Tuesday, September 19, 2017

A spoiler-free look at Keep the Home Fires Burning, the literary sequels to the Home Fires TV series

Many historical novels have been transformed into films and TV miniseries. Some of these films carry the novel’s characters beyond the original literary storyline. However, do you know of any other instances in which a popular TV series has been canceled, but the plot is continued in the form of a historical novel?

This is the case with Home Fires, set in the fictional English village of Great Paxford in Cheshire during WWII. It ran for two seasons (2015-16) on Britain’s ITV and on PBS Masterpiece in the US. The centerpiece is the Women’s Institute (WI), a real-life community organization in which women banded together to produce food on the home front, advocate for social causes, and support one another. Julie Summers’ nonfiction work Jambusters was the series inspiration.

Sadly, the series wasn’t renewed for a 3rd season. The decision was controversial not only because it had a large fan base but because the last episode ended on a cliffhanger, with a damaged Spitfire crashing into a house just as a woman inside was about to give birth.

So… what happens next?

I’m not about to tell you – but plans for Season 3 had been in the works at the time of the cancellation, so Simon Block, the show's creator and writer, turned the story into a four-part e-serial. The first installment is Spitfire Down!, and pharmacist Erica Campbell, as depicted by actress Frances Grey, is on the cover. It’s about 100 pages long, so I inhaled it over an hour on Sunday morning.

This won’t be a formal review, but I thought I’d list some observations I had reading the novella.

First, and maybe most obviously, the Keep the Home Fires Burning ebooks are written for existing fans; the storylines won’t make much sense to anyone who hasn’t seen the show. That said, much of the first 40% of the ebook is backstory to the plane crash, catching readers up on the action and fleshing out some characters and earlier scenes. The writing is streamlined and zips along, moving from one viewpoint to another just like the show would. After watching for two seasons, I know the characters’ personalities and physical attributes, which makes it easy to picture them in new scenarios. There is one character introduced for the first time, a newcomer from London, and it was odd to realize that she was the only person who I couldn’t imagine as easily.

Since it’s the nature of television dramas to show rather than tell, I found it interesting to learn more about the history of the WI through the book. I don’t recall its pacifist principles being strongly emphasized on screen, or that its members were conflicted about its goals. For example, in the book, fundraising for ambulances to help the injured is described as an acceptable task, but feeling runs against using the money for "tanks or planes to help bring hostilities to an end sooner rather than later.”

In addition, fiction on the page can get inside the women’s heads more than television can, and in this way, the domineering and proper Joyce Cameron’s personal history is made less opaque. Some aspects of her personality continue to grate, though.

The series focuses on the accomplishments of middle-aged women—a topic not often seen on TV. In addition, if the third season had been filmed, it would have added some racial diversity to the show. The first book introduces a minor subplot in which black Liverpudlians travel south through the countryside to escape bombings in the city—and run up against prejudice in Great Paxford. I suspect this theme will become more prominent in future installments. This is another reason to be regretful the series was canceled, although we have a chance to envision these scenarios and learn about the history through the books. The Mass Observation research project (in which ordinary citizens on the British home front recorded their thoughts) is another aspect of social history mentioned in the first novella, and it looks to play an even larger role in Part 2.

A sidenote: in the book, Sarah Collingbourne is listed as Sarah Colebourne (a mistake?).

Are there any other fans of Home Fires who are reading along, or who will be?  I’m hooked and will be following all four ebooks. They were released a month apart: two are out now (from Bonnier Zaffre) in e-format, the third will be out next week, and the fourth in October. In addition, the full contents will be published as a print book in October.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Power of Place: Elizabeth St. John's The Lady of the Tower, set in the early 17th century, and a visit to Lydiard Park

A year ago, in September 2016, my husband Mark and I spent a morning at Lydiard Park, an estate located near Swindon in Wiltshire, England. It looked like a nice place to take a stroll and see the local scenery. On our map, Lydiard was about halfway between Tintern and Heathrow, so it was a convenient stop before heading home after the HNS Oxford conference and our vacation in Wales. That was all I knew about it. We parked the car, walked toward the house, and ran into many people with their dogs. It seems we’d arrived on the day of the annual dog show, Lydiard Bark.

