family business in Prohibition-era Virginia.
Looking for Jane by Heather Marshall - the multi-period story of three women and the battle for reproductive choice.

The winner in Mystery was A Disappearance in Fiji by Nilima Rao, a police procedural set in 1914 Fiji and focusing on an indentured servant who went missing.

On the Notable Books List are these four historical novels:

In Memoriam by Alice Winn - a love story between two British men who fight overseas in WWI.
North Woods by Daniel Mason - an epic literary tale of all the inhabitants of a small corner of Massachusetts woods over multiple centuries.
The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store by James McBride - a mystery in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, in 1972 reveals the longtime interconnections between the town's Black and Jewish residents.
The Reformatory by Tananarive Due - historical horrors at a reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida.

On the Listen List for excellence in audiobook narration:

The Adventures of Amina al Sirafi by Shannon Chakraborty, narrated by Lameece Issaq and Amin El Gamal - a historical fantasy pirate adventure set in the 12th century.
The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store by James McBride, narrated by Dominic Hoffman.

James McBride's The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store also won the 2024 Sophie Brody Medal, which is given for outstanding achievement in Jewish literature.

Congratulations to all the winners!

Saturday, January 20, 2024

Edith Holler by Edward Carey, his imaginatively weird tale set in the Edwardian theatre world (plus giveaway)

Artistic vision, wit, and the creatively grotesque intermingle in Carey’s (The Swallowed Man, 2020) literary historical fantasy. In 1901, Edith Holler is a physically fragile, curious, motherless twelve-year-old who’s lived her entire life within her large family’s historic theatre in Norwich, England because of a supposed curse.

A sprightly narrator, Edith is unsurprisingly possessed of an active imagination – too much so, the adults around her believe. After she deduces an unsavory association between Norwich’s lost children and the local delicacy of Beetle Spread (which is exactly what it sounds like), Edith writes a play about this secret history that her stern yet indulgent father agrees to stage. But when widowed Beetle Spread heiress Margaret Unthank becomes her father’s new fiancée, our heroine feels uneasy, for good reason.

Edith’s entertaining tour of the theatre’s many nooks and their inhabitants feels somewhat protracted, though the pacing quickens after Margaret appears on scene. This quirky homage to Carey’s childhood home, which bursts with personality and his expressive pencil drawings (and multiple ghosts), underscores the importance of listening to children.

Recommendation for young adults: Edith will win over YA readers with her dryly funny observations and determination to outsmart and overcome the wily Margaret.

Edith Holler was published by Riverhead in the US last October; this review was written for Booklist's September 1 issue. I haven't read Carey's previous novel, but loved his earlier historical Little, a reimagining of the woman who became Madame Tussaud. 

I also have a new hardcover copy to give away, open to US and Canadian readers.  Please add your details to the entry form on this page for a chance to win; deadline Saturday, January 27th.  Good luck!


The giveaway has ended. Congrats to Kellie - I'll be in touch.  Thanks to all who entered!

Monday, January 15, 2024

The Red Bird Sings by Aoife Fitzpatrick transforms a late 19th-century Appalachian story into suspenseful fiction

For her debut novel, Irish writer Aoife Fitzpatrick has ventured far from home, in time and distance, setting The Red Bird Sings in late 19th-century Greenbrier County, West Virginia – a rural place where “God hadn’t drawn many straight lines… the boundary between earth and sky was almost always curved and high.” She captures both the attractive scenery of this corner of Appalachia and its people’s proud, self-reliant character, just as a legend-inspiring murder trial is setting forth.

In June 1897, Edward “Trout” Shue pleads not guilty to causing the death of his young wife of several months, Zona, a dark-haired beauty. Believing other venues aren’t producing a sufficiently accurate take on the events, Zona’s best friend, aspiring journalist Lucy Frye, types up her own articles on her faithful Remington.

Although most of the community believes Trout to be innocent, both Lucy and Zona’s mother, Mary Jane Heaster, think he did it. They suspect Trout, a good-looking, reliable blacksmith who cared deeply for the animals brought to him, also had a darker, controlling side, since Zona had stayed isolated from her family and friends in her last days. Zona had a secret of her own, having given birth to an illegitimate daughter, Elisabeth, whom she’d given up for adoption.

Some novels hook you into the story from the first paragraph; others take time to gain momentum. With The Red Bird Sings, it took a good hundred pages – a third of the way in – before I reached the point where I had trouble putting it down. It’s structured like a collage of past and present, with chapters alternating between Lucy’s courtroom reports, the touching letters Zona wrote for the much-loved daughter she never knew, and straight narrative from the viewpoints of Lucy and Mary Jane, detailing everything leading up to Zona’s death and the trial. The overall picture felt somewhat scattered, and the characters kept at a distance. The untimely death of any young person is a tragedy, but I wished I had a clearer image of who Zona was, when she was alive.

