Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Looking back on 2014: A dozen excellent historical reads

This is another of those "favorite books" posts that have been springing up on numerous blogs at the end of the year.  I thought about coming up with 10, but that was too difficult, so I decided on a dozen and choosing even those was a challenge.

According to Goodreads, I read 109 books during 2014, and most were strong, good-looking, and above average.  A fair many were excellent, and if I thought about my picks even more, I might have come up with a different list.  These are all books I read during the last year, even if they were published earlier, or will be published later.

I found it interesting to see there isn't much overlap with the Goodreads list for Best Historical Fiction, as voted on by readers.  I've read only five of the 20 finalists, and just two (My Name Is Resolute and Secret Life of Violet Grant) made it to my list.  Another, Emma Donoghue's Frog Music, was outstanding, but I read it as an ARC in 2013. 

Hope you all had a good reading year, and I'm looking forward to the new crop of books in 2015. Thanks for reading along with me.

And now for the list.  The links lead to my reviews of the books, if they exist.

Joseph Boyden, The Orenda (Knopf, 2014). Boyden’s mesmerizing third novel sits at the confluence of three civilizations in 17th-century Ontario: the French, the Iroquois, and the Huron (Wendat). Despite the cultures’ disparate beliefs, the author remains clear-sighted and impartial, and the scenes of Native spirituality are beautifully rendered.

Alix Christie, Gutenberg’s Apprentice (Harper, 2014). This gorgeously written debut, an inspiring tale of ambition, camaraderie, betrayal, and cultural transformation set in the cathedral city of fifteenth-century Mainz, dramatizes the creation of the Gutenberg Bible. I hadn’t heard of Peter Schoeffer or his important historical role before this, and it was a revelation.

Charles Finch, The Laws of Murder (Minotaur, 2014). Set in 1876 London and featuring gentleman detective Charles Lenox as he gets pulled into a Scotland Yard investigation with links to his own past, this stellar mystery is chock full of atmosphere and twisty, dramatic surprises. I jumped into Finch's series with this 8th volume without much trouble.

C. W. Gortner, Mademoiselle Chanel (William Morrow, 2015). Disclaimer: the author is a good friend, and I read this as a manuscript. That said, I honestly feel this is his best novel yet, an engrossing story of 20th-century designer Coco Chanel: her career successes, her love affairs, her hidden vulnerabilities. For those weary of “famous guy’s wife” novels, many of which explore unfulfilled ambitions, this convincing vision of a driven, powerful woman is an ideal antidote.

Alexis Landau, Empire of the Senses (Pantheon, 2015). I’ll be reviewing this later on so won’t say very much about it now. This ARC arrived with little fanfare (plain tan cover, no other material), but I was immediately swept into an absorbing saga about a family of mixed faith living in WWI-era and late 1920s Berlin.

Laurie Loewenstein, Unmentionables (Akashic, 2014). This warmhearted, involving work, situated gracefully in small-town Illinois and overseas during the WWI years, depicts a wide range of social concerns as people's minds are opened to new, previously hidden possibilities.

Rett MacPherson, Sleeping the Churchyard Sleep (Word Posse, 2014). When Olivia VanBibber and her brother bring a plate of their great-aunt’s fried chicken over to the home of a newly arrived stranger, their surprising friendship transforms her world – and eventually pulls her into a genealogical mystery. A warm-hearted, stereotype-free portrait of 1950s West Virginia, and the witty, forthright narrative voice of Olivia (a polio survivor who uses a wheelchair) is irresistible.

Marschel Paul, The Spirit Room (Wasteland Press, 2013). This epic about two teenage sisters’ coming of age in 1850s New York State, set against a vivid backdrop of quirky social fads and dark situations, is a fabulous read for fans of American women’s history. I picked this up on a whim when I was supposed to be reading something else and got drawn right in.

Stephanie Thornton, The Tiger Queens (NAL, 2014). A lengthy, immersive read about the extraordinary women who supported Genghis Khan and strengthened his kingdom. It’s full of fascinating detail about 12th-century Mongolia yet the plot moves forward with unstoppable momentum.

Nancy E. Turner, My Name Is Resolute (St. Martin’s, 2014). Resolute Catherine Eugenia Talbot (a fictional character) reveals the story of her eventful life, from her Jamaican childhood through her involvement in the lead-up to the American Revolution. Full of adventure, romance, and unexpected surprises, her account remains captivating throughout its nearly 600 pages.

Various, A Day of Fire (Knight Media, 2014). Six well-known historical authors – Stephanie Dray, Ben Kane, E. Knight, Sophie Perinot, Kate Quinn, and Vicky Alvear Shecter – got together to collaborate on a high-concept novel set in Pompeii at the time of its destruction in 79 AD. This gets my vote for “most creative.” Their stories interlock perfectly, and if you seek out fiction set in the ancient world, it’s not to be missed.

Beatriz Williams, The Secret Life of Violet Grant (Putnam, 2014). A dual-period novel – you might call it a historical mystery-thriller-romance – set in WWI-era Oxford and Berlin and also in 1960s Manhattan. The cheeky, whip-smart voice of Vivian Schuyler, a young woman caught up in solving the mystery of her the great-aunt she never knew, won me over completely.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

A look at Kate Sedley's The Christmas Wassail

Although December 25th has come and gone, Kate Sedley’s The Christmas Wassail still made for a timely read after the holidays.  It’s set in and around Bristol, England, opening on the day before Christmas Eve in the year 1483 and wrapping up after Epiphany, or Twelfth Night.

All of the religious observations and traditional folk customs held over the twelve days of Christmas are included, which creates a rich cultural atmosphere. On Christmas Day, Roger the Chapman, his wife, and their blended family of four children attend three separate masses. There’s much merriment and drinking of “lamb’s wool” as people travel from house to house during their wassailing, and a group of mummers has come to town to perform.

Amid all the activity, including his investigation of a growing number of murders (since this is a mystery, after all), Roger is charged with finding a suitably large Yule log and keeping it burning for nearly a fortnight.

The crime aspect is introduced through the stabbing death of a city alderman who was a good friend of the wealthy Sir George Marvell, an ornery old man with a healthy libido and a multitude of family problems. Roger finds the victim right before he dies and hears his puzzling last word.

To the dismay of his wife, Adela, Roger has the habit of getting drawn into solving murders, both in Bristol itself and on his many peddling excursions around the countryside. It’s the second marriage for both of them, and their loving but sometimes acrimonious banter is fun to watch. Strong-willed, efficient Adela runs a tight household, or would, if Roger wasn’t away so much, meeting with friends in his favorite tavern or following wherever his curiosity leads him. Roger’s past service on behalf of the Duke of Gloucester, now Richard III, has helped his family rise in the world, so she can’t resent his work too much.

Although The Christmas Wassail is the 22nd (!) volume in the Roger the Chapman series, I didn’t feel disoriented. Enough backstory is provided so that the characters’ relationships are clear. The occasional reference to specific events from earlier volumes flew over my head, but that wasn’t a big deal. There’s enough detail on late medieval life to satisfy historical fiction readers, even those who don’t seek out mysteries. The book was published last year, and so far it marks Roger’s last appearance in fiction, which makes me wonder if there will be any others.  Kate Sedley (a pseudonym) also wrote many novels set in the Middle Ages as Brenda Honeyman and Brenda Clarke, her maiden and married names.

