Thursday, February 29, 2024

Anne Perry explores dark secrets in small-town Dorset in her newest Victorian-era novella

Over several standalone outings, Mariah Ellison, the formidable Grandmama of Charlotte Pitt from Perry’s long-running mystery series, has proved to have her own bona fides for detection. This latest holiday novella, set at the end of the Victorian era, sees Mariah arriving at St. Helens, a small Dorset village, after accepting her old friend Sadie Alsop’s invitation to stay with her over Christmas.

Mariah senses that Sadie is in trouble and needs her help, and her inner alarm is heightened when she arrives on Sadie’s doorstep and is rudely turned away by her husband, Barton. Clearly not expecting her, Barton tells her Sadie has left, and he doesn’t know if she’s ever coming back. Baffled and eventually settling in at the cozy home of Gwendolyn, a kindly older woman who never married, Mariah grows concerned about Sadie’s whereabouts (did she leave willingly, or was she abducted?), a feeling that intensifies after days pass with no answers.

Gwendolyn and a caring bookshop owner join Mariah’s unofficial investigation, which uncovers a web of malice that has overtaken St. Helens and threatens to dredge up painful secrets. As Mariah works out who’s responsible, she reflects on the fact that “everyone has a hidden side.”

Characterization is top notch, and the interactions among the diverse villagers reflect Victorian society. As Christmas mysteries go, this story turns darker than most as it delves into human nature’s most sinister aspects. At the same time, the ending grants a feeling of hope, both for the village and Mariah herself. Her abusive marriage had turned her spiteful and bitter, but she’s come to recognize these destructive patterns and consciously works to express unfamiliar emotions like gratitude and compassion.

A Christmas Vanishing was published by Ballantine in November 2023, and I reviewed it for February's Historical Novels Review.  The UK publisher is Headline.  

You may ask... it's 2024 already, so why review this book now?  Well, I hadn't gotten to read it myself until after the holidays, and Christmas doesn't play a big part in the plot other than its timing. This isn't exactly a warm and cozy read, but it's in keeping with Perry's perennial themes of justice and the complexity of human nature. It also may be Perry's final book, as she passed away in April last year.

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Looking for a reinterpretation of Lady Macbeth's dramatic life? Here are four new historical novels to tempt you.

It's a trend in historical fiction for authors to dig into the roots of vilified characters and examine whether our long-held preconceptions hold true. Feminist reinterpretations of historical women's lives are likewise popular. These two topics converge in four new and upcoming historical novels about the figure best known to us as Lady Macbeth. It turns out that Shakespeare's depiction of the 11th-century Scottish queen—as a ruthless and manipulative woman driven to madness—and her husband is not exactly historically accurate. Like other writers of historical fiction, he used creative license to tell the story he wanted.

It's rare to see four different novels about the same person (other than maybe the mythological figure Medusa) appearing so close together, an example of great minds (and their editors) thinking alike. Each author has made their choice on the approach to follow: do they begin with Shakespeare's anti-heroine?  Do they go back a thousand years in history and try to find the real Lady Macbeth, a Scottish noblewoman named Gruoch?  Or do they attempt to combine the two?  

Queen Macbeth by Val McDermid
Part of Scottish publishing imprint Polygon's Darkland Tales series of "punky, anarchic retellings of landmark moments from our past," well-known crime writer Val McDermid's Queen Macbeth is a short novel that promises to expose the "patriarchal prejudices of history" in a dark, gritty story of a queen (and her three companions - sound familiar?) fleeing a dark fate.  Out in May 2024.

All Our Yesterdays by Joel H. MorrisThe debut novel by Joel H. Morris, who holds a comparative literature PhD and has extensive familiarity with teaching Shakespeare's play, goes back to the characters' historical origins to examine the circumstances which led a young woman of royal Scottish blood (called "the Lady" here) to marry a powerful, enigmatic man as her second husband, and try to overcome the evil of an old prophecy.  Out from Putnam in March 2024.

Lady Macbeth by Ava ReidFalling into the romantasy genre (historical romantasy, to be specific!), Ava Reid's Lady Macbeth, to be published by the fantasy imprint Del Rey in August 2024, is described as a gothic reimagining of this famous character's life, a novel of dark secrets, prophecies, and occult battles featuring an ambitious female lead.

