Friday, October 30, 2015

An enduring friendship: Oscar Hijuelos' final novel, Twain and Stanley Enter Paradise

Chronicling the friendship between Welsh-born explorer Henry Morton Stanley and beloved American raconteur Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain), Hijuelos’ deeply researched final novel was completed just before he died, in 2013. Although this expansive look at the connection between two eminent nineteenth-century men may be a departure from his examinations of the immigrant experience, his gift for evoking his protagonists’ rich interior lives is on full display.

The novel shows a remarkable fidelity to historical voice. It’s told through a combination of formats, including straight narrative, letters, memoir, and diary entries—all invented, and convincingly so. Even Stanley’s “cabinet manuscript” about his and Samuel’s excursion to Cuba fits with the real man’s tendency to blur or exaggerate the truth.

From their initial meeting, aboard a Mississippi steamship, then moving through their stints on the lecture circuit, Stanley’s relationship with vivacious artist Dorothy Tennant, and their beautifully moving ruminations on mortality in their twilight years, their rapport survives several differences of opinion. Both come to loathe slavery but disagree about religion and the value of imperialism, particularly in Africa.

By observing them at many moments of vulnerability, readers gain insights into their makeup. Although the book feels unbalanced in places due to its unusual cobbled-together structure, it’s an extraordinary feat of imaginative historical re-creation.

Twain and Stanley Enter Paradise is published in November by Grand Central ($28 hb, $14.99 ebook, 480pp).  This starred review first appeared in Booklist's 9/15 issue.

Some other notes:

After working on it for more than a decade, Hijuelos had completed the manuscript and was in the process of revisions when he died suddenly.  His widow, author Lori Marie Carlson, worked with his editor to get the manuscript into its final version.  Read more at the New York Times: Hijuelos Novel to be Published Posthumously.

This book is one example of how a character doesn't necessarily have to be likable in order to be interesting to read about.  Samuel Clemens was the more appealing of the two, personally.  Although he was a fascinating character, I found many of Stanley's actions less than admirable.  That said, Stanley isn't depicted as willingly complicit in King Leopold's of Belgium's crimes against the Congolese people, as was claimed during his lifetime, and afterward.  Hijuelos takes a similar viewpoint to Tim Jeal in his award-winning reappraisal of the man, Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa's Greatest Explorer.  

Regarding Clemens, I'm looking forward to reading Lynn Cullen's Twain's End, which looks at the twilight years of his life, and his relationship with his secretary Isabel Lyon. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

A week of presentations

Last week was a bit busy around here.  In addition to the usual answering reference questions and teaching classes to introduce university students to library research I had opportunities to give two presentations of a different sort.

On Monday evening, at the university where I work, I spoke with the students of Dr. Fern Kory's graduate English seminar on youth media reviewing about the historical fiction genre, best practices in reviewing, and the differences between professional reviewing and blogging.  I've put those slides online for anyone interested in taking a look.  I cribbed from past presentations, so a few of the slides may be familiar.

It covered topics I think about and work with every day, as a reviews editor and reviewer, but rarely get the chance to speak about.  The students had good questions.

Then on Wednesday (my birthday!) I headed out to Peoria for the Illinois Library Association conference.  Two library colleagues, Janice Derr and Pam Ferrell, and I gave a presentation Thursday morning on readers' advisory in the academic library, with resources supporting academic libraries' establishment of popular reading collections.  For those slides, which are hosted in EIU's institutional repository, visit the link and click on the Download button.

New knowledge isn't all that I brought home from Peoria, though, since I caught a cold at the conference and have been lying low since, alternately resting and catching up with my overlarge NetGalley queue.  I'm determined to move my "reviewed" percentage a bit higher!

Monday, October 26, 2015

Dark River Melody: Voices from Old London Town, an essay by M.D. Murphy

Today M. D. Murphy is here with an essay about the inspiration for his atmospheric debut novel, Dark River Melody, which takes place amid the political and social struggles of Georgian London.


Dark River Melody: Voices from Old London Town
M. D. Murphy

The germ of Dark River Melody probably started at the British Library while researching for my PhD. I was writing a thesis on the radicalism of Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the 1790s, a turbulent period in England’s political history. Working my way through a mountain of old newspapers, pamphlets and various publications, I found myself being drawn into a world that was both captivating and abhorrent. I recall being struck by the brutality and oppressive mechanisms of the state against those who dared to speak out against the Church, Monarchy and Government. I was also stunned by the brutal way that the urban poor were punished for petty crimes.

