Saturday, December 31, 2016

Some highlights from a year of reading - 2016

I debated whether to post a list of 2016 favorites.  Choosing from among those I'd read in the last year proved challenging, and I spent way too much time dithering over a list.  In the end, I decided I'd already made my decisions via Goodreads, so I should stick to it.

Goodreads has a nice display of my 2016 Year in Books.  I didn't meet my challenge of 100 books read, instead getting to just 94 (Goodreads says 89, but I didn't track manuscripts I'd read for friends, which aren't in the system anyway, or books I'd read as an award judge).  For my choices on which to highlight in this post, I counted only books first published in 2016.

Okay, enough disclaimers.  Here are the 10 books I'd rated as five-star reads in 2016, arranged in no particular order.

Natashia Deón, Grace - A deeply affecting novel about motherhood and freedom in the antebellum South, as seen from the viewpoint of an enslaved woman murdered just after her daughter's birth.  Brave, unflinching, and memorable.

Sarit Yishai-Levi, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem - This debut novel from an Israeli author became an international bestseller in  its original Hebrew.  It involved me fully in the daily lives, hopes, and sufferings of four generations of Sephardi Jewish women in 20th-century Jerusalem.

Brad Watson, Miss Jane - A beautifully contemplative novel about a woman from early 20th-century Mississippi (based on the author's great-aunt) who was born with an unusual medical condition that precludes marriage but seizes what joy she can from life all the same.

Suzanne Wolfe, The Confessions of X - This imagined autobiography of the unnamed mistress of Augustine of Hippo is a poetic work of art, literary historical fiction set during an age -- the shadowy fourth century AD -- about which few historical novels are written.

Jennifer S. Brown, Modern Girls - In this warmhearted yet realistic novel, an immigrant mother and her Americanized daughter in 1930s NYC both find themselves unhappily pregnant. It's full of wonderful details on Jewish life and customs at the time.

Emma Donoghue, The Wonder - In 1859, an English nurse travels to rural Ireland to investigate the case of a "fasting girl" and discovers a potential crime-in-progress. Devout Catholicism mixes with folk superstition in my vote for the most affecting, suspenseful read of the year.

Mary Sharratt, The Dark Lady's Mask - The imagined relationship between English poet Aemilia Lanyer and William Shakespeare; the author always has insightful things to say about historical women's roles and accomplishments.

Mary F. Burns, Ember Days - On the cusp of the 1960s, life-changing secrets emerge among the residents of the small coastal town of Mendocino, California. There are many characters and viewpoints, all distinct, and their religious beliefs, carefully interwoven without preachiness, allow for an abiding sense of hope.

Weina Dai Randel, The Moon in the Palace - This debut novel about the younger years of the future Empress Wu presents a young girl's transition into womanhood at the imperial court of 7th-century China.  Far from a standard tale of royal intrigue, the writing provides entrance into a formal yet sumptuous world.

Catherine Banner, The House on the Edge of Night - A near century-spanning epic set on the fictional isle off the Sicilian coast, Banner's debut novel combines the lively style of a folk tale with the realism of a meaty historical saga.  I found it engrossing and would love to visit Castellamare in person.

And there we have it, with just six hours to spare until the New Year.  Thanks very much for following this site, and I hope the next year will bring you lots of good reading!

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Historical fiction paperback makeovers, part two

I always like examining and discussing historical novel cover art.  The following ten pairings include the hardcover jacket design and the corresponding cover redesign for the paperback (mostly from 2016, with a couple from 2015).  In most cases, the books are considered literary fiction, and the images reflect this: they're elegant, bold, dramatic, and original.  The paperbacks incorporate the novels' themes while conveying a more approachable feel, with the increased usage of human figures and readily identifiable tropes. Dictator, for instance, uses a look that implies "ancient-world historical adventure."  That's my impression, anyway.  What do you think of these makeovers?

Part 1 in this series, from August 2015, can be seen here.

Elizabeth, New Jersey, during one tragedy-filled season in the 1950s.

The Biblical story of King David, as seen from multiple viewpoints.

A female pugilist's story in Georgian Britain.

Third and final novel in the Cicero trilogy, set in ancient Rome.

The lives of wealthy expatriates Sara and Gerald Murphy on the French Riviera in the 1920s.

The lives in a family of mixed faith (Jewish-Christian) in Berlin during
the WWI years and Jazz Age. 

The fateful voyage of the Hindenburg in 1937, from the viewpoint of its passengers. 

The relationship between sisters Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. 

 A multi-generational saga about a Jewish family, set along the Connecticut
shoreline in the 1940s.

The story of Loretta Young and Clark Gable during Hollywood's Golden Age.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Aimie K. Runyan's Duty to the Crown, second in a saga of early French Canada

In my review of the first book in Aimie K. Runyan’s trilogy about the women of New France’s Quebec settlement in the 17th century, Promised to the Crown, I’d written that “the latter part of the book appears to head into saga territory.” This turned out to be a good prediction for the second book, Duty to the Crown. It opens in 1677, about half a generation later, and focuses on three women of very different upbringing, and who aren’t particularly close, but who are drawn together as their circumstances change.

Manon Lefebvre, a young Huron woman who had been raised as a foster daughter in a well-to-do colonial household, had returned to her home village but must reinvent her life after she’s suddenly expelled from it. The painful realities of a woman’s lot in this French frontier community are exemplified through the story of Gabrielle Giroux. A talented seamstress who had escaped a rough family environment, she marries a stranger to save her guardians the large fine they’d incur if she doesn’t find a husband by age sixteen. Lastly, Claudine Deschamps, Manon’s spoiled foster sister and the younger sister of Nicole from the first book, undergoes trials that transform her character.

The story excels at depicting the women’s emotional growth over the novel’s three-year span. They rely on one another for support when men or the law abandons them to their fates, which happens quite often. It’s made clear how directly their happiness, or lack thereof, is tied to the men they wed. In a close-knit community like Quebec, an unmarried woman can lose her good reputation after one thoughtless act, while a Rouen farmer’s daughter can become very wealthy and gain social status through her marriage to a local seigneur. By now, the women and their families aren’t new immigrants, but settlers who think of Quebec as their home, and their mindset reflects that.

The larger political and economic events shaping French Canada aren’t as prominent as they were in the first book; the settlers’ world seems very self-contained. However, the author strikes a good balance among the lives of the colonial elite, with their richly appointed homes and gowns, and those of average settlers and the Huron peoples.  This lively and entertaining saga is written with a light touch. The women’s domestic concerns are paramount, and the joys and misfortunes they experience are evoked in an affecting way. I felt personally involved in their lives and am eager to see where their families’ stories lead from here.

Duty to the Crown was published by Kensington in November.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Best of historical fiction lists from various venues

'Tis that time of year when "best of" lists are appearing at different bookish sites. Many such lists exist, but most don't divide the books by genre, or if they do, historical fiction isn't one of them.  There are a few I've found, though, that include a category for historical novels.  Am I missing any others?

The 2016 Goodreads Choice Award for Historical Fiction went to Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad, a worthy choice.  There are a few neat things about this list.  First, the voting is open to everyone with a Goodreads account.  Second, you can see how many votes the winner and nominees received. Third, the end result makes for a nice mixture of literary and genre fiction, for those who categorize books that way. Fourth, for me personally, it's always one of the few prizes (if not the only one) where I've actually read a number of the nominees.

