Monday, June 19, 2017

Leslie Shimotakahara's After the Bloom, a thoughtful novel about the Japanese internment camps and their aftermath

In her contemplative first novel, Shimotakahara explores the long-lasting aftereffects of a disgraceful historical episode: the incarceration of people of Japanese ancestry during WWII. As she explains in an introduction, Lily Takemitsu is partly based on her paternal grandmother, who denied this part of her past.

In Toronto in 1984, Lily’s daughter Rita, a high-school art teacher and single mother, panics when she learns Lily has vanished. Her mother has the tendency to wander, but she’s never gone missing for days before. As Rita pursues leads to Lily’s whereabouts, she uncovers fragments of her hidden family history, including secrets about her father, Kaz, who she never met, and the time he and Lily spent in a place where “the sand blew so fiercely that stepping outside was like standing under a shower of pinpricks.”

The novel devotes equal time to Lily, a young woman once runner-up in the Cherry Blossom Pageant, who has been forced from one troubled living situation into another. The author paints a meticulous portrait of the dreary geography and fiery internal politics at the camp at Matanzas in California in the 1940s. Rescued by a rebellious photographer named Kaz after a fainting spell, Lily gets drawn into the ongoing animosity between Kaz and his father, the camp doctor.

Awareness of this novel’s topic is necessary for anyone living in today’s world. After the Bloom presents an affecting inside view of what Japanese-Americans endured, both within the camps and afterward. Indecisive and easily manipulated, Lily is an atypical heroine. While she loves her mother, Rita also feels frustrated by her silences and eccentricities. However, Lily’s character feels real, and her disconnections from reality are understood in the context of what she’s survived. Slow-moving at first, the story gains momentum as it continues, and the conclusion is especially satisfying.

After the Bloom was published by Canada's Dundurn Press last month (pb, 328pp).  This review also appears in May's Historical Novels Review and is based on my reading of a NetGalley copy.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Half-Drowned King by Linnea Hartsuyker, a terrific historical epic of 9th-century Norway

In mid-ninth-century Norway, power was dispersed among many petty kingdoms, while sea-kings gained wealth and status through plunder. Chronicling the time that saw Harald Fairhair’s rise as eventual king of a united Norway, Hartsuyker’s terrific historical epic, first in a projected trilogy, beautifully evokes the period and the mind-set of its warring peoples.

After his stepfather’s attempt on his life fails, Ragnvald Eysteinsson pursues revenge and a plan to regain his hereditary lands while finding his place amid the Norse kings’ shifting alliances and blood feuds. Meanwhile, his teenage sister, Svanhild, too strong-minded to be a peace-weaver bride, moves through challenging emotional territory after evading an unwanted marriage.

Posing thoughtful questions about the nature of honor and heroism, and devoting significant attention to women’s lives, the novel takes a fresh approach to the Viking-adventure genre. Hartsuyker also shows how the glorious deeds in skaldic songs can differ from their subjects’ lived experiences.

The multifaceted characters are believable products of their era yet relatable to modern readers; the rugged beauty of Norway’s farmlands and coastal landscapes likewise comes alive. The language is clear and eloquent, and the action scenes will have the blood humming in your veins. This is how tales from the old sagas should be told.

The Half-Drowned King will be published by Harper in August; the (starred) review above appears in Booklist's June 1 and 15 issue.  I read this ARC in February and have been eager to share the review of this book, which is among the best I've read this year.  Historical adventure novels aren't always my thing, but this one has me anxiously anticipating the second and third installments. And it was a story I hadn't previously known; even better.

The UK publisher is Little Brown, which gave it a cover design that strongly resembles those for Maurice Druon's Accursed Kings saga (check out the images and you'll see what I mean).

Friday, June 09, 2017

Alyssa Palombo's The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence, a novel of 15th-century noblewoman Simonetta Vespucci

Are you going to speak to me, signore, or merely gaze at me all evening as though I were a painting? I wondered crossly.”

When Simonetta Cattaneo walks into a room, conversations cease, and people turn to gaze in her direction. Love-struck swains gather in the streets beneath her window, hoping she’ll make an appearance. When first introduced to her, men pay her compliments so ridiculously flowery that she can’t help but stifle laughter.

Known as the most beautiful woman in late 15th-century Florence, Simonetta has gotten used to these and other reactions. She occasionally uses her looks to her advantage – who wouldn’t? – but, as a lover of poetry and literature in general, she yearns to be noticed for her mind.

Alyssa Palombo’s sensitively written second novel imagines the perspective of the stunning young woman depicted in multiple Renaissance-era paintings. It’s subtitled “a story of Botticelli,” but make no mistake, this is Simonetta’s tale. She comes from a minor noble family from Genoa, and at sixteen, she marries banker Marco Vespucci of Florence, and moves into his parents’ home. (Curiously, the senior Vespuccis are mostly absent.) Simonetta’s marriage gives her entrance into a world she longs to join: the intellectual circles of the powerful Medici family.

In Florence, which is presented in its gilded splendor, Simonetta befriends Lorenzo de’Medici and his wife, Clarice, and loves browsing the volumes in their palazzo’s library. Palombo paints Simonetta as a gentle personality eager to embrace the world opening up before her – and to fall in love with her kind, handsome husband. Still, she becomes intrigued by Sandro Botticelli, an artist who acknowledges her beauty but doesn’t flatter her.

Clever and level-headed, Simonetta is aware of the dangerous temptations Florence holds, and comes to learn that her beauty can’t protect her from deceptive behavior or, sadly, ill health – but she refuses to be a victim. Instead, she takes a bold step towards independence and passion that results in the glorious painting known as The Birth of Venus.

The Birth of Venus (close view), Botticelli, ca. 1484-86

Little is known of the historical Simonetta, and Palombo fills in the blanks with a romantic story about women’s agency, the consequences of beauty, and the communicative power of art. In keeping with its focus, the larger political issues of the day remain mostly in the background. It’s smoothly written from start to finish, and the inevitable finale will have you thinking about the life of this inspiring young woman for days afterward.

Alyssa Palombo's The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence was published in April by St. Martin's Griffin ($15.99, 320pp). Thanks to the publisher for sending a review copy earlier this spring.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

A Daughter's Courage by Renita D'Silva, a saga of south India past and present

Renita D’Silva takes the popular parallel-narratives format to a new level with her engrossing saga intertwining four women’s stories. They all center on a secret temple in south India, but the points where they meet, and how, aren’t easy to predict.

In 1924, Gowri is only fourteen when her parents dedicate her to the service of the goddess Yellamma in hopes of saving her younger brother’s life. She yearns to continue her education but, as a devadasi, instead she’s installed in a newly built temple, made to live alone at the jungle’s edge, and forced to sleep with the local landlord. Her pain and confusion are poignantly expressed in letters she writes to the goddess, questioning why she was sacrificed, and wondering why Yellamma doesn’t intervene on her behalf.

In another strand, a privileged Londoner named Lucy decides to marry a man she barely knows, an heir to a coffee plantation in India, in the wake of a scandalous love affair. Left to follow the trail of their secrets in the modern day is Kavya, who returns to her Madras home after major heartbreak. While there, she faces pressure from her overbearing mother to get married and learns about her ajji’s (grandmother, in Kannada) connection to a newly discovered temple that’s been attracting national attention. Introduced later on is the viewpoint of Sue, a recent war widow, whose link to the others is less obvious but critical.

This novel bursts with rich, sensual descriptions of southern India, though the word choices are sometimes odd (“the navy autumn scent of smoke”). All the women are fully rounded characters with well-developed personal histories, and the narrative skips briskly along as it ensnares readers in a story designed to keep them up far too late. The emphasis on women’s resilience and agency is subtle yet unmistakable.