The Christmas Wassail appeared from Severn House in 2013 ($29.95 hb, $9.99 ebook).  I read it from a library copy, and wrote this review on my trip back to Illinois after spending Christmas in Orlando with my in-laws.  Hope you're all having a nice holiday season!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Book review: Jane Austen's First Love by Syrie James

As you can guess from the title, this gently and lovingly told novel imagines young Jane Austen’s first experience with romance, but I would have picked it up for the setting alone. An invitation to spend the summer of 1791 amid fine company at a grand manor in the English countryside was hard to resist.

Fifteen-year-old Jane adores her siblings, including sister Cassandra and brother Edward – who had the good fortune to be adopted by wealthy relatives, and whose upcoming marriage to Elizabeth Bridges, a baronet’s daughter, will serve him well socially. In June, several family groups gather to celebrate their engagement, as well as that of Elizabeth’s sister Fanny. Goodnestone Park in Kent, the ancestral home of the Bridges family, is the center of all the festivities, which include balls, a strawberry-picking excursion, and other distracting pastimes.

Jane, who hasn’t yet “come out” into society (but who has her family's permission to socialize with others within this small group), can’t help but be awed by Edward Taylor, the Bridges’ handsome neighbor. Although he’s only a year older, Mr. Taylor has a wide range of life experiences and has hobnobbed with European nobility. Most of Jane’s knowledge of the wider world comes from book-learning, but her powers of observation are sharp even as a sheltered teenager.

The scenarios that play out at Goodnestone are the author’s invention, though James has ensured that her characters’ backgrounds and personalities reflect the historical evidence. Jane’s growing affections for Edward in the novel are based on a few sentences in letters the author wrote to her sister, referring to Edward Taylor as a man with “beautiful dark eyes” upon whom she “had once fondly doated.”

Her irrepressible and impetuous wit is well evident in James’s writing, which follows Jane at a critical juncture in her young life, a time when she learns for herself not to rely on outer appearances.  Beyond the sweet romance, some deeper issues are touched upon, such as the importance of individuality, the serious meaning behind silly fashion trends, and the inner struggle between ambitions that are achievable and those that aren’t.

Although I found the scenes involving the young people’s amateur theatrics to be too drawn out, I enjoyed this lighthearted excursion into a beloved author’s enigmatic past. It’s especially recommended for fans of Austen-themed fiction and country house sagas.

Jane Austen's First Love was published by Berkley in September (trade paperback, $16.00/Can$18.00, 384pp).

Thursday, December 18, 2014

What’s in a Name? Prostitution in Shakespeare’s England, a guest post by Sam Thomas

Sam Thomas is back with a yet another entertaining post marking the paperback release of The Harlot’s Tale, the second book in the Midwife Mystery series. This essay, the second of two, deals with prostitutes in Shakespearean times; his first post, from Tuesday, detailed how he researched their trade in early modern England.

The first book in the series, The Midwife’s Tale is currently available as an E-book for $2.99. (The link is to Amazon, but it’s available in other formats as well. Click here for more buying options.)


What’s in a Name? Prostitution in Shakespeare’s England
Sam Thomas

As in so many matters touching on the darker side of human behavior, the language of prostitution included all manner of synonyms and euphemisms for the simple word “prostitute.” There was meretrix (from the Latin), putain (French), strumpet, whore, stew (from the infamous brothels, known as “stews of Rome”), quean (or, in many cases, abominable quean!), and harlot.

When I started writing The Harlot’s Tale, I had no idea what I would call it. It was pretty clear that it would be Somebody’s Tale, but whose? I ran through a number of possibilities, most of which had the down-side of hinting at (or announcing!) the identity of the killer. I didn’t want to do this, because Rule #1 of Mystery Writing is: “Do not give away the identity of the killer in the title of your book.”

I ultimately settled on The Harlot’s Tale, both because I liked the Biblical feel of the word, and because the book is set in the aftermath of the Puritan capture of the city of York, when the godly were riding high. But as I did more research on prostitution in medieval and early modern England, names for individual prostitutes came to light, and it turns out that these individuals could be quite creative in establishing pseudonyms.

The first I discovered was "Spanish Jane," who – you will not be surprised to learn – was in no way Spanish. More alarming was "Claire Clatterbollocks." (If you are unfamiliar with the term ‘bollocks’ they are a rather coarse term for a man’s delicate bits.) Finally, there was a sex-worker whose given name was John Rykener, but worked under the name "Eleanor." The historical record is regrettably silent on the question of what John/Eleanor’s clients thought they were getting for their money! 


Sam Thomas is the author of The Midwife Mysteries.  To win a copy of The Harlot’s Tale, leave a comment on this page, head over to his Facebook page, or send him an email. For more information on the history and mystery of midwifery, visit Sam’s website.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Brothels and Bawds in Shakespeare’s England: A guest post by Sam Thomas

Sam Thomas is visiting Reading the Past with two linked guest posts to celebrate the paperback release of The Harlot’s Tale, the second book in the Midwife Mysteries series. This essay covers brothels in Shakespearean England, and on Thursday, Sam will have a second post about the women who worked there.  As it happens, the first book in the series, The Midwife’s Tale (a book I very much enjoyed reading), is currently available as an e-book for $2.99 (see the author's website for some buying options). The Harlot's Tale is published in paperback today by Minotaur ($16.99, 336pp).


Brothels and Bawds in Shakespeare’s England
Sam Thomas

When I began work on the second book in the Midwife Mysteries series, I needed a hook. It would be a mystery, it would feature Bridget Hodgson and her butt-kicking assistant Martha Hawkins, but what would it be about?

As the title indicates, The Harlot’s Tale focuses on sex and sin and is thus right up Bridget’s alley: When it comes to these subjects, who knows more than a midwife?

The next step in writing the book was to learn as much as I could about the business of prostitution in early modern England – and what a fascinating world it turned out to be! In a few days I’ll have a post about bawds over on English Historical Fiction Authors, and here I’d like to share what I learned about the brothels.

Despite their (deservedly!) seedy reputation, many English brothels had wealthy and respected owners behind the scenes. Queen Elizabeth’s cousin, Lord Hunsdon, owned several brothels, as did several well-known actors from the Elizabethan stage. This is not terribly surprising given the links between prostitution and the theatre; as we shall see, theatres and brothels lived cheek by jowl! More remarkable was that for centuries brothels outside London were under the control of the Bishop of Winchester. This was so well known that prostitutes became known as “Winchester geese.”

Many of London’s brothels were found not in the city itself, but across the Thames in the Southwark neighborhood. For centuries, Southwark operated as a sort of Las Vegas, satisfying Londoners’ less acceptable desires, and existing just beyond the reach of city officials. The south bank of the Thames features both brothels and theatres, cementing in many minds the connection between the two. Some brothels also doubled as alehouses, and one in Essex featured a common drinking vessel crafted to look like – er, there’s no good way to say this – a man’s sexual organs.