It helps that there are 20 altogether, and I've read five:  in addition to The Underground Railroad, there's Emma Donoghue's The Wonder, Weina Dai Randel's The Moon in the Palace, Kathleen Grissom's Glory Over Everything, and Jennifer S. Brown's Modern Girls.

Next, NPR's Book Concierge, their guide to 2016's great reads, gathers all of the books tagged "historical fiction" in a gallery of covers.  Both adult books and YAs are included.  The Wonder is included here too, along with Rose Tremain's The Gustav Sonata.  There are a few here I've never heard of before and look like potentials for the TBR.

Library Journal 's Best Genre Fiction selections include a Historical Fiction category, with five books chosen.  Among these, the only one I've read is Natashia Deon's Grace, which I agree belongs on a top 5 list.

Addendum: thanks to my Bloglovin feed, I just found one more.  Booktopia, an Australian bookstore, has a six-book shortlist for the best historical fiction reads of the year, as well as the winner, Melissa Ashley's The Birdman's Wife.  And some of the books on their lists for literary and popular fiction are historical, too.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

To Capture What We Cannot Keep by Beatrice Colin, a literary love story set in Belle Époque Paris

They meet while aloft in a hot air balloon over Paris in 1887. Caitriona Wallace is an impoverished Glaswegian widow acting as chaperone to the wealthy Arrol siblings as they travel Europe on their Grand Tour. One of Gustave Eiffel’s engineers, Émile Nouguier needs to marry among his class to please his mother and bolster the family finances.

Although Alice Arrol is a naive teenager, she’s a potential match for Émile, but he finds himself more intrigued by Cait. However, in returning his affections, Cait would be choosing passion over honor.

Their beautifully restrained love story, told in a refreshingly unhurried manner and grounded in the era’s social constraints, gains complexity as Alice and her brother, Jamie, rebel against their expected roles. Nouguier is a historical figure, and readers get a close-up perspective on the Eiffel Tower’s step-by-step construction.

Drawn with care and suffused with stylish ambiance, Colin’s (The Glimmer Palace, 2008) Paris is a city of painters, eccentric aristocrats, desperate prostitutes, secret lovers, and the magnificent artistic vision taking shape high above them. Devotees of the Belle Époque should relish it.

To Capture What We Cannot Keep was published by Flatiron Books in late November (hardcover, 304pp, $25.99).  This review first appeared in Booklist's 10/1 issue.

There are two other things I should say explicitly about this book: it's a work of historical literary fiction, and although a love story forms an important part of the plot, it's not a romance by genre. Readers expecting more of a traditional romance will likely find the pacing too slow for their tastes. Also, as with other literary novels, the characterizations are complex, subtle, and multi-layered.  The cover is great and fitting, but the title doesn't really do it for me. It feels like it was chosen to appeal to the many fans of All the Light We Cannot See.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Historical novels by Australian women writers for #AWW2016, and on to 2017

I'm wrapping up my second year of participation in the Australian Women Writers Challenge.  Now that I'm part of the associated Facebook group, I'm seeing the impressive reading accomplishments of the other participants, which far surpass mine, but I'm pleased to have met my 2016 goal of six books read, four reviewed.  I reviewed all six, which are as follows:

The Wife's Tale by Christine Wells, a dual-time romance/mystery set in modern and Georgian England.

The Memory Stones by Caroline Brothers, literary fiction about what happens to an Argentine family during the country's Dirty War.

Call to Juno by Elisabeth Storrs, the final book in her trilogy set in ancient Rome and Etruria.

The Railwayman's Wife by Ashley Hay, a literary novel about the aftermath of loss, set in the Australian seaside town of Thirroul beginning in 1948.

Daughter of Albion by Ilka Tampke, a gritty historical fantasy set in first-century England.  In the UK and Australia, the title is Skin.

And the final review was for a book-length literary study on the historical fiction genre by Gillian Polack, History and Fiction: Writers, Their Research, Worlds, and Stories, which I reviewed for the nonfiction section of November's Historical Novels Review.

Thinking about it, I'm realizing I actually read seven that fit.  The one which I didn't review (because I read it on vacation) was Barbara Hannay's The Secret Years, which uses the popular multi-era format to tell the story of a north Queensland family from WWII to the present.  It used to be on sale for Kindle in the US but isn't any longer.

I've also signed up again for 2017; I have plenty of books by Australian women writers waiting on my physical and virtual shelves to be read.  I'm especially eager to get my hands on Lucy Treloar's Salt Creek, which finally came back in stock at Fishpond.  With everything I'm assigned to read by various publications, I'm not sure if I can make it past my 2016 goal, but we'll see.

Saturday, December 03, 2016

Christina Courtenay's The Velvet Cloak of Moonlight, a step back in time to historic Raglan Castle

Coincidentally, this title came up for review while I was planning a trip to Raglan Castle in South Wales, and it turned out to be a perfect introduction to the site. It’s a well-written dual-time romance partly set against a pivotal episode of English Civil War history: the 1646 siege of Raglan, which was among the last Royalist strongholds to fall to Parliamentary forces. Today the castle is a picturesque ruin.

Tess, the young Countess of Merrick, is the likeable present-day heroine. A talented furniture artist, she gained her title by marrying her estranged late husband, Giles, a compulsive gambler who was killed in a drunk-driving accident. Because of his habit, she has little money to spare. The estate was entailed, so Tess expects to vacate Merrick Court once Giles’s closest heir is found and moves in. He turns out to be Josh Owens, a handsome Kiwi adventurer. Initially Josh wants to sell the place, but he comes to find rural Welsh farm life appealing. He finds Tess appealing, too.

The time-shifts are smoothly handled. Tess and Josh begin seeing ghosts and tapping into the past through the eyes of a 1640s-era couple who seem to be warning them about something. Arabella Dauncey, the dispossessed heiress of Merrick Court, lives at nearby Raglan Castle as the Marquis of Worcester’s ward. Rhys Cadell, a Cavalier knight, cares for her but is unsure of her loyalties.

Courtenay provides wonderful visual details of the castle interior in its elegant former state. Readers are carried along on a daring moonlight ride and experience the siege as living spaces become overcrowded and Fairfax’s large New Model Army gathers outside, its cannonballs destroying Raglan’s walls piece by piece. Family squabbles, rumors of lost treasure, and a couple of nasty villains add to the entertaining plotline.

The Velvet Cloak of Moonlight was published in 2016 by Choc Lit ($11.99/£7.99).  It's volume 4 of the Shadows from the Past series.  Thanks to the publisher for approving my NetGalley access.  This review first appeared in November's Historical Novels Review magazine.

And here are some pics of Raglan Castle, taken on the gray, drizzly morning of September 9, 2016. There were very few other tourists there, so there was ample room for exploring.

The approach to Raglan Castle (photo by me), under gray skies

The picturesque ruins of Raglan, with the South Wales
countryside in the background (photo by Mark)

An interior doorway and stairway, with historical marker (photo by me)

Monday, November 28, 2016

Rae Meadows' I Will Send Rain, a novel of the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma

“God doesn’t use weather as a weapon,” thinks Annie Bell, wife and mother in a farming family in Mulehead, Oklahoma, in 1934. The grass is dry and crunchy, their crops are producing a fraction of their normal yield, and the wall of heavy clouds that overtakes their land brings not the hoped-for rain but a thick whirlwind of dirt that coats their fields, their animals, and all their belongings – indeed their very lives.

