Thursday, March 28, 2024

What the Mountains Remember whisks readers to the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains with a tale of romance and self-discovery

During a week-long stay amid the mountainous beauty of Asheville, North Carolina, a young woman caught between two worlds must confront her hidden past and decide what she really wants in Joy Callaway's lushly rendered, character-centered historical novel.

It should be a dream excursion. In April 1913, Belle Newbold, stepdaughter of the gas magnate she calls Papa Shipley, accompanies family members on one of the highly publicized road trips Henry Ford makes with his friends and fellow “Vagabonds” to various points of interest across America. In this ultimate form of glamping – these scenes had me agog at the sumptuous luxury of the late Gilded Age – the group stays in tents, tended by servants who oversee their hair and elegant wardrobe and cook gourmet meals.

But for Belle, the trip spells potential danger, since she hasn’t seen mountains since she fled West Virginia. Her late father was an ordinary coal miner, not a manager, a fact her mother forbids her to reveal for fear the disclosure would plunge them into poverty again.

Also, seeing how distraught her mother was at her father’s death in a mine collapse, Belle seeks stability over love in her own marriage, one she hopes to her find in her arranged union with Papa Shipley’s family friend Worth Delafield, who owns the campsite land in Asheville. She puzzles, though, why Worth – a kind, handsome, considerate man – would agree to such a marriage himself.

After an outing to view the Grove Park Inn, an elaborate resort being built of locally sourced stone, Belle gets naturally drawn into the stories of those laboring on the project – and takes the opportunity to chronicle them when the opportunity presents itself.

All of the characters have interesting backstories that add intrigue to the unfolding plot. Belle and Worth’s growing bond follows a complicated path, since both are held back by secrets. Marie Austen Kipp, Belle’s troubled and attention-seeking step-cousin, develops into a credible antagonist without losing all the reader's empathy for her.

Callaway also draws in Asheville’s history as a mecca for tuberculosis patients due to its favorable climate, and entrepreneur Edwin Grove’s ambition to transform it into a major tourist destination. While moving toward a satisfying resolution for this atmospheric, romantic story, she shines light on the talented workmen and artisans who carried out the financiers’ glorious vision for the Grove Park Inn, which I’d love to view in person one day.

Sketch of the exterior of the Grove Park Inn by Fred Seely, 1912
Sketch of the exterior of the Grove Park Inn by Fred Seely, 1912
(via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

What the Mountains Remember is published by Harper Muse next week (April 2, 2024). My thanks to the publisher for sending me an ARC.

Monday, March 25, 2024

Celebrating my 18th blog anniversary with a historical fiction giveaway

It's a brighter than usual Monday this week, because today my blog is old enough to vote! I began actively blogging at Reading the Past on March 25, 2006, with a post about a presentation I'd given at the Public Library Association conference

Over the past 18 years, I've had 1852 posts, nearly 12,000 comments, and over 2.6 million pageviews. The most popular posts over this time have been:
  1. Ten new and upcoming historical novels I found interesting, for my 1000th blog post, from 2014
  2. Author Barbara J. Taylor's guest post about the Billy Sunday snowstorm, also from 2014
  3. Author C.W. Gortner's guest post about Marlene Dietrich, from 2016
  4. My thoughts on the similarities between two Pack Horse Librarian historical novels, from 2019
  5. The bestselling historical novels from 2012
Blogging is nowhere near as popular as it was back in the early years of this site, and I haven't had as much free time this year as I've had in the past, but I hope to continue for a while longer.

The Tower and A Wild and Heavenly Place

As a way of celebrating, I'm offering a giveaway of two historical novels I've recently reviewed here and received copies of in hardcover: Flora Carr's The Tower, about the year when Mary, Queen of Scots was confined, with her chamberwomen, in a tower in remote northern Scotland; and Robin Oliveira's A Wild and Heavenly Place, a romantic adventure/saga set in Scotland and the Pacific Northwest in the late 19th century. Links go to my earlier reviews.