The question this raises is why brothels were tolerated at all. Other than rank hypocrisy, why would the Bishops of Winchester put their imprimatur on such a sinful business? It turns out that in the early modern world, brothels – and places like Southwark more broadly – were seen as necessary outlets for London’s sins.

Many commentators compared brothels to sewers and cesspools, but not in an entirely negative way. We may not like the smell of sewers, but they do us a service. In the same way, places like Southwark drew sins away from the city, and without them the city would become contaminated. They were, in short, a necessary evil.

The Harlot’s Tale is set in York rather than London, so I could not send Bridget off to Southwark – Spoiler alert: that will be in a later book! – but I did my best with the history I had at hand, and hope you will enjoy reading about it!


Sam Thomas is the author of The Midwife Mysteries from Minotaur/St.Martin's. The third book in the series, The Witch Hunter’s Tale, will be released on January 6, 2015. For more on midwifery and childbirth, visit his website.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Dinner with Jane, Charlotte, and Will: A guest post by Syrie James

In today's guest post, Syrie James, a longtime fan of British literature and the author of many historical novels set in the 19th century, reflects on an imaginary dinner conversation with three of her favorite authors.  There's a Jane Austen-themed giveaway, too, open internationally to anyone who leaves a comment.  See details at the end.


Dinner with Jane, Charlotte, and Will

I was having lunch with a friend the other day and she asked me, totally out of the blue, “If you could dine with any three authors in history, who would you choose?” It isn’t the kind of question you expect to be asked while chatting about life and family and books in the courtyard of a really cute café over ahi tuna salads, and I promptly replied, “You mean I can only pick three? Out of all the literary greats in history? That’s harsh.” But I was game. I gave it a go.

“I guess I’d love to sit down for a bite and a chat with Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and William Shakespeare,” I told her. Now, this was a really good friend who had read (mostly) all of my books, so she didn’t have to ask “Why Jane and Charlotte?”—I mean, she knew. She knew how much I admire them both. She knew I’d studied them for years, have read everything they’ve ever written (including their juvenilia and poetry, which in Charlotte’s case is a lot), and have written novels about them from their points of view. She knew how excited I’d been to go to their homes in England, as well as many of the places they’d visited (and in Charlotte’s case, one of her schools.) So what my friend said (and this endeared me to her even more) was:

“Great choices. How awesome would it be if we had a time machine and could transport them all to your house for dinner tonight! If we did, what would you say to them?”

“Well, after I recovered from the shock of seeing them in person,” I said, “I’d thank them for the wonderful books and plays they wrote, which have so enriched my life and the lives of others. Then I’d fill them in on how incredibly popular and famous they’ve become over the past two hundred years. I’m sure they’d be astonished—and proud.”

“If you showed them the nearly endless variety of film versions of their novels and plays, it would blow their minds. And as for Jane and Charlotte, they’d love the books you’ve written about them—I mean, as them.”

“I hope so.” I went briefly quiet. “It was so important to me to get that right—to emulate Jane’s and Charlotte’s voices as closely as possible in my novels, and to honor their spirit, their courage, and their accomplishments. I hope they’d feel that I portrayed them accurately.”

“I’m sure they would,” my friend said, smiling.

“It’s so much fun to climb into their heads, view the world from their perspective, and bring them to life on the page,” I replied with enthusiasm. “But to see them in person! I have so many questions. I’d love to ask Jane about her mysterious seaside romance. I’d love to learn more about Edward Taylor, the remarkable young man who she adored in her youth, and who I wrote about in my new novel Jane Austen’s First Love.”

“What would you ask Charlotte Brontë?”

“Where do I start? I’d ask her about Mr. Nicholls, who loved her for eons before he had the nerve to propose. I’d love to chat about her brilliant sisters, Emily and Anne. It astonishes me that these three sisters who lived in the wilds of Yorkshire and didn’t have a single connection in the literary world, managed to get published at the same time, and wrote Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, two of the most beloved novels in the English language. That journey is what inspired me to write The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë.”

“One of my favorite books,” my friend said. Suddenly she added: “Wait, would it be a problem to put Jane and Charlotte in the same room together? Didn’t Charlotte make several unflattering remarks about Austen’s work?”

I laughed. “Yes, she did. She also said a few nice things, but nobody remembers that. Still, there’s a good chance that sparks would fly—like in the play I did.” (I’ve had the honor of playing Jane Austen in a theater piece written by Diana Birchall. You can watch a video highlights reel here.)

“But let’s not forget Shakespeare,” I added. “He would round out the conversation at this dinner table, and could mediate those sparks. Let’s face it: he was the greatest literary genius of all time.”

“Unless, of course, he didn’t actually write those plays himself,” my friend pointed out.

“I’d love to pick his brain and learn the truth, once and for all!” I replied, as I finished my iced tea. “What fun it would be to tell all three of these incredibly talented writers about their legacies. What a fascinating evening of conversation it would make. Just think: I’d get enough material to keep me busy writing books for a lifetime!”

Readers, what famous people from the past would you like to have dinner with, and why? 


In the summer of 1791, fifteen-year-old Miss Jane Austen is determined to accomplish three things: to do something useful, write something worthy, and fall madly in love. While visiting at Goodnestone Park in Kent for a month of festivities in honor of her brother's engagement to Miss Elizabeth Bridges, Jane meets the boy-next-door—the wealthy, worldly, and devilishly handsome Edward Taylor, heir to Bifrons Park, and hopefully her heart! Like many of Jane’s future heroes and heroines, she soon realizes that there are obstacles—social, financial, and otherwise—blocking her path to love and marriage, one of them personified by her beautiful and sweet tempered rival, Charlotte Payler.

Unsure of her own budding romance, but confident in her powers of observation, Jane distracts herself by attempting to maneuver the affections of three other young couples. But when her well-intentioned matchmaking efforts turn into blundering misalliance, Jane must choose between following her own happily-ever-after, or repairing those relationships which, based on erroneous first impressions, she has misaligned.


Syrie James, hailed as “the queen of nineteenth century re-imaginings” by Los Angeles Magazine, is the bestselling author of nine critically acclaimed novels that have been translated into 18 languages. Her books have been awarded the Audio Book Association Audie, designated as Editor’s Picks by Library Journal, named a Discover Great New Writer’s Selection by Barnes and Noble, a Great Group Read by the Women’s National Book Association, and Best Book of the Year by The Romance Reviews and Suspense Magazine. Syrie is a member of the WGA and lives in Los Angeles. Please visit her at, Facebook or say hello on Twitter @SyrieJames.


Win One of Five Fabulous Jane Austen-inspired Prize Packages

To celebrate the holidays and the release of Jane Austen's First Love, Syrie is giving away five prize packages filled with an amazing selection of Jane Austen-inspired gifts and books! 

To enter the giveaway contest, simply leave a comment on any of the blog stops on the Jane Austen's First Love Holiday Blog Tour.

Increase your chances of winning by visiting multiple stops along the tour! Syrie's unique guest posts will be featured on a variety of subjects, along with fun interviews, spotlights, excerpts, and reviews of the novel. Contest closes at 11:59pm PT, December 21, 2014. Five lucky winners will be drawn at random from all of the comments on the tour, and announced on Syrie’s website on December 22, 2014. The giveaway contest is open to everyone, including international residents. Good luck to all!