Despite her status as a minister’s daughter, Annie doesn’t see their dire situation as any type of divine punishment. Her husband Samuel, on the other hand, holds to his Christian faith. In “dreams of ferocious rain” that disturb his sleep nightly, God appears to be calling him to a specific purpose.

Meanwhile, their 15-year-old daughter Barbara Ann, called Birdie, pursues her attraction to a neighbor’s son, and their youngest, Fred, an observant and fragile boy, cares for his hens and wanders around exploring the land. Although he’s unable to speak, he picks up on nuances that others miss.

The Dust Bowl was one of the worst ecological disasters of the 20th century.  In her fourth novel, Meadows keeps the focus tight and intimate, homing in on its damaging effects on one homesteading family.

The drought serves as a catalyst that drives each of the Bells onto separate paths. All are uprooted from their normal roles. Even sensible Annie, baffled by the odd behavior in the husband she loves, acts against what she feels is her true self by flirting with the mayor, Jack Lily, a younger man from Chicago.

The author lets these scenarios play out logically without passing judgment on anyone’s decisions. The land may be harsh and unwelcoming, but her tone is as compassionate as her language is rich, and it’s just what these characters need. Even Samuel, who could have been depicted as a stereotypical religious zealot, never loses his rational side, which makes his transformation even more unsettling. The story also makes plain that people and crops aren’t the environment’s only victims: the animals suffer greatly, too. The plight of the rabbits and cows are doubly tragic, since they’re betrayed by both the land and humans.

Timeless scenarios, like Birdie’s inability to see her mother as a woman with her own emotional needs, are made real and authentic. I particularly liked the depiction of the house abandoned by the Bells’ neighbors, the Woodrows. Left to desiccate after they take off for California, it comes to represent the unacknowledged side of people’s natures.

Other symbolism feels a bit too heavy-handed, like the wooden ark Samuel constructs with Fred’s help, and that subplot’s resolution. It feels out of place in a work that otherwise seems poignantly real. I also wondered how a young city guy like Jack Lily came to be elected mayor of a rural Great Plains town. Still, this is an admirable, deeply felt novel that gives voice to a proud, resilient family and the challenges that nature forces them to endure.

I Will Send Rain was published by Henry Holt in August (hb, 272pp, $26).  I picked up this ARC at the publisher's booth at BEA in May.

Friday, November 25, 2016

A royal coming of age: Daisy Goodwin's Victoria

Daisy Goodwin’s Victoria, which the author wrote alongside the screenplay for the upcoming Masterpiece TV series, follows the young queen from her ascension to Britain’s throne in 1837 through her marriage proposal two years later to her cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. The smooth writing and sympathetic portrayal of Victoria makes it easy to be drawn into her world.

The novel succeeds in humanizing a woman who gave her name to an era, and many details reflect her life (Goodwin used the queen’s diaries as inspiration). That said, its tendency to romanticize and to rework other events for dramatic effect may turn off some readers. For example: in history, Victoria’s mother woke her on the morning of her royal uncle’s death; Victoria didn’t intervene with the Chartists; and she didn't see Melbourne as a love interest.

The relationship between Victoria and her Prime Minister, William Lamb, Lord Melbourne, is central to the story and to her reign’s beginning. Victoria is bright and willing to learn, but her secluded childhood has left her unprepared for the requirements of her role. Forty years older than the 18-year-old queen, Melbourne acts as her mentor, friend, and frequent social companion. His constant presence in her life demonstrates her strong will, but her refusal to give up the man she’s developed a crush on (in real life, they had a platonic, father-daughter type of bond) leads to gossip and political turmoil.

The novel weaves in many political events occurring over the novel’s two-year span: the Hastings affair, the “bedchamber crisis,” and the Newport Rising. Although these scenes involve some tweaking of timelines and more, they illuminate Victoria’s difficult task: to come of age and gain sufficient wisdom to reign effectively with the whole world watching.

In addition to the portrait of Victoria herself, that of her mother, the Duchess of Kent, is particularly nuanced. Is the Duchess overprotective and controlling, or does she truly love her daughter? Is she unduly influenced by the ambitions of her companion, Sir John Conroy, or is she a lonely widow in need of affection? All of these are true.

As for Albert, the intended suitor Victoria resists for so long and finally comes to love – he only appears in person toward the end. Despite his lack of on-page time, they seem a good match. Handsome and principled yet overly serious, he’s hardly a classic hero, but she comes to appreciate his directness.

TV dramatizations and films about actual figures are known for playing fast and loose with history. Readers of historical fiction can tolerate this to some degree, and an author’s note often helps, yet – unsurprisingly given its connection to the TV series – none is included in Victoria. It’s enjoyable to read for its intimate depiction of its young heroine’s emotional and political growth, but anyone curious about the real woman should follow up with a biography about her.

Victoria was published by St. Martin's Press this week in the US and Canada ($26.99/C$37.99, hardcover, 404pp).  Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy.  In the UK, the publisher is Headline Review.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Scandal, Georgian-style: The Wife's Tale by Christine Wells

This is a dual-narrative novel with a difference. In one section, a modern-day woman becomes intrigued by centuries-old secrets about an elegant country home and its former mistress, a mysterious dark-haired lady in red. The historical thread centers on that lady’s troubled marriage in Georgian England, which conjures up images of decadent aristocrats and scandalous affairs. Wells, a debut novelist, takes a fresh approach to both story lines, intertwining them in surprising and satisfying ways.

Liz Jones is a fabulous character. A career-driven corporate lawyer from Brisbane, she’s outgoing, funny, and occasionally blunt, but it’s for the right reasons. When her boss asks her to travel to the Isle of Wight and investigate the history of Seagrove, a stately home once owned by his ancestor, she resists – a beach vacation with her husband awaits.

But her marriage is shaky, and their joint holiday doesn’t happen, so soon Liz finds herself abroad, renting Seagrove’s guest cottage. Here she gets entangled with the Nash family, including guarded, down-to-earth Theo, while pretending to be researching Delany, his notorious ancestress. Wells’ background as an attorney adds depth: in 1789, Delany’s husband, an earlier Lord Nash, goes to court against his brother Julian, a “radical rogue and reckless libertine,” for supposedly having seduced his beautiful wife.

There’s more to the story, of course. What stands out is how real the situations feel, and how skillfully Wells avoids stereotypes. Delany makes a grand entrance into the courtroom and novel, complete with ostrich-plumed hat and confidence to spare, but her version of her alleged adultery (as her journal reveals) takes unexpected twists. Liz’s story also has significant heft, especially when her deception begins to clash with her closeness to the Nashes, Theo in particular. Even the villainous characters are drawn with nuance. Full of great dialogue, romance, and a breathtaking coastal landscape, this engrossing novel deserves a wide audience.

The Wife's Tale was published by Penguin Australia in 2016 (trade pb, A$32.99, 439pp).  I bought my own copy from Fishpond after seeing positive reviews of it elsewhere.  This review first appeared in November's Historical Novels Review.  I hope the book will find a US publisher.