Even with the crowds (and barking), Lydiard was a place of tranquility, with its beautifully landscaped grounds, nearby lake, and elegant Palladian country house dating from the Georgian era.

Lydiard House on a beautiful September morning (photo by me)

What I hadn’t known at the time was that Lydiard was the historic home of the St. John family, who had royal connections: they descended from Margaret Beauchamp, grandmother of Henry VII, through her first marriage. I also hadn’t realized that Lydiard featured in Elizabeth St. John’s The Lady of the Tower, which I’d purchased, coincidentally, on Kindle a few months earlier. I’m kicking myself now for not taking the opportunity to tour the house, which has many family portraits on the walls; likewise the walled garden, although mid-September wasn’t an ideal time for that. Hopefully we’ll get the chance to return someday.

Now that I’ve gotten the chance to read The Lady of the Tower, I can enthusiastically recommend it to anyone interested in the 17th century, the rich tapestry of women’s lives, or simply settling into a well-told, memorable historical novel. Spanning nearly three decades, from the sunset of the Elizabethan era through the early years of Charles I’s troubled reign as a “divine right” monarch, it follows the ups and downs in the life of Lucy St. John, youngest daughter in a prominent Wiltshire family (the author descends from this same family).

Lucy adores her quiet life in the English countryside; Lydiard is the home of her heart, but circumstances often oblige her to live elsewhere. Wherever Lucy resides, from Battersea along the Thames under the care of her spiteful aunt-by-marriage, to a stone castle in remote Wales, to the industriousness of the Royal Navy Yard, the settings are beautifully etched in the mind’s eye.

St. Mary's parish church, Lydiard Tregoze (photo by Mark Johnson)

One principal theme is the plight of women in this earlier time. Dependent on their male relatives and husbands, they’re also expected to create homes for themselves and their children in places mostly not of their own choosing. Lucy's internal conflict between obligations and her personal desires is palpable, especially since she finds court manners empty of substance.

Following a failed love affair, she marries a kind man, but her choice ironically forces her into a role of uncomfortable prominence: that of mistress of the Tower of London, charged with caring for high-ranking political prisoners, including Sir Walter Raleigh… which means getting unwittingly drawn into the drama that surrounds them. The novel also emphasizes something I hadn’t thought much about: the huge monetary costs incurred by those occupying high-ranking positions in the realm.

Another strong point are the depictions of Lucy’s relationships: her tender friendship with sister-in-law Anne; the growing antagonism between Lucy and her brother John, to whom Lydiard is entailed simply because he’s male; and her rivalry with her opportunistic sister Barbara, her polar opposite, who marries the half-brother of royal favorite George Villiers.

Most of the story unfolds against the political and cultural backdrop of the Jacobean age, which saw royal favorites jockeying for position and reward (and carrying their families’ hopes along with them), the financing of transatlantic voyages of exploration; and the growing influence of Calvinist theology. There are several complex love stories, too; and one love strongly echoing through the pages is that which Lucy has for the place she calls home.

Grounds of Lydiard, Sept. 2016 (photo by me)

Elizabeth St. John's The Lady of the Tower was published in January 2016 on Kindle and in paperback.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Mary Miley's Murder in Disguise, a mystery of 1920s Hollywood

The freshness of Jessie Beckett’s narrative voice remains undimmed even after four books. In her latest excursion into amateur detection, set mostly in 1920s Hollywood, Jessie, assistant script girl at Pickford-Fairbanks Studios, investigates the murder of a film projectionist.

A man in a red jacket had sprung into the Lyceum Theater’s projection booth during a Charlie Chaplin film and gunned down Joe Petrovitch, with his shocked assistant looking on. The killer then somehow vanished.