By the end, I was completely gripped. Lucy and Mary Jane are intriguingly contrasted: Lucy is a bicycle-riding, forward-thinking modern woman whose family came into modest wealth, while the cigarette-smoking, slovenly Mary Jane invites scandal – and her husband’s ire – by abandoning her corset and claiming the ability to speak with the dead. Both being female, they share the plight of having their voices discounted, but they’re determined to pursue justice. And the late Zona herself will seemingly find a way to speak her truth aloud.

After reading the book jacket, which states the novel was inspired by a real-life murder trial, I wondered what Sharyn McCrumb, who has masterfully woven numerous stories from Appalachian folklore into contemporary and historical fiction, would do with the same roots of literary material – before realizing that she’d already done so, in her novel The Unquiet Grave, which I haven’t yet read.

I bought The Red Bird Sings (Virago, 2023) in hardcover from Blackwell’s – the cover (by Charlotte Stroomer) is so enticingly beautiful – but Americans can also grab it on Kindle, which is currently priced at just $2.99. Definitely worth it.

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Looking at Emilia Hart's Weyward, her witchy, award-winning historical debut

Emilia Hart’s Weyward won the Goodreads Choice Award in both the historical fiction and debut novel categories in 2023, a significant feat. Over 84,000+ readers have already rated it at Goodreads. While it doesn’t especially need more attention, it had been in my NetGalley queue since last winter, and the holiday break was a good time to read it at last.

With its multiple-narrative structure, theme of female empowerment, and witchy focus, it hits multiple trends. The writing is clear, the pacing brisk, and the scenes illustrating three women’s hereditary abilities to commune with the natural world of remote Cumbria, England, are the book’s strongest aspect.

In the present day, Kate Ayres flees London and her abusive boyfriend for Weyward Cottage, which she inherited from a long-forgotten great aunt. During the WWII years, teenaged Violet Ayres, never permitted to leave the grounds of her titled father’s estate or learn anything about her late mother, takes comfort in exploring local plants and wildlife, which she has an affinity for. It’s a unique touch to have Violet take notice of the delicate beauty of bees and damselflies; she’s far from a typical young woman. And in the early 17th century, motherless Altha Weyward sits on trial, having been accused of bewitching a herd of cows into stampeding over a neighboring farmer – her former friend’s husband.

As the plot explores its three protagonists’ struggle to flex their underlying strength and wield it against the forces (men) oppressing them, it becomes a classic account of good vs. evil, presented along gender lines. Each woman endures horrific circumstances, which kept my attention in hoping they’d escape and find some measure of contentment. But over time, I became so used to assuming the male characters would be heinous that it came as a surprise when one turned out to be compassionate or heroic.

Recommended for readers who enjoy some magical gothic atmosphere with their feminist historical fiction; I just wish the nuance used to depict the Cumbrian countryside and women’s powers could have been invoked in the novel’s gender relations.

Weyward was published by St. Martin's Press in February 2023, and the paperback is out next month.

Monday, January 08, 2024

My Enemy's Enemy, a guest post by Alan Bardos, author of the spy thriller Rising Tide

Historical novelist Alan Bardos is here today with a guest post about some little-known WWII history, related to wartime intelligence... the backdrop for his new spy thriller Rising Tide (Sharpe Books).


My Enemy's Enemy
Alan Bardos

The years leading up to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour saw a strengthening of diplomatic relations between Japan and Germany, and growing cooperation between their intelligence services. This is where I found inspiration for my new novel, Rising Tide.

Hitler’s long-term foreign policy goal had been to create living space in Eastern Europe. The Abwehr, German Intelligence, had therefore largely focused on the Soviet Union. They had not planned to fight Britain in 1939 and had not developed networks in Britain. This is demonstrated by the poor quality of the agents they sent to Britain, who were all caught.

By 1941, Japan and Germany knew they would have to fight America and hoped to split its resources between the Pacific and Europe, in a two-front war. The Third Bureau of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s General Staff had been gathering detailed intelligence on the British and American navies, which posed the major threat to Japan’s expansion in the Far East. In return for radio and microdot technology, they traded this information with Germany.

This relationship developed when the Germans began to run their own spy rings in America. As Westerners, their operatives could enter places which the Japanese could not, without drawing attention. One of these spy rings, the ‘Joe K’, gathered information on Hawaii’s defences for their Japanese allies. However, their reports were intercepted by British censors as they were sent from New York to Europe via Bermuda and the spy ring was broken up.
Dusko Popov
Dusko Popov, 1941
(Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

To help rebuild their American networks, the Abwehr sent one of their best agents, Dusko Popov, to the States. He was given a list of questions about America to answer. A third of the questionnaire concerned Pearl Harbour and Hawaii. It included questions about the layout of its airfields, naval defences, ammunition dumps and anti-torpedo nets. Popov’s German handler instructed him to travel to Hawaii, and some writers have suggested that he was to replace a sleeper agent called Kuehn. Kuehn was the manager of a sugar plantation, and his wife owned a beauty parlour which she used to befriend army and navy wives, who the couple grandly entertained at their home to pick up gossip.