A Daughter's Courage was published by Bookouture in late May in ebook format ($2.99/£1.99) and trade paperback ($12).  I requested it on NetGalley and reviewed it for the HNR's May issue.  This is my first experience with a Bookouture title, and my impression so far is quite positive.  The ebooks are certainly priced competitively. Renita D'Silva has written a number of other novels, some historical and some contemporary, set predominantly in India.  I enjoyed this interview with her about her publishing journey at

Monday, May 29, 2017

Jane Healey's The Saturday Evening Girls Club, a saga of young women and social reform in 1900s Boston

The Saturday Evening Girls Club, a real organization in Boston’s North End in the early 1900s, was set up by progressive reformers to provide opportunities for daughters in working-class immigrant families. (Today it’s best known for the beautiful pottery produced there.)

Healey’s winning debut brings readers into the lives of four women in their twenties, two Italian and two Jewish, whose friendship was cemented through this group. All are caught between their parents’ old-world traditions and their own aspirations.

Caprice Russo, whose hat-designing talents are popular with Boston society ladies, is the engaging narrator. She dreams of owning her own millinery shop and, eventually, marrying a man of her choosing—definitely not one of the Sicilian boys her father invites for dinner. Her plans are put on hold when her boss decides to move to New York and close her store.

The friends’ close bond, and the generosity of the club’s patronesses, help them through rough times and difficult decisions. To escape her mother’s fate, Maria starts dating a rich Italian man with questionable morals; Thea considers an arranged marriage; and quiet, scholarly Ada, who hides her university studies from her conservative Jewish father, falls in love with someone unsuitable.

The writing is so smooth that readers may not consciously notice all the cultural details tucked in: the comforting scents of Italian families’ rooftop tomato gardens, the ties and rivalries carried over from Europe, and street festivals that celebrate heritage and faith.

The four women, while fictional, interact with historical characters that their real-life counterparts would have known. Kindly philanthropist Helen Storrow is a strong supporter of the club and its “girls,” while Isabella Stewart Gardner’s elegant home shows off her large art collection and supercilious attitude. Fans of warmhearted sagas should enjoy this, and it’s suitable for YA readers, too.

Jane Healey's The Saturday Evening Girls Club (see on Goodreads) was published by Lake Union in April.  This review first appeared online in May's Historical Novels Review, based on a NetGalley copy.

For background on the Paul Revere Pottery and the group that produced it, see Saturday Evening Girls: A Social and Business Experiment in the History of Pottery at the Arts & Crafts Society website. Many of the ceramics are collectors' items today.  Check out some pictures and the prices they're being sold for on eBay!

Friday, May 26, 2017

Anne Boleyn: A King's Obsession by Alison Weir, an original retelling of a famous Tudor woman's life

Prominent royal biographer and historical novelist Weir is well-placed to craft this detailed fictional portrait of Henry VIII’s second wife.

Second in the Six Tudor Queens series, following Katherine of Aragon (2016), it begins with Anne Boleyn’s youth at the courts of the Netherlands and France, where she receives an education, learns to value independent thought, and views men’s perfidy firsthand. Also transforming her character are her ongoing rivalries with her sister, Mary, and Cardinal Wolsey, who she blames for her greatest romantic disappointment.

Naturally, considerable space is devoted to the king’s “Great Matter,” the political and religious entanglements that ensued as Henry sought to divorce Katherine and wed Anne. Weir isn’t blindly sympathetic toward Anne and doesn’t excuse Anne’s malice towards Katherine and her daughter, Mary. Instead, she explores Anne’s influences and motivations, creating a multifaceted portrait of an ambitious woman who reluctantly accedes to Henry’s courtship and later acts out of desperation to protect herself and her daughter, Elizabeth.

Even readers who know Anne’s story well should gain insights from this revealing novel.

Anne Boleyn: A King's Obsession was published this month by Ballantine (US) and Headline Review (UK). I wrote this review for Booklist's historical fiction issue (4/15).

Some additional notes:

- Yes, it's true that Tudormania peaked a few years ago, and numerous novels about the period (and Henry VIII's wives in particular) have been written. Anything new, therefore, needs to offer something original to readers. Fortunately, this one does. I appreciated the attention given to Anne's early years on the Continent, nourishing her intellect at the courts of the Netherlands and France, as well as her thwarted romance with Henry Percy.

- At 550pp long, this has to be the most substantial novel about Anne Boleyn that I've read, and I've read many (nonetheless, it moves along quickly).

- Interested in following along with the Six Tudor Queens series? On her website, Alison Weir has some info and a trailer for the upcoming third book in the series, about Jane Seymour.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Smadar Herzfeld's Trail of Miracles follows an 18th-century Jewish woman's daring journey to the Holy Land

Israeli author Herzfeld’s first English-language release is short but lyrically powerful. Addressing the God she loves, Gittel, a Jewish woman born in a Ukrainian village in the late 18th century, delivers an account which simultaneously serves as an impassioned memoir, her expression of faith, and a lament for the path she didn’t choose.

In her old age, Gittel lives in Jerusalem, a land of three faiths, working as a washerwoman and healing the sick. As she reveals, her journey to the Holy City was an unusual one.

When she is just twelve, her devout parents arrange her hasty marriage to Avraham, son of the Maggid (itinerant preacher) of Mezeritch, a match suggested by his spiritual advisors in order to save Avraham’s life. Feeling abandoned by her father, who’s too busy studying Torah to tell her goodbye, and neglected by her silent, wraithlike husband, Gittel lives a frightened, lonely existence in her new home.

Her main consolation is her growing friendship with her father-in-law, a prominent disciple of the new Hasidic movement. “A splendid future awaits you, Gittel,” he tells her, “and it is my voice and eyes that will follow you every moment.” His words and support give her hope. Years later, after his death and her husband’s, Gittel refuses to remarry. Instead, she dares to pursue her childhood dream of a life in Jerusalem, leaving her two young sons in another’s care.

Gittel’s account follows the path of her thoughts, from her marriage’s unhappy early days to her present life of poverty and prayer to her earlier journey south, a rare feat for a woman alone. The novel is replete with Eastern European Jewish customs, and its tone is frequently mystical. The details are specific to its time and place, while Trail of Miracles follows in the tradition of presenting little-known historical women’s voices.

Trail of Miracles is published this month by AmazonCrossing, the Amazon Publishing imprint for translated fiction.  Aloma Halter translated it from the original Hebrew.  I reviewed it for the Historical Novels Review based on a NetGalley copy.  At 128pp, it's more of a novella than a full-length novel, but the story is rich and full of detail.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Charmaine Craig's Miss Burma, an engrossing novel of family, politics, and a country's modern history

Miss Burma opens with an attention-grabbing prologue that sees fifteen-year-old Louisa, a young woman of mixed racial heritage, crowned in her country’s first national beauty pageant in 1956. This short scene raises many impossible-to-ignore questions. Why is her father under house arrest? Why do soldiers with rifles stand in the audience? Moreover, how does Louisa feel about representing Burma like this, at this time, and what are the consequences?

These issues, and many more, are addressed with striking perceptiveness and poignancy in Craig’s second novel, which is based on the courageous lives of her mother and grandparents. The storyline spans four decades in Burma, the ‘20s through the ‘60s, years which saw considerable political unrest and violence during the Japanese invasion in WWII and subsequent civil war—a lengthy conflict that remains largely hidden to the Western world. The author evokes the protagonists’ innermost selves with uncommon candor and provides a sense of realism so vivid that it feels like readers are living through the events themselves.