This giveaway is open worldwide, though for winners not in the US or Canada, I'll likely arrange copies sent via Blackwell's rather than from me directly.

Good luck, and whether you're a new or longtime follower, thanks for reading and following along with my posts!

Update, 4/5: The giveaway has ended.  Congrats to Terry M and Nancy M.  Hope you enjoy the books, and thanks to everyone who entered!

Thursday, March 21, 2024

Finding Margaret Fuller by Allison Pataki evokes an unjustly overlooked American intellectual's life

Historical fiction can restore neglected figures to their rightful place in the public consciousness, and Pataki’s (The Magnificent Lives of Marjorie Post, 2022) sweepingly urgent, inspiring novel about the astonishing life of Margaret Fuller aims to do just that.

American feminist writer, Transcendentalist thinker, journal editor, foreign correspondent: Fuller was all of these and more, blasting through gender-based barriers insufficient to deter a woman of her intelligence and ambition. The prologue dramatizes her friends’ reaction to her tragic early death in a shipwreck in 1850, but while a sense of what-might-have-been permeates the story, readers will emerge with even greater amazement about her accomplishments.

Using first-person narrative, Margaret explores her relationships with Ralph Waldo Emerson and his circle in Concord, Massachusetts, enticingly described as a pastoral New England paradise blossoming with creative thought. Her itinerant quest for belonging is driven partly by financial insecurity.

From Nathaniel Hawthorne to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a vibrant cast of mid-nineteenth-century luminaries comes alive alongside Margaret, who follows her desire to create original works and take action. Her salon-style “Conversations” in Boston galvanize their female participants, and in faraway Italy, Margaret finds love, political purpose, and a spiritual home. An invigorating journey of a brilliant woman always striving to achieve her potential.

Allison Pataki's Finding Margaret Fuller was published by Ballantine on March 19th; I wrote this review for Booklist's Feb. 15th issue. The quote below from Poe is used as an epigraph to open the novel.

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Stefania Auci's The Triumph of the Lions continues her saga about a prominent Sicilian dynasty

This second in a trilogy (after The Florios of Sicily, 2020) about a real-life Italian industrialist dynasty opens in 1868, as thirty-year-old Ignazio Florio takes the reins after father Vincenzo’s too-early death. “Swear to me that you will never put work before your family,” Ignazio’s grieving mother Giulia demands, but despite their opposing temperaments, Ignazio resembles Vincenzo in his dedication to the firm above all else.

Ignazio succeeds beyond anyone’s greatest plans, establishing a shipping empire alongside existing achievements in tuna canning and marsala wine. The Florios’ power, plus Ignazio’s marriage to Giovanna, a young baroness who adores him unrequitedly, guarantees their societal acceptance.

Business and family are deeply interlinked here, and Auci’s smooth narrative explores this dynamic from multiple angles, depicting the inner workings of business deals alongside personal triumphs and romantic regrets. Giovanna, a greatly sympathetic character, suffers marital neglect while raising their children, and we later see the torch pass again from father to son.

A diverting, informative saga and detailed tour of Sicily, from bustling Palermo to the picturesque outlying islands.

The Triumph of the Lions, which was translated from Italian into English by Katherine Gregor and Howard Curtis, was published by HarperVia, HarperCollins' imprint for international voices, on March 12th. I wrote this review for Booklist's March 15th issue. The Lions of Sicily is a new TV series on Hulu (which I haven't yet seen) that's based on this internationally bestselling series. There will be a third book, The Fall of the Florios, out in late August.

Saturday, March 09, 2024

Review of The Romanov Brides: A Novel of the Last Tsarina and Her Sisters by Clare McHugh

Decades before the Bolshevik Revolution and the Romanov dynasty’s terrible end, the future Tsarina Alexandra and her older sister, Grand Duchess Elizabeth, were princesses of the small German state of Hesse and by Rhine. Leading us very capably through these young women’s lives, McHugh shows how their marriages into Russia’s imperial family were by no means predestined.

