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H I S T O R IC A L

NOV EL S REVIEW

ISSUE 97

WHAT YOU ANSWER TO Vanessa Riley's Island Queen |

More on page 8

AUGUST 2021

F E AT U R ED I N T H IS ISSU E ... Vilified or Victorious? The Roles of Women in Ancient Greece Page 10

Urban History, Real & Imagined Jonathan Lee's The Great Mistake Page 12

Sistersong as Social Narrative Lucy Holland's Latest Novel Page 13

Women in the Age of Constantine The Rise of Emperors Trilogy Page 14

In Search of Lost Time Almanacs and the Calendar Change Page 15

Historical Fiction Market News Page 1

New Voices Page 4

History & Film Page 6

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NOV EL S REVIEW ISSN 1471-7492

Linda Sever <LSever@uclan.ac.uk> Publisher Coverage: All UK children’s historicals

Karen Warren <worldwidewriteruk@gmail.com> Publisher Coverage: Birlinn/Polygon; Duckworth Overlook; Faber & Faber; Granta; HarperCollins UK; Hamish Hamilton; Pan Macmillan; Penguin Random House UK (Michael Joseph, Penguin General, Penguin Press, and their imprints); Short Books; Simon & Schuster UK

Issue 97, August 2021 | © 2021 The Historical Novel Society

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Kate Braithwaite

Richard Lee Marine Cottage, The Strand, Starcross, Devon EX6 8NY UK <richard@historicalnovelsociety.org>

EDI TOR I AL BOA R D Managing Editor: Bethany Latham

<kate.braithwaite@gmail.com> Publisher Coverage: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Poisoned Pen Press; Skyhorse; and Soho

Bryan Dumas <bryanpgdumas@gmail.com> Publisher Coverage: Algonquin; Kensington; Other Press; Overlook; Sourcebooks; Tyndale; and other US/Canadian small presses

Houston Cole Library, Jacksonville State University 700 Pelham Road North, Jacksonville, AL 36265-1602 USA <blatham@jsu.edu>

Sarah Hendess

Book Review Editor: Sarah Johnson

Janice Ottersberg

Booth Library, Eastern Illinois University, 600 Lincoln Avenue, Charleston, IL 61920 USA <sljohnson2@eiu.edu> Publisher Coverage: Bethany House; Five Star; HarperCollins; IPG; Penguin Random House (all imprints); Severn House; Australian presses; and university presses

Features Editor: Lucinda Byatt 13 Park Road, Edinburgh, EH6 4LE UK <textline13@gmail.com>

New Voices Column Editor: Myfanwy Cook 47 Old Exeter Road, Tavistock, Devon PL19 OJE UK <myfanwyc@btinternet.com>

R EV I EWS EDI TOR S, U K Alan Fisk <alan.fisk@alanfisk.com> Publisher Coverage: Aardvark Bureau, Black and White, Bonnier Zaffre, Crooked Cat, Freight, Gallic, Honno, Impress, Karnac, Legend, Pushkin, Oldcastle, Quartet, Sandstone, Saraband, Seren, Serpent’s Tail

Edward James <busywords_ed@yahoo.com> Publisher Coverage: Arcadia; Atlantic Books; Bloomsbury; Canongate; Head of Zeus; Glagoslav; Hodder Headline (inc. Coronet, Hodder & Stoughton, NEL, Sceptre); John Murray; Pen & Sword; Robert Hale; Alma; The History Press

Douglas Kemp <douglaskemp62@gmail.com> Publisher Coverage: Allison & Busby; Little, Brown; Orion; Penguin Random House UK (Cornerstone, Ebury, Transworld, Vintage, and their imprints); Quercus

<clark1103@yahoo.com> Publisher Coverage: US/Canadian children’s publishers <jkottersberg@gmail.com> Publisher Coverage: Amazon Publishing; Hachette; Pegasus; and W.W. Norton

Larry Zuckerman <boyonaraft64@gmail.com> Publisher Coverage: Bloomsbury; Macmillan (all imprints); Grove/ Atlantic; and Simon & Schuster (all imprints)

R E V I E WS E DI T O R , I N DI E J. Lynn Else <jlynn@historicalnovelsociety.org> Publisher Coverage: all self- and subsidy-published novels

EDITORIAL POLICY & COPYRIGHT Reviews, articles, and letters may be edited for reasons of space, clarity, and grammatical correctness. We will endeavour to reflect the authors’ intent as closely as possible, and will contact the authors for approval of any major change. We welcome ideas for articles, but have specific requirements to consider. Before submitting material, please contact the editor to discuss whether the proposed article is appropriate for Historical Novels Review. In all cases, the copyright remains with the authors of the articles. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form without the written permission of the authors concerned.

M E M B E R S H I P DE TA I L S THE HISTORICAL NOVEL SOCIETY was formed in 1997 to help promote historical fiction. We are an open society — if you want to get involved, get in touch. MEMBERSHIP in the Historical Novel Society entitles members to all the year’s publications: four issues of Historical Novels Review, as well as exclusive membership benefits through the Society website. Back issues of Society magazines are also available. For current rates, please see: https://historicalnovelsociety.org/members/join/


TABLE OF CONTENTS

H NS E DI TOR I A L U P DAT E S

ISSU E 97 AUGUST 2021 COLU M NS 1

Historical Fiction Market News

Sarah Johnson

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New Voices Profiles of authors Helen Fripp, Michelle Grierson, Hilary Hauck, and Eimear Lawlor | Myfanwy Cook

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History & Film The Knick | Bethany Latham

F E AT U R ES & I N T E RV I EWS 8

What You Answer To Vanessa Riley's Island Queen by Tiphanie Yanique

10 Vilified or Victorious? The Roles of Women in Ancient Greece by Myfanwy Cook 12 Urban History, Real & Imagined Jonathan Lee's The Great Mistake by Marlie Parker Wasserman 13 Sistersong as Social Narrative Lucy Holland's Latest Novel by Kristen McQuinn 14 Women in the Age of Constantine The Rise of Emperors Trilogy by Gordon Doherty & Simon Turney 15 In Search of Lost Time Almanacs and the Calendar Change by Martine Bailey

R EV I EWS 16 Book Reviews Editors’ choice and more

HISTORICAL FICTION MARKET NEWS We’re hoping to add two new UK-based reviews editors to our volunteer-based editorial team: one to work with adult titles, and the other with children’s and YA. The role involves liaising with publishers to obtain review copies, assigning books to reviewers, editing reviews, and submitting them by each quarterly deadline. Training and support are happily provided, and the workload involves a couple hours/week, on average. You’d get to work with a large, enthusiastic group of talented reviewers and have first picks of review books. Mailing expenses are reimbursed, and HNS membership is covered during your tenure. Please email Sarah at sljohnson2@eiu.edu with questions or to express interest. We’re also seeking a volunteer interested in compiling the HNS’s guide to forthcoming children’s and YA historical novels. Drop a line to Sarah at sljohnson2@eiu.edu if you’d like to take this on.

N E W BO OK S BY H NS M E M BE R S Congrats to the following author members on their new releases! If you’ve written a historical novel or nonfiction work published (or to be published) in April 2021 or after, please send the following details to me at sljohnson2@eiu.edu or @readingthepast by Oct. 7: author, title, publisher, release date, and a blurb of one sentence or less. Details will appear in November’s magazine. Submissions may be edited for space. “The musical equivalent of The Da Vinci Code” is how one reviewer described Howard Jay Smith’s Meeting Mozart: From the Secret Diaries of Lorenzo Da Ponte (The Sager Group, Dec. 23, 2020), a deftly plotted and richly detailed historical novel that spans generations and involves mysteries, masquerades, opera, and spies while bringing to light the incredible life story of Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, the Jewish-born priest who created The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi Fan Tutte. When Fiona Figg is found in Paris dressed as a bellboy and holding a bloody paper knife over the body of a dead countess, it’s not just her career on the block in High Treason at the Grand Hotel by Kelly Oliver (Level Best Books/Historia Imprint, Jan. 5). In The Stories We Tell by Liz Milliron (Level Best Books/Historia Imprint, Feb. 9), set in late 1942, a Bell Airplane co-worker wants Betty Ahern to prove that the death of her grandmother was murder. As depicted in DL Fowler’s The Turn: A Bond that Shaped History (Harbor Hill Publishing, Mar. 4), William Henry Johnson was not merely Abraham Lincoln’s shadow; he was his mirror. The Cotillion Brigade by Glen Craney (Brigid’s Fire Press, Mar. 5) is based on the true Civil War story of the Nancy Harts of Georgia, the most famous female militia in American history. In 1890, Lainie, facing peril and hope on a remote Idaho farm, learns that a wildflower can grow in the most unlikely places, including

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the darkness of flight, in The Shadow of Wildflowers by Alta Ione (StoryBridge Publications, Apr. 5). Set in the opulent America of the Gilded Age, An Irish Wife by Deborah Lincoln (Blank Slate Press, Apr. 20) tells the story of a young man born to liberty and privilege, and of the Irish woman from the squalid life of the coal mines who shatters his world. In Where Your Treasure Is by M. C. Bunn (Bellastoria Press, Apr. 23), after a Norfolk heiress and a down-on-his-luck prizefighter from London are thrown together during a botched bank robbery, their love strains the bounds of late Victorian society, revealing the complex web that binds social classes, and transforms the lives of their family and friends. Alison Ferguson’s The Sisters’ Saga trilogy is newly released (Backstory Press, May 1). In Volume 1, Maiden Manoeuvres, set in colonial Sydney, Henrietta’s sisters collect flowers to catalogue and make detailed drawings, but Henrietta is not like them—she lets the petals scatter where they may. In Volume 2, Dearest Daughter, Henrietta’s sisters must answer the question: How much would they trade for matrimony? Concluding with Widow’s Wake, set over the course of a single voyage from Sydney to London in 1847, Henrietta must reconcile the regrets of her past in order to truly cast aside her widow’s weeds and embrace the adventures ahead. The Hypno-Ripper by Donald K. Hartman (Themes & Settings in Fiction Press, May 3) contains two Victorian era tales dealing with Jack the Ripper and hypnotism, as well as a lengthy biographical profile on their con-artist author, Edward Oliver Tilburn. Gina Conkle’s The Scot Who Loved Me (HarperCollins, May 25) is a fictional take on the Lost Treasure of Arkaig and a band of Scotswomen determined to recover it seven years after Culloden. Guardians at the Wall by Tim Walker (Independently published, Jun. 1) is a dual timeline historical novel set at Hadrian’s Wall; archaeologists work to uncover Roman artefacts and build a narrative, whilst in the historical thread, a Roman centurion fights for his life in 2nd-century Britannia. A seventeen-year-old girl in the early ‘70s hitchhikes across Canada to blackmail a wealthy boy in Nancy Thorne’s The Somewhere I See You Again (Soul Mate, Jun. 2). Naveen Sridhar’s Starlight in the Dawn: The Poetic Princess Who Chose to Fight (Amazon KDP, Jun. 2) tells the story of a princess and priestess who is the first literary person on record. Enjoy the journey to 19th-century Australia in Liah S. Thorley’s colourful family drama, Homeward (Kara Fox Publishing, Jun. 2), which is full of pioneering spirit, romance, mystery and adventure. Resistance, Book 1, Liberty by Eilidh Mcginness (Independently published, Jun. 7) is the first in a trilogy featuring a group of friends who join the French Resistance and find their loyalties tested to the limits. Cry of the Innocent by Julie Bates (Level Best Books/Historia Imprint, Jun. 8) features Faith Clarke, who hurries to discover the truth behind a vicious murder at her tavern in Colonial Williamsburg just as the American Revolution begins. Runner-up in the 2020 Page Turner Awards, Lara Byrne’s Lotharingia (Independently published, Jun. 11) is a fictionalized re-writing of the

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COLUMNS | Issue 97, August 2021

youth of Countess Matilde of Tuscany, as she fights an uphill struggle against the oppressive patriarchal conventions of medieval Europe to experience love and forge her own destiny. In Katie Hutton’s The Gypsy’s Daughter (Bonnier Zaffre, Jun. 24), the sequel to The Gypsy Bride (2020), set in Kent in 1954, Harmony ‘Harry’ Loveridge has ambitions to leave the farm where she has grown up to go as a scholarship student to university in Nottingham – until one fateful night, during the yearly hopping, something happens to Harry that could take everything away from her. Malve von Hassell’s The Amber Crane (Odyssey Books, Jun. 25) is a time-slip historical novel, set in Germany in 1644-45 and 1944-45. Based on the life of a remarkable but little-known aerial stunt performer, The Only Living Lady Parachutist by Catherine Clarke (Idle Fancy Press, Jun. 28) introduces Lillian who risks her life by jumping from a hot air balloon in 1890s Australia and New Zealand — a story of courage and ambition, and the consequences of secrets and lies. In Spain 1825, during the Ominous Decade of Ferdinand VII, a young and poetic girl experiences romance, adventure, and danger in the magical realism drama Only Sofia-Elisabete by Robin Elizabeth Kobayashi (independently published, Jun. 29). In The Murderess Must Die by Marlie Wasserman (Level Best Books/ Historia Imprint, Jul. 6), Martha Place, the first woman to be executed in the electric chair, recounts from the grave, the story of her life and punishment for murder in Brooklyn in 1898. Ariadne Unraveled: A Mythic Retelling by Zenobia Neil (Hypatia Books, Jul. 7) is a diverse, Minoan-inspired version of the myths of Ariadne and Dionysus. In The Scribe (Haeddre Press, Jul. 9), a spoiled noble, an orphaned pickpocket, a Mamluk soldier, and a kindly scribe collide in this debut historical drama by Elizabeth R. Andersen set in 13th century Palestine on the eve of the infamous Siege of Acre. A marriage of convenience leads to a life of passion and purpose when landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted weds his late brother’s widow Mary, in Gail Ward Olmsted’s Landscape of a Marriage (Black Rose Writing, Jul. 29). In Caligula and I by Cy Stein (Abeel St. Press, Aug. 1), Silvanus grows to manhood with the heir to throne and later Emperor Caligula, watching him develop from an angry, enabled boy into an irrational, murderous infantile man with almost infinite power, while he himself and the slave he loves become increasingly disturbed about the path his life choices have taken. Brave Crossing - A Journey In-Between by Maria Alvarez Stroud (Little Creek Press, Aug.) is based on her father’s journey from the Philippines as a Spanish Filipino in the early 1900s, landing in the Midwest – Chicago and eventually Wisconsin – right before WWI, a pandemic, and race riots were about to explode. In Murder on Principle, Eleanor Kuhns’ latest Will Rees historical mystery (Severn House, Aug. 3), when the slave holder who has tracked Rees and the fugitives to Maine is murdered, Rees has to decide whether to investigate and identify the murderer or let him go. In Deadly Cypher, Book Seven in The Deadly Series by Kate Parker (JDP Press, Aug. 24), when Britain’s nascent war effort is threatened by a murder at Bletchley Park, the nation’s counterintelligence


spymaster tasks Olivia Redmond to investigate and protect the top secret codebreaking program at all cost. Love in a Time of Hate by Matthew Langdon Cost (Encircle Publications, Aug. 25) is a historical novel about the fight for political and social equality in New Orleans after the Civil War, all interwoven around a murder mystery and a love story in a time of hate. In Kevin St. Jarre’s latest novel The Twin (Encircle Publications, Oct.), a fictional retelling of the story of Jesus of Nazareth from the point of view of Thomas Didymus, known to most as Doubting Thomas, the narrative draws upon the belief that Jesus traveled to Kashmir during the “missing” years of his youth, studied Buddhism, and then returned to Galilee to begin his ministry. In Clarissa Harwood’s The Curse of Morton Abbey (Thornfield Press, Oct. 26), a gothic tale of romantic suspense at in 1890s England, solicitor Miss Vaughan Springthorpe accepts a suspiciously lucrative offer of employment to prepare the sale of a crumbling Yorkshire estate, but when she arrives, the mysterious occupants of the house seem to be trying to drive her away, threatening her sanity and even her life.

N E W P U BL I SH I NG DE A LS Sources include authors and publishers, Publishers Weekly, Publishers Marketplace, The Bookseller, and more. Email me at sljohnson2@eiu. edu or tweet @readingthepast to have your publishing deal included. Leanna Renee Hieber has six novellas forthcoming with Scrib’d Bryant Street Publishing, releasing from June 2021 through next year, including Time Immemorial, a trilogy of timeslip novellas continuing her Dark Nest universe, and The Spirit Suitor (working title) continuing her Spectral City series of Gaslamp Fantasy. In addition, her historical paranormal mystery Dead Ringer will appear in either fall 2021 or early 2022 in podcast format from Realm.Fm (formerly Serial Box).

acquired jointly by Atlantic publishing director Sarah Hodgson and Allen & Unwin publisher Annette Barlow via Jane Gregory at David Higham Associates for publication this November. Pam Lecky sold two WWII-era thrillers, beginning with Her Secret War, a tale of danger, secrets, and espionage about a young Irishwoman in war-torn Britain who’s asked to find a spy at her workplace, which manufactures the Spitfire fighter plane, to Katie Loughnane at Avon (UK) via agent Thérèse Cohen. Publication will be this October. Mexican-American writer Isabel Cañas’ debut The Hacienda, a Gothic novel set in Mexico the 1800s after the War of Independence, about a young woman who seeks to rid her house of evil after moving into her new husband’s country estate, sold to Jen Monroe at Berkley, at auction, in a two-book deal, by Kari Sutherland at Bradford Literary Agency, for spring 2022 publication. Lizzie Pook’s Moonlight and the Pearldiver’s Daughter, historical adventure about a young Englishwoman seeking the truth about her eccentric father through late 19th-century Western Australia, sold to Carina Guiterman at Simon & Schuster (US) and Sarah St. Pierre at Simon & Schuster Canada, in a two-book deal, by Madeleine Milburn at Madeleine Milburn Literary Agency. Rights also sold to Sam Humphreys at Pan Macmillan and Beverley Cousins at Random House Australia. Perma Red author Debra Magpie Earling’s The Lost Journals of Sacajawea, in which the title character reveals her capture and enslavement, and her monumental trek with Lewis and Clark to the Pacific, sold to Daniel Slager at Milkweed for publication in fall 2022, by Sally Wofford-Girand at Union Literary. Harvill Secker publishing director Liz Foley acquired Susan StokesChapman’s Pandora, about an aspiring jewellery artist who uncovers secrets surrounding an ancient Greek vase in 1799 London, from Juliet Mushens at Mushens Entertainment for January 2022 publication.

Stephanie Cowell’s The Boy in the Rain, set in Edwardian England of 1903, a love story between two men, a shy young artist and a rising socialist speaker, as they struggle to build a life together against personal obstacles and the dangers of prosecution under the gross indecency Laws, sold to Jaynie Royal at Regal House, for publication in summer 2023.

Daisy Goodwin’s The Maid of Honor, about a young Anglo-American aristocrat at the court of Queen Victoria, sold to Charles Spicer at St. Martin’s Press via Caroline Fraser at Peters Fraser & Dunlop.

Spectral Women (working title), a non-fiction examination of women’s narratives in haunted house and ghost stories co-authored by Leanna Renee Hieber, Boroughs of the Dead CEO Andrea Janes, and Elizabeth Kerri Mahon (author of Scandalous Women), was acquired by Kensington for publication in 2022.

For forthcoming novels through 2022, please see our guides, compiled by Fiona Sheppard:

Cut From the Earth, the debut novel from Stephanie Renee dos Santos, book one of The Tile Maker Series and a semifinalist for the Chaucer Book Awards, tells the story of a Portuguese tile maker who harbors an illicit female designer to liberate the enslaved with art and escape the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755; world English rights were acquired by Next Chapter (UK/Japan) for publication in summer 2021. Violeta, Isabel Allende’s next novel, slated for spring 2022 publication, following a Latin American family over the last century, was acquired by Jennifer Hershey at Ballantine via Johanna Castillo at Writers House. Minette Walters’ The Swift and the Harrier, a tale of adventure, love, loss, and family set in Dorset during the English Civil War, was

O T H E R N E W & FORT HCOM I NG T I T LE S https://historicalnovelsociety.org/guides/forthcoming-historical-novels/

COM PI LED BY SA R A H JOH NSON Sarah Johnson is Book Review Editor of HNR, a librarian, readers’ advisor, and author of reference books. She reviews for Booklist and CHOICE and blogs about historical novels at readingthepast.com. Her latest book is Historical Fiction II: A Guide to the Genre.

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NEW VOICES credit: Cassie Mcreavy

Debut novelists Helen Fripp, Michelle Grierson, Hilary Hauck, and Eimear Lawlor journey into the past using research and imagination.

Helen Fripp

Hilary Hauck

Michelle Grierson

Eimear Lawlor

Dublin’s Girl (Head of Zeus, 2021) by Eimear Lawlor is the end of a journey that started in 2013, when she did a creative writing course at her local university and her second child, Ciara, told her “to do something with my life other than drinking coffee in town with my friends”. Shortly after Ciara was born, Lawlor continues, “I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, so I became a stay-at-home mum and left teaching. I was an avid reader from my early childhood, and our house was full of English literature and historical books.” She can remember that as a child her father “had been immensely proud of his aunt Vera McDonnell and her time fighting in the War of Independence, and especially after independence. Vera became the private secretary to Eamon De Valera, President of Ireland from 1959-1973.” However, Lawlor’s interest in her great aunt Vera came while on the creative writing course. Her cousin, who was researching their family tree, sent her “a copy of Vera’s statement to the Irish government in 1954.The Irish government took statements from everyone involved in politics in Ireland from 1912-1922, and they are online in military archives.” Reading Vera’s statement, Lawlor discovered that Vera “went to Dublin at 17 and worked for the political party Sinn Fein (which later branched out to Finna Fail and Fine Gael). She had been in a building under attack from students, delivered a gun to a priest, and was captured during the civil war and possibly going to be shot. The country was split into anti-treaty and pro-treaty. She was antitreaty and captured when delivering a letter.” At that point, “Eamon De Valera intervened, sending a letter saying under the Geneva Conventions, it was illegal to detain couriers. She was released.” 4

COLUMNS | Issue 97, August 2021

During the course Lawlor wrote a short piece, and this developed into a novel. “Vera never had any family, but I felt more comfortable changing her name to Veronica McDermott, and the story flowed.” Unfortunately, Lawlor’s daughter Ciara died suddenly in 2016. “Grief robs a person of so much, not just the person you have lost but also the person who you were. I couldn’t concentrate, let alone think of writing. But, I was pulled back to the novel in 2018 and looked at it again.” Hilary Hauck drew the inspiration for her novel from Pennsylvania’s coal history. From Ashes to Song (Sunbury Press, 2021), she explains, “is inspired by the true story of three Italians who immigrated from Italy to the US ninety years before I did. “I came to Colver, a small coal-mining town in Pennsylvania, because of my husband’s work. It wasn’t the America I’d expected, yet I was fascinated by how it brimmed with nostalgia. In its heyday, everyone here was an immigrant. The locals had a deep sense of their history; everyone had a family story to share.” There was one story told to Hauck by Irene Smylnycky that hooked her from the beginning. “Her dad was a musician, coal miner, and composer—a compelling combination. There was an intriguing love story, too. Irene had often thought her parents’ lives the stuff of novels. She generously gave me permission to write their story and adapt events to build a compelling plot.” For Hauck, it was almost, she says, “the perfect story for me to write, but there was one disconnect. My musical repertoire includes Chopsticks on the piano, and I once came third in a ‘worst singer’ contest. Yet here I was, tackling the story of a man who merited the title, Maestro. So talented, he would still the liveliest of dance floors with his legendary clarinet solo. He composed songs for young Irene, the ‘Shirley Temple of Colver,’ scores for weddings and other celebrations—rumor had it he even wrote a symphony.” Writing Pietro’s viewpoint was intimidating to Hauck until she realized that “he most likely learned music from a family member—in the story, his grandfather, Nonno. He had no classical training. In the evening, he’d perform; in the day, he was just another coal miner— an ordinary man. And so, instead of using terms such as overture, cadence, cantata, Pietro processes life around him through sound, expressing those sounds in terms even the less musically inclined can comprehend.” “Though not without challenge,” for Hauck the novel “was a joy to write, immersed in the setting where I now lived, following the journeys of people whose immigrant experience paralleled my own. It also pushed me far beyond my comfort zone, inspiring me to experience the world through a new lens—that of sound.” Sound and research were blended together by Michelle Grierson when writing Becoming Leidah (Simon & Schuster, 2021), which, she says, “was born out of my reverence for water.” “Even in landscapes that are bone dry,” Grierson can hear water’s call. “Some of my favourite places in the world are shorelines. To me, the ‘in-between’ space of sand and sea is a threshold: a magical portal that leads to realms unknowable, the mysteries of the deep singing like a chorus of sirens in my blood. Researching and writing Becoming Leidah felt like taking a long, luxurious bath; I soaked in tales of Norse gods, mythological creatures, and magnificent landscapes;


my fascination with fairy tales and folk medicine offered both magic and realism to the story. But underneath all of that, water itself was the force pushing me deeper. The story is my way of honouring the sacred feminine in all of us.” When trying to “trace the trajectory of Leidah,” she continues, “it seems like she has always been inside me, an undertow that pulled me deeper and deeper into my own ancestral secrets, into the watery realm of blood memory. As the story began to really take shape, I was in the midst of researching my family roots, fascinated by the concept of intergenerational memory.” For years Grierson had been “gathering family photos, letters and objects, trying to piece together some semblance of what it must have been like for my great-grandparents, who eventually left Norway to live in Canada.” She didn’t know exactly what area her family came from, so Grierson planned a trip with her nine-year-old son, “trusting my intuition to guide us. We spent at least half the trip traveling on water, and the other half trekking up mountains. There were so many moments of strange familiarity and awe for both of us; we came back to Canada, feeling homesick for Norway and its deep fjords.” It was only much later that Grierson found out they “had indeed floated on the path of our relatives, through landscapes where our family had worked farmsteads and fished for centuries. This important journey tightened the stitches in the storyline, and infused the manuscript with what it needed: a return home.” Her hope for the reader is that they allow themselves “to wander into the ‘in-between’ space of the shoreline, to luxuriate in the liminality that is Becoming Leidah. Who knows what ancient secrets might float to the surface, should you dive in?” The French House (Bookouture, 2021), Helen Fripp’s debut novel, focuses on a different journey. “I came across Veuve Clicquot’s story on a tour of her underground wine cellars in Reims. The whole thing set my imagination alight; from the alchemy and mystique of winemaking, which is so subject to the vagaries of the weather, to the taste of the terroir and the pride and rivalries of the people who produce it. What motivated a rich young widow to build a champagne empire in the way she did? It was totally against the conventions of the time, and she could have faded into an easy, gilded life.” Fripp followed Barbe-Nicole Clicquot’s pathway to her domination of the champagne market through detailed research. “Veuve Clicquot

et Cie have extensive archives, and they gave me unlimited access. I devoured the neatly kept ledgers, all in Barbe-Nicole Clicquot’s hand, which document the ups and downs of the business throughout the Napoleonic Wars. Letters between her and her ebullient salesman, Louis Bohne, tell tales of perilous sales trips to England, Sweden, Prussia and Russia dressed in his wolfskin coat, always accompanied by his copy of Don Quixote.” Fripp walked “the chalky paths amongst the vines, visited her rustic house and press in Bouzy and the grand family mansion in Reims, strolled along the banks of the river Vesle rendered a pale green by the chalk soil, and imagined her story… when I came across an account of the Year of the Comet Champagne, it felt like gold-dust.” Fripp discovered that “in 1811, a comet passed over the sky, clearly visible for the whole summer, heralding the best champagne harvest in a generation. As I researched, I could just see the Champagne Comet with a fizzing tail, a constant day and night, hanging over the vineyards as the workers toiled to bring in the grape harvest that year, overseen by a determined Barbe-Nicole Clicquot.” Then “the rush was on to break through the trade blockades to the big markets in Russia. Whoever made it first stood to make their fortune. Add to that a renegade band of fallen aristocrats, desperadoes and her ever-faithful salesman, Louis, and who could resist telling such a story of loss, love and triumph over all the odds?” Enabling their readers to travel alongside their characters Fripp, Grierson, Hauck and Lawlor have provided them with a route map to a rich historical past.

W R I T T EN BY M Y FA N W Y COOK Myfanwy Cook is an Associate University Fellow and ‘a creative enabler’. She is a prize-winning short story writer who facilitates creative writing workshops. Contact myfanwyc@btinternet. com if you have been captivated by the writing of a debut novelist you'd like to see featured.

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HISTORY & FILM Blood, Cocaine & Hubris: The Knick

Doubtless much to our readership’s relief, it’s been awhile since I’ve penned a History & Film column. When I came to write this one, I found myself in some difficulty. Lately it’s proved challenging to find something with enough appeal to watch, much less try to blather on about with nominal coherence in written form. I considered Mank, the recent Netflix film about screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz; its plot ostensibly concerns the tribulations that birthed Citizen Kane. Press was positive, with critics calling it a “love letter” to the Golden Age of Hollywood. I dutifully sat through it. Two things: 1. It’s tragic, really, that so many critics have never been the recipient of a love letter; this is the only logical conclusion to draw from their hailing Mank as one. 2. Gary Oldman is exceptional in whatever role he takes on, including this one — a feat near Herculean in a film that requires its 63-year-old British star to convince viewers he’s an alcohol-soaked American screenwriter in his early 30s. I won’t go into what this film actually is, since about halfway through, I realized I had little desire to write a column about it (or even finish watching it, if I’m honest). I switched gears, really switched them, and settled on The Knick, one of the “best and most influential shows of the prestige TV era…that almost nobody saw.”1 Well, I saw it. The Knick (two seasons, 2014-2015) is set in New York City in 1900. It stars Clive Owen, was produced and directed by Steven Soderbergh, so there are some heavy hitters here. The Knick of the title is the Knickerbocker Hospital, the name of a real hospital which operated in NYC. Yet it shouldn’t be taken as too literal a model. The real Knickerbocker got its start as the Manhattan Dispensary in the 1860s; it was located on 131st Street and Covent Avenue (presentday Harlem). This is an important distinction from the Knick of the series, because Soderbergh’s hospital is located on the Lower East Side, and there is the constant question of “moving uptown.” The Knick suffers from the location, location, location problem of its real estate — it struggles financially because, though there are notable exceptions, the population it primarily serves is the working poor of the Lower East Side tenements. The Knick is the domain of Dr. John Thackery (Owen), a volatile and brilliant surgeon whose dapper white shoes are counterbalanced by his unfortunate choice of mustache. He’s also less than judicious in the medication he selects for himself: cocaine, with the occasional opium aperitif. While there’s plenty of relationship drama, one of the show’s more gripping aspects is its portrayal of progress in the medical profession. This time period saw exponential acceleration

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of medical practice and constant innovation. Watching The Knick feels, at times, like the Eakins comparison put into motion. If you’re unfamiliar with Thomas Eakins, he was an American realist painter. Amongst other things, he treated two subjects (Dr. Samuel D. Gross and Dr. David H. Agnew) hard at work in their operating theatres. Historians have long compared the two paintings to show exactly how far medicine had come in such a short period of time. The paintings were executed less than 15 years apart (1875 and 1889), and they offer a visual representation of how significantly things had changed, not least of which was the adoption of sterile practice and pervasive use of anesthesia. Thackery personifies this shift in The Knick. He and his small team of doctors race to create new treatments and perfect their understanding of the human body. Often patients benefit, but the word experimental doesn’t even begin to describe Thackery’s approach, and there are plenty of dark inside jokes at ignorance’s expense. As just one example, the sleazeball hospital administrator (Jeremy Bobb), excited to try out the Knick’s first x-ray machine, has its radioactive material trained three inches from his skull…for over an hour. Thackery seems loosely based on William Stewart Halstead, a pioneering surgeon who focused on aseptic surgery practices and use of anesthesia. Halstead also had a serious drug dependency which included morphine and cocaine, legal and entirely unregulated at the time. Some of Halstead’s innovations, such as inguinal hernia treatment, see screen time through Thackery and his colleagues. Yet Thackery is, like much in the series, a conglomeration, conflation, and vehicle of sorts; he evokes other medical men such as Thomas Dent Mütter, an even earlier 19th century medical pioneer, when he pursues skin grafting for a syphilitic patient, and gets pitted against a colleague of Karl Landsteiner’s in an important plot point regarding the race to demystify blood groups. Thackery’s zeal to find a viable treatment for patients suffering placenta praevia is near obsessive, and there’s also a significant focus on abortion (secretly performed by one of the hospital’s affiliated nuns, no less). These are interesting foci given the fact that, according to the Directory of Social and Health Agencies of New York City for 1914, one of the categories of patients denied admittance to the real Knickerbocker were maternity cases. Maternity patients weren’t the only ones barred — the show takes pains to highlight the Knickerbocker’s refusal to treat black patients through the character of Dr. Algernon Edwards (André Holland). Edwards is black, and as a “colored” physician, faces discrimination at most, though not every, turn. There were “colored” physicians in New York City long before 1900; James McCune Smith, who was educated in England and Scotland, is often credited as the first, beginning his US practice in the 1830s. Edwards shares some similarities with this historical man (like Smith, he spends time interning in Paris), but despite sterling competence and a keen mind, he owes his position at the Knick solely to his benefactor, August Robertson (Grainger Hines), a shipping magnate and donor who keeps the Knick financially afloat. Robertson forces Thackery to take Edwards on, and the road to his acceptance by Thackery as a talented physician allowed to preside in the operating theatre takes half the first season. The change of location affects this aspect as well — the real Knick’s stance on not treating “colored people” was even more problematic than that portrayed in the series, especially as time went on, because it was located in the heart of Harlem. It would be less than accurate to describe this as an ensemble drama. Though there are strong supporting cast members with their


own troubles and backstories, this is essentially a vehicle for Owen, with Holland running a close second. Owen was approached for the role because the show needed “a movie star” with “that kind of watchability and gravitas.”2 Owen is certainly watchable, though it’s often painful, between general jerkiosity and shooting up so much he’s blown even the veins between his toes. It comes as a relief in the second season when, in response to daily needle mark checks required by the hospital, he takes to snorting rather than injecting. The show doesn’t “pussyfoot around about the prototypical surgeon’s personality,”3 and you aren’t meant to like Thackery. You’re meant to be riveted by his medical innovations while relieved you don’t have to work with him or, heaven forfend, for him. This offers a sort of juxtaposition: medicine moves forward while Thackery devolves into a pitiable (?) mess. Even in his reduced state, his mind clings to medicine – he begins working to try to find the “seat” of addiction, and the series has him advancing the unheard-of theory to a shocked hospital board that addiction is a “disease” that can be treated, rather than a moral failing. The aforementioned elements are well done, but admittedly less than original. (The arrogant surgeon with a substance abuse problem is practically a television staple at this point.) What sets The Knick apart is the sense of motion and immersion Soderbergh manages to offer the viewer. He describes the visual style as visceral, and that’s entirely apt. This show is not for the faint of heart or light of stomach. Soderbergh stated in an interview, “There’s gotta be at least one moment, if not more, in every episode where somebody has to cover their face, because they just can’t watch.”4 This viewer will vouch that it’s mission accomplished for The Knick on that score. The gore isn’t so much gratuitous as it is unavoidable; there’s the feeling that if one wants a sense of realism in a series with this time period and subject matter, blood is inescapable. With very few exceptions, the special effects are practical (as opposed to computergenerated), and they impact the viewer in way that CGI (at least, as the technology currently stands) is simply incapable of doing. It can be stomach-churning. But it also offers historical atmosphere. As a counterpoint to historical, to give it a sense of immediacy — of now — camera work is usually handheld, and natural lighting is used whenever possible. The angles often put the viewer inside the scene, which is another way this resembles Eakins’ paintings, since the artist inserted himself into them. The entire effect is finished off with an unexpected score which, if I had to describe it, puts me in mind of the tinny electronica produced when my phone’s timer notification goes off. It sounds strange, but the entire combination conveys energy, an energy of which the viewer is a part. It’s far from the clumsy efforts to “modernize” historical drama one often sees, and somehow, when all elements are melded together, it works. Critics were generally effusive, and if I have a complaint worth sharing about the show, it’s that it occasionally seems as if it’s trying to shoehorn every notable element of the period into the relatively small confines of the Knick’s wards. The sleazeball administrator brings in gangster elements and Tammany Hall corruption through his shady dealings. Robertson’s daughter (Juliet Rylance) offers the above-stairs fight for gilded cage feminine independence while Dr. Edwards’ parents provide the below-stairs dynamic as her cook and carriage driver. Thomas Edison and his wax cylinders and Mary Mallon (aka Typhoid Mary) and her filthy hands both make an appearance. One critic noted that it all adds up “to a crammed feeling of tremendously high ambition and not a little potential hubris.”5

well, BEWBS (ie, soft-core pornography) into the prestige television game. That experiment failed. As Soderbergh put it, the show “got subsumed by the never-ending tsunami of new content that shows up on these platforms almost every day.”6 But The Knick has survived its first brush with obscurity; it’s now available for streaming on HBO Max, and interest in it has revived. The series was intended to run for six seasons rather than the two it originally got before its untimely death, and those seasons were meant to occur in varying time periods. The rumor is that HBO is slated to resurrect it, though Soderbergh is no longer at the helm. Instead, with Soderbergh’s blessing, André Holland and Barry Jenkins are developing material for a third season. Given that the real Knickerbocker survived as a working hospital well into the 1970s, the possibilities seem vast. If the plans for a new season come to fruition, I’ll certainly tune in.