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Downstairs Maid by Rosie Clarke, an early 20th-century romantic saga

The author’s biography says she “has penned over one hundred novels under different pseudonyms.” A little research reveals that Rosie Clarke is the newest pen name for novelist Linda Sole. Spanning 1907 through WWI, her latest is a comfortable read in the romantic saga mold.

Emily Carter is the much-loved daughter of a farmer and secondhand goods salesman living near the English market town of Ely. Though times are hard, she tries to remain upbeat but must contend with her resentful mother and lecherous uncle, a classic villain. Although the blurb promises a Downton Abbey-style experience, the plot goes beyond this description. A full third takes place before Emily goes into service at nearby Priorsfield Manor to pay for her sick father’s medical expenses. This provides a more complete picture of Emily as a person.

At a social event, Emily shares a dance with Nicolas Barton, the younger grandson of Lady Prior of Priorsfield, and makes a strong impression on him (and vice versa) despite her tawdry homemade dress and unfashionable boots. He continues to admire her even after she applies to work at his home. The novel realistically shows Emily’s adjustment to her place of employment – the ornate and old-fashioned décor, the women’s beautiful gowns, her amazement at the family’s rich meals – and her accompanying loss of independence. She makes friends there and moves up in status over time.

Included periodically are the viewpoints of the two Barton daughters: beautiful, snobbish Amy, who has more depth than first appears; and kindly Lizzie, who loves Austen’s novels as well as her sister’s beau. The action unfolds against a backdrop of changing social attitudes and the encroaching specter of war. Despite the author’s tendency to repeat facts and an overabundance of soap opera drama in the last 50 pages, this is an appealing story.

The Downstairs Maid was published by Ebury in 2014 (£5.99, paperback, 445pp).  This review first appeared in November's Historical Novels Review and is based on a personal purchase.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

The May Bride by Suzannah Dunn, an uncommon Tudor wife novel

Suzannah Dunn’s latest novel is narrated by Jane Seymour, the unassuming maid of honor who became the third of Henry VIII’s six queens. That said, if you’re hoping to read a standard tale about political scheming and juicy scandals at the treacherous royal court, head elsewhere.

The May Bride is refreshingly unlike most fiction of the Tudor wife variety. It’s a quieter sort of tale, at least on the surface, and it moves along at a leisurely pace. (In an interview, the author said – maybe in jest, maybe not – that her biggest challenge in writing it was staying awake.)

Dunn knows what she’s doing, though. Her character-centered story is full of sharp yet subtle observations that keep readers alert to the shifting relationships among her characters – even when her young, innocent heroine doesn’t notice them herself.

As the eldest daughter among the eight living children of Sir John and Margery Seymour of Wolf Hall in Wiltshire, Jane is a sensible, introverted teenager who doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty. The Seymours are of the gentry, with servants to help them out, but everyone gets involved in keeping the estate running. Jane’s days are spent in domestic pursuits: embroidery, laundry, mending her brothers’ torn clothes, gathering fruit for jam, making pastry in the kitchen. One highlight for the Seymours is their twice-yearly trek to the fair at Great Bedwyn.

The novel offers many scenes showing these aspects of country life, and the details are fascinating. In fact, you’ll find it easy to forget all about Jane’s illustrious marriage, still years in the future, because it seems so unlikely.

Although everything is seen through Jane’s eyes, the plot’s focus is actually Katherine Filliol, her older brother Edward’s golden bride, a local heiress who makes her entrance while “fresh as a daisy in her buttercup silk.” Katherine’s cheery, casually lighthearted ways enchant her in-laws, Jane in particular, and they become good friends at first. As time passes, it becomes clear that Edward and his wife are horribly mismatched. His accusation, several years into their union, that she was unfaithful to him with his father shocks them all.

This is the same incident that runs through the background of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, of course, but here it’s explored in depth. In imagining the lead-up to this rumored episode, The May Bride tells an affecting story about the sidelining of women and a family torn apart in the aftermath of a dreadful mistake. And finally, although the final segments set at court feel a bit muddled with their multiple time-shifts, it provides a believable context for Jane Seymour’s unanticipated rise in status.

The May Bride was published in November by Pegasus ($25.95, hardcover, 308pp). The UK publisher is Little, Brown. Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy.

Monday, December 01, 2014

The Public Gaze: A guest post by S.K. Rizzolo, author of Die I Will Not

Today S.K. Rizzolo is here with an entertaining post about political scandals, early 19th-century style.  Die I Will Not, third in her Regency mystery series, was published in November by Poisoned Pen Press (279pp, $14.95 pb/$24.95 hb).


The Public Gaze
S.K. Rizzolo

Nowadays we are all too familiar with living under the public gaze, but this phenomenon is not new. Set in 1813 London, my novel Die I Will Not explores royal scandal, early 19th-century journalism, and dirty politics. As I researched these topics, I became fascinated by the idea of individuals struggling to preserve their privacy under the ubiquitous modern gaze—a gaze feeding voracious scandals that often refuse to die. Perhaps in our own era of 24-hour news cycles trumpeting the latest brouhaha, readers can relate.

I learned that “spin” is by no means a modern concept. It was common in Regency England to insert a “squib,” a short, satirical paragraph, in the papers to lampoon one’s enemies, or one could purchase a “puff,” extravagant praise designed to polish up one’s image. The royals were not immune from this scramble for positive press. Indeed, the Prince Regent (later George IV), who was very sensitive to public perception, often sent his secretary Colonel McMahon to the newspapers to bribe or browbeat the editors into withholding or publishing information.

No one experienced the glare of scrutiny more relentlessly than the unpopular Regent and his detested wife Caroline. Both sought to manage their reputations in “the public mind,” and I would argue that both ultimately failed, though, as we shall see, Caroline scored some notable triumphs over her husband. My character Penelope Wolfe also struggles with scandal and a tarnished reputation, at one point waking “to find herself notorious.” Penelope is the daughter of a radical philosopher suspected of treason and murder. She is also the target of sly innuendos about her rocky marriage to a spendthrift artist as well as her relationships to my other sleuths, barrister Edward Buckler and Bow Street Runner John Chase. I found it interesting to parallel her experiences to Caroline’s: two women, two “injured mothers” attacked in the press for a presumed loss of virtue.

In Caroline’s case, the Prince had instituted an inquiry into her conduct, which came to be known as the “Delicate Investigation.” Well, it’s hard to imagine anything less “delicate” because the agents were busy interviewing her reputed lovers and accusing Caroline of having borne an illegitimate child. The investigators even grilled the poor woman’s laundry maid and other servants to find out what she’d been up to. But in the end the Regent’s attempt to divorce his wife had failed when she was cleared of the primary charge. Her defender Spencer Perceval summed up what may have been the general view at the time: “I believe the princess to be playful, and incautiously witty, in her deportment; but I prefer that to secret intrigue and infamous practices." In other words, she had become the sympathetic victim of her royal husband’s scheming. One hack writer even made her the heroine of a Gothic romance.