I was supposed to be concentrating on my thesis but was constantly distracted by the moving human stories I encountered. I found myself frequently sidetracked to read a newspaper report or trial proceedings about a hanged thief, a transported prostitute, a drunk in the pillory. None of this was getting my PhD finished, but it was compulsive and impossible to ignore. Unconsciously, I had started to write Dark River Melody without putting ink to paper.

Some years after finishing my PhD, I began to write my novel. I chose Georgian London because I was passionate about the period and location. Much of the research for the novel was established from my previous studies, and I was born and lived in London for the first 38 years of my life. London in the 1790s, then, seemed the obvious place to start. Moreover, my research had left an indelible mark on my psyche – it uncovered a cityscape awash with opium dens, cellar brothels, public floggings and squalid street life – all of which I felt compelled to communicate.

And what a city London is for capturing the imagination. Its grand buildings, cobbled streets, secluded courtyards and dark alleyways are a gift to any writer. Dividing the metropolis is the greatest gift of all – the river. The Thames has a bewitching presence in the capital, one that cannot be ignored. Writers from all periods have been drawn to it – Wordsworth was enthralled by the view from Westminster Bridge; T. S. Eliot saw the river as a focal point for human dejection; Ray Davies juxtaposed the “dirty old river” with the paradise of a “Waterloo Sunset”. I thought the river would bring atmosphere to the novel, a mixture of power, beauty and menace; it is the unconscious backbone of the tale.

In Dark River Melody I wanted to tell the story of those early radicals whose struggle played a role in the liberties that we share today: the right to vote, the building of the trade unions, women’s rights, the welfare state and so on. However, the early drafts of the novel were not overtly political and had more to do with encapsulating the social conditions of the period. I wanted to bring the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of Georgian London to the page. I wanted the reader to get a palpable sense of the capital in all its terrible glory, its poetic squalor.

As I went through the drafting process, I came to see there was an important historical narrative here that needed to be told: that of the pamphlet wars of the 1790s. The French Revolution had an immeasurable impact on social change in England. This sparked a debate between the renouncers and supporters of the Revolution, which was played out in the form of battling pamphlets. The Revolution gave impetus to the English reform movement who now had a paradigm for social change at home. As the decade progressed, at war with France and in fear of invasion, the authorities clamped down on reforming activity and insurrection, driving it underground. England had become a dangerous place for radicals who were often hounded by the law or hunted by Church and King mobs.

While the subject of the pamphlet wars had been extensively covered by academics, it hadn’t reached the popular imagination. Fiction then, seemed a more accessible vehicle to bring the story to the public consciousness. To authenticate the fiction I brought in historical figures, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Joseph Johnson, Mary Wollstonecraft and John Thelwall. They help to locate the novel within the precise period, and add historical credibility to my story and characters. Their inclusion is also a fun way of celebrating those radical figures that I so admire – for their bravery in the face of danger, for their commitment to free speech and equal rights.

While I can account for some aspects of why and how I began the novel, there is also a creative element that cannot be rationalized. Looking back and saying it was this or that, is only part of the picture, a need to find expression for something that is ultimately beyond me, and can never be known. But there is one thing I do remember … on a rainy day, seated at my desk in a dimly lit attic, three magic words came to me. From where they came I shall never know – Dark River Melody – they whispered, as if a spirit had spoken from old London town.


M. D. Murphy comes from the London-Irish community. He has a PhD in English Literature from Lancaster University. His academic essays have been published in The Coleridge Bulletin and Romanticism. His poetry has appeared in many publications, including Staple and Poetry Ireland Review. Dark River Melody (Cutting Edge Press, 2015) is his first novel.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Dolores Gordon-Smith's After the Exhibition, a mystery of art, blackmail, and secrets

Set in England in the mid-1920s, this complicated maze of a mystery is full of promising leads, frustrating dead ends, and puzzles wrapped in puzzles. It has the most eventful plot I’ve seen for a novel of its length. To use a period metaphor, at times it feels like a phonograph record played at double the proper speed.

To her credit, though, the author carefully tracks every little strand of the plot and ties the threads up tidily in the end. After finishing, I skimmed through the novel again, noticing on a second time around how well the clues had been laid.

Keeping true to form for a traditional British mystery, the village of Whimbrell Heath in Surrey is populated by eccentric characters – whose personalities, it must be said, outshine the series detectives. Who are: Major Jack Haldean, a famous crime writer, and his friend Bill Rackham, Chief Inspector at Scotland Yard. They stumble upon odd happenings in London while attending an exhibition of church art, an event one would expect to be rather calm and dull. Not so much.