Louisa’s parents are an unlikely couple. Benny comes from a Portuguese Jewish family; Khin belongs to an ethnic group, the Karen (pronounced Kar-EN), who have long been oppressed by her country’s Burman majority but are favored by the British during their colonial rule. In their impulsive marriage’s early years, Benny and Khin need an interpreter to communicate. As Burman nationalism overtakes the country, their relationship and family life—which include relocations through beautiful but harsh terrain, concealments, and forced separations—are tied to Burma’s internal battles. The complicated history is coherently explained, and the novel offers powerful commentary on the Karens and their situation: pawns in the games of global power politics, yet with a determined “mandate to survive.”

This epic yet deeply personal novel about war, love, loyalty, and heroism deserves to be widely read, especially by anyone unfamiliar with this history.

Charmaine Craig's Miss Burma was published by Grove in hardcover this month; I reviewed it from NetGalley for the Historical Novels Review.  Back in 2002, I'd reviewed her first novel, The Good Men: A Story of Heresy, about the Albigensian heresy in medieval France. It's also well worth reading. The eras are very different, but both novels deal with political oppression and the lives of women at a pivotal point in history.

Historical fiction can serve to educate and inform readers, and this is definitely true of Miss Burma. The conflict in Myanmar (formerly Burma, and the novel explains why the nomenclature is controversial) has been described as "the decades-long civil war you've never heard of"; read more at CNN.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

A visit to Italy's medieval past with Melodie Winawer's The Scribe of Siena

Siena in 1347 may not seem the most desirable time-travel destination, since the Black Death arrived on Italian shores the following year. However, that’s exactly where American neurosurgeon Beatrice Trovato ends up, to her great shock.

Her late brother, a medieval historian based in Italy, had been investigating an intriguing question: Why did the plague hit Siena particularly hard? Following his research leads, Beatrice finds herself pulled into the past, employed as a scribe for a religious hospital, and in the frequent company of fresco painter Gabriele Accorsi, whose 650-year-old journal she had been reading.

Debut novelist Winawer, a neurologist by profession, has written an engrossing historical epic. Her wide-ranging, romantic story moves apace, yet it has considerable meat on its structural bones, with plentiful details on fourteenth-century Sienese daily life, customs, art, and travel.

Despite an overreliance on surprisingly well-preserved documents, clues to the central mystery wind carefully through both time lines as Beatrice gradually unravels a Florentine conspiracy and, always cognizant of what the future holds, takes risks to save those she loves.

The Scribe of Siena was published just yesterday by Touchstone/Simon & Schuster.  I had read it last fall from an Edelweiss e-copy, and the review appeared in Booklist's historical fiction issue, which was out on April 15th.  See it on Goodreads, and you can visit the author's website for more info.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Historical fiction picks at BookExpo 2017

Here’s my latest annual guide to BookExpo (formerly BEA) for the historical fiction reader. Please check back around a week before showtime for the most current updates (new entries will be labeled ~new~).

This post was last updated on May 26th and is based on BookExpo’s autographing schedule, PW's galleys to grab list, publishers' listings, and Library Journal's galley and signing guide. Updates are welcome. This information is correct as far as I’m aware, but please cross-check these dates/times with the BEA site and/or program book to avoid possible disappointment.

~Author Signings~

Thursday, June 1st

10:00-11:00am, Booth 1921 (Penguin Random House)
Jamie Ford, Love and Other Consolation Prizes (literary fiction about a "boy whose life is transformed at Seattle's epic 1909 World's Fair"; Ballantine, Sept.)

10:00-10:30am, Booth 2831
Rachel Hauck, The Writing Desk (parallel narratives involving a modern-day author and an aspiring writer born into a wealthy family during the Gilded Age; Zondervan, July).

10:30-11:30am, Table 4
Betsy Carter, We Were Strangers Once (immigrant life in 1930s NYC; Grand Central, Sept.)

10:30-11:30am, Table 15
Ellen Marie Wiseman, The Life She Was Given (women’s lives and family secrets involving a traveling circus, moving from the ‘30s through the ‘50s; Kensington, Aug.)

11:00-11:30am, Booth 2554
Bradford Morrow, The Prague Sonata (epic, decades-spanning novel surrounding the manuscript for a long-lost sonata; Atlantic Monthly, Oct.)

11:00-11:30am, Table 2
Joseph Kanon, Defectors (thriller involving "defected American spies in Moscow during the height of the Cold War"; Atria, June).

11:00am, Booth 1932 (Soho)
~new~ Sujata Massey, The Widows of Malabar Hill  (1st in new mystery series about a female lawyer in 1920s Bombay; Jan. 2018.)

11:30-noon, Table 15
Barbara Lynn-Davis, Casanova's Secret ("tale of lush desire and risk" set in 18th-c Venice; Kensington, Aug.)

1:00-2:00pm, Table 1
Adriana Trigiani, Kiss Carlo (an Italian-American family in the post-WWII years; Harper, June).

1:30-2:30pm, Booth 2521 (Sourcebooks)
Marie Benedict, Carnegie’s Maid (an Irish immigrant maid inspires Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropy; Sourcebooks, Jan. 2018.)

1:30-2:00pm, Table 15
Susan Holloway Scott, I, Eliza Hamilton (first-person narrative of Alexander Hamilton's wife, Eliza; Kensington, Oct.)

2:00-2:30pm, Table 11
Fiona Davis, The Address (secrets of a famous NYC residence; multi-period novel set in 1884 and 1985; Dutton, Aug.)

2:00-2:30pm, Booth 2833 (HarperCollins)
Eleanor Henderson, The Twelve-Mile Straight (literary epic set in rural Georgia during the Depression; Ecco, Sept.)

~new~ 2:30pm, Booth 2539 (Midpoint Trade)
Sherry Ficklin, The Canary Club (YA novel about "star-crossed lovers in gritty Prohibition-era New York"; Crimson Tree, Oct.)

2:30-3:30pm, Booth 1921 (Penguin Random House)
Lisa Wingate, Before We Were Yours (multi-period novel, based on the true story of the Georgia Tann child trafficking scandal in the ‘30s South; Ballantine, June.)

3:30-4:00pm, Table 6
Brendan Mathews, The World of Tomorrow (“love, blackmail, and betrayal culminating in an assassination plot, set in prewar New York”; Little, Brown, Sept.)

Friday, June 2

9:00-10:00am, Booth 1921 (Penguin Random House)
Melanie Benjamin, The Girls in the Picture (the creative partnership between Hollywood notables screenwriter Frances Marion and superstar Mary Pickford; Delacorte, Jan. 2018.)

10:00-10:30am, Table 15
Sophfronia Scott, Unforgivable Love (a retelling of Dangerous Liaisons set in 1940s Harlem and Westchester County; William Morrow, Sept.)

10:30-11:00am, Table 14
Linnea Hartsuyker, The Half-Drowned King (epic about a brother and sister in Viking-era Norway, based on characters from the Norwegian sagas; Harper, Aug.)

11:00-11:30am, Table 4
Sharyn McCrumb, The Unquiet Grave (the legend of the Greenbriar Ghost in late 19th-century West Virginia; Atria, June.)

11:30-12:00pm, Table 4
Taylor Reid, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo (a film icon’s scandalous 20th-century life; Atria, June)

12pm, Booth 1420 (Simon & Schuster)
~new~ Jennifer Egan, Manhattan Beach (literary epic set in WWII NYC)

1:00-2:00pm, Table 15
Christina Baker Kline, A Piece of the World (literary novel about Christina Olson, who was depicted in Andrew Wyeth’s portrait Christina’s World; William Morrow, Feb.)