This is my 5th post for the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

#ReadUP! Ten recent historical novels from university presses

University Press Week, sponsored by the Association of  American University Presses, runs from November 14-19 this year.  It's been celebrated since 1978, and in acknowledgment of this year's event, I'm presenting ten recent historical novels from university presses.  While better known for publishing scholarly nonfiction, many university presses offer a selection of fiction titles, often focusing on topics set within their region.

The author fictionalizes her aunt's secret and courageous past as a science writer and lesbian during the Cold War years. University of Wisconsin Press, 2016.

A girl in small-town Arkansas in the 1960s has her eyes opened to the religious and racial tensions in her community.  University of Arkansas Press, 2016.

The author based his novel about three men in the free-fire zone known as the Arizona Territory in Vietnam's An Hoa Basin on his own wartime experiences.  Naval Institute Press, 2016.

A collection of interlinked stories about four generations of a Jewish family, moving from France to America starting during the WWII years. See the author's guest post.  BkMk Press of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, 2016.

Set in California's Great Central Valley in the '40s, the story of Bea Franco, who was fictionalized as "Terry, the Mexican girl" in Jack Kerouac's On the Road.   See my earlier review.  University of Arizona Press, 2016 (paperback).

Described as an East of Eden-type saga set in the Appalachian Mountains, this novel takes place in the 1940s and follows characters first mentioned in the author's earlier Black Mountain Saga books.  Mercer University Press, 2016.

In post-Civil War Texas, a teenage boy joins with two of his uncles, a black man, and a Texas ranger to rescue a young girl from violent renegades. TCU Press, 2016.

This debut novel focuses on two Catholic families, one white and one black, whose women work on segregated floors of the same cigar factory in Charleston, South Carolina, during the world wars.  University of South Carolina Press, 2016.

A multi-generational novel about the women of the Goode-Brown family, set in the rural black township of Opulence, Kentucky starting in the 1960s.  University Press of Kentucky, 2016.

Set in Sudan in the late 19th century, this prizewinning novel (Naguib Mahfouz Medal, 2014) tells the story of two lovers, a Sudanese man and a Greek woman, whose lives are torn apart during the Mahdi uprising.  American University in Cairo Press, 2016.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Book review: The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

In the antebellum era, Cora, a teenager born into slavery on a Georgia plantation, agrees to flee with a literate new arrival, Caesar, and head north with him to freedom. Cora had been a particular target of Terrance Randall and his overseer due to her brave defense of a fellow slave, and because her mother had successfully escaped five years earlier. At every step along her route, a slave tracker hunts her down.

“A plantation was a plantation; one might think one’s misfortunes distinct, but the true horror lay in their universality.” The same holds true of each stop Cora makes along the underground railroad, creatively imagined here as a literal set of subterranean tracks on which trains carry their desperate passengers somewhere else – anywhere else. Cora’s harrowing experiences in different states reflect not only African-Americans’ pre-Civil War lives but also the bigotry and racist violence they faced in later historical periods – today included.

Most works of literary fiction (as this one is) offer deeper characterizations than is shown here, and some readers may be frustrated at the lack of emphasis on Cora’s inner feelings. However, the writing follows in the authentic style of historical slave narratives. Cora’s tale unfolds in direct, unembellished language that reads quickly and allows for no ambiguity.

As a highly anticipated title by a prominent author, and as an Oprah pick, this novel will be widely read and discussed – as it should be. It’s heartbreaking, occasionally brutal, and undeniably relevant. It also deserves more than one reading. Cora is an immensely courageous heroine, and the novel’s underlying sense of hope lies not only in her determined quest for liberty but in the many individuals, both named and unknown, who risk their lives to help her achieve it.

The Underground Railroad was published in September by Doubleday in hardcover ($26.95/C$34.95, 320pp).  This review first appeared in November's Historical Novels Review, thanks to a NetGalley copy provided by the publisher.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Forthcoming historical novels for 2017 on the HNS website

Just a short post for now.

For many years, I've been compiling listings of forthcoming books for the Historical Novel Society website.

I finally got a good start on the guide to forthcoming historical novels for 2017, so if you're curious to see what will be appearing in print through next August, click on over to the HNS site for details.  It's a work in progress, with more titles (including those from the UK) to be added later on.

Lots of good reading is on the way in the next year!

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Spiritualism at the seaside: Jessica Estevao's Whispers Beyond the Veil

The seaside resort town of Old Orchard Beach, Maine, is the setting for this enjoyable first novel in a new lightly paranormal mystery series. In 1898, Ruby Proulx finally manages to escape her controlling father, a traveling medicine show hawker, but the circumstances are less than ideal.

For years, the pair had peddled nostrums and other miracle cures to unsuspecting “rubes,” but after Mr. Proulx’s newest scheme turns deadly, Ruby must flee Canada and hope the aunt she never knew will take her in. Her Aunt Honoria’s establishment, the Hotel Belden, is a haven for Spiritualist seekers, a fact that could prove tempting for a young woman who’s an expert fraudster. “If I had not promised myself to go straight, the temptation to feign psychic ability would have been overwhelming,” Ruby admits.

Ruby’s narrative voice is an engaging mix of youthful vitality and not-quite-innocence, and she herself hears a voice that guides her at opportune moments. However, she’s never been comfortable with her clairaudient ability and isn’t sure whether to trust it or anyone. She worries her past will catch up with her. The cast is large, ranging from the diverse psychic practitioners and servants employed by the hotel, their guests, local police and businessmen, and the Indians who travel from the Canadian Maritimes every summer and make a living from the tourist trade. The setting feels realistic and draws readers into a world of parasols, bathing costumes, and social calls, plus grimmer realities like a late 19th-century version of gentrification.

The first half concerns Ruby’s quest for belonging and the search for a pickpocket who attacked her when she first arrived in Maine. The real crime happens quite late in the story, but clues are carefully planted for readers to find, and the ending leaves sufficient threads for the next volume.

Whispers Beyond the Veil, first in the A Change of Fortune mystery series, was published by Berkley in September.  This review first appeared in the Historical Novels Review's November issue.  Thanks to the publisher for approving my NetGalley access.

Monday, October 31, 2016

An impossible wartime mystery: Karolina's Twins by Ronald H. Balson

How could anyone today hope to find what happened to two infants, twin girls, who vanished somewhere in Nazi-occupied Poland? It seems an impossible task.

Chicago lawyer Catherine Lockhart and her husband, private detective Liam Taggart, have a reputation for solving mysteries from the WWII era, which is why Lena Woodward, an elderly widow and Holocaust survivor, asks them to help her. Lena intends to keep a promise she made long ago: to find her friend Karolina’s long-lost twins. “She was my dear, dear friend,” Lena tells them. “She saved my life, but in the end I could not save hers.” Although doubtful at their chances of success, Catherine and Liam agree to hear Lena out.

Lena’s heartrending and suspenseful account, which begins with her childhood in the Polish town of Chrzanów, is easily the book’s most compelling aspect. The format feels awkward at first; the two timelines (present and past) don’t appear in alternating chapters, as is more common for multi-period novels. Instead, the majority of Lena’s story is told through her dialogue. To Catherine and Liam, Lena reveals her plight as a Jewish girl forced to survive on her own in a danger-filled land, distraught after hearing her parents and disabled younger brother carted away by the Germans. Through her eyes, readers will experience her risky flight through the rural Polish countryside; her work at a German-run garment factory back in Chrzanów, under the supervision of a good-looking Jewish manager; and her reunion there with Karolina, whose pregnancy forces the young women to make desperate decisions.