This Cruikshank caricature depicts George and Caroline as the plump green bags that contained the evidence collected against Caroline in preparation for her trial in the House of Lords.   As the caption aptly puts it, “Ah! sure such a pair was never seen so justly form’d to meet by nature.”  One notices, however, that George is rather more rotund than Caroline.

So the nasty scandal that erupted in the spring of 1813 was only the latest salvo in a long-running war between Caroline and George—but this time she fired the first shot. Despite having earned a somewhat qualified verdict of innocence in the Delicate Investigation of 1806, Caroline’s contact with her daughter Charlotte, heiress to the throne, continued to be restricted. In response, Caroline wrote the Regent a letter, and when he declined to read it, she sent this letter to the newspapers, sparking a national uproar. The “Regent’s Valentine,” published on February 10, 1813, masqueraded as an appeal to her husband’s better nature but was actually a wily move on Caroline’s part to drum up public support. By the way, Henry Brougham, the opposition lawyer and politician, was said to have composed this letter for Caroline—for, of course, the Regent’s political enemies, Whigs and radicals alike, were all too eager to make use of his domestic discord for their own purposes. Excerpts from the letter were even printed on commemorative china!

When the furor finally subsided, Caroline was the undisputed victor in the publicity battle, the Times having declared her “complete innocence” and the Lord Mayor having organized a proclamation and procession in her honor (according to one source, “the Prince Regent, foaming with impotent rage, found it convenient to go out of town that day”). Amid rumors that he had been planning to revive the Delicate Investigation in yet another vindictive attack on his wife, he essentially slunk away in shame. But by 1814 Caroline had left England for the Continent, where she shocked Europe by frolicking with her Italian servant Bartolomeo Pergami, before returning to England in 1820 to face divorce proceedings in the House of Lords. She beat her husband this time too. After passing the Lords, the divorce bill was abandoned because of the enormous public outcry in her favor. Sadly, Caroline died a few weeks later after trying and failing to storm Westminster Abbey in order to join her husband’s coronation.

And what has been history’s verdict? Dr. Steven Parissien titles his article for the BBC “George IV: A Royal Joke” and quotes from an obituary, which states, “At an age when generous feelings are usually predominant, we find him absorbed by an all-engrossing selfishness, not merely careless of the feelings of others but indulging in wanton cruelty.” Though George is often acknowledged as a patron of the arts, his poor reputation has refused to die, echoing down the centuries, labeling him bloated, dissolute, profligate, and ungrateful. How’s that for an image problem? And though I think that Caroline has fared better under the public gaze, probably because she figures as a persecuted woman, she too has image problems. With some justice, she is often said to have been vulgar, smelly, and promiscuous. I’ve often wondered why anyone could wish for immortality when so often one is left with mud all over one’s face. I wonder too how many of our own 21st-century scandals will live on to become the subject of historical novels.


S.K. Rizzolo is a longtime Anglophile and history enthusiast. An English teacher, Rizzolo has earned an M.A. in literature. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter. Set in Regency England, The Rose in the Wheel, Blood for Blood, and Die I Will Not are the three titles in Rizzolo’s series about a Bow Street Runner, an unconventional lady, and a melancholic barrister.

About Die I Will Not: Unhappy wife and young mother Penelope Wolfe fears scandal for her family and worse. A Tory newspaper editor has been stabbed while writing a reply to the latest round of letters penned by the firebrand Collatinus. Twenty years before, her father, the radical Eustace Sandford, also wrote as Collatinus before he fled London just ahead of accusations of treason and murder—a mysterious beauty closely connected to Sandford and known only as N.D. had been brutally slain. Now the seditious new Collatinus letters that attack the Prince Regent in the press seek to avenge N.D.’s death and unmask her murderer. What did the dead editor know that provoked his death? Her artist husband Jeremy being no reliable ally, Penelope turns anew to lawyer Edward Buckler and Bow Street Runner John Chase. As she battles public notoriety, Buckler and Chase put their careers at risk to stand behind her and find N.D.’s killer. They pursue various lines of inquiry including a missing memoir, Royal scandal, and the dead editor’s secretive, reclusive wife. As they navigate the dark underbelly of 1813 London among a cast driven by dirty politics and dark passions, as well as by decency and a desire for justice, past secrets and present criminals are exposed, upending Penelope’s life and the lives of others.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Book review: A Day of Fire: A Novel of Pompeii

Confession: I’ve read A Day of Fire twice. The first time, I breezed through the pages, gripped by each individual storyline, their multidimensional characters, and the collective whole. For the second round, I paid more attention to the structure, thinking about what a detailed process it must have been to put together. Because it really has been very carefully assembled, and the result is impressive.

Six well-known historical authors – Stephanie Dray, Ben Kane, E. Knight, Sophie Perinot, Kate Quinn, and Vicky Alvear Shecter – got together to collaborate on a high-concept novel set in Pompeii. Separately and together, they evoke the lives of a large cast of characters during the lead-up to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that destroyed the port city in 79 AD.

Within their six interlocking stories, the people come from different walks of life and across the social spectrum: an earnest young man, a Roman senator, a young woman of wealth, a former soldier, an expectant mother, her proud father, and two slaves working in a tavern at the Vesuvian side of town. The way the authors construct their tales, the protagonist of one will appear in many of the others. It allows for a distinctive form of character shaping and progression throughout the entire book. This isn't limited to the main characters; even Cuspius Pansa, the handsome, much-despised aedile (magistrate) of Pompeii, has a satisfying story arc.

Regardless of each person’s status, the personal danger bearing down upon them forces them all to re-evaluate their lives as they fight to escape. Real-life historical suspense doesn’t get more dramatic. Not everyone survives, but because impending peril often elicits courage from deep within, the overall tone isn’t gloomy; rather, the novel works as a celebration of life.

Within most short story anthologies – generally not my preferred format – there are some strong entries and some less memorable ones. There are no weak links in this bunch, though.  A few notes on each:

Vicky Alvear Shecter’s “The Son” was the perfect choice to open the novel, with its youthful tone and portrayal of a young man’s emergence into maturity (complicated and messy, as it always is). My figuring out his historical identity partway through was an added bonus.

“The Heiress” by Sophie Perinot, which sees a privileged young woman torn between a gorgeous bad-boy type and the sensible older man her father wants her to marry, stands out for the thoughtfully realistic transformation of its heroine.

I enjoyed the scene-setting details, camaraderie, and build-up of suspense in Ben Kane’s “The Soldier,” which looks at a military man from a less frequently seen angle: the trying years of near-poverty after his career in the legions has ended.

Kate Quinn’s “The Senator” brought back, to my delight, two characters I’d last met in her standalone novels. Their witty banter kept the action moving along, and it was great to see a take-charge woman getting the job done.

When the heroine of E. Knight’s “The Mother” first appeared, in Vicky Alvear Shecter's "The Son," I had a sinking feeling of where her story would lead. The difference in style between it and the previous segment made the telling feel a bit formal at first, but that soon faded away once the characters' situation became clear. Reading this was a wrenching experience, but it held some surprises, too, in seeing how the members of one family interacted and changed during these all-too-brief moments.