2:00-2:30pm, Table 6
Christina Baker Kline, Orphan Train Girl (the bestselling Orphan Train retold for a younger audience; Harper, May.)

2:00-2:30pm, Table 15
Sarah MacLean, The Day of the Duchess (Regency-era historical romance; Avon, June.)

3:00-3:30pm, Table 14
Eloisa James, Wilde in Love (Regency-era historical romance about a nobleman who's a celebrity; Avon, Oct.)

~Galleys to Grab~

This section excludes the author signings mentioned above.

Algonquin (Booth 2807)
~new~ Robert Olmstead, Savage Country (a widow in the post-Civil War West takes over a buffalo hunt)

Bloomsbury (Booth 3003)
Natasha Pulley, The Bedlam Stacks (Victorian-era historical fantasy; Aug.)

Grove Atlantic (Booth 2554)
Sarah Schmidt, See What I Have Done (novel of Lizzie Borden and the infamous murders; Aug.)

Hachette (Booth 2502-03)
Hannah Kent, The Good People (three women in 19th-c rural Ireland try to rescue a child in danger; Little, Brown, Sept.)
~new~ Louisa Morgan, A Secret History of Witches (multi-generational saga of witchy women, spanning the 19th and 20th centuries; Orbit, Sept.)

HarperCollins (Booth 2833)
~new~ Wiley Cash, The Last Ballad (story of labor activist Ella May Wiggins in '20s NC; Oct.) - giveaway 6/2, 2pm
~new~ Sarah Miller, Caroline (about "Ma" from the Little House books; Sept.) - giveaway 6/2, 2pm
Devin Murphy, The Boat Runner (a young Dutchman coming of age during WWII; Sept.) - giveaway 6/2, 12:30pm

Macmillan (Booth 3008-09)
Alice McDermott, The Ninth Hour (Irish-Americans in the '40s and '50s; FSG, Sept.)

Also see the following giveaways at the Macmillan booth, which are set for specific times, per their website:

6/1, 1:45pm
Andrew Gross, The Saboteur – advance listening copy (audiobook; WWII thriller about the Norwegian resistance; Minotaur, Sept).  Note the 12:00pm ticket drop at the booth to receive this galley giveaway later.

6/1, 3:00pm
Jim Fergus, The Vengeance of Mothers (sequel to One Thousand White Women, set in the West in the 1870s; St. Martin's, Sept.)  Note the 12:00pm ticket drop at the booth to receive this galley giveaway.

6/1, 4:15pm
Daren Wang, The Hidden Light of Northern Fires (Civil War-era story about "the little-known, true history of the only secessionist town north of the Mason Dixon Line"; Thomas Dunne, Aug). Note the 12:00pm ticket drop at the booth to receive this galley giveaway.

Overlook (Booth 1628)
~new~ Dennis Glover, The Last Man in Europe (George Orwell's writing of 1984) - galley giveaway on Thursday 6/1, 11am

Penguin Random House (Booth 1921)
John Boyne, The Heart's Invisible Furies (one man's life in postwar Ireland; Hogarth, Aug.)

Simon & Schuster (Booth 1420-21)
~new~ Thomas Mullen, Lightning Men (sequel to Darktown, crime fiction set in a racially divided 1950s Atlanta)
~new~ Maja Lunde, The History of Bees (literary multi-period novel following three generations of beekeepers in the past, present, and future)

Soho (Booth 1932)
~new~ James R. Benn, The Devouring (Billy Boyle mystery in WWII-era Switzerland)

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Secrets abound in 1920s Yorkshire in Frances Brody's A Death in the Dales

“I have had some strange requests for my professional services over the years, but this is the first time the summons had arrived from beyond the grave.”

Frances Brody’s seventh and newest Kate Shackleton mystery (in the US) has such an intriguing premise, and the way the storyline plays out is completely absorbing. This is the seventh book in the series – I’ve read four – and the best so far. I loved pretty much everything about it, from the quaint English village setting with all of its interpersonal tensions, to the well-developed characterizations of both adults and children, to the pacing – which is leisurely enough to reflect rural life in the Yorkshire Dales in the mid-1920s, but with sufficient activity that the novel is never dull.

And, as in the previous entries, Kate’s subtly sarcastic observations on life, and especially on the eccentricities of the people she interacts with, are wonderful. Everything about the book works well in unison.

Kate, a private investigator by profession, has arrived in Langcliffe to spend two weeks with her adolescent niece, Harriet, who’s recovering from diphtheria. Her beau, Dr. Lucian Simonson, arranges for them to stay in the house formerly owned by his late Aunt Freda. Before she passed on, Freda had wanted to meet Kate, not only because Lucian spoke highly of her, but because she’d hoped Kate would clear the name of a man she believes was put to death unjustly a decade earlier. Late one night, from an upper-storey window, Freda had seen the murder of the owner of the pub across the street. She was the only witness. It was politically convenient to blame an Irishman who’d had too much to drink, but Freda knew he wasn’t guilty. Her testimony for the defense had caused some folks to ostracize her.

Kate’s reputation has preceded her. Because she is who she is – curious, determined and tenacious – Kate finds herself quietly looking into this case as well as two others. One involves finding a mill girl’s younger brother, who’d ran away from the farm where he’d worked (for good reason). The third is a surprising request to retrieve some love letters from a long-ago affair.

Needless to say, Kate’s supposed holiday is more eventful than expected, but Harriet – delightfully so – enjoys following in her aunt’s footsteps. (Harriet had been introduced to series fans earlier, in Murder in the Afternoon, but this volume stands alone nicely.) Period atmosphere is blended in well. Telephones are still too new for everyone to own one, and Kate’s motorcar generates excitement since motor travel is still a novelty, especially for kids.

What gets neglected is Kate’s relationship with Lucian, but then there isn’t much romantic tension between them anyway. A war widow, Kate’s too independent to settle for anything less than the perfect partner. I couldn’t help but wish she’d find happiness with Lucian, but (I have to admit) that’s partly because Freda’s house is a lovely place to stay. As a reader, I reveled in the time I spent there.  I just wish Kate could have met Aunt Freda, since I think they would have gotten along famously.

For readers who enjoy sagas or historical novels about long-buried secrets but don’t think they enjoy crime novels, this book would be a great choice as “gateway” to the historical mystery subgenre.

A Death in the Dales was published by Minotaur in February (thanks to the publisher for sending an ARC).

Friday, May 05, 2017

Women of science and mathematics: a gallery of historical novels

Inspired by Kaite Welsh's The Wages of Sin, about a female medical student in 1890s Edinburgh, here are ten other historical novels about women who pursued achievements in the STEM fields while fighting gender discrimination and the strictures of their time. Some are new, one is forthcoming, and others are out of print and worth seeking out.

There are a number of other novels that fit this category, particularly those featuring female doctors, but depictions of women scientists in other fields are lacking in comparison -- there should be more!  Please leave your own recommendations in the comments. I'd searched for fiction about historical scientific women of color, a la Hidden Figures, which is a nonfiction book, but they seem few and far between; I'd be especially interested to know about titles that fit this description.