Employees of Lythewell and Askern, a firm specializing in ecclesiastical artwork and furnishings, have traveled up from Whimbrell Heath to participate. Bill’s an old wartime buddy of Colin Askern, son of one of the owners, while Jack finds himself more intrigued by attractive Betty Wingate, Colin’s friend and Lythewell’s niece.

When a woman selling flags for charity passes out in shock on the street, crying out “Art!”, they help her and write it off as a peculiar event. Then things turn even stranger. The next day, when Betty approaches Bill and Jack, claiming that an Italian lady was murdered in her cottage back home, they’re compelled to investigate. Betty’s upset, since Colin and other villagers dismiss her as hysterical: the body she saw has vanished.

Jack and Bill make a good team, and their easygoing banter livens things up, though more backstory – this is the 8th in the series – would have helped me know them better. But with revelations of blackmail, jealousy, overlarge egos, and rumors of hidden treasure, there was more than enough to hold my attention as one stunning revelation after another came to light.

After the Exhibition was published by Severn House in 2014 ($28.95 hb, $13.99 ebook, 240pp).  Thanks to the publisher for the NetGalley download; I'm slowly working my way through my NetGalley queue!

Sunday, October 18, 2015

New and forthcoming historical novels: intriguing book titles

We've often discussed cover art here, specifically the techniques that publishers use to attract readers to historical novels.  Today I'm turning my attention to book titles.  Authors, editors, and marketing professionals spend a lot of time deciding on what books should be called.  It's not uncommon for titles to be changed between the time of manuscript submission and final publication, either. 

Here are 12 new and upcoming books with titles that caught my attention and made me curious about what's inside.  Which historical novels have the most memorable titles as far as you're concerned?

The King of Rock and Roll?  Guess again. The 6th volume in Gary Corby's historical mystery series set in the ancient Greek world moves over to Egypt in the company of not-yet-famous historian Herodotus.  Soho Crime, May 2016.

An intriguing title for this biographical novel about the controversial founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger, who sacrificed much to champion women's sexual equality.  Harper, March 2016.

The subtitle reveals this novel's subject: a young woman of Renaissance Italy who was pushed into prominence and notoriety due to her status as the Pope's daughter.  Ballantine, February 2016.

A debut novel spanning 70 years, and focusing on a love triangle between an American couple a rabbi and his wife and a German refugee.  HarperPerennial, February 2016.

Hite's third novel set on Black Mountain in western North Carolina is a story of women, family heritage, and ghosts set between the Depression and the 1960s.  Mercer University Press, September 2015.

Alice James, sister to William and Henry, shares her family's wit and appetite for gossip.  By 1889, she's bedridden with an unknown illness but still manages to stay involved in events of the day. Counterpoint, September 2015.

Fans of King's long-running suspense series about Sherlock Holmes and his partner Mary Russell may feel nervous after reading this novel's title.  Bantam, April 2016.

A terrific title (and stark, creepy cover) for McCrumb's newest Ballad Novel, centering on a female sheriff in rural Tennessee during the Depression and based on a famous public execution.  Atria, May 2016.

This literary multi-period novel links a modern-day Czech historian with an anarchist from '20s Europe who attempted to assassinate a prominent businessman.  Bellevue Literary Press, May 2016.

The first book in Robb's new mystery series, set in 14th-century York, stars a young widow who runs a guesthouse which is occasionally used for illicit purposes.  Pegasus, May 2016.

Romano-Lax's third novel delves into the ambitious personalities and behaviorist research of two prominent early 20th-century psychologists and their controversial studies of children.  Expect to be enlightened and disturbed.  Soho, March 2016.

St. James is known for her post-WWI English ghost stories. The heroine of her fifth book is a young widow who slowly uncovers her late husband's dark secrets.  NAL, April 2016.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

An early feminist pioneer: Woman in Battle Dress by Antonio Benítez-Rojo

Henriette Faber’s life seems tailor-made for fiction. A Swiss orphan who disguised herself as a man, studied medicine in Paris, and served as a surgeon in Napoleon’s Grand Armée during France’s invasion of Russia in 1812, she later worked as a doctor in Cuba, where her identity was discovered only after she married another woman.

