Monday, September 25, 2017

News from the Historical Novel Society - new anthology, forthcoming books, UK conference

There's been some recent news forthcoming from the Historical Novel Society that's of potential interest to other historical fiction fans, so I thought I'd spread the word here.

Distant Echoes, a new short story anthology with 19 selections that were the winners and runners-up in recent HNS competitions, is published today by Corazon Books in paperback and ebook (for more info, see Amazon US and Amazon UK). 

From the press release:  "Distant Echoes brings you vivid voices from the past. This haunting anthology explores love and death, family and war. From the chilling consequences of civil and world war, to the poignant fallout from more personal battles, these stories will stay with you long after the last page."

The contents include the following.  Some of the authors are previously published novelists and short story writers whose names you may recognize, while others are up-and-coming writers.

House of Wild Beasts by Anne Aylor (winner of the Historical Novel Society Short Story Award 2014)
Fire on the Water by Vanessa Lafaye (winner of the HNSOxford16 Short Story Award)
The Half-Marked Warrior by Nicky Moxey
Disunion by Richard Buxton
The Fat Lady Sings by Jeffrey Manton
For the Love of Megan by Mari Griffith
Ice Bear by S. Pitt
Salt by Lorna Fergusson (winner of the HNSLondon14 Short Story Award)
The Happy Island by Christopher M. Cevasco
The Sharing of a Husband by Anna Belfrage
Behind the Curtain by Patricia Hilton-Johnson
Wolfgang by Dorita Avila
The Holdup by Cj Fosdick
The Man with No Hands by Anne Aylor
Too Late Beloved by Jasmina Svenne
The Hungry Sails by Yvonne Lyon
Souvenirs from Kiev by Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger
The Innkeeper’s Banquet by Lisa Kesteven
1654 by L C Tyler

The short story is an unfairly underrated form in the historical fiction world.  If you're looking for good examples of how historical fiction writers can skillfully develop historical atmosphere, character, and plot within this shorter format, check out the ones within the anthology.


The dates and locale for the next UK-based Historical Novel Society conference have been announced: it will take place on Aug 24-26, 2018 at the Westerwood Hotel just outside Glasgow in Scotland. I plan to be there and will register as soon as it opens up (reportedly sometime in November). This will be a smaller conference than previous due to space limitations at the venue, so for anyone interested, consider registering early.


Lastly, I've been busy compiling a guide to forthcoming historical novels for 2018 on the HNS website, while the children's and YA forthcoming guide is put together by Fiona Sheppard.  Both guides contain listings of upcoming releases going through next summer, so you'll find plenty for consideration for your TBRs.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Orphan Sisters by Lola Jaye, a compelling saga about a family of Nigerian heritage in '50s London

Spanning three decades, Lola Jaye’s Orphan Sisters is an addictive, emotionally fulfilling read that focuses on a topic – black history – too rarely touched upon in the English saga genre. Pardon the cliché, but I stayed up too late to finish it.

In 1958, sisters Lanre and Mayowa Cole, aged 7 and 5, and their mother, Adanya, emigrate from Nigeria to Britain in search of a more prosperous life. At the London airport, they joyfully reunite with their father, Tayo, who's worked hard to prepare a new home for them.

Tayo is an optimist, and their loving parents try to shield the girls from their difficulties adjusting to their new surroundings. The climate is cold, and their apartment is cramped; the culture shock is difficult enough, but they also encounter overt racism and anti-immigrant bias.

Without straying from Lanre's viewpoint, the novel also lets readers see her parents’ reactions. Although she doesn’t understand the “Keep Britain White” pamphlet she finds on the ground, her mother definitely does. The girls take the names Lana and May for school in an attempt to help them fit in.

Tayo dies unexpectedly, leaving Adanya desperate and, in her grief, unable to care for her children, who are essentially raised by her best friend, their white neighbor “Aunty Ginny.” When Adanya’s condition declines further, the girls are sent, along with their baby sister Tina, to a children’s home. Expectations there are low for black children, and they have only basic necessities and an indifferent staff, so Lana takes it upon herself to ensure her sisters remain as a family. Then lighter-skinned Tina is adopted...

It’s so easy to empathize with both sisters, who have very different perspectives: Lana, who assumes a motherly role despite her youth, and May, who takes refuge in books and closes herself off emotionally, even from Lana. The novel excels at depicting their complex relationship as well as Lana’s long-term friendship with Clifton, a boy from school.

Some sagas add contrivances to the plot in an attempt to heighten tension, but here the scenarios never feel less than real. Their separate paths forward are tough, yet this is a read filled with determination and hope as Lana and May establish places for themselves in a world that often seeks to hold them back. Orphan Sisters also explores elements of the girls’ Nigerian culture, and how their hairstyles, accent, and choice of name come to symbolize their desire to blend in or proudly set themselves apart, as they so choose.

The ending brings the story full circle and provides answers to any lingering questions. There were a few times I would have liked to know what year it was; a minor complaint. I unhesitatingly recommend it to anyone interested in social history or simply seeking an engrossing novel.

Orphan Sisters was published by Ebury Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House UK, in paperback this past Thursday (£5.99); thanks to the publisher for approving my NetGalley access.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

A spoiler-free look at Keep the Home Fires Burning, the literary sequels to the Home Fires TV series

Many historical novels have been transformed into films and TV miniseries. Some of these films carry the novel’s characters beyond the original literary storyline. However, do you know of any other instances in which a popular TV series has been canceled, but the plot is continued in the form of a historical novel?

This is the case with Home Fires, set in the fictional English village of Great Paxford in Cheshire during WWII. It ran for two seasons (2015-16) on Britain’s ITV and on PBS Masterpiece in the US. The centerpiece is the Women’s Institute (WI), a real-life community organization in which women banded together to produce food on the home front, advocate for social causes, and support one another. Julie Summers’ nonfiction work Jambusters was the series inspiration.

Sadly, the series wasn’t renewed for a 3rd season. The decision was controversial not only because it had a large fan base but because the last episode ended on a cliffhanger, with a damaged Spitfire crashing into a house just as a woman inside was about to give birth.

So… what happens next?

I’m not about to tell you – but plans for Season 3 had been in the works at the time of the cancellation, so Simon Block, the show's creator and writer, turned the story into a four-part e-serial. The first installment is Spitfire Down!, and pharmacist Erica Campbell, as depicted by actress Frances Grey, is on the cover. It’s about 100 pages long, so I inhaled it over an hour on Sunday morning.

This won’t be a formal review, but I thought I’d list some observations I had reading the novella.

First, and maybe most obviously, the Keep the Home Fires Burning ebooks are written for existing fans; the storylines won’t make much sense to anyone who hasn’t seen the show. That said, much of the first 40% of the ebook is backstory to the plane crash, catching readers up on the action and fleshing out some characters and earlier scenes. The writing is streamlined and zips along, moving from one viewpoint to another just like the show would. After watching for two seasons, I know the characters’ personalities and physical attributes, which makes it easy to picture them in new scenarios. There is one character introduced for the first time, a newcomer from London, and it was odd to realize that she was the only person who I couldn’t imagine as easily.

Since it’s the nature of television dramas to show rather than tell, I found it interesting to learn more about the history of the WI through the book. I don’t recall its pacifist principles being strongly emphasized on screen, or that its members were conflicted about its goals. For example, in the book, fundraising for ambulances to help the injured is described as an acceptable task, but feeling runs against using the money for "tanks or planes to help bring hostilities to an end sooner rather than later.”

In addition, fiction on the page can get inside the women’s heads more than television can, and in this way, the domineering and proper Joyce Cameron’s personal history is made less opaque. Some aspects of her personality continue to grate, though.

The series focuses on the accomplishments of middle-aged women—a topic not often seen on TV. In addition, if the third season had been filmed, it would have added some racial diversity to the show. The first book introduces a minor subplot in which black Liverpudlians travel south through the countryside to escape bombings in the city—and run up against prejudice in Great Paxford. I suspect this theme will become more prominent in future installments. This is another reason to be regretful the series was canceled, although we have a chance to envision these scenarios and learn about the history through the books. The Mass Observation research project (in which ordinary citizens on the British home front recorded their thoughts) is another aspect of social history mentioned in the first novella, and it looks to play an even larger role in Part 2.

A sidenote: in the book, Sarah Collingbourne is listed as Sarah Colebourne (a mistake?).

Are there any other fans of Home Fires who are reading along, or who will be?  I’m hooked and will be following all four ebooks. They were released a month apart: two are out now (from Bonnier Zaffre) in e-format, the third will be out next week, and the fourth in October. In addition, the full contents will be published as a print book in October.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Power of Place: Elizabeth St. John's The Lady of the Tower, set in the early 17th century, and a visit to Lydiard Park

A year ago, in September 2016, my husband Mark and I spent a morning at Lydiard Park, an estate located near Swindon in Wiltshire, England. It looked like a nice place to take a stroll and see the local scenery. On our map, Lydiard was about halfway between Tintern and Heathrow, so it was a convenient stop before heading home after the HNS Oxford conference and our vacation in Wales. That was all I knew about it. We parked the car, walked toward the house, and ran into many people with their dogs. It seems we’d arrived on the day of the annual dog show, Lydiard Bark.

Even with the crowds (and barking), Lydiard was a place of tranquility, with its beautifully landscaped grounds, nearby lake, and elegant Palladian country house dating from the Georgian era.

Lydiard House on a beautiful September morning (photo by me)

What I hadn’t known at the time was that Lydiard was the historic home of the St. John family, who had royal connections: they descended from Margaret Beauchamp, grandmother of Henry VII, through her first marriage. I also hadn’t realized that Lydiard featured in Elizabeth St. John’s The Lady of the Tower, which I’d purchased, coincidentally, on Kindle a few months earlier. I’m kicking myself now for not taking the opportunity to tour the house, which has many family portraits on the walls; likewise the walled garden, although mid-September wasn’t an ideal time for that. Hopefully we’ll get the chance to return someday.

Now that I’ve gotten the chance to read The Lady of the Tower, I can enthusiastically recommend it to anyone interested in the 17th century, the rich tapestry of women’s lives, or simply settling into a well-told, memorable historical novel. Spanning nearly three decades, from the sunset of the Elizabethan era through the early years of Charles I’s troubled reign as a “divine right” monarch, it follows the ups and downs in the life of Lucy St. John, youngest daughter in a prominent Wiltshire family (the author descends from this same family).

Lucy adores her quiet life in the English countryside; Lydiard is the home of her heart, but circumstances often oblige her to live elsewhere. Wherever Lucy resides, from Battersea along the Thames under the care of her spiteful aunt-by-marriage, to a stone castle in remote Wales, to the industriousness of the Royal Navy Yard, the settings are beautifully etched in the mind’s eye.

St. Mary's parish church, Lydiard Tregoze (photo by Mark Johnson)

One principal theme is the plight of women in this earlier time. Dependent on their male relatives and husbands, they’re also expected to create homes for themselves and their children in places mostly not of their own choosing. Lucy's internal conflict between obligations and her personal desires is palpable, especially since she finds court manners empty of substance.

Following a failed love affair, she marries a kind man, but her choice ironically forces her into a role of uncomfortable prominence: that of mistress of the Tower of London, charged with caring for high-ranking political prisoners, including Sir Walter Raleigh… which means getting unwittingly drawn into the drama that surrounds them. The novel also emphasizes something I hadn’t thought much about: the huge monetary costs incurred by those occupying high-ranking positions in the realm.

Another strong point are the depictions of Lucy’s relationships: her tender friendship with sister-in-law Anne; the growing antagonism between Lucy and her brother John, to whom Lydiard is entailed simply because he’s male; and her rivalry with her opportunistic sister Barbara, her polar opposite, who marries the half-brother of royal favorite George Villiers.

Most of the story unfolds against the political and cultural backdrop of the Jacobean age, which saw royal favorites jockeying for position and reward (and carrying their families’ hopes along with them), the financing of transatlantic voyages of exploration; and the growing influence of Calvinist theology. There are several complex love stories, too; and one love strongly echoing through the pages is that which Lucy has for the place she calls home.

Grounds of Lydiard, Sept. 2016 (photo by me)

Elizabeth St. John's The Lady of the Tower was published in January 2016 on Kindle and in paperback.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Mary Miley's Murder in Disguise, a mystery of 1920s Hollywood

The freshness of Jessie Beckett’s narrative voice remains undimmed even after four books. In her latest excursion into amateur detection, set mostly in 1920s Hollywood, Jessie, assistant script girl at Pickford-Fairbanks Studios, investigates the murder of a film projectionist.

A man in a red jacket had sprung into the Lyceum Theater’s projection booth during a Charlie Chaplin film and gunned down Joe Petrovitch, with his shocked assistant looking on. The killer then somehow vanished.

The crime has the markings of a theatrical production, given the perpetrator’s showy clothing, but it could also have been a gangster hit. Joe’s widow, Barbara, one of Jessie’s work colleagues, knows of her crime-solving reputation and requests her help—and in a welcome surprise, a former acquaintance, LA police officer Carl Delaney, agrees to their partnership.

Barbara knows little of Joe’s past, although he was an unpleasant bastard by all accounts, with a history leading back to pre-WWI Europe. Discovering connections sends Jessie around the city and back to her old haunts elsewhere in America.

Jessie’s love life gets put on hold, with her regular fella in legal trouble, which means some new plot directions. Although attracted to Jessie, Carl’s too much the gentleman to push his advantage. Life at Jessie’s boardinghouse also gets shaken up with the arrival of a roommate’s deaf younger cousin, a sullen girl whose quiet cleverness makes her a wonderful character. As a former vaudevillian, Jessie knows all about disguises, so she has ideas on how the killer concealed himself in plain sight. Strangely, she still misses one important clue. I suppose even talented sleuths have off-days.

As always, the Roaring ‘20s atmosphere, from the exciting invention of Technicolor to efforts to curb bootlegging, is worth the price of admission. Because it reveals aspects of previous books’ storylines, though, best not to read this one first.

Murder in Disguise (which I reviewed for the HNR in August) was published by Severn House in August. I recommend all of the books in this series, which begins with The Impersonator, then followed by Silent Murders Renting Silence, and finally this newest entry.  Start at the beginning to learn more about the heroine's family background and how she came to be known as Jessie.

Friday, September 08, 2017

A gallery of Gothic historical novels, or, what to read while waiting for Kate Morton's next book

Australian novelist Kate Morton's novels bridge genres: they're multi-period family sagas carefully layered with mysteries from the past, some romance, and often an old house at the center. I'm a big fan, one of many from around the world. All five of her books have been international bestsellers, and she recently posted about her upcoming book #6 on her Facebook page.

Gothic novels formed a good part of my reading as a young adult, and then the genre fell out of favor for years, only to be revived in the early 21st century -- with Morton as one of its foremost practitioners. She has helped bring these books back into the mainstream. Given the complexity of her novels, she can only write so quickly, but readers who crave books featuring similar elements have plenty to choose from.  Below are 12 "readalikes" for her work.

This is the first in a new series of thematic lists of historical novels (with some recommendations of titles from other genres mixed in), all written with the intent of introducing readers to new and intriguing-sounding books. Unlike many earlier lists, I'm including both new and older titles.

Please let me know what you think, and if there are any other subjects or themes for which you'd like recommendations!

Four sisters, the aftermath of their cousin's disappearance, and a modern family who stumbles upon the 50-year-old mystery after arriving at Applecote Manor in the Cotswolds.

What factors destroyed the once-close relationship between Cornish twins Adele and Amelia as they came of age in the war-torn 1940s?  The answers are left to their descendants to find out.

This creepy historical novel set in the post-WWII Welsh countryside features two young women facing hard times, a mansion reputed to be haunted, and horrifying secrets from the past.

In this atmospheric historical Gothic set in the Norfolk Broads in the early 19th century, a young woman facing destitution encounters a mysterious stranger in the marshes one foggy night.

A historical novelist researching the Jacobites in early 18th-century Scotland discovers unexpected truths in her fictional storyline.  Kearsley, of course, has been writing romantic mysteries with "twin-stranded storylines" (the phrase used for her HNS conference workshop on the topic) for over 20 years, so newcomers to her work have an extensive backlist to investigate.

A novel of reincarnation, layers of folk memory, and a mysteriously possessive form of love that stretches back through many centuries of English country history.

In 1950s West Virginia, Olivia VanBibber and her brother bring a plate of their great-aunt's fried chicken to a newly arrived stranger and get pulled unexpectedly into a haunting genealogical mystery.

Rett MacPherson has also written the Torie O'Shea contemporary mystery series, many of which feature family secrets (my favorite is The Blood Ballad, which is as creepy as all get-out).

A decrepit, isolated mansion in Scotland's Outer Hebrides, a woman with an unexpected inheritance, and a skeleton whose presence unearths a mystery about Muirlan House's former inhabitants.

What happened in the grisly cellar in Poet's Cottage in remote Tasmania eighty years ago? Australian writer Josephine Pennicott writes Gothic mysteries with a bohemian edge.

In 1924, the death of her uncle Toby, a ghost hunter, compels an Oxford student to travel to Rothewell, a small town by the sea, to investigate what happened. Readers of St. James's novels may find an occasional ghost or two within the pages.

Three of Katherine Webb's novel have been published in the US, and she's continued to write others for the UK market, including this one. The Misbegotten is an evocative period Gothic set in Bath in 1821, opening with a young woman seeing eerie portents on her wedding day.

A secret room in an elegant Gilded Age mansion, a portrait, and a ruby necklace are linked through three generations of women in this smoothly written, multi-period Gothic by a trio of popular authors.

Monday, September 04, 2017

A woman's Arctic adventures: Stef Penney's Under a Pole Star

Exhilarating in its scope and imagery, Penney’s third novel, after The Invisible Ones (2012), conjures the adventurous spirit of the late nineteenth century, when the remote frozen North compelled the daring and ambitious.

Flora Mackie, a Dundee whaling-captain’s daughter, spends much of her adolescence above the Arctic Circle, via her father’s ship, and feels most comfortable there. Her tale unfolds alongside that of Jakob de Beyn, who comes of age in fin de siècle New York. When they first meet, in northwestern Greenland in 1892, she’s a serious-minded meteorologist leading a British expedition, while he has joined a rival American party as a geologist.

Their unspoken attraction later blooms into a complicated love affair, relayed with candid intimacy. Competition for new discoveries leads to heightened tensions, and a mystery emerges after a tragedy occurs and suspicions of deceit arise.

Serious issues like gender bias and exploitation are adeptly handled, and the icy Arctic setting comes alive in passages of shimmering beauty. Penney conveys both the elation and fear evoked when crossing into unfamiliar territory, be it geographical or emotional. She also delves into the customs and beliefs of the Inuit, whose generous hospitality to the Westerners is indispensable. An exceptional epic about an unconventional woman’s life and loves.

Stef Penney's Under a Pole Star is published tomorrow in the US by Quercus in hardcover and ebook (608pp). I wrote this (starred) review for Booklist's August issue.

Over the years (I've been reviewing for them since 2005) my editors have sent me quite a few historical epics on the topic of world explorers, the harsh environments they endure, and their relationships with the indigenous peoples of the lands to which they travel. Some others include:

Brian Doyle, The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World, which I thoroughly enjoyed; sadly, Doyle passed away this past June.

Oscar Hijuelos' Twain and Stanley Enter Paradise, the author's posthumous novel.

Naomi J. Williams' Landfalls, about the ill-fated La Perouse maritime expedition.

James Morrow's Galapagos Regained, literary satire set in 19th-century South America.

Each is different in style and approach.  Although historical adventure isn't a subgenre to which I'm naturally drawn, I've been impressed with many individual books within it, including Under a Pole Star. Don't be dissuaded by the length, either!  The story moves along quickly.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Carol McGrath's The Woman in the Shadows, a novel about a little-known Tudor woman

This is a lovely read about the little-known wife of a famous man. It’s also an illuminating portrait of their marriage, showing how a clever woman of independent spirit navigates her relationship with a husband who controls the purse-strings and makes all major decisions… and whose wishes she must frequently heed.

In addition, The Woman in the Shadows presents a detail-rich portrait of a merchant household in Henry VIII’s England. Two years ago on this blog, I wrote a post entitled Tudor Fiction Without the Famous, and this novel fits (even though it does have one very well-known character).

The heroine is Elizabeth Williams, nee Wykes, a 23-year-old widow in London of 1513. Following her husband’s untimely death, she decides to take over his cloth business – it was her father’s trade as well – but runs into obstacles, for her fellow tradespeople and even her own servants, at least at first, resent her taking a prominent role in a man’s world. Her father wants to see her return home and remarry, but Elizabeth has other plans – like traveling up to the Northampton Cloth Fair and running a stall there herself.

Readers will find themselves absorbing significant detail on the cloth trade, including fabric types, arrangements to import materials from the continent, and the sumptuary laws regulating the colors and apparel types that different classes are permitted to wear.

Elizabeth’s life changes after she reconnects with a childhood acquaintance, Thomas Cromwell, a lawyer who had served as her father’s middleman overseas. In contrast to another, less pleasant suitor, Elizabeth finds Thomas kind and protective, a reliable potential husband. For the sake of love, something Elizabeth doesn’t really expect in a marriage, she gives up her role as solo businesswoman. Although their relationship is warm and loving, for the most part, Elizabeth sometimes chafes at the sacrifices she must make as the wife of an upwardly mobile man whose increasing political prominence makes her uneasy. The novel’s focus is domestic; none of it takes place at court. Elizabeth sometimes comments on royal happenings and worries that Thomas’s attachment to statesman Thomas Wolsey will lead to danger.

As Elizabeth’s family grows, dramatic subplots involve the repercussions of a secret from her first marriage, another housewife’s spiteful jealousy, the growing influence of the “new learning,” and a surprising revelation about Thomas himself. Although the novel intimates what Thomas Cromwell’s family life may have been like, this isn’t just a “woman behind the famous man” novel; the author shows us that Elizabeth’s story is noteworthy in itself.

The Woman in the Shadows was published by Accent Press in August in trade paperback and ebook. Thanks to the publisher for sending me an advance copy.  For more information on how the author crafted the novel out of the limited facts about Elizabeth and her family, see Carol McGrath's article "The Woman in the Shadows."

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Women's power through the ages: A Secret History of Witches by Louisa Morgan

Fans of Gothic historical sagas should be drawn to this multi-generational novel about a family of Breton witches whose talents descend through the female line.

Of the six granddaughters of Ursule Orchière, a Romani woman who dies saving her clan from witch-hunters, only Nanette, the youngest, proves to have inherited her magic.  In 1821, Nanette and her sisters flee France for a farm in Cornwall, where they work the land and live in seclusion to avoid unwanted attention.

The story tumbles down through the next hundred years, covering the journeys of Nanette’s daughter, also named Ursule, then Irène, Morwen, and finally Veronica as they come into their heritage in adolescence and carve out paths in a world that would shun them, or worse, if their secrets became known.

In the beginning, the historical backdrop is lightly sketched, while the male characters serve little purpose other than to act as vicious antagonists or, alternately, father the women’s children. As the story continues, the plotlines become stronger, likewise the romantic tension; the history also becomes more paramount. (Even so, the story involving Veronica’s wartime contributions is over the top.) Not all the women are sympathetic, which keeps things fresh and unpredictable.

Although most of the manifestations of their power, like spell-casting and scrying, aren’t unusual for fantasy fiction, Morgan incorporates some creative touches, such as their diverse animal familiars, and the grimoire written in a version of French so archaic it requires translation.

Even more compelling than the magic are the five heroines’ differing reactions to their abilities and their relationships with those from earlier generations. Morgan also depicts with visceral impact the roles of women in a male-centered world, and the dangers faced by anyone who doesn’t adhere to prevailing religious beliefs.

A Secret History of Witches will be published on September 5th by RedHook; thanks to the publisher for approving my NetGalley access. Louisa Morgan is a pseudonym for Louise Marley, who writes historical fantasy and science fiction under her own name; she has also written a series of historical sagas set in early 20th-century Seattle as Cate Campbell.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Beyond Absolution by Cora Harrison, a mystery of Ireland in 1923

In the politically roiled Irish city of Cork in 1923, Reverend Mother Aquinas’s latest investigation is tragically personal. An old childhood friend, the elderly Father Dominic of the Capuchin Brothers, has been found murdered in his confessional stall at Holy Trinity Church, pierced through the ear with a sharp, narrow blade. In many historical mysteries, the victims have numerous enemies, but this case is more puzzling: nobody can imagine who’d want to kill such a gentle man.

For the sake of Dominic’s grieving brother, Prior Lawrence, the Reverend Mother wants to discover the truth. She contributes information based on her personal connections and extensive knowledge of Cork’s citizenry while her former pupil, Inspector Patrick Cashman of the Civic Guards, examines the crime from an official standpoint. Strangely, on the day before his death, the unworldly priest had been seen visiting an antique shop on Morrison’s Island, upset about a damaged ceramic hawk for sale there.

Every volume in this exceptional series (Beyond Absolution is the third) adds to readers’ understanding about the geography and political history of Cork, and Ireland itself, during the 1920s. Although the IRA is blamed for most killings, Dominic’s murder doesn’t bear their signature, especially since his kindness extended even to Republican sympathizers. The mystery about the hawk is revealed midway through, but the killer’s identity remains unknown until the end. Looking back afterward, however, it’s clear Harrison had been dropping periodic clues to lead to the correct conclusion.

With their shared childhood and contrasting life experiences, the heroine and her elegant cousin Lucy make a wonderful team. Understandably, the Reverend Mother appears noticeably aged and tired in this entry, which shows how anguish can take a heavy physical toll. Let’s hope she and her partners can rally sufficiently to play roles in future books.

Beyond Absolution was published by Severn House on August 1st. By now it should be clear that I'm a fan of this series, which begins with A Shameful Murder and continues next with A Shocking Assassination. I reviewed the last two for the Historical Novels Review, and the first one for this site. Cora Harrison also writes mysteries set in 16th-century Ireland (the Burren Mysteries) and has recently started a new series about an Irish lawyer in the Tudor court of 1522; the first entry is The Cardinal's Court.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Lost Diaries of Susanna Moodie by Cecily Ross, biographical fiction about an early Canadian settler

One might say Susanna Moodie is to Canada what Laura Ingalls Wilder is to the United States: both were early pioneers who gained renown for books about their experiences. Moodie’s Roughing It in the Bush (1852), recounting the first seven years she spent in Upper Canada as a young wife and mother in the 1830s, is considered a classic.

With her debut, Cecily Ross imagines Susanna’s personal journal. It’s convincing as a period diary while fulfilling expectations for a satisfying, well-researched historical novel. Notably, it goes where an account published for public consumption simply couldn’t: into the intimate reaches of a woman’s heart. The tone is warm, honest, and spiced with wit.

Ross gives eloquent voice to Susanna’s frustrations with the husband she loves, John Dunbar Moodie, an Orcadian dreamer whose “unquenchable thirst for adventure” leads them into a life full of hardships. She also provides details on the help Susanna receives from indigenous women, and her close relationship with sister Kate (fellow settler Catharine Parr Traill), whose sunny optimism contrasts with Susanna’s somber disposition. We feel Susanna’s confusion and heartbreak as they grow apart.

Susanna begins her diary at age twelve, growing up in Regency-era Suffolk as the non-conformist youngest daughter in the poverty-stricken Strickland family, many of whom have literary aspirations. The considerable time devoted to her English years lets us see firsthand why Susanna, raising a large family amid terrible poverty on their wilderness farm—often without John’s presence—yearned so much for home.

Her story also movingly speaks to the ways women reacted to gender limitations. As Ross illustrates, Canada offers scenes of breathtaking beauty, and there are moments of joy and humor, but pioneer life is consistently hard. “This land is erasing me and beginning to remake me in ways I never anticipated,” Susanna writes, and we’re with her every moment on this transformative and ultimately triumphant journey.

The Lost Diaries of Susanna Moodie by Cecily Ross was published in April by HarperAvenue, an imprint of HarperCollins Canada; the book is also available from US outlets ($16.99, or $22.99 in Canada, 381pp).  This review also appears in August's Historical Novels Review.

Some additional notes:

- A Celebration of Women Writers, hosted by UPenn's digital library, has the complete text of the 2nd edition of Roughing It in the Bush.

- Susanna Moodie isn't well known in the US; the main reason I'd been aware of her before this novel is because I used to be the subject bibliographer for Canadian Studies at my previous library job.  Her story is worth knowing.

- Readers of Jean Plaidy's novels should recognize the name of Agnes Strickland, whose multi-volume Lives of the Queens of England was often listed as a source in Plaidy's bibliographies.  Agnes and her sister Elizabeth (her uncredited, publicity-shy co-author) were also sisters to Susanna and Catharine.  They stayed behind in England and created literary careers for themselves.  All appear in Ross's novel.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Amy Myers' Dancing with Death, a humorous country house mystery set in the Roaring Twenties

Crackling cauliflowers and suffering stockfish! The heroine of Amy Myers’ diverting new country house mystery is a feisty young woman known for her culinary delights and colorful expressions.

In 1925, Nell Drury is the chef at Wychbourne Court, a stately home in the Kentish countryside where the upper-class Ansley family has lived for centuries. The manor has its share of resident ghosts, and Lord Ansley’s sister, Lady Clarice, claims to communicate with them.

A fancy-dress ball brings many of London’s Bright Young Things to Wychbourne, including friends and frenemies of Lord and Lady Ansley’s grown-up children. Nell’s preparations for the evening get complicated when she’s asked to serve a leader for a late-night “ghost hunt.” She’s also caught off guard by an old flame’s reappearance.

When Nell comes upon the stabbed body of a houseguest during the spook-catching exercise, Scotland Yard gets called in, and Lady Ansley, rightly concerned about her family’s reputation, asks Nell to go sleuthing on her own in case the police mess things up.

Nell is entertaining company. Born within the sound of Bow Bells, Nell had trained as the apprentice of a renowned French chef at a fine London establishment. She now occupies a unique position in the household (she’s a chef, not a cook, and will correct anyone who gets it wrong). This helps with her investigations.

The plot and cast list feel overcrowded, and some people’s personalities don’t seem to extend beyond their eccentricities. However, the story picks up steam once the victim’s secrets come to light. Myers does a good job depicting the reckless jubilance of the Roaring Twenties and the darkness lurking beneath the surface gleam. The crime is also resolved more realistically than is typical in mysteries with amateur sleuths.

Dancing with Death, first in a new series, was published by Severn House in May.  Amy Myers has written many crime novels, both historical and contemporary, as well as sagas under her own name and as Harriet Hudson (see her website for more). This review also appears in May's HNR.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Book review: The Sisters of Alameda Street by Lorena Hughes

Which of the four Platas sisters of Alameda Street is Malena’s mother? Lorena Hughes’ debut novel is nonstop entertainment with a warmhearted touch, and the plot moves fast as secrets upon secrets come to light.

In 1962 Ecuador, just after her father’s suicide, Malena Sevilla discovers a shocking note among his things. Malena’s mother had supposedly died in childbirth, but the letter, addressed to Malena’s late grandmother, was written by a woman heartbroken about having given Malena up as a baby—and it’s signed only “A.” Seeing this, Malena abandons her nursing coursework and boards a bus from Guayaquil to the small Andes community of San Isidro, the place of the note’s origin, to find answers.

Arriving at the Platas home on Calle Alameda, she finds her task simultaneously easier (the family affectionately welcomes her, mistaking her for the daughter of a family friend) and more difficult (the sisters’ names all start with A).

Trapped into an unintentional impersonation, Malena gets pulled into numerous dramas and spats as she searches for clues. All four women—motherly Ana, quiet and artistic Alejandra, glamorous widow Amanda, and fragile Abigail, who had died young—had hidden romances in their past, which are movingly revealed in flashbacks. Amanda’s plans to open a nightclub scandalize her conservative community and, seeing this, Malena worries how the revelation of an illegitimate child would affect the family. She also feels attracted to a darkly handsome man who’s already taken, and no good can come from that.

This book is great fun. Scenes involving clandestine late-night excursions, visits to a seedy motel, and Malena’s unexpected tango performances demonstrate the author’s skills in writing comedy—such a rare treat in historical fiction. The many threads are carefully untangled, and the strength of family wins the day. Heartily recommended to saga readers.

Lorena Hughes' The Sisters of Alameda Street was published last month by Skyhorse, and I reviewed it from an Edelweiss e-copy for August's Historical Novels Review.  If you're looking for a fun historical novel with an original setting, this is a good choice.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore, a tense literary novel about revolution, liberty, and legacy

Historical atmosphere and characterization are top-notch in Dunmore’s (Exposure, 2016) newest work of literary historical fiction. Although there’s little action, considerable tension develops as Lizzie Fawkes awakens to the truth about the man she married and his first wife’s fate—details that readers know from the start.

The setting is 1790s Bristol, England. Revolution is erupting in Europe, and Lizzie’s mother, Julia Fawkes, a writer who “attacked the majesty of kings,” belongs to a group of radicals watching their beliefs take form in nearby France. Lizzie’s husband, building-developer Diner Tredevant, knows that war will crush his ambitions to build a terrace high above the Avon Gorge. Diner has always resented Lizzie’s family and their free-thinking ways, and as money grows tight, Diner’s controlling behavior and paranoia become evident.

The graveyard scene from the novel’s modern-day prelude isn’t picked up again but pays homage to the many women’s lives lost to history. Knowledge of Dunmore’s recent passing, added to her theme of the legacies people leave behind, lends a sad poignancy to the reading experience.

Birdcage Walk, Helen Dunmore's final novel, is published this month in the US by Atlantic Monthly (it's been out in the UK since March). Originally it was slated to be published in November, but the release date was moved forward after the author sadly passed away from cancer in June. This review was submitted for publication in Booklist's August issue, which is just out.  It's my first experience reading one of Dunmore's novels, and I'm glad it was assigned to me.  For those who've read her earlier work, I'd be interested to hear about your favorite(s).

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Love and Gravity: a quirky time-slip novel about music, love, and Isaac Newton

Eminent 17th-century scientist Sir Isaac Newton never married, and he reportedly wasn’t romantically involved with anyone. What if that wasn’t true? Sotto, author of Before Ever After, delivers another time-bending romantic adventure with her latest, which imagines a love story between Newton and a modern woman, a gifted cellist, who manages to bridge the 300-plus years through music. The premise is fanciful, but Sotto is reliably good at traveling along life’s offbeat paths.

Andrea Louviere first sees Newton when she’s seven, after a crack in her bedroom wall opens wide enough for her to glimpse a boy about her age. The only person she dares tell is her school friend, Nate, who doesn’t believe her. As Andrea grows up, and her relationship with Nate turns romantic, she and Isaac develop a mysterious bond. When Andrea is seventeen, she begins receiving Isaac’s letters via an elderly messenger who somehow has contact with them both. She determines to unlock the mystery of the shared future Isaac speaks of, but this seems impossible, since the objects they exchange through the time-portal all turn to dust.

Most of the novel is set in the present, with lengthy sections showing Newton’s childhood in Woolsthorpe in Lincolnshire and his later years at grammar school and at Cambridge. The novel isn’t as substantive historically as it could be, and the secondary characters are mostly vague shadows. Someone like Nate deserves better than the second place to which he’s relegated, too. The time-travel mechanism is clever, though, one that takes into account both parties’ talents, and the story grows significantly poignant in the last third or so. This isn’t The Time Traveler’s Wife, which it clearly emulates, but it’s an entertaining diversion for romance fans open to something different.

Love and Gravity was published as an ebook original ($6.99) in February by Ballantine; this review was written for February's Historical Novels Review.  It's available in paperback in the Philippines, where the author resides.

Back in 2011, I'd reviewed the author's debut novel, Before Ever After, and recommend it.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Jennifer Delamere's The Captain's Daughter, an in-depth look at Victorian theatre life

Despite one’s initial impression, this novel isn’t a seafaring yarn. The heroine of Jennifer Delamere’s Victorian inspirational romance is the daughter of a ship’s captain who went missing at sea years earlier. The title also refers to a character from the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta H.M.S. Pinafore, a popular musical production that opened on the London stage in 1878. By a fortunate chance, Rosalyn Bernay gets the opportunity to work backstage at the theatre, where she does odd jobs and develops her singing skills… and becomes intrigued by two different men.

Her story begins in different circumstances, though. Rosalyn and her two younger sisters had grown up in a Bristol orphanage founded by Prussian evangelist George Müller. At eighteen, as expected of her, Rosalyn had left to go into service. Seven years later, after being falsely accused of theft by her mistress’s unscrupulous husband, she flees in desperation and finds herself on London’s streets, destitute, alone, and desperate for food and shelter. Although injured soldier Nate Moran sees the danger she’s in and tries to save her, Rosalyn’s natural wariness prevents her from trusting him. He later runs into her again at the theatre where he’s temporarily working as a stagehand.

The Captain’s Daughter presents angles on several little-known aspects of Victorian life, from roles during a Gilbert & Sullivan production – props, lighting, acting, singing, and more – to Müller’s clean, efficiently run orphan houses, which defy the Dickensian stereotype. (History says that Dickens himself went to investigate these orphanages personally and had a positive report.) One interesting fact included in the plotline, about the necessity of staging the followup production The Pirates of Penzance in a small coastal Devon town to preserve its copyright in Britain, is accurate.

Rosalyn is enterprising, courageous, yet somewhat naïve, especially when it comes to a handsome actor named Tony. There are many rags-to-riches sagas that see poverty-stricken young women rise high in their chosen profession, but this novel takes a more realistic approach. Also, through Rosalyn’s experiences on the job, she comes to a new understanding about the performing life, which she’d always been taught was immoral and wicked.

In addition to all the details on the London theatre, other highlights are Rosalyn’s relationship with her sister, Julia, a skilled nurse who’s a bit of a firecracker (her confident outspokenness will make her a great heroine in the sequel); and Nate’s difficult journey toward accepting his broken engagement to another woman. The characters sometimes quote from Biblical passages, but the novel's Christian elements are most clearly shown in their' principles and their kindness towards others in need.

Recommended for inspirational fiction fans interested in career women, Victoriana, and London theatre life.

The Captain's Daughter was published by Bethany House in June; thanks to the author and publisher for sending me a review copy.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Reading internationally: 15 new & forthcoming historical novels in translation

It's been reported that only three percent of all books published in the United States are works in translation. (The University of Rochester's blog Three Percent, which is named accordingly, is dedicated to improving their visibility.)  Of all of the works that fall into this regrettably small category, an even smaller percentage are historical novels, but this is an area I find both fascinating and deserving of attention.

Historical fiction readers, by definition, are interested in exploring time periods and places other than their own. So why not expand your horizons, discover a new author, and increase your awareness of another culture and literary tradition while staying within your favorite genre?  Below are 15 new and upcoming historical novels, both literary and commercially oriented, that will help you do just that.

For insight into the relationship between the author, translator, and editor who acquires translated novels for publication, see Porter Anderson's article for Publishing Perspectives about Smadar Herzfeld's Trail of Miracles and AmazonCrossing's overall publishing program, which is celebrating its 7th anniversary.

Another note: searching for historical novels in translation isn't easy! Ideally, I would have liked to offer even more variety in terms of publishers and countries of origin in the gallery below.  Please let me know what recent titles I've missed, and if any of these books has found a place on your TBR.

Tyranny, misogyny, and generational conflict are addressed in this family saga set in Athens of 411 BC. Translated from Italian by Antony Shugaar.  Europa, Jan. 2018. [see on Goodreads]

Those who enjoy fiction about little-known women from European history may appreciate this novel about Eleanora de Moura, a 17th-century Sicilian noblewoman who very briefly held power in her city of Palermo. Translated from Italian by Stephen Sartarelli.  Europa, April 2017. [see on Goodreads]

This sweeping epic of late 19th-century Mexico, Cuba, and Spain tells the story of an ambitious man, the equally passionate woman whose heart he hopes to win, and a legendary vineyard in Andalusia.  Translated from Spanish by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia.  Atria, Nov. 2017.  [see on Goodreads]

Durst-Benning begins a new trilogy with this novel set in a 19th-century German village, and about a love triangle that develops between a seed merchant, his fiancee, and the woman pregnant with his child. Translated from German by Edwin Miles. AmazonCrossing, Oct. 2017. [see on Goodreads]

This philosophical literary novel features a Dutch student in late 17th-century Estonia gets drawn into metaphysical writings in the process of learning about possible cures for his depression. Translated from Estonian by Matthew Hyde. Pushkin Press, Jan. 2017. [see on Goodreads]

A story of reincarnation set in the Spanish Pyrenees, this multi-period saga follows Brianda, a Spanish engineer who uncovers the hidden history of a 16th-century woman of the same name who was accused of witchcraft. Translated from Spanish by Noel Hughes. AmazonCrossing, Aug. 2017. [see on Goodreads]

Spanning three centuries in a rural Norwegian village, this short literary novel explores the dynamics in an unusual family. Translated from Norwegian by Nadia Christensen. Graywolf, Sept. 2017. [see on Goodreads]

A short, lyrical novel about Gittel, a young Jewish woman from Ukraine, who makes a courageous solo journey to Jerusalem after the death of her husband, a coldly devout rabbi.  Translated from Hebrew by Aloma Halter. AmazonCrossing, May 2017. [see on Goodreads, and see my earlier review]

Joubert's latest novel traverses the length of physician Lettie Louw's life, from her adolescence in WWII-era South Africa up through contemporary times. Translated from Afrikaans by Elsa Silke. Thomas Nelson, Nov. 2017. [see on Goodreads]

In early 20th-century Sudan, a Lebanese adventurer joins the British colonial administration and, in the course of his travels, comes across another Lebanese man who's dismantling a palace and trying to transport it across the desert. Translated from French by Edward Gauvin. New Vessel, April 2017. [see on Goodreads]

Combining historical, contemporary, and speculative fiction, Lunde's debut is about the lives of beekeepers from three different eras and their relationships with nature. Translated from Norwegian by Diane Oatley. This week, the German edition is #1 on Germany's fiction bestseller list. Touchstone, Aug. 2017.  [see on Goodreads]

In this lengthy, multi-period epic, five sisters who grew up in a small Greek village come to terms with the meaning of home and their relationship with their mother, who grew up during WWII. Translated from Greek by Gail Holst-Warhaft. AmazonCrossing, Nov. 2017. [see on Goodreads]

A female artist invited to paint the gardens of a beautiful villa in 19th-century Italy grows intrigued by secrets surrounding its owner's family.  Translated from Italian by Oonagh Stransky and Clarissa Ghelli.  Pan Macmillan/Trafalgar Square, Aug. 2017. [see on Goodreads]

A newlywed couple in early 20th-century Tehran observe the dramatic changes in power occurring within their country. Publishers Weekly named it a Best Book of 2016.  Translated from French by Adriana Hunter. Europa, Dec. 2016. [see on Goodreads]

On the island of Sylt in the North Sea in 1764, an independent-minded young woman finds herself torn between an obligation to a powerful sea captain and her desire to stay true to the poor young man she loves. Translated from German by Kate Northrup. AmazonCrossing, Sept. 2017. [see on Goodreads]

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The power of a legend: James Wilde's Pendragon

The women laughed among themselves, a musical sound that seemed to tinkle on too long. ‘Words change the world,’ the mother said when they were done. ‘Tell a man he will be a king, and a king he may well be.’

James Wilde’s latest novel is billed on the cover as an “epic new historical adventure." Although it has the requisite elements of the genre (gritty action, intense physical danger, and an honorable hero you’ll be rooting for), it’s also a remarkably thoughtful example of its kind. Drawing on Roman, Celtic, Christian, and even older belief systems, Pendragon speaks to the ways religions supplant one another, and the motifs they all share. It explores how people create and communicate myths, and how these myths, in turn, can spur people into action.

Looking at the title, you’ll guess (rightly) that it’s has Arthurian themes, but you won’t see most of the usual suspects in these pages. There’s no Lancelot, no Guinevere, no Uther, no Igraine. Arthur himself, the “bear king” who’ll supposedly unite Britain’s people at the time of greatest need, is the subject of a prophecy that may come to fruition, several generations down the road, but only if forces align to make it happen.

Pendragon takes place mostly in Britannia in the mid-4th century, an era that very few authors are writing about. At the far reaches of the empire, soldiers of the fort of Vercovicium along Hadrian’s Wall have gotten used to slow communication with Rome, whose leaders are preoccupied with attacks by Germanic tribes and political infighting. Lucanus, one of a group of five scouts patrolling the northern wilderness occupied by barbarians, comes across the bodies of some compatriots who died in a particularly savage manner. So he’s less than eager to return there, but after the eight-year-old son of the woman he loves disappears, and a witness says the boy was taken into barbarian territory, Lucanus has no choice but to search for him, even at terrible risk to himself.

Deadly culture clashes and earthy mysticism (complete with witchcraft and visions fueled by magic mushrooms) combine in this exciting saga about a dark time in European history. The plot doesn’t go where you’d expect, and there are more than a few fierce, stereotype-defying women characters.

However, it wasn’t a perfect read for me. One character makes a dumb decision purely to generate drama (or so it seems), and Wilde draws back from showing readers two key scenes. Also, a parallel storyline set in Gaul and Rome felt fragmented in comparison, although I did like the way the two threads were slowly brought together – their connection wasn’t obvious.

Overall, recommended for anyone interested in the Roman Empire or who’s entranced by the power the Arthurian legend exerts.

Pendragon was published by Bantam in the UK on July 13; thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Love in the time of peril, a guest post by Anne Cleeland, author of The Barbary Mark

Today novelist Anne Cleeland is contributing an essay about the type of historical novel she enjoys writing.  Read more below...


Love in the Time of Peril 
Anne Cleeland

I love writing historical fiction, because history is a great plot-generator. Pick any era where the world is in turmoil, and you’ll find larger-than-life people, having larger-than-life adventures.

For example, I write a series of historicals that are set in 1814—a year that’s so rich with potential story plots that it’s hard to decide which way to go. After eight miserable years of war, Napoleon’s in exile on Elba—but he’s about to escape, get the old gang back together, and march on Paris to stage the Hundred Days’ War. Meanwhile, Europe’s in disarray, the old orders are crumbling, and everyone’s broke from Napoleon’s last attempt at world conquest.

So, my heroines are swept up in these unlikely events—some willingly, and some not-so-willingly—but always because there’s a treasure at stake, and the forces of good are battling the forces of evil in order to get to it first.

Meanwhile, some man is driving her to distraction, and her budding romance fuels the plot as much as the historical events. I always write couples, because it makes the heroine’s adventure both epic and personal at the same time, which—when you think about it—is true for real-life historical figures, too. You can’t write about Henry VIII without a heavy dose of Anne Boleyn. Or Napoleon without his Josephine. Or Cleopatra without her Marc Antony. Why? Because although these people were larger-than-life in terms of history, they were also human beings who fell in love—often with someone completely unsuitable. (I’m looking at you, Admiral Lord Nelson.)

And there’s nothing like the conflict that arises when our doughty heroine has to choose between the fate of the world and her fondness for this fine man, who may or may not be what he seems. Can she trust him? Would it matter, even if she couldn’t?

In my mind, if you mix a tumultuous time in history with classic themes of love and betrayal, then I think you have the makings of a riveting story—which is why we can never seem to get enough of the Tudors, the gift that keeps on giving.

So please join my heroines as they try to navigate a dangerous world whilst fighting their attraction to dangerous men—I promise you won’t be disappointed.

About The Barbary Mark: After a shipwreck, Nonie Rafferty washes up on the shore of Algiers, where the slave traders look to sell the pretty Irishwoman—or worse. She must come up with a tale to save herself—and fast—before anyone discovers the true reason she sailed to this misbegotten corner of the world, or the true reason she was wearing a priceless strand of pearls, when she was rescued. Fortunately, the Dey’s mysterious necromancer appears willing to come to her aid, and what follows is a cat-and-mouse game of deception, attraction, and above all, redemption.  Visit the author's website at

Thursday, July 13, 2017

After Anatevka by Alexandra Silber, a stand-alone sequel to Fiddler on the Roof

Grammy-nominated singer and actress Silber’s fiction debut is a sequel to Fiddler on the Roof, a show whose characters she has interpreted on the international stage. Notably, it’s a fully realized, thoughtful literary novel that can also stand alone.

The story follows Hodel, a young woman imprisoned in Omsk while attempting to reunite with her fiancé, Perchik, a Socialist activist who was taken to a Siberian labor camp. Each of the book’s three parts contains a well-developed character arc, and, like Fiddler itself, it contrasts the warmth of Old World traditions with the harsh treatment endured by the Jewish people.

The settings have a you-are-there feel, from Hodel’s memories of sisterhood and braiding challah back home in Anatevka; to salt-encrusted, remote Siberia, which has its own stark beauty; to the brutality of prison life as the couple’s world grows increasingly dark. The strength of their deep romantic bond is emphasized throughout.

Fans of the musical and anyone interested in the plight of the Jews in czarist Russia will appreciate this multitalented author’s work.

After Anatevka was published last Tuesday by Pegasus (336pp).  This review first appeared in the June issue of Booklist.  It's in the review, but it's worth restating: you don't have to be familiar with Fiddler on the Roof to appreciate this novel, as sufficient back-story for the characters is provided.

Read more about the novel's own back-story in the New York Times, which discusses the author's reasons for writing the novel and some of her research.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

On researching The Velveteen Daughter, a guest post by Laurel Davis Huber

Following my review of The Velveteen Daughter from last week, I'm happy to welcome Laurel Davis Huber to the blog today -- her publication day -- with an essay about her research into primary sources from the lives of her two heroines: writer Margery Williams Bianco and her artist daughter, Pamela Bianco.


On Researching The Velveteen Daughter
Laurel Davis Huber

Researching The Velveteen Daughter was, I admit, an obsession. I imagine this must be true of any writer of historical fiction. Still, each author’s journey is unique.

Here are just a few of the stops I made along the way: The archives of the Museum of Modern Art in Queens and the Smithsonian in Washington, both of which held many of Pamela Bianco’s forgotten paintings; the Tate Library and Archive in London (via the postal service only, alas), which provided a poignant letter written by Margery Bianco expressing concern over her daughter finding fame so early in life; Vassar College, where I unearthed Bianco family letters and hand-drawn Christmas cards; and the Lilly Library in Indiana, home to boxes and boxes of letters and photographs from Wales and England and New York in the Richard Hughes collection.

Every discovery was fascinating. However, three stand out as my “Indiana Jones” moments: treasures unburied, the Holy Grail found!

The first was the discovery that just before I began my research, an art historian in London had happened upon a Pamela Bianco drawing and, like me, was immediately entranced. Her interest had led to writing the catalogue essay for a retrospective exhibition in 2004. This essay provided a chronology of Pamela’s life and art. Voila! My guessing about the sequence of events was over. Not only that, but information in the catalogue also led me to a woman in Brooklyn who had known Pamela—a delightful lunch conversation provided personal details I could never have found elsewhere.

The author's research bookshelf.
The second was finding, online, a reference to New Yorker memos about Pamela. But I had to request copies before I could read them. One day a plain brown envelope arrived. The return address: Room 222, The New York Public Library. Instantly I envisioned a mysterious room at the end of a long dark hall, full of wonderful secrets. When I tore open the envelope, I was not disappointed. Inside were memos dated 1935-36 describing interviews with Pamela when she was no longer famous. She was struggling to “to get on her feet again.” These memos became a critical piece of the novel.

The third was perhaps the most thrilling. The character of Robert Schlick (Pamela’s first husband) was difficult to write, as very little is known about him. One day I found online an entry from a rare book dealer in California, a book of poems by Robert published in 1930. At the end of the scholarly description were these enticing words: “Tipped into the back of the book is a pocket with a label reading 'Letters.'”

The book dealer kindly sent me copies of these papers, which turned out to be vivid descriptions of Pamela’s wedding in Harlem. The music, the attendees, the clothes, the conversation! The result, I’m happy to report, is that the wedding scene in The Velveteen Daughter is quite authentic.

And now I can’t wait to lose myself researching my next book (which may or may not take place in New York City in the 1830s)…


Laurel Davis Huber grew up in Rhode Island and Oklahoma. She is a graduate of Smith College. She has worked as a corporate newsletter editor, communications director for a botanical garden, high school English teacher, and senior development officer for both New Canaan Country School and Amherst College. She has studied with the novelist and short-story writer Leslie Pietrzyk (the 2015 Drue Heinz Literature Prize winner for This Angel on My Chest) and has participated in several writing residencies at the Vermont Studio Center. She and her husband split their time between New Jersey and Maine.  Visit the author's website at