Queen Hereafter by Isabelle Schuler, or Lady Macbethad for the UK title

Gruoch, a young woman of Pictish heritage, comes of age in a violent medieval world and expects to be queen one day, as foretold in a prophecy, and becomes engaged to the royal heir, Duncan, in service of this goal... but life has a way of throwing roadblocks in her path to the throne.  Published last year in the UK by Raven Books (at right) and by Harper Perennial in the US in October 2023 (at left).

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

A Wild and Heavenly Place tells a star-crossed love story spanning late 19th-century Scotland and the Pacific Northwest

With her aptly titled novel, Oliveira (Winter Sisters, 2018) sweeps romantically inclined readers into the spectacular setting of Washington Territory in the 1870s and 1880s, when Seattle was a muddy frontier outpost primed for growth and industrial development.

Centering this epic tale is the enduring relationship between Hailey MacIntyre, a prosperous Scottish coal engineer’s daughter, and Samuel Fiddes, an aspiring shipbuilder determined to lift himself and his young sister from poverty. After Samuel saves Hailey’s brother from an accident in Glasgow’s streets, the two fall in love, despite her parents’ disapproval.

When the MacIntyres lose everything in a bank failure, Hailey’s father relocates his reluctant, traumatized family to the Pacific Northwest, where they must adjust to severely reduced circumstances. Samuel follows soon afterward, hoping to find Hailey again.

The characters aren’t quite as nuanced as those of Oliveira’s previous historical novels, but their stories are magnetic as they undergo complex personal transformations. This unique American immigration tale has a large, multiethnic cast, and the exceptionally well-evoked backdrop makes it perfect for armchair travelers seeking an absorbing emotional escape.

Robin Oliveira's A Wild and Heavenly Place was published on Feb. 13th by G. P. Putnam's Sons, an imprint of Penguin Random House. I submitted this review originally for Booklist, and the final version appeared in January.  Isn't it a beautiful cover?

Friday, February 16, 2024

Bits and pieces of historical fiction news

Cover images

I had meant to post this roundup earlier, but I've been sidelined with a cold since Wednesday and am just starting to feel human again; I didn't even feel like reading much.  Frustrating.  But on with some links. I've been collecting articles from around the web dealing with historical fiction that I felt offered particularly noteworthy insights.

In an article for Esquire, author Vanessa Chan discusses the emphasis on research in historical fiction ("There is a curious, almost voyeuristic desire to peer into an author’s process") but expresses the importance of a different approach, the one she used for her debut novel, The Storm We Made: drawing on family history and recounted memories to ground a story in its setting. Plus, she covers the importance of using oral accounts as sources when few actual records exist, or when they're about people "ignored by the Western sources."

Armando Lucas Correa explains for CrimeReads why he decided to write a psychological thriller (prompting a groan from his editor) following a successful career in historical fiction.  "If my historical novel The German Girl sold more than a million copies, she said, why would I suddenly want to switch genres?" It's all about how bits and pieces of research can lead you in new directions and how genres fall along a continuum rather than being firmly fixed. The article got me interested in reading his historical novels, and the thriller too!

Also for CrimeReads, H.B. Lyle writes about his enjoyment in incorporating colorful real-life characters into his historical spy thrillers, from Mata Hari to two bungling Royal Marines officers and more.

Author Laurie Frankel contributes a piece for the Washington Post about how her contemporary novel suddenly became "historical" because of Covid and the Dobbs decision that took away the constitutional right to abortion in the US. Rewriting her plot became necessary.  Even though I think it's a stretch to call novels set just a few years ago "historical fiction," the article does make you think about how history is changing all the time—thus shifting how people (and fictional characters) behave—and, as she writes, how that change doesn't always move in a positive direction.

The winner of the 2024 Langum Prize in American Historical Fiction is Susanna Moore, for The Lost Wife, which is inspired by a real-life woman taken captive by Dakota Indians in 1862 Minnesota, during the devastating Dakota War. American Ending by Mary Kay Zuravleff, a novel of immigrant life in early 20th-century Pennsylvania, was the finalist.

From Bill Wolfe at Read Her Like an Open Book, a Substack newsletter I follow for its focus on female writers: James McBride and Elizabeth Graver win National Jewish Book Awards. These were announced several weeks ago. McBride's The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store has already won multiple other awards, and Elizabeth Graver's novel Kantika, a multigenerational saga inspired by her grandmother's life, focuses on a Sephardic Jewish family.