Ella and Alix, as they’re called, tragically lose their mother to diphtheria but grow up alongside their siblings and an extended family that includes the rulers of Britain, Prussia, and Russia. (McHugh travels through this potentially confusing mass of royal relationships with aplomb.) As a teenager, Ella, an elegant beauty, captivates Tsar Alexander’s brother, the Grand Duke Serge, and wonders if hidden emotional depths lie behind his seriousness.

Her protectively imperious grandmother, Queen Victoria, begs her not to marry into a “country where no one of rank is safe” – and she’s right, as we know – but Ella comes to believe she’ll fulfill a higher purpose as Serge’s wife. As Ella navigates her marriage’s unexpected confines, Alix, painfully shy, remembers the bond she formed with Serge’s nephew, the tsarevich Nicky, when she visited Russia for Ella’s wedding. However, multiple barriers keep them apart.

The story remains within the characters’ inner circles, with an occasional nod to outside politics (“They believe they are owed everything and their people are owed nothing,” says Ella’s uncle Leo about the Romanovs’ autocratic rule). The intimate focus ensures a sympathetic view while emphasizing how sheltered the women are.

In this beautifully spun chronicle of love, family, and faith, McHugh carefully illustrates her protagonists’ religious views. One might wonder if a novel about both couples’ early histories (it ends in 1894) would offer enough plot to keep the pages turning, but it definitely does. The Romanov Brides will be enlightening for royalty buffs.

The Romanov Brides will be published by William Morrow on March 12th. I reviewed it initially for the Historical Novels Review, from an Edelweiss e-copy. This is one I grabbed to read myself as soon as I heard it was available!  I've read many nonfiction accounts about Romanov family members, but Alexandra and Ella don't appear in much fiction as principal characters. Their later lives are especially tragic, which may be a reason. There is an older biographical novel about the pair, Antony Lambton's Elizabeth and Alexandra, but it devolves into such bizarre scenarios at the end that it's better called alternate history. So this new novel about their earlier lives is definitely welcome.

McHugh has also written fiction about Queen Victoria's oldest daughter, Vicky, who became Empress of Germany and the mother of Kaiser Wilhelm, in A Most English Princess (2020). I look forward to seeing who she'll write about next.

Tuesday, March 05, 2024

Flora Carr's The Tower explores a dark, pivotal year in Mary, Queen of Scots' life

Carr’s taut debut recalls Maggie O’Farrell’s The Marriage Portrait (2022) in its evocation of a highborn Renaissance woman trapped against her will and desperately contriving to escape. The setting: Lochleven Castle, a stone fortress on a Scottish island, hauntingly picturesque from outside, but a dank, oppressive prison for Mary, Queen of Scots and her two chamberwomen, Jane and Marie, called “Cuckoo.”

In 1567, Mary, the embattled Catholic ruler of a Protestant country, is with child by her third husband, the despised Bothwell, and pressured to abdicate in favor of her one-year-old son, James. The women’s shifting emotional patterns, and regular flashbacks illustrating the political background, keep tension bubbling and prevent the story from feeling claustrophobic. Mary’s childhood friend Lady Seton joins the trio later, complicating their dynamics.

Mary remains captivating as she earns and feeds off others’ devotion; Carr dexterously explores how the seductive allure of royalty is undimmed by Mary’s grim circumstances, which are depicted with earthy physicality. Despite Mary’s foreshadowed downfall, this pulled-from-history event resounds as a victory for female camaraderie and cleverness.

The Tower is published today in the US by Doubleday, and this is the draft review I'd submitted for Booklist (the final version was published in the 2/15 issue).  If you know the history, it's a novel that will have you reconsidering all of the characters in a new way, including (especially) Mary, Queen of Scots.  If you don't mind some spoilers about the real history behind the story and how it ends, read more at The History Press.