Lena’s account of survival and immense bravery was inspired by the real-life experiences of Fay Scharf Waldman, a woman who came to one of Ronald Balson’s book signings for an earlier novel and gave him permission to fictionalize her story. Catherine and Liam’s occasional banter about the baby they’re expecting feels jarringly superficial in comparison, but their roles in Lena’s pursuit of the truth become more intriguing and complicated when Lena’s son, Arthur, gets involved. He claims his mother suffers from a senile obsession with the past, and that the investigative couple are trying to fleece her out of her money. Balson is a Chicago trial attorney, and he skillfully leads readers through the tangled legalities of Arthur’s petition and Catherine’s daring response to it.

The novel’s functional, efficient prose gets the job done and ensures a brisk pace up through the dramatic ending, which is worth waiting for.

Karolina's Twins was published by St. Martin's Press in September (hb, 306pp).  Thanks to the publisher for providing me with a review copy.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

A literary murder in Leeds: Frances Brody's Death of an Avid Reader

“Young people working in a library are no different from those working anywhere else,” says private investigator Kate Shackleton. “They must have a little amusement.”

In this 6th outing in Frances Brody’s ongoing series set around Leeds in the 1920s, Kate finds herself solving multiple mysteries at once. First, Jane, Lady Coulton, hires Kate to find the secret illegitimate daughter she was forced to give up over 20 years earlier. The baby was raised by the sister of Lady Coulton’s former nanny, a fishmonger’s wife, but she and her family have moved elsewhere, and the trail has gone cold.

In addition, as a longtime shareholder of the Leeds Library, Kate agrees to participate in a religious ritual to banish the resident “ghost” from the library’s basement. She believes any odd happenings people experienced were more likely caused by teenage pranks than poltergeists but goes along with the process. To everyone’s shock, the ceremony turns up the dead body of one of Kate’s fellow readers. The local police inspector immediately blames an Italian organ grinder, based on circumstantial evidence, even though Kate knows the man was too ill to commit the crime. There are also rumors of a book thief afoot…

Kate is a heroine that modern women can appreciate. A capable detective who refuses to downplay her intelligence, Kate knows that many men don’t consider her their equal, but she refuses to let that stop her. She simply gets on with the job, even when Inspector Wallis makes it clear that her help is unwelcome.

While the books in the series can stand alone (I’ve read three so far), each new entry serves to enhance the characterizations in the previous volumes. In Death of an Avid Reader, Kate’s WWI nursing experience comes to the forefront again, and she – and the reader – gets to learn more about Mrs. Sugden, her longtime housekeeper.

The story sprawls a bit early on, but Kate’s dry humor keeps her narrative sharp and lively, and, as always with this series, the sense of place and period remain strong.  I admit to being fooled about how the investigations would resolve, but this is a good thing in my view, and I look forward to seeing how Kate's relationship with Inspector Wallis develops.

Death of an Avid Reader was published by Minotaur in September ($25.99/C$36.99, hardback, 360pp). Thanks to the publisher for sending me an ARC.  For reviews of earlier books in the series, see Murder in the Afternoon and Murder on a Summer's Day.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Barbara Wood's Land of the Afternoon Sun, a saga of 1920s Palm Springs, California

The abundant natural beauty of Palm Springs, California, forms the backdrop for the newest entertaining novel from Wood, who has mastered many historical settings in her prolific oeuvre.

In 1920, when disinherited English nobleman Nigel Barnstable relocates to the desert village with his heiress wife, Elizabeth, residents are bemused by the sophisticated power couple, with their multiple servants and habit of dressing for dinner. Nigel’s greedy, amoral nature manifests itself with his plan to build a profitable orchard of date palms by any means necessary, including diverting water away from the Indians’ land.

Other characterizations are more nuanced. Elizabeth, who learns to assert herself while trying to escape her marriage, finds a strong ally in Cody McNeal, a cowboy haunted by his past. Luisa Padilla, a Cahuilla pul (shaman), searches urgently for a successor in a world entering the modern age.

Themes of women’s agency and wilderness preservation permeate the story, as do trends in Hollywood filmmaking and the effects of Prohibition. Recommend Wood’s latest to readers of Leila Meacham’s lively sagas of the changing West.

Barbara Wood's Land of the Afternoon Sun was published by Turner Publishing in July (hb, 520pp, $23.95).  This review first appeared in Booklist's June 1st issue.

Other novels by Barbara Wood which I've reviewed here include Woman of a Thousand Secrets, set in ancient Mesoamerica; Rainbows on the Moon, set in Hawaii in the 19th century; and The Divining, which takes place in the 1st century Roman world.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Twelve authors of historical fiction who were originally famous for something else

It’s said that everyone has a novel inside them. The dozen writers mentioned in this post first became famous for other reasons – politics, show business, royal heritage, and more – but each has also written at least one work of historical fiction.

Who else can you name that belongs on this list?

Lorenzo Borghese, the star of the 9th season of The Bachelor, is the owner of a high-end cosmetics firm for pets. He also descends from the noble Italian Borghese family, and in 2010 he wrote his first novel, The Princess of Nowhere, based on the life of a woman from his 19th-century family tree: Princess Pauline Borghese, sister of Napoleon.

In 2003, Jimmy Carter, 39th President of the United States, published The Hornet’s Nest, a novel of the Revolutionary War in the Deep South. It was the first work of fiction penned by an American President.

Lynne Cheney, wife of George W. Bush’s VP Dick Cheney, is the author of numerous books, including one historical novel, Sisters (1981), that evoked women’s experiences in the Old West; it’s set in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in 1886. It made headlines in 2004 because sections of the book depicted a lesbian relationship. Although the original publisher planned to reissue the book, which was long out of print, those plans were later scrapped.

Fannie Flagg may be an exception in this group, because she’s primarily known today as a bestselling author of Southern-themed fiction, including 1987’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, a multi-period novel set in Alabama that was made into a popular movie. Her newest historical saga, The Whole Town’s Talking, will be published in late November. Before her writing career took off, she was an actress and a regular on TV game shows, including Match Game.

Newt Gingrich, the Republican politician who served as Speaker of the House from 1995-99, and who was in the running to be Donald Trump’s VP pick, has written multiple works of historical fiction and alternate history with William R. Fortschen, including a 4-volume series on the Civil War (alternate history), two on WWII’s Pacific War, and a trilogy on the American Revolutionary War.

A native of Danville, Illinois, actor Gene Hackman has co-written three historical novels with Daniel Lenihan: the nautical adventure Wake of the Perdido Star; Escape from Andersonville, set around the infamous Civil War prison in Georgia; and Justice for None, a tense crime novel set in and around his home county during the Depression. He’s also written a Western, Payback at Morning Peak.

Retired physician Sam Halpern’s creative, salty observations on life first gained attention through his son Justin’s Twitter feed and subsequent book, Sh*t My Dad Says. Back in May 2013, Justin tweeted this comment: “My dad's been working on a novel for 40 years that's finally coming out.” Inspired by his childhood as the son of sharecroppers in rural Kentucky in the ‘40s, Sam Halpern's A Far Piece to Canaan was published by HarperPerennial.