This isn't historical fiction-related specifically, but since I thought readers may find this interesting: On Wednesday, when I was home sick and unable to concentrate on much, I found myself going through YouTube watching genealogy shows (my favorite), which led me eventually to a video of a lecture given by geneticist Dr. Turi King of the University of Leicester for the Royal Institution about the work she did in identifying the remains found under a Leicester car park as the lost king Richard III. The presentation is an hour long, and I found myself riveted.... it's worth watching in full as she's an excellent speaker. I learned new things even though I've read extensively about the discovery before.  Definitely recommended!

Friday, February 09, 2024

ReShonda Tate's The Queen of Sugar Hill reveals the story of Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel

Seeing this biographical novel about Hattie McDaniel, you may initially assume it traces her journey from her humble Wichita origins through her groundbreaking achievement as the first Academy Award-winning Black actor, for her depiction of Mammy in Gone with the Wind. Instead, Tate begins at that pivotal point, and in doing so tells an engrossing, less familiar story that digs deep to reveal what a dynamo McDaniel truly was.

Although accustomed to Hollywood racism, which tries to segregate African Americans and gives them on-screen roles as domestics, Hattie expects her Oscar triumph will open new doors. Sadly, this doesn’t happen. Through a charismatic first-person account that holds no emotion back, we experience all her victories, disappointments, missteps, and transformative close relationships.

As white audiences laugh at her comedic theatrical performances as Mammy, unaware they’re being mocked, Hattie draws the ire of the NAACP and its leader, Walter White, who claims she plays to demeaning stereotypes. His campaigns overshadow her later career. Hattie always works toward better roles and remains proud of her talent and background, having been a maid herself. She also recognizes that lighter-skinned Black actors have better opportunities. And despite the industry’s attempts to erase her sexuality, Hattie has an eye for handsome men and dives into new romances with passionate zest.

Novels about old Hollywood can become a dizzying whirlwind of famous names, but Tate gives her secondary characters defining moments in the spotlight. These include Clark Gable, whose supportive friendship sustains Hattie; up-and-coming stars Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge; and the unconventional Tallulah Bankhead. At her mansion in LA’s Sugar Hill neighborhood, Hattie throws fabulous parties and battles against restrictive covenants, just one among many little-known accomplishments. This novel, the prolific author’s first historical, is book club gold for its many discussion points. Read it to discover more about an exceptional woman who gave life her all.

The Queen of Sugar Hill was published by William Morrow on January 30 (I'd reviewed it for the Historical Novels Review's February issue).

Monday, February 05, 2024

Interview with M. A. McLaughlin about her atmospheric dual-period novel The Lost Dresses of Italy

In 1947, costume historian Marianne Baxter, a war widow, accepts the invitation of her colleague and college friend Rufina to travel to Verona to restore three Victorian-era dresses for an upcoming museum exhibition. The dresses, Marianne discovers, once belonged to Christina Rossetti, who had vacationed in Italy in 1864 and seemingly abandoned her garments, which had been hidden in an old trunk since that time. As Marianne works to get the dresses into presentable shape, she contends with the difficult museum director while looking into mysteries involving the renowned, reclusive poet. A second narrative thread features Christina on her journey to Italy, which involves a request from her late father. M. A. McLaughlin's The Lost Dresses of Italy (Alcove Press, Feb. 6) is a novel about secrets from the past, unexpected romance, and the inner lives of women that lets you travel vicariously to a beautiful, historic place and learn details about antique clothing restoration. As Marty Ambrose, the author has previously written a trilogy of mysteries about Claire Clairmont, the last surviving member of the Byron/Shelley circle. My thanks to Marty for answering questions for this blog interview!


The novel offers an interesting pathway into history, one you don’t often see – through the medium of clothing, and how dresses from Victorian times can tell stories about the women who wore them. What got you interested in costume history?

This is an intriguing story. I’ve always been interested in antique clothing and textiles because I learned to sew and repair fabric when I was young, but the real obsession began with an incident that occurred when I was eighteen. My mother’s Aunt Lily passed away in her late seventies—unmarried and still living in her downtown home that was full of old furniture and knick-knacks. When Mom and I were sorting through her things and, at the end of the day, we opened her cedar trunk where we found carefully-preserved, antique clothing and hand-embroidered lace handkerchiefs, along with . . . a wedding certificate. I was stunned. It turned out my great-aunt had a secret marriage, and the truth had been hidden away for years, along with her dresses.