Stephanie Dray’s “The Whore” successfully brings the collection full circle, to a hot-tempered prostitute introduced in the very beginning – and to her spiritually-minded sister, who plays a minor but significant role in several other stories. The grand finale is intense and shattering, and I mentally applauded at the epilogue. Masterfully done.

Throughout the book, readers also see the ongoing development of the most overarching character of all, Mount Vesuvius: the initial earth tremors, the rising cloud of ash and tainted air, the flying missiles of molten rock, the deadly hot flow of lava. Both the big picture and the little details matter here.

Each entry complements and enhances the others and gives you a chance to sample the work of authors you may not have tried before. Although it’s based on the latest archaeological research, no prior knowledge is needed; you’ll experience the last moments of a once-vibrant city just as its people might have done.  If you seek out fiction set in the ancient world, it’s not to be missed.

A Day of Fire was published in October by Knight Media in e-book ($4.99) and trade paperback ($14.99). This review forms part of the blog tour for the book, and there's a giveaway that goes along with it:

To enter to win this beautiful one-of-a-kind Roman style Necklace (18″) and earring set, hand-crafted with real carnelian, and inspired by jewelry of the ancient world, please complete the Rafflecopter giveaway form below. Giveaway is open internationally.

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Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Barefoot Queen by Ildefonso Falcones, a dark portrayal of 18th-century gypsy life

In Falcones’ newest historical epic, set mostly in Andalusia in the mid-eighteenth century, expressions of cultural pride, artistic exuberance, and unlikely love are enclosed within a dark, research-heavy tale of persecution and blood vengeance.

After her former master dies while en route from Havana, Caridad arrives alone in Spain, clearly unused to her new freedom. Her ebony skin quickly attracts unwelcome attention, but she is rescued by Melchor Vega, a Gypsy who draws her into his world of tobacco smuggling in Seville’s Triana district, where she befriends his feisty teenage granddaughter, Milagros. “She sings with the same pain,” Melchor notes, recognizing Caridad as a fellow outcast. The detonation of long-standing family rivalries and a royal mandate demanding the Gypsies’ arrest lead to long separations and heartache as they struggle for their liberty.

Caridad and Milagros are robust characters, both resilient and sensual yet equally powerless in their male-dominated country. Exciting in places, slow and meandering in others, this lengthy novel demands commitment, but its multifaceted look at Gypsy life and morality is vivid and memorable.

The Barefoot Queen will be published by Crown this week in hardcover ($28, 640pp).  Mara Faye Lethem translated it from the original Spanish.  This review first appeared in Booklist's October 15th issue. 

This was the first of Falcones' novels I've read, so I don't have firsthand knowledge of how typical his tone and themes are here (can anyone comment?). There were many segments of dry history, and it was also extremely dark; in particular, the brutal treatment the women experience made it hard to read in places, even though it didn't feel unrealistic for the time and place.  I did appreciate learning about a culture that was new to me, though.

I had just 175 words to encapsulate my thoughts; for additional and more detailed viewpoints, check out Tara's review/rant at Book Babe and Mystica's review at Musings from Sri Lanka.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Lodger by Louisa Treger, a journey into the mind and heart of an unconventional Edwardian woman

Sometimes one can judge a book by its cover. The content of Louisa Treger’s debut is just as exquisitely formed as the luminous jacket art. Dorothy Richardson was an early 20th-century literary star whose innovative stream-of-consciousness style influenced countless others but who is essentially forgotten today – undeservedly so, per Treger, and her thesis is convincing. Tracing Dorothy’s journey to self-recognition, she movingly illustrates both the price and rewards of independence.

In 1906, Dorothy visits her old school friend, Amy Catherine, now married and living with her husband, author H. G. “Bertie” Wells, on the Kentish coast. At their home, Dorothy can temporarily forget her threadbare existence at a boardinghouse in London’s Bloomsbury neighborhood and her dreary secretarial job. Amid this intellectual company, Dorothy feels overwhelmed. Here her conversation is hesitant, but she and the charismatic Bertie clearly share an attraction – which she resists at first but eventually succumbs to, after hearing he supposedly has an open marriage. Then the arrival of a new lodger at the boardinghouse, vibrant suffragette Veronica Leslie-Jones, throws Dorothy’s world into turmoil. Soon she’s fully engulfed in two illicit sexual relationships. As she struggles to balance her competing needs for togetherness and solitude, her literary voice is born.

Through Treger’s sensitive, poetic writing, The Lodger offers a wonderful study in character growth. Haunted by her mother’s suicide and disturbed by her unorthodox desires, Dorothy matures through experience, acknowledging her dual-sided nature and emerging triumphant. Alongside, she comes to recognize the many facets of the city of her heart, London, a place of “terror and beauty, squalor and splendor” where women’s rights are brutally suppressed but whose magnificence at sunset can take her breath away. Also noteworthy is the subtle depiction of the novel’s other female characters, as seen through Dorothy’s eyes. In all, a rich portrait of the times and of an unconventional woman’s interior life.

The Lodger was published in September by Thomas Dunne ($24.99, hardcover, 262pp).  This was one of my Editors' Choice selections from November's Historical Novels Review.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

A long-sought historical novel about a Princess of Monaco finally found

Jennifer Ellis' A Princess Dies is a historical novel that's been on my wishlist for 20 years.  I found mention of it in an early volume of Cumulated Fiction Index, a series of guides to British fiction by subject.  The Graduate Library at the University of Michigan, where I went to library school, owns copies of most CFI volumes (I've since purchased them all for my personal library).  I used to spend hours in their reference room going through these books, jotting down the titles of historical novels about people who sounded interesting.  My special interest was lesser-known members of royal or noble families.

Last month I got an automated email from Abebooks that one of their sellers had a copy.  The price ($40ish) was high but not unreasonable given how hard to find the book is.  I snapped it up, and now it's sitting on my desk.  The condition is pretty good considering the book was published the year I was born.  Thanks to the Cornwall County Library in Truro for withdrawing it from their collection!  From the slip pasted onto the flyleaf, it was last checked out in December 1972.

The novel's subject is Françoise-Thérèse de Choiseul-Stainville, Princesse Joséph de Monaco, who was one of the last victims of the guillotine during the French Revolution.  The book's title (depressing, I know) gives away the ending.  I'm eager to read more about her life in this novelized biography, since you don't read much about the Monegasque royal family in fiction.  It promises to be a different take on a well-known historical event.  Per the blurb, it's based on research that Ellis did in the Archives of the Palace of Monaco and in the Grimaldi family's private papers.  She dedicated her book to Princess Grace, "another lovely but happier Princess of Monaco."

I haven't had the best luck with books I've waited years to read; Sea Change by Robert Goddard (one of my favorite thriller writers) turned out to be a big disappointment, and I wasn't captivated by Diana Norman's Daughter of Lir, either.  So I'm very curious to see how this one turns out.  I see I haven't done any posts in my Reviews of Obscure Books series in a few years, so it's about time for a new one.  I'll report back.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Rainbows on the Moon by Barbara Wood, a lively journey through early Hawaii

The enticing setting for Barbara Wood’s latest entertaining epic, the tropical splendor of old Hawaii, is a strong selling point. Her heroines’ linked stories are tightly woven into the islands’ cultural and political history, and while the narrative is packed with detail, the flowing prose style makes for smooth reading. Her characters grow and change over time, and the light tone doesn’t lessen the impact of the tragedies the Hawaiians experience.