Physics:  The fictionalized story of Serbian scientist Mileva Marić, Albert Einstein's first wife, and her contributions to his early discoveries. Sourcebooks, 2016. [see on Goodreads]

Climatology/Glaciology:  Lucybelle Bledsoe, who spent many years as an editorial assistant at the Geological Society of America, also undertook a secret work assignment in the '50s. Her personal life, as a lesbian during the McCarthy years, was by necessity equally clandestine. University of Wisconsin Press, 2016. [see on Goodreads]

Astronomy: In the 18th century, Caroline Herschel, a German-born woman who served as her more famous brother William's assistant, was an accomplished astronomer in her own right, with a number of comet discoveries to her credit.  She lived to be 97.  Pantheon, January 2016. [see on Goodreads]

Paleontology: Chevalier's literary novel profiles Mary Anning, who made important discoveries of fossils around her home in Lyme Regis, England, but who was prohibited from joining the Geological Society due to her sex.  See also Joan Thomas' novel Curiosity for another perspective on Anning's life [see earlier review]. [See on Goodreads]

Math & Computer Science: The story of Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron's daughter, who is credited as being a pioneer in computer programming. Dutton, November 2017. [see on Goodreads]

Chemistry: This first book in a historical mystery series features analytical chemist Libby Clark, who gets hired in 1942 to be a scientist for a top-secret project in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Severn House, 2014.  [read earlier review] [see on Goodreads]

Botany: Gilbert's exuberant epic about personal and scientific discovery centers on Alma Whittaker, born with the 19th century, a young woman bursting with intellectual curiosity about the botanical world.  Viking, 2013.  [read earlier review] [see on Goodreads]

Medicine (Cardiology): The heroine of Rothman's novel is based on the first female physician in Canada in the late 19th century. Agnes White dares to study the field of cardiology at a time when few cures were available and she had few role models to emulate. Soho, 2011. [see earlier review] [see on Goodreads]

Mathematics: A mathematician herself, Spicci's debut novel follows the historical facts in the life of Sofya Kovalevskaya in mid-19th century St. Petersburg; she was the first European woman to receive a doctorate in mathematics.  Forge, 2002. [See on Goodreads]

Neuroscience & Medicine: Melodie Winawer's debut novel follows a modern American neurosurgeon who finds herself trapped 650 years in the past after she travels to Siena, Italy, to settle her late brother's estate and follows the research trail he left.  Touchstone, May 2017. [see on Goodreads]

Monday, May 01, 2017

Elizabeth Kostova's The Shadow Land, a Bulgarian road trip adventure with history and some mystery

Kostova’s third novel (after The Historian and The Swan Thieves) is a road trip adventure mixed with mystery, literary fiction, and a little suspense, but even that doesn’t encompass its full cross-genre appeal. The story opens in the spring of 2008, as Alexandra Boyd, fresh off a plane to Bulgaria to take an English teaching job, finds herself unintentionally entangled in another family’s private business.

After briefly encountering an elderly couple and their middle-aged son outside a hotel in Sofia, Alexandra is horrified to discover she mistakenly took one of their bags into her taxi: a satchel with a carved box containing an urn filled with ashes. The box is labeled with the name of an elderly man, Stoyan Lazarov, who had died two years earlier. Alexandra’s determined quest to find the family and reunite them with their loved one’s remains is as deep and multi-layered as Bulgaria’s own history.

Although she’s cautious about strange men, Alexandra slowly befriends her taxi driver, Bobby, who becomes an active participant in her mission when it becomes clear that someone’s putting up roadblocks in Alexandra’s way.

As they travel across the country, from tiny villages left nearly unchanged by time to the steep outcrops of the Rhodope Mountains, they encounter warm hospitality and also many signs of danger. Stoyan’s neighbors and relatives share memories that shed light on the talented violinist who suffered under Bulgaria’s communist regime. The country’s painful past is revealed through periodic flashbacks and through Stoyan’s own account, which is powerfully moving.

Kostova’s ability to paint images in the reader’s mind is exquisite. She clearly loves Bulgaria and writes passages that show its mesmerizing beauty. The plot fits the definition of “meandering,” and Alexandra’s and Bobby’s travel route sometimes feels overlong, but this is a book in which the journey matters as much as the destination.


The Shadow Land was published last month by Ballantine in the US (hardcover, 496pp); the UK publisher is Text, who had made it available on NetGalley as a Read Now for a while -- so I had snagged it there.  This review appears in May's Historical Novels Review as well.

This is my first experience with one of Kostova's novels. Both The Historian and The Swan Thieves have been on the TBR for way too long. I've read that The Shadow Land is a departure since the pacing is more leisurely and the suspense novel not as high. I'd be interested to hear what other readers think of this book, or of her earlier ones.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Kaite Welsh's The Wages of Sin, a feminist crime novel of late 19th-century Edinburgh

Kaite Welsh’s debut, The Wages of Sin, is described as a “feminist Victorian crime novel.”

What this means: the story is seen from a female perspective and features women battling against gender inequality at a time, the Victorian era, when they weren’t accorded equal rights or treatment. Today’s women often forget what their forebears endured, but reading about Sarah Gilchrist’s experience will remind them.

As one of twelve “undergraduettes” at the university medical school in Edinburgh in 1892, Sarah faces disdainful treatment from her instructors, bullying from her male counterparts, and a definite lack of understanding from her stern Uncle Hugh and Aunt Emily, who treat her like an adolescent in need of discipline rather than a mature 27-year-old woman.

They feel their behavior is justified, based on Sarah’s traumatic past—which adds more facets to her character. Once a young woman in London society, she was sent away to Scotland to avoid ruining her younger sister’s marriage prospects. Her narrative doles out the details slowly, as if she must work up sufficient courage to reveal the truth.

The mystery subplot involves the death of a sex worker named Lucy. Four days before her corpse shows up on Sarah’s operating table, her neck with visible signs of bruising, she’d been a strong-willed, mouthy, and surprisingly literate patient at the charity clinic where Sarah volunteers.

When a novel opens mid-dissection, you know you’re in for a reading experience that oozes atmosphere—among other things. The differences between now and then are grimly emphasized. This is a time when women wore gloves for society outings, but took them off when wielding scalpels and digging into people’s innards. Late 19th-century Edinburgh is shown in all its contrasts, from the city’s elegant parlors to its opium dens and underground boxing venues. Life is clearly rough for the lower classes, with people aging long before their time. The plotline is intricate and not predictable, although one clue is essentially given away before it’s explicitly revealed later.

There are some hints of possible romance, too, with the love interest in question being one of Sarah’s superiors—a dicey situation in academia. The mysterious Professor Merchiston, one of her few supporters, clearly has an unusual past.

In the end, Sarah finds hope in female solidarity—despite the many examples of women holding back their own progress—and comes to see the plight all women share in this day and age, regardless of social status: “Why were we so desperate to believe that anything separated the people in drawing rooms from the people in the slums other than sheer luck?”

Although Sarah's a forward-thinking woman, the author avoids making her an overly feisty anachronism. The story remains in its temporal place, while its message rings out clearly. At a time when men in power seek to shut down women’s choices, the themes in The Wages of Sin couldn’t be more relevant.

The Wages of Sin was published by Pegasus in March in hardcover; thanks to the publisher for approving my Edelweiss access.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Elizabeth Ashworth's The de Lacy Inheritance, a standout medieval novel

Having some free time in between review assignments, I decided to pick up a novel that had been on my TBR for years (it was published in 2010). Then, after finishing, I regretted having waited so long.

Elizabeth Ashworth's The de Lacy Inheritance, which includes real-life figures from late 12-century Lancashire, should suit readers who seek out fiction with authentic medieval atmosphere, characters, and scenarios.

The physical book has been handsomely produced by Myrmidon; it's a pleasure to hold and flip through. One of the novel's two viewpoints is male, but if the damsel on the cover (depicting Johanna FitzEustace, the teenage heroine) and lace edging works to get the book into more readers' hands, then it's done its job.