In his impressive, hugely enjoyable final novel, the late Benítez-Rojo revivifies this little-known figure and recognizes her as an early champion of gender equality. Presented mostly chronologically, Henriette’s first-person account offers the complexity of an old-fashioned adventure narrative, packed with history and incident, yet is told with a candid, modern voice.

Shaping her chronicle as she wishes, she stitches together numerous episodes, moving from her romance with a dashing Hussar to her picaresque journey with a traveling show, and spends significant time on Napoleon’s military victories and disasters, including the horrific retreat from Moscow. Details from Caribbean history are interwoven throughout, and through Henriette’s eyes, the author also addresses the economic factors that kept slavery alive in his native land.

Skillfully translated from the Spanish by Jessica Powell, Woman in Battle Dress was published yesterday by San Francisco's City Lights Books ($19.95, trade pb, 480pp).  Antonio Benítez-Rojo, a well-known Cuban literary figure, died in 2005.  This review first appeared in Booklist's August issue.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Guest post: The story behind Freedom's Price, by Michaela MacColl

Today Michaela MacColl is stopping by with a post about the history behind her new middle-grade novel, Freedom's Price, whose heroine is Eliza Scott.  Eliza's father, Dred Scott, is well known to American history, but I had previously been unfamiliar with the story of his children and their lives in St. Louis in the late 1840s.  Hope you'll find her post enlightening as well.


The Story Behind Freedom's Price
Michaela MacColl

Thanks so much for having me as a guest at Reading the Past. I’m delighted to be here and to talk about my new book, Freedom’s Price (Calkins Creek, 2015).

Freedom’s Price is about Eliza Scott, the daughter of the famous Dred Scott. Dred was a slave whose owner took him out of a slave state into a free territory. Later they moved back to St. Louis, where slavery was legal. To protect his children, Dred sued for his freedom. It took ten years for his case to reach the Supreme Court. Their decision, one of the Court’s most shameful, was that as a man of African descent, Dred was not and could not ever be a citizen. The case helped tip the United States into civil war. But what always interested me was the human story behind the court case. Dred and his wife were trying to protect their kids. Plain and simple. (They lost the case, but they were soon freed. It turns out that their owner’s widow had married an abolitionist who was very embarrassed to be the new owner of the nation’s most notorious slaves.)

Since Freedom’s Price is a middle grade novel, I had to choose a sliver of time to contain my story. In 1849, the Scotts have been waiting for almost three years for their case to be heard. They are forced to live in the St. Louis Jail and go out during the day to earn money for their owners. And if it’s a bad year for the Scotts, it’s even worse for the city of St. Louis. The case is delayed yet again by the worst cholera epidemic to ever hit St. Louis. Almost 10% of the city’s population would succumb to the disease. A nun who treated the victims recalled, “We saw large, strong-bodied men suddenly struck and expire in a few hours, and before we could remove one corpse, a second, a third, and a fourth were ready.”

While the city was reeling from epidemic, there was a terrible fire. It began on a paddleboat moored at the port in the Mississippi River. The fire spread from one boat to another – destroying 32 ships. Then the fire hopped to land and took out over 400 buildings.

Ruins of the Great St. Louis Fire, 17-18 May 1849.
Daguerreotype by Thomas M. Easterly, 1849 (public domain)

In the middle of all this chaos and pain, I tell the story of Eliza. She’s 12 years old and her mother has always whispered in her ear at night that Eliza is a free person. But she must never say so. Although her parents are illiterate, they send her to an illegal school that floats in the federally controlled Mississippi River so she can learn to read. But a literate slave is illegal in St. Louis. Eliza chooses to live with other slaves in a slaveowner’s home rather than stay in the jail. This choice, as well as several others, will land her in trouble. If you want a hint about what happens look closely at the cover of Freedom’s Price (which is based on this print by Nathaniel Currier which ran in every newspaper in the nation) shows some foolhardy souls in a rowboat trying to escape the fire.

Great Fire at St. Louis, Mo., Thursday night, May 17th, 1849.
Lithograph by N. Currier, 1849. (LoC/public domain)

Of course I needed an ending that would resonate with younger readers. Luckily for me, the Scotts briefly win the court case in the winter of 1850 – so I end the story there. My afterword explains that the Scotts would have to wait another 7 years for the case to be finally resolved, and not in their favor.

I had a blast writing this novel and I hope you enjoy reading it! Please visit my website at and let me know what you think.