Emily Stone is a new bride who settles at Hilo in 1820 with her priggish missionary husband, Isaac, to minister to the natives and improve their moral standards by eradicating promiscuity and incest. Unhappy with her grass hut of a home and her distant marriage, Emily finds herself attracted to a handsome sea captain who visits on his trade stops. While she makes inroads with educating the people, changing their behavior proves harder than expected. Earnestly devout and set in her ways, Emily is also a compassionate woman who has a tough life, isolated from family and familiar comforts in this lushly verdant, alien land.

The switch over to 1850s Oregon partway through comes as a surprise, but the story loops back to Hawaii soon enough. Anna Barnett is a determined young woman whose passion for nursing leads her to convert to Catholicism, become a nun, and travel to Honolulu, where competent medical care is sorely needed. Her path draws her to the prominent Farrow family, who appear to be cursed. The Hawaiians’ perspective is shown via a powerful chiefess, Pua, and her daughter, Mahina, who struggle to keep their beliefs alive amid rapid industrial development and an ever-shrinking native population. The broken English they speak in dialogue feels overdone and distracting, however. With its adventurous women, island lore, and stunning scenery, this is a lively read for anyone thinking or dreaming of visiting Hawaii.

Rainbows on the Moon was published by Turner this fall in paperback ($21.95, 460pp).  I read it from an Edelweiss e-galley.  This review first appeared in November's Historical Novels Review.

I appreciate Barbara Wood's willingness to venture into less familiar settings in her novels.  Other books of hers which I've reviewed here previously are The Divining, set in the 1st-century Roman world, and Woman of a Thousand Secrets, set in 14th-century Guatemala and Mexico.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Portrait of a Girl by Dörthe Binkert, a historical novel of self-discovery and artistic inspiration

The Hotel Spa Maloja, a ritzy venue high in the Swiss Alps, is the scene for life-changing encounters and romantic entanglements during the summer of 1896. In her uneven but ultimately worthwhile second novel, Binkert sets up an interesting convergence of personalities and social classes, with a vast gap between the wealthy hotel guests, there for a health cure or to photograph the views, and the impoverished, proud locals.

The large cast includes a flirtatious Englishman and his best friend, a young woman with bad lungs, a family of mountain farmers, Italian pastoral painter Giovanni Segantini, and a bitchy American socialite who could have sprung from a Jackie Collins book. The main plotline centers on Nika, a mute stranger with striking strawberry-blond hair who endured a traumatic childhood and who’s searching for her true identity. Readers follow her on her journey of self-discovery, which is alternately helped and impeded by the men who fall in love with her.

I found the novel rough going early on. The translation has some odd phrasings for a historical novel (“he didn’t suck up to people”). The story jumped from viewpoint to viewpoint with abandon, and few people felt distinct. Fortunately, after enough time in the clear mountain air, they and their motives began to sharpen, and the reading became smoother. My interest was also piqued after discovering the novel imagines the backstory of a real painting, Segantini’s La Vanità (which looks nothing like the demure image on the book’s cover!).

Binkert is gifted at describing the beautiful Engadine region and evoking her characters’ deep, swirling emotions. Another strong point is her depiction of a master artist at work in his preferred element, outdoors, where he can mix the perfect palette of colors and “capture the harmony of light.” Overall, a good choice for readers in search of thoughtful escapism.

Portrait of a Girl was published by AmazonCrossing, Amazon's imprint for translated fiction, in September 2014 ($14.99/£8.99/$4.99 ebook).  Margot Bettauer Dembo translated it from the original German.  This review, which first appeared in November's Historical Novels Review, was based on a personal purchase via Kindle First.

And here's Giovanni Segantini's La Vanità, below.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Book review: The Tiger Queens, by Stephanie Thornton

The four protagonists of Stephanie Thornton’s latest book aren’t household names. After reading this magnificent history-based epic, though, readers won’t question why she chose to write about the extraordinary women who supported Genghis Khan and strengthened his kingdom. “These Mongols were fearsome warriors because everything in their lives, from the food to the weather, was raw and harsh,” observes one of them. The sturdiness of character this environment produced wasn’t limited to the men.

The Tiger Queens, beginning in 1171 AD and spanning nearly 80 years on the Mongolian grasslands, is divided into four segments of unequal length, but each heroine’s story is equally valiant.

The first perspective is that of Borte, the promised wife of a young man called Temujin.  She's a young woman born under a dark star who is predicted to “become the sword that would spill the clans’ blood across the steppes.” As Temujin attracts followers and conquers rival tribes on his way to being named Genghis (“all powerful”) Khan, her sympathetically-told narrative unfolds against a backdrop of bloodlust, revenge, and the destructive power of jealousy. Hers and Temujin’s is an unusual marriage, one tested by a pretty devastating betrayal, but their union becomes the bedrock of a large family – and of an empire.

The remaining three stories skip down to the next generation. Borte’s daughter Alaqai, like her father, is born clenching a clot of blood, a visceral image that foreshadows her fiery nature. As a foreign bride in a hostile land – the fate of most of Genghis’ female descendants – she must leave her beloved horses and nomadic lifestyle behind for wooden dwellings and camels, but her life is hardly a settled one. Thirdly, Fatima, the Muslim widow of Nishapur’s governor, is introduced when her beautiful, elegant homeland is invaded by Mongols. Once bent on vengeance, she rises, through her fellowship with the other women, to become one of their greatest supporters.

Over the course of nearly 500 pages, and numerous routs and alliances, the plot moves forward with unstoppable momentum. There truly isn’t a dull moment. The Golden Family continues to expand, and, after the death of their fearless leader, it begins to splinter due to internal disputes. It seems the Great Khan’s sons, who lose themselves in drink, aren’t as capable as their wives and sisters.

Just in the nick of time, the widow Sorkhoktani, Genghis’ quietly crafty daughter-in-law, emerges from the shadows to take up her life’s purpose: preparing the throne for her sons. Other strong women make their mark, too, both for good and not.

This was a brutal time and place, as the Mongols’ “resistance is futile” modus operandi makes them a ruthless enemy. (Their horses, being sources of transportation, food, and drink, have it rough as well.) However, their saga as told by Thornton is one to get lost in for days.

In an ideal world, The Tiger Queens would be an enduring hardcover, but the trade paperback is plenty gorgeous and represents its contents well. Readers will find themselves fully involved with these characters, existing alongside them as they sleep within their felt-walled tents, receive nourishment from fermented mare’s milk, ride their horses over the steppes, and fight to sustain the greatest land empire in history, living boldly under the Eternal Blue Sky.

The Tiger Queens is published this month by NAL (454pp + author's note, interview, and discussion guide, $15.00/$17.00 in Canada).  I received an ARC from the author as part of the blog tour for Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours (and check out the other glowing reviews it's been receiving).