In 1193, Richard FitzEustace has returned from Palestine, where he had accompanied King Richard on Crusade and had, sadly, contracted leprosy. In the opening scene, Richard (presumably a man in his twenties) kneels while his family's priest recites the Mass of Separation, which forbids him from entering a church, touching any well without his gloves on, or claiming his birthright. And more besides. It's a terrible fate even on top of his itchy affliction. In accordance with the mindset of medieval times, Richard accepts it, knowing that it's God's punishment for succumbing to temptation in the Holy Land: he'd fallen in love with an "Infidel" woman there.

Before leaving Halton Castle forever and taking refuge in a leper house, though, he's asked by his grandmother to visit her childless cousin, Sir Robert de Lacy, at Cliderhou Castle in Lancashire, to persuade him to name her as his heir. This way Sir Robert's lands will be kept within the family. Meanwhile, Richard's absence from Halton leaves his headstrong 14-year-old sister, Johanna, vulnerable. Her mother and uncle want her to marry an older man she finds repulsive.

I enjoyed seeing the warm friendship that develops between Richard and Sir Robert, and the ways in which villagers treat Richard with kindness while acknowledging his outcast status: they leave warm bread for him outside the hermit's cave near Cliderhou where he's taken up residence. The novel's conflict comes not just from Johanna's desperate situation but also because another man believes that he should be Sir Robert's rightful heir, rather than Richard.

Following a few intense, demanding reads, The de Lacy Inheritance was a welcome palate-cleanser of a book. There's nothing showy about it – it doesn't involve royalty or large-scale historical events – but the story moves along nicely throughout. I've noticed that British writers seem sparing in their use of commas when compared to Americans, which made for many seemingly run-on sentences, but I got used to the rhythm after a while.

This was Elizabeth Ashworth's first novel. Fortunately she's written many others since, all focused on medieval or Tudor times, and they're now on the TBR as well.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Writing about history: Making the leap from non-fiction to novels, a guest post by A.J. MacKenzie

The authors who write as A.J. MacKenzie are visiting the blog today with an essay on their experiences as historians now writing historical fiction. Welcome!


 Writing about history: 
Making the leap from non-fiction to novels
A.J. MacKenzie

Between us, we had more than twenty published non-fiction books and numerous articles and conference papers under our belts before we published our first novel. So, how hard was it to make the transition from fact to fiction?

The answer – inevitably – is that it was easy in some ways and hard in others. A lot of our non-fiction work is quite narrative – for example, our book about the Battle of Crécy in 1346, The Road to Crécy, or our forthcoming book on the Poitiers campaign of 1356, or Morgen’s business history works – so we are still story-telling; just moving from one kind of story to another.

There’s no doubt that fiction is a lot more freeing to write. Of course historical fiction has to be historically accurate. Details like clothing and food and firearms and means of transport have to be got right. Actual historical events need to be reflected as people at the time would have seen and understood them. But within that framework, you can do anything you want. If there is a quiet period in the story, you can invent some incidents and accidents to fill the gap. And you don't have to provide footnotes for every event or conversation in the book!

No such luck in ‘real’ history. One of the constant problems when writing military history is, how to fill in the gaps. Someone famously observed that warfare is about 5 per cent terror and 95 per cent tedium, and from our observation that is just about true. How do you hold the reader’s attention when all the army did was march for fifteen miles from one place to another very similar place and make camp for the night?

One of our answers is to fall back on details of the daily routine. What did the country they marched through look like? What was the weather like? What obstacles, physical or otherwise, did they have to overcome? What food did they eat and how was it provided? Answering those kinds of questions puts the reader into the position of the marching soldiers and helps them to understand what those people were seeing and experiencing. And actually, as novelists, we are often doing much the same thing. The major difference is with non-fiction you have to have hard evidence of the conditions, weather, food and so on to back up your hypothesis.

Character is another area of difference, though again the gap is not so large as you might think. As historians, we have to form opinions of the characters we are writing about. Sometimes the ‘heroes’ of our narratives are unpleasant people. The Black Prince may have been brave and inspired loyalty in his men, but he was also an arrogant spendthrift who burned and plundered everywhere his army marched (the plunder probably helped pay his bills at home).

On the other hand, historical characters are often more ‘real’ than fictional ones, and you don’t have to work so hard to invent them. When we wanted an officer of Volunteers for The Body in the Ice, should we take the time and trouble to invent one? Or should we just import a real figure, Jane Austen’s brother Edward, who lived not far from Romney Marsh and was a captain of Volunteers? The decision was easy. Welcome aboard, Captain Austen; help yourself to a glass of madeira, and join the cast of characters.

We will probably always write a mixture of non-fiction and fiction. Writing fiction makes us better story-tellers; writing non-fiction keeps our research skills up to scratch. There is a boundary between the two types of writing that must be respected; but at the same time, like good neighbours, each type of writing reinforces and strengthens the other.


Christmas Day, Kent, 1796.

On the frozen fields of Romney Marsh stands New Hall; silent, lifeless, deserted. In its grounds lies an unexpected Christmas offering: a corpse, frozen into the ice of a horse pond.

It falls to the Reverend Hardcastle, justice of the peace at St Mary in the Marsh, to investigate. But with the victim's identity unknown, no murder weapon and no known motive, it seems like an impossible task. Working along with his trusted friend, Amelia Chaytor, and new arrival Captain Edward Austen, Hardcastle soon discovers there is more to the mystery than there first appeared.

With the arrival of an American family torn apart by war and desperate to reclaim their ancestral home, a French spy returning to the scene of his crimes, ancient loyalties and new vengeance combine to make Hardcastle and Mrs Chaytor's attempts to discover the secret of New Hall all the more dangerous.

The Body in the Ice, with its unique cast of characters, captivating amateur sleuths and a bitter family feud at its heart, is a twisting tale that vividly brings to life eighteenth-century Kent and draws readers into its pages.

About the author: A.J. MacKenzie is the pseudonym of Marilyn Livingstone and Morgen Witzel, a collaborative Anglo-Canadian husband-and-wife duo. Between them they have written more than twenty non-fiction and academic titles, with specialisms including management, medieval economic history and medieval warfare. The original idea for The Body…series came when the authors were living in Kent, when they often went down to Romney Marsh to enjoy the unique landscape and the beautiful old churches. The authors now live in Devon.

See also the authors' previous guest post about the atmospheric Romney Marsh.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A visual preview of the summer season in historical fiction

The area where I live in Illinois has suddenly become very green, and warm, and the spring semester's almost over.  It feels like summer's almost here at last. If you're like me, your mind's been turning not just towards vacations and barbecues but also summer's crop of historical novels. Here are 12 books set to be released between May and August this year that looked especially enticing, and which have settings spanning four continents. The books themselves are published in the US, Canada, the UK, and Australia. This time, too, I remembered to add the Goodreads links!

The Ohio River, 1838: A young seamstress becomes enmeshed in secrets and deception when she's blackmailed into participating in the Underground Railroad. Touchstone, June 20; note that the UK title is The Floating Theatre. [see on Goodreads]

A multi-period novel, set in 1884 and a century later, about two women, a host of secrets, and the elegant New York City apartment residence known as The Dakota. Dutton, August 1.  [see on Goodreads]

Forsyth, an Australian author, has recently specialized in re-imaginings of classic fairy tales, which are presented in a well-researched historical milieu. Her latest novel sets "Sleeping Beauty" amid the circle of pre-Raphaelite artists in Victorian times. Vintage Australia, July 3. [see on Goodreads]

Described as reminiscent of Possession and People of the Book, Kadish's newest novel tells the intertwined stories of women from two centuries: a Dutch immigrant serving as a scribe for a blind rabbi in Restoration London, and a modern historian specializing in Jewish history. HMH, June 6th. [see on Goodreads]

A sprawling story of politics, culture, and heritage focusing on the Ugandan people, beginning in 1750 and following a man's descendants as they try to evade a curse affecting their bloodline. Transit, May 16. [see on Goodreads, which also has reviews of the original edition, from Kenya.]