Unfortunately, I never found the answer as to why my great aunt kept her marriage secret (my mom and I did learn that some of the family knew about it), or why she had chosen to place those particular items in her trunk, but I never forgot the incident. It remained a mystery; however, it set me on the road to building my own vintage collection, and I filed the incident away (it became central to plot of The Lost Dresses of Italy). You never know how one unexpected event like that can be re-fashioned (pun intended) into a creative project years later. Serendipity.

The descriptions of Christina Rossetti’s travels in Milan and Verona are exquisite, and I loved spending time in both places. What did you learn on your own travels to these sites?

Well, as you suggest, Italy is a magical place for a novelist. The first historical background information that I researched during my time in Milan was how the fashion industry started up again after WWII, manufacturing the exquisite fabrics for which Italy had always been famous. In particular, I studied how those textiles are produced and why the Italian silks, in particular, are so sought after (Como provides 70% of Europe’s silk). The reason is surprisingly simple: the mulberry trees planted around Lake Como attract silkworms which produce the threads that are then woven into luxurious fabrics, using the same, centuries-old processes. Of course, that meant a cruise around Lake Como!

The second part of my research was absorbing the rich details of Italian settings that were a part of Christina Rossetti’s trip there: Milan, Lake Como, and Verona. In particular, during my stay in Verona, where much of The Lost Dresses of Italy takes place, I visited the exact locales that Rossetti refenced in her letters and found within them what I call “emotional touchpoint” locations—places that set my imagination on fire—which then become significant plot points in my novel. For example, I spent a long afternoon at Juliet’s Tomb in Verona, which is such a poetic, beautifully romantic spot, that it became part of a poignant scene for Christina. I like to create settings that almost become characters in themselves, and I can’t fathom how I would do that without traveling to the actual places I include in my novels.

The Lost Dresses of Italy is a dual-period novel, but distinctive since both stories are set in the past. What drew you to writing about postwar Italy?

When I started conceptualizing the themes of love and loss in this book in 2021, our world was emerging from the Covid pandemic, and I was speculating on how we could ever start over after such a traumatic time; then, Hurricane Ian hit SW Florida in September 28, 2022, and we lost pretty much everything we owned. The level of destruction in our community was staggering, and it seemed inconceivable that we could ever “go back to normal” when so many beloved places were either severely damaged or just gone. As I thought about how to connect those feelings into a second narrative, it led me to one of the worst recoveries that I could imagine: the aftermath of WWII. I’ve read a lot of historical fiction about the time during the war, but not how the survivors found the strength to move forward.

Since I knew I wanted to set my novel in Verona, I started digging into the post-war recovery issues that Northern Italy faced: the cities had sustained massive damage, the economy was decimated, and people literally had no food or clothing. Even worse, families had been torn apart in the war between those who supported Fascism and those who opposed it. Everyone suffered. However, the Italians desperately wanted to put the war behind them, and that inspired me. Anytime people have to rebuild after a war or natural disaster, it feels overwhelming, but somehow the human spirit finds a way—with grace and courage. I wanted to portray that in my novel.

What inspired you to write about Christina Rossetti, and to imagine the inner life and adventures of this private woman?

I’ve always been fascinated by Christina Rossetti and have taught her works for a number of years. Writing in both English and Italian, she has this amazingly ability to hit perfect pitch in her poetry, such as in “Fata Morgana” (which is referenced in my novel) with lines like, “It breaks the sunlight bound on bound:/ goes singing as it leaps along . . .” Stunning. Immersing myself in her poetry again propelled me to pay attention to the sound of my sentence flow and make my prose as poetic as possible without sounding too “flowery.” But Rossetti also has always been a source of curiosity for me, too, because she wrote both delicate lyrics typical of a Victorian female poet and yet, also, erotically-charged sonnets not-so-typical of a woman of her era, such as the Monna Innominata, which translates to the “hidden woman.” How fitting since her inner life is expressed only in her poetry; she rarely revealed her personal thoughts in her letters. More specifically, she took a three-week trip through northern Italy and spoke about it in only one letter but, when she returned to London afterwards, she broke off with her suitor, and wrote that sensual sonnet sequence. So, I decided to fill in the gaps of her mysterious time there with a mystery and a romance. It certainly could have happened.

Claire Clairmont and Christina Rossetti are both members of famous literary families, while Marianne Baxter, though fictional, also has an intriguing career and a backstory that’s shaped her character. What overall qualities do you look for in choosing and crafting your historical heroines?