Yoshikawa, a Third Bureau agent on Hawaii, paid Kuehn to be Japan’s eyes and ears in Hawaii after the attack on Pearl Harbour. They even worked out an elaborate system for the German to signal information to Japanese submarines off the coast of Hawaii. Yoshikawa gives a less than flattering account of his meeting with Kuehn in his book Japan's Spy at Pearl Harbour: Memoir of an Imperial Navy Secret Agent and held reservations about Kuehn’s ability to do the job.

Suspicions that rang true since Kuehn’s extravagant lifestyle attracted the attention of the FBI, and he was arrested after the Pearl Harbour attack and executed in 1942, leaving the Japanese blind to American activities in Hawaii.

J. Edgar Hoover at His Desk
J. Edgar Hoover at his desk
(Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Dusko Popov was also unable to carry on Kuehn’s role. Popov was actually a British double agent, who tried to warn the FBI about Japan’s interest in Hawaii. However, J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI Director, did not believe Popov’s warning and prevented him from travelling on to Hawaii to link up with the German agent and gather more evidence. This is where my novel Rising Tide picks up the story. The central character, Daniel Nichols, travels to Hawaii and becomes caught up in a conspiracy that would keep America embroiled in a Far Eastern stalemate and split between the Pacific and Europe.



Writing historical fiction combines the first great love of Alan Bardos’ life, making up stories, with the second, researching historical events and characters. He currently lives in Oxfordshire with his wife… the other great love of his life.

His new World War 2 series follows Daniel Nichols, a former pacifist turned crusader, as he moves from the Fleet Air Arm to Intelligence and Special Operations. The first book Rising Tide is set against the backdrop of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, as Nichols is embroiled in a conspiracy to keep the USA bogged down in the Pacific and out of the war in Europe.

Blurb for Rising Tide:

November 1940.  Lieutenant Daniel Nichols, a former pacifist turned crusader, is wounded taking part in the Royal Navy’s carrier born air raid on the Italian Battle Fleet in Taranto. Six months later Sándor Braun, a British double agent, escorts a Japanese delegation around Taranto and discovers that they are planning a similar attack. But what will the target be?

Nichols, now unable to fly, joins the Naval Intelligence Division, despite growing rumours that his nerve has gone. He debriefs Braun in London and sees the implications of his discovery. Britain cannot afford to suffer further setbacks in the far East. Nichols convinces his superior officer, Ian Fleming, to allow him to travel to Lisbon in a bid to identify the target before it’s too late. The former airman uses the rumours about his lack of moral fibre as cover and poses as a deserter, with information to sell about the Taranto raid.

Braun helps Nichols to gain the confidence of German and Japanese Intelligence officers - and he is recruited to fly to Hawaii and spy on the US Navy. Convinced that the Japanese plan to attack Pearl Harbour, Nichols travels to America to inform the FBI, but his warnings fall on deaf ears. Nichols takes matters into his own hands and ventures to Hawaii, with the intention of preventing a catastrophe. But will the Englishman's intervention prove too little, too late?

Wednesday, January 03, 2024

Elizabeth R. Andersen's The Alewives brews up amusing entertainment in a medieval Alsatian city

Frau Gritta, the wife of an easygoing fellow who spends nearly all his wages on drink, is the mother of twelve children – she can hardly keep track of them all – who “were all destined to be grifters.” The family lives on Trench Lane in Les Tanneurs, the tannery quarter of the free Alsatian city of Colmar, a shabby, crowded neighborhood that announces itself with a distinctively ripe smell.

But in this first of what promises to be an entertaining medieval mystery series, it’s the Year of Our Lord 1353, and none of Gritta’s brood died during the recent plague outbreak, so other folks consider her lucky.

Since life must go on, and her family’s needs must be met, Gritta concocts an ingenious idea. She joins forces with her longtime friend, Frau Appel Schneider, and young widow Efi, an attractive but dimwitted newcomer, to brew ale for profit.

Only… their initial recipe needs work, they risk running afoul of church laws, and they doubt Gritta’s husband can be trusted with their earnings. At the same time, a thief has been absconding with treasures from the Dominican abbey, and the recent death of a meddlesome neighbor, which may not have been natural, meets with a shrug from the sheriff. A visiting Franciscan friar, tasked with finding the thief, becomes the women’s ally (or does he?). Then another body turns up, and the women decide to take up the case before the killer comes after them.

The alewives are an absolute hoot. Their boisterous, saucy humor and determination to master this challenging new business opportunity make this novel an infectiously appealing brew. The women’s friendship is one of laughter, good-natured ribbing, and hilarious advice (you won’t look at cabbage leaves the same way afterward). While they can appreciate male company, they’re wise enough – even Efi – to know the occasional dangers men can pose in their patriarchal world. Full of details on crafting a fine ale and seizing life after a traumatic time, the novel leaves you wanting more from this engaging trio of women. Fortunately, a sequel is on the way in April.

The Alewives, which was independently published, was a personal purchase. Find out more at the author's website, and read more about Colmar, a beautiful little city, at the On the Luce travel blog.