Part of McCrumb's Ballad series, set in the Appalachian region, fictionalizes the events behind the Greenbrier Ghost in late 19th-century West Virginia, happenings which have passed into American folklore. Atria, September 12. [see on Goodreads]

This second novel in the Kate Clifford mystery series is set in 1399 in York, England, a city on the brink of civil war. Meanwhile, Kate's mother shocks people by returning to town soon after her husband's mysterious death. Pegasus, June 6. [see on Goodreads]

Ross's debut novel fictionalizes the life of one of Canada's best-known pioneers and early memoirists, Englishwoman Susanna Moodie, in the Canadian wilderness of the 1830s. HarperAvenue, May. [see on Goodreads]

This novel of WWII begins in a Texas internment camp, where a Japanese diplomat's daughter first meets and falls in love with a young German-American man whose parents were unjustly imprisoned. The story later moves to Japan and the war in the Pacific. Washington Square, July 11. [see on Goodreads]

This family saga, the author's second novel after Daughter of Australia, follows a German immigrant family as they move from Pittsburgh to a farm in rural Pennsylvania in the early 20th century. Kensington, June 27. [see on Goodreads]

I enjoyed Wells' previous historical novel (The Wife's Tale) so much that I'm eagerly awaiting this new novel, a multi-period Gothic about an abandoned old house, WWII espionage, and a woman investigating her grandmother's hidden past. Penguin Australia, May 1st. [see on Goodreads]

First in a new mystery series set in the colony of Singapore in 1936, this novel features a young Chinese woman who turns sleuth after murder visits the country's Governor House.  Constable, June 1. [see on Goodreads]

Monday, April 17, 2017

Wilderness gothic: Sarah Maine's Beyond the Wild River

There was a beauty to this place, wild and unspoilt, vivid and sharp. Between the roar of the rapids there were stretches of exquisite calm water where the river widened along its course to form narrow lakes which sparkled with a piercing clarity...

Sarah Maine's work pays homage to the world's wild, remote places. Amid the forests of northwestern Ontario, thousands of miles from their home in the Scottish Borders, the characters of her second novel commune with nature: breathing in the scents of spruce and woodsmoke, catching and cooking fish for their suppers, and sleeping in tents along the banks of the Nipigon River.

Their relative isolation from all things familiar and safe heightens the sense of discovery but brings considerable risks. Several members of the expedition have unfinished business from five years ago that’s brought back into the open, and this time there's no running from it.

One might call this novel "wilderness gothic." As appropriate to the genre, we have a young ingénue as the heroine: Evelyn Ballantyre, age nineteen in 1893, relatively sheltered, and “lovely” (as we’re told a few times). Recently Evelyn’s father, a prominent Scottish philanthropist and investor, had misinterpreted an innocent act of hers – it appeared she was becoming too friendly with a servant – and she’s been paying the price.

Rather than continue to keep her cooped up at home as punishment, Charles Ballantyre decides to bring her on an excursion he'd planned to North America, to see the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and then to points north, across Lake Michigan and past the frontier town of Port Arthur (which will later become the city of Thunder Bay). There, they’ll fish in the “world’s finest trout stream.” Evelyn yearns to see more of the world, and for the chance to prove that she deserves to be treated as an adult.

To the surprise of both, one of their guides in the frontier turns out to be James Douglas, the former Ballantyre House stable hand who was accused of killing a poacher on their land five years earlier, and who had fled for parts unknown to save his neck. Back then, James and Evelyn had been good friends. Ever since, the sense of injustice toward him had weighed on her mind.

Their unlikely meeting isn’t the only coincidence in this atmospheric novel, whose story flows in a leisurely fashion for most of the book, then amps up the suspense toward the end – rather like waters in a peaceful stream gaining speed as they edge toward a waterfall. There are flashbacks here and there, and they’re not always smoothly inserted. However, the mystery itself is complex and interesting, with distinct aspects revealed little by little. Both Evelyn and her father know more about that night of the poacher’s murder than they dare reveal, to each other or to anyone else – including the friends accompanying them.

Maine crafts breathtaking turns of phrase that brings her settings alive. She recreates the era with a fine hand, too, with the Industrial Revolution bringing a revolution in technological developments. Scenes at Chicago’s White City explore these transformative changes. The author also offers period-appropriate commentary, through Evelyn’s eyes, on the land’s native peoples, who feature in exhibits at the World’s Fair – a shameful episode – but who negotiate with intelligence and foresight as their “old ways” are encroached upon.

Ironically, in this female-centered historical novel, it proves to be the men – James and Charles – who have the most layers to their personalities. But for readers with a yen to explore the “wild and unspoilt” lands depicted here, it takes a worthwhile journey.

Beyond the Wild River will be published tomorrow by Atria/Simon & Schuster in trade pb/ebook (I read it from an Edelweiss e-copy).

Added 4/19: Read more about Sarah Maine's inspiration for the novel in a post for the H is for History site, Researching the Nipigon River.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Georgia Hunter's We Were the Lucky Ones, an unlikely WWII survival story

This debut novel recounts not only one but multiple harrowing tales of unlikely survival. It’s also an amazing piece of historical reconstruction, expertly translated into fiction.

As Hunter reveals at the start, fewer than 300 of the 30,000-plus Jewish residents of Radom, Poland, remained alive after WWII. Her grandfather and his four siblings were among them. Learning about her family’s Holocaust past as a teenager, she set out to uncover their stories: interviewing older relatives, tracing their paths across Europe and elsewhere, poring through archives for relevant facts.

Knowing the ultimate outcome, one may wonder whether the novel offers any suspense. In short, yes. The circumstances her characters endure are excruciatingly traumatic; that they manage to survive is thanks to a combination of resourceful planning, split-second decisions made under tremendous pressure, and random luck.

Also, there are numerous other people they care deeply about, and readers will anxiously hope that they survive as well. Many chapters end with a mini-cliffhanger, which seems over-the-top initially but does heighten tension.

The story has impressive breadth, spanning over six years and many countries around the globe as the Kurcs pursue separate quests for safety through a Nazi-darkened world. One can sense the terror faced by Mila, forced to hide her two-year-old daughter, Felicia, in a paper sack of fabric scraps when the Gestapo invades the factory where she works—and feel Felicia’s claustrophobic fear as well.

Genek and his wife Herta endure near-frozen conditions in a Siberian gulag, where their baby son is born. The author’s grandfather, Addy, an affable, talented musician, leaves Paris early on, but his planned voyage to Brazil is held up, and he remains consumed by worry over his family.

The novel is full of tangible details but has thriller-style pacing. Reading it is a consuming experience.

We Were the Lucky Ones was published by Viking in February and was reviewed in February's Historical Novels Review. The UK publisher is Allison & Busby.  Read more about the author's background and multi-year quest to track her family's story at her website.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Kathy Lynn Emerson's Murder in the Merchant's Hall, a detailed portrait of Elizabethan-era daily life

Back in 2015, I wrote a post, Tudor Fiction without the Famous, that collected Tudor historical novels about lesser-known or fictional characters, and which didn’t take place at court. As Kathy Lynn Emerson mentioned in the comments, her Mistress Jaffrey series fits this description. Book two, Murder in the Merchant’s Hall, has sat on my virtual TBR for too long, and I’m glad I finally had the chance to read it.