First of all, I love the idea of giving voice to literary women who may have been relegated to secondary roles in the lives of their more famous siblings, lovers, or husbands. They often produced amazing work that has been overlooked, as well. Claire Clairmont was overshadowed by her celebrity lover, Lord Byron, as well as her renown step-sister, Mary Shelley—the author of Frankenstein—yet Clairmont was a witty, sophisticated author in her own right. Similarly, Christina Rossetti was eclipsed by her charismatic brother, Dante Gabriel, even though her poetry was considered some of the finest penned by a Victorian poet. Clairmont and Rossetti were both independent thinkers, often pushing back against the traditional roles of women during their eras, which also makes for an interesting character. Secondly, I try to create heroines who are struggling with challenges of a woman’s life, while trying to establish their own identity. Marianne is a grieving WWII widow who goes to Italy to create a dress exhibit of Rossetti’s dresses, but she finds more than she bargained for: love, conspiracy, and betrayal. Yet she emerges from all of these unexpected and dangerous turns in her life as a stronger woman. I think we all need to read those kinds of stories where women triumph over adversity.

How does your fiction-writing career build upon your academic background and scholarly interests?

Certainly, I’ve spent most of my academic career studying and teaching authors from the nineteenth century—my particular area of expertise—including Christina Rossetti. This foundation has helped enormously when I’m researching my novels because I already know quite a bit about the literary figures I include in my books, including their works and their lives. Nevertheless, transforming these literati into fictional characters is tricky because I have to reach that sweet spot of where historical facts blend with imaginative recreations. Readers want a good story but also a level of accuracy so, if anything, writing about some of my favorite authors has made me even more meticulous in my research. I want my audience to come away with being intrigued enough to read further in an author’s work. Only then, do I feel that I have successfully done my job. Authors need to do everything they can to nudge readers into discovering these brilliant poets and writers from the past.


M. A. McLaughlin Bio:

Marty Ambrose-McLaughlin is an award-winning, multi-published author, including a historical mystery trilogy set around the Byron/Shelley circle in nineteenth-century Italy, which earned starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, as well as a gold medal for historical fiction in the Florida Writers Association's Literary Palm Award. She completed her M.Phil. at the University of York (England) and teaches nineteenth-century British literature, composition, and fiction writing at Florida Southwestern State College. She has also given numerous workshops in the U.S. and abroad on all aspects of creating/publishing a novel, and is a member of The Byron Society, Historical Novel Society, Florida Writers Association, and Women's Fiction Writers Association. Her latest novel, The Lost Dresses of Italy, will be published by Alcove Press in February, 2024.

Friday, February 02, 2024

Margot Livesey's The Road from Belhaven reveals an ordinary yet uncommon woman's life in late 19th-century Scotland

Written with a graceful simplicity, The Road from Belhaven will enfold you unexpectedly quickly into the life of its heroine, Lizzie Craig, a character whose emotions are so vivid that it’s impossible not to feel for her through all her growing pains, yearnings, and mistakes.

Orphaned as a baby, Lizzie is raised by her grandparents on their property, Belhaven Farm, in Fife, Scotland, in the late 19th century. The rhythms of rural life, beautifully summoned, instill a sense of wonder as Lizzie takes pride in gathering eggs and caring for their animals through the seasons, aware that the future responsibility for the land will lie with her.

Excited to learn she has an older sister, Kate, who comes to join the family, Lizzie is slow to realize how this will affect her future. Lizzie also keeps to herself that she gets occasional flashes – “pictures,” as she calls them – of future events, which often drive her to rash decisions even though she doesn’t have the power to prevent what happens.

When Lizzie turns sixteen, a tailor’s apprentice from Glasgow, Louis Hunter, comes to help her family in the fields. Their growing relationship has her following him to the city, where she soon finds herself in the shameful situation of all too many love-struck unmarried women.

In this sense, Livesey’s novel offers a timeless story that’s made distinctive through well-wrought details: the harvest ceilidhs; the crowded bustle of Glasgow, which has Lizzie agog; the “white harled farmhouse” where her grandmother, Flora, dispenses wisdom she suspects won’t be heeded. But it’s not predictable, overall, thanks to the delicate characterizations.

Although many people – herself included – cause Lizzie undue heartache and regret, there are no true villains, other than society itself and how it curtails women’s choices. This is a beautiful book about the sharp-cornered path to maturity.

Margot Livesey's The Road from Belhaven will be published by Knopf next Tuesday, February 6th. I reviewed it from NetGalley for the Historical Novels Review. There doesn't appear to be a separate UK edition. The author is a Scottish-born writer who now resides in the US.