Michaela MacColl has published several historical fiction novels. Prisoners in the Palace received a starred review from School Library Journal and was selected as an Indie Next Choice. Promise the Night received starred reviews and was selected for the ALA Amelia Bloomer List, IRA's Notable Books for a Global Society, and Bank Street College's Best Books of 2012. Her series of literary mysteries (Nobody’s Secret, Always Emily and The Revelation of Louisa May) have received numerous starred reviews and have featured on the Bank Street Colleges Best Books, YALSA Best and VOYA Best lists as well as being selected as Junior Library Guild selections. She has degrees in multi-disciplinary history from Vassar College and Yale University. Rory’s Promise and Freedom's Price are part of the Hidden Histories series published by Calkins Creek books. She and her family live in Connecticut.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

The complexities and contradictions of a king: Geraldine Brooks' The Secret Chord

In her gorgeously written novel of ambition, courage, retribution, and triumph, Brooks imagines the life and character of King David in all his complexity, from his humble childhood through old age.  A brilliant harpist and singer with immense charisma, this man beloved by the Lord is also a fearsome warrior who ruthlessly pursues his vision of power.

Natan, David’s longtime counselor and prophet, proves a shrewd chronicler for his tale, and David wisely knows it. The plot ranges back and forth in time, as Natan interviews three individuals David hand-selects for him to speak with, reminisces about his years of service, and observes David’s passion for the beautiful, married Batsheva and its consequences.  But this isn’t David’s story alone. Stitched onto the familiar biblical framework are insightful interpretations of his wives and family members.

The language, clear and precise throughout, turns soaringly poetic when describing music or the glory of David’s city. Brooks’ preference for biblical Hebrew names emphasizes the story’s origins, and, taken as a whole, the novel feels simultaneously ancient, accessible, and timeless.

The Secret Chord is published today by Viking in hardcover ($27.95, 320pp).  This review first appeared in Booklist's August issue.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Coming of age in the heartland: Carol Bodensteiner's Go Away Home

According to the US Census, the population of Jackson County, Iowa, was just over 21,000 in 1910. Opening three years later, Carol Bodensteiner’s debut, set on dairy farms and in the small town of Maquoketa, the county seat, is a heartfelt coming-of-age story that should appeal to adults and mature YAs.

With her clear, unfussy writing style, the author re-creates the daily lives and hopes of women living in America’s heartland, basing the character of Liddie Treadway on her grandmother. Over the course of the novel, which has an epic feel despite its narrow geographic scope, Liddie grows up, comes to see what she values most, and learns the necessity of weathering the storms life sends her way.

Maquoketa is a mere 10 miles from her family’s farm, but for 16-year-old Liddie, “boarding in town, learning to be a seamstress, living on her own – those experiences were exotic.” She has talent and wants to see where it takes her, especially if it’s far from Iowa. But after her older sister, Amelia, gets pregnant and is sent away, and another tragedy strikes, Liddie sees her career aspirations crushed.

But circumstances change, as the swift-moving plot demonstrates. Liddie’s apprenticeship in a sewing shop gives her marketable skills, and her friendship with a photographer opens doors she never imagined. She writes frequent letters to Joe Bauer, her family’s former hired hand, homesteading in distant Saskatchewan, but she sees him only as a good friend. She wants to be more than a farmer’s wife.

She often acts immature for her years, stomping her feet when events go contrary to expectations, but it’s easy to warm to Liddie and root for her to outgrow her naïveté. The social values expressed in the novel reflect the time; even the kindest, most good-hearted men expect their wives home in time to cook dinner. Themes of women’s suffrage, anti-war sentiment, prejudice against German-Americans, and the threat of Spanish influenza wend through the novel.

Bodensteiner includes picturesque images of the hills of rural Iowa, “where the pattern of fields and fences reminded [Liddie] of a nine-patch quilt.” In places the novel reads like scenes from Country Magazine come to life. This was a time of party-line telephones and Brownie cameras, letter-writing and home-made dresses, when daily chores were constant and driving a car was an exciting, new experience.

However, despite its nostalgic qualities, the story has an inner grit that adds to its feeling of authenticity. Farming is difficult, and the family relationships are far from idealized. Readers interested in early 20th-century women’s lives should appreciate this involving story about the strength to leave home, the courage to come back, and the relationships formed along the way. A sequel would be welcome.

Go Away Home was published by Lake Union in July (400pp, pb and ebook).  Thanks to the publisher for making it available on NetGalley as a "read now" title.  A special alert: for those who ordinarily read the Author's Note at the end before starting a book, please don't!  (Thankfully, I didn't.)  Doing so will spoil the reading experience.