The heroine, Rosamond Jaffrey, was called upon in the past to do some work for Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I’s spymaster, and he appears briefly in one scene. Primarily, though, the novel concerns itself with life among the gentry and merchant class in greater London and Kent, with a brief sojourn to Cambridge, where Rosamond’s husband is a student.

In London in autumn 1583, Godlina Walkenden stands accused of murdering her brother-in-law, mercer Hugo Hackett. She had discovered his body the night after arguing with him; she’d refused to marry the elderly Italian merchant Hugo wanted for her, claiming her would-be husband was “steeped in vice.” Lina’s half-sister Isolde wants her to suffer for her crime, but Lina claims not to have killed Hugo.

Lina quietly makes her way to Leigh Abbey in Kent, the residence of Susanna, Lady Appleton, where she’d been educated as a young girl. She hopes Susanna and her foster daughter, Rosamond, Lina’s childhood friend, can prove her innocence. (For those not in the know, Susanna was the heroine of another long-running mystery series by Emerson.) As Lina thinks: “Rosamond always knew what to do. Sometimes it was the wrong thing, but she was never at a loss when it came to making plans.”

That’s a fair description. A young woman of means whose past decisions have caused trouble for her family, Rosamond can be hard to take at times. She’s multilingual, very clever and knows it, and a master of disguises, which she uses a-plenty in her sleuthing. Rosamond also doesn’t value her devoted husband, Rob, as much as she should. She has some maturing to do, so it’s rewarding to see the scenes with their growing closeness. Lina’s a flawed character herself, and as the plot unravels, her foolish decisions become more obvious. For one, she’s infatuated with her would-be husband’s smooth-talking nephew, Tommaso.

If liking your protagonists is a necessity, you may not warm to this novel. That’s not a deal-breaker for me, though; characters’ realistic attitudes and behavior are more important, and I did find Rosamond and Lina realistic. The novel’s best part is its rich portrait of Elizabethan daily life. If you’ve ever wondered about various modes of transport during this era, requirements for the attire of Cambridge undergraduates, or the benefits of being a silkwoman in Tudor-era London, you’ll thoroughly revel in the atmosphere of this book.

Murder in the Merchant's Hall was published in 2015 by Severn House (I received access via NetGalley).

Friday, April 07, 2017

Book review: Stacia Pelletier's The Half Wives, set in late 19th-century San Francisco

Jack Plageman would have turned sixteen on May 22, 1897. However, tragically, he'd died in his crib on his second birthday. His parents’ lives haven’t been the same since. The observance of the sad anniversary takes the form of a ritual – an annual visit, timed precisely for 2pm, to San Francisco’s city cemetery, preceded by the replanting of a small garden around his tombstone. Nobody dares to change this.

That is, until this year, when the patterns are disrupted. All the characters come together at last, and long-concealed secrets spill forth.

The chapters in this finely tuned novel about grief, interpersonal connections, and the long journey toward independence revolve among four viewpoints. Henry Plageman, Jack’s father, is a former Lutheran minister turned hardware store owner. Stuck in the Golden Gate police station overnight after disturbing the peace at a local meeting, he needs to get himself out before 2pm, when he’s due to meet his wife. The cemetery where Jack’s buried sits on prime California real estate, overlooking the Golden Gate strait, and it’s a potter’s field: mostly immigrants and the destitute are interred there. When locals had proposed that the graves be moved elsewhere, Henry had made his objections loudly known.

Henry’s wife, Marilyn, who’s emotionally estranged from him yet tied to him via Jack, tries to drown her grief in endless charity work, but never succeeds, and doesn’t really want to. The third and fourth perspectives are those of Lucy Christensen, Henry’s secret lover, who misses him greatly but needs to break things off for her own sanity; and her lively eight-year-old daughter, Anna (nicknamed Blue), Henry’s only living child, who adores her father even though he sees them only rarely.

The Half Wives has three aspects that may take potential readers aback, even those who seek out literary fiction. The dialogue uses dashes instead of quotation marks;  the plot of this 320-page book spans a mere six hours; and the perspectives of Henry, Marilyn, and Lucy are told in the second person. (Still with me?) This latter choice is startling, and I found it difficult to process at first. Fortunately, the pronoun difficulties mostly fell away after the first few chapters, and the use of “you” served to enhance the effect of characters going through the motions, rather than actively participating in their own lives.

The novel moves smoothly among the four viewpoints, and between present-day events and people’s memories about their moments of happiness and heartache. Pelletier provides poignant insight into the odd dependent relationship between Lucy and Marilyn that directs their lives, even though they’ve never met, and Marilyn doesn’t know of Lucy’s existence. Henry can’t bring himself to leave either woman, though it’s clear that his avoiding that decision has wrought its own set of consequences.

Henry’s also oblivious to the reality of Lucy’s situation, which she knows.

He loves your humble cottage by the sea. He used to call it home. Even though he never spent a full night inside. He adored its cleanliness, its unpretentiousness. Its separation from the everyday. 
His everyday. Not yours. He never saw you scrub a floorboard. But you did scrub them. 

The questions of whether Lucy can get up the courage to leave him, and how, create some compelling moments.

Although the characters are the focus, the historical setting, the “Outside Lands” of northwestern San Francisco – stunning yet remote, decades before the Golden Gate Bridge’s construction – is critical. The story emphasizes how the city treats its orphaned and poor residents, from childhood until after death.

Recommended for literary fiction readers who don’t mind taking their time or making some mental adjustments to the unusual style. It’s well worth it.

The Half Wives was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on Tuesday in hardcover and ebook; thanks to the publisher for sending the review copy.

Monday, April 03, 2017

My Last Lament by James William Brown, a novel of 1940s Greece

Aliki, a teenager in a northeastern Greek village in the 1940s, has an innate talent for singing dirge-poems honoring the deceased. After her father is executed by German soldiers, she’s taken in by Chrysoula, a neighbor woman with a son, Takis, who may be mentally ill.

Aliki grows close to Stelios, the young Greek Jewish man Chrysoula hides in her basement with his mother, and their bond makes Takis jealous. Then their household is betrayed, and violence erupts, forcing the trio into political chaos as civil war tears the country apart and Communist guerrillas roam the streets.

Because their characterizations are rather flat, Aliki and Stelios’ love story doesn’t attain the emotional heights it reaches for; the book’s gripping final chapters, however, have undeniable power. Aliki’s dry humor is entertaining as she records her life story on cassette for a modern American ethnographer.

Full of details on folk traditions, like shadow-puppet theater and ritual laments, Brown’s novel should entice readers curious about Greek history and culture and WWII enthusiasts seeking a new angle on the era.

My Last Lament is published tomorrow in hardcover and ebook by Berkley, and this review was submitted for Booklist's 3/1 issue.

Some more notes:

- It's a great concept for a novel. Even though the epic love story aspect didn't quite deliver for me, I appreciated the unique setting and all details on Greek culture. The WWII era is still immensely popular as a historical fiction setting, yet few authors have written about its effects on Greece and its people.

- This is Brown's second novel. His debut, Blood Dance (see the review from Publishers Weekly), published in 1993, focused on the women in a Greek village in the early 20th century. According to his bio, he lived and taught in Greece for a decade.

- Gorgeous cover!  It's one of my favorites for the year: simple yet effective.