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Book review: Bittersweet, by Colleen McCullough

After over 30 years, Colleen McCullough has written another big Australian saga that shows she’s in top storytelling form. However, despite the similarity in genre, Bittersweet is significantly, and deliberately, different from the mega-selling The Thorn Birds. It covers a narrower timespan, namely 1924 through the early Thirties, and celebrates women’s growing prominence in the workforce and the resilient ties between sisters.

The beautiful, intelligent Latimer girls – Edda and Grace, Tufts and Kitty – are two sets of identical twins born of the same father but different mothers. To achieve their personal ambitions, and to let fragile Kitty escape from her dreadful mother’s suffocating favoritism, they sign up to train at the hospital in Corunda, their small city in rural New South Wales. Their working and living conditions are atrocious at first, and as the initial crop of prospective “new style” registered nurses, they’re resented by others who don’t have their privileged status or education. Their unpretentious attitudes and work ethic soon win over their doubters. The women are more dissimilar than alike temperament-wise, and this becomes more apparent as men enter their orbit and disrupt their exceptional closeness.

Their story is full of personality and verve even when McCullough is relating pure history, such as the circumstances leading to Australia’s downward slide into the Great Depression. The background details on medical techniques and even hospital administration prove to be fascinating, but the focus stays personal. Each woman’s true character manifests itself as the years pass, their ties to one another frequently affecting their relationships with the prideful men who interact with them, love them, and sometimes get in their way. Maybe to enhance the drama, the characters make some surprisingly impulsive decisions. The plot is constantly entertaining, and the warm and chatty style makes the novel read like a good gossip with old friends.

Bittersweet was published in the US by Simon & Schuster in hardcover ($26.00, 384pp) and in the UK by Head of Zeus (cover image at top). Which do you prefer?   This review first appeared in November's Historical Novels Review. I read it from a personal copy of the UK edition.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Mystery: “Whodunit” or “Whom do you seek”? A guest essay by Sarah Kennedy

In today's guest essay, author Sarah Kennedy explores the different meanings of "mystery" in English history and in her own fiction, which includes (so far) two novels set in the Tudor era.  Her latest release, City of Ladies, is published this month by Knox Robinson Publishing in hardcover ($27.99 / £19.99).


Mystery: “Whodunit” or “Whom do you seek”? 
by Sarah Kennedy

When I first began writing The Cross and the Crown, my series of historical novels set in Tudor England, I was interested primarily in my main character, a young nun named Catherine Havens. The first book, The Altarpiece, opens with the sixteenth-century dissolution of the convents and monasteries in England, and one of the “mysteries” is the hiding place of the convent’s missing altarpiece. In constructing that plot, I tried to create a bit of traditional mystery, but I laid clues that were not too difficult to follow because I wanted readers to focus as much on the character development of Catherine as they did on the “whodunit” of the missing altarpiece and the dead sexton.

The second novel in the series, City of Ladies, also contains an element of mystery in the plot: several former nuns have gone missing and they wind up dead. Catherine, as the lady of the house, wants to know who is committing these horrendous murders. In time-honored mystery fashion, the killer is revealed at the end . . . sort of. A question hangs over the conclusion, because the characters are themselves often questionable.

This brings me to my own concern with mystery as both plot and character. In my series, the great “mystery” of the culture, Renaissance England, is the mystery of the Christian religion. Not long before Henry VIII broke from Rome, plays performed in cycles were quite common all over Europe. These came to be called “mystery plays” and they told stories from the Bible, both old and new Testaments, often combining quite low comedy with profound representations of holy men and women. The plays probably began with church performances of important moments in the church calendar, and the first one was probably the Easter story. Mary Magdalene arrives at the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth, only to discover that the tomb is empty. Distraught, she searches for the body and encounters a man dressed as a gardener. He says, “Quem quaeritis?”—or “Whom do you seek?” She looks into his face and discovers the greatest mystery of the church: Jesus has risen from the grave. That resurrection, promised to all believers, becomes the great “mystery” of the Christian faith: all humans are mortal and all humans sin, and yet all can rise again from death.

The plays soon moved out of the church and were put on in towns and villages during the summer, with large wagons used as mobile stages. The stories grew in number and by the fifteenth century were shown in great cycles, with the different individual plays performed simultaneously in village squares and along high roads. They often featured elaborate sets and costumes, made by local craftsmen and labor guild members, who were lucky enough to have steady work. They also performed the various parts, both good and evil. These labor guilds were called “mysteries.” So these “mystery plays” contained within their very name multiple meanings. They played out the “mystery” of God’s creation, of the existence of evil, and of the forgiveness of sin. They were also played by actors who were members of “mysteries.”

All of this has been in my mind as I’ve been writing the series, especially as I’ve been revising book three, The King’s Sisters. There is some mystery involved in the plot (though I won’t reveal exactly what!), but, for me, the genre of the mystery novel—the whodunit element—is complicated in writing about people of faith and moments of doubt during the Renaissance. The mystery of murder—the “peculiar crime,” as P.D. James puts it—is bound up with the mystery of good and evil and the mystery of human choice, as well as the mystery of power, thought to have been conferred on the king at coronation . . . and putting into his hands the decision to grant life or death to his subjects.

Do I make use of the traditional clues and final reveal of classical mystery plots? Sometimes I do, though not always in traditional ways. I still like to think of mystery as not only a genre—and who doesn’t like to be on the edge of the seat, reading to find out who the criminal really is?—but also as a way of thinking about character. The word has deep roots in social class and religious belief. Human character itself is also a mystery, and the more elements that are revealed, the more readers understand why anyone does what he or she does. What exactly is crime? Is it murder if the king orders the killing? Is it treason if a plot to circumvent the king’s laws succeeds?

For me, mystery becomes almost emblematic sometimes. The “whodunit” in fiction always, for me, is bound up with the discovery of human character—“whom do you seek?” We read mystery, at least in part, because it deals with fundamental questions of good and evil . . . and sometimes we are led to understand the criminal, even as we applaud the person who unravels the crime. Mystery forces readers to consider what makes a person resort to lying, cheating, stealing, or killing, and in doing so, it raises a question for all of us. How far are we from becoming criminals ourselves? What would push any of us over that edge, into an act so heinous that it requires punishment?

The answer can be an uncomfortable one: we all make errors of judgment; perform hasty, ill-thought-out acts; and commit offenses against others, and our circumstances may be the only difference between us and the “bad guy.” We may all be just a few unlucky turns from becoming that lawbreaker. The mystery, both as plot and character, dramatizes this fictionally and has long allowed us to both to revel in the tangled events that lead to crime and to rehabilitate the tangled hearts that we all carry within us.

Sarah Kennedy is a professor of English at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia and the author of seven books of poems.

She holds a PhD in Renaissance Literature and an MFA in Creative Writing.

Sarah has received grants from both the National Endowment for the Arts and the Virginia Commission for the Arts and is currently a contributing editor for Shenandoah.

Sarah has been publishing a series of novels with Knox Robinson centering around the sixteenth century closure of the monasteries and convents of England by King Henry VIII.  Visit her website at