David Johnston currently serves as Canada’s 28th Governor General. In 2015, his wife, Sharon Johnston, PhD, published a historical novel, Matrons and Madams, with Dundurn Press; this projected first novel in a trilogy was a Globe & Mail bestseller. Set in small-town Alberta in the post-WWI years, it delves into the social and political issues of the day.

Princess Michael of Kent, who is married to Queen Elizabeth II’s first cousin, is a writer and lecturer on historical topics, mostly about members of royal families; she descends from both Catherine de Médicis and her rival, Diane de Poitiers. In addition to her historical biographies, she’s written two historical novels set in the 15th century: The Queen of Four Kingdoms, about Yolande of Aragon, and Agnès Sorel: Mistress of Beauty, about a favorite mistress of France’s Charles VII.

When I was growing up in the ‘80s, I knew Ally Sheedy for her roles in War Games and The Breakfast Club. Before her movie career, when she was only 12, she (as Alexandra Elizabeth Sheedy) wrote a children’s book set in Elizabethan times. She Was Nice to Mice (1975) imagines Elizabeth I’s court from the viewpoint of a mouse who lived there.

Today William Weld, former governor of Massachusetts, has been in the news as Gary Johnson’s VP running mate on the Libertarian ticket. His third book, which received positive reviews after its 2002 publication, was Stillwater, an elegiac novel set in Massachusetts’ Swift River Valley in 1938, just as five towns are set to be flooded to create the Quabbin Reservoir (a true incident).

The late actor Gene Wilder, who died on August 29th, may have been best known for starring in films like Willy Wonka and Blazing Saddles, but he also wrote three works of romantic historical fiction: My French Whore (set in Wisconsin during WWI), Something To Remember You By (WWII-era Belgium and London), and The Woman Who Wouldn’t (featuring an American violinist finding love in Germany in 1903).

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Interview with Alana White (Come Next Spring) about YA fiction, the Smoky Mountains, and her family history

Alana White's Come Next Spring, a classic YA novel set in a farming town in the Smoky Mountains in 1949, was first published by Clarion Books in hardcover 25 years ago.  It's been newly reissued by Open Road, and with a new cover.  The heroine is 12-year-old Salina Harris, who struggles with accepting the many changes happening in her life and to her family.  Her best friend is developing interests she doesn't share, she's reluctantly paired with a new girl, Scooter Russell, on a school project, and there are rumors the state may be building a highway through her beloved mountains. Then there's the veterinarian in town, an American man of German ancestry, who she doesn't really trust.  Read more below about how Alana's own family heritage made its way into her novel. Alana has diverse historical interests; I've interviewed her previously, back in 2012, for her historical mystery The Sign of the Weeping Virgin, which was set in Renaissance Florence.


Congrats on the 25th anniversary of Come Next Spring. How did the publication of this new edition come about?

Serendipity. I've been an Authors Guild member for a long while. In 2015 the Guild approached members with the opportunity to have books whose rights we owned published in e-formats. I owned the rights to Come Next Spring, which never had been available electronically. I did hesitate, at first. That this could be a 25th Anniversary edition seemed fortuitous, however, and so I went ahead. The Guild's publishing partner in this project, Open Road Distribution, offered the opportunity to see the book in paperback, as well. Working with Open Road and the Guild liaison has been a pleasure. Open Road worked with me on the cover, and I like it tremendously.

How did you decide on the historical and geographic setting for Come Next Spring?

Recovered memory—or the subconscious hard at work. As you know, the story is set in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. My people were Kentucky pioneers who settled in present-day Western Kentucky—farmers, primarily. Generations after they arrived, on into the 1940s, the TVA decided to create KY Lake (a navigable reservoir) by impounding the Tennessee River. Entire towns, including that of my family, had to be completely relocated, along with thousands of people whose ancestors had lived in the area for generations. Cemeteries were moved, old pioneer graves flooded to form the national recreational area called "The Land Between the Lakes."

My mother and her family and friends were profoundly affected by this change. I remember the day the local high school was torn down and how my mother cried. Her older brother had been a basketball star there. These were very small communities where everyone knew everyone else and had done for years. But! As is possible in Come Next Spring, the farmers who had no choice but to sell their homes and farmland to the government—like my mother's brother—could then purchase bigger, perhaps better, tracts of land, and so on.

In later years, when I moved from Kentucky to Tennessee and married, my husband and I began spending holidays in the Smoky Mountains, particularly in the Gatlinburg, TN area. The history of that region—and the formation of the Smoky Mountain National Park—fascinated me. The move to establish the park began in the 1920s. But what about the people who lived there? Eventually, the mountain homesteaders had to relinquish the hills and hollers. In some cases, those who would not sell were evicted, their land condemned. (The government did offer "life leases" to some of the elderly and sick who were unable to move, allowing them to remain on parkland until they died.)

Oddly—it seems so to me, even now—I didn't realize for a long while after writing Come Next Spring how Salina's personal story and my desire to write about the effect change has on our lives, both on a personal and a more "global" level, was so deeply rooted in my personal family and individual history. All that is the underpinning for Salina and her family, whose land is in the path of a proposed government highway.

Looking back 25 years, what moments stand out as highlights of the research process for the book?

Salina is a "romantic," one who believes everything always works out right in the end. I knew how I meant to shake her immediate, personal world. But I needed some powerful, outside force to rattle her assumptions about life. When I researched the history of the Smoky Mountain area, I learned how in the 1940s the U. S. Government decided to build a system of highways across the country (one reason was to transport military goods in the event of another war). So, there I had it. Salina and her family would not want a road cutting across their farmland, but what chance would they have of stopping a force so much bigger than them?

Also relative to research, there was the issue of Margaret Mitchell and Gone With the Wind. I knew Salina would write the author and ask for proof that Rhett Butler returns to Scarlett at the end of that book. What I didn't know was what Mitchell's reply would be. Well. Since you have read this book, you know what happens there. When it came time for me to think about Mitchell's answer, and I delved into that part of the research—let's just say I was as stunned and hurt as Salina. Salina's reaction when she receives her much-anticipated letter from New York is my own reaction. I still find it very emotional.

Likewise, what were some of the most memorable moments of the publication process?

By the time Clarion/Houghton-Mifflin published the original hardback edition, the book had gone through three different editors, with a constant back-and-fourth by mail between them and me, along with phone calls here and there. The leading editor wanted the prologue deleted. Thank goodness, I persevered and won that round. This time, Open Road had the PDF. I corrected it for errors, of which there were precious few. My greatest anxiety came from wondering if the "25th Anniversary Seal" actually would be on the cover. And there it is.

Topics and styles in YA fiction come and go, but Come Next Spring doesn’t feel dated. What do you think makes a novel more likely to appeal to multiple generations of young readers?

I think some things always hold true, no matter the day, age, or setting. For me, it is about emotion. I write character-driven stories. I don't know any other way. I believe we all share the same feelings—feelings of longing, happiness, uncertainty, and fear. I think if you can touch on true emotions and treat them fairly, your story will have universal appeal. As for not feeling dated, there are people today in small towns still undergoing vast changes. Adjustments must be made. Of course, this is happening in large cities, as well. If I had to say Come Next Spring has a theme, it is about change, when to fight, when gracefully to let go and move forward.

I especially liked Scooter Russell and enjoyed getting to see her family and home environment, and how she and Salina gradually became friends through their mutual interests, including books. How did you come up with her character?

Salina needed a foil, and Scooter is her opposite, from family situation to physical appearance. Salina is set in her ways. She wants her world calm and steady. What could upset her more than a new girl in school who flies in the face of everything Salina believes—including Salina's conviction that at the end of Gone With the Wind Rhett Butler returns to Scarlett O'Hara? To Salina's mind, Rhett has to come back, otherwise everything is all too sad. Salina wants happy endings, and Scooter rocks her world from the moment she steps into it.

As for Scooter and her family, much of it came (again) from personal family history. When I was a girl in Kentucky, we attended camp tent revivals. The December community holiday gathering was called "Christmas Tree," and it was held in the church basement. We always listened to the "Grand Ole Opry" radio show. Music was very important in our lives. I wanted Scooter to have something, some talent, Salina could not help but admire. Thus, Scooter is a banjo whiz, and Salina is drawn to that. Yes, both are "readers." Growing up, like them, I spent a lot of time at the bookmobile.

Where do you stand as far as Salina and Scooter’s ongoing disagreement – do you think Rhett Butler would eventually have returned to Scarlett?

Ah, the big question. I think Margaret Mitchell was a savvy writer. She has keep this argument alive for almost a century. As for me, I believe maybe he did, and maybe he didn't. Oh, what the heck. Of course he did. (But who knows how long he stayed?)


The 25th anniversary edition of Come Next Spring is available in paperback ($11.99) and ebook ($5.99), both from Open Road.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Loving Eleanor by Susan Wittig Albert, a novel of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok

Biographers are taking a new look at the women closest to FDR during his four-term presidency. Susan Quinn’s Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair that Shaped a First Lady was published by The Penguin Press in late September, while journalist Kathryn Smith’s The Gatekeeper, published by Touchstone three weeks earlier, surveys the life and influence of Marguerite “Missy” LeHand, FDR’s loyal chief of staff, and the first woman in that role.

Historical fiction readers have the opportunity to view these trailblazing women through the lens of fiction. Susan Wittig Albert’s Loving Eleanor, which beat the two biographies to press by over six months, is an engrossing novel about the same determined women covered in Quinn’s work   Lorena Hickok broke the glass ceiling as the first female reporter for the Associated Press, and in Albert’s novel, “Hick” narrates the story of how her career and life were deeply affected by her three-decades-long relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt.

The two first meet in 1928, during the early days of Eleanor’s role as wife to New York’s new governor. Hick finds herself disarmed by the vulnerability she doesn’t expect to see in a political figure. Eleanor and FDR have a long-term partnership, and share several children and a grandchild, but they move in separate circles. When Hick is assigned to cover Eleanor during FDR’s first presidential campaign in 1932, the attraction between Hick and the woman she nicknames “Madam” develops into a passionate affair, which has its ups and downs but finally settles into a loving friendship.

The narrative engagingly depicts how Hick encourages Eleanor to show her private side to the world by holding press conferences of her own and penning her “My Day” newspaper column – and how their relationship changes as Eleanor’s travel and other responsibilities become more demanding, and as her fame grows. It’s moving to see a woman as capable as Eleanor Roosevelt find her public voice at last, but just as affecting are many scenes involving Hick on her own. She’s obliged to quit her journalism career and leave Eleanor’s side (and the White House bedroom she’s occupied for years) in the name of damage control. Their affair attracts unwanted attention, and FDR’s reputation must be protected.

As an investigator for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, Hick travels to regions of incredible hardship, including West Virginia’s economically depressed coal country. In her new role, which is both more challenging and rewarding than she expects, she enables the voices of America’s overlooked citizens be heard by those in power.

For insight into the two women's daily lives and emotional connection, Loving Eleanor is well worth the read.

Loving Eleanor was published in February by Persevero Press ($14.99 pb, $5.99 Kindle, 306pp). I’m grateful for the opportunity to have read it via NetGalley.

Friday, October 07, 2016

Chris Nickson's Gods of Gold, a police procedural set in 1890 Leeds

From my experience reading Chris Nickson’s The Crooked Spire, I knew he was skilled at evoking a historical time and place from the viewpoint of regular folks – ordinary workers with interesting careers and personal lives. That novel was set in medieval Chesterfield, in Derbyshire, while Gods of Gold is the first entry in the Tom Harper series of late Victorian mysteries, taking place in Leeds in 1890. It's a different setting, but the quality of writing is (not surprisingly) just as high. It’s one of the older titles on my NetGalley shelf, so my reading it is long overdue.

In this police procedural, Detective Inspector Harper has been a member of the force for six years. Prior to achieving his current rank, which lets him investigate in plain clothes, he patrolled the streets in the poorer areas of the city. When a constable on his former beat brings the disappearance of an eight-year-old girl to his attention, Harper wants to launch a thorough investigation.

However, Leeds’ Chief Constable orders him and all of his coworkers to set aside their current cases to devote their whole attention to the gas workers’ strike. The gas commission is bringing in replacement workers (“blacklegs,” Harper calls them), and the situation is bound to turn violent. Harper’s frustration is immense and palpable. He knows the longer that young Martha Parkinson remains unaccounted for, the more difficult it will be to find her – if she’s even still alive.

Then Martha’s father, Col Parkinson, is discovered dead – and a "blackleg" is subsequently stabbed on the town hall steps. Two separate crimes, which pull him in opposite directions and increase his stress level further.

The story begins in medias res, as Harper’s chasing down a pickpocket on Briggate, the main street of Leeds’ popular shopping district. From the start, I had the sense that I was stepping right into the characters’ lives; their backgrounds were filled in so well that I felt they must have existed before I opened the book. Despite the exasperating circumstances he faces at work, Harper’s personal life is looking up. He looks forward to his wedding to Annabelle Atkinson, a young widow, and he derives comfort from her warm personality and confidence. She’s a business owner who has the greater income, and I enjoyed their interactions.

At this time, as Nickson mentions, Leeds is home to about 400,000 people, and he conveys the widespread disruption caused by the gas strike while keeping the cast of characters manageable. I came away with a good feel for daily life in this industrial city, with smoke from its many factories hanging in the air, “the stink of industry the price of the town’s success.” During the strike, with no gas being produced, business grinds to a halt, but the air smells cleaner.

For those seeking out a historical mystery in a well-described urban setting, Gods of Gold is a great place to start.

Gods of Gold was published by Severn House in 2015 ($17.95, pb, 224pp).  The Kindle price is $6.15.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Interview with Kate Braithwaite, author of Charlatan - a novel about the Affair of the Poisons

Kate Braithwaite's debut novel, Charlatan, pulls readers into a tense historical time. Between 1677 and 1682, during the reign of Louis XIV, rumors about macabre goings-on, including poisonings, black magic, and infanticide, reverberated through French society. The murder scandal ensnared even high-ranking members of the royal court.  

Charlatan recounts two alternating stories: that of Athénaïs de Montespan, the king's longtime mistress, who is growing older and falling out of favor; and the crime investigation occurring within the grim Château de Vincennes, the royal fortress where the accused are imprisoned and questioned.

As suspense about Athénaïs' possible involvement in the scheme grows, the two stories collide.  The fortune-teller Catherine Montvoisin, known as La Voisin, had many prominent clients, which eventually leads authorities right to Athénaïs herself. Was she trying to win back the king's affections through love potions, or did she resort to more sinister means?

I hope you'll enjoy reading this interview with the author.  Charlatan, which was was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society & Mslexia New Novel Awards, was published by Fireship Press in September (300pp, $19.99 in paperback or $7.99 ebook).  For readers interested in learning more, visit Kate Braithwaite's website.  Goodreads has a giveaway for a signed copy, too, running through Oct 14th.


I’ve read a number of historical novels set during Louis XIV’s reign – the majority focus on his love life – but yours is the first I’ve read that delves into the Affair of the Poisons. What interests you in this dark time in French history?

I’ve always liked crime fiction – I’ve probably read everything by Agatha Christie, Ian Rankin novel, Minette Walters, Michael Connolly and others – and I studied gothic literature as part of my degree course. I also think, perhaps because I’m Scottish, that I’m drawn to parts of history where people are more superstitious and more inclined to be drawn into believing in witchcraft. When I was ten years old, I played the third witch in Macbeth at school and I loved it. I first came across the Affair of the Poisons in Nancy Mitford’s book about Louis XIV. It was so unexpected and in such contrast to all the baroque beauty of the Versailles world. I immediately wanted to know everything about it.

Charlatan keeps readers guessing about Athénaïs’ level of involvement in and knowledge about La Voisin’s deadly rituals. I won’t give anything away, but did your research shift your original perceptions about her level of complicity at all?

Definitely. I was first drawn to writing about Athénaïs because I was sympathetic to her as a woman. There she was, approaching forty, having had seven children with the King (plus two others with her husband) and having to watch as an eighteen-year-old beauty supplanted her. I wanted her to be innocent of the charges leveled against her, but at the same time I could imagine equally easily that La Voisin’s world might have been very tempting. She was incredibly intelligent and witty as well as a great beauty: yet totally reliant upon the King for her and her children’s future. So I did all the reading and tried to get to know as much as I could about her character. That then led the way for the story in Charlatan.

One aspect I enjoyed the most was the interaction between Athénaïs and her former rival, Louise de la Vallière, who left court and took the veil. How did you develop their changing relationship?

Thank you! That is also one of my favourite parts and although I don’t have any historical source suggesting Athénaïs went to visit Louise in her convent, once I had the idea that she might have done, I had to go with it. Athénaïs may or may not have been guilty of many things, but it is certain that she was a poor friend to Louise de la Valliere. When Louis discarded Louise for Athénaïs, Louise was forced to remain at court for years and pretend their sexual relationship was ongoing as Louis walked through her rooms to reach Athénaïs’ suite. When Charlatan opens, it is Athénaïs who is being discarded by Louis, in favour of Angélique de Fontanges. I wanted to see how Louise would react to that and if two women with so much history between them could have any kind of friendship.

The novel’s organization, alternating between the perspective of Athénaïs at the Sun King’s court (and elsewhere) and the investigation being conducted at the Chateau de Vincennes, kept the pages turning and the suspense level high. How did you conceptualize this structure?

From very early on I knew this had to be a novel told from a range of perspectives. Although my starting point in conceiving the novel was with Athénaïs, I became hugely fascinated with the criminals themselves. The world of seventeenth century fortune-tellers was highly competitive and for some, very lucrative. The whole industry of poisons, love potions and black magic was great fun to research. I was also interested in the investigators  perhaps because of all the police procedurals I have read! I imagine that being the person charged with telling Louis XIV, the most glorious King in Europe, that his long-term mistress had ensnared him for years with love potions and possibly devil worship, was an unenviable position to be in. Also, for much of the time, Athénaïs had no way of knowing what the prisoners in the Chateau de Vincennes were saying about her and so the story needed their direct input. Alternating between the court and the investigation meant I could tell all sides of the story.

I found it fascinating to learn in your afterword about Louis XIV’s attempts to conceal evidence mentioning his former mistress in the 17th century, and the re-emergence of this knowledge and publication of relevant records two centuries later. How did this come about?

In 1709, after both Athénaïs and the chief investigator, Nicholas La Reynie, were dead, Louis XIV asked Jean Sargot, La Reynie’s recording officer, to retrieve all the documentation relating to the affair and in particular to Athénaïs. Louis examined the papers and then he burned them. Any evidence appeared to have been safely destroyed but there were copies, stowed in the prison’s archive. These could easily have been destroyed during the storming of the Bastille in 1789 when rioters and looters plundered the prison, including the archive. After the revolutionary dust had settled what papers remained were bundled up and moved to the Arsenal building: ironically, the place where the trials of the criminals involved in the Affair had taken place a century earlier.

It wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that a librarian, François Ravaisson, began to catalogue the Bastille papers kept in the Arsenal. In the 1870’s the newly organized collection was published in a nineteen-volume set called the Archive of the Bastille. Four volumes are devoted to the records of the La Reynie’s investigation and they include interrogations of La Voisin and the shocking accusations made by several people, including La Voisin’s daughter Marie, against the King’s most famous mistress.

During your research, did you come across any interesting tidbits or historical characters that you thought about including in the story but were unable to?

Yes! I wanted to write more about the Mancini sisters. One sister, Olympe, the Comtesse de Soissons, is mentioned in the novel as a potential poisoner of her husband. She was a lover of Louis XIV for a time, as was her sister Marie Mancini. Another sister, Hortense, who was a lover of Charles II. Perhaps they need a novel of their own? Then there was Jean Racine, the poet, who was implicated in the Affair of the Poisons. I would love to have included him. I also would have liked to feature Madame de Brinvilliers, a French poisoner and aristocrat who was executed in Paris in 1676. In a way her crimes set the scene for the revelations of the Affair of the Poisons only a few years later.

And I never managed to work into the novel the way that the whole series of arrests began. The first fortune-teller arrested in 1678 was Marie Bosse (named Martine in the novel). She had worked closely with La Voisin for many years but they had fallen out. Dining at the house of her new partner La Vigeroux, Marie Bosse had too much to drink and boasted to a lawyer she had only just met that the poisoning business was making her rich. That man informed on her, and both La Bosse and La Vigeroux were arrested. Their testimony led to the huge investigation that followed.

Do you have any favorite authors or novels? Has your experience with reading and evaluating historical fiction had influence on your own writing?

Some of my favourite novels are My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier, The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, Possession by A.S. Byatt and Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. Two favourite historical novels I’ve read this year are Hanging Mary by Susan Higginbotham and Lazaretto by Diane McKinney-Whetstone.

It is often said that writers need to read widely and well, and I think I’ve always done that, but I’ve found that taking the additional step of reviewing books has been invaluable. Before I started reviewing for the Historical Novel Society and Bookbrowse, I would read actively but not really pin down what I liked or did not like in a novel. I’d have an emotional reaction without really asking myself why. Being tasked with producing honest and considered and reviews has made me think long and hard about what works and what doesn’t. Before this experience I struggled as an editor of my own work, but now I feel much more able to find problems in my drafts and read my own work as a reader might.