Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Book review: The Swan Gondola, by Timothy Schaffert

Offering an expertly conjured atmosphere complete with soothsayers, cure-all tonics, technological gadgetry, and daring high-wire acts, Schaffert’s whimsical epic of illusion and reality at the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair promises and delivers grand entertainment.

One evening backstage at the Empress Opera House, “Ferret” Skerritt, ventriloquist and letter-writer-for-hire from the former frontier town’s rough neighborhoods, sees Cecily, a lovely actress with eyes the “color of candied ginger,” and falls hard for her. Ferret is nothing if not persistent, and after she returns his affections, they—along with the precious bundle Cecily carries in a carpetbag—become an improvised family. But as the summer ends, their sweet romance gets disrupted by a lonely entrepreneur whose money can buy him almost everything.

Audiences will be lured in by the offbeat personalities and carried along by the unexpected plot developments, but the real showstopper is the exuberant Gilded Age setting, imagined in elaborate detail. With so many wondrous attractions, this finely spun world feels almost dreamlike, yet Schaffert also takes a sharp look at what’s most important in life. A distinctive choice for literary- and historical-fiction readers, as well as steampunk fans wanting to cast their minds back to that genre’s origins.

The Swan Gondola will be published on February 6th by Riverhead ($27.95, hardcover, 464pp).  I wrote this starred review for Booklist's January issue.

Some additional comments:

- Although I don't usually go for novels about circuses and fairs and things of that sort (maybe stemming from a fear of clowns I had as a child... but I digress), I absolutely loved this one.

- The cover design is a great match for what's inside, plus it's seriously cool.

- There are links to The Wizard of Oz to be found within, but background knowledge (or even enjoyment) of the book or film isn't necessary in order to appreciate Swan Gondola.

- I think this is my favorite novel of 2014 so far; it will make my top 10 for the year for sure.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Why Casanova? A guest post by Greg Michaels, author of The Secrets of Casanova

For today's blog entry, Greg Michaels, author of The Secrets of Casanova (Booktrope Editions, 2013), reveals why he chose one of history's most notorious libertines for his novel's protagonist—and the unexpected discoveries he made while researching Casanova's life.


Why Casanova?
Greg Michaels

I’d had my fill of the walking dead. Couldn’t stomach another twelfth-century zombie. Was bored to tears with vampire heroes.

“But,” you scold, “you chose an incorrigible, womanizing charlatan to be the protagonist of your book?”

“Yikes,” I reply, “I did.”

But please, please, allow me to digress...

Not to get too personal about a whole generation of folks, but for those of us who survived the wild and crazy ‘70’s and ‘80’s—well, I’ll talk about just me—by the turn of the new century I was in need of a bit of redemption. If nothing else, it was imperative for me to discover what I really felt about life, religion, salvation, the metaphysical, afterlife, etc. You know—the pesky subjects.

“Too much confusion in my spirit,” I thought. “Writing could be potent therapy. So maybe a glossy coffee-table book. Something cool like that.”

Now what’s that quote? “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” A teacher, an historical figure, appeared just as I was primed for a spiritual lesson or two. That is, a guy’s biography practically jumped from the bookstore shelf into my sweaty palms. And I bet you know whose biography it was.

Casanova lived from 1725-1798, during a period that was later called The Age of Reason. From your high school history class, you’ll effortlessly recall The Age of Reason as a time of scientific thought, skepticism, and intellectual interchange that challenged the established order, especially government and religion.

Religion! Wasn’t that one of the subjects that was troubling me?

“This ain’t gonna be no coffee table book,” I finally decided. No, Casanova leaped from each biographical page. He was larger than life, an icon of the Western civilization, bigger than a coffee-table book.

Why, even the meek and mild Merriam Webster Dictionary defined a “Casanova” as “a man who is a promiscuous and unscrupulous lover.” Ah, here was a decadent cad upon whom I could hang my literary hat. Here was an antihero who could lurch from decadence to redemption in three-hundred pages. And, by the way, did I mention that some called him genius?

But wait, unbelievably there was more that could fit my literary needs: as a young man, Casanova began his training in the priesthood—until he was expelled from the seminary for dissolute behavior. Later, after particularly frustrating life experiences, he twice considered checking into a monastery. I began to suspect that beneath his debauched behavior there was some spiritual underpinning to the man, a kernel of decency.

And then there were Casanova’s words in the preface of his autobiography: “I am not only a monotheist but a Christian whose faith is strengthened by philosophy, which has never injured anything.” And his deathbed words: “Almighty God, and you witnesses of my death, I have lived as a philosopher and die as a Christian.”

Casanova’s biographer didn’t buy a word of it. But maybe it was up to me to decide?

Oh also, along the way, I discovered that Casanova rubbed shoulders with kings, queens, philosophers, popes, pimps, prostitutes, and adventurers. This libertine knew life from the gutter to the church spire. Fabulous!

Casanova’s character—or lack of it—excited me. The way he lived his life electrified me. Could I—in a novel—bottle some of his exuberant spirit, his intellectual prowess, his damning deficiencies? As a protagonist, what questions might Casanova ask? What could he find? What would be the dramatic result? Casanova himself says “I did not stop to discover if what was leading me on was vice or virtue.” What a vast literary license that provided!

And why not put a smart, brave woman at his side? For moral balance.

Whole-heartedly I chose Casanova as my main man. With my pen I’ve sent him on an epic journey throughout Europe in a search for his heart, mind, and soul.

Now dear blog reader, if you’re in need of a little adventuresome “therapy” for past transgressions—even if all your evils took place in this twenty-first century—may I humbly suggest The Secrets of Casanova? This historical novel will present few “answers” but be assured, there are plenty of those pesky, soul-searching questions. And mystery, romance, and adventure.

Thanks for reading.


Greg Michaels received his BA in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin, a chance experience thrust him into a career as a professional actor and fight director. To date he's acted in fifty theater productions, more than forty television shows, and choreographed dozens of fights for stage and screen. In The Secrets of Casanova, Greg again proves his skill at telling a theatrical story. He lives with his wife, two sons, and Andy the hamster.

About The Secrets of Casanova:   Paris of 1755 is bloated with opportunity. That’s the way Jacques Casanova, an unredeemed adventurer with an ever-surging appetite for pleasure, needs it. But times, men, and gods are changing—and Jacques’ luck is fading. When he is thrust to the center of a profound mystery, he doesn’t care if vice or virtue leads him onward. “After all,” he declares, “a man who asks himself too many questions is an unhappy man.” But as Jacques’ challenges mount, what questions will he ask? What price must he pay to uncover a treasure of inestimable value? Loosely based on Casanova’s life of intrigue, peril, and passion, Michaels’ The Secrets of Casanova will keep you burning the midnight oil.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Sujata Massey's The Ayah's Tale, an absorbing e-novella of class divisions in 1920s Bengal

Earlier this week I got word about Sujata Massey's new book via an email from one of the bargain e-book sites I subscribe to.  A self-published e-novella written by an award-winning mystery author whose first mainstream historical (The Sleeping Dictionary) was released last fall, The Ayah's Tale examines the plight of a 16-year-old Bengali girl, Menakshi Dutt, who takes a job as an ayah (nanny) to an English family in India in 1923-24.  Of course I pounced right on it!

This short book contains elements that readers of other historical novels of pre-independence India will find familiar: the bored and neglected English society wife, her wealthy husband, and descriptions of the less privileged lives of their native Indian servants.

However, what increases the book's originality is Massey's decision to tell her story from the dual viewpoints of Menakshi and the second eldest son in her employers' family. Julian is a six-year-old boy who exhibits the typical self-absorption of a child whose every need is met, but he's also loving, generous, and observant.  In his appealingly youthful voice, Julian reveals many unusual goings-on that readers will know how to decipher, but which he isn't old enough to understand fully. 

Mrs. Millings, his mother, distracts herself from her dreary life by throwing parties while her high-profile husband, the Commissioner for Burdwan District, devotes himself to his work in the Indian Civil Service.  This leaves primary responsibility for the couple's three older children with Menakshi and so firm are the divisions between social classes that the children don't know her first name or even realize she has one.  She is simply "Ayah."

There are early warning signs about Mrs. Millings, in particular her sharpness and pointed snobbery. She tells lies about Menakshi's perfectly respectable family to her socialite friends and fails to acknowledge that Menakshi is both educated and a Christian, just like her. All of the drama within the Millings family finally comes to a head during one fateful Christmas holiday.

Massey paints a convincing picture of the hypocrisy of society during the British Raj and the deliberate ignorance that keeps three groups the British, Indians, and Anglo-Indians separated even as young Indian women working as ayahs become mother figures to British children.  I came away with a strong sense of Menakshi's horribly awkward position and the disrespect she has to endure.  Although still young, she keeps her dignity and is wise enough to know which battles she can and cannot win.  I empathized with her and cheered when a love interest appeared on her horizon.

The tale is framed by an episode set much later, on the island of Penang in Malaysia in 1952, as an older Menakshi comes across a novel written by the grown-up Julian in her small town library and realizes it was based on episodes from his childhood. The ending is very satisfying; it allows for some measure of closure for Menakshi, as she revisits feelings about the young charge she had come to care for deeply, and for the reader as well.

The Ayah's Tale was published in December as a Kindle original; the list price is $2.99, though it's on sale now for less.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Winner of the 2013 Langum Prize for American Historical Fiction

Gary Schanbacher's Crossing Purgatory (Pegasus, 2013) has been announced as the winner of the 2013 Langum Prize for American Historical Fiction.

From the press release:

"The title carries a double meaning, referring to the crossing of a river in western Kansas where the protagonist settled and made his home, and also the crossing of his own, personal purgatory. A spiritual dimension enlightens this book, not pushed upon the reader and so subtle that an uninterested reader could ignore it but then miss much of the book’s value.

"Irrespective of the protagonist’s inner struggles, the story itself is well-told and exciting. Once again, we have an excellent novel that paints the west with more depth than is usual, that portrays the evil and the hardship as well as the rewards."

The two Honorable Mentions are Christine Wade's Seven Locks (Atria, 2013), set in the rural Hudson River Valley during the American Revolution, and Pamela Schoenewaldt's Swimming in the Moon (Morrow, 2013), a novel of immigrant life in turn-of-the-century Cleveland.

The prize shortlist for 2013 included the following historical novels:

The Blood of Heaven, by Kent Wascom (Grove Press) [my review]
Crossing Purgatory, by Gary Schanbacher (Pegasus) [author's guest post on this site]
Seven Locks, by Christine Wade (Atria) [my review]
The Son, by Philipp Meyer (Ecco)
Swimming in the Moon, by Pamela Schoenewaldt (Morrow)
The Tilted World, by Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly (Morrow) [my review]
Nostalgia, by Dennis McFarland (Pantheon)
My Notorious Life, by Kate Manning (Scribner)
Love and Lament, by John Milliken Thompson (Other Press)

For more on the prize, see the Langum Charitable Trust. To submit a novel for consideration, view the directions available at the site; the Trust has also issued guidelines used by their readers and selection committee, which authors should find useful as well. The prize is awarded annually to the "best book in American historical fiction that is both excellent fiction and excellent history."

Past years' winners include Ron Rash's The Cove, Julie Otsuka's The Buddha in the Attic, Ann Weisgarber's The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, Edward Rutherfurd's New York, and Kathleen Kent's The Heretic's Daughter

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Book review: The Ghost of the Mary Celeste, by Valerie Martin

Martin’s latest novel delves into the lingering questions surrounding the Mary Celeste, an American brig found drifting, intact but abandoned, in the open Atlantic in 1872. Eschewing a traditional linear narrative for an unconventional yet far more effective structure, Martin creates what seem at first to be loosely connected vignettes.

Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote a sensationalist tale about the ship’s fate in his youth, appears at several different points in his life, and a journalist crosses paths several times with an enigmatic medium she hopes to debunk. It progressively becomes clear that their stories link in multiple ways with the Briggs family of Marion, Massachusetts, many of whom died at sea.

Characterization is first-rate, as is the historical sensibility. Subtle undercurrents of impending tragedy create a disquieting effect throughout, a fitting atmosphere for a work about a society preoccupied with making contact with deceased loved ones. The scenes of maritime disasters are realistically terrifying. A haunting, if sometimes slowly paced, speculative look at a long-unsolved maritime mystery and the unsettling relationships between writers and their subjects.

The Ghost of the Mary Celeste is published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday next week in the US ($25.95, hardcover, 320pp).  It will also appear from Weidenfeld & Nicolson in the UK on February 20th.  This review first appeared in Booklist's October 15th issue.

Some additional notes and confessions:

- Before the ARC for this novel landed on my desk, I hadn't heard of the Mary Celeste before, and I'm not sure how I missed knowing about it.  My lack of familiarity with the fate of its captain's family definitely heightened the suspense.  That said, there should be plenty of surprises in this novel even if you know the basic history.

- I love the cover art.  It captures the mood of the novel perfectly.

- Marion, Massachusetts, is a picturesque seaboard town that sits at the gateway to Cape Cod. At the risk of inserting an inappropriate moment of levity in the discussion of a serious literary novel, I can't resist posting a link to singer-songwriter John Forster's performance of "Entering Marion," his very funny tribute to the town and driving around Massachusetts in general.  He gives some historical background to the state's quirky road signage in his intro, and it's worth putting up with the shakiness at the beginning to see the rest.

- Martin's novel is one of those books that got me hooked on its subject; I've been seeking out more information on the Mary Celeste ever since.  In 2007, the Smithsonian Channel produced an hour-long documentary, "The True Story of the Mary Celeste," that posited a solution to this haunting mystery.  I watched it last month and have to say it was mighty convincing.  It's being re-broadcast a few times in early February in the US and seems to be shown pretty regularly.

Monday, January 20, 2014

A young voice from the past: a guest essay by Leah Pileggi, author of Prisoner 88

Leah Pileggi, author of Prisoner 88, is my guest at Reading the Past today.  Prisoner 88 is categorized as a middle-grade historical novel, yet I believe it will also intrigue adult readers due to its young hero and his experiences which are based on a true story.  Please read on!


A Young Voice from the Past
Leah Pileggi

I stumbled onto the inspiration for Prisoner 88 while touring the Old Idaho Penitentiary in Boise on a blazing hot day in June of 2007. Built in the 1870s and closed as a prison since riots in the 1970s, the remains of the “Old Pen” bake under the summer sun and frost over in winter. I couldn’t help thinking How could anyone have survived in this place? Toward the end of the tour, the docent said, “The youngest prisoner ever held here was ten years old.” What? “It was in the 1880s,” he said. “He shot a man.” I had to read that book. Not only were there no books about that particular ten-year-old boy, there wasn’t very much known about him at all other than the fact that he had been there, he was 4’ 6” when he arrived, and his name was James Oscar Baker.

From the Idaho Register, 1885
Since I live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the Idaho Historical Society was my lifeline to primary sources. Vintage newspaper clippings set the stage. In 1885, James Oscar Baker was in a saloon in Soda Springs, Idaho, with his father when an argument erupted. A man threatened to shoot James Oscar’s father. The son stepped in, grabbed a gun and took a shot. The man died right there in the saloon.

The trial transcripts, written in the elaborate cursive of the day, included witness statements. Even though the assortment of witnesses didn’t all remember what happened in exactly the same way, it was pretty clear that it was James Oscar and not his father who fired the shot. But even if that was true, how was it that a ten-year-old was sent to serve time in the penitentiary? A retired Idaho judge agreed to read the transcripts for me, and he explained how that happened.

Someone (perhaps his attorney) had told James Oscar that he should plead guilty to manslaughter, that if he didn’t do that, he might end up being convicted of murder and spend the rest of his life in prison. So he pleaded guilty to manslaughter, and because of that, he had to serve time. There was only one place to do that in 1885 Idaho: The Idaho Territorial Penitentiary. It didn’t matter his age. Guilty = Must serve time.

Through letters from the attorneys for James Oscar’s parents, I found that James Oscar had been disowned by his parents while in prison. When he was released, it was to the custody of a man named Cyrenius Mulkey a friend of the governor and his wife. That information was corroborated by a book called Eighty-Three Years of Frontier Life, the autobiography of Cyrenius Mulkey written when he was eighty-one years old and revised two years later.

What I didn’t find was a day-to-day record of the boy’s time behind bars or of any inmate at that time. So I immersed myself in 1880s Idaho including everything I could find about the Old Pen.

Close-up of stone wall, Old Pen

The penitentiary was self-sustaining all the way up through the Depression with the inmates working in an orchard, in gardens and with livestock. The prison walls were built of local sandstone blasted from the hills nearby, blasting that was done by prisoners (who handled the dynamite) due to a lack of money to hire workers. Prisoners included Chinese men who had come to America to discover gold or perhaps were brought over to work on the railroads. Some prisoners were Mormon “cohabs,” polygamy still being supported by the Mormons at that time.

Old Pen, three layers of cells

Once I had 1880s Idaho absorbed into my consciousness, I let my protagonist, Jake, write his story. There were days when I would pick up from my previous day’s writing and I would think, Where did that come from? I like that, but I don’t remember writing it. As though Jake truly was writing his own story. And for me, that’s the beauty of historical fiction. Finding that voice – in this case, a young voice – and letting the past speak for itself.


Leah Pileggi has published in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Chautauquan Daily and Hopscotch Magazine. She has been writing for about ten years, and her first book of nonfiction, How to Design a World-Class Engineering College: A History of Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, was just released. She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she bikes whenever possible, practices yoga and occasionally plays the mandolin.  Visit her website at and follow her on Twitter at @pileggi88.

Prisoner 88 was published in 2013 by Charlesbridge ($16.95, hardcover, 144pp).

Friday, January 17, 2014

What's in a name? An essay by Alex Myers, author of Revolutionary

I'm very pleased to welcome Alex Myers to the blog.  Today he's contributed an original essay about the background research for his debut novel, Revolutionary, specifically his quest to find primary source accounts of his protagonist's early years.  Revolutionary follows the remarkable story of Deborah Samson, a young woman from southeastern Massachusetts who fought in the American Revolution disguised as a man.  Hope you'll enjoy reading about his research journey.


What's In a Name?
Alex Myers

At times during the composition of Revolutionary, it seemed like the research would never end. What road leads from Middleborough to Taunton? Where did the ferry cross the Hudson in the spring of 1782? What currency was most commonly used in southeastern Massachusetts, and how much would a room at an inn cost? There were facts momentous and mundane to establish. There was verisimilitude to render. There was a historical record to which I felt accountable. But amid all this, one tiny question, a miniscule point to resolve, led me to a profound insight into the period.

Artist's rendition of Deborah Samson
(or Sampson)
The heroine of Revolutionary is based on a real person, Deborah Samson, whose surname is also spelled Sampson. From my research, I knew that Sampson is the more common spelling, but there is debate as to its accuracy. This bothered me. And for reasons that I can’t quite explain, I really wanted her name to be Samson in my book (perhaps it’s just because I have a contrarian streak… and I think I wanted some connection between her and the biblical character, though that part got edited out).

As a descendant of Deborah, I knew my own copy of the family tree recorded “Sampson,” and certainly Google searches of her name yielded far more texts that had the “p” than didn’t. But these contemporary sources weren’t satisfying to me, so I delved into the historical records. I don’t know what I expected to find, but the results surprised me. There is no remaining record of Deborah writing or signing her maiden name. There are others who recorded it – she is noted in the record of the Middleborough Baptist Congregation at the time when she joined and also at the time when they excommunicated her (for purportedly dressing in men’s clothes and other “unchristian” behavior). There is a document of intention to marry, written by some clerk. After this, she becomes Deborah Gannett and, as she lobbied for her right to a pension, I found more of her writing and letters, though not her maiden name.

But at this point in my research, the spelling of the name ceased to interest me so much. I went back again and again, looking for more evidence of her early years. But that was it. Two Baptist records are the sole surviving mentions of this young woman. More than anything, this made me think about how profoundly different the world in which she lived was from our world today. How many official records of our existence are tucked in file folders somewhere? How many of our signatures – digital and inked – are floating about at large? We are everywhere. We blare our existences: we proclaim and proclaim who we are. (It is for someone else to answer whether anyone hears us. Or whether any of this flotsam will survive for two hundred years.)

Deborah’s name as a young woman is nearly effaced from history. Just two surviving mentions. How easily, given a less remarkable later life, she might have disappeared altogether. And these two mentions are written in someone else’s hand (in one she is Samson, in the other Sampson). I felt that somehow this explained Deborah’s early life to me. She didn’t get to establish herself much. She had to yield to the rules of society and society was determined to keep women in confined roles with very limited identities. Though I had read a good deal about women’s lives in late-eighteenth century New England, the scanty physical evidence of Deborah’s name impressed the reality on me much more than the narrative accounts I had studied. She barely existed in any public way – women were private entities, owned property.

Imagine my delight, then, to discover the one record that remains of her hand signing her name before she was married. This signature survives in the records of the Massachusetts Archives, in faded ink on a discolored page. The text begins: “Received of Mr. Noah Taft, Chairman of Class No. 2 for The Town of Uxbridge, The Sum of Sixty Pounds Legal Money as a bounty to serve in the Continental Army For the term of Three years.” And it ends with the firm and legible signature of one Robert Shurtliff.


Alex Myers' Revolutionary was published in January in hardcover by Simon & Schuster (320pp, $26) and as an ebook (currently $11.89 on Kindle).  My Booklist review can be found here.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Alex Myers' Revolutionary, based on the true story of a female Revolutionary War soldier

“You must be able to imagine how good it feels to be assumed capable and intelligent and not always to have to prove this matter,” writes Deborah Samson to her friend, Jennie, during her remarkable Revolutionary War service, which she accomplishes while disguised as a man named Robert Shurtliff. In his debut, transgender author Myers relates the story of a courageous, real-life woman. His straightforward, clear prose lets the important and complex issues he raises shine through, including gender identification, the desire for self-expression, and the meaning of freedom in an era when women’s choices and actions were severely constrained.

The novel follows Deborah, a tall, sturdily built 21-year-old who escapes repressive Middleborough, Massachusetts, in 1782 by enlisting in the Continental Army. Crisply rendered scenes shift from days of camaraderie and routine camp life around West Point to deadly skirmishes, the unmasking of traitors, and the discovery of unexpected love. With this thought-provoking work, Myers resists modernizing Deborah/Robert’s predicament and lets readers explore both the external and internal transformations of this valiant American soldier.

Revolutionary is published today in hardcover by Simon & Schuster (320pp, $26) and as an ebook (currently $11.89 on Kindle). This review first appeared in Booklist on 11/15/13.

Some additional observations:

- I used to live down the street from Middleborough (also spelled Middleboro), Massachusetts, and enjoyed seeing the town as it would have appeared in the 1780s even though it clearly wasn't the most comfortable environment for a female servant who wanted some measure of personal independence. Two of my ancestors were living there back then, so I imagine they would have been familiar with Deborah's story.  Today, Middleboro may be best known as the "cranberry capital of the world," as the headquarters for Ocean Spray.

- Per a note from the publisher, the author, Alex Myers, has a genealogical connection to Deborah Samson Gannett (her married name), and learned about her life story from his grandmother.

Statue of Deborah Samson Gannett, located in
front of the Sharon Public Library, Mass.
- If military historical novels aren't usually your thing, fear not.  Revolutionary provides just enough details on marches and musketry to inform readers without getting bogged down in technical details, and the development of Deborah/Robert's character remains at the center.

- Deborah realizes that in addition to trimming her hair, binding her breasts, and wearing men's clothes, she has to adopt a male mindset to pass herself off as a soldier successfully.  There's one particular scene I thought was especially creatively written; the pronouns used to describe Deborah (she, her) begin to shift and mingle with male pronouns (he, his) until the transformation is complete, and the viewpoint of Robert takes over.  Because the English language forces us to use pronouns to describe gender, that scene may seem confusing upon first reading, but I quickly realized it was necessary; it also performs a valuable service in making readers think about what's going on in her/his mind.

- Has anyone else noticed a mini-trend of novels about historical women who disguised themselves as men to escape the restrictions of their sex?  In addition to Revolutionary, there's Erin Lindsay McCabe's I Shall Be Near To You (Crown, also January), about a woman who fought alongside her husband during the U.S. Civil War, and William Klaber's The Rebellion of Miss Lucy Ann Lobdell (Greenleaf, 2013), about another real-life woman who adopted a male persona in 1855 to earn higher wages, and who kept the disguise up for most of the rest of her life.  Forthcoming will be Kathy Hepinstall and her sister Becky Hepinstall's The Girls of Shiloh, listed as a deal in Publishers Marketplace in December.  Publication will be 2015, by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Pig's Foot by Carlos Acosta, a colorful foray through Cuban history

Internationally acclaimed ballet dancer Acosta has encapsulated more than 100 years in the history of his native Cuba into a grandly entertaining debut novel.

In 1995, while being interrogated for reasons not yet revealed, Oscar Mandinga spins a colorful yarn about his ancestors and the rustic backwater village they called home: Pata de Puerco, or “Pig’s Foot” in English.

It begins with his great-grandfather and namesake, a pygmy of African heritage. He and his best friend, José, marry sisters, and their lives, and those of others they meet, play out against Cuba’s troubled political backdrop, from violent slave uprisings on a sugar plantation to the Spanish-American War to the Communist revolution and afterward.

The younger Oscar’s tone is rough and sarcastic, and the tales he tells are often exaggerated, but underneath all the bluster are several tender stories of love and family and the gradual unfolding of his heartfelt search for identity. Pata de Puerco may exist solely within Acosta’s rich imagination, but its unique characters and their exploits will long resonate in readers’ minds.

Pig's Foot will be published by Bloomsbury USA next Tuesday, January 14th, in hardcover ($26, 352pp). Bloomsbury published it in the UK last October. Frank Wynne translated it from the original Spanish. This review first appeared in Booklist (11/15/13).

Some additional notes:

(1) While it can definitely be called a historical novel, Pig's Foot also fits with the Latin American tradition of magical realism, which probably will come as no surprise.

(2) There's a twist at the end that readers may find either entirely suitable, given the outlandish nature of a good part of the plot, or unsettling and upsetting.  (I was part of the first group.)

(3) At the end of 2013, the author was recognized with a CBE in Queen Elizabeth II's New Year's Honours List for his services to ballet.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Going Down the Line: A guest post by Laurie Loewenstein, author of Unmentionables

Please help me welcome Laurie Loewenstein to the blog today.  Her original essay about Circuit Chautauqua, which features in her historical novel Unmentionables (out today in trade paperback), has piqued my interest in this unique form of itinerant entertainment and cultural education; I'm tempted to travel to see one of its modern re-enactments next summer.  Hope you'll enjoy her post!


Going Down the Line
Laurie Loewenstein

Even before the first chords of “The Indian Love Call” are struck by five Filipino musicians, the air under the brown canvas tent is electric. Farm families and townsfolk alike have waited all year for this moment, and now the opening salvo has been launched with a vigorous strumming of mandolins, banjos and guitars. Hundreds of palm fans flutter against the oppressive afternoon heat as the audience readies itself for a week of edification, culture and entertainment.

From 1904 to the late 1920s, networks of orators, singers, humorists and orchestras toured the rural areas of the Midwest, South and West, in what became known as Circuit (or Traveling) Chautauqua. In 1924, when the phenomenon was at its peak, it is estimated that more than 40 million people attended a Chautauqua performance. Theodore Roosevelt famously called it “The Most American Thing in America.”

While rural citizens took a week away from the demands of farm and shop to bask in the rhapsody of chiffon-gowned sopranos, the mystery of illusionists and the allure of intrepid adventurers, it was the orators who reigned over the platforms. In his loose alpaca coat and with one hand on a block of ice to cool himself, William Jennings Bryan sweated out his famous “Cross of Gold” speech to as many as 30,000 people a night as he crisscrossed America’s heartland.

The handsome, silver-haired Lieutenant Governor of Ohio, Warren G. Harding, exuding small-town charisma, charmed Chautauqua audiences for decades with his discourse on Alexander Hamilton. Even after he was elected senator, Harding continued to step onto Chautauqua stages under the sweltering canvas. Harding’s open-hearted friendliness and soaring baritone trumped his critics, including H.L. Mencken who remarked that Harding’s words were nothing more than “a string of wet sponges.”

Formidable women lecturers, part of the rising tide of reform in the early 20th century, held forth on hundreds of Chautauqua platforms during these years. Jane Addams of Hull House fame, Ida Tarbell, a leading muckraker famous for her expose on Standard Oil, and suffragist Anna Shaw all took the stage at one time or another. Maud Ballington Booth, billed as the “Mother of Prisons,” spoke unceasingly about appalling conditions in British and American penitentiaries.

It was within this charged atmosphere of forthright orators, both male and female, that I imagined the fictional Marian Elliott Adams would take her place in my novel, Unmentionables. Marian, an activist for women’s dress reform, undertakes the grueling itinerary of nightly performances in small towns dotting the midlands in order to win converts to the loose tunics (sans corsets) that she advocates.

I was fortunate to find a wealth of digitized materials documenting Circuit Chautauqua compiled by the University of Iowa. Examining the multi-page program booklets passed out to every subscriber and the pamphlets distributed by hundreds of individual performers, I was able to re-imagine the world in which Marian moved. “Going down the line,” as regular Chautauqua talent called it, was not for the faint of heart. Many endured long train rides from one small town to the next over many consecutive nights. They learned to catch naps, as William Jennings Bryan did, on wooden benches with iron armrests for pillows. The heat under the tents was famously intense. Hail storms at times ripped holes in the canvas, but the orators did not drop a syllable. 

Source for photos: University of Iowa; reprinted with permission.

Traveling Chautauqua disappeared in the early 1930s, a fatality of the radio, which connected the isolated hamlets of America in ways the Circuit never could. Chautauqua, however, lives on. The Chautauqua Institute, the progenitor of the Circuit, continues its mission to provide ongoing adult education of the highest quality as it has since 1874. Beginning in 1904, the commercial booking agencies adapted the Institute’s format to create Circuit Chautauqua. Additionally, Humanities Councils in several states, including Ohio, Maryland and Nebraska, now mount summer Chautauqua events featuring historical impersonators.

In these ways while Circuit Chautauqua performers no longer “go down the line,” their voices and music still ring across the years.


Laurie Loewenstein’s Unmentionables was published by Kaylie Jones Books, an imprint of Akashic Books, in January 2014 ($15.95, trade pb, 320pp). Visit the author’s website at

Sunday, January 05, 2014

James Scott's The Kept, a taut revenge tale set in the snowy New York wilderness

The first sentence of Scott’s atmospheric debut, set in frozen upstate New York in 1897, proclaims: “Elspeth Howell was a sinner.” Indeed she is, by anyone’s reckoning, but within this dark, violent landscape, only sinners have a chance.

Already burdened by her transgressions—"anger, covetousness, thievery"—midwife Elspeth arrives at her remote farm after a months-long absence and discovers her family brutally killed—all but 12-year-old Caleb, who shoots her, thinking she is one of the murderers, returned. After Elspeth recovers sufficiently from her wounds, under Caleb’s makeshift care, they set out to bring down the three men responsible.

This taut revenge tale, as gritty as any western, is also an unusual coming-of-age story and a compelling saga of twisted secrets in which the very unmaternal Elspeth and the son she barely knows (and why is that?) slowly form a close bond. Scott writes with sustained intensity and strong descriptive powers, whether evoking the pair’s dangerous trudge through high snowdrifts, the rough lake town where many answers lie, or his characters’ complex lives and motivations.

The Kept is published this Tuesday, January 7th, by Harper ($25.99, hb, 368pp). This review first appeared in Booklist's 11/15/13 issue.  Since I'm sitting here in my house on the Midwestern prairie in the middle of Snowpocalypse 2014, awaiting -20 degrees by later tonight, the chilly setting for this historical thriller seemed all too apropos. 

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Book review: The Lost Duchess, by Jenny Barden

Jenny Barden’s second book, a stand-alone sequel to her Mistress of the Sea, moves smoothly from Old World court etiquette to New World exploits. There are comparatively few novels that imagine the Elizabethan Golden Age from the perspective of its explorers, and even fewer about the lost Roanoke colonists, so The Lost Duchess deserves a warm welcome for those reasons alone.

Its heroine is an appealingly spirited young woman with a strong heart for adventure, and other highlights include the many beautiful descriptions of Virginia, a land of glorious, unspoiled wilderness and life-threatening perils.

For lady-in-waiting Emme Fifield, a baron’s daughter, joining the expedition to form the first permanent English colony in America solves many problems. She’ll avoid the damaging repercussions of a scandal not of her making while escaping her rigid life in London and satisfying her yearning for freedom.

Emme promises to come home on the Lion’s return voyage and provide intelligence on the expedition to Queen Elizabeth and Francis Walsingham.  To keep her plans secret, she’s advised to take a new name and travel as the maidservant of Eleanor Dare, daughter of colony governor John White.  However, she has every intention of remaining in Virginia. Meanwhile, complicating her life is her growing attraction to master boatswain Kit Doonan, who has a complicated past of his own – and personal reasons for wanting to sail to Roanoke.

Readers get to experience every aspect of Emme and Kit’s journey alongside them: the dangerous lurches of the ship during storms at sea, the pride of the “planters” in their newly constructed City of Raleigh, and the pair’s tender romance, a selfless love that serves to make them both stronger. The colonists’ relations with the Indians are presented with complexity, from the Secotans’ hostility to English incursion – which, it has to be said, isn’t unjustified – to the heroic efforts of Manteo, the settlers’ Croatan ally, to preserve the peace. Emme comes to play a greater role in the colony’s planning than one would expect of an unmarried female servant, but many of its leaders either know or suspect that she’s more than she seems.

Mysteries surrounding the colony’s past, present, and future create an underlying sense of unease that heightens as the answers come to light. What tragedies befell the previous Roanoke settlement, and why? What reasons lie behind pilot Simon Ferdinando’s navigational choices? And since readers will know the new colony is doomed, how will Emme and Kit’s story end?

The language has an authentic period flavor without feeling fusty, and The Lost Duchess movingly expresses the sense of exhilaration and amazement felt by Emme at the natural beauty of Roanoke Island: “How to marvel at wonders without name? She could only relish through her senses like a child before mastering language: enjoying the sight of a bird like a flame in the trees, a vivid flash of vermilion; see gourds like luscious melons, and flowers taller than she was with heads of radiant suns…”

Moreover, it also captures the distress she and Kit feel at the wrenching decisions they and the others are forced to make, and at the realization that there’s an unavoidable price to be paid for their daring venture. It’s a well-rounded portrait in that respect, and Emme and Kit, both of whom are fictional characters, fit comfortably into known events. They both make for good companions on this exciting journey to the New World.

The Lost Duchess was published by Ebury/Random House UK in hardback (£16.99) and trade pb (export edition, £12.99) in November (432pp). Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy at my request.  Unfortunately there's no US publisher as yet, though it's available at Amazon UK and at Book Depository via ABE.