The crime has the markings of a theatrical production, given the perpetrator’s showy clothing, but it could also have been a gangster hit. Joe’s widow, Barbara, one of Jessie’s work colleagues, knows of her crime-solving reputation and requests her help—and in a welcome surprise, a former acquaintance, LA police officer Carl Delaney, agrees to their partnership.

Barbara knows little of Joe’s past, although he was an unpleasant bastard by all accounts, with a history leading back to pre-WWI Europe. Discovering connections sends Jessie around the city and back to her old haunts elsewhere in America.

Jessie’s love life gets put on hold, with her regular fella in legal trouble, which means some new plot directions. Although attracted to Jessie, Carl’s too much the gentleman to push his advantage. Life at Jessie’s boardinghouse also gets shaken up with the arrival of a roommate’s deaf younger cousin, a sullen girl whose quiet cleverness makes her a wonderful character. As a former vaudevillian, Jessie knows all about disguises, so she has ideas on how the killer concealed himself in plain sight. Strangely, she still misses one important clue. I suppose even talented sleuths have off-days.

As always, the Roaring ‘20s atmosphere, from the exciting invention of Technicolor to efforts to curb bootlegging, is worth the price of admission. Because it reveals aspects of previous books’ storylines, though, best not to read this one first.

Murder in Disguise (which I reviewed for the HNR in August) was published by Severn House in August. I recommend all of the books in this series, which begins with The Impersonator, then followed by Silent Murders Renting Silence, and finally this newest entry.  Start at the beginning to learn more about the heroine's family background and how she came to be known as Jessie.

Friday, September 08, 2017

A gallery of Gothic historical novels, or, what to read while waiting for Kate Morton's next book

Australian novelist Kate Morton's novels bridge genres: they're multi-period family sagas carefully layered with mysteries from the past, some romance, and often an old house at the center. I'm a big fan, one of many from around the world. All five of her books have been international bestsellers, and she recently posted about her upcoming book #6 on her Facebook page.

Gothic novels formed a good part of my reading as a young adult, and then the genre fell out of favor for years, only to be revived in the early 21st century -- with Morton as one of its foremost practitioners. She has helped bring these books back into the mainstream. Given the complexity of her novels, she can only write so quickly, but readers who crave books featuring similar elements have plenty to choose from.  Below are 12 "readalikes" for her work.

This is the first in a new series of thematic lists of historical novels (with some recommendations of titles from other genres mixed in), all written with the intent of introducing readers to new and intriguing-sounding books. Unlike many earlier lists, I'm including both new and older titles.

Please let me know what you think, and if there are any other subjects or themes for which you'd like recommendations!

Four sisters, the aftermath of their cousin's disappearance, and a modern family who stumbles upon the 50-year-old mystery after arriving at Applecote Manor in the Cotswolds.

What factors destroyed the once-close relationship between Cornish twins Adele and Amelia as they came of age in the war-torn 1940s?  The answers are left to their descendants to find out.

This creepy historical novel set in the post-WWII Welsh countryside features two young women facing hard times, a mansion reputed to be haunted, and horrifying secrets from the past.

In this atmospheric historical Gothic set in the Norfolk Broads in the early 19th century, a young woman facing destitution encounters a mysterious stranger in the marshes one foggy night.

A historical novelist researching the Jacobites in early 18th-century Scotland discovers unexpected truths in her fictional storyline.  Kearsley, of course, has been writing romantic mysteries with "twin-stranded storylines" (the phrase used for her HNS conference workshop on the topic) for over 20 years, so newcomers to her work have an extensive backlist to investigate.

A novel of reincarnation, layers of folk memory, and a mysteriously possessive form of love that stretches back through many centuries of English country history.

In 1950s West Virginia, Olivia VanBibber and her brother bring a plate of their great-aunt's fried chicken to a newly arrived stranger and get pulled unexpectedly into a haunting genealogical mystery.