R E F E R ENC ES 1. Adam Chitwood “Why ‘The Knick’ Was Cancelled, According to Steven Soderbergh.” Collider, 20 March 2021. https://collider.com/whythe-knick-was-cancelled-steven-soderbergh-comments/

2. Alan Sepinwall Alan Sepinwall. “Steven Soderbergh on the Gore, the Grind, and the Glory of Making ‘The Knick’.” Rolling Stone, 25 February 2021. https://www.rollingstone.com/tv/tv-features/steven-soderberghinterview-knick-hbo-max-1131019/

3. Emily Nussbaum "I Changed My Mind About ‘The Knick’”. The New Yorker. 2 October 2014. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culturalcomment/changed-mind-knick

4. Alan Sepinwall Alan Sepinwall. “Steven Soderbergh on the Gore, the Grind, and the Glory of Making ‘The Knick’.” Rolling Stone, 25 February 2021. https://www.rollingstone.com/tv/tv-features/steven-soderberghinterview-knick-hbo-max-1131019/

5. Nick James “Further Notes on The Knick.” British Film Institute, 29 January 2015. https://www2.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-soundmagazine/reviews-recommendations/further-notes-knick

6. Alan Sepinwall Alan Sepinwall. “Steven Soderbergh on the Gore, the Grind, and the Glory of Making ‘The Knick’.” Rolling Stone, 25 February 2021. https://www.rollingstone.com/tv/tv-features/steven-soderberghinterview-knick-hbo-max-1131019/

W R I T T EN BY BE T H A N Y L AT H A M Bethany Latham is a professor, librarian, and HNR's Managing Editor. She is a regular contributor to NoveList and a regular reviewer for Booklist.

If you take a look at the date on some of the references for this piece, you’ll notice that The Knick is seeing a lot of 2021 play for a 2015 show that no one saw. I suspect most didn’t see it because it aired on Cinemax, an experiment meant to break a channel known for…

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WHAT YOU ANSWER TO Tiphanie Yanique talks to Vanessa Riley about Island Queen

men in England. Riley, a woman of color herself, was curious about this detail. When Riley was growing up, in the ´70s, Black beauty was something Black people had to be taught was real. But was Blackness always considered inferior, Riley wondered? Were Black women always thought to be less coveted by the male gaze? Thanks to her reading of Austen, Riley had a hunch that Black beauty wasn’t a new concept even in the West. But even as a fiction writer she wanted the evidence to back up her hypothesis. This is how Riley found the real Dorothy “Doll” Thomas. Here was a beautiful, successful woman who had been enslaved, but who was she? The more Riley learned about Dorothy Thomas (who went by many names, Doll, Dolly, Dorothy Kirwan), the more she wanted to know how this woman became one of the richest persons, male or female, Black or white, in the Western world at her time. “I wanted to know how this woman did it.” The “how” turned out to be rather incredible, and based in part on the “who” and the “when.” Dorothy Thomas managed to become economically successful despite being a mother to at least ten children. She was an attentive parent, making sure her children were educated, married well, had their own business. She also used her own businesses to support other women of color. But this wasn’t easily done. It wasn’t all pretty, as Island Queen makes clear. Rape was common during slavery. It was the tool by which the master could satisfy his own sexual desire while also creating more free labor when children were produced from such unions. The children were also his slaves and could be made to work for free.

Vanessa Riley is a skilled and serious researcher, and this aspect of her books has been somewhat under-lauded. The covers and the titles of her books set up the reader for a juicy, gossipy, soapy ride, and to be sure, her books are full of drama and intrigue. But there is always something serious behind Riley’s work: something she is trying to excavate from the historical archives about the human condition. In her newest novel, Island Queen (William Morrow, 2021), this desire to make history bare for her reader is abundantly clear. “I have a PhD in Engineering,” Riley reveals. “This taught me to ask questions, and to save material. In my first year I saved data that seemingly had nothing to do with anything, but later that same material was central to finishing my PhD work. This taught me details are worth holding on to.” Island Queen is replete with details about the time period—the late 1700s to early 1800s—when Dorothy “Doll” Kirwan Thomas lived and traveled throughout the Caribbean region and Great Britain. Despite Riley’s science engineering training, she always loved the humanities – and reading. In particular Jane Austen, who herself was sometimes dismissed for writing just for women but was often able to get away with otherwise radical details—because the learned men weren’t always paying much attention. For example, Austen wrote about the reality of beautiful Black women being coveted by white

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In writing Island Queen, however, Vanessa Riley uncovered some vital information about enslaved women in the Caribbean. She discovered, for example, that the rate of women being freed was higher in the West Indies than in any other place where there was slavery, and that birth rates were lower. It turns out that enslaved women in the Caribbean often bargained with their “love” (as the archives call it) to gain their freedom, but also kept their children out of slavery by choosing when to have children and choosing whom to have children for—even though they could not always choose whom they had sex with—by utilizing the herbs that might prevent or end a pregnancy. Caribbean feminism may have its roots, then, in the economic power women had over their bodies during slavery and during freedom. Riley acknowledges that this is not always the way we want to think of the honorable enslaved person. But she says, “there is something in survival. We do a disservice when we try to ignore this important part of our history. Even if the picture of survival doesn’t look exactly how we want it to look, we need to honor it.” When it came to facing these difficult parts of the work, Riley says that her engineering background helped her remove emotion from the narrative and find and relay the facts. There were times when she wished the history of Dorothy Kirwan Thomas was more gentle but, ultimately, she felt it was important to be factual. “We carry this history on our backs,” she told me. It was vital to Riley that she show the ways in which individuals sought dignity, even in this difficult reality. In Island Queen, we see that


AUSTEN wrote about the reality of beautiful Black women being coveted by white men in England. Riley, a woman of color herself, was curious about this detail. Dorothy as a character often code-switches her language—using the English of the enslaved and the English of the elite. But Riley also chose never to use the n-word in the novel, though she does reference its use. “When I wrote the first version of this book, I had the n-word in there. But I wrestled with it. It has so much psychological baggage, and it’s been given so much power because it was used to humble us. I realized that using it directly in the book took away Dorothy’s power. I believed that Dorothy would have had to be very selective in what she allowed into her psychology in order to push past racism and sexism. How could she really listen to the n word and still achieve what she did? She would have had to ignore this painful language in order to get through.” This incongruity seems to be essential to fully understanding how some Black people and women of the time, and even now, succeeded in spite of racism and sexism. Moreover, we rarely learn about the Black people and women who had to compromise—and how integral, though sad, that might have been.

makes the point that “for women who have been forced to give away sex under the rules of slavery, one aspect of power might be choosing what you want to do with your sex.” In the book, Dorothy never looks down on women for selling their bodies. As Riley writes her, Dorothy understands that part of being free might be that “you are your own property.” The book makes a strong claim for the ways in which we claim ourselves for ourselves. Naming and the power of names itself is a recuring theme in Island Queen, and as noted above, both the historical Dorothy and the one of this novel went by many names. Riley states that “the enslaved mother might only have the power to name her child. That may be her only power, her only act of parental authority. Back to the n-word, am I going to answer to this?” What matters, then, is how you say who you are to others and to yourself. From its title to its last words, Island Queen makes its author’s case that, “What you answer to is extremely important."

Some Black people during slavery were burning down the tables, but, as Riley says, “some were taking a seat at the table. There are different ways to claim your own humanity.” Riley shows how Dorothy Kirwan literally built the tables that she and other powerful women sat at and then welcomed the white planters to join them. Dorothy played the economic game, and this kept her and her family, and many other families, alive and intact. The idea of family is an important one in Island Queen. It often seems like Dorothy herself is trying to stave off generational trauma. Riley says that “there are things we pass down whether we like it or not. The importance of extended family is in the blood of people of African descent. Also, Doll was a mother, and mothers often blame themselves. Doll worked so hard to get her children and anyone in her lineage educated and freed. Then she would bring them into the fold. She believed in the value of the extended family.” This, of course, goes counter to the prevalent narrative about the weakness of the Black family. Still, Vanessa Riley says that she “wanted to defeat the myth of the super-human Black woman; this mythical concept that we feel no pain, that we feel no grief or fear. As a Black woman, I know we are also tender.” Riley uses evidence from the archive to prove Doll’s humanity—as a good mother, caretaker, provider, friend, and wife. Much of Island Queen is about the power and fears of motherhood, though as a protector and provider to her children, Dorothy also embodies the traditional father’s role. Riley makes clear that this was a tremendous labor for Dorothy. At many points, Doll could have sold her property and moved to England. Instead, she chose to fight to provide for and protect her children and their children. She could have had a life of luxury, but she was always using her financial wherewithal to help her family and friends. There are many points in Island Queen where Dorothy herself highlights the importance of women working together, independent of men, to secure strength. However, when Doll meets her friends and future colleagues, the women of the Entertainment Society, they meet in a brothel. Riley doesn’t shy away from this contradiction. She

W R I T T EN BY TIPHANIE YA N IQU E Tiphanie Yanique is the author of Land of Love and Drowning, a novel set in the Virgin Islands during the transfer from Danish to US rule. Her forthcoming book, Monster in the Middle, will be published in October 2021.

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VILIFIED OR VICTORIOUS? Claire Heywood and Jennifer Saint Recast the Roles of Women in Ancient Greece and Sparta

For Saint, sifting out verifiable facts felt like “getting lost in a Labyrinth in itself!” she says. “It can be difficult to piece together the details of everyday life that make the novel feel realistic and inhabitable when so much of that ancient past is lost to us, but it was very important to me to do the best job that I could in making the details of their world feel textured and as immersive as I could, so that the fantastical elements of the story would ring true as well.” Claire Heywood was also faced with separating the strands of historical fact about Helen and Klytemnestra from the myths surrounding the Trojan Wars when researching her debut novel Daughters of Sparta (Hodder & Stoughton UK/Dutton US, 2021). One of the reasons she decided to undertake this project was her fascination with “the myth, of course,” she says, “but I also wanted to get at the real women beneath it, to imagine what their lives might have been like if they had really existed in the historic milieu of the Greek Bronze Age. It was certainly a challenge, and I had to make decisions about the kind of story I wanted to tell.” Taking the myth as her frame, she continues, “I wanted to make fact my priority. Our evidence for the culture of the Late Bronze Age is naturally limited – it being more than three thousand years ago and predating recorded history. While this granted me a generous degree of creative licence, I also wanted to make sure that I did not contradict any evidence we do have for the period.

Jennifer Saint’s debut novel Ariadne (Wildfire UK/Flatiron US, 2021) challenges the female stereotypes of Ancient Greece and their vilification by historians throughout the ages. “I have always been interested in Greek mythology,” she says. “When I read Classical Studies for my degree, I was particularly intrigued by Ovid’s Heroides, in which he gave voice to the often-overlooked heroines of myth. In particular, I was drawn to his portrayal of Ariadne and Phaedra as passionate, righteous, and intelligent women. “Years later, when I was reading Theseus and the Minotaur to my sons, I was struck by how limited Ariadne’s role often is in other retellings of the story, and that she is only seen in terms of her infatuation with Theseus. I wanted to draw on Ovid’s brilliant portrayal but also to explore her other relationships, not just with men but particularly with her family and her sister, to create a richer and more fully dimensional character.” She admits it was a demanding task to separate the strands of historical fact about Ariadne and her sister from the Minotaur myths and “very challenging to create a believable Bronze Age world in which monsters and gods exist against a landscape that’s unfamiliar to us but recognisable,” she adds. “What we have of the Bronze Age survives in fragments, and the myths come from a tradition of oral storytelling, so we find multiple, often contradictory, versions of the characters and the events which shape their lives.”

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“This historicised, realist approach to the retelling meant that if an element of the myth could not reasonably have happened within my historic setting, then it didn’t go into the story. It also meant no meddling gods and no supernatural events. Instead, I wanted to find more human explanations for these turns in the narrative…what drove the characters to act as they did? How did their relationships to one another bring about a war to end a civilisation? What parts of the story had we never been told? So, although Daughters of Sparta is on the one hand a retelling of a traditional and familiar myth, it is also an imagined ‘secret history’ of the real people who may, if they ever lived, have inspired this great story.” For Saint, one significant element that drew her attention to Ariadne and Phaedra, and that she hadn’t seen developed anywhere, was that “they were sisters who both grew up with the Minotaur and were linked to Theseus. Despite their closeness, their stories always seem to be told independently of each other.” As a result, Saint became interested in “exploring how their shared childhood would have shaped them – the suffering of their mother for their father’s crime against Poseidon, the horror of the Minotaur imprisoned beneath the floor at Knossos, the flow of human sacrifices from Athens to Crete, and then their separation when Ariadne betrays the family and runs away. I wanted to bring them together and delve into the dynamic between them and how that would change as their lives take shape.” The research she carried out also influenced the physical description of her main characters. “Ariadne and Phaedra are granddaughters of Helios, the sun-god, so I incorporated a lot of bronze and golden tones into my description of the sisters’ hair and eyes to reflect their divine heritage.” Separating the bad press about her characters and the propaganda about them was difficult, because Saint realised that “Phaedra’s story in particular plays into a misogynistic propaganda that we still unfortunately see in modern life. Punished for the hubris of Hippolytus, Phaedra is cursed by Aphrodite to suffer a powerful


NOT ONLY are their stories irresistibly scandalous, but these two sisters stood like warning signs for how dangerous disobedient women can be. and doomed unrequited love, and she is notorious for bringing about disaster with a false rape allegation.” She discovered when carrying out her research that “false allegations of rape are extremely rare, but victims of sexual assault are often not believed, and rape convictions are consequently shockingly low. Men’s reputations are prized above women’s suffering, from the Bronze Age to today. I knew from the beginning that I was going to tell Phaedra’s story in a different way and that the myth of the ‘malicious and deceitful female accuser’ was not a myth that I was prepared to propagate any further.” Heywood believes the reason her main characters Helen and Klytemnestra have often been vilified is that “they acted as embodiments of male fears about women – in this case the fear of marital infidelity. In ancient Greece it was perfectly acceptable, even encouraged, for men to take lovers (both male and female); however, for a woman to do so was intolerable, and something which was strictly guarded against. In Classical Athens, for example, married women were cloistered within the home and rarely interacted with men to whom they were not related. Should the unthinkable happen, it was legally permissible for a man to murder his wife’s lover if they were caught in flagrante.” Therefore, as Heywood elucidates, we can see “how Helen and Klytemnestra – who both flagrantly transgress the bonds of marriage – would have been shocking figures to such an audience. Not only are their stories irresistibly scandalous, but these two sisters stood like warning signs for how dangerous disobedient women can be. Helen and Klytemnestra became the archetypal ‘bad wives’ both in ancient Greece and beyond.” In Klytemnestra’s case, she continues, “the fear she invoked was not only connected to her unfaithfulness but also to her cleverness. In Aeschylus’ Oresteia she is characterised as having an unnatural, masculine intelligence, which she uses to scheme and manipulate for her own gain, and the old men who make up the chorus in the first part of the trilogy, Agamemnon, are powerless to stop or even challenge her. In this situation, it is clear that Aeschylus’ villainous portrayal of Klytemnestra is a way of playing out men’s fear toward capable women.” Does writing about such powerful women in Classical times have any relevance today? “I was surprised to discover just how timeless and relevant Ariadne’s story felt as I was researching and writing,” Saint says. “Ariadne is an idealistic young woman when she meets Theseus, and she falls for his heroic tales and the image that he creates of himself. Although their bond is forged in the heightened drama of their plan to murder the Minotaur together, her experience of love, disillusionment and heartbreak is a familiar one.” For her, the stories she “wove in around Ariadne’s, particularly Medusa’s story, which plays a significant role – with the theme of women being blamed for the behaviour of men – has many stark parallels in today’s society, even without the influence of the cruel and capricious immortals of myth.”

across current news stories which were directly related to the issues I was exploring: child marriage, denial of access to contraception, denial of abortion rights, barriers for girls accessing education. These are issues which continue to hold women back from seizing their autonomy and using it to flourish.” However, she acknowledges, “beyond these more obvious violations of female autonomy, there are more insidious factors which can make the modern female experience feel limited or unjust. Why is female sexuality more guarded than male sexuality? How do we juggle the expectations of motherhood with the pursuit of our own fulfilment? Why is a woman who commits violence, or abandons her family, or behaves promiscuously so much more despicable than a man? Ancient women may have asked themselves these very same questions.” The hidden lives of the women that Heywood and Saint have described in their novels have been revealed as far from villainous. Instead, they stand out as unvanquished and victorious for breaking the conventions of their time and rebelling against the roles they had been cast in as women living in the age they inhabited.

W R I T T EN BY M Y FA N W Y COOK Myfanwy Cook is the editor of HNR’s New Voices column. For more information, visit www. myfanwycook.com.

Heywood also highlights the relevance of Helen’s and Klytemnestra’s stories: “Many of the challenges which my characters face are relevant to women today. Across the world women still fight for control over their lives and bodies. While writing Daughters of Sparta I often came

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URBAN HISTORY, REAL & IMAGINED BY MARLIE PARKER WASSERMAN Jonathan Lee’s The Great Mistake Historical fiction at its best, Jonathan Lee’s The Great Mistake (Knopf US / Granta UK, 2021) tells the nearly forgotten story of Andrew Haswell Green, the civic leader behind so many of the grand institutions and spaces of New York City—Central Park, the American Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Public Library, the Bronx Zoo. It is hard to name another person who has transformed New York to the same extent, until, perhaps, Robert Moses more than half a century later. Green’s path crosses the paths of better-known men, including Frederick Law Olmsted, William “Boss” Tweed, Washington Roebling, and especially Samuel Tilden, who served as mentor and became a close friend. Readers, especially those familiar with New York City or urban history, will ask themselves repeatedly why they have not heard the name Andrew Haswell Green. Lee never presents a direct answer but provides hints. Green was not a larger-than-life character. He collaborated well with others and never grabbed the spotlight. He focused more on carrying out his plans than enhancing his reputation. Lee writes with engaging detail about the city and Green’s accomplishments, without ever allowing history to overwhelm characterization and plot. It is not a spoiler to mention that at age eighty-three Green was murdered, because this occurs on the first page of the book. Readers learn the killer’s identity soon after. The lingering mystery is not the who or the how, but the why. The killer’s motivation serves as the central puzzle of the story and connects with aspects of the city’s history, including inadequate housing, poverty, race relations, class relations, and prostitution. Although most of Lee’s characters are white men who are born into or attain privilege, the killer is a man of color, about whom New Yorkers knew little except for his name. Lee persuasively imagines this character’s route to murder. But the spine of the story is the victim, Andrew Haswell Green, not the killer. Green starts out as a timid farm boy. Poorly educated, Green cannot afford to buy books. Until halfway into the novel readers will not envision him as a mover and shaker of even a small hamlet, let alone New York City. On his path to a life filled with accomplishments, he makes many self-perceived mistakes, perhaps explaining Lee’s book title. Even once Green attains prominence, many of his eccentricities remain. Lee discovered Andrew Haswell Green almost by accident. A memorial bench in Central Park bears a dedication to Green, labeling him “Genius of Central Park, Father of Greater New York.” This inscription, and accounts of Green’s newsworthy murder and the high-profile investigation that followed, sparked Lee’s curiosity. Lee explains that rather than accepting the age-old advice to write what you know, he decided to write about what he wanted to know. That led to vast research, not only into New York City history but also life on a Massachusetts farm, where Green grew up, and life on a Trinidad sugar plantation, where he worked before training as a lawyer. “To spend six years researching a book,” Lee explained to me, “requires a sustained desire to discover. And Andrew Haswell Green, his unlikely beginnings and strange ending, inspired that 12

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desire in me.” Throughout much of the novel readers see Green struggling with his sexuality. Many authors of historical fiction, when portraying the life of a historical figure who left no memoirs or letters of a private nature, find it difficult to write with confidence about their subject’s sexuality. Not Lee. He handles Green’s struggle deftly and sensitively. Lee has given careful thought to this aspect of his portrayal of Green. “With any character, historical or otherwise, their inner life in the end belongs only to them—a novel is not the place to go for certainties. From diaries and correspondence I spent a long time looking at, it was clear to me that Andrew Green and Samuel Tilden shared an intense love, consistent with the kind that had them described as ‘confirmed bachelors.’ I didn’t feel the need to label that love in the novel, but I would say the records suggest it was the central relationship of each of their lives, while also being probably unconsummated. Which perhaps makes The Great Mistake in some sense a story of missed love—of desires that never quite align—but also a story of friendship and companionship that I found touching, whatever you read or don’t read into it. I wanted to try and capture on the page the complexity and individuality of the relationship as I found it—the specific dynamic between these two specific people.” Lee speculates that the fact that Green never had a wife or children may have contributed to muting his fame. Lee’s craft is evident on every page. Particularly noteworthy are his decisions to avoid quotation marks even though he creates a significant amount of dialogue, and to avoid setting off in italics his quotes from newspapers. His explanation for these decisions provides food for thought for every writer of historical fiction. “I tried to explore different ways to break down the feeling of fictionality that comes with a novel being a novel. Getting rid of quotation marks for dialogue was one small way to do that. The quote marks seemed to say ‘this was really said on this day in 1903, in this exact form of words’—whereas I don’t even know what I said over breakfast this morning. I wanted more baked-in uncertainty than that, an acknowledgement that the past is in some ways as much a work of imagination as the present. Incorporating newspaper quotes in italics early in the book, and then assimilating them into the text so that by the end of the book there are no italics, was also part of that.” Whether everyone writing historical fiction closely tied to historical figures needs to follow suit remains an individual choice, but I believe all novelists can benefit from Lee’s observations. Marlie Parker Wasserman is the author of The Murderess Must Die (2021). marliewasserman.com

SISTERSONG AS SOCIAL NARRATIVE BY KRISTEN MCQUINN In modern society, it can feel nearly impossible to escape from news focusing on politics, social issues, or conflict. Regardless of where one falls on the social or political spectrum, there is no avoiding the fact that these topics are instrumental in shaping the cultural narrative. Exploring the implications of these topics is similarly vital


and, as readers of historical fiction well know, an ideal place to do so is within the pages of a book. Lucy Holland’s Sistersong (Macmillan UK/Redhook US, 2021) examines several social and political topics through the fascinating lens of a forgotten character from a traditional folk ballad. Sistersong centers around three sisters, children of King Cador of Dumnonia, whom Holland interprets as the sisters from the ballad “The Twa Sisters.” Riva is the eldest of the three, scarred for life by a fire; Keyne, the middle child, battles with her family to be accepted for who she truly is; and Sinne, the youngest, is spoiled and thoughtless in her pursuit of romance. When a mysterious warrior, Tristan, arrives at their father’s stronghold with urgent news about an imminent invasion by a dangerous Saxon king, a chain of events is set off that will affect the sisters in unimaginable ways. Aided and mentored by the fictional Myrdhin, and stymied by the historical Gildas, the royal sisters embark on their own journeys to become the people they were meant to be. Throughout the novel, there is a recurring theme of agency. “The Twa Sisters” is a murder ballad in which a man comes between two sisters and “even the bonds of sisterhood are not strong enough to withstand the sexual jealousy that leads one sister to murder the other.” Holland believes the genesis of such ballads stems directly from the limited role women had in society. She tackles the question of agency by giving the sisters control over their fates while also acknowledging the social role expected of them. Riva, Keyne, and Sinne, as royal daughters, were expected to marry men their father chose for them based on political alliances. This expectation is fundamentally at odds with Keyne, who identifies as male and battles daily to be recognized as such by his family. Disregarding Keyne’s identity and refusing to use masculine pronouns for him is a symptom of erasure. This misuse of language and deliberate forgetting of people because it “does not fit with the narrative upheld by the patriarchy” partially explains a lack of gender-fluid or transgendered people in much of the historical record, despite evidence that these identities are not found only in the modern world. “The absence of people like Keyne is indicative of the way they are written out of the dominant social narrative. In writing Sistersong, I felt it was vital to restore such people to a society in which they undoubtedly participated.” Holland envisioned Keyne’s identity as an explanation for why “The Twa Sisters” initially referenced three siblings but by the end, there were only two mentioned.

Holland’s novel begins in 535 CE, in post-Roman, pre-Saxon Britain. She describes it as a liminal moment in time, an ideal term to apply to the political, social, and even spiritual shifts that were occurring. Further, the discovery of a Romano-British settlement near her home in Devon intrigued Holland, as well as the relative lack of primary sources and the fact that the region was one of the last in Britain to come under Saxon rule. As such, she felt that it was a “perfect setting for a folktale that would draw heavily on myth as much as history.” Sistersong balances on that fine line between myth and history, which readers see in Holland’s use of Christianity, paganism, and pure magic. This commingling of religions was not fictional. As Holland explains, the installation of Christianity into Britain “was not a smooth or straightforward process. Tensions between these two spiritualities led to a complicated fusion of beliefs ... in which both religions were practiced alongside each other, vying for control of a nation’s collective soul.” Religious and political issues were also overshadowed by the steady migration of the Saxons throughout Britain. When dominant groups begin to shift, as they are doing in Sistersong, the intersection between the groups and the way they write the social narrative can cause a great deal of conflict. Holland exemplifies such conflict in the characters of Myrdhin and Gildas. Myrdhin is a variant of the Arthurian wizard Merlin; Gildas was a historical monk who lived in the sixth century. His major work was De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain), which was an excoriation of the five most recent rulers and ecclesiastical leaders of his time. Myrdhin embodies the waning strength of druidism and other pagan religions in the face of the rising power of Christianity and its ability to convert kings to the new faith. Gildas reflects the sense of inevitable change that came to British society alongside his religion. The conflict between Myrdhin and Gildas was natural – they did represent opposing religions, after all – but Holland admits that her portrayal of Gildas might have been “overly influenced by his vitriolic treatise.” She is quick to point out, though, that she didn’t intend for him to be the stereotypically evil priest common to historical fantasy: “I am sure he believed wholeheartedly in the benefits that Christianity could bring to Britain; it’s this belief that directs his actions in the book. He is guilty only of intolerance … but it’s worth remembering, of course, where intolerance can eventually lead.” There are so many pertinent topics covered in Lucy Holland’s enchanting novel, Sistersong, proving again that historical fantasy is an excellent medium in which to examine them. The issues that occupy our thoughts today are much the same as they were in early medieval Britain, at least in this beautifully written novel. Holland’s

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skill brings to life a mysterious period of history and shows that history, myth, and folklore can intersect in wonderfully relevant ways. Kristen McQuinn is a medievalist, single mother, history buff, and sci-fi geek. Her book, The Two Isabellas of King John, is forthcoming from Pen & Sword Books. You can follow her on social media: @ TrekkieKristen (Twitter) or @hergraceslibrary (IG).

WOMEN IN THE AGE OF CONSTANTINE BY GORDON DOHERTY & SIMON TURNEY

The late third and early fourth century AD was an age of great upheaval, a time that saw drastic change for the Roman Empire. Civil wars raged for decades. Religious persecutions painted the lands (particularly the Eastern Empire) red with blood. Legendary men rose to the zenith of power – none more so than Constantine the Great. Chroniclers and modern historians have written and discussed Constantine – and some of his famous adversaries – in great depth, all in an effort to understand his world a little bit better. But less explored are the lives of the women who lived through all this. It is a lens that can shed a very revealing light upon the time, for this was the age of Christianity’s ascendency, and women in particular seem to have flocked to the relatively new faith. The attraction is thought to have stemmed from the Christian message of compassion, charity, and protection for the weak or vulnerable – notions which the ancient Roman polytheistic faith largely ignored. That is not to say that women in antiquity were weak and vulnerable by default; anything but. However, they certainly did have to endure certain hardships and hazards specific to their sex: from the high risk of death during childbirth (Constantine’s first wife, Minervina, perished this way), to the chance that, from the age of thirteen, they could be coerced into marriages with much older men. Constantine’s second wife, Fausta, was this age when she was wed to her thirtyfive-year-old groom – and it was a blatantly political joining designed to unite Constantine’s family and that of Fausta’s father, the former emperor Maximian. Fausta’s reputation was tarnished when Gregory of Tours – writing two centuries later – accused her of having an affair with Constantine’s son from his first marriage. Equally Constantine’s name was seriously blackened when he was said to have had her boiled to death in her bath as punishment. Variations of these stories exist, and all are questionable but certainly not impossible. Constantine’s mother, Helen, was probably the most famously devout Christian woman of the period. In her younger days during the persecutions – when the emperors were burning, peeling and dismembering Christians en masse – she remained unwavering in her faith. No doubt she benefitted from the protection of her powerful son, but conversely, we must remember that it was she who brought him up as a single mother (after Constantine’s father abandoned them when he was an adolescent) and instilled in him the character 14

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that was required to propel himself to supremacy. In her later years she roved to and fro across the Holy Land as something of an ancient archaeologist, a spell in which she allegedly excavated the True Cross. This, as much as anything else, meant that her reputation was assured with the later hagiographers. Indeed, to this day she is remembered and revered by the Christian Church as Saint Helena. In contrast to the devout and lauded Helena, the wife of Constantine’s fated opponent Maxentius seems to have remained a stout pagan, and well she might. Valeria was the daughter of the eastern emperor Galerius, a man renowned for his persecution and execution of Christians. Just as with Fausta, Valeria was married to Maxentius in an attempt to bind two imperial lines together with no interest in whether the pair got on. Such was the way in Rome. We have little in the way of evidence of Valeria, barring a couple of highly suspect Medieval Church writings, but much can be deduced from that little. Valeria, as an emperor’s daughter, was socially on a level with her husband. She likely resented her fate, which took her to the far side of the empire from her father, and a lack of concord with Maxentius is suggested by the fact that she fails to appear on any of the coins minted during his reign. Yet, she clearly performed the duties of a Roman wife, producing two sons, and despite any misgivings, she must have successfully navigated the dangers of court life, for she outlived her husband. Valeria is something of an enigma, then, displaying the traditional values of a Roman empress, as far as we can tell. She appears in one interesting legend that tells us something of women in the age: the tale of Saint Catherine of Alexandria. This almost certainly wildly fantastical tale tells of a young Christian noblewoman of Alexandria who, during the great persecutions, travelled to Rome to challenge the emperor, defeating all his pagan theologians in debate and converting many of them before Maxentius lost his temper and had her executed. Since there is no evidence of Maxentius persecuting Christians, one must treat this tale with a great deal of mistrust, but it does offer a glimpse of possible truths. That an early tradition has a woman (a Christian, of course) travelling halfway across the empire to challenge persecution suggests that such freedoms and strengths for women were not unknown. Indeed, we might remember how Helena travelled the world to collect her relics. In this tale, Catherine also converts Maxentius’s empress to Christianity. This, of course, is highly suspect. But what we are left with from all of this is a two-fold view of Roman women in this era. In one aspect, they were pawns in the great political game. All of Maxentius’s sisters were used to cement alliances and buy goodwill from potential enemies, and their primary task in marriage was still to produce heirs and secure a dynasty. Yet in the strengths and the activities of these women, we see that they were less constrained by their position and their gender than tradition would have us believe. The Rise of Emperors trilogy (Head of Zeus, 2021) follows the adventures of Constantine and his rivals during the climactic years of the era that led up to the famous Battle of the Milvian Bridge, in which Constantine allegedly saw a Christian vision in the sky that predicted his victory. Yet it is not a story of faith or of gods, it is a tale of humanity and all of its vices and virtues – a tale of the men and the women and their choices in a time of great distress. At every twist and turn, Minervina, Fausta, Helen and Valeria were there. History might have been very different were they not. Gordon is a Scottish writer, addicted to reading and writing historical fiction, especially tales of the later Roman Empire, Byzantium, Classical Greece and even the distant Bronze Age (www.gordondoherty.co.uk). Simon’s background in ancient


IN THE ABSENCE OF CLOCKS the sun, moon and stars must have featured, but also shadows, bells, sermons, and festivals. history and a love of the Roman world have prompted him to spend decades studying the late Republic and the empire down as far as the days of Byzantium (http://simonturney.com/).

IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME BY MARTINE BAILEY

Almanacs and the Calendar Change How did our ancestors orient themselves in time? It is a subject that much historical fiction glosses over – how ordinary people knew what year it was, or even what day or hour. In the absence of clocks, the sun, moon and stars must have featured, but also shadows, bells, sermons, and festivals. This riddle gives another clue. My first is a part of the day; My second at feasts overflows; In a cottage my whole is often seen, To measure old Time as he goes. As well as the homely timekeeper described above, the wider passage of time was largely defined by almanacs. These pocket-sized booklets combined calendars and astronomical charts alongside sensational predictions. Before electricity they were essential references to record the waxing moon that lit the traveller’s way, for sowing crops, and trading at local fairs. They offer tantalising insights into our ancestors’ lives – care of livestock, medical remedies, weather lore, and even lucky and unlucky times to travel or cut one’s hair. Costing only a penny or two, they were read by ordinary people who read little else. Almanack sellers were a familiar sight on every High Street, crying their wares: “Here’s the Sun, Moon & Stars all for sale!” At times of crisis, almanacs outsold even the Bible. Much of their appeal stemmed from their astrological predictions on world affairs. By the mid-eighteenth century, the leading almanack by far was Old Moore’s Vox Stellarum (The Voice of the Stars). In spite of astrologer Francis Moore having died in 1714, his name still exerts selling power today. After buying an 1801 Old Moore’s for £20 on eBay, I wrote a historical mystery titled The Almanack (Severn House, 2019), about a sinister broadsheet that predicts a string of murders around the festivals of the British year. Further researches showed that eighteenth-century almanacs evolved to meet a middle-class desire for amusement and instruction. The Ladies’ Diary, founded in 1704, featured famous women, a short story, recipes and ferociously difficult mathematical problems. At the heart of its success were the rhyming riddles or ‘enigmas’. Unlike cryptic crosswords or sudoku, riddling was often a group activity, as seen in Jane Austen’s Emma. Austen herself was a clever writer of riddles, along with Jonathan Swift, Edgar Allan Poe, and other great literary minds. In 1752, we find one of the most curious pages ever printed in a calendar. The Calendar Act had announced the ‘annihilation of eleven days’, when 2 September was immediately followed by 14 September. The rationale was Britain’s continued usage of the Julian

calendar long after much of the rest of Europe had adopted the Gregorian system. As well as lagging behind solar time, Britain was also suffering Brexit-like confusion when trading abroad, struggling with ‘dual dating’ showing different days, months and even years. There was some apprehension around the change, rather like the fears of the year 2000 millennium bug. People worried about losing their birthdays, wages, rents and interest payments. As a novelist I spotted the perfect opportunity to play with time while my heroine strove to unmask a killer. I also selected 50 historical riddles (with answers) to head up each chapter. It is a myth that workers rioted about the loss of 11 days but generally the impact depended on an individual’s place in the social order. In Colonial America, Benjamin Franklin joked that “it is pleasant for an old man to be able to go to bed on the September 2 and not have to get up until September 14”. Yet amongst country people resistance persisted around the old-style festivals, particularly the four quarter days of Christmas, Lady Day, Midsummer and Michaelmas, dates when business was generally settled. In Time’s Alternation: Calendar Reform in Early Modern England, historian Robert Poole theorizes that the Georgian elite was working to regulate time by way of clocks, machines, and eventually the tyranny of the factory whistle (UCL Press, 1998). The calendar change disrupted the people’s ‘natural time’ that had always followed the stars and seasons and in response almanacs soon resumed printing the ‘Old Style’ dates of many festivals. For example, the autumn festival of Michaelmas was marked by eating a goose, yet at New Michaelmas the birds were insufficiently fat. Ancient weather lore no longer matched the date, with less chance of may blossom on New May Day or snowfall at New Style Christmas. Could our obsession with Christmas snow be a folk memory of the older calendar? In my latest novel The Prophet (Severn House, 2021), I revisited my characters to write a second murder mystery which asks if it is possible to see into the future. As historian Margaret Perkins notes in “A History of the Future”, the gradual suppression of ‘magical’ practices to glimpse the future may cost us a lack of wonder, imagination, and readiness for change (Mots Pluriels, Vol 1, 1996). So as I wrote my books I did my best to invite a little wonder into the process, following the red-lettered Saints’ days, and the lunar and solar year. From gathering my apple crop on St Ninian’s day to searching out All Hallows mummers in Chester’s pubs, I tried to commemorate the circling year. I still cannot tell the time by the Seven Stars (even with the app Star chart), but I can now recognise the moon’s phases and major constellations. During the Covid-19 lockdown, Zoom calls, entertainment streaming and augmented reality have continued to erode our awareness of natural time. Meanwhile, recent news is that Britain has lost half of its wildlife since the 1960s. Maybe more of us need to connect to the natural time and rhythms of the past again – for the sake of all our futures. Solution to riddle: Hour + glass = Hourglass Martine Bailey writes historical mysteries about food, time and memory. Her latest releases, The Almanack and The Prophet, are published by Severn House. http://www.martinebailey.com/

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REVIEWS THE WOMEN OF TROY

ON LI N E E XC LUSI V ES

Pat Barker, Hamish Hamilton, 2021, £18.99, hb, 320pp, 9780241427231

Due to an ever-increasing number of books for review and space constraints within HNR, some selected fiction reviews and all nonfiction reviews are now published as online exclusives. To view these reviews and much more, please visit www.historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews

C L A SSIC A L ANTONIUS: Soldier of Fate Brook Allen, Dawg House, 2020, $17.95/£16.99, pb, 426pp, 9781732958548

42 BC. With Julius Caesar’s assassins now found and executed, Octavian’s rise to power is as fast as it is devious. Marcus Antonius wants to avoid further bloodshed and vies for peace, if only Octavian wouldn’t continually thwart his plans. Octavian seizes Marcus’s legions, refuses to send help when called, closes Roman ports to Marcus, and corners Marcus into marrying Octavian’s recently widowed and pregnant sister, Octavia. Despite the marriage, Marcus’s heart was long ago captured by Queen Cleopatra. Marcus and Cleopatra’s love blinds them to the everincreasing signs of loss and betrayal that will eventually culminate in the destruction of the last dynastic pharaoh of Egypt, as well as the lives they hold most dear. This book portrays the final 12 years of the life of, as he’s known today, “Mark Antony.” Because of the damnatio memoriae (damning a person’s memory), his life was virtually erased from ancient Rome. Even his birthday was declared a “black day.” Despite its being book 3 of a trilogy, I found it moderately easy to jump into the story, which opens directly within a conflict between Marcus and Octavian. Tension is high throughout as Marcus and Octavian try to outwit each other. The relationship between Marcus and his children adds emotional weight to the narrative. There are intriguing domestic and military details. What I found most captivating were the moments where Marcus makes choices that cost him the most, as the author does a commendable job bringing readers into Marcus’s point of view. It’s easy to understand his motivation and vision for a greater Rome. It also reaffirmed my belief that the world wasn’t ready for the progressiveness that Cleopatra and Marcus Antonius represented. Allen does a great job bringing fresh insight into a wellknown story, with an eye on historical details and character depth. J. Lynn Else

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In this immersive read, Pat Barker takes up the threads of her previous book, The Silence of the Girls, continuing the story after the fall of Troy. The victorious Greek troops wait to sail home with their booty. But the gods are offended. King Priam lies unburied, and until he is given due honours, the winds will not change direction and thus they cannot set sail. The book is told as both the captured women and the victors live in limbo, outside the city that has been laid to waste. Briseis lives with the other captured women survivors. She was a trophy wife to Achilles, now dead, and has been passed to Alcimus. The baby of Achilles kicks inside her as she tells her story, with other perspectives provided by the seer, Calchas, and Pyrrhus, son of Achilles. The latter, for his part, lives in the shadow of his dead father, and his character becomes a vehicle for Barker’s analysis of the fragility of masculinity. In the main this is a story told with a tight focus on the silenced voices of the women, raped, enslaved, and in fear of their lives. Their men and boys have been killed, down to (almost) every last male baby. This is a story of aftermath, of an uneasy peace as despairing women grieve, burning with resentment, whilst triumphant men confront their own bloody legacy. Briseis attempts to live a truthful life, supporting the other women as she does so, as far as she can. This is a compelling, characterful and beautifully written read. This modern classic is a story told by those often left voiceless in mythology, women who assert their own fragile agency to bear witness, defy where they can and to survive. Katharine Quarmby

DAUGHTERS OF SPARTA Claire Heywood, Dutton, 2021, $17.00, pb, 384pp, 9780593184370 / Hodder & Stoughton, 2021, £14.99, hb, 352pp, 9781529349931

Heywood retells a timeless story with fresh insight and poignancy in this debut novel exploring the battles fought by the women of the Trojan War. Alternating between the viewpoints of Klytemnestra and Helen, Heywood begins with

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their childhood as daughters of the King of Sparta, when Klytemnestra, the ambitious and dutiful older sister, first finds her fate changed by her beautiful younger sibling. Both girls long for marital intimacy and companionship from the powerful men they marry, and both find their marriages lacking in different ways. When Paris shows up halfway through the book, Heywood has so skillfully built Helen’s inner life that it’s quite understandable why she runs away with the handsome prince. Equally convincing, and wrenching, is Klytemnestra’s stunned rage and grief when her husband Agamemnon sacrifices their beautiful daughter Iphigenia for a fair wind to war. The key events of the famous epic are only touched on, but the emotional resonance is by no means slight: Heywood doesn’t spare the grief of Andromache, or Queen Hekuba, or the young princess Kassandra as their men are killed and Troy burns. Home in Mycenae, Klytemnestra enjoys a joyful union with the noble Aegisthos, but hanging over her head is her vengeful promise that, if her husband returns from war, she’ll kill him herself. The trappings of the Bronze Age tale are present, as well as the seeds of the great Greek tragedies. But stripped of ornament or the intervention of the gods, the direct, luminous pose is a setting for human longings, ambitions, and vanities, as when Helen realizes the armies aren’t actually fighting for her: “What did men ever sacrifice for the sake of a woman?” This is my favorite version yet of this oft-told tale, making dimensional and persuasive characters of much-mythologized women. Highly recommended. Misty Urban

A NC I E N T H I STORY YASODHARA AND THE BUDDHA Vanessa R. Sasson, Bloomsbury Academic, 2021, $22.95, pb, 293pp, 9781350163164

When Prince Siddhartha begins the series of pilgrimages that lead to his becoming the Buddha, he leaves behind his wife, who is pregnant with his son. Yasodhara and the Buddha imagines her young life in beautiful, lyrical episodes that evoke the Indian hagiographic tradition of the Jataka, the sacred stories told about the god and his existence on earth. A first-person account, the novel provides an intimate portrayal of the noblewoman who marries Siddhartha when they are both sixteen. The prince chooses Yasodhara, his cousin, from among the ladies of his realm


by gifting her with his necklace. They enter a loving union, which, to Yasodhara’s regret, remains childless until she is twenty-nine. But just when she is finally expecting a child, Siddhartha, whose father has kept him captive to prevent him from experiencing human suffering—old age, sickness, death, and renunciation—ventures out of the paternal palace into the countryside. There, he comes to understand that he must experience the fullness of existence before he can achieve enlightenment. He embarks on a lengthy journey of discovery, while his wife remains behind, mourning his absence. When Siddhartha returns years later, only to take their son away with him on the next stage of his sojourn, Yasodhara is once more heartbroken. But this time, rather than staying home, she, too, embarks on a quest. A feminist rendering of an ancient myth, Yasodhara and the Buddha lovingly revives the story of the Buddha’s spouse for modern readers. Written by a religious scholar, the novel comes complete with scholarly sources, tracing its roots to the tradition of epic Indian religious storytelling. Marvelous. Elisabeth Lenckos

1S T C E N T U RY TOUCHING FIRE Peter B. Dedek, Independently published, 2021, $15.99, pb, 460pp, 9798710915189

In this tale set between 81 and 90 AD, Cornelia is a young Vestal Virgin who comes from a Patrician family in ancient Rome. Like all the priestesses of Vesta, she spends her days tending to the holy fire, living out a vow of chastity, and fulfilling the ceremonial requirements of her position. She escapes from the temple one night after she mistakenly lets the fire go out, knowing she will be punished if caught. Thereafter, she has a number of adventures and experiences the horrors of the world outside. Touching Fire is a fascinating and culturally rich book that brings to life the world of ancient Rome. In Peter Dedek’s work, one sees a mélange of people, religions, and cultures characteristic of the far-flung Roman Empire. In her travels, Cornelia comes across people from diverse walks of life, including a Christian man who she befriends. What particularly fascinated me was Dedek’s depictions of Vestal Virgin life and the rules that these women had to abide by. It is apparent that the author conducted a great deal of research on this topic. While the descriptions are well-written, the characters’ dialogue comes across as a bit too anachronistic at times. It was distracting and took me out of the story. Overall, this book is a quick and enjoyable read. Elizabeth K. Corbett

A COMEDY OF TERRORS Lindsey Davis, Hodder & Stoughton, 2021, £20.00, hb, 400pp, 9781529374292 / Minotaur, 2021, $27.99, hb, 336pp, 9781250241542

Lindsey Davis is unsurpassed when it comes to murder, mischief, and mayhem at Saturnalia, or indeed at any other time in ancient Rome. As Flavia Albia and her magistrate husband Tiberius come to terms with the sudden addition of his three- and five-year-old nephews to their already chaotic household, they must also prepare for the mid-December drunken riot that is Saturnalia or the feast of the Undying Sun. Nuts are both the snack and missile of choice of the revellers, and Tiberius, whose term as plebian aedile is coming to an end, becomes aware that someone is not only trying to corner the nut market, forcing the usual suppliers out of business, but is also supplying inferior, mouldy goods. When this leads to a bad dose of foodpoisoning in his own household, Tiberius is even more determined to track down the culprits. With murder and arson added to the mix, it becomes imperative to identify and immobilise the new guys in the Aventine before they are established too firmly, and this at a time when everything comes to a halt because of Saturnalia. Flavia Albia and Tiberius are hampered not only by their own family festivities but also by the infamous annual party of the Fourth Cohort of the Vigiles, held at a secret venue, and the Emperor’s spectacular entertainment for thousands. As usual, they rise to all professional and private challenges. This is vintage Lindsey Davis. She is famous for the one-word chapter, but here we have one with a single character. She writes with verve and vitality, swooping from comedy to tragedy to a satisfying conclusion, with a tip of a Saturnalia wreath to Tiberius’s pie charts. Catherine Kullmann

THE FORT Adrian Goldsworthy, Head of Zeus, 2021, £18.99, hb, 487pp, 9781789545746

105 AD. Trajan is Emperor of Rome, and Decebalus is king in Dacia (modern Romania). An uneasy peace exists between the empire and the barbarian king following the first Dacian war. Enter Flavius Ferox, Roman centurion of British extraction, the new commander of a Roman fort north of the Danube. Though the fort guards the road to Rome’s near-complete colossal bridge across the Danube, it may yet be a pawn willingly sacrificed in the wily manoeuvrings of Trajan’s cousin and newly promoted general of the II Legion, Hadrian. High politics and barbarians notwithstanding, the beleaguered Flavius must also beware his own men’s loyalty, embittered as they are due to his part in quelling a recent revolt in their homeland of Brigantia (northern England). The Fort is the gripping first instalment in a new trilogy by Adrian Goldsworthy, a first-rate historian who turns a dab hand

to historical fiction. It sees the return of the protagonist of his Britannia series, Flavius Ferox, and plunges him headfirst into the plot outlined above. A stonking read with the potent recipe of a Roman sword and sandals classic: gritty military characters, barbarian courage, carnage, Roman discipline, intrigue and above all, brilliantly researched. Highly recommended. Chris James

PILLARS OF BARABBAS M. D. House, Independently published, 2021, $11.99, pb, 358pp, 9798712817351

I’m sure readers of the Bible sometimes wonder what happened next. Was that prophecy fulfilled? Did that tax collector or that prostitute manage to start a new, upright life? What became of the healed cripple? M. D. House has invested much creative fantasy in developing the life stories of several New Testament characters – some prominent, like the Apostles Peter and Paul; some less so, such as Joanna, Cornelius, and the eponymous renegade Barabbas. In this novel set thirty years after the crucifixion, we learn how the early Church reached out to both Jews and pagans, explaining and demonstrating the teachings of Jesus, how it grew and spread to Africa, Armenia, India and even the wilds of Britannia. Faithful Barabbas and his deeply spiritual wife, Chanah, play leading roles in this multifaceted narrative. Summoned by the Church leaders to Jerusalem from their home on Malta, they are surprised to find themselves abruptly sent to Rome to supervise the building of the Temple and assist Paul in his dealings with the rather perturbed Emperor Nero. How will he react when some Senators blame the expanding Christian community for the massive fires that ravage the city? In a separate episode, Barabbas’ son Matthew joins Cornelius in the heart of Africa, initially to develop trade routes, but soon to become involved in both pioneering missionary work and dramatic military activities. Whether hastening through Roman streets for an audience with the Emperor, sailing to Joppa, trekking through the hostile African jungle, or sharing fellowship among believers, the author sets the scenes with great skill and realism. All the main characters are richly developed, and the plot is mostly plausible. This book – the second of a trilogy about Barabbas – is primarily of interest to readers familiar with the New Testament story and could be seen as a vivid continuation of the Acts of the Apostles. Viktor Steiner

NAMES OF THE WOMEN Jeet Thayil, Jonathan Cape, 2021, £11.99, hb, 184pp, 9781787332928

This novel tells the story of Jesus Christ through the women who followed him and those who were against the man. One of the

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main protagonists is Mary Magdalene, who has a different story to what we might think today. Other women in this story who surprise us with their past include Mary, mother of Jesus, the sisters of Jesus, and there’s even a story from Herodias, the wife of Herod Antipas. As well as the major players in this biblical story, there are other women, too, whose views are heard when they watch Jesus’s story from different perspectives – such as serving women from several households who drop everything to follow him even though he is walking his final steps. The author writes with a sense of urgency and sheds light on what life might have been like in the days of Jesus Christ, his followers, and those who wished to see their end. The vivid descriptions are highly effective and conjure up all sorts of emotions in the reader. Jeet Thayil has followed each character in this famous tale with precision, making sure that we as readers are fully absorbed in the story and that the characters are with us long after we have finished reading the book. Clare Lehovsky

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DOMINUS Steven Saylor, St. Martin’s, 2021, $29.99, hb, 496pp, 9781250087812

Following his novels Roma and Empire comes Steven Saylor’s latest about the Pinarii family, Dominus. Spanning seven generations between 165 to 326 AD, Dominus introduces us to emperors and senators during the rise of Christianity and the tumultuous final years of Rome as the center of the ancient world. Saylor’s series starts in prehistory and ends with Emperor Constantine’s reign in Dominus. While not as prevalent as in Roma, the best moments arise from humble, mortal manifestations and subsequently evolve into myths, affecting later Roman society in their telling and retelling. The author doesn’t adjust the facts to fit his narrative (thank you for this incredible accuracy to detail!), and the historical setting is enchantingly immersive. Little-known historical figures are brought to life, like the rebellious Zenobia, whose fate and legacy become similar to Cleopatra’s after she defies Rome. My one major gripe surrounds the Christian characters, who only ever talk about their longing to die as martyrs, and the more painful, the better. This is ascribed to almost every single Christian. Saylor does a great job presenting the Roman viewpoint (from their confusion about monotheism to their revulsion), but the Christians are presented with great disdain, which sometimes feels more authorial than character-based. Like a literary master class, Saylor’s novels possess a rich, masterfully woven historical setting and characters (though in his author’s note, he lists three books he labels “wretched whitewashes” and “lousy fiction,” putdowns I find distasteful and hope other authors don’t emulate). Dominus is an epic, poignant look 18

at one family stepping through the pages of Roman history, each generation writing their stories atop the last. As facts blur, Saylor presents a compelling narrative of what’s left behind in history’s wake. J. Lynn Else

4T H C E N T U RY MASTERS OF ROME Gordon Doherty and Simon Turney, Head of Zeus, 2021, £18.99, hb, 403pp, 9781800242036

Masters of Rome is the second in the series The Rise of the Emperors. The story picks up from the previous Sons of Rome in December of AD 308. It follows the jockeying for position and power in the later Roman Western Empire between Maxentius, the last pagan emperor, and the better-known Constantine the Great. As before, the chapters alternate between each protagonist’s viewpoint, and the authors split the prose, one telling Maxentius’s story and the other Constantine’s. They have similar writing styles, so the transitions are quite seamless. The authors’ interpretation of the characters is that Maxentius is a bookish, intellectual traditionalist who is struggling to reconcile too many divergent issues, both political and personal. Constantine is a rather insecure soldierly type, chiefly motivated by a desire to prevent more of the family tragedies that marred his early life. It is all beautifully done and really has you turning the pages to find out what is going to happen next. The only problem is that not very much actually does happen. Of course, the authors are constrained by historical fact, but there is less focus on the antagonists in this instalment, and therefore the assorted conflicts are more colourless. Nonetheless, I’m definitely looking forward to book 3! Martin Bourne

7 T H C E N T U RY SAXON HEROINES Sandra Wagner-Wright, Wagner-Wright Enterprises, 2021, $15.99, pb, 240pp, 9781735413204

England, 7th century. Amidst a landscape of warring kings and shifting political alliances, four women will change the fate of Northumbria. As the landscape of pagan worship bleeds into Christianity, queens, princesses, and abbesses will influence kings and help unify the Northumbrian church in peace. Everything is remarkably well-researched in terms of events, but the novel lacks a strong emotional core. While part one is focused on three different points of view (a queen, and princess, and a priest), part two is a patchwork of multiple narratives convoluting the plot. Additionally, the varied narratives shift so quickly that there isn’t time for building tension or emotional impact. By part three, the multitude of new characters makes it hard to keep up with names and relationships.

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A narrower focus is needed. The book is advertised as highlighting women who make a name for themselves and take control of their lives, but what they do isn’t shown. How are funds raised to care for the sick and help shelter women? What were the relationships between bishops and queens/princesses-turnedabbesses like? What were the differences of the Columban and Roman churches? What changed Hildeburg’s pagan heart to devote herself to Christianity? Within these questions lies the beating heart of a novel. Saxon Heroines will appeal to readers who love discovering influential women from antiquity, and there’s a lot to enjoy. For me, the book needed stronger characterization, bringing to life people who learned, grew, and demonstrated their agency. Part one did a great job introducing us to these characters, but they became lost in subsequent pages. The stunning amount of research that went into this novel is easily felt—it reads like a documentary. Alas, not everything needs to be included to tell a compelling historical narrative if it ends up overshadowing the characters. J. Lynn Else

8T H C E N T U RY A TIME FOR SWORDS Matthew Harffy, Head of Zeus, 2021, £18.99/$29.95, hb, 488pp, 9781838932855

AD 793, Lindisfarne. Hunlaf is a young novice monk based at the Minster at Werceworthe (Warkworth) on the Northumbrian coast. On a fine spring morning Hunlaf accompanies his friend and mentor, the monk Brother Leofstan, to Lindisfarne to deliver a supply of lambskins to be used at the scriptorium. While at the monastery Viking raiders attack in the first recorded Norse onslaught. Hunlaf picks up a sword and attempts to defend the helpless monastery and its population. It is a moment which will change his life forever. Told in retrospect by Hunlaf as an old man coming to the end of his life, this is the story of how he becomes a warrior. He hints at a full life, of Odessa, Rome, and Byzantium before returning home to die. This is the first in a new series by this best-selling author. Those familiar with his work will know what to expect – a taut plot, strong characters, exciting action scenes and research which brings alive the culture and times. This promises to be a superb new addition to historical fiction. I can hardly wait for the next outing as Hunlaf develops as a man, and as a warrior. Highly recommended. Mike Ashworth

12T H C E N T U RY BLOOD RUNS THICKER Sarah Hawkswood, Allison & Busby, 2021, £8.99, pb, 284pp, 9780749027155

In 1144, the peasants in the Worcestershire village of Lench are hurrying to get the harvest in before rain falls. Their bad-tempered lord Osbern de Lench has taken his daily ride up a hill to survey both them and the land he


owns. However, his horse returns without the lord on it, and he is later found murdered. Enter undersheriff Hugh Bradecote, his Serjeant Catchpoll, and apprentice Walkelin to solve the crime. The lord’s oldest son, Baldwin, whose mother died some years ago in a mysterious riding accident, accuses his stepbrother, Hamo, of the murder. Hamo, who is regarded as strange, is defended by his mother, the lord’s unhappy second wife. But there are plenty of others who might have reason to want the lord dead, including his neighbours and probably most of the village. Bradcote and Catchpoll work their way through the tightly plotted red herrings as Walkelin watches and learns. It’s very much a 12th-century murder procedural but made richer with insights into society: the legacy of the Norman Conquest; the effect of the current, but distant, civil war between King Stephen and Empress Matilda; and the difficult role of women and peasants. The writing of Hamo as possibly someone with Asperger’s syndrome adds a poignant touch. It is the eighth book in the Bradcote and Catchpoll series, which have proved popular with readers, and it’s easy to see why. One for armchair detectives and fans of Cadfael. Kate Pettigrew

GOLD OF PLEASURE Ruth Mohrman, Cadoc Publishing, 2021, £8.99/$12.20, pb, 398pp, 9781838196509

Very little is known of Christina of Markyate, the daughter of a fabric merchant in Huntingdon, England, but by all accounts, she was a remarkable woman. Even when young, she vowed never to marry but devote herself to Jesus. This angered her parents, who expected her to make a good marriage. It would seem Christina (whose birth name was Theodora) suffered not only mental cruelty from her parents, who tried to force a husband on her, but what today would be called sexual abuse from the Bishop of Durham. She then ran away and was hidden and protected by a group of hermits. When she was able to travel freely, she was admired as a religious visionary. Even so, she remained a sensual woman who loved men but always protected her virginity. As a visionary, she “saw” and spoke to people although they were physically far away. She also predicted the future, but what are we to make of her today? It was for this reason I was initially drawn to read this novel, and I was not disappointed. It is well-researched, beautifully written, and fascinating. The author has laid before us a remarkable woman who struggles between sin and sanctity. She loves beauty, whether it be fine fabrics, food, or the natural world, yet she denies herself these pleasures and welcomes hunger, discomfort and cold. The author has avoided the modern propensity to cherry-pick clues to a historical character’s psychological or psychiatric development and running with

them, instead leaving such things up to her readers. Intriguing and highly recommended. Sally Zigmond

13T H C E N T U RY THE DAMASK ROSE Carol McGrath, Headline Accent, 2021, £9.99/$15.99, pb, 387pp, 9781786157690

Eleanor of Castile, queen to Edward I, is better known in death than life. She died near Lincoln in 1290, and her husband caused a cross to be built wherever her coffin rested on its way to Westminster. The final stop was at Charing Cross, where an ornate replica cross now towers in the forecourt of the London railway terminus. In The Damask Rose Carol McGrath retrieves Eleanor’s life from its relative obscurity. The book is beautifully written. McGrath delights in describing textiles, and Eleanor did not lack lavish gowns. She also loved gardens and exotic foods. The reader not only sees the mediaeval court through Eleanor’s eyes but hears it, feels it, tastes it, and smells it in all its extravagant variety. However, one cannot escape the fact that Eleanor spent most of her life giving birth (starting at age 13 she had 16 children, most of whom died young) or stitching embroidery with her ladies. McGrath tries to balance this with a sub-plot centring around Eleanor’s herbalist, Olwen, which provides most of the romance and adventure. Being imaginary, Olwen is not constrained by the historical record. With Eleanor’s life McGrath keeps close to the record. So read The Damask Rose, and if you ever go back to the office, lift your eyes to her cross and remember. Edward James

14T H C E N T U RY MURDER AT BEAULIEU ABBEY Cassandra Clark, Severn House, 2021, £20.99/$28.99, hb, 256pp, 9780727890894

In late 14th-century England, Cistercian nun Hildegard of Meaux is sent by her superior to the Abbey of Beaulieu to observe where the monks there stand on the schism in the church and the existence of two popes. At stake is the governance of all affiliated religious houses in England. Officially, however, Hildegard is there to escort a young heiress to her future husband’s family. Her companions on the journey are the monks Egbert and Gregory, veteran guards of the pilgrimage route to Jerusalem. Once the trio arrive at the Abbey, the heiress becomes the main concern, as she is kidnapped immediately upon arrival. Hildegard’s mission is now to recover the girl and to uncover who killed a lay brother guarding one of the outer buildings. The Abbey is a complex and sprawling enclosure, containing various types of lands and communities. It’s a little

hard to gain foothold in that territory or to really know where to focus in the plot and the many characters. The story moves fast, and the resolution is interesting, although it doesn’t exactly have the feel of pieces coming together. While the main character is a nun, there is no real sense of her life as a religious. Over the course of the book, moreover, three different relationship possibilities emerge for Hildegard, one hinted at from a previous storyline, another unfolding from the longing of one of her monk companions, and a third coming startlingly close to consummation in the person of a kind of king of bandits. Making the main character a nun seems like a convenience, but maybe that’s consistent to her backstory, which is only hinted at here. Perhaps those who are already readers of the series will find these details and the hints of a romantic storyline satisfying and significant. Martha Hoffman

A MARRIAGE MADE IN SECRET Jenni Fletcher, Mills & Boon, 2021, £6.99, pb, 368pp, 9780263284072 / Harlequin, 2021, $6.50, pb, 288pp, 9781335407238

In 1325, as a favour to her loyal but impoverished father, dowry-less Matilde becomes lady-in-waiting to Edward II’s queen, Isabella. The Queen is in France, and Matilde, a naive young country girl, is homesick. But she cannot go home: she must make the best of it. When the Queen entrusts Matilde with a secret message, she encounters Henry Wright, a dashing young liege man to Baron Roger Mortimer. As rumours abound of Mortimer’s illicit affair with the Queen, and of a plot to depose King Edward II, the stage is set for a story about trust, secrets, and loyalty. This is historical fiction in which the characters live and breathe just like us. Politics are dealt with swiftly, while readers linger over every pulsing heartbeat and tingle of the skin in the lovers’ secret trysts. It’s an easy read, as Fletcher skilfully minimises character count and gory details, while still making the politics clear. And, through the expectations of romantic fiction, history comes alive. Henry is vividly physical, pre-Black Death London hustles and bustles, and life-and-death Mediaeval politics divide the lovers. Recommended for lovers of romance, and those who feel that while history may change the fashions, human nature remains the same. Helen Johnson

THE QUEEN WHO SOLD HER CROWN Jane Ann McLachlan, Kay Crisp Books, 2021, $15.00/C$16.00, pb, 286pp, 9781777499662

In the years 1347-1352, Joanna I nobly fights to preserve her kingdom of Naples against a rival king, a usurping husband, a papal inquest, and the Black Death. Though her sister Maria of Durazzo narrates some chapters, most of the story belongs to

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Joanna, portrayed as proud, virtuous, and devoted to her duty. With the King of Hungary marching on Naples to avenge the murder of Joanna’s first husband, the resourceful queen marries her handsome cousin, Louis of Taranto, in order to have a defender. Betrayals send her fleeing to her realm of Provence, where her virtue, integrity, and belovedness help her clear her name against accusations of murder, and secure papal support for winning back her kingdom. But all her youth, beauty, and cleverness cannot save Joanna from the many dangers of her age: the ruthless ambition of men, the all-too-common death of children, and the plague decimating Europe with terrifying speed. Though the realms outside Joanna’s circle of family, counselors, and servants never really come into focus, McLachlan builds engaging characters that hold up against the largerthan-life drama that surrounds them. The story’s heart rests on the clever strategizing of the two royal sisters, whose pedigree doesn’t shield them from the torments of rape and imprisonment by their husbands, nor the deaths of people they love. McLachlan depicts particularly well the horrors of the bubonic plague and the physical and moral devastation that resulted. The prose is strong and clear, and the power plays among Europe’s elite are always an engaging saga. If this reader wanted McLachlan’s righteous, much-maligned Joanna to inherit more from the canny, selfserving vixen that some contemporaries and later chroniclers depicted her as being, the fault is all mine. This is a series well worth the time. Misty Urban

15T H C E N T U RY CECILY Annie Garthwaite, Viking, 2021, £14.99, hb, 370pp, 9780241476871

King Henry VI was nine months old when he became king of England. Shortly afterwards, he became the disputed king of France and inherited the 100 Years’ War. Major schisms at court developed during the long regency of his minority. When he came of age, Henry was a dangerously ineffective king and suffered from bouts of madness. The instability of his reign led to the War of the Roses between Richard of York, the king’s cousin, and the king’s queen, Margaret of Anjou. Garthwaite’s heroine, Cecily, is the wife of Richard of York. Richard’s father had been executed for treason. Cecily’s husband is heir to King Henry until the king has a son. This novel vividly depicts the stress of a life lived under constant jeopardy. Cecily is forever masking her hand and wearing a poker face to survive the duress of the politics swirling around the feeble king. Garthwaite’s Cecily has the fierceness of a Valkyrie, pricking her men into battle, using eloquence as her weapon. Her eldest son, who was crowned as Edward IV after Henry was deposed, calls her “Captain Mother”. 20

But Garthwaite also depicts the intimacy of her marriage and her constant pregnancies. She birthed 12 children, five of whom died in infancy. The reader experiences, with Cecily, the horror and pathos of the execution of her 17-year-old son, Edmund, after the Battle of Wakefield. The novel is biographical historical fiction, sticking close to the documented facts and recounting the chronicle of a life over 30 years, a style which has been popularised by Philippa Gregory. I prefer more fiction and less faction myself, but it is obviously well-received by many readers. Cecily is an accomplished and highly readable example of this style of historical fiction writing. Tracey Warr

16T H C E N T U RY ACTS OF DREAMS Martin Elsant, G & M Publishers, 2021, $6.13, pb, 232 pp, 9798599736356

Maria and Will Ames return to England after abandoning their dreams of building a Jewish refuge for victims of the Inquisition in 1572. They are soon charged as illegal residents and risk being stripped of all their holdings and expelled because Jews are not allowed to live in England, particularly if they openly practice their faith. Attorney Robert Shaw agrees to defend them in the Court of the Star Chamber, and in the process challenge the legal basis for banning Jews—the Edict of Expulsion of 1290. Acts of Dreams follows Acts of Faith and Acts of Hope, both released in 2020. The series is based on research by author Elsant, a retired diagnostic radiologist, after reading Miriam Bodian’s Dying in the Law of Moses and her discussion of original 16th-century Inquisition transcripts. The story brings Shaw into the courtroom to argue against prosecutor Nicholas Barham before Lord Chancellor Christopher Hatton. Barham is known for prosecuting Thomas Howard with Mary, Queen of Scots, for treason against Queen Elizabeth. Hatton has a reputation for presiding with fairness and good judgment despite an overall lack of knowledge about the law and questions as to whether he ever was actually called to the bar. Acts of Dreams vividly portrays historical figures and the times, moving from masque dances in Queen Elizabeth’s court to Francis Drake’s voyages and Walter Raleigh’s New World explorations, and offers compelling courtroom drama. Its strength lies in its depictions of individuals who struggle with religious intolerance and the myths and outright lies that undergird it. A fascinating story, well told. K. M. Sandrick

FALCON’S SHADOW Marthese Fenech, BDL Publishing, $20.00, pb, 494pp, 9789918210442

2020,

1551. The characters from the first book in the series, The Eight-Pointed Cross, are in

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turmoil: Domenicus Montesa wants to redeem his father, Augustine, who is currently a slave working for a sadist, but he doesn’t want to leave Angelica, his love. Robert Falsone and Katrina, Domenicus’s sister, are trying to work out their relationship as Katrina desperately looks for ways to earn money to ransom Augustine (and possibly her brother). The Order of St. John is of questionable value, and it’s looking like the church may start the Inquisition on Malta. The novel is well-researched and moves at a sedate pace. There are often bits of history thrown in through conversation, and there are glimpses of the wider world beyond the conflict between the Knights of Malta and the Ottoman Empire. There are some graphic and gruesome scenes, starting with the opening chapter, a description of being on a slave ship. The methods of torture used by Augustine’s master, Al Hajii Hamid al Azm, are particularly nasty, and Marthese Fenech brings them uncomfortably to life, although cruelty is rampant throughout both the Christian and Muslim worlds as well as the few kind characters from each culture. The characters are often at the mercy of the forces about them, and often the characterbuilding seems to be more about what happens to them rather than who they are. The exceptions are the two women, Katrina and Angelica, who seem to have more of an emotional life than most of the men, and Demir, the second son of the master, whose kind heart seems to shame his father. Readers looking for detailed historical novels about Malta in the 16th century and the conflicts within the Knights Hospitaller and without will find those details in Falcon’s Shadow and its predecessor. Jodi McMaster

THE CASTILIANS V. E. H. Masters, Nydie Books, 2020, $13.99/£9.99, pb, 298pp, 9781838251505

Scotland, 1546, and religious tensions are rife, further fomented by the political divisions related to Scotland’s relationship with England. In St Andrews, Cardinal Beaton advocates a pro-French approach—and a zero-tolerance to those demanding reform of the Church. When Beaton condemns Reformist preacher George Wishart to death, he might as well have tied himself to the stake beside Wishart, because as the poor man dies in a blaze, the various lairds of Fife decide enough is enough: it is time to rid Scotland of Beaton. This is the dramatic background against which The Castilians is set—the Castilians


being the men who break into the Cardinal’s castle and kill him before forming the first Protestant congregation in Scotland. The story is told primarily through the viewpoint of Bethia Seton, a young girl whose father is a rich merchant, but also through the point of view of her eldest brother, Will, one of the Castilians. I was initially somewhat skeptical—I dislike present-tense narratives. But soon enough, Ms. Masters had me hooked. Not only is the historical setting excellently depicted, be it descriptions of interiors or of the political complexities of the time, but she presents us with two endearing teenagers. Will is devout and believes he is doing his bit to drive through reform. Bethia, realistically restricted by her gender, is caught between fear for her brother and anger at him for putting them all at risk, especially as she is the bargaining chip her father uses to safeguard his position by arranging a marriage she definitely does not want. Over the course of a year or so, both Will and Bethia are obliged by events to leave all childish things behind. By the end of The Castilians I find myself hoping for a sequel, which goes to show just how much I enjoyed this excellent read! Anna Belfrage

TUSCAN DAUGHTER Lisa Rochon, HarperAvenue, 2021, $19.99/ C$24.99, pb, 416pp, 9781443463515

In the village of Settignano outside Florence, Beatrice was orphaned by her father’s murder and her mother’s abandonment. Through her, Tuscan Daughter brings to life the early 16th century in that celebrated city. Beatrice, who sells olive oil to sustain herself, is involved in various ways with chief persons of the era, including Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Machiavelli, and Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo, the Mona Lisa of Leonardo’s portrait. On her quest to find her mother, we see the impoverished as well as the wealthy and newly wealthy in artistic, mercantile Florence. In her author’s note, Lisa Rochon says that historically, Michelangelo is known to have mentored at least one female artist, and here, it’s Beatrice, whose talents shine even when she’s charcoaling images on walls. Adding to the female perspective is Agnella, a healer sometimes seen as a near-witch, Mona Lisa herself, and the feminist attitudes of Leonardo, Michelangelo, and, in a cameo, Botticelli. Walking the streets of Florence with Beatrice and her cart to deliver olive oil to some of its iconic artists is a stimulating experience. With her we witness their creativity in action and the nuances of her relationships with them. Both through the subjects of their art, e.g. Michelangelo’s David and Leonardo’s Virgin and St. Anne, and in the central characters’ lives, are reflected the many faces of love, sometimes braided with sorrow, even hatred. Tuscan Daughter is carefully researched with an engaging, spirited protagonist. An

occasional anachronism stops the narrative flow, such as ‘prime real estate’ and ‘cult of personality,’ but it easily resumes. Readers drawn to historical novels about artists or set in Italy will especially enjoy Tuscan Daughter, but its appeal is broader, through Beatrice’s struggles and triumphs. Recommended. Jinny Webber

17 T H C E N T U RY THE ORPHAN OF GOOD HOPE Roxane Dhand, Bantam Australia, 2020, A$32.99/£15.99, pb, 432pp, 9780143789666

In 1683, Johanna Timmerman is one of eight orphaned girls being sent from Amsterdam to the Cape of Good Hope to marry rich burghers living in the Dutch East India Company (VOC) settlement at the tip of Africa. But Johanna already loves another orphan, Frans de Jong. Their romance blossomed after exchanging shy glances at church services. When she discovers he is also being sent to the Cape, she signs a contract for a burgher marriage in the hope that she can escape her obligations and find Frans. Claes Van Loon, and his wife, Floriane Perroneau, accompany Johanna on the voyage. Claes is a corrupt, lascivious official who has designs on the innocent young girl, but Floriane befriends her and tries to keep her safe while at the same time being intent on exposing her husband’s fiscal misdeeds. Much of the plot involves the intrigues to bring this about. The youthful characters are likeable enough, and Claes is a magnificent villain. Although primarily romantic fiction with a predictable conclusion, there is historical interest here for anyone unfamiliar with the Dutch settlement at the Cape and how the Lords Seventeen ruled the VOC. Most of the action takes place in close quarters, and greater exploration of the exotic blend of cultures and spectacular natural surroundings could have added more depth. The slavery that was endemic to Cape Dutch society in this period does play a minor role. Marina Maxwell

BETWEEN TWO KINGS: A Sequel to The Three Musketeers Alexandre Dumas (trans. Lawrence Ellsworth), Pegasus, 2021, $26.95, hb, 496pp, 9781643137506

Thirty years after he arrived in Paris, d’Artagnan is still a lieutenant in the Musketeers serving the 21-year-old son of the Spanish Queen Anne, King Louis XIV. No longer supported by Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, d’Artagnan is tired of dealing with the caprices of royal service. In Between Two Kings, d’Artagnan launches into a new adventure to

help both his own king and the exiled Charles II of England. Those who have read the 750,000-word last installment of the Musketeers saga may not recognize this first part by the title. Alexandre Dumas’ Le Vicomte de Bragelonne, to my knowledge, has not been published as a single volume in English, but traditionally broken into three volumes: The Vicomte de Bragelonne (Chapters 1-93), Louise de la Vallière, and The Man in the Iron Mask. Lawrence Ellsworth chose to break the book at Chapter 50, which covers d’Artagnan’s adventure in 1660, and named it Between Two Kings. Ellsworth’s overall goal in his new translations is to pare away the more formal translations of the past and give the verve of the original to the English version of Dumas’s cycle. Compare for example, this line from Between Two Kings, “But what was one more trick of persuasion and perception to a man who’d been hoodwinking the diplomats of Europe for over twenty years?”, with the same line from the Oxford World’s Classics version of The Vicomte de Bragelonne (translated in 1857): “But what was the spilling of such a secret to him whose craft had for twenty years deceived all the diplomats of Europe?” Ellsworth successfully balances the need to make a translation comprehensible to its current audience with the duty to preserve the original author’s voice. Dumas’s brilliance is highlighted by the word choices that Ellsworth makes, and it’s the totality of these choices by Ellsworth that makes Between Two Kings sparkle. Jodi McMaster

BITTER MAGIC Nancy Hayes Kilgore, Milford House, 2021, $19.95, pb, 278pp, 9781620068427

Based on the 1662 trial of Isobel Gowdie, Bitter Magic introduces us to Mister Harry, a Covenanter priest seeking to expel witches from the land. When the Laird’s daughter, Margaret, witnesses her friend kidnapped by raiders, and the English soldiers are unwilling to help, she turns to the village “cunning woman,” Isobel, whose skills as a seer uncover the raiders’ location. After her friend’s rescue, Margaret wants to learn Isobel’s magic. But when Isobel is accused of being a witch, Margaret’s beliefs in her newfound skills, along with her religion, are put to the test. Life in 17th-century Scotland is well-penned, including its landscape, local beliefs, social dynamics, and songs and rhymes. The plot and characters are immersive and compelling. While most novelizations singularly highlight corrupted aspects of religion, Margaret’s tutor and fellow Covenanter, Katherine, is compassionate and advocates for forgiveness—opposing Harry’s viewpoint. The novel succeeds at contrasting differing interpretations of doctrine within the same religious branch, and how each aspect can influence the people around them. Through Margaret, we are given a glimpse

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into the dangers of curiosity and innocence during this time period. Margaret watches as Isobel does dark things but brushes it aside and chooses to see only things that fit within her viewpoint. Through hardship, Margaret grows and discovers her own truths about faith and magic. While Isobel Gowdie’s confessions are recreated in the novel, her fictionalized experiences don’t explain why she said the things she did. She accused others of being witches and described devious crimes—things that never happen in the novel. It wasn’t clear why she turned on her friends and made-up sensationalized stories. The characterization feels disjointed. Despite Isobel feeling like two different people at times, overall, this book is a fascinating blurring of the lines between superstition, reality, and belief. J. Lynn Else

THE PURITAN PRINCESS Miranda Malins, Orion, 2021, £8.99, pb, 446pp, 9781409194798

The period from 1649 to 1661 was the first and only time in English history, since Aethelstan ruled a united England in the 10th century, when the divine right of kings was interrupted. Malins uses this turbulent time as backdrop to The Puritan Princess, which covers part of the life of Oliver Cromwell’s youngest daughter, Frances (Fanny): her courtship, marriage, widowhood, and fervent involvement in aiding her brother, Richard, who was named Cromwell’s successor. Malins is a Cromwellian scholar, and her impeccable research is thorough. She concentrates on Fanny’s life from 1657, when Cromwell refuses to accept the crown, to 1661, after the return of the exiled king, Charles II. The novel begins well and is more quickly paced towards the end, in the wake of the upheaval over Cromwell’s death. Unfortunately, the middle gets bogged down in historical minutiae and name-dropping, and feels repetitive at times. The Protectorate is beset by disgruntled papists, cavaliers, Fifth Monarchists (an extreme Puritan sect), and on a wider scale, the Spanish, so scene-setting is important. Whilst context is necessary, it’s possible to be given too much, and there isn’t enough substance to Fanny’s story to keep the pages turning. Her romance is brief, her marriage briefer, so most of the narrative concerns her intellect and astuteness, her aptitude for politics and statecraft, her attachment to her siblings, and her interest in her father’s role as Protector. Malins presents Fanny as a lesser-known feminist, a woman markedly ahead of her time, who was heavily involved in the day-to-day politics of her family. I applaud the author for bringing the Cromwells back into kinder focus and hope that Cromwell’s oldest daughter Bridget’s story, A Rebel Daughter, comes closer to hitting the mark. Fiona Alison

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THE ROYAL SECRET Andrew Taylor, HarperCollins, 2021, £14.99, hb, 468pp, 9780008325565

Set in London in 1670, The Royal Secret is the fourth of Andrew Taylor’s novels featuring James Marwood and Cat Hakesby. Marwood is a clerk working at the centre of government, and Cat is – rather unusually for a woman at that time – an architect. They are thrown together again as a number of seemingly unrelated events point towards a greater intrigue. One of Marwood’s fellow clerks meets a violent end; Cat encounters a mysterious Dutchman; and a new commission takes her to the French court. As Marwood tries to investigate what turns out to be just one of a series of unexplained deaths he is led into increasing danger. And Cat has to decide whether to trust her Dutchman. I have been reading this series with increasing pleasure. The writer includes enough period detail to evoke the times without weighing down the plot, and I got a real sense of the dirt and dangers of London, the dinginess of Dover, and the relative splendour of the French court. The story includes all of the secrets and intrigues that I have come to expect from Taylor’s work, and the slightly prickly relationship between Cat and Marwood is always enjoyable. A subplot gives us the perhaps not quite so innocent Maria, and there is the added bonus of a ferocious caged lion. Recommended for those who like a historical thriller, or for anyone in search of a good read. I couldn’t put it down. Karen Warren

18T H C E N T U RY THE TSARINA’S DAUGHTER Ellen Alpsten, Bloomsbury Australia, 2021, A$29.99, pb, 464pp, 9781526608604 / Bloomsbury, 2021, £16.99, hb, 464pp, 9781526608635 / St. Martin’s Griffin, 2022, $30.99, hb, 352pp, 9781250214409

The Tsarina’s Daughter is Kenyan-born, London-based Ellen Alpsten’s second historical novel and is part of a trilogy about the Russian aristocracy at the time of the Romanovs. Set from 1723 to 1741, the story is written from the perspective of Elizabeth, the younger daughter of Tsar Peter the Great and his second wife, who became Tsarina Catherine I. The two decades in which the book is set were a turbulent and unsettling period in Russia, with many changes to the monarchy and, consequently, Elizabeth’s position at court. She had to navigate an increasingly dangerous situation where she went from riches to rags and back again, in the blink of an eye. Elizabeth is a complex character, sometimes superstitious, impulsive and emotional, but then strategic and strong-willed. She is driven to fight for her own survival, birthright and the Russia she loves, amidst treachery and deception. The Tsarina’s Daughter is not a novel for the faint-hearted. The complexity of the Russian political situation and multitude of characters

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can be confusing, although there is a useful list of people and titles for the reader’s reference. The author masterfully maintains tension and intrigue throughout the novel, unfolding the plot at an exciting pace. Alpsten has created an epic series that depicts all of the excesses, cruelty and abuse of power of the period and that highlights the vast gulf between the privileged rich and impoverished peasants. If you are a fan of Russian history, royalty of the 18th century or dynastic family dramas, then The Tsarina’s Daughter (and its predecessor, Tsarina) will be an enjoyable novel for you. Christine Childs

THE TURNCOAT’S WIDOW Mally Becker, Historia, 2021, $17.95/£13.99, pb, 308pp, 9781953789280

In 1779, aboard a British prison ship anchored near Brooklyn, a prisoner named Philip Parcell is tortured and killed. He had refused to divulge the whereabouts of a list of names of informants to the British. However, Philip manages to ask a fellow prisoner, Daniel, to contact his wife, Rebecca, who knows of the list, and sell it to General Washington. In Morristown, Rebecca is having difficulty holding onto her farm, for the townsfolk want to confiscate it, believing she betrayed Philip to the British. Daniel escapes and tries to help Rebecca. Fortunately, General Washington arrives and, knowing the truth about Philip, offers to let Rebecca keep her farm. However, he wants Rebecca to locate the list and travel with Daniel on a spy mission to British-held New York City. Rebecca has no option but to acquiesce and accepts the passport for the journey. Rebecca and Daniel risk their lives to uncover a plot that threatens the new nation’s future and inform General Washington. Becker came upon the idea for her debut novel while volunteering at the Morristown National Historical Park. She discovered that one needed a passport to travel between New Jersey and New York City during the Revolutionary War. The novel is carefully researched and constructed, which keeps readers intrigued with the mystery of the list of turncoats and interested in the historical events. The realistic period details, like the passports, and inclusion of real-life characters such as General Washington make the era come alive. However, the large cast of secondary characters adds complexity. Furthermore, the introduction of a budding romance between Rebecca and Daniel helps keep the narrative stimulating. Waheed Rabbani

THE DARKEST SHORE Karen Brooks, HarperCollins Australia, 2020, A$32.99, pb, 528pp, 9781489277459

The most famous Scottish witch trials and burnings took place in the late 16th century, but the prejudices and accusations lingered on for another century and more. This novel draws us into real events that took place in the


fishing village of Pittenweem, Fife, in the early 1700s. Sorcha McIntyre, a widow and mother grieving for her only child, returns to the village after an absence and is welcomed with open arms by her friends and fellow fishwives, but others are resentful. The Reverend Patrick Cowper is a religious zealot, a man who believes that “the fishwives represented everything he disapproved of: loud, godless women, women either without men to control them, teach them how to behave and keep them tamed and quiet or refusing to accept their rightful ascendancy…” and because they were able to earn their own keep, had money and property, this “only added to their sins.” When a young man, Peter Morton, collapses with an unexplained fit of madness after being in Sorcha’s company, the fuse is lit for Cowper to charge Sorcha and her friends with witchcraft. Captain Aidan Ross of the militia tries his best to support Sorcha and the women in reports to Edinburgh authorities, but he has a fight on his hands with the fear and paranoia fuelled by Cowper. Passages of extreme violence contrast with those offering hope and romance set against the atmospheric beauty of Scotland. The use of dialect words does not detract and adds further authenticity to the narrative. The excellent author’s notes give a comprehensive background into the creation of the book. All the darker aspects of an insular society at the mercy of its own superstitions and subject to psychological manipulation are perfectly captured here. A memorable read. Marina Maxwell

THE SCOT WHO LOVED ME Gina Conkle, Avon, 2021, $7.99/C$10.99, pb, 372pp, 9780062998996

London, 1753. This is the story of widow Anne Neville, English-born and Scottish by marriage. She is determined to help her clanspeople by finding a lost Jacobite treasure and sending it to the Highlands. She and her league of female friends and relatives need a strong man to help them with the task. Enter Will MacDonald, a giant Highlander who was Anne’s first love. He’s been imprisoned for wearing the forbidden kilt. Anne secures his freedom, and he agrees to help steal back the gold. The villainess who holds it is a dangerous, powerful opponent. She also has a history with Will. Anne’s co-conspirators are likeable and competent. We will probably see them again in the sequel, due in 2022. Since the true fate of the Loch Arkaig treasure is unknown, the author is free to concoct her own account without stepping on any historical facts. Heat levels vary from sweetly sensual to red hot pepper. I had to cover my eyes while reading the final blazing bed scene. Elizabeth Knowles

ANSWERING LIBERTY’S CALL Tracy Lawson, Fidelis Publishing, 2021, $17.00/£15.99, pb, 323pp, 9781735428512

As the American Revolution is on the verge of potential c o l l a p s e and internal political intrigue abounds, Anna Stone receives news that her preacher/soldier husband and other family members are suffering from hunger and disease at Valley Forge. Anna is an amateur but gifted healer and decides to ride from Virginia on her trusted mare, Nelly, to deliver aid to her loved ones and other needy soldiers. Along the dangerous journey, readers learn of Anna’s background, which includes indentured servitude and her own history of suffering and family tragedies. At times disguised as a boy, she encounters Loyalist sympathizers, even more dangerous common thieves and cutthroats, and friendly German-American patriots who show her a different side of some Hessian mercenaries. Anna also unexpectedly gets news of a plot to overthrow American Commander-in-Chief George Washington. She now finds herself enlisted as a courier, only to subsequently discover she is being followed by a tenacious adversary. As she finally and barely makes her way into the Patriot encampment and safety, she meets not only her husband and relatives but also General Washington. Anna then learns the significance of the message she delivers. This novel is a grand and rollicking revolutionary adventure undertaken by a young mother and brave American patriot. Based on a true story, the book gives illuminating historical glimpses into primitive but effective treatments of smallpox, the relationship between slaves and indentured whites, and the interplay among the various Protestant religious groups of the times—Anglicans, Quakers, and Baptists. The geopolitical perspectives displayed are refreshingly sophisticated. Lawson’s afterword deftly provides the well-researched historical data behind the tale described in the book. Highly recommended. Thomas J. Howley

MADELEINE: Last French Casquette Bride in New Orleans Wanda Maureen Miller, Atmosphere Press, 2021, $17.99, pb, 272pp, 9781636495651

Madeleine Boucher is a young woman of humble birth who journeys to Louisiana in the

New World. As she leaves behind France and life as a servant, she dreams of the future and the promise that Louisiana holds. As a casquette girl, everything she owns exists in a single trunk. When she arrives in the New World, she becomes one of the most sought-after women, with numerous men wanting to marry her. Despite her popularity amongst the men folk, she dreams of carving out something that is entirely her own. Madeleine is a beautifully written tale about the struggles of people in early 18th-century America. It felt like this bygone world came to life in the pages of the book. Madeleine is such a fascinating and admirable character, wanting to eke out a living on her own terms. One of the best parts of this novel was the rich characters, who came across as very real and human. They are easy to relate to. The plot is steady and kept me engaged every step of the way. The overall tone is dark, gritty, and slightly mysterious. Another strong aspect is the rich descriptive detail in the prose. All in all, this is an immensely enjoyable read. Elizabeth K. Corbett

ISLAND QUEEN Vanessa Riley, William Morrow, 2021, $27.99, hb, 592pp, 9780063002845

It is a truth that should be universally acknowledged, that history is written by the winning side – and traditionally our history has been written by “upper-class dead white men.” Women and people of color are commonly regarded as inconsequential background, not as an integral part of history. Island Queen is a great place to start repairing this educational lack. Island Queen covers the life of Dorothy Kirwan Thomas (1756-1846), who was born into slavery on the island of Montserrat. The daughter of an Irish planter and an enslaved mother, Dolly survived rape, incest, and childbirth while still in her early teens. She started a business; bought herself and her family out of slavery; and become one of the major entrepreneurs in the Caribbean. She had her ten children educated in England; married her daughters to well-off white husbands; traveled to England to argue for laws to protect women of color; and still found time for several lovers (including the future King William IV), while remaining married to Joseph Thomas. Dolly was extremely influential in the fight against prejudice against people of color, and very well known in her lifetime. She is one of the many women whose stories have been lost to us, and it’s marvelous to see her life being brought back into the public discourse. The novel is written in a spare, stylized manner, and Dolly’s story is handled with a simple elegance that enables the reader to understand her life,

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and how impressive her achievement was in overcoming the obstacles she faced. One thing bothered me, however: the author’s decision to elide over the fact that Dolly owned slaves. Her slave-owning is vaguely hinted at, but I’d rather have seen this troubling dichotomy in the character handled openly. However, the author’s choice is certainly understandable, and this is one terrific book. Brava, Vanessa Riley! India Edghill

THE ELF AND THE RED PRIEST Liam Sternberg, Runcible Books, 2021, $18.95, pb, 394pp, 9781736499306

Venice, 1704: This is the fictionalised story of the violinist Anna Maria della Pietà, (c. 1696-1782) in the years when Antonio Vivaldi was Master of Violin at the orphanage of the Pietà in Venice where she lived. Sternberg is a musician, and it shows. His novel is populated by myriad characters familiar to the student of baroque music: Benedetto Vinaccesi, Francesco Gasparini, Ludovico Ertman, Mauro D’Alay, Giuseppe Tartini, Anna Girò, Faustina Bordoni and others. Sternberg’s prose can be delightful (‘What a spirit this harpsichord had, a crisp attack like biting through celery stalks), but is sometimes too elaborate (‘she had worked out an architecture of proof’) or simply too modern, as in ‘scheduling conflicts,’ ‘formulated a general strategy,’ ‘fixed duration’ or ‘maybe we should hire this guy.’ He is in his element when describing a performance at what is now the Teatro Malibran, for his research is impressive, but less adept at keeping the thread of a plot, always a challenge when retelling actual events, especially when dealing with such a vast dramatis personae. Besides Anna Maria herself (the Elf of the title), it is sometimes hard to distinguish between different characters, particularly her fellow orphans. The Pietà comes across as an eccentric boarding school, a sort of musical Hogwarts (this is no criticism), but Sternberg conveys no real sense of the tensions that must have existed between the choir orphans and their fee-paying figlie di spese companions, nor indeed between those who were musically gifted and those other little girls put to lacemaking and spinning (the boy orphans, trained up to trades, are not mentioned at all). I’d recommend reading this book with the composers of this most fruitful period in Venice’s musical history playing in the background. Katherine Mezzacappa

19T H C E N T U RY ALONG THE ENDLESS RIVER Rose Alexander, Canelo, 2021, £8.99, pb, 384pp, 9781800322189

London 1890. Katherine and Anselmo are a newly married couple. Having learned of Brazil’s burgeoning rubber trade, Anselmo is 24

convinced they are guaranteed to make their fortunes if they buy a plantation in the Amazon basin. What Katherine does not know is that her father, not a rich man, gave them his life savings to finance the project. So, they set sail to a world and a lifestyle totally different from what Katherine has ever known, both teeming with life, enchanting and also extremely dangerous. Deeply in love and with a baby on the way, she is full of optimism. Then tragedy strikes. Anselmo is drowned on an expedition upriver. Sense tells Katherine she must return to England, but when she discovers her parents are relying on her repaying her massive debts, she has to fight on through disaster after disaster. Having seen the cruelty of European plantation owners, she is determined to treat the indigenous people who work for her with good food, kindness and love. Along the Endless River is a gripping historical novel full of vivid characters and a terrific sense of atmosphere. The descriptions of flora and fauna in the tropical rainforest are so vivid. The passages set in Brazil give a clear understanding of the rubber trade and speed in which Amazonian tribal culture was overwhelmed and destroyed. The scenes set in London are less gripping, maybe because it is familiar to most readers of historical fiction. Although these scenes are somewhat melodramatic, overall the pages kept turning. A great read. Sally Zigmond

MISS LATTIMORE’S LETTER Suzanne Allain, Berkley, 2021, $16.00/C$21.99, pb, 272pp, 9780593197424

Since Sophronia Lattimore is an impoverished spinster serving as her cousin’s chaperone, she has ample opportunity to observe the conduct of those around her, and when she perceives that some might be pursuing the wrong potential marriage partner, she writes an anonymous letter. The result, however, is not only a happier realignment for all parties, but for Sophie an unwanted reputation as a matchmaker when her identity is discovered. Among those who seek her advice is Sir Edmund Winslow, a very eligible bachelor of whose attractiveness she is very well aware. Will she too find the happiness her advice has steered others towards? For that matter, will they? This is an insightful novel of manners. No threats of violence or graphic sexual encounters so popular in many modern Regencies, but rather wellborn young people negotiating the perils of strict social conventions that often hinder more than help their serious search for a loving, or at least compatible, marriage partner. And ‘in possession of a good fortune’, of course. A title would be nice. Jane Austen’s influence is readily apparent in language usage, character conduct, and, most importantly, the subtle wit and irony that provide so much entertainment. Strongly recommended.

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Ray Thompson

RUNNING FROM MOLOKA’I Jill P. Anderson, Love Song Graphics, 2020, $13.99, pb, 280pp, 9781735490601

“At one moment we are being defined, and in the next moment we are defining.” Honolulu, 1884. Mele has always believed her father, a white physician, can fix anything. When she starts public school, however, she sees the impact of a dreadful disease sweeping through her nation: leprosy. While her father’s blood gives her an immunity to the disease, Mele begins to question her father’s role in sending those affected by the disease to the Moloka’i leper colony. As families are ripped apart, children torn from their mothers’ arms, witnessing the fate of a boy she’s never met flips Mele’s sheltered world upside-down and calls her to take action. Running from Moloka’i is the strongly felt coming-of-age story about Mele, a 15-year-old girl who faces hard truths about how her culture is being treated by men who look like her father. The main and side characters are all struggling with or affected by some aspect of this disease process, making each person an important and captivating piece of the overall narrative. Torn between a white father and a Hawaiian mother, Mele provides a compassionate narrative voice as she struggles to reconcile the part she should play in her dual world. The setting is charming and vivid. The narrative is pleasantly saturated with Hawaiian culture, particularly with regard to prose construction, illustrating a sublime respect for cultural rituals and ideals. Shining a light upon the injustices Hawaiian people suffered due to the leprosy outbreak and colonization, Anderson brings to life an emotional story of sacrifice, hope, and family. Highly recommended. J. Lynn Else

DEATH AT THE CRYSTAL PALACE Jennifer Ashley, Berkley, 2021, $17.00, pb, 336pp, 9780593099391

In London in 1882, while attending an exhibition at the Crystal Palace in Sydenham, young cook Kat Holloway is approached by the wealthy Lady Covington, who is convinced that someone in her family is trying to kill her. Kat soon determines that the threat is real and sets about trying to help Lady Covington. Kat’s investigative co-conspirator and unofficial beau, Daniel McAdam, is busy with an inquiry of his own, and she worries he will not have time to help her. This might be for the best, as Kat fears their relationship is getting too close, too quickly. As Kat finds herself involved in both investigations, danger comes ever closer. This is the fifth book in the Below Stairs mystery series. It can be read as a standalone. This is a multifaceted mystery that will keep the reader guessing. You will be instantly transported to the upstairs-downstairs Victorian-era setting with all its grandeur, class divisions, and prejudice. Our main character Kat Holloway, or “Mrs. Holloway,” solves mysteries on the side, but also prepares delicious meals and desserts. The descriptions


of the food of the time and how to prepare it are almost as fascinating as the mysteries themselves. The characters, such as the rightfully suspicious Lady Covington, her spoiled children, and her extremely haughty lady’s maid, are all brought craftily to life and will amuse, exasperate, and infuriate you from time to time. Readers will cheer on the patient but clever Kat as she investigates, contemplates, and cooks. Jennifer Ashley’s ability to bring the food, events, and attitudes of the Victorian era to a compelling mystery will leave you spellbound and literally hungry for more. I would recommend this book to all fans of cozy historical mysteries. Bonnie DeMoss

SOMEONE TO CHERISH Mary Balogh, Berkley, 2021, $7.99/C$10.99, pb, 416pp, 9781984802415

‘Are you ever lonely?’ It seems an innocent enough question, but this is Regency England, where the rules governing conduct among the gentry are restrictive. When spoken by a young widow to an unmarried gentleman, they are highly inappropriate. Neither Lydia Taverner nor Harry Westcott wants marriage, but both recognize an affair in a small village would be scandalous and impossible to conceal. Despite contentment, however, life for both has been rather dull lately, and one thing leads to another… Since this is eighth in the Westcott series and major figures from the earlier books play an active role, however small, the stage is confusingly crowded, especially by Harry’s ‘sisters, and his cousins, and his aunts’. Those who have savored this fine series from the start will welcome them back, nonetheless. They are an entertaining brood. The focus here is upon the problems created by overly protective families. However wellintentioned, their actions stifle independence and character growth. The challenge is to provide support without being controlling, and it is never easy, especially when one cares deeply. Fortunately, Balogh steers her characters through the turbulent waters with her customary skill and subtle humor. Highly recommended. Ray Thompson

EMILY’S HOUSE Amy Belding Brown, Berkley, 2021, $17.99, pb, 384pp, 9780593199633

Vermont-based author Brown (Flight of the Sparrow; Mr. Emerson’s Wife) sets her latest novel in 19th-century Amherst, Massachusetts. Center stage: a big yellow house, the Homestead, now-famous home of poet Emily Dickinson (1830-86). We follow Miss Emily’s reclusive life through the eyes of Tipperary-born, Irish-immigrant Margaret Maher (1842-1924), hired as the Dickinson family maid by Emily’s crusty father, Edward, “The Squire.” “He had the air of a man who thinks saying something makes it so,” thinks Margaret. Additional characters include

“Mother” Dickinson; Emily’s siblings, Vinnie and Austin; and others in Maggie’s family, including her brother Tom Kelley. Initially, protagonist Maggie (the family’s nickname for Margaret) is unsure of the “peculiar” Emily, known about town as “the quare one,” “the Myth of Amherst.” “I never heard of a woman writing poems,” Maggie concedes. And, Maggie doesn’t know that her short-term position—accepted to make enough money to join a brother in California— will last for three decades. Gradually, “a change came in the way I saw Emily,” Maggie reminisces. She was “headstrong and fierce, full of secrets and schemes”; mischievous, with a “love of ridicule.” Over time, “a bond formed between us, mistress and maid. Thin as a thread it was at first, loose as a ribbon in the wind. But over time it grew sturdy and limber and strong.” Brown offers a convincing window on the lives of late-19th-century Irish-American house servants. Some will prefer that less space was given to Maggie’s imagined relationship with Patrick Quinn—a wholly fictional character— allowing fuller development of known historical contexts and Dickinson herself, “more ghost than woman.” Still, Brown’s love of words is evident and unites her with the poet who scribbled, we know not when: “A word is dead / When it is said, / Some say. / I say it just / Begins to live / That day.” Mark Spencer

HIS IMPROPER LADY Candace Camp, Harlequin, 2021, C$12.99, pb, 400pp, 9781335966520

$9.99/

When Tom Quick catches a thief in the office of his detective agency, he does not expect to fall in love with her. Mind you, he does admire the agility with which she escapes; and when he tracks her down to a gambling club, the attraction between the two is instantaneous. Desiree Malone is trying to discover the identity of her father, an aristocrat who disappeared with her mother (his mistress) while she was still a child, and when she suggests they work on it together, he reluctantly agrees. They soon identify the father, but why did both parents abandon their children so abruptly? And who is trying to discourage their inquiries? This is an involving story, and as the pair unravel the mysteries and elude danger, they fall more deeply in love, despite their determination to protect their hearts and independence. Both are admirable and sympathetic figures; they are surrounded by an intriguing and eccentric cast of characters; and the plot is fast-moving and satisfying, despite the extensive description of their sexual encounters. It does drift towards melodrama at times, but that is not unexpected in a Victorian romance. Book 8 in the Mad Morelands series. Strongly recommended. Ray Thompson

MURDER AT MADAME TUSSAUDS Jim Eldridge, Allison & Busby, 2021, £19.99, hb, 300pp, 9780749027759

London in the autumn of 1896, and private detectives Daniel Wilson and Abigail Fenton are back for their sixth adventure. After a previous episode’s excursion to Manchester, they have returned to their home turf of London and are involved in the case of the decapitation of Eric Dudgeon, one of the nightwatchmen at Madame Tussaud’s waxwork museum, with the disappearance of his work colleague and good friend, Walter Bagshot, seemingly pointing to the latter’s guilt. With their growing reputation, Daniel and Abigail are called in by the authorities at the waxworks museum to investigate further as the Metropolitan Police have other more pressing cases to examine, and to make matters more difficult, the two private detectives have been frozen out by their enemy at Scotland Yard, Superintendent Armstrong, who is jealous of their ability to solve crimes that the police seem unable to tackle. The police are under pressure to solve several raids on banks’ security boxes, with a number of high-profile victims losing valuables and sensitive documents. Daniel makes a possible connection between the two seemingly separate series of crimes. The writer Arthur Conan Doyle plays a role in the narrative, asking Abigail to lead an archaeological expedition he plans to finance in Egypt. Like all the other books in the series, this is an eminently readable story, with an engaging and well-paced plot. There is a lot of historical detail, although occasionally just a little too much of the lecture comes through, which sits a little awkwardly with the narrative thread. Douglas Kemp

THE FLOWER BOAT GIRL Larry Feign, Top Floor Books, 2021, $26.99/£19.99, hb, 436pp, 9789627866541

Sold into slavery as a child, Yang becomes a flower boat girl (a prostitute). She eventually earns her freedom, but prostitution keeps her alive as an adult. The villagers refuse her sanctuary in the temple when pirates attack. Taken captive, she has no one to pay her ransom. Rather than be sold back into bondage, she would rather die. Fate has other plans. Her defiance causes Cheng Yat, the pirate captain, to claim her as his “wife,” a beautiful possession to do with what he will. To survive, she must become more than a vessel for his children. Clever and observant, she chooses to master the cannons, powerful weapons that are not the domain of women. Killing an enemy to save her mentor’s life makes her a pirate, but at what price to her soul? She also learns that money brings respect and power. She becomes determined to guide Cheng to make necessary changes without losing face, but her interference arouses mistrust and jealousy among the crew and in him. History has forgotten her name,

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remembering this fascinating woman only as “wife of Cheng.” Together, they organized the pirate clans of China into a formidable force that threatened the existence of the imperial navy in the early 1800s. Feign’s visual imagery and melodic prose vividly recreate the world in which Yang lives. Readers may not always like her, but they will admire and respect her for all that she achieves in spite of her past and being a woman. Feign is as adept at creating distinct characters as he is at showing a different pirate world from the one most readers know. He supplies satisfying answers to the mysteries that surround this remarkable woman and her husband while staying true to their known history. Cindy Vallar

WILDE WAGERS Elizabeth Caulfield Felt, published, 2021, $10.99, 9780984450732

Independently pb, 284pp,

When Oscar Wilde bets that actress Olivia Snow can deceive guests at a house party into believing that she is wealthy aristocratic beauty Genevieve Lamb, Genevieve’s brother Stephen agrees to pretend she is his sister. Meanwhile, back in London, Genevieve wagers that she can pass herself off as Olivia and sets out with Oscar and Olivia’s young friend Lily for a night on the town. These are not the only deceptions that are practiced, and they initiate a series of highly unlikely events that include a supposed murder, theft, abduction, imprisonment, and innumerable coincidences. In the process the protagonists encounter an equally unlikely cast of eccentric characters. The plot soon descends into farce: in her acknowledgements the author even mentions her gratitude to those who suggested she increase ‘the silliness factor’. As one might expect, there are the ingredients here of Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest. Indeed, his mother absentmindedly suggests the title when he tells her that he is thinking of writing a play based on what happened: ‘People pretending to be other people. People falling in love with people they don’t know. I’ve swapped names and changed genders and altered most of the storyline.’ Wilde’s play was much better, of course, but it is intriguing to identify names like Bracknell, Prism, and Bunbury. Recommended to those who enjoy farce. Ray Thompson

THE YEAR WITHOUT SUMMER Guinevere Glasfurd, Two Roads, 2021, £8.99, pb, 390pp, 9781473672338

In April 1815, Mount Tambora erupted on Sunbawa, killing as many as 12,000 islanders. Glasfurd places this eruption, still known as the most lethal in modern history, as backdrop to her novel, poignantly titled The Year Without Summer. Six diverse characters experience the aftereffects of global weather changes the following year, 1816. John Constable balks 26

at restrictions placed by the Rebow family for the commission ‘Wivenhoe Park’, as the weather wreaks havoc on the landscape. At Villa Diodati, Mary Shelley’s mind is formulating the birth of her famous horror story. Sarah Hobbs, a penny-a-day labourer in the Fens, joins an uprising seeking better pay and lower grain prices while fearing the advent of industrialization. Hope Peter, having served his country well at Waterloo, finds England no longer a green and pleasant land. Charles Whitlock, an itinerant preacher in need of a congregation, convinces farmers to remain in Vermont, with disastrous effect, rather than seeking their fortunes elsewhere. And Henry Hogg, dedicated ship’s surgeon aboard the Benares (sent to investigate explosions thought to be pirates), witnesses the aftermath firsthand, without medical supplies to treat the injured and dying, or even sufficient food and water. This is a mesmerising story, told through vignettes in which each character experiences the unusual weather patterns in their corner of the world, intrinsically linked despite the miles between them. These include drought, famine, crop failure, frost and snow in August, torrential downpours, wildfires, work shortages, poverty and the social unrest and rebellion which inevitably followed. The narrative is vivid and forthright, particularly the eyewitness accounts of the appalling volcanic destruction. Having the technological ability to oversee global events almost as they happen, we can still only watch, hope and pray, as they did in 1816. An important reminder of the interconnectedness of the natural world, and how subject we all are to its capricious whims. Fiona Alison

CROOKED IN HIS WAYS S. M. Goodwin, Crooked Lane, 2021, $27.99/ C$36.99/£23.99, hb, 336pp, 9781643857442

Inspector Jasper Lightner and Detective Hieronymus Law are back for another round of intrigue, secrets, and murder most foul in pre-Civil War New York City. Goodwin’s stellar series debut, Absence of Mercy, introduced the unlikely detective duo of Lord Lightner, an English Crimean War veteran with a traumainduced stammer, and his earthy, crime-solving American partner, Hy Law. Crooked in His Ways picks up right where the two sleuths left off and never slows down. It is early July 1857, and Lord Jasper Lightner is recovering from the physical and emotional wounds of his first big case on the New York Metropolitan Police Force. But only a few days later, he and Hy Law are tasked with

REVIEWS | Issue 97, August 2021

investigating the diabolical death of wealthy financier Albert Beauchamp. Disappearing before Christmas in 1856, Beauchamp has reappeared in New Orleans—dismembered and packed in a shipping crate full of salt. Among the dead man’s estate Lightner discovers a black book full of names and details of several important people who all have reason to kill the blackmailing Beauchamp. When two of the suspects wind up dead within days of each other, the race is on to untangle the skein of secrets before another dies. Goodwin creates fascinating characters who all seem right at home amongst the Tammany Hall politics and police corruption of the city, which adds a rich authenticity to her depiction of 1850s New York. Dodging gang riots, fireworks, and feisty females, Lightner and Law ultimately forge a deeper bond of respect and trust as they stare down an elusive, butchering killer. Crooked in His Ways builds upon the promising premise of the first novel and exceeds expectations by a mile. Goodwin’s triumphant sophomore entry delivers a fiendishly intelligent plot, effortless pacing, and a surprise ending ensuring more drama to come. Peggy Kurkowski

THE SCOUNDREL’S DAUGHTER Anne Gracie, Berkley, 2021, $7.99/C$10.99, pb, 368pp, 9780593200544

Distraught at a scoundrel’s threat to publish her recently deceased, abusive husband’s spiteful letters to his mistress, mocking her, Alice, dowager Lady Charlton, reluctantly agrees to sponsor his daughter’s introduction into high society and find her a titled husband. Since Lucy Bamber is sullen and resentful at her father, prospects for success seem poor, but the two women come to care for each other and, in the widowed Lord Tarrant and Lord Thornton, veterans of the Napoleonic Wars, they find understanding and loving partners. Can a blackmailer be trusted to honor an agreement, however? Since both women are likeable and sympathetic figures, victims of controlling and inconsiderate men and Alice’s jealous sister-in-law, their good fortune is gratifying, though the readiness of so many members of the aristocracy to rally to Alice’s defense does strain credulity. But this is a romance, Tarrant’s three daughters are a delight, and despite the seriousness of the issues raised, Lucy provides some lively humor. Readers looking for a tale of mistreated heroines who find richly deserved happiness will enjoy this Regency romance. Uneven, but nevertheless recommended. Ray Thompson

A REBELLIOUS WOMAN Claire J. Griffin, Brandylane Publishers, 2021, $20.95/C$25.88, pb, 384pp, 9781951565473

In this novel, author Claire J. Griffin weaves a thought-provoking story based on the life


of the real Belle Boyd, a young woman who chafed at the constraints put upon American women during the 1800s. Belle yearns for a life where she can use her God-given talents to make a difference. The Civil War provides the perfect opportunity for Belle to assert herself and become an undercover spy for the Confederacy. Griffin’s story mirrors that of the real Belle Boyd but has finely crafted fictional characters who help drive the plot. As the narrative begins, the state of Virginia is pro-slavery, while the western part of the state is more proUnion. By 1863, West Virginia has become a new state, and Belle Boyd has become an essential link in the virtual spy network that helped the Confederacy. Belle mingles with Union soldiers in residence near her home, then visits soldiers in Confederate camps. She works furtively to bring vital information to Stonewall Jackson to help the Southern cause. Eventually, she is arrested and sent to the infamous Old Capital Prison in Washington D.C. However, Belle can work her charms even in prison. She is finally paroled, the South loses the War, and Belle embarks on a new life that takes her on stage and into the limelight. It is a thoroughly enjoyable book, obviously well researched, with good pacing and believable characters who find themselves pivotal agents in history. Other than a wish for some maps, I would highly recommend this novel. Linda Harris Sittig

THE SWEETNESS OF WATER Nathan Harris, Little, Brown, 2021, $28.00/ C$35.00, hb, 368pp, 9780316362481

Nathan Harris’s debut novel, The Sweetness of Water, reads as though the author has honed his craft for years. The story begins immediately after Appomattox, as the residents of a Georgia town confront losing the Civil War. George Walker, a white landowner whose land lies fallow, hears that his son has been killed. Searching for meaning, George decides to cultivate his acreage. For labor, he hires brothers newly emancipated from their slave owner. Angry residents of the town cannot understand why George pays a fair wage to former slaves. Harris focuses on pairs— married couple George and Isabel who move from distant to loving, former slave brothers Prentiss and Landry who carve a new life for themselves, lovers Caleb and August who come together and apart repeatedly. George remains the tale’s backbone. One of the

strengths of the book is that as characters change, they change in subtle ways that feel organic. Although readers will have a sense of dread from the beginning to the end, Harris is light with foreshadowing. His well-paced plot includes horrific scenes, but rarely what we expect based on assumptions about the history of race relations. Harris’s word choices and syntax strike the right note, true to the period but easy to grasp. Harris presents diverse characters—men and women, rich and poor, Black and white, straight and gay. He varies point of view so that as we know what one character thinks, we also learn what others think of him or her. Harris characterizes women with particular skill. Even in 1861-1863, they forge lives for themselves in ways that do not echo contemporary acts of agency but feel honest to the time. Perhaps prostitute Clementine is too good to be true, but her portrayal is the only off note in a magnificent novel. Marlie Wasserman

THE HIGHLANDER’S IRISH BRIDE Vanessa Kelly, Zebra, 2021, $8.99/ C$11.99/£6.99, pb, 464pp, 9781420147070

When a prank ends with her being sent to visit relatives in Glasgow, lively Irish lass Kathleen Calvert is welcomed into the Kendrick clan by all but the reserved man of business Grant Kendrick, whom she finds a bit boring. Kathleen and Grant’s early interactions take place somewhat on the sidelines as characters from earlier books crowd the scene with their wit and antics, and Kathleen is largely defined by her reactions to her unmanageable younger sister. Once they head further north, Kathleen discovers the rugged Highlander beneath Grant’s staid exterior and is given scope to demonstrate previously hidden talents, like a skill for designing gardens. The need to continually extricate her headstrong sister from scrapes while their peaceful Highland village is under attack by a criminal gang provides ample drama for Kathleen and Grant to confront, and their developing courtship is fraught with realistically awkward, but endearing moments. The tone is lively and bright, the dialogue pitch-perfect for 1820s Britain, and for readers who relish extended scenes of humorous banter, this is a delightful read. Misty Urban

HEART IN THE HIGHLANDS Heidi Kimball, Covenant, 2021, $15.99, pb, 259pp, 9781524418823

In this Scottish Regency romance, Collum Darrington agrees to an arranged marriage with Lady Katherine Hadleigh if his father, the Duke of Edinbane, will help Collum’s uncle. But when the duke reneges on his part of the bargain, Collum leaves his wife after one day of marriage and goes to Barbados

to find his fortune. After four years, Collum returns to reclaim his wife—and his marriage. During his absence, Katherine has had a daughter, Charlotte, the result of their one night of marriage. His attempts to win back Katherine and prove that he can be both a husband and a father are the crux of the story. The characters are appealing, and the story is sweet. The prose is well-written, and its central theme of the importance of vows and integrity is thought-provoking. However, it is overlong and would benefit from thorough editing. But fans of light historical fiction will find it a satisfying read. Anne Leighton

CASTLE SHADE Laurie R. King, Bantam, 2021, $28.00, hb, 384pp, 9780525620860

Despite their considerable age difference, Mary Russell and Sherlock have been partners for many years and married for five—and their partnership is still going strong in this 16th installment in the series. Our detectives have been invited by Marie, Queen of Roumania, to the mysterious, imposing Castle Bran, which is being lovingly renovated by its queen. This isn’t a Transylvanian jaunt for the couple, though. There are weird, unexplained things happening in the village, and Marie, who is beloved by her adopted people, needs immediate help from Russell and Sherlock. It’s not just that Marie is worried about the townspeople; she believes that her teenage daughter Ileana’s safety, and perhaps her very life, is at stake. Are there really strigoi? What is the source of the strange occurrences haunting the townspeople? Russell and Sherlock need to investigate to a conclusion. In the land of historic figures like Vlad the Impaler and Elisabeth Bathory, and Stoker’s fictional Count Dracula, the atmospherics of this installment grab the reader immediately. Queen Marie, granddaughter of Queen Victoria, is intricately drawn by King, and her personality shines through. The relationship between Sherlock and the much younger Russell is explored in much more depth than in other installments; happily, Sherlock is willing to learn from Russell, particularly in the way she observes events and people, as much as she has been mentored by him. Obviously this is one of my favorite installments in the series, entertaining us with Russell-Sherlock interplay while informing us with fascinating historical events and people. Highly recommended, although difficult to read purely as a stand-alone novel. Ilysa Magnus

A COMFORTABLE ALLIANCE Catherine Kullmann, BooksGoSocial, 2021, $15.99/C$21.49/£12.99, pb, 428pp, 9781913545673

Brussels, 1815. Despite Helena Swift’s devoted efforts to care for her intended, he

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succumbs to wounds received at Waterloo. Six years later she still has no interest in marriage, but then she meets Will, the Earl of Rastleigh. He too is reluctant to wed, but he needs an heir; and when he meets Helena on a visit to relatives, he is attracted. He proposes ‘a comfortable alliance’ and she, with misgivings, accepts. This is an involving story of how a marriage of convenience can develop into a love match if both parties are willing to take some risks, work at their relationship, and trust one another. The encouragement and support of friends and family is also invaluable. Helena agrees to a hasty wedding so that they can visit Will’s dying mother together and, within the first year of their marriage, she comforts and supports her mother-in-law and her grieving family; takes the initiative in dismissing senior servants who were stealing from the estate and sets in motion steps to make it more comfortable; acts as a skillful hostess and helps Will reconcile with his relatives; and gets pregnant. No wonder Will is astonished at his good fortune! Of course, all is not plain sailing. Will can be thoughtless, but he is well-intentioned and learns from his mistakes, while Helena must conquer her own insecurities. They do, however, learn to trust each other and that helps them meet the challenge when misunderstandings arise, secrets are revealed, and malicious gossip threatens their relationship. The cast of characters is long and at times confusing, but a useful list is provided. This, in a worthy romance tradition, is a guidebook to building a strong and loving marriage. Highly recommended. Ray Thompson

HEART OF THE FRONTIER Brittany Larsen, Jen Geigle Johnson, Jennie Hansen, and Carolyn Twede Frank, Covenant, 2021, $16.99, pb, 293pp, 9781524418144

In “The Gamble” by Brittany Larsen, Thomas Clayborne, younger son of an English baron, travels West as part of a business venture investing in cattle. He’s asked to escort Ella Merriweather on the train, who’s going to work for Clayborne’s business partner, Howe. But Ella has information on Howe’s nefarious business practices. Should she warn Thomas? In “Her Frontier Bandit” by Jen Geigle Johnson, Rebecca Bailey is going West with her father, where he will take up a post as a doctor in a frontier town. When their train is stopped by masked bandits, one of them looks strangely familiar, despite the mask. In “Sagebrush Sally” by Jennie Hansen, Sally Cranston and her father are farmers forced off their land in England, going to live on her uncle’s ranch, where Sally gets mixed up in a cattle-rustling scheme. And in “Celebration for Celia” by Carolyn Twede Frank, Celia lives in Idaho Territory and is nearly betrothed to Wesley, a snobby medical student studying back East. But when she helps rescue Bruce, a wandering gold miner injured by a rockfall, she feels a spark of attraction. The subtitle is “A Western Romance 28

Collection,” and I would add the descriptors “clean/sweet.” The publisher has religious connections, so there are no bedroom scenes, but they are not religious-themed. As usual with shorter fiction, there isn’t much time for deep character development, compared to a full-length novel. Perhaps that’s why the longest of the stories, Johnson’s, was my favorite. Hansen’s tale’s ending is a bit of a disappointment compared to the build-up in the previous few pages. I was amused that Frank’s story acknowledges the existence of privies and chamber pots, topics usually skipped in historical romance. Overall, these four novellas are a quick, pleasant read for fans of sweet Western romance. B. J. Sedlock

THE THREE LOCKS Bonnie MacBird, Collins Crime Club, 2021, $26.99/£14.99, hb, 412pp, 9780008380830

Dr. John Watson receives an ornate silver box that was meant to be delivered to him on his 21st birthday but has been gathering dust in the attic of his father’s h a l f - s i s t e r ’s home for years. Sherlock Holmes is experimenting with escape artists’ tools of the trade and scientific methods of distraction. The pair is begged by a besotted deacon to find a young woman who has gone missing. The Three Locks is fourth in the Sherlock Holmes Adventure Series, whose stories are purported to have come to author MacBird from chronicles of Holmes’s investigations Watson chose not to publish at the time he was writing for The Strand magazine. MacBird apologizes to readers for releasing a tale neither Holmes nor Watson may have wanted to see the light of day. Unlike knock-off, copy-cat Holmes tales, The Three Locks is true to the Watson tradition, giving readers the feeling they are delving into an authentic Sir Arthur Conan Doyle narrative. Language mimics Doyle’s in timing and tempo, capturing Watson’s voice and observations, Holmes’s nervous and obsessive behavior, Mrs. Hudson’s studied impatience. Plotlines are carefully drawn so that surprises, when they come, are nevertheless well grounded. Scientific explorations and discoveries of the time period both explain and entertain. Storylines intertwine and unveil, revealing in particular characteristics and motivations that define and drive Watson. A prequel to MacBird’s three other Holmes’ novels, The Three Locks is a treasure.

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K. M. Sandrick

TRAGEDY ON THE BRANCH LINE Edward Marston, Allison & Busby, 2021, £19.99, hb, 352pp, 9780749026042

Inspector Colbeck and his assistant Sergeant Leeming are called into a case for two reasons: the crime was committed on the railway, and it involves Cambridge University. Not only was the murder victim the cox of the Cambridge boat, but he was tipped to be the ‘dark horse’ winner for the team of 1863. The young student was killed in public on the platform, and Colbeck was a Varsity man. The victim, Pomeroy, was considered to be an allround winner. Privately, he enjoyed goading and hurting others with his fine intellect. So, we have a popular young man… with many enemies! What follows is a methodical investigation and the atmospheric intrigue between universities, students, clubs, tutors, and personalities. Even the Prime Minister takes an interest! The reader is entertained by the forces within and without the hallowed halls but, ultimately, the victim was a young man with family and a killer must be sought. Evocative of the time and location, this is a good addition to a series. Alan Cassady-Bishop

ONE MUST TELL THE BEES J. Lawrence Matthews, East Dean Press, 2021, $28.95, hb, 548pp, 9781736678305

In One Must Tell the Bees, a young Sherlock Holmes travels to America in 1864, the last year of the Civil War. Zelig-like, Sherlock applies his emerging deductive talents to a mystery at the du Pont powder works, gets to know President Lincoln and his family and, when the President’s assassinated, plays a role in tracking down John Wilkes Booth. These events are depicted through a memoir written by Sherlock, and the narrative alternates between the memoir and the present, in which Dr. Watson is confronted by a murder on the train he has boarded in response to Sherlock’s urgent summons. Throughout, author J. Lawrence Matthews’ scholarship is impressive, whether he’s exposing famed detective Allen Pinkerton as an arrogant fraud, commenting on the moral complexities of Stonewall Jackson, or tracing Booth’s movements as he flees the capitol. Along the way, he sketches portraits of the principal figures in his tale, including President Lincoln himself. Matthews’ writing style is earnest, and no doubt constrained by the historical period. Still, his characters’ tendency to exclaim is often wince-inducing. “The perfidy! The perfidy!” Secretary of War Stanton cries upon learning how gunpowder has been diverted from a Union magazine. “Dear me, Holmes!” Watson exclaims, when he isn’t crying “goodness!” or “Holmes!” While we have all become accustomed to Watson as foil, here the doctor’s sycophantic babblings are simply embarrassing. Matthews completes Sherlock’s memoirs and wraps up the present-day murder mystery


150 pages prior to the end. What remains is a series of remembrances that confirm Matthews’ encyclopedic knowledge of the subject matter but have little bearing on the central events of the novel. For Sherlock’s most enthusiastic devotees, these perambulations will be a pleasure. However, for those less interested in Sherlockian arcana, it might have been preferable to publish this material separately. Richard Henry Abramson

WORDS TO SHAPE MY NAME Laura McKenna, New Island Books, 2021, £13.99, pb, 368pp, 9781848407954

Based on real-life events, this book starts when an elderly woman, Harriet Small, is given a memoir written nearly sixty years earlier by her father, Tony. In his earlier life, he’d been the long-time manservant of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, an Irish revolutionary who died during the 1798 Rebellion. Tony originally met Edward when he was fleeing enslavement in America. He came across him on a battlefield and saved the young Lieutenant’s life, who then employed Tony until Edward was killed. After his death, Edward’s sister Lucy asks Tony to write a memoir in the style of a “slave narrative”, hoping that Tony’s story would help build sympathy, not for Tony or for other enslaved or formerly enslaved people, but for her brother, whose reputation she is hoping to restore. The “True Narrative” Tony writes is littered with her criticisms, asking him to hide his opinions and whitewash her brother. Frustrated, Tony starts to write another version so that we have both the “official” account and his private views. This is a complex novel, both in structure and the themes it explores. Lucy is thoughtlessly exploitative, focussed only on her own griefs. Her disregard of Tony on many levels – exploiting his illness and financial dependency, his history as an enslaved person, his emotional connection to Edward and his desire to tell the truth – is excruciating to read. But Tony is a resilient and fascinating character, and his relationship with Edward is multifaceted, bound as they are by ties of mutual obligation, separated by their backgrounds, yet both searching for freedom in its many forms. It is a book about loyalty and manipulation; lofty ideals and the weaknesses of those who proclaim them. It is ambitious in scope and structure, yet that does not detract from its emotional impact. Charlotte Wightwick

AGUSTINA DE ARAGÓN Gail Meath, Independently published, 2020, $10.99, pb, 197 pp, 9798727361863

Agustina de Aragón tells the story of Agustina Saragossa, a real-life Spanish heroine of the Napoleonic Wars. Agustina, the daughter of a bladesmith, would rather be working with her father than helping her mother around the

house. She visits the barracks to listen to the latest news about the war between Britain and France. One day she meets Sergeant Juan Roca. Although she dislikes Juan at first, she soon discovers that they share a passionate love of their country, and sympathizes with him because his whole family has been killed by the French. Juan and Agustina fall in love and marry. When Napoleon invades Spain, Agustina fights at her husband’s side at the siege of Zaragoza, where she ignites a cannon and fires at the French troops. Her action inspires the Spanish army to fight back. Later, Juan joins a troop of guerrilla fighters, while Agustina becomes a commissioned officer in the Spanish army— the first woman to be so honored. Gail Meath introduces the reader to this amazing woman, often called the Spanish Joan of Arc. I had not known about her before, and Meath made me want to read more. The novel contains thrilling, but not terribly graphic, battle scenes that keep you on the edge of your seat. Meath writes compellingly, and makes the reader sympathize with Agustina, who is an incredible heroine. She is courageous and passionate, with a great love for her family and country. The novel is also a wonderful love story, and you can read it for that alone, but above all it is a story of a remarkable, brave woman who fought for her country’s freedom. I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to read about a heroine who, sadly, is not as well-known as she should be. Vicki Kondelik

LADY ROSAMUND AND THE HORNED GOD Barbara Monajem, Level Best, 2021, $16.95/ C$20.95/£12.99, pb, 262pp, 9781953789495

England, early 1800s: The newly widowed Lady Rosamund accompanies her father— and her dead husband’s pregnant mistress— to a house party in the north of England. The guests prove a disparate group and include the highly unlikeable Mr. Fence. No one, then, is overly upset when Mr. Fence is found dead, stabbed through the chest with the antlers of a mounted stag head. The trophy appears to have fallen on the man in the dead of night. Was it a freak accident? Could it be murder? Most everyone there had reasons to want Fence gone, as he appears to have been a consummate blackmailer. In addition, several of the guests at the house party find small items of jewelry missing. Was Fence also a thief? Lady Rosamund is nonplussed to discover that the valet of their host’s son is the mysterious

Corvus, posing as a servant to investigate the thefts. Corvus’s previous caricatures have contributed to Lady Rosamund’s current notoriety. She most certainly could not be romantically interested in the infuriating man and, even if she was, she has several other extremely good reasons for avoiding romantic entanglements of any type. Still, the two share an interest in finding Fence’s killer. This lovely historical mystery is full of Regency flavor and unforgettable characters, chief among them the eccentric Lady Rosamund, who lives in fear of being sent to a madhouse by her overbearing mother. The mystery element suffices, but what appeals most in this delightful read is Lady Rosamund herself, and her back-and-forth relationship with the elusive Corvus. Recommended. Susan McDuffie

THE TRANSFORMATION OF CHASTITY JAMES Kathleen Morris, Five Star, 2021, $25.95, hb, 289pp, 9781432875312

Raised on a horse ranch in Lexington, Massachusetts, 22-year-old Chastity James was raised by her father to know how to hunt, shoot, and ride. In 1878, she is teaching at a nearby school. Chastity approaches her father about an opportunity to teach at Dodge City, Kansas for one year. Reluctantly, her father agrees, and upon arriving at Dodge City, Chastity boards with Hiram Sampson’s family. Deeply religious, Hiram feels all women should know their place. After being raped by Hiram’s son Olson, she kills him. Friends help her escape from town when she learns it is impossible to defend her crime. She dresses as a man, changes her name, and begins to head east back home. Followed by marshal Wyatt Earp, she meets a young gunslinger, and together they begin a life on the run. This novel is aptly titled because the heroine must transform both her identity and her vocation. I found it interesting that changing not only her looks, but also her behavior, from a local “schoolmarm” to an outlaw was so easy for her. This transformation is difficult to believe, but regardless, the novel is wellwritten and hard to put down. Jeff Westerhoff

KISSING THE KAVALIER Annette Nauraine, Independently published, 2021, $15.99, pb, 393pp, 9781736308011

Arabella by Richard Strauss is one of my favourite operas even if, or perhaps because, the libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal is pure, early Georgette Heyer right down to the role of Zdenka/Zdenko, a girl masquerading as a boy to chaperon her husband-hunting sister Arabella during the pre-Lenten Season of “Fasching” in 19th-century Vienna. Of course, she falls in love with one of Arabella’s suitors. Arabella’s search for ‘the right man’ forms the main plot, and I was intrigued to learn that Strauss had suggested Hofmannsthal

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rewrite it, making Zdenka (the trousers role) the heroine. Sadly, he died before he could do so, and Strauss had to make do with the first libretto. Annette Nauraine has now taken up the challenge of retelling the story with Zdenka as heroine and has made an excellent job of it, plausibly expanding the characters of Zdenka and Matteo, the man she loves. His backstory, in particular, is very well-drawn and provides the foundation for the second half of the book, going well beyond Hofmannsthal’s original. Ms. Nauraine successfully marries the old and the new to form a coherent whole. Without losing anything from the original, her skilful elaboration of the story more than satisfies those of us who always want to know ‘what happened next’. While I cannot regret the gorgeous music of Strauss’s Arabella, I would love to hear his setting of this bravura variation. The German and French phrases scattered throughout the narrative are no doubt intended to add verisimilitude, but the many errors make them disruptive. I suggest they be corrected in future print-runs. Catherine Kullmann

SEARCHERS IN WINTER Owen Pataki, Permuted Press, 2021, $28.00, hb, 416pp, 9781682619797

In 1806, a new French Empire is starting to rise, led by Napoleon, who is seeking to consolidate his power. In Paris, peace and prosperity have risen to new heights, but throughout the rest of Europe, fear of Napoleon is spreading, and a new coalition has formed against him. Underlying it all is the vast fortune of Prince Regent Wilhelm of Hesse-Cassel. Has it been smuggled out of the country, or can Napoleon get his hands on it? This complex and well-written novel is centered on the War of the Fourth Coalition (1806-1807), the mystery of Wilhelm’s fortune, and the connection of that fortune to the Rothschild family. Told from three points of view, this sequel to Where the Light Falls once again follows Andre Valiere, Sophie Valiere, and Jean-Luc St. Claire, not long after the French Revolution. Andre has plans to finish out his conscription but then is drawn into a plot to seize a vast fortune and deliver it to Napoleon. Sophie is trying to manage the estate in Andre’s absence, but a newly arrived count seems to have other plans. Jean-Luc is offered a position with Joseph Bonaparte, the brother of Napoleon. But is everything as it seems? In alternating viewpoints, Jean-Luc, Andre, and Sophie tell us their stories, and Owen Pataki weaves them together in a grand historical adventure. This is a well-researched novel that fans of French history and Napoleonic historical fiction will enjoy. Bonnie DeMoss

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RIDGELINE Michael Punke, Henry Holt, 2021, $27.99/ C$37.99, hb, 384pp, 9781250310460

In 1866, with the Civil War over, a contingent of soldiers led by Colonel Henry Carrington swarms into Wyoming’s Powder River Valley to establish Fort Phil Kearny and open a road for gold miners. But Carrington’s new fort sits smack in the middle of the Lakota’s hunting grounds. The Lakota leader Red Cloud immediately recognizes this threat to his people’s survival and enlists the young warrior Crazy Horse to help him push the whites back. While Red Cloud embarks on a diplomatic mission to secure the aid of neighboring tribes, Crazy Horse begins engaging in skirmishes with soldiers from the fort. Meanwhile, Lieutenant George Washington Grummond tests his commanding officer’s authority by constantly rebelling against his orders and pushing the Colonel to unleash the full force of the fort’s soldiers on the Lakota and their allies. When Carrington fails to rein Grummond in, the impulsive lieutenant leads the men into the biggest conflict on the Plains up to that point. Told in multiple points of view, including Carrington, Grummond, Grummond’s abused wife, and Crazy Horse, Ridgeline is a pageturning novelization of the Battle of a Hundred in the Hand, also known as the Fetterman Fight. Punke skillfully weaves together the soldiers’ ongoing division over the causes of the Civil War, Grummond’s thirst for glory, and the Lakota’s struggle for survival to create a nuanced account of the events. The book occasionally bogs down a bit with descriptions of tactics and artillery, but these moments don’t slow the pace too badly. The novel remains highly character-driven as it races toward its heartbreaking, though inevitable, conclusion. Readers will come away with a knowledge not only of the battle itself, but also of everyday life in the Army camp and among the Lakota. Highly recommended. Sarah Hendess

THE VISCOUNT MADE ME DO IT Diana Quincy, Avon, 2021, $7.99, pb, 384pp, 9780062986818

Like most of his class, Thomas, Viscount Griffin scoffs at bonesetters, dismissing them as charlatans. In an effort to prove this to the Hospital Board, he visits Hanna Zaydan, a talented Arab bonesetter, on the pretext of needing relief from a painful war injury. After a few treatments (ouch!) he’s convinced she can do what no other physician can. The instant attraction can’t be denied, and he continues to visit the clinic – ostensibly to discover why she’s wearing his mother’s necklace, which disappeared the day she and Thomas’s father were murdered. The answers rock Thomas’s whole understanding of family and loyalty. This well-researched murder-mysteryromance explores women’s roles in the early 19th century, and the difficulties faced by

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independent working women in a maledominated profession. It also touches on racial bias and the lucrative pastime of bodysnatching. Hanna has a refreshing directness about her, initiating relations with Thomas because she has no intention of marrying and wants to experience carnal love with a man she adores. Both families, one working-class and one aristocratic, are equally disdainful of a match. This is a study of mutually growing attraction and respect between two people from opposite ends of the class and racial spectrum and is interesting for its insight into the ancient art of bone-setting. Fiona Alison

ANNA’S REFUGE Kerryn Reid, Wrackwater Press, 2020, $15.49, pb, 398pp, 9781735017907

London, 1817. Anna Spain’s beguiling innocence spells tragedy for her. During her first London season, she falls in love with dashing Gideon Aubrey, who seduces her with promises of marriage. He leaves her pregnant and a virtual outcast. Her parents disown her and banish her to Leeds to live in squalor and await the birth of her child. She has very little money and only the company of a faithful maid. Lewis Aubrey, Gideon’s younger brother, has always loved Anna. When he learns of her predicament, he rushes to declare his intentions only to find she has disappeared. Will he be able to rear the child of his hated elder brother? It is this question that torments both Lewis and Anna and threatens their budding relationship. This first novel in the Wrackwater Bridge series leaves the reader wanting more. The storyline is tightly constructed and, despite its Regency setting, deals with many very modern themes: single motherhood, the treatment of the mentally ill, and the inequities of a burgeoning society thriving on the edge of the industrialized age. The character of Gideon Aubrey is somewhat formulaic, an obvious “bad boy,” and would have benefited from more dimension and backstory as to what molded his personality. This is a story that swiftly engages the reader, and the next book is eagerly awaited. Strongly recommended. Anne Leighton

THE FAIR BOTANISTS Sara Sheridan, Hodder & Stoughton, 2021, £16.99, hb, 367pp, 9781529336207

The Fair Botanists is set around the Edinburgh Botanic Gardens’ move from Leith Walk to the new larger location at Inverleith in 1822. The main players in the novel all have an interest in the gardens. There’s William McNab, the poorly paid head gardener, and Robert Graham, the regius keeper. However, the story revolves around two women: Elizabeth Rocheid, an impoverished widow newly arrived from London to live with her late husband’s aunt, and Belle Brodie, an independent woman with a passion for perfume creation. Elizabeth,


a botanical illustrator offers to make drawings of the plants and their historic move. Both are fascinated by the imminent blooming of the century plant; the Agave Americana, which blooms only once before it dies. The women become instant friends, but Belle’s secretive habits and real identity and Elizabeth’s longing to know more set them on a collision course. Will their friendship survive? Sheridan’s writing transports the reader to Georgian Edinburgh and the sights and smells of a city that is changing and growing by the day. Through the eyes of Elizabeth, Belle, and William, we see the limitations for women and the working class, the perilous path they walk between compromise and poverty. At the other end of the scale, there are the lavish dinners as the social elite prepare for an impending royal visit and clamour for an acquaintance with his secretary, Herr von Streitz. A page turning read with the pace of a thriller, The Fair Botanists is a fascinating glimpse into a turbulent age and some truly intriguing characters. A must-read for fans of Elizabeth MacNeal, Sonia Velton and Laura Shepherd-Robinson. Lisa Redmond

THE THIRD MRS. GALWAY Deirdre Sinnott, Kaylie Jones Books, 2021, $17.95, pb, 331pp, 9781617758423

1 8 3 5 : Nineteen-yearold Helen, the new wife of Augustin Galway, has not thought much about slavery until she discovers two escaped slaves hiding in the shed on her husband’s property in Utica, New York. Her discovery thrusts her into a dilemma; should she report the pregnant mother and her young son to the authorities, or help them? Helen, reluctant at first, aids Imari and Joe. Maggie, Mr. Galway’s emancipated cook and longtime servant, eventually learns of the desperate runaways and assists as well. Imari, who is determined to reunite with her recaptured husband, has her own reasons for seeking out this specific refuge, and these reasons profoundly affect Maggie. Meanwhile Mr. Galway nurses a compound fracture under the drunken supervision of a quack doctor who doses his patient with opium while lasciviously eyeing Helen. Utica braces for the initial gathering of the New York State Anti-slavery Society as town-folk and others opposed to the abolitionists prepare to attack the meeting. Two Virginian slavecatchers armed with bullwhips roam the town, searching for the escapees, while a brash

young man from Little Falls, somewhat at loose ends, becomes smitten with the young Mrs. Galway. This suspenseful novel vividly breathes life into the early years of the United States, and the burden of slavery the young Republic carries with it. The struggle of the runaway family and Helen’s quandary illuminate the era and the tense choices people faced. To flee bondage or remain enslaved? To protest the status quo or acquiesce? This book engrosses the reader and does what historical fiction does best. In bringing the past into sharp focus, it shines a light on our present day. Highly recommended. Susan McDuffie

NIGHTSHADE E. S. Thomson, Constable, 2021, £8.99, pb, 368pp, 9781472131522

London 1851. This latest glimpse into the fascinating world of Jem Flockhart, esteemed apothecary and expert in poisons and their effects, finds her redesigning her physic garden full of the plants she and her staff use to create efficacious remedies for her eager customers. One hot summer day, she makes a gruesome discovery: The buried skeleton of a crippled man bearing the marks of several knife wounds, and that of a small monkey, plus various macabre objects, including berries and leaves of deadly nightshade, are crammed between the victim’s jaws. The police are not concerned with what they see as an old crime, so Jem and her loyal companion, Will, set out to solve this horrific crime. In doing so, they spark off several murders, the victims of which all have deadly nightshade berries stuffed between their jaws. The trail they follow is a sensual journey into the human psyche, peopled by lunatics, doctors, opium, marijuana, and other mindaltering substances and poisons, mainly of the nightshade family. Coupled with Jem’s hunt to find the truth are extracts from the diary written by her deceased mother, Catherine Underhill, before she married Jem’s father. This diary lies at the heart of this novel. Jem was brought up by her father to carry on his apothecary’s trade as a man. This allows her to dress and behave as a Victorian gentleman and free to venture where no Victorian lady would ever be allowed. This is both a richly sensuous and but at times gruesome Gothic crime novel. It is a gripping read, and I am hooked on reading more novels in the series. Sally Zigmond

PURSUING MISS HALL Karen Thornell, Covenant, 2021, $1.99, ebook, 107pp, 9781524419158

Hertfordshire, England, 1812. Margaret “Meg” Hall has missed her first London season due to serious illness, but now that she has recovered, she is back on the “marriage market.” Her mother decides to have a house party and invite three eligible men, one of whom is a viscount. Meg knows she is expected to marry well, and she intends to do so. However, her best friend, Nathan, has also been invited. Nathan has no desire to see Meg married off to someone else, but he is not the best prospect and has never declared his love for her. Will Meg choose love or duty? This is a charming novella that transports us to a Regency-era house party with all its customs and propriety. The point of view shifts between Meg and Nathan as they struggle to deal with their feelings. In the midst of picnics, dances, and garden strolls, Nathan’s angst and Meg’s confusion are well portrayed. The plot is timeless, as two friends struggle between what they want to do and what society tells them they ought to do. This is a pleasant and endearing love story that Regency romance fans will enjoy. Bonnie DeMoss

THE QUEEN’S CAPTAIN Peter Watt, Pan Macmillan, 2020, A$32.99/$24.95, pb, 358pp, 9781760555344

The Queen’s Captain, which completes Peter Watt’s Colonial trilogy, is a patchwork of intriguing mystery, selective snippets of history, and ethnocentric fable. Mystery surrounds the pact between Samuel Forbes, a wealthy English aristocrat’s son who fights in the American Civil War, and blacksmith Ian Steele, impersonating Forbes in India, Australia, and New Zealand. The story shows their complex and sometimes controversial romantic and family relationships. The historical elements are patchy in their depth and accuracy. The Indian rebellions of 1857 are described as a mutiny of Indian sepoys, supposedly called ‘fanatical Hindustanis’ by British administrators. There is no mention of why it occurred or the struggles of other Indians whose realms and livelihoods were decimated by the British. The only Indian to feature is the super-servile ruler oddly referred to as ‘the Khan’. Australian Aboriginal people are summarily dismissed as ‘savage natives’ threatening British invaders. ‘Colonial notions of egalitarianism’ are absent in the depictions of both these groups. The pontifications by Samuel and his lover, James, on the evils of slavery also ring hollow. Curiously, the Maoris of New Zealand are extolled for their military prowess, and their right to defend themselves is somewhat recognized. The ugly side of colonial policies is only occasionally revealed through graphic depictions of the killing of even lightly wounded Pashtoons fighting a ‘jihad’ to protect their country and Ian’s cynical comment about the

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British bringing ‘civilisation to the ignorant heathens’. Works like these highlight the importance of increased debate about the need for fiction writers to embed their creations in sound research and ethical storytelling as well as feedback from more diverse reviewers and readers. Indrani Ganguly

20T H C E N T U RY THE SECOND MRS. ASTOR Shana Abé, Kensington, 2021, $16.95/ C$22.95/£13.99, pb, 316pp, 9781496732040

Madeleine Force was just seventeen in 1910 when she caught the eye of the famously rich, dashing John Jacob Astor, who was more than twenty years her senior. Their romance captivated the press, enthralled her family, and enraged John’s son. Abé has vividly captured the essence of this well-documented real-life romance, giving voice to the lesser-known Maddy as we learn of her hesitation and then fascination and finally love of her extremely handsome and very popular beau. Their courtship and eventual marriage intrigued the press, especially as John was a divorced man. Abé has imagined what their lives might have been like, and although she may have overvilified John’s son, Vincent, the personalities of these characters make for an engaging tale. Abé richly describes the scenery. Everything is opulent, decadent, rich. Maddy and her family, and later, she and John, travel quite a bit. We’re taken from the shores of Maine to bustling New York City, Egypt, and eventually, aboard the Titanic where their romance meets a tragic end in the icy waters. As the story crescendos to that fateful night, readers will remain captivated by both the imagery and the plot. Abé does end the story a bit short, though; readers are left wondering what the future holds for Madeleine and Vincent. A quick Google search yields some interesting tidbits. Overall, this is more than another tale about the Titanic, it’s a love story, a drama, and a fine historical novel. Recommended. Rebecca Cochran

RADAR GIRLS Sara Ackerman, MIRA, 2021, $16.99, pb, 368pp, 9780778332046

On Sunday, December 7, 1941, on O’ahu, Hawaii, 23-year-old Daisy is at the beach while most islanders are at church, for she “preferred to be underwater with the pufferfish and the eagle rays.” She tethers her borrowed horse, Moon, to a nearby tree. Suddenly, the roar of airplanes in the sky spook Moon and, freeing himself, he gallops away. Daisy is terrified, not only from the attacking Japanese aircraft but from Moon’s disappearance. Daisy is fired from her job at the horse ranch by the inconsiderate owner, Montgomery, but the same day, she is invited by a kind military general to join the Women’s Air Raid Defense (WARD). This secret unit is being set up to guide pilots into 32

blacked-out airstrips and track unidentified planes across Pacific skies. Following intensive training, Daisy and her group, code-named Rascal, excel in their tasks, to the admiration of all. Daisy and Walker, a navy pilot and Montgomery’s son, have a budding romance. Sara Ackerman notes that she came across the information about the WARD unit and, surprised at not having heard about them, based her novel on chronicles of those courageous women. The story transports us to Hawaii’s lush tropical islands to savor the scenery. Following the initial devastating attack, war rages on in the Pacific. As a Hawaiian, Ackerman’s firsthand knowledge of the locales, flora and fauna, culture, and cuisine is portrayed in realistic descriptions. Ackerman also does a superb job of introducing readers to the workings of radar in its early days, and its use in the defense of Hawaii. The relationships and rivalries between the women, as well as their dealings with servicemen, are narrated in a captivating way. Also, Ackerman adroitly handles depictions of sexual assault in that close-proximity environment. An informative novel. Waheed Rabbani

THE PROBABLE SON Valerie Fletcher Adolph, Independently published, 2021, $14.99/C$21.99/£8.99, pb, 314pp, 9780968674765

In post-World War II Yorkshire, Alice and Trudy are taken aback when Jeremiah Bickerstaff, the formidable patriarch of the rich and powerful Bickerstaff family, makes the surprising decision to move into a vacant room at the Avalon hotel while recovering from a stroke. Despite begging, conniving, and groveling from his family, he will not move back home. This makes things difficult for Trudy, as Bickerstaff is the grandfather of her abusive ex-husband, Jeremy. Then another young man enters the picture. He bears a strong resemblance to the Bickerstaff grandsons. Is he a long-lost heir? When a death happens on the premises, one of the elderly tenants is quick to point the finger. Was it an accident, or something more? This is the third book in the Alice and Trudy mystery series. It can be read as a stand-alone. The elderly Avalon gang is back in another delightful mystery adventure. Led by hotel owner Alice and manager Trudy, the aged but active residents lend a hand and plenty of opinions after Mr. Bickerstaff joins their ranks. This series is such a delight to read. I truly enjoy all of these characters, especially Colonel Starr, who thinks everyone should join the Army, and Mrs. Shand, who is always ready with a comment, whether you want to hear it or not. You will laugh at the hijinks of this hilarious crew of lively lodgers. Fans of cozy mysteries will want to rent a room at the Avalon hotel, and stay long-term.

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Bonnie DeMoss

DEAD DEAD GIRLS Nekesa Afia, Berkley, 2021, $16.00, pb, 330pp, 9780593199107

Louise Lovie Lloyd is a reluctant hero. In 1926 Harlem, she’s living the good life, working at a cafe during the day, dancing all night as the “sweat rolled down her back,” and loving her girlfriend when no one is looking. The last thing she wants is to get involved in solving the murder of a series of Black teenage girls. But there’s no escaping it. She has had a reputation for heroism—ever since she survived a kidnapping and rescued several other girls in the process. If this sounds like an exciting premise for a novel, it is. Louise gets dragooned by an overbearing detective into helping the police, but she’s got two other reasons to want to stop the Girl Killer: her twin sisters who are just the wrong age, sixteen. The rest of her family is no help, but fortunately, she has friends and a lover who are willing to help her solve the case. Even a racist cop becomes her ally. Ultimately, however, this is her battle, for her past has come back to haunt her. An author in her twenties, Afia’s writing invokes past eras from noir to hard-boiled detective stories to the urban fiction of the 1990s. She has incorporated these traditions into her own unique style that propels the story forward with an addictive, engrossing rhythm. Setting the story in Harlem with its speakeasies, cafes, rooming houses, abusive cops, and corrupt preachers heightens the tension and enhances the story’s allure. This book is not about racism, per se, but, as members of two oppressed groups, Black women suffer from a double bind in our society, and Afia makes that fact abundantly clear. Trish MacEnulty

SISTERS IN ARMS Kaia Alderson, William Morrow, 2021, $16.99, pb, 400pp, 9780062964588

Sisters in Arms takes us into the lives of the only all-Black battalion of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps during World War II. Told from the point of view of two spunky young Black women, from the time they enlisted through their training and overseas deployment to their return to the U.S., we get an honest look at what Black women experienced during that period of history. Although the characters are fictional, many of the incidents they experience are taken from real events faced by these women. Alderson writes with a passion and a deep understanding of the prejudice and segregation these women endured and their determination to face it with integrity and courage. The novel is extremely well-researched, even to the variety of slang used by the Black characters, the musicians, and the white army officers. “I love me some women in uniform,” Earl Hines says. All of this contributes to the realism that infuses this novel. I was particularly struck by the unrelenting sense the characters felt of representing their race, of their every word and action being judged not only as an indictment


on themselves, but as a judgement all their people would bear. I wish I could say this book is beautifully written. It is grammatical and clear – you aren’t left wondering what Alderson’s getting at – but often it’s overdone, where the author shows us what the character is feeling, then tells us, in case we didn’t get it: “Grace stabbed the point of her shovel deep into her pile. She had had enough of this.” “Grace tended to hang back from socializing. She seemed to be more of a loner.” Despite this, the characters are complex and sympathetic, the history is accurate, the storyline held my interest throughout, and I gained a greater understanding of what it meant to be Black in the 1940s. Well worth the read. Jane Ann McLachlan

IN ROYAL SERVICE TO THE QUEEN Tessa Arlen, Berkley, 2021, $17.00/C$23.00, pb, 368pp, 9780593102480

In Royal Service to the Queen is an insider’s view of the British royal family through the eyes and heart of Marion Crawford, selfless governess to Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret for 16 years. The 22-yearold “Crawfie,” as she was lovingly named, began her service as governess in the summer of 1931. Tessa Arlen’s extensive research of British history and the monarchy, seen through Crawfie’s lens, takes the reader on the rocky road through the Great Depression, the abdication of King Edward VIII, World War II, and economic recovery. During Marion Crawford’s service, she traveled between Balmoral in Scotland, Windsor, and Buckingham Palace. She endured five years at Windsor with the princesses during the war then navigated “Lilibet’s” coming of age and her wedding to Philip. The peek into their daily life is extremely compelling and so intriguing with all the publicity—positive and negative—about the royal family in the last decades. Those who have been called to serve, as teachers are, will struggle along with Marion as she continues to sacrifice her own chances at love, marriage, and a family. Tessa Arlen creates the perfect tension between Marion’s aging mother, her love interest, George Buthlay, and her royal commitment to the princesses. At the end of her service to the royal family, Crawfie is faced with a life-altering financial decision that will leave readers in a quandary. As Tessa Arlen inquires of readers in her revealing, detailed author’s note, “Was Crawfie guilty of disloyalty or disobedience?” Read In Royal Service to the Queen to make your own wise and regal decision. Dorothy Schwab

THE LIGHT OF LUNA PARK Addison Armstrong, Putnam, 2021, $17.00, pb, 336pp, 9780593328040

Armstrong’s dual-timeline debut packs a powerful emotional punch as it explores which lives are valued by society and how much a mother is willing to sacrifice for her child. A l t h e a Anderson has found her calling as an obstetrics nurse in New York City’s Bellevue Hospital in 1926. Mere months before her graduation from nursing school, however, Althea witnesses the death of a premature baby, and she’s furious with the doctor who refused to send the infant to Dr. Martin Couney on Coney Island. Dr. Couney has been making headlines with his “incubator babies” at Luna Park, funding his life-saving interventions with the ten cents apiece visitors pay to gawk at the infants. When another baby is born prematurely, Althea steals the child and whisks her away to Luna Park, leaving the parents to believe the child died. In Poughkeepsie in 1950, Stella Wright struggles to provide an education to her special-needs students. When the school principal plays a nasty trick on her, Stella quits and travels to New York City to clear out her recently deceased mother’s apartment. While there, she struggles with guilt over abandoning her beloved students and uncovers a mystery regarding who her mother really was. Armstrong stays true to her time periods while making observations that ring true today. Both Althea and Stella are disgusted by what is today termed ableism, but they are constrained by society’s narrow view of women. They both also stand at the forefront of new attitudes and technology that will improve—and save—the lives of millions of future children. While the link between the timelines is easy to guess early on, the emotional investment in the two protagonists will keep readers eagerly turning pages. Recommended for all readers, but especially for those who love someone who doesn’t meet society’s definition of “worthy.” Sarah Hendess

THE GODMOTHERS Camille Aubray, William Morrow, $27.99, hb, 432pp, 9780062983695

2021,

The Godmothers are four women in an Italian immigrant family living in Greenwich Village – Lucy, Amie, and Filomena have each married a son, and Petrina is the daughter. The story, which takes place between 1930

and 1957, is framed by one of the godmothers narrating their story from later in life. Each woman is the godmother to another’s child, and they end up running the family’s businesses in a gangster-run New York City, thus earning the title of Godmothers. Aubray begins with a page-turning, captivating back story of each woman, and reveals a secret from each of their pasts that the reader knows will inevitably come to light, as secrets do, and upend their lives. The patriarch, Gianni, and the matriarch, Tessa, run the family businesses. They invest in properties and collect the rents; loans are made to people banks won’t touch; they cover bookies who can’t meet their payouts; and gambling thrives in their bar’s back room. The family must pay tributes to boss Frank Costello and the police to protect their operations. When Gianni and Tessa die, the businesses go to the sons. Before long, Frankie is on the run, Mario goes to war, and Johnny is ill in a tuberculosis sanatorium. The Godmothers are now in charge of the family and its businesses. They must be clever and savvy in navigating the world of organized crime while keeping their families safe and the businesses successful. The women have their disagreements and resentments between them, but the good of the family always rules. Aubray shines in her ability to bring each woman alive with distinct personalities, and to weave individual stories and different plots into one cohesive story. This novel is rich in plot with all the elements of family drama, murder, romance, and secrets within the world of organized crime. Enjoy immersing yourself into this family’s story. Janice Ottersberg

WHEN WE MEET AGAIN Caroline Beecham, Putnam, 2021, $17.00, pb, 384pp, 9780593331156

British book publishers during World War II had to contend, not only with the normal uncertainties of the trade, but with paper rationing, personnel shortages, and a warweary readership uninterested in “literary” offerings. The war presented opportunities for women to enter the profession, however, and Alice Cotton is enjoying a rewarding and fast-rising career as a young editor for Partridge Press when she becomes pregnant after a disastrous affair with her boss’s son. Beecham movingly renders Alice’s horror when she discovers that her newborn daughter has been taken by her religiousfanatic mother and sold to “baby farmers.” This practice, which modern readers might

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think is a quaint artifact of Victorian operettas, was actually a raging social problem during World War II, as social services deteriorated for lack of personnel and funding, and desperate childless and bereaved couples sought to rebuild their families. Alice’s frantic search for her daughter is paralleled by a second point of view character, Theo Bloom, a young editor at Partridge’s New York office, who travels from New York to London to help rescue the financially fragile London arm of the business. His friendship with Alice develops naturally and sweetly, and helps give the reader a sense of who she is when she’s not traumatized by the loss of her child. Parallel characters always run the risk of creating an unbelievable plot, as their intersections often rely on coincidences and too-tidy decisions. This novel does fall prey to such convenient plot turns, but the characters are likeable enough and the charms of daily life in 1943 London, seen through the kindhearted Theo’s eyes, make up for any weaknesses in realism. The unusual subject of baby-farming makes this well-told story stand out from the current glut of World War II novels. Kristen McDermott

THE POINT OF VANISHING Maryka Biaggio, Milford House, 2021, $16.95, pb, 272pp, 9781620066225

The writer Barbara Follett’s life is told in this biographical novel, beginning at the age of four in 1918 until her disappearance in 1939. Barbara quickly shoots to fame as an eightyear-old child with the publication of her first novel. The House Without Windows becomes a publishing sensation with her stunning descriptions, “Strong, narrow wings beat down the air as the birds rose again, to hover and swoop and plunge.” She is an inquisitive and adventurous child with exceptional intelligence. Living within nature is essential to her – hiking, sailing, and traveling the world. At the age of 13, Barbara sets sail on a square-rigger as research for her pirate poem. The Voyage of the Norman D, her sailing memoir published in 1928, results from this adventure. As her next adventure, she spends a year in the South Pacific with her mother. This trip is to be inspiration for her next book, but she falls into a writing slump and fails to deliver on an advance from her publisher. It is heartrending to read about her spiral downward beginning at age 14, as she continues having difficulty living up to her previous successes, and her works repeatedly rejected. In 1934 Barbara marries, but is stifled by domestic life. Her need to be a free spirit and seek adventure never leaves her. In December 1939, with her marriage falling apart, Barbara walks out of her house and disappears, leaving behind a never-solved mystery of what happened and where she went. This novel is exceptional in the skillful writing and the vivid portrayal of Barbara’s fascinating existence as a child prodigy, and her life unraveling. Biaggio reimagines what 34

happened to her when she walked away from her home and husband in December 1939. This is a touching and poignant story that will inspire you to seek out Barbara’s writings. Janice Ottersberg

EMMA’S TAPESTRY Isobel Blackthorn, Next Chapter, 2021, $12.99, pb, 332pp, 9798730592896

Emma is nursing Adele, a wealthy elderly woman, in her English summer home just as World War II is breaking. Adele is interested in Emma’s past, but Emma is reticent to answer these personal questions. She has something to hide. The narrative then moves from 1939 to 1914 as Emma reflects on her life while Adele sleeps. Just prior to World War I, Emma and her husband are sent to Singapore when he becomes the export agent for his company. They set up house in the British expat community, away from the offensive sight of slums and terrible poverty. She is restricted from most activities outside her home and must stay within her insular community. At home, society expects her to have a housekeeper, which gives her more time for idleness and boredom. Emma warms to her Chinese housekeeper, Chun, who teaches her kesi. Kesi involves weaving detailed tapestries from delicate silk thread. The title, Emma’s Tapestry, implies that a tapestry plays a role throughout the novel. Disappointingly, it only provides a hobby and diversion for Emma. Emma struggles under the weight of society’s expectations and to cope with a marriage full of conflict. To give her life some purpose, Emma gets a nursing job at the hospital against her husband’s orders. As WWI breaks out, the hospital takes in German POWs, and anti-German sentiments take hold. Emma, although born in America, is of German heritage. She lives in terrible fear of being discovered as a German – unconvincing since her accent is American and she is married to a British man. The narrative shifts back and forth to Adele’s bedside and stories of her friend Oscar Wilde, which are pieces unrelated to Emma’s story. Any weakness in the plot is easy to overlook, however, because the story is immersive and well-written; and Emma, when facing adversity, is a heroine to admire. Janice Ottersberg

THE LAST DEBUTANTES Georgie Blalock, William Morrow, 2021, $16.99, pb, 384pp, 9780063009295

When we first meet Valerie de Vere Cole, she is living the “poor little rich girl” lifestyle. The real-life daughter of disgraced society prankster Horace de Vere Cole has been rescued by her kind Aunt Anne, the wife of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. The society doyenne has agreed to sponsor Valerie’s social debut in the fateful summer of 1939. Blalock takes this historical fact and, in the absence of any surviving letters or memoirs from Valerie herself, expands it into biographical fiction. Valerie struggles with both imposter

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syndrome and her worries about the impending war, which her wealthy peers don’t seem to take seriously enough. The narrator’s tunnel vision on her own resentment is frustrating at first and causes her to make some tediously foolish choices, but she grows to be a sympathetic and realistic observer of glittering upper-crust English society struggling mightily to ignore its own obsolescence. Ultimately, Valerie’s social triumphs pale in comparison to her growing realization that wealth is no guarantee of happiness, but compassion is the best guarantee of friendship. Although Valerie was a real person, little is known of her life, so Blalock is free to invent her social adventures, skillfully weaving historical figures like the Astors, the Churchills, and the American Kennedys into her experiences. Readers who enjoy details about food, fashion, and society etiquette alongside gossip about public figures’ shady secrets will enjoy the fastpaced whirl of Valerie’s Season. The emotional stakes are pretty low, however, and Valerie’s drawn-out choice between two admirers will not cause any anxiety for the reader. As in her previous slice-of-society-life novel about Princess Margaret, The Other Windsor Girl, Blalock tries and mostly succeeds to offer a glimpse behind the glamour from the point of view of sensible outsiders who enjoy but don’t endorse upper class privileges. Kristen McDermott

THE LONG JOURNEY HOME Cecily Blench, Zaffre, 2021, £8.99, pb, 418pp, 9781838773816

Rangoon, Burma, in 1941, and Kate Girton works as a school inspector for the British colonial government. Kate has fled grief in England, and when she meets widowed Edwin Clear, she senses similar feelings in him. Friendship develops as Kate introduces Edwin to Rangoon. They swim, go to parties, and visit a temple, glorious in the shimmering dawn. Happier in Rangoon than in England, when the war comes to Burma, the two linger until ordered to evacuate. They plan to travel together but, when separated, promise to find each other again in India. In the chaos of flight from the brutal Japanese invasion, Kate and Edwin find themselves thrown into the company of strangers. Each encounter forces them to examine themselves. Death haunts the pages. It’s not only the enemy who kill; starvation, bandits, and illness are equally deadly. But there is also friendship, human kindness, and heroism, as Blench’s characters seek peace for souls as well as bodies. The author clearly loves Burma, now known as Myanmar. The settings are vivid, whether teeming city, steaming jungle, or magnificent temple. Although plot events are firmly set in 1940s Burma, this is not a book from which to learn the politics and strategy of the war. Blench remains focused on the lived experience of her fictional characters. Hence, the main thrust of the story is an exploration of how lives are torn apart by war. As Kate’s feet bleed and


Edwin forages for food along the wayside, their experiences are those shared by refugees since the dawn of time, and, in Myanmar, have recently suffered again. It would be a plot spoiler to reveal the ending. But, despite the multitude of deaths in this book, I was left in hope of redemption. Helen Johnson

SONGS IN URSA MAJOR Emma Brodie, Knopf, 2021, $26.95, hb, 336pp, 9780593318621

Amidst sex, drugs, and rock and roll, a star is born … In her accomplished debut novel, Emma Brodie whisks us to another world. It’s 1969 again, and music is playing. If only Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, and Carly Simon could time-travel and play their young selves in a movie version—with a great soundtrack, of course! —of this biopic in words. Brodie acknowledges her brilliant sources, and she is brilliant too: in plucking a starcrossed love story out of the hectic musical past, in bringing it to fictional life, and above all in creating music on the written page. In rhetoric, ekphrasis is the written description of a work of art in another genre. Brodie excels at this exceedingly difficult exercise. “The song was composed in four parts that unfolded in geometric tessellations, beginning with rectangles and ending in stars,” she writes. “Woman, you’ve got a cathedral inside you,” perfectly describes her main character, Jane Quinn, an aspiring singer-songwriter. Rebellious Jane is only 19. As her career rockily rises, she tumbles in and out of love with Jesse Reid, a devastatingly good-looking star with an equally devastating secret. But Jane, too, has secrets. One is the power of composition, when she feels “the star matter of a new album materializing around her.” A few quibbles about this excellent novel from a reviewer who actually was 19 in that yeasty, scary year of 1969: pay phones, yes. Tattoos and high fives, no. Why do contemporary people and events barely appear? Where’s Woodstock? The moon landing? Nixon? Protests? Vietnam? The oddest absence is authentic popular music, a huge part of the zeitgeist. That era had a soundtrack: one song by Joni Mitchell herself inevitably trumps even the cleverest ekphrasis. Susan Lowell

LATE CITY Robert Olen Butler, Atlantic Monthly, 2021, $27.00, hb, 304pp, 9780802158826

When I heard that Robert Olen Butler had come out with a new historical novel, I was expecting a well-written, tightly plotted thriller similar to his Christopher Marlowe Cobb series about a journalist-turned-spy during the Great War. But in Late City, the thrills come from the author’s breathtaking literary prowess, as with his previous novel Perfume River and the Pulitzer Prize-winning collection,

A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. The story begins in 2016, shortly after the presidential election is called for Donald J. Trump, when Sam Cunningham, dying at the age of 116, is commanded to account for his life by God. Sam begins with his Louisiana childhood, spent under the thumb of his bullying father, a bitter white supremacist. The one good thing his father provides is exposure to the world through newspapers. When the boy is sixteen, his father abets his lie to the army about his age and sends him to fight in France as a sniper. Though scarred by his war, Sam later fulfills his boyhood dream of becoming a journalist, reporting on the great stories of the day, from race riots and union strikes to war and political corruption. Throughout the examination of his life, he must grapple with regrets for his choices if he is to make any sense of himself. As I devoured the story, I had to wipe away tears more than once. The narrative’s emotional power is fully earned, never manipulated, and Butler’s elegant language is true to the tongue. His research blends so seamlessly into the story that one is inclined, at times, to believe it isn’t fiction at all. Late City is an honest, poignant reckoning of what it means to gaze unblinkingly at our own failings and to find transcendence. Trish MacEnulty

LEONORA IN THE MORNING LIGHT Michaela Carter, Simon & Schuster, 2021, $27.00/£16.00, hb, 416pp, 9781982120511

Set in France during WW2, Leonora in the Morning Light is a novel about Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst, two important figures in the surrealist art movement. Leonora is only twenty years old when she meets Max Ernst, many years her senior, and married. Despite this, their love affair blossoms, and Leonora holds her own in a vibrant group of famous artists and photographers including Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró, Lee Miller and Man Ray. But war changes everything, and when the couple are separated, each must find their own way to survive and escape Europe. Carter structures her novel effectively, alternating between chapters from Leonora’s perspective as her relationship with Ernst and her artwork develops in 1937 and 1938, even as the specter of Nazism threatens to upend their hedonistic Parisian lifestyle; and Max Ernst just two years later, barely surviving and under threat of his life as a German Jew in France. Peggy Guggenheim is a third central

character, introduced later, who becomes pivotal to both Leonora and Max’s survival. While not required, it may help readers to have some knowledge of the artists featured in the story. The temptation to google the artworks created and photographs taken during the story is overwhelming, but also adds to the whole reading experience. Beautifully written, this is not a light read, but a rich exploration of a love affair between two incredibly talented individuals during one of the most challenging periods of history. Leonora’s struggles with her mental health are sensitively and believably explored. Max’s arrests and the privation he experiences trying to flee France and find Leonora are vividly evoked. Readers who enjoy biographical fiction, particularly those that highlight talented and exceptional women, will relish this one. Kate Braithwaite

MADAME LIVINGSTONE Christophe Cassiau-Haurie and Barly Baruti (trans. Ivanka Hahnenberger, Catalyst Press, 2021, $26.00, pb, 110pp, 9781946395474

Based in reality, this dark graphic novel, both linguistically and pictorially, details a portion of the oft-forgotten colonial wars in East Africa during World War I. Not content with the slaughter in Western France, both Germany and Belgium fought intensely over their holdings around that great lake – Tanganyika. Readers wander on a convoluted journey through a dangerous landscape overshadowed with multi-leveled racism and white European antagonism, as well as the vicissitudes of combat. The overarching aim appears simple: that is, destroy the wellarmed German gunboat, Graf von Goetzen, securing the lake for the Germans and thus denying advancement to Belgium. This simplicity hides the ills of society as a tag-team of a Belgium officer and a strangely named African man, “Madame Livingstone,” combine an uneasy liaison through many horrific situations to finally bring a resolution. Not a simple action-oriented graphic representation, the colourful and often lurid visuals carry readers into places that their own minds may well have resisted. One can see the environment, visualize the territory, and conjure the many overarching and continual racist tensions. The illustrations add an element that may drive some readers into dark recesses. As befitting reality, much defies a clear denouement: Who really is Madame Livingstone, the kilt-wearing African guide named after the famed explorer? How will the outcome on Lake Tanganyika contribute to the overall military situation? What becomes of the principal players? How might the local societies evolve in the immediate future? Reading an integrated graphic novel provides an added visual component. The reader’s own mind-generated images are reinforced and/or contrasted by the visuals.

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This can be an engaging and conflicting experience that increases the adventure and supports Barly Baruti’s statement: “Comics are good dialogue.” Jon G. Bradley

THE ICE SWAN J’nell Ciesielski, Thomas Nelson, 2021, $16.99, pb, 400pp, 9780785248422

In 1917 Petrograd, Russia, while “the night burned red with flames of revolution,” Princess Svetlana, her mother, and sister flee the city. They are assisted by Svetlana’s friend, Sergey, and manage to board a train, without Sergey, bound for Paris. Her father and brother are away fighting the Bolsheviks. They survive in Paris using the few jewels sewn in their corsets but live miserable lives, sharing a church’s basement room, partitioned by blankets, with several other Russian émigrés. Svetlana’s mother runs up a massive gambling debt at the White Bear Club. The club’s owner, Sheremetev, makes Svetlana dance at the club for the debt. Svetlana suffers a minor injury and is treated at a hospital by Wynn MacCallan, a surgeon and Scottish marquis. Wynn is enamored with Svetlana, but she is cold to his advances. However, when Wynn proposes marriage and to pay off the debts, Svetlana agrees. They also make a major move to evade the bloodthirsty Bolsheviks but must face other demons. This is an unusual historical romance penned by the award-winning J’nell Ciesielski. Her extensive research into the lives of Russian noble émigrés escaping the Russian Revolution to Paris shows in the narrative. While the characterization of Svetlana having an icecold demeanor might seem odd given her circumstances, it is befitting that of a Russian aristocrat, a princess. It’s like a Cinderella story when Wynn, a man of some means, falls in love with Svetlana. The novel is well written, with superb similes and metaphors. The romantic dialogue is not only entertaining but conveys the characters’ meaning succulently. Wynn’s talents as a surgeon are aptly displayed at appropriate moments to raise his esteem in readers’ minds. The inclusion of villains and interesting minor characters keeps the storyline moving briskly. Highly recommended. Waheed Rabbani

EVERYMAN M. Shelly Conner, Blackstone, 2021, $24.99, hb, 250pp, 9781094006208

“The south is syrup,” author M. Shelly Conner tells us in the prelude to her debut novel, everyman. When her protagonist, Eve Mann, arrives in a small Georgia town in 1972, time has moved more slowly there than elsewhere. This serves Eve, who is searching for the truth about the mother who died giving birth to her, and the father she never knew. In a series of extended flashbacks, we learn about Eve (actually named Every), her Chicago upbringing, and the lives of family members 36

and friends who help guide her path. Between her best friend Nelle, whose acknowledgment of her queerness alienates Eve, a charismatic young teacher who inspires Eve, and Eve’s mother-figure Ann, who keeps her own secrets, a rich story of Black history unfolds. Those characters and others experience the Black liberation and civil rights movements of the 1960s and ‘70s, Jim Crow repression of earlier decades, and the Great Migration north. The wide cast of characters and the depth of their stories make this a thought-provoking reading experience, though the digressive character studies and extended flashbacks may lose some readers. The mystery of Eve’s birth is largely eclipsed—intentionally, one suspects—by the bigger question of Black identity in 20th-century America. The novel offers memorable characters and important questions about the struggle for freedom and life, against the backdrop of slow Southern towns and one fast-paced northern city. Carrie Callaghan

THE TOLSTOY ESTATE Steven Conte, Fourth Estate, 2020, A$32.99, pb, 369pp, 9781460758823

Steven Conte describes his second novel, shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize, as the ‘love child’ of War and Peace and the less well-known novel, Eve Curie’s Journey Among Warriors (1943). It is October-November, 1941. Germany has invaded Russia; the Wehrmacht are pushing towards Moscow; temperatures are plummeting to fatal lows. A team of German medics arrive at the gates of Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s country estate, located 12 kms from the front at Tula. Paul Bauer, German farmer turned military surgeon, and his team are met by the hot-headed Katerina Dmitrievna Trubetzkaya and her staff, who manage the estate. Trubetzkaya is infuriated by the intrusion of the German forces on the cultural site. We learn this frustration is amplified by the fact that Trubetzkaya was a Soviet novelist in her youth and a Party member amidst the Revolution. This literary historical page-turner (and in somewayslovelettertoTolstoy)isdrivenforward as Bauer’s grasp of Russian sees him delegated by his superior officer, Metz, as interlocutor between the Germans and Trubetzkaya. As a result, Bauer and Trubetzkaya strike up an unlikely romantic bond that is at conflict with the Reich’s race laws. Between intense periods of performing surgery, Bauer stumbles upon a German translation of War and Peace in Tolstoy’s library and commences the process of re-reading the Russian classic. The novel becomes a point of seeing eye to eye between Bauer and Trubetzkaya. Conte’s greatest achievement is the selfreflexive weaving of War and Peace, and the legacy of Tolstoy, throughout the scenery and plot of each character’s experience of Tolstoy’s residence. There is also a wonderful playfulness between characters that gives

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the work a luminous quality. I found the level of medicinal detail impressive but thought at times it threatened to detract from the narrative flow. Another reader may revel in the attention to historical detail. Georgia Rose Phillips

THE BOHEMIANS Jasmin Darznik, Ballantine, 2021, $28.00, hb, 352pp, 9780593129425

In her second novel, Darznik presents a shimmering portrait of littleknown histories: that of an iconic A m e r i c a n photographer, a culture, and a city, all at a time of pivotal transformation. In May 1918, 22-yearold Dorothea “Dorrie” Lange arrives in San Francisco, full of ambition and dreams. Almost immediately, she’s robbed of her savings and forced to hock her beloved Graflex camera to survive. Through her tight friendship with the effervescent Caroline Lee, a Chinese American woman who speaks unaccented English and wears her own beautifully tailored clothing, Dorrie gets introduced to Monkey Block, a four-story structure that withstood the 1906 fire and earthquake and hosts an enclave of bohemians: talented and freewheeling artists, writers, and performers. Following months of hard work, Dorrie opens her own portrait studio, with Caroline as her assistant, and weighs pursuing a relationship with Western painter Maynard Dixon. The story compellingly narrates her journey as she learns to observe places and people with a candid eye and present them as they wish to be seen. “What had struck me most about San Francisco so far wasn’t the newness of the place—that I’d expected—but the absence of the past,” Dorrie relates. In many ways, San Francisco seems to be a city where difference is celebrated, but it treats its Chinese residents abominably and doesn’t acknowledge the incongruity; Caroline has developed a tough exterior to protect against internal pain. As a character, Caroline has a basis in history (Lange did work alongside a Chinese woman), and her personality as imagined by Darznik is deeply multifaceted and unforgettable. Donaldina Cameron and Consuelo Kanaga are among other real-life secondary figures whose courageous lives are worth heralding. With its themes of female self-invention and empowerment, xenophobia, and people’s enforced separation during the Spanish flu pandemic, readers will find this novel uncannily relevant for today’s world. Sarah Johnson


ALEC William di Canzio, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2021, $27.00, hb, 336pp, 9780374102609

William di Canzio retells the ending of E. M. Forster’s novel Maurice from wo r k i n g - c l a s s Alec Scudder’s perspective, then carries forward the story of his forbidden love in strait-laced, pre-World War I England. Alec is bright in school and later further educated in the Working Men’s College (where Forster himself taught). Despising the class system and happiest in nature, he finds work as gamekeeper on the estate owned by Clive Durham. There he meets Clive’s university friend, Maurice Hall. After misunderstandings and confusion, Alec and Maurice acknowledge their love for each other. They plan an idyllic life together away from society, but then war breaks out. They enlist together, but as Maurice studied at Cambridge and is considered upper class, he’s made an officer. When Alec sees he can’t remain with Maurice, he joins as an infantryman in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. We see trench warfare through Alec’s eyes in letters he writes to Maurice. There’s a Homeric intensity to the battle scenes, though more personal than in the Iliad. However, Maurice never receives these letters, as he’s fished out of the sea near Gallipoli without identification and lost to Alec, who assumes he’s dead. Like Forster’s Maurice, Alec depicts two gay men in a society that makes them outlaws, yet who find themselves improbably, joyfully, together. Maurice wasn’t published until 1971, posthumously, as homosexuality was illegal in England until 1967 and especially condemned across class divides. Forster wrote no more about Scudder and Hall; Alec fills in Scudder’s backstory and continues it until after the war. Though novels spinning off earlier works are common, di Canzio takes on a unique challenge with Maurice, also a Merchant-Ivory film, creating a literary masterpiece of love, class, and warfare in the post-Edwardian world. Very highly recommended. Jinny Webber

AT SUMMER’S END Courtney Ellis, Berkley, 2021, $17.00/C$23.00, pb, 368pp, 9780593201299

Alberta Preston, an unknown aspiring artist in 1922 England, enters a competition as “Bertie,” hoping the assumption would be that she is a “he.” Her painting titled Something for the Pain wins and is featured in the Times. Soon Alberta receives a letter from the Earl of

Wakeford, addressed to Mr. Preston, offering to commission “him” for several paintings of the estate in Wiltshire, England, known as Castle Braemore. Against her parents’ wishes, Bertie accepts the commission to spend the summer at the castle, and the experience changes her life forever. This debut novel by Courtney Ellis is a superb character study of women and their aspirations in the early 20th century and the long-term effects of World War I on soldiers, nurses, and those left behind, along with the economic aftermath that families dealt with. Upon his father’s death, 12-year-old Julian becomes the Earl of Wakeford and his oldest sister, Gwen, takes over the responsibilities of her siblings. The author’s use of flashbacks develops compassion and empathy as alternating chapters take a glimpse into the family dynamics, early years, and the personalities of each of the Wakeford children. Bertie’s personal feelings are explored as she comes to grips with her aspirations and feelings of unworthiness within her own family. Readers will get a true sense of Bertie’s inspiration and obsession with painting as Courtney Ellis combines wonderful descriptions of the castle and grounds with artistic details of composition and techniques. As the family faces reality, the Earl of Wakeford and his siblings attempt to heal their wounds of war with love and loyalty. Readers will be filled with suspense, sometimes even anxiousness, but also cheer for Bertie’s boldness, her sense of accomplishment, and the decision she makes at summer’s end. Dorothy Schwab

WIDESPREAD PANIC James Ellroy, Knopf, 2021, $28.00, hb, 336pp, 9780593319345 / William Heinemann, 2021, £20.00, hb, 336pp, 9781785152573

Freddy Otash, ex-marine drill instructor in WWII and all-around tough guy, becomes an LA cop. He and his fellow police surveil, arrest and too often carry out hard justice on the streets. Freddy’s work leads him to a gig as investigator for Hollywood’s Confidential magazine. This novel is Freddy’s recollection of his many capers from 1949 to 1960. The film industry is besotted with sex, drugs, and money. Freddy downs Dexedrine and booze at all hours. His work takes him to close encounters with top players—young Senator JFK, James Dean, Rock Hudson, Liz Taylor, underage Natalie Wood, and Lois Nettleton. Freddy circulates with the hangerson, too. They populate private films where the cast never gets paid in money. The producers worship Hitler or Stalin, and high school coeds get groomed to become hookers. Serial killer Caryl Chessman attracts Hollywood luminaries who shout his innocence. Strange deaths, arson, and rapes add to the mix. Freddy fights like a wolverine with his bare hands, knives, or guns. He and his helpers are masters at installing hidden listening devices and cameras. These talents land legitimate

scoops and hush money pay-offs to suppress the scoops. Ellroy’s prose fits the hard-boiled dark storylines. “The night becomes me. I assume my Pervdog pose. My hophead side sidles forth and fuels me.” Details take readers back to seedy Dragnet-style scenarios in black-andwhite starkness. They run from interesting and hilarious to gruesome and stomach-turning. Freddy’s first-person voice rattles on about many characters and storylines but always rings authentic. It’s the way Freddy would write or talk. Readers looking for a crusty tour of Hollywood’s underbelly of seventy years ago will be drawn in and swept along. G. J. Berger

THE GIRL WITH THE SILVER BANGLE Linda Finlay, HQ, 2021, £7.99/$16.99/C$18.99, pb, 384pp, 9780008392642

In London in 1910, Daisy Tucker is a young woman whose family has fallen upon hard times. When her father loses his job, she must do what she can to keep her family afloat. She enjoys her job working at the Fun Factory, where she is encouraged to use her talents and be creative. When tragedy befalls the family a second time, Daisy is forced to move to Devon to live with an uncle who is virtually a stranger. As she moves into her uncle’s tavern, little does she realize that she will have to work in order to live there. Even though she is abused by her uncle, she remembers her silver bangle and the handsome young lover who made it for her. The Girl with the Silver Bangle is a dark and gritty tale about a young woman who finds beauty amid the drudgery of life. Not only is this book well-written, but it has a great cast of characters. Daisy is a strong and enduring young woman who always seeks out a better life no matter her circumstances. The overall pace of the story is steady, and it kept me engaged every step of the way. Author Linda Finlay brings to life the poverty-stricken and unfair world of this time period. It all feels so jarring and real. The rich and colorful dialogue was one of my favorite things about this story. It adds a lot of character. One final thing I admired was that art and artists played a role in this tale. It was so fascinating watching Daisy’s burgeoning interest and talent with art. This is an engrossing book from start to finish. Elizabeth K. Corbett

SISTERS AT WAR Clare Flynn, Cranbrook Press, 2021, $12.99/ C$14.99/£8.99, pb, 340pp, 9781914479021

In 1940, Will, originally an Australian, is serving aboard a British cargo steamer in the Atlantic Ocean. A German U-boat torpedoes it. Fortunately, Will and many of the crew escape on lifeboats. Later, they are picked up by an Italian merchant vessel. Will is thrilled to see his old Italian friend, Paolo; they’d served together earlier. Will persuades Paolo

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to leave the Italian ship, and in Liverpool, they plan to sign up together on another steamer. Paolo agrees readily, a decision he lives to regret. Paolo meets Will’s wife, Hannah, and her younger, eighteen-year-old sister, Judith. Paolo and Judith soon fall in love. As World War II rages on, Will is hired immediately on a British vessel, but Paolo finds work only in a grocery store. Later, Paolo is arrested as an enemy alien and transported. As bombs rain on Liverpool, Hannah’s agonizing about Will’s safety and Judith’s particular reason to see Paolo, creates tension between the sisters; they need to make vital choices. Clare Flynn has produced another wellresearched historical novel. Although it’s the third book of a series, it can be read singly; the needed backstory is blended in unobtrusively. This book continues with Hannah and Will’s story, as a new plot thread of Judith and Paolo’s love affair takes center stage. Some minor characters from earlier books also make appearances, such as Sam, the gay landlord, and the socialite, Nance. They play interesting supporting roles. The inclusion of a Catholic priest adds depth to the story. The delightful dialogue, peppered with colloquialisms, shows Flynn’s language skills. The disclosure of the little-known harsh treatment of Italian immigrants in Britain during WWII may raise some readers’ eyebrows. The descriptions of Liverpool’s blitz are narrated evocatively. The accounts of the sea battles are exciting, but the emotional scenes will bring tears to readers’ eyes. Highly recommended. Waheed Rabbani

I COULDN’T LOVE YOU MORE Esther Freud, Ecco, 2021, $16.99, pb, 384pp, 9780063057180

I Couldn’t Love You More is a stirring portrayal of motherly love and familial and institutional abuse through the eyes of three generations of Irishwomen, whose sufferings are rendered in haunting, lyrical prose. The novel begins in 1991, at a convent close to Cork City, where Kate, adopted at birth, has come to discover the identity of her birth mother—but is instead evicted. From Kate, the story moves to Aoife, as she sits at her husband’s deathbed and recounts the couple’s long marriage, which took them from rural Ireland to East London and back again after World War II. The third strand in the narrative is devoted to her daughter Rosaleen who, after returning to London in 1959, falls in love with a charming, but damaged, older German-Jewish artist. Haunted by her convent school childhood, 38

Rosaleen enjoys life at Felix’s side until she realizes she is pregnant. When Felix fails her, and she loses her home and her job, she delivers herself into the hands of the Catholic Church. She is sent to one of the infamous Irish ‘Magdalene Laundries,’ where she is exposed to unimaginable cruelty. But since a conspiracy of silence exists in regard to these institutions, and any appeal for help goes unheeded, Rosaleen has no other recourse than to submit to her abusers and face her destiny as a single mother. In the end, it turns out that both Aoife and Kate are searching for Rosaleen. While each independently assembles the pieces of the puzzle that led to her disappearance, the question as to why she is missing will finally be answered, providing a painful twist to an already complex web of hurtful lies and betrayals. A masterpiece. Elisabeth Lenckos

THE GIRLS IN THE ATTIC Marius Gabriel, Lake Union, 2021, $14.95, pb, 244pp, 9781542028059

Max Wolff, a staunch Nazi officer, has arrived home on medical leave from the Russian front to discover that his mother, Magda, is hiding two young Jewish women in the attic. Lola and Heidi fled Berlin after losing their parents and home and, with help from strangers, made their way to Kallenheim, where Magda took them in. It is 1944, and over the past four years, Max has proven his loyalty to Hitler and the Third Reich by displaying heroism in battle and earning two Iron Crosses. He is driven to prove himself the opposite of his father, who was hanged for speaking out against Hitler. His arrival creates a lot of conflict in the house. The girls are fearful of him, yet antagonistic when challenging him on his anti-Semitic views. While his mother begs him not to turn them in, he has every intention of doing so to save his reputation, going to the police station then having second thoughts. Gradually, he comes to know Lola and Heidi, and his viewpoint and sympathies change as he recognizes the evil that he has devoted himself to. Author Gabriel maintains pace and tension throughout the book with the risk of discovery and the brutal events taking place around them. Tension builds when they do what they must to survive with the incessant Allied bombing, then the advancing Russian army. The reader sees what the characters see of an empty, destroyed Cologne during a snowstorm. “The streets of bombed-out buildings had a special silence: they absorbed every sound without an echo. The empty windows did not reflect, the doorways were empty. The only sound was the wind that moaned through the ruins.” This is one of Marius Gabriel’s best, and a stand-out WWII novel.

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Janice Ottersberg

THREE WORDS FOR GOODBYE Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb, William Morrow, 2021, $27.99/C$34.99, hb, 400pp, 9780062965240

Violet, too ill to travel in 1937, has organized a journey to Europe for granddaughters Clara and Maddy to deliver good-bye letters to the meaningful people in her life of 40 years ago. The sisters, once inseparable as young girls, have barely spoken since their father’s death over a year ago. Co-authors Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb have done a superb job of defining the personalities of Clara and Maddy, using poignant memories and images from their childhood and complexities of their adult desires, inhibitions, and fears. Clara, cautious and pessimistic, with rules and schedules dictating her days, is a promising artist. Ambitious Maddy, who refuses to conform and insists on going her own way, is a budding journalist. Violet encourages the girls to “enjoy your differences,” which also suggests readers do the same with family and friends. The journey to Paris, Venice, and Vienna is as much for Violet’s last good-byes to be delivered as it is for Clara and Maddy to experience time for self-examination. Maddy, very inquisitive, bold, and brash, is directly the opposite of Clara, who has not found her voice, even with her fiancé, millionaire Charles Hancock. The self-analysis and discoveries made by each sister along the way give the reader plenty to ponder long after the journey is over. One thing the sisters do agree on is Violet’s transportation choices, which include the opulent Queen Mary, the Orient Express, and the Hindenburg. With the detailed descriptions and perfect analogies, readers will travel first class throughout the trip! The suspense of decisions to be made and secrets to be revealed are intensified as the sisters travel to each destination. In Three Words for Goodbye, the anticipation of what lies ahead for Clara and Maddy adds to this enriching, enjoyable journey. Dorothy Schwab

THE SHUT-AWAY SISTERS Suzanne Goldring, Bookouture, 2021, $11.99, pb, 356pp, 9781800192362

Through a series of diaries, letters and poems found in the old home of two aunts she had barely known, Kate Miles uncovers the history of the reclusive spinsters through WWI and the post-war era. In 1999, reeling from her lover’s infidelity, Kate uses the house as a stopgap refuge. Amongst the aunts’ belongings is a hand-stitched, carefully wrapped wedding dress and new linen sheets folded and tied with ribbon, which a long-time neighbour tells Kate are ‘bottom drawer’ contents. Moving episodically between the diary and the presentday, Golding examines the sisters’ lives – Florrie, age ten in 1915, a diligent and sensitive child who helps her mother with daily tasks, and Edith, seven years Florrie’s senior, who spends the war years brooding for her soldier


boyfriend. Alone in her room and refusing any social interaction with the outside world, Edith writes endlessly. Long after the war, and still pining, she engages in secretive behaviour that leads Florrie to conclude that her sister is mentally unbalanced, and thereby is Florrie’s life course set. Goldring provides a detailed tableau of the simplicity and quietness of life, war and post-war privations, sacrifices and secrets kept. Despite being seven years younger, after their mother succumbs to the Spanish flu, 15-year-old Florrie runs the household with no assistance from Edith, pointing out how differently sisters can view their responsibilities. Florrie’s toils in husbandry and housekeeping are rewarded, but there is heartbreak to come. Although Kate’s contemporary work-life sections are drawn-out at times, her delicate care over what fragments of her aunts’ lives to preserve, and her interactions with longtime neighbours about the reclusive siblings, is heartfelt. There is an ordinary everydayness to the author’s story, which is very moving, and the fate of the many spinsters left behind by the Great War resounds through the book’s poignant title. Fiona Alison

ORCHESTRA Vladimir Gonik (trans. Christopher Culver), Glagoslav, 2021, £25.50/$34.99, hb, 564pp, 9781912894406

This is a wonderful and a frustrating book. In part it is a rattling good old-fashioned thriller, such as Fredrick Forsyth might have written 50 years ago, or rather two thrillers intercut with each other. One is set at an American airbase in the Ukraine in 1944 (there really was one!) and concerns a Russian interpreter who tries to defect in her boyfriend’s bomber. The second concerns the shooting down of Korean Airlines flight 007 in 1983 when it strayed into Soviet airspace, the fictional connection being that one of the interceptors was the interpreter’s half-American son. Both are triumphs of controlled tension, particularly the latter. But the book is far too long. The reader can skip the numerous digressions on politics, philosophy, psychology and air traffic control – very Russian and quite entertaining – but the climax comes about 200 pages before the end, and the rest of the book is largely made up of not-so-interesting studies from the narrator’s case-book. The narrator in a Russian army doctor. A long book which would have been brilliant at less than half the length. Edward James

ALL WE LEFT BEHIND Danielle R. Graham, One More Chapter, 2021, $16.99, pb, 368pp, 9780008412418 / 2020, £9.99, pb, 368pp, 9780008387150

Chidori and Hayden, friends since childhood, begin to develop deeper feelings for each other and hope to marry someday. Unfortunately, their peaceful and innocent days on British Columbia’s Mayne Island start

to change as the war in Europe rages. People of Japanese descent, like Chidori, are now viewed suspiciously by their formerly friendly neighbors. When Pearl Harbor is bombed, she and her family lose their home and most of their possessions and are forced into an internment camp. Enraged that he cannot help Chidori, Hayden wants to do his part to end the war and enlists in the air force. However, his time as a pilot is cut short when his plane is shot down, and he is sent to live in a German POW camp. Will their love survive the war, and if it does, will they be able to find each other again? This book is a wonderful combination of a sweet and gentle love story and a well-researched historical novel. I’ve read several books about the atrocities Japanese Americans suffered in U.S. internment camps, but this is the first one I’ve read about the Canadian camps. Graham creates a detailed glimpse at what life was like for Japanese Canadians before and after the war. She also masterfully weaves in details about daily life in the POW camps that give a stark depiction of the despair and hopelessness soldiers like Hayden endured. The novel gets off to a slow start, but the well-developed characters help draw the reader in. The focus on young love will appeal to both adult and young adult readers. Janice Derr

LETTERS ACROSS THE SEA Genevieve Graham, Simon & Schuster, 2021, C$24.99, pb, 384pp, 9781982156633 / $17.99, pb, 384pp, 9781982169343

This moving story revolves around several little-known historical events. The first occurs in Toronto in 1933. The Great Depression is in full swing, and Molly Ryan, an Irish Catholic girl who aspires to be a journalist, has had to drop out of school to help support her family. Things get complicated when she develops feelings for her best friend’s older brother, Max Dreyfuss. The two families have been friends and neighbors for years, but the Dreyfuss family is Jewish, and suddenly being a Jew in Toronto is asking for trouble. Everywhere, signs of incipient Nazism are popping up. Store owners refuse to serve Jews. Young men form gangs and foment violence. Like Romeo and Juliet, Molly and Max try to negotiate the rising tensions, but things come to a head in a riot, when Molly’s father is critically injured, destroying their hopes for happiness. Readers in the United States may be shocked to learn of the large number of Nazi sympathizers in Canada at the time. Even more shocking is the story of the Battle of Hong Kong in 1941, when about two thousand Canadian soldiers are sent to defend Hong Kong, unaware they are going on a suicide mission. Heavily outnumbered by the Japanese, the Canadian forces are overwhelmed, and Max becomes a prisoner of war. Meanwhile, Molly fulfills her dream of being a journalist and covers the war at home, including the internment of Japanese-

Canadian citizens. But she hasn’t forgotten Max and the one brief kiss they shared. This is an emotional story about bigotry, familial and romantic love, war, and the awful things people do to one another. Written in an accessible style and meticulously researched, Letters Across the Sea will appeal to a wide audience and enlighten readers about historical events that should never be forgotten. Trish MacEnulty

A SISTER’S WAR Molly Green, Avon, 2021, $16.99/£7.99, pb, 427pp, 9780008332501

This final volume in the Sisters at War trilogy brings the epic adventures of the Linfoot sisters to an unsettling conclusion. The youngest, Ronnie, not only misses her two older sisters but wants to, like perhaps any teenager on the cusp of adulthood, establish personal independence from a somewhat controlling mother. This is a coming-of-age narrative embedded in a society fighting for its very survival. The reader follows the journey of a rebellious Ronnie over the last years of World War II through many trials and tribulations as she masters the demands of working on a canal boat ferrying vital supplies (including coal and iron) through the narrow water systems of England. Her personal entanglements with boys along with her canal boat-mates are juxtaposed with the ongoing war as well as her worry about her two siblings, who are also engaged in wartime activities. This is a complex novel with numerous intersecting personal stories. The characters all deal with their own personal dilemmas, and readers will find themselves dramatically drawn into these varied entanglements. As befitting the era, there is ever-present death and destruction along with individual failures and complexities compounded by a stressful reality. Notwithstanding the centrality of effort to win the war, the societal stratum of England plays an unintended role. Class distinctions cloud the efforts and are best articulated by “Boat people are looked down upon as we don’t speak la-di-da”. Although all sisters reunite at the conclusion of hostilities with a mother who has also changed, the future is still uncertain. Will the newly formed relationships stand the strain of a rebuilding peace, and how must lingering internal norms adjust to meet this new reality? Jon G. Bradley

DEATH IN DAYLESFORD Kerry Greenwood, Poisoned Pen Press, 2021, $15.99/C$22.99, pb, 336pp, 9781728234526

Hoping for a bit of rest and relaxation, Jazz Age private detective and philanthropist Phryne Fisher travels with her companion Dot to Hepburn Springs, near the town of Daylesford, located in the most mineralsprings-rich region of Australia. Miss Fisher

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has been invited to visit a spa for shell-shocked soldiers by the doctor running it, hoping she will provide a monetary donation. While attending the Daylesford H i g h l a n d Gathering, Phryne witnesses an “accidental” death that she believes is more likely murder. She also discovers that women have been disappearing from this seemingly pleasant town. Meanwhile, back home in St. Kilda, Miss Fisher’s adopted children, Ruth and Jane, team up with Dot’s fiancé, Detective Sergeant Hugh Collins, to investigate the death of one of their classmates. The girl’s body was discovered floating by the wharf, and the autopsy showed she was pregnant. Death in Daylesford is #21 in the Phryne Fisher mystery series, and Greenwood’s fans will not be disappointed. The mysteries are many and complicated, with a slew of interesting characters and multiple suspects. With the exception of Jack, who has been sent elsewhere for a bit, all the characters Miss Fisher fans love are here, displaying their wonderful quirks and talents. Although death and foul deeds occur to produce mystery, like all Phryne stories, the tone is kept light by the female detective’s wry wit and outrageous behavior. For those unfamiliar with the series, enough background on the characters and mysteries are given, but this reviewer recommends reading the series in order—to get to know each delightful character as they appear. Elizabeth Caulfield Felt

SISTERHOOD V. B. Grey, Quercus, 2021, £14.99, hb, 368pp, 9781529405750

This story is about identical twin sisters, so alike that they could, and often did, exchange identities to fool friends and family, but in adulthood their lives are to take on quite different paths from each other. In 1944 Freya is a doctor in a London hospital while her sister, Shona, is recruited by the SOE. Changing identities becomes more than just a game. By 1989 Freya, now 68 years of age, is suffering from a brain tumour and is unable to speak, and Shona is long dead, but Freya has a daughter, Kirsty, with whom she is able to make contact. Watching television, she sees the Germans destroying the Berlin Wall, which awakens memories. A knock on the door brings in a Polish man, Tomasz Dolniak, who has with him an old photograph of Shona with his mother. So, what is this all about? Step by step the story is unraveled, one of wartime exploits, the discovery of the new drug, penicillin, and the resistance of 40

the Poles against the German Nazis. The characterisation is excellent, it is well written, and the reader is soon drawn in. It is described in the publication information as a thrilling novel of psychological suspense, and it is certainly thrilling. I am not a lover of horror or psychological stories and opened this book wondering whether I would be able to finish it, but finish it I did, and was sorry when I came to the last pages. How does it all end? That I leave for the reader to find out. Marilyn Sherlock

MRS ENGLAND Stacey Halls, Manilla Press, 2021, £14.99, hb, 420pp, 9781838772864

It’s 1904, and Ruby May, a recently graduated nanny, moves to a new post in Yorkshire. All seems well at first: Mr and Mrs England are part of a wealthy millowning dynasty with a large home and three small children, and Ruby starts to settle into her new life in the beautiful, yet isolated landscape. From the first, however, she notices signs that all is not well. Mrs England does not act in the manner that an upper-middle-class Englishwoman should, and Ruby becomes increasingly concerned by her behaviour and the responses of Mr England and the children to it. Ruby, however, is herself in a precarious position: she cannot afford to “fail” in her job if she is to keep working for the prestigious agency that employs her, and she has a darker secret about her own family which she is desperate to keep to herself, but which she cannot ignore as she starts to understand what is happening. This is an absorbing tale, told in the tradition of gothic novels: bleak, windswept landscapes, an innocent newcomer with a secret past and a central female character who may be villain or victim, yet is curiously absent from much of the action of the book itself. In less skilful hands, these elements could be hackneyed, yet Halls uses these features to good effect. Ruby May is an engaging narrator, her initial appearance of straightforwardness belied by the more complex character which is revealed as we learn more about her past. The author is adept in the way that she dripfeeds us information, both about Ruby and the Englands, which in turn ensures that the tension keeps mounting in this slow-burning, beautifully written and compelling novel. Recommended.

REVIEWS | Issue 97, August 2021

Charlotte Wightwick

THE FOREST OF VANISHING STARS Kristin Harmel, Simon & Schuster, 2021, $28.00, hb, 384pp, 9781982158958

Yona is a girl raised in the woods of Poland in near-isolation by a mysterious crone who kidnapped her from her parents at the age of two from her home in Berlin, before the beginning of WWII. As a result, she does not fit in with Jews, Poles or Germans – though she is all of these – her only certain identity is bound in the trees in which she was raised. Taught to be wary of people and civilization, Yona only reluctantly begins helping refugees from the Nazi ghettos all over Poland as she stumbles across them in the woods. Some she can save with her trapping, tracking, and healing skills, but others have fates she cannot change. But all that ends when a group she is traveling with stumbles into a city during the height of the war, and she is reunited with a past she can barely remember. Normally, Kristin Harmel’s books are favorites, but this one was difficult. Though her prose is beautiful, the first 60 percent is slow and repetitive: Yona comes across people, saves them, and moves on. But once she reaches civilization, the book begins to pick up a little, though it lacks the page-turning intensity of some of the author’s other novels. While not my favorite book of Harmel’s, it is certainly a unique way of looking at the welltrod genre of WWII historical fiction, especially what happened to those who tried to escape from the ghettos. However, the whimsical, almost magical elements did not sit right with me when juxtaposed with the subject matter, and the main character is a little too heroic to be believable. This is a book some will love, but others may wish to stick to more realistic accounts. Nicole Evelina

AN ARTFUL CORPSE Helen A. Harrison, Poisoned Pen Press, 2021, $18.99/C$27.99, pb, 336pp, 9781728214030

This, the third book of Helen Harrison’s An Art of Murder Mystery series, follows her award-winning An Accidental Corpse, for which she won a Benjamin Franklin Gold Award (IBPA). An Artful Corpse is a murder mystery nestled in the art scene of 1960s New York City. Painter Thomas Hart Benton—forerunner of the Regionalist art movement, best known for his murals—has been murdered. Where? In Studio Nine of the Art Students League. Who did it? The list of suspects is long; Benton had enemies. (He was “a homophobic bully,” recalled one.) But, lead character T.J. Fitzgerald—some will remember him from An Accidental Corpse—himself an aspiring art student, is undaunted in his search for the truth. Harrison, who has written on Jackson Pollock, introduces us to several leading American artists. We learn about Benton and Pollock, his student. We meet Alfonso Ossorio and his “Congregation” works. At the League, we encounter Charlie Alston, Raymond


Breinin, Edward Laning, and executive director Stewart Klonis; and at the Factory, Andy Warhol “and his entourage.” Reflections about art, and its social function, abound. “American art,” pronounces Benton, “should deal with reality—real life, real people—and appeal to ordinary folks, not to dipshit collectors and the Nancy boys who run the museums.” Along with art and artists, Harrison’s scope encompasses other 20th-century figures and topics: from the 1960s folk-music scene at The Bitter End, to the New Deal’s Public Works of Art project, and the New School for Social Research, and from Vietnam War draft-dodgers, to president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Lewis Mumford—a Benton acquaintance. This is an entertaining historical mystery with smooth, flowing prose that some will find imitates the graceful, rolling lines of Benton’s Retribution mural—from his “American Historical Epic” series—reproduced as the book’s frontispiece. Mark Spencer

FROM ASHES TO SONG Hilary Hauck, Milford House, 2021, $16.95, pb, 216pp, 9781620064085

Twenty-two-year-old Pietro’s life gets upended by a disease that destroys all the vineyards in northern Italy. Then his beloved music-teacher grandfather suddenly dies. Pietro and a friend head for the United States. Not far from Pietro’s region, beautiful Assunta’s old flame comes home from years in America to marry her and take her to the new land. On the crowded deck of the same ship, Pietro first sees Assunta, hears her voice and is smitten. She watches him play the clarinet, “as though he couldn’t separate his body from the music he played.” Pietro and Assunta’s new husband both find work in a coal mine of Pennsylvania. A complicated romance between Pietro and Assunta takes root and plays out from 1911 to 1952. Told in short segments from Pietro’s and Assunta’s points of view, the story covers the mostly grim times of Italian and Polish miner families, childhood diseases, and Prohibition. Pietro struggles to get his music out to the world while earning a living that calluses his hands and slowly smothers his lungs. In the worst times, Pietro’s wonderful talent to compose songs and play his clarinet keeps him going. When all seems lost, Assunta’s young children and Pietro help her face the next day. Unlike most historical fiction, in this short novel the details of place, time and events are spare, though well-chosen. For example, an important courtroom exchange is described from start to finish simply as, “‘Dismissed.’ The judge’s hammer rapped.” Hauck does not shortchange readers on things that matter. The souls of two main characters, their sufferings and yearnings, their reaching out and pulling away, and music’s ability to motivate, to heal are in full view. Highly recommended for anyone seeking an unconventional hearttugging romance. G. J. Berger

CLARK AND DIVISION Naomi Hirahara, Soho, 2021, $27.95/ C$35.95/£19.99, hb, 312pp, 9781641292498

Aki Ito and her parents come to Chicago in 1944, after being uprooted from their home in Tropico, California, incarcerated with thousands of other Japanese Americans at Manzanar following the attack on Pearl Harbor, and released by the War Relocation Authority to resettle in the Midwest. Just as they step off the train in Chicago’s Union Station, the Itos learn a devastating fact: Aki’s older sister Rose, sent ahead of the family as one of the first Nisei to go to Chicago, was killed the night before, run over by a subway train at the Clark and Division station. Although authorities insist Rose’s death was an accident, Aki is suspicious. So she pieces together bits of information from Rose’s journal and talks with friends and acquaintances who are often reluctant to reveal details about Rose’s life, particularly in the days before her death. In the process she learns disturbing facts about what Rose and other Japanese women have been facing. Clark and Division is rich in detail about the lives of relocated Japanese—the jobs they find, the places they live, the streets they walk, the people they encounter—and the city of Chicago and its neighborhoods in the 1940s. Nevertheless, the novel keeps the reader at a distance. Readers can observe what Aki sees and does, but may have difficulty connecting with her to feel what she feels and share in her experiences. Naomi Hirahara is an Edgar awardwinning author of the Mas Arai series, which features a survivor of the atom-bomb attack on Hiroshima who subsequently works as a gardener and does amateur sleuthing in Pasadena, California. K. M. Sandrick

THE GLORIOUS GUINNESS GIRLS Emily Hourican, Grand Central, 2021, $16.99, pb, 416pp, 9781538720233 / Headline Review, 2021, £8.99, pb, 528pp, 9781472274601

Aileen, Maureen and Oonagh are the glorious Guinness girls, members of the dynastic brewing family, and part of the Bright Young Things, a set of glamorous, privileged young people who were the celebrities of 1920s London. Here, their story is told by their mother’s companion, a girl their own age, Fliss, who lives with the family in Ireland before they move to London for Maureen’s season as a debutante. Fliss is privy to all the family’s secrets but is also tormented by the disappearance of her brother, who has charmed the family while they were in Ireland, but during the troubles and social unrest in Dublin, has vanished and perhaps died. The story moves along well, charting the Guinness girls’ successes and struggles in London society, as well as successfully weaving in the political background of Irish Nationalism and the struggle for independence. Fliss must also find her way in life in a time of societal

change with increased opportunities for women to train and join the workforce. The story is a little lacking in tension. A separate narrative with Fliss much later in life, searching for papers in the family’s old Irish mansion, hints at secrets that never really deliver the promised punch. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting and enjoyable read. The descriptions of London and the Bright Young Things are a definite highlight. Maureen Guinness stands out as a fascinating, complex character. Kate Braithwaite

EAGLES OVER BRITAIN Lee Jackson, Severn River, 2021, $15.99/ C$19.99/£12.99, pb, 456pp, 9781648750717

The four Littlefield siblings—raised on Sark, an English Channel Island—have their worlds turned upside down by World War II. 1940— Adolf Hitler’s Germany has taken France by blitzkrieg and Allied forces evacuate during the Battle of Dunkirk. Fearful of France’s Navy falling under Axis control, Britain sinks French ships at Mers-el-Kébir; hundreds of French sailors die. Meanwhile, Germany’s Marshal Göring plans Adlertag (“Eagle Day”), a Luftwaffe attack on Britain. Jackson, a prolific author with a West Point degree and U.S. Army experience, offers a fascinating glimpse into this bleak period of WWII. The main character Paul Littlefield, MI-6 intelligence officer, feels sidelined in London but, unknowingly, he’s groomed for an all-important mission. Jeremey, the youngest brother and Dunkirk hero—“the chap who saved the toddler” from the sinking Lancastria— is now a fighter pilot. Middle brother Lance is a German POW. Sister Clair, an MI-9 decoder at Bletchley Park’s “Hut 6,” is smitten with Eugene Tobin, a “tall, redheaded” American pilot. Or is Arthur Donahue more her type? “Historians,” Paul reflects, “can’t possibly record all the sacrifices made by so many people.” We meet many. In France’s Resistance network, Madame Fourcade and the mysterious—beautiful and smart—Jeannie Rousseau. Bletchley’s “rising star,” Gordon Welchman; American “Billy” Fiske III, bobsledchampion-turned-fighter-pilot; and Canadian spymaster William Stephenson—codenamed “Intrepid” by the irascible Winston Churchill. Some characters are rather stiff, as, at times, is the book’s prose. But Jackson artfully describes the Battle of Britain from multiple perspectives. In the skies, Spitfires and Hurricanes engage Messerschmitts and Stukas. On land, we experience London’s bombed buildings and follow the action on Sir “Stuffy” Dowding’s radar screens, and within secret Fighter Command bunkers where “small wooden cubes with multi-colored tags and little flags” are “pushed about by plotters with their croupiers.” Mark Spencer

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THE SECRET KEEPER OF JAIPUR Alka Joshi, Mira, 2021, $27.99, hb, 384pp, 9780778331858

Joshi enjoyed terrific success with her debut novel, The Henna Artist, when it was chosen for Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine book club in 2020. Fans of that novel will be thrilled to revisit her beloved characters in this sequel. The story picks up 10 years after the events that moved the narrator, Lakshmi, from the vibrant city of Jaipur in northern India to the much quieter environs of the village of Shimla in the foothills of the Himalayas. The year is 1969, but the setting is still a very traditional segment of India; she has married her friend and ally, Dr. Jay Kumar, and they have set up a practice together at a small community hospital, where Lakshmi tends an herbal Healing Garden and assists her husband. Her young ward, Malik, has finished school and is about to make the trek back to Jaipur to learn about business from Lakshmi’s friend Manu Agarwal, the adoptive father of the son of her sister Radha, whose pregnancy in the first novel caused such difficulties for Lakshmi’s hard-won status as a respectable henna artist catering to the rich and powerful women of modern urban India. There are multiple narrators in this book: Lakshmi, Malik, and a new voice, Nimmi, a tribal woman who becomes Malik’s love interest. The action alternates between Jaipur, where Malik investigates the tragic collapse of the palatial new cinema house his mentor’s firm has built, and Shimla, where Lakshmi and Jay try to protect Nimmi from murderous gold smugglers who operate in her tribal lands. Joshi preserves the charming details of food, fashion, and herbal cures that were so appealing in the first novel, while managing the complex threads of the plot neatly. The contrast between Old and New India is vivid, but Lakshmi, as empathetic and practical as ever, moves smoothly between the two worlds. Kristen McDermott

THE ACK ACK GIRL Chris Karlsen, Books To Go Now, 2021, $12.99, pb, 331pp, 9798704370437

Ava Armstrong is staying with friends in London in October 1940 when the house is destroyed in the Blitz. She normally works in a library in Coventry, and after she hears the library has been bombed and her boss killed, she resolves to join the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service). Ava earns high marks on a test of mechanical and optical problem solving, and gets assigned to train for the new Anti-Aircraft Command of the Royal Artillery. The women don’t actually get to fire the guns, but they act as spotters and range calculators. Yet they run the same risk as the men, since German planes aim to kill those in the ack-ack posts. During training, Ava has a run-in with a cocky pilot, Lt. Chris Fairfield, but he later asks her out on a date. When he gets transferred to Dover, he uses an influential uncle to get Ava reassigned there also. Their romance escalates 42

as the war progresses. Chris proposes, but refuses to marry until after the war; he is afraid Ava may become a widow if something happens to him. Chris’s premonition proves valid when his plane is shot down over France, but Ava refuses to believe him dead. The story is refreshing in that it’s entirely linear, no jumping around in time to keep track of, and has a memorable central couple. The role of the Ack Ack women deserves to be better known—an author’s note says that 731 of them were killed. This novel only presents a few scenes depicting Ava working in the bunker during a battle; it concentrates more on her training and interactions with Chris. Fans of war stories might wish for more battle action, but those who prefer romance will enjoy it as much as I did. Recommended. B. J. Sedlock

PRAGUE 1938 Dara Kavanagh, Dedalus, 2020, £9.99, pb, 280pp, 9781912868513

“1938 is a catastrophic date in the history of the Czech people, a people who have never lacked for catastrophic dates”. This novel is told through the eyes of Guido Salvatore Hayek, fifteen-year-old son of a Prague art dealer and a Piedmontese mother, and charts his infatuation with the disdainful Leah Meisel, granddaughter of an antiques dealer his father sets out to cheat. Guido pursues Leah with verses in the style of Heine or Rilke whilst she lures him into her gang of street-thieves and tricksters. The Hayek family is not quite what it seems: Guido’s loved half-sister Katya, member of an artists’ commune whose work is destroyed for its “degeneracy”, turns out not to be his sister at all. As the march towards war gradually overwhelms what passed for normal life, Guido has to decide whether to redress the wrong done to the Meisels or to convince the unwilling Katya to escape to safety in America. Whilst the Hayeks celebrate a family wedding and try to hold together a disintegrating business as all fractures around them, only Guido’s spiritual adviser and family friend, a Jesuit with atheistical leanings, appears to grasp the scale of the approaching calamity. It is not just its Mitteleuropean setting that made me think I’d stumbled on a recently rediscovered manuscript of Stefan Zweig or Joseph Roth, but the immersively convincing voice of Kavanagh’s prose in describing this vanished, polyglot world. Leah Meisel’s gang of thieves has none of Dickens’s picturesqueness, and as Prague starts to fill with refugees, “... hopelessness, too, has its odour…a mixture of woodsmoke and incontinence and wet cloth and acrid perspiration”. Katherine Mezzacappa

THE DYING DAY Vaseem Khan, Hodder & Stoughton, 2021, £16.99/$26.99, hb, 340pp, 9781529341065

India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, has many problems to face in this,

REVIEWS | Issue 97, August 2021

the second novel of the series set in Bombay around 1950. A famous scholar has gone missing leaving behind fiendish riddles and clues as to the whereabouts of himself and an extremely valuable manuscript which has also disappeared. The answer may stretch back to the recent war and connect to the long shadow of Nazism. Not only that, but a white woman has been found murdered, her Aunt Nussie is desperate for Persis to quit the force and get married, she has undefined feelings for a certain Englishman, some people disapprove her of being in the role in the first place, and others want her to be some kind of inspirational figurehead making speeches. Persis just wants to get on with the job. The first novel in the series is Midnight at Malabar House, and I have already ordered it. This is a multi-layered, well-written historical novel which can also be read as a standalone. The references to colonialism and the struggle for independence are of topical interest and serve to bring the era to life effectively. The riddles are ingenious, the mystery is wellplotted, and the characters are well-drawn and interesting. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and will be getting the next when it arrives. Highly recommended. Ann Northfield

THE HOT SUMMER OF 1968 Viliam Klimáček (trans. Peter Petro), Mandel Vilar, 2021, $19.95, pb, 312pp, 9781942134718

In 1968, the communist country of Czechoslovakia had a brief fling with freedom. Termed the “Prague Spring,” the experiment in “socialism with a human face” allowed citizens freedom of the press and travel, as well as an end to arbitrary wiretapping. It all came crashing down when Soviet tanks bulldozed over its borders on August 20-21 and occupied the country. Before the Soviets clamped shut the border with Austria, many individuals and families had a terrible decision to make: flee or face the oppressor? Translated into English for the first time, The Hot Summer of 1968 follows the stories of ten people confronted with the unthinkable. Klimáček introduces a cast of characters that are based on real people and their experiences. Some of the major characters include Anna and Alexander, visiting their daughter Petra at college before the invasion begins; Jozef, a Lutheran pastor-turned-radio-personality who is the voice of freedom for many; and his wife, Erika, who supports Jozef and their newfound refugee community in Canada with herculean effort. Tereza, childhood friend of Petra, rediscovers her Jewish roots at a kibbutz in Israel, where news of the invasion transforms her life forever. Petra, the dedicated medical student who finds her true home at the furthest edges of Canada, helps a First Nations community well-versed in exile and oppression. Klimáček captures the early promises of the Prague Spring and the devastation wrought by the Soviet invasion through these biggerthan-life characters. The only drawback is the odd moments where the author inserts himself


into the narrative, mentioning his research or his own feelings on the invasion. The Hot Summer of 1968 is a touching story of families involuntarily separated and the search for home wherever it leads. It provides a pertinent historical lens to the plight of refugees: yesterday, today, and always. Peggy Kurkowski

THE RUSSIAN KEY Jeri Laber, Arcade, 2021, $24.99/ C$33.99/£24.99, hb, 240pp, 9781951627720

After a stultifying year of translating documents from Russian to English in the early 1960s, Kate Landau is frustrated that her CIA career isn’t what she expected. But it’s the height of the Cold War, and her CIA bosses soon have a more interesting—and vastly more dangerous—assignment for her. Previously, when she was young college student, Kate took advantage of a temporary thaw in Soviet/US relations to arrange a rare visit to the USSR for herself and two other classmates. There, Kate had a brief affair with a Russian man, and that liaison would change her life. Now the CIA wants her to find her old flame and help them learn more about him. But getting involved again means layer after layer of lies, and Kate soon doesn’t know who to trust or what to believe. She is a smart, daring young woman who is clear-eyed about her emotional involvement in her assignment, and she knows when she has gone too far. Or at least she thinks she does. This slim novel is a fast-paced, immersive read. Kate’s Cold War psychological drama unfolds largely in her mind and through her relationships with the men around her. The short format works perfectly for this thriller, and author Jeri Laber’s background as an original founder of Human Rights Watch provides interesting context on human rights abuses in the Soviet Union. Some readers might wish The Russian Key had more detail or a more intricate plot, but lovers of realistic spy novels will be delighted with this satisfying read. Carrie Callaghan

MAN FROM MONTANA Gregory J. Lalire, Five Star, 2021, $25.95, hb, 370pp, 9781432871178

In 1913, Woodrow Russell Hart, aka Red Ranger, is writing an anthology about his life as a younger man. He wants to expose the dime novels written about his exploits, explaining how they were false and misleading. He writes how he, as a 14-year-old boy, along with his older brother Rufus, settle in a Montana gold mining town. Soon Rufus shoots a man in self-defense and runs away without getting caught. Because of the rampant crime by highwaymen, a vigilante committee is formed to hang those who try to rob the miners of their gold. Because Rufus is known to associate with the highwaymen, he is on a list

of possible outlaws. Hart continues trying to keep his brother from a hanging. This novel shows the worst side of early Western justice: the vigilantes who take the law into their own hands. Vigilantes were popular in the West before sheriffs and judges arrived to provide the citizens with proper justice. In this story over twenty men are hanged for crimes many did not commit. The action is solidly paced, with an engaging story of the citizens living in early Western gold mining towns. Jeff Westerhoff

THE SECRETS WE LEFT BEHIND Soraya M. Lane, Lake Union, 2021, $14.95, pb, 319pp, 9781542025904

World War II did not start out well for the Allied forces. In Europe the Germans were on the attack. As Soraya M. Lane’s novel begins, the British army is in retreat at Dunkirk. Cate is a nurse in a field hospital treating the wounded when orders come to evacuate. But not everyone can go. Straws are drawn. Because the most desperately injured can’t make it to the boats, Cate is among those who stay behind, risking captivity and death. One of those wounded men is Jack. The Secrets We Left Behind follows Cate and Jack’s flight from the hospital, their daring nighttime journey through the French countryside where they manage to avoid German patrols until they reach the farm of Elise and Adelaide. These two brave young women have witnessed the brutal slaughter of a British regiment and have taken in Harry, one of the only two survivors, at risk to their own lives. This is a fast-paced action-romance set in a world that is not as complete as it could be. How much time passes? Where is the farm in relation to the coast and to the local village? What is happening to their neighbors and friends? Greater detail of a world gone mad would have enhanced the sense of jeopardy. Likewise, the Germans appear fortuitously thick at times, less menacing than stupid. Surrounded by an enemy led by the commander responsible for the British massacre, Cate and Jack, Adelaide and Elise and Harry have to figure out how to survive. What may undermine them are not only the German occupiers but the secrets they keep hidden from each other. Peter Clenott

THE GREAT MISTAKE Jonathan Lee, Knopf, 2021, $25.95/C$34.95, hb, 291pp, 9780525658498 / Granta, 2021, £14.99, hb, 304pp, 9781783786244

On Friday, November 13, 1903, a man accosts Andrew Haswell Green in front of his Park Avenue home and shoots him dead. All New York wants to know why an assassin would target an eighty-three-year-old attorney who’s devoted his life to bringing projects such as Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum of

Art, and the New York Public Library into the world. Why, indeed? By way of answer, the narrative leads the reader through Green’s past and character, particularly his povertyridden childhood with an abusive father, his thwarted sexual desires, and his determination to become a gentleman of note. The narrative evokes the irony that a man unable to make friends or open his heart enacts public works that rank among the city’s most significant social institutions and meeting places. Lee writes gorgeous sentences and understands New York, rendering scenes of a beguiling city in flux, with all its oddities, puzzles, and injustices. Some are very funny, as with the carnival elephant that tries to charge into a police station, or the high-class brothel madam who’s smarter than the detective who questions her and ties him into verbal knots. But these vignettes don’t amount to a plot, and the motive behind Green’s murder neither commands the pages to turn nor provides much surprise. Further, irony offers thin prospects for emotional engagement, and Green’s portrayal disappoints the same way. Distant and cut off, even from himself, he’s drab compared to the minor characters, and seems like the subject of a monograph. That a thwarted man accomplishes great works makes a potentially gripping premise, but I want to know why this thwarted man demands attention. Lee’s prose is elegant, often dazzling, but that alone can’t carry the load; The Great Mistake remains a study rather than a story. Larry Zuckerman

ALL HUMAN WISDOM Pierre Lemaitre (trans. Frank Wynne), MacLehose Books, 2020, £18.99, hb, 432pp, 9780857058997

Paris, 1927. ‘No-one quite knew what was being buried today, an important French banker, or the bygone era he personified.’ Marcel Péricourt is upstaged at his own funeral by his young grandson Paul jumping onto the coffin from an upstairs window. The boy will survive, but spends the rest of his life in a wheelchair. In the uproar that follows, we meet the boy’s mother Madeleine, brought up only for marriage (an unsuccessful undertaking, in her case); the dead man’s grotesque brother Charles; André Delcourt, the boy’s predatory tutor and Madeleine’s lover; Gustave Joubert, Marcel’s right-hand man and Madeleine’s jilted suitor, possessed of ‘that stiltedness so common in slow-burning anger…all the more dangerous in cold-blooded creatures.’ Madeleine can trust no-one, least of all her scheming lady’s companion, and she and Paul are swiftly reduced to near penury. Paul finds a reason to live through his friendship with the ageing opera singer Solange Gallinato, only to find that she is a Nazi sympathiser – or is she? There are few characters to really like besides Paul, with the exception of his irrepressible Polish nurse (a vivid force of

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nature who speaks not a word of French) and the communist Dupré, whom Madeleine turns to as she plots her exquisite revenge – he turns out to have principles everyone else apparently lacks. That does not mean, though, that the reader doesn’t care what happens to them. In Wynne’s sparkling translation, the action moves at an exhilarating pace, and the setting of those turbulent inter-war years is rendered by careful attention to detail (Robert MalletStevens designing sets for La Gallinato, reference to the sensational murder trials of Violette Nozière and the Papin sisters). Lemaitre’s writing has already been compared to Balzac – this reviewer would second that. Katherine Mezzacappa

M, KING’S BODYGUARD Niall Leonard, Pantheon, 2021, $27.00/C$35.95, hb, 272pp, 9781524749057

January 1901: Queen Victoria has died. Plans for her funeral are made by the court, the military, the police, and by assorted anarchists and troublemakers who plan to use the event to their advantage. Detective Chief Superintendent William Melville of Scotland Yard is bodyguard to the new king, but at this funeral with its long procession, he is responsible not only for the safety of King Edward but also for the safety of the visiting Kaiser Wilhelm from Germany. Kaiser Wilhelm, a grandson of Queen Victoria, is a spoilt and dangerous young man facing political turmoil at home. If harm should come to him in Britain, war would be inevitable. Melville is aware of dissident, anarchist, and terrorist groups from several European countries – that is his job, but a week before the funeral he is advised of a new threat, a man calling himself Akushku, who has a specific plan to kill the Kaiser during the funeral. The novel moves rapidly and forcefully, detailing the battle of wits and violence between Akushku and Melville, who is assisted by Steinhauer, his German counterpart, who may or may not be trustworthy. The narrative reads with immediacy and intensity, carrying the reader from the presence of the new king to the gasworks and eventually to the funeral procession. Briefly and succinctly, the author covers political unrest throughout Europe in 1901, the social unrest in Britain at the time, and the delicate maneuverings of spies and counterspies. This is an engrossing read with finely honed detail that does not impede the plot, and blistering action providing counterpoint to carefully worded dialog where inference is the essence. Additional gravitas comes from the afterword, which states that the novel is based on an exhaustive biography of Melville and on Steinhauer’s autobiography Valerie Adolph

THOSE I HAVE LOST Sharon Maas, Bookouture, 2021, $3.99, ebook, 430pp, B092JMPRSD

After an idyllic childhood in Madras, Rosie

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is uprooted at age ten when her Amma dies, leaving her Pa, a reclusive academic, completely bereft. He reluctantly agrees that Rosie can go to live on a Ceylonese tea plantation with Aunt Silvia (Amma’s best friend), Uncle Henry, and their three sons. She grows to love her newfound brothers but sometimes finds their behaviour enigmatic and their motivations unclear. Despite her aunt’s and uncle’s discouragement, her close friendship with Usha, daughter of the Tamil head housekeeper, becomes the only truly valuable thing in Rosie’s life. A betrayal forces Usha to move away, but the friendship remains, despite long lapses in communication. World War II brings the Japanese invasion of Malaya, and all three boys go off to war, and for all the snobbery exhibited by their white parents, they seem cursed. Then Pa disappears, making her wonder what home really is. This coming-of-age novel, set between 1933 and 1946, is entrancing, the settings beautifully described, and the author’s words evoke all the vibrant beauty and aromas one would expect of tropical countries. Without overdramatising, unexpected twists and turns unfold, and there’s always another slow reveal just beyond the next page. The relationships are heartfelt, especially Rosie’s friendship with Usha, which comes about because her parents taught her about equality and love for all her fellow human beings. There is joy, sadness, misunderstandings and some poignant reunions, and I loved the way the prologue worked its way seamlessly into the story. Those I Have Lost echoes with strong themes of family, love and belonging, with a fitting conclusion I didn’t anticipate. Fiona Alison

THE HOLLYWOOD SPY Susan Elia MacNeal, Bantam, 2021, $27.00, hb, 368pp, 9780593156926

This tenth novel featuring American-born British spy Maggie Hope takes her to Los Angeles in 1943. A beautiful young woman engaged to Maggie’s old flame, British aviator John Sterling, lies dead in a hotel swimming pool. The police chalk it up as a slip and fall after a raucous party. John, living in LA to help train American fliers, asks Maggie over from London to find the killer. Nazi and KKK troublemakers simmer below the city’s enthusiastic patriots, defense workers, and military passing through. Maggie soon connects the young woman’s death to the fascists. As bodies pile up, MacNeal takes readers inside clusters of Nazi-lovers, corrupt cops, and FBI agents. One of the intense subplots involves a KKK ringleader father who makes death-dealing demands of his wellmeaning young son. Another subplot touches on riots between rednecks and Mexican gangs. When not prowling for clues and the killer, Maggie and John circulate in Hollywood’s studios and music hot spots. Among other luminaries, Walt Disney, Lena Horne, George Balanchine, Hattie McDaniel, and even scientist

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Linus Pauling make cameo appearances. Here, too, racism and homophobia tarnish and stifle work relationships. MacNeal’s portrayal of hot, smoggy, bustling Los Angeles in this war-time summer feels right. Her information about many of the neighborhoods, hotels, restaurants and night spots fits nicely. The revelations of pervasive racism, homophobia, and misogyny are chilling. The main plot of finding the killer takes unexpected turns. Even Maggie’s relationship with John and his real reasons for asking her to help are not as they seem. Though interesting and informative, the novel’s multiple plotlines, many characters, and exposure of social injustices leave the reader both overwhelmed and wanting to know more. Perhaps more will be developed in book eleven. G. J. Berger

TESTIMONY Paula Martinac, Bywater Books, 2021, $16.95/ C$25.50, pb, 275pp, 9781612941790

Reading this thoughtful novel reminds today’s readers that nostalgia for the mid20th century often glosses over the racism and sexism that were not just attitudes of many Americans, but were enforced with repressive laws and policies that are still used against marginalized people today. Martinac’s setting is an idyllic rural Virginia women’s college in 1960, where Gen Rider, the lone female history professor, struggles to enlighten classes of privileged white girls about Civil War-era slavery. She also struggles to hide her grief over a failed relationship with another woman. Her best friend, drama teacher Fenton Page, is likewise in crisis over his fears that a former lover, recently arrested for a homosexual encounter with a Black man, will implicate him as well. Both characters serve as alternating narrators, along with a few other faculty and students at Blaine College, creating a detailed portrait of McCarthy-era America on the cusp of the transformative Kennedy years. This novel is timely because the threats faced sixty years ago by Gen and Fenton— sodomy laws, misogyny, gay conversion therapy, surveillance by malevolent neighbors, and attempts to censor education about America’s history of racism—continue to harm LGBTQ and BIPOC people. The last section of the novel includes testimony by Gen and Fenton’s colleagues and neighbors that remind readers how difficult it was even for well-intentioned straight allies to speak out against institutional bigotry. Lightening the grimness is the fact that Gen and Fenton are sympathetic characters; the setting also evokes the pleasures of academic life that attracted two such intelligent people to it despite its restrictions. Ultimately, this novel celebrates the bravery not only of the pre-Stonewall generation of LGBTQ people but also of the allies who were willing to risk their own careers and relationships to stand up for them. Kristen McDermott


THE BOMBAY PRINCE Sujata Massey, Soho Crime, 2021, $27.95/ C$35.95/£23.99, hb, 360pp, 9781641291057

Sujata Massey’s third mystery novel featuring Parsi solicitor Perveen Mistry occurs during the visit of Edward, Prince of Wales, to colonial India. Historically speaking, the November 1921 visit was greeted with empty streets all over India to protest British rule. Riots and police brutality occurred in Bombay, the setting for this novel, and this creates a background of danger. At her father’s law firm, Mistry is a solicitor, a lower-level lawyer who cannot represent clients in court. When a young Parsi college student activist drifts in seeking legal advice, Mistry tries to help her. The day of the Prince’s visit, Mistry happens to be at the college when the girl is found dead under suspicious circumstances. Although Mistry doesn’t legally represent the girl, and the girl’s parents don’t want her help, Mistry takes an interest in uncovering what happened. Parsis are well-off in India, and Mistry lives in a mansion, with drivers and servants at her disposal. She is sometimes present at the right place and time, but she uncovers important parts of the mystery and puts the pieces together. Dressed in colorful saris, Mistry proceeds with an awareness of her limitations as an Indian, a Parsi, a solicitor, and a woman. She does not so much battle the system as diffidently worm her way through it, visiting an aviary, the morgue, a coroner’s inquest, the college, hospitals, and the dead girl’s family and friends. A dashing British diplomat adores Mistry. A brash American reporter figures prominently into the plot, but his sudden appearance at a crucial moment makes the book’s denouement feel contrived. Mistry’s character was inspired by Cornelia Sorabji, India’s first female lawyer. The Bombay Prince gives its readers a feel for Indian society in the 1920s, as pressure builds for freedom from colonial rule. David Drum

THE TULIP TREE Suzanne McCourt, Text, 2021, A$32.99, pb, 368pp, 9781922330550

The Tulip Tree is a complex family saga, taking readers through a volatile sweep of time in an everchanging Poland from 1920 to 1954: a Poland rife with invasion, war, violence, pogroms, and the extermination of Jews. Henryk and Adi Radecki are brothers who couldn’t be less alike. Henryk is a successful industrialist until WWII, when he is arrested on a number of occasions. His dream in life is to build bridges,

but munitions is what he is forced into. Adi is a veterinarian, a sentimental man who dislikes his brother’s love of hunting. After his first wife’s suicide in Siberia, he takes his son to Moscow to seek repatriation into Poland, which is denied. Fortuitously, he meets his estranged brother, who succeeds where Adi cannot. Once in Poland, Adi marries Ela, a woman considerably younger than himself, and they have a daughter and a son. Henryk isn’t so lucky, he’s unhappy in his marriage to Lucia and covets Ela, as he had Adi’s first wife. The rivalry between the brothers is exacerbated by Lucia’s jealousy over her failure to have more children. Although happily married, Adi often disappears for days at a time, leaving Ela to wonder where he goes and what he does. Turning to Henryk for consolation has farreaching consequences for Ela. McCourt writes with transparent honesty, taking us deeply inside her characters’ lives and those of their children as they grow up in a country under occupation. Her passion for her story shows in the everyday ordinariness of events as well as the horrors. Although the brothers form the story’s framework, this is mainly Ela and her son Stefan’s tale. The Tulip Tree is vivid storytelling at its best, atmospheric, and engrossing: a powerful and compelling read from beginning to end, and one readers will not soon forget. Fiona Alison

MURDER AT KEYHAVEN CASTLE Clara McKenna, Kensington, 2021, $26.00/ C$35.00/£21.00, hb, 288pp, 9781496717795

This is the third book in the Stella and Lyndy mystery series. It is 1905, and American heiress Stella McKendrick is preparing for her wedding to Viscount Lyndhurst. The marriage had been arranged by her father, a Kentucky horse breeder who aims to gain admittance to Mrs. Astor’s lofty New York social circle. His daughter’s marriage to an English peer would accomplish that. The preparations are elaborate, and despite initially being wed for her money, Stella has fallen deeply in love with her English fiancé. The story is a romance of two people who were not prepared to fall in love, but did, and together forge a strong partnership. There are two murders in the days leading up to the wedding, a jockey whose death seems accidental and then the father of the bride. Both murders are complex, and it will take the combined wits of Stella and Lyndy

to solve them. Also, a mysterious note and a gift arrive, possibly from Stella’s mother, long thought to be dead. This is an Edwardian love story beset with challenges: two deaths and the matter of Stella’s acceptance into British society. While it is a period novel, the strength of it is the very modern slant—rather than be a helpless maiden, Stella is a strong character who is very much the equal of her fiancé. This story appeals to the mystery lover but also to the reader who enjoys a tale of a unique and very accomplished couple. Very strongly recommended. Anne Leighton

AMONG THE BEAUTIFUL BEASTS Lori McMullen, She Writes Press, 2021, $16.95, pb, 328pp, 9781647421069

Like many Floridians, I have long been a fan of Marjory Stoneman Douglas. I was fortunate enough to review a collection of her short stories in the 1990s and to write a feature article celebrating the centennial of this indefatigable fighter for the environment and author of the classic book on the Florida Everglades, River of Grass. Not only was she an ardent environmentalist, she also participated in the suffrage movement and the Civil Rights struggles. Today, however, people may only associate her name with the high school where a tragic shooting occurred. They should read this book. In spite of her many accolades, even Douglas’s fans most likely know little of her early years. By casting the story as a novel rather than a biography, Lori McMullen is able to immerse us in the writer’s imagination as she experiences a troubled childhood with a mentally ill mother, a disastrous marriage to a criminal, and a heartbreaking love affair with a man driven mad by World War I. When she winds up in Florida where she will make her mark as a journalist, the reader observes how these events shape the powerful advocate she will become. Among the Beautiful Beasts is a stunning achievement. At times the book is as suspenseful as the best page-turner, and yet the sheer beauty of the prose invites readers to linger on every page. McMullen has captured the spirit of this profoundly important naturalist and activist in language that soars like the white ibis that flies “brazenly across the sky” in the Everglades. She Writes Press deserves credit for facilitating the publication of books of this caliber. Trish MacEnulty

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THE MYSTIC’S ACCOMPLICE Mary Miley, Severn House, 2021, $28.99/£20.99, hb, 215pp, 9780727850423

The Mystic’s Accomplice begins Mary Miley’s new mystery series, set in Prohibition-era Chicago. Maddie Pastore’s one-eye-open, one-eyeclosed life implodes when her husband, a mob man, is murdered and a shattering secret revealed. Pregnant, penniless, and evicted from her home, she faces a world that has little to offer single young mothers. A melodramatic setup, but Maddie spares us the soggy hankies. Determined not to get help from her husband’s former employers, she ends up surveilling seance clients for a spiritualist, so when the dearly beloveds manifest, the medium’s messages ring true. But Maddie’s investigations turn over secrets deadlier than the dead themselves. Miley’s heroine avoids all-too familiar female character arcs of historical fiction. Maddie doesn’t blossom from submissive and/or coddled to feisty and self-reliant. She doesn’t learn to shoot a gun; she doesn’t become a tycoon or hook up with one. When overwhelmed, she often climbs out of the hole by grabbing a helping hand. Her mission isn’t to save worlds or seize a crown. It’s simple, maybe humble; it bears the grandeur of Everywoman: to make a decent place in the world for herself and her baby. Maddie’s story stays nimble with a colorful mix of characters, from the eccentric and not entirely fraudulent medium to kindhearted, cold-blooded mobsters, to cameos by historical figures such as Al Capone and Jane Addams. With adept historical detail to immerse the reader in the rough and tumble world of 1920s Chicago, this series promises good reading ahead. Jean Huets

A ROGUE’S COMPANY Allison Montclair, Minotaur, 2021, $26.99, hb, 357pp, 9781250750327

On the advice of business partner Iris Sparks, Gwendolyn Bainbridge gets her first taste of a heