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

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Laurel Davis Huber's The Velveteen Daughter, a mother-daughter story about art, family, and fame

Debut novelist Huber brings psychological acuity and tender empathy to her portraits of Margery Williams, the English-American author of the children’s literature classic The Velveteen Rabbit, and her artist daughter, Pamela Bianco. Huber knits their viewpoints together in short alternating chapters, a perfect structure for characters whose lives are so intertwined that it would be difficult to tell their stories separately.

Growing up in early twentieth-century Turin, Pamela displays such uncanny artistic talent that her Italian-born father puts her under the spotlight, arranging exhibitions that gain her international attention. This childhood fame has dire repercussions.  As a young woman in New York’s art scene, Pamela endures melancholic episodes and suffers intense, unrequited love for a family friend, while lively, warmhearted Margery constantly worries about her fragile daughter’s stability.

Huber excels in depicting these complex family dynamics, and her subject is strikingly original. Combining the elegance of literary fiction with realistic period atmosphere and an emotional openness reminiscent of personal memoirs, the prose is entirely immersive. A compelling read for art- and women’s-history enthusiasts as well as historical fiction fans.

Laurel Davis Huber's The Velveteen Daughter will be published by She Writes Press on July 11th ($16.95 pb/$9.95 ebook).  This review first appeared in the 5/15 issue of Booklist.  Once you read this novel, you'll wonder why the story had been hidden from history for so long.

On release day next Tuesday, I'll be publishing a guest post by the author in which she discusses her research discoveries.

Monday, July 03, 2017

From #HNS2017: the Book Reviewers Tell All panel, with details on the Historical Novels Review

Last Saturday, June 24th, I participated in a panel entitled Book Reviewers Tell All: Advice for Authors and Readers at the Historical Novel Society conference in Portland, Oregon. My fellow panelists were book bloggers extraordinaire Jenny Quinlan of Let Them Read Books and Historical Editorial and Meg Wessell from A Bookish Affair. We had a standing room only crowd of nearly 100 people – a nice surprise!

Thanks to everyone who attended. It was great to see so much interest in reviewing historical fiction.

Here’s a narrative version of my part of our presentation, for those who weren’t able to attend (or for those that did but would like a recap). My part dealt with my role as book review editor for the Historical Novels Review.

Please stop by and read Meg's and Jenny's parts of the presentation as well!  Meg spoke first, discussing what authors should know about book blogs, and then Jenny spoke about reviewing: how to write reviews, reviewing ethics, approaches to negative reviews, and more.

Background on the Historical Novels Review

This year, the HNS turns twenty, and May’s HNR is the 20th anniversary issue. A quarterly magazine published in print since 1997, it contains reviews of historical fiction from the US and UK, with additional content from Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. It offers a wide variety of historical fiction, from all subgenres (including historical romance, mystery, and fantasy) and from all types of publishers, from the Big 5 to small and university presses to indie books. It’s the only print magazine for historical fiction, with over 300 reviews published each quarter; most appear in print, but due to space limitations (HNR is 64pp long), some reviews appear a “online exclusives.”

The HNS website has a large database with over 16,000 reviews, all searchable by keyword as well as time period and subgenre. In the past, the HNR aimed for comprehensive review coverage, but that’s no longer possible, since so many historical novels are being published. Rather, HNR is selective, and the overall acceptance rate is about 50%, a greater ratio than many other review magazines have.

What do the reviews editors do?

I work with a great team of 11 reviews editors based in the US and UK. Each of us has publisher liaison assignments. This system is a little unusual for a review publication, but we’ve set things up this way because we have to make many requests for review copies from publishers ourselves. Some books arrive without our having to ask for them, but it’s not the majority. Publishers don’t tend to have mailing lists of historical fiction reviewers like they do for genres like romance or mystery. So: each of the reviews editors makes requests for review copies, decides on reviewer assignments (in the US, this job is rotated among all of us), mails the books out, edits the completed reviews, and emails review links to the publishers or authors who sent us the books in the first place. For example, I work with Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Bethany House, and some university presses.

a pile of books waiting to be assigned to reviewers

The books solicited by the reviews editors include historical novels with settings in the 1960s and earlier, as well as multi-period books with significant historical content. We make a point of seeking out review copies from publishers who may not have heard of the magazine, and we also handle incoming queries that arrive via email or the HNS website. Indie editor Richard Lee (HNS’s founder/publisher) and his team respond to incoming queries for indie-published historical novels.

Why review for the Historical Novels Review?

The HNR relies on the contributions of over 150 reviewers, each with different areas of specialty or interest – from ancient Egypt to Regency romances, the US Civil War, and WWII military history. Not everyone has a specialty, which is fine. Reviewers regularly receive long lists of books to select from over email and send in their choices for books they’d like to review – those that they’re personally interested in. Because reviewers are volunteers (as are the editors), we felt this was important. In the US, the editors collate who wants what. We create an enormous spreadsheet with people’s choices, making assignments based on that and the genre/time period preferences that reviewers had given to us initially.

Reviewers aren’t sent books unsolicited, although we sometimes ask for people able to review “orphans” (those that go unclaimed in the first round of selections). The fact that a book is an “orphan” doesn’t say anything about a book’s quality, but some books are harder to place for various reasons. Many reviewers look forward to getting the lists and use them to add books to their TBRs. Reviewers get to keep the books they review and have the opportunity to share their thoughts with readers of an international magazine.

May's Historical Novels Review, the 20th anniversary issue!

As with other review publications, HNR has a set of guidelines for reviewers to follow. While there isn’t a “house style,” there are some things we look for:

  • Unlike with blog reviews, HNR reviews have a set word limit. Most reviews must be 200-300 words long (there’s a shorter word count for nonfiction and some shorter genre titles). It’s a useful exercise in writing concisely and clearly. Every word counts, and you have to decide what aspects of a book are most important to describe or analyze in this relatively short space. 
  • Reviews must have a balance of plot recap and critical reaction. If a review is nearly all about the plot, with only a short sentence of opinion at the end, we’ll return the review for revision. HNR reviews are written for other readers who can use them to judge whether the book might interest them (or not). 
  • Opinions (both positive and not) should be backed up with reasons or examples to help readers. This is particularly true when reviewers find what they believe are anachronisms. 
  • Reviews should be written in an engaging style. 
  • The HNR has quarterly reviewer deadlines, and reviewers have anywhere from 30-90 days to turn in their reviews. 
  • No spoilers! Reviewers should avoid giving away major plot twists; readers should be left to discover these on their own. 
  • Readers may find the idea of reviewing historical fiction intimidating, because they feel they need to be an expert on a novel’s historical period in order to evaluate its accuracy. However, HNR isn’t an academic publication in which the historical contents of novels are analyzed in great detail. The reviews are written for general readers who are historical fiction fans. If reviewers know a historical period well and can comment on a novel’s accuracy (or not), that’s fine, but it isn’t a requirement.
There's more to reviewing than just this, but we each had only 10-15 min to get the basics in...

The reviews editors take an active role and provide feedback to help strengthen reviews when appropriate.

For anyone interested in joining the review team, please email me! Send details on your reading interests and, if I’m not familiar with your writing, I’ll request a sample review from you, or a link to one. Please don’t be offended by this; I’ll want to get an idea of your writing/reviewing style before mailing books out. If you’re new to reviewing, consider writing up a sample review of a novel you’ve recently read, and I’ll read it over and provide feedback.

What authors should know about the review process

Here are some points for authors to be aware of:

  • HNR doesn’t charge for reviews.
  • Read the submission guidelines first to learn more about HNR and the review process. This is a good idea for any review publication you want to submit to. 
  • Since HNR is a quarterly magazine, it has a lead time of 2-5 months. (The “lead time” is an estimate for how long the review process takes, from book submission to the publication of a review.) Both print copies and e-copies are accepted. 
  • Our scope is limited to books published within the last 12 months. HNR accepts historical novels and selected historical nonfiction only; modern novels about the past, such as The Da Vinci Code, aren't covered.
  • Requests are accepted from both publicists and authors. You can email the appropriate reviews editor directly; email addresses and publisher liaison assignments are listed on the magazine’s masthead. Additionally, you can fill out the HNS’s online review request form, and an editor will reply if they’d like to request a copy of your book. 
  • Although the editors request review copies from publishers, please reach out, or have your publicist reach out, if you want to be sure your book is being considered. 
  • Realize that although we appreciate the opportunity to consider all submissions, not everything submitted will be reviewed. Also, HNS reviews can’t be purchased via membership. HNS members and non-members are treated equally in the review process.

Other promotional opportunities offered in the HNR

  • Myfanwy Cook compiles a quarterly column, New Voices, which profiles four debut historical novelists in each issue. 
  • Feature articles (which include interviews, profiles, and other pieces) are published both in the HNR and on the HNS website. Lucinda Byatt is the features editor for the print magazine, while Claire Morris is the web features editor. Have an idea for a piece you want to write? Contact Lucinda and/or Claire – use the HNS’s contact form, or email me at sarah dot readingthepast dot com for their contact details. Many articles & interviews are based on queries from publicists or individual authors. 
  • Articles are more likely to be accepted if the focus is not explicitly self-promotional. 
  • Effective with the May 2017 issue, I’ve started compiling a list entitled New Books by HNS Members as part of my Market News column in the print magazine. This is for HNS members only; if you’d like to be included, send me the details! The submission deadline for August’s HNR (covering novels published Jan-Sept 2017) is the first week of July. 

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Emilia Bassano Lanyer’s Family: Court Musicians and Secret Jews, a guest post by Charlene Ball

Today Charlene Ball, author of the debut novel Dark Lady, is stopping by with a post on the family background and heritage of her heroine, Emilia Bassano Lanyer.  Dark Lady was published on Tuesday by She Writes Press, and I'm looking forward to reading it.  Welcome, Charlene!


Emilia Bassano Lanyer’s Family: Court Musicians and Secret Jews
By Charlene Ball

Emilia Bassano Lanyer, the main character in my novel Dark Lady, was a member of the Venetian Bassano family of Court musicians and instrument makers who came to England from Venice at the invitation of King Henry VIII. They moved from the small Italian town of Bassano de Grappa to Venice, where they became musicians for the Doge.

Emilia’s father Baptista Bassano was the youngest of six brothers who emigrated from Venice (an older brother remained in Italy). The Bassanos lived at first in the Charterhouse in London (it still stands off Aldersgate Street north of the Barbican). The Charterhouse was emptied of its monks when Henry VIII took over the monasteries. Emilia’s mother was Margaret Johnson, possibly related to the Robert Johnson who composed some songs for Shakespeare’s plays. Baptista and Margaret had four children, but two boys died in childhood, and Angela, Emilia’s older sister, married Joseph Holland in her teens and disappeared from the records.

The Bassanos may have been conversos, or secret Jews, who converted to Christianity and outwardly conformed to the Church of England while observing their religion in secret. If they were secret Jews, they may have come originally from Spain or Portugal when the Jews were expelled in 1492. Officially no Jews had lived in England since they were expelled by Edward I in 1290. But there were Jewish families living in London before, during, and after the reign of Elizabeth I.

Being from a family of musicians, Emilia would have been surrounded by music from birth. She would have learned to play the lute, as many gentlewomen and ladies did, and probably also the recorder, since her family was known for the Court recorder consort (a consort is a small band made up of the same kind of instruments) and for making recorders and other wind instruments.

Emilia married her cousin, Alfonso Lanyer (alternative spelling Lanier). His mother was Emilia’s first cousin, and his father was from a French Huguenot family of musicians. The most famous member of this family is Nicholas Lanier, the 17th-century composer. Nicholas is a child in Dark Lady.

The historical Alfonso could have been either older or younger than Emilia. I have made him younger and given him the nickname of “Alfi.” Alfonso became a member of the Bassano Consort, either because his mother, Lucretia, was a Bassano or because of his marriage to Emilia.

Music, therefore, would have pervaded Emilia Bassano Lanyer’s life. And so would ties to her family. Her Jewish heritage would likely have been both a bond with her Bassano family and a source of struggle, since she was brought up a Protestant and was bound by ties of love and friendship with her Protestant mentors Suzan Bertie, Countess of Kent, and Margaret Clifford, Countess of Cumberland. Dark Lady portrays how a woman with such conflicting loyalties manages to negotiate her way among those she loves.

If you’d like to learn more, here are some resources I used:

Katz, David S. The Jews in the History of England: 1485-1850. Oxford: Clarendon: 1984.

Lasocki, David, with Roger Prior. The Bassanos: Venetian Musicians and Instrument Makers in England, 1531-1665. Aldershot, England: Scolar, 1995.

Prior, Roger. “A Second Jewish Community in Tudor London.” Jewish Historical Studies 31 (1988-90): 137-152.

Ruffatti, Alessio. “Italian Musicians at the Tudor Court – Were They Really Jews?” Jewish Historical Studies 35 (1996-1998): 1-14.


Charlene Ball holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature and has taught English and women’s studies at colleges and universities. Although she has written nonfiction, reviews, and academic articles, writing fiction has always been her first love. She has published fiction and nonfiction in The North Atlantic Review, Concho River Review, The NWSA Journal, and other journals. She is a Fellow of the Hambidge Center for the Arts and held a residency at the Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico. She retired from the Women’s Studies Institute (now the Institute for Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies) at Georgia State University in 2009. She lives in Atlanta with her wife, author and bookseller Libby Ware. Visit her online at her website or Facebook.

Monday, June 19, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 15, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 09, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 29, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 26, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some additional notes:

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 19, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 15, 2017

Historical fiction picks at BookExpo 2017

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

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

~Author Signings~

Thursday, June 1st

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~Galleys to Grab~

This section excludes the author signings mentioned above.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 05, 2017

Women of science and mathematics: a gallery of historical novels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 01, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Friday, April 28, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 24, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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