Rett MacPherson has also written the Torie O'Shea contemporary mystery series, many of which feature family secrets (my favorite is The Blood Ballad, which is as creepy as all get-out).

A decrepit, isolated mansion in Scotland's Outer Hebrides, a woman with an unexpected inheritance, and a skeleton whose presence unearths a mystery about Muirlan House's former inhabitants.

What happened in the grisly cellar in Poet's Cottage in remote Tasmania eighty years ago? Australian writer Josephine Pennicott writes Gothic mysteries with a bohemian edge.

In 1924, the death of her uncle Toby, a ghost hunter, compels an Oxford student to travel to Rothewell, a small town by the sea, to investigate what happened. Readers of St. James's novels may find an occasional ghost or two within the pages.

Three of Katherine Webb's novel have been published in the US, and she's continued to write others for the UK market, including this one. The Misbegotten is an evocative period Gothic set in Bath in 1821, opening with a young woman seeing eerie portents on her wedding day.

A secret room in an elegant Gilded Age mansion, a portrait, and a ruby necklace are linked through three generations of women in this smoothly written, multi-period Gothic by a trio of popular authors.

Monday, September 04, 2017

A woman's Arctic adventures: Stef Penney's Under a Pole Star

Exhilarating in its scope and imagery, Penney’s third novel, after The Invisible Ones (2012), conjures the adventurous spirit of the late nineteenth century, when the remote frozen North compelled the daring and ambitious.

Flora Mackie, a Dundee whaling-captain’s daughter, spends much of her adolescence above the Arctic Circle, via her father’s ship, and feels most comfortable there. Her tale unfolds alongside that of Jakob de Beyn, who comes of age in fin de siècle New York. When they first meet, in northwestern Greenland in 1892, she’s a serious-minded meteorologist leading a British expedition, while he has joined a rival American party as a geologist.

Their unspoken attraction later blooms into a complicated love affair, relayed with candid intimacy. Competition for new discoveries leads to heightened tensions, and a mystery emerges after a tragedy occurs and suspicions of deceit arise.

Serious issues like gender bias and exploitation are adeptly handled, and the icy Arctic setting comes alive in passages of shimmering beauty. Penney conveys both the elation and fear evoked when crossing into unfamiliar territory, be it geographical or emotional. She also delves into the customs and beliefs of the Inuit, whose generous hospitality to the Westerners is indispensable. An exceptional epic about an unconventional woman’s life and loves.

Stef Penney's Under a Pole Star is published tomorrow in the US by Quercus in hardcover and ebook (608pp). I wrote this (starred) review for Booklist's August issue.

Over the years (I've been reviewing for them since 2005) my editors have sent me quite a few historical epics on the topic of world explorers, the harsh environments they endure, and their relationships with the indigenous peoples of the lands to which they travel. Some others include:

Brian Doyle, The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World, which I thoroughly enjoyed; sadly, Doyle passed away this past June.

Oscar Hijuelos' Twain and Stanley Enter Paradise, the author's posthumous novel.

Naomi J. Williams' Landfalls, about the ill-fated La Perouse maritime expedition.

James Morrow's Galapagos Regained, literary satire set in 19th-century South America.

Each is different in style and approach.  Although historical adventure isn't a subgenre to which I'm naturally drawn, I've been impressed with many individual books within it, including Under a Pole Star. Don't be dissuaded by the length, either!  The story moves along quickly.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Carol McGrath's The Woman in the Shadows, a novel about a little-known Tudor woman

This is a lovely read about the little-known wife of a famous man. It’s also an illuminating portrait of their marriage, showing how a clever woman of independent spirit navigates her relationship with a husband who controls the purse-strings and makes all major decisions… and whose wishes she must frequently heed.

In addition, The Woman in the Shadows presents a detail-rich portrait of a merchant household in Henry VIII’s England. Two years ago on this blog, I wrote a post entitled Tudor Fiction Without the Famous, and this novel fits (even though it does have one very well-known character).

The heroine is Elizabeth Williams, nee Wykes, a 23-year-old widow in London of 1513. Following her husband’s untimely death, she decides to take over his cloth business – it was her father’s trade as well – but runs into obstacles, for her fellow tradespeople and even her own servants, at least at first, resent her taking a prominent role in a man’s world. Her father wants to see her return home and remarry, but Elizabeth has other plans – like traveling up to the Northampton Cloth Fair and running a stall there herself.

Readers will find themselves absorbing significant detail on the cloth trade, including fabric types, arrangements to import materials from the continent, and the sumptuary laws regulating the colors and apparel types that different classes are permitted to wear.

Elizabeth’s life changes after she reconnects with a childhood acquaintance, Thomas Cromwell, a lawyer who had served as her father’s middleman overseas. In contrast to another, less pleasant suitor, Elizabeth finds Thomas kind and protective, a reliable potential husband. For the sake of love, something Elizabeth doesn’t really expect in a marriage, she gives up her role as solo businesswoman. Although their relationship is warm and loving, for the most part, Elizabeth sometimes chafes at the sacrifices she must make as the wife of an upwardly mobile man whose increasing political prominence makes her uneasy. The novel’s focus is domestic; none of it takes place at court. Elizabeth sometimes comments on royal happenings and worries that Thomas’s attachment to statesman Thomas Wolsey will lead to danger.

As Elizabeth’s family grows, dramatic subplots involve the repercussions of a secret from her first marriage, another housewife’s spiteful jealousy, the growing influence of the “new learning,” and a surprising revelation about Thomas himself. Although the novel intimates what Thomas Cromwell’s family life may have been like, this isn’t just a “woman behind the famous man” novel; the author shows us that Elizabeth’s story is noteworthy in itself.

The Woman in the Shadows was published by Accent Press in August in trade paperback and ebook. Thanks to the publisher for sending me an advance copy.  For more information on how the author crafted the novel out of the limited facts about Elizabeth and her family, see Carol McGrath's article "The Woman in the Shadows."

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Women's power through the ages: A Secret History of Witches by Louisa Morgan

Fans of Gothic historical sagas should be drawn to this multi-generational novel about a family of Breton witches whose talents descend through the female line.

Of the six granddaughters of Ursule Orchière, a Romani woman who dies saving her clan from witch-hunters, only Nanette, the youngest, proves to have inherited her magic.  In 1821, Nanette and her sisters flee France for a farm in Cornwall, where they work the land and live in seclusion to avoid unwanted attention.

The story tumbles down through the next hundred years, covering the journeys of Nanette’s daughter, also named Ursule, then Irène, Morwen, and finally Veronica as they come into their heritage in adolescence and carve out paths in a world that would shun them, or worse, if their secrets became known.

In the beginning, the historical backdrop is lightly sketched, while the male characters serve little purpose other than to act as vicious antagonists or, alternately, father the women’s children. As the story continues, the plotlines become stronger, likewise the romantic tension; the history also becomes more paramount. (Even so, the story involving Veronica’s wartime contributions is over the top.) Not all the women are sympathetic, which keeps things fresh and unpredictable.

Although most of the manifestations of their power, like spell-casting and scrying, aren’t unusual for fantasy fiction, Morgan incorporates some creative touches, such as their diverse animal familiars, and the grimoire written in a version of French so archaic it requires translation.

Even more compelling than the magic are the five heroines’ differing reactions to their abilities and their relationships with those from earlier generations. Morgan also depicts with visceral impact the roles of women in a male-centered world, and the dangers faced by anyone who doesn’t adhere to prevailing religious beliefs.

A Secret History of Witches will be published on September 5th by RedHook; thanks to the publisher for approving my NetGalley access. Louisa Morgan is a pseudonym for Louise Marley, who writes historical fantasy and science fiction under her own name; she has also written a series of historical sagas set in early 20th-century Seattle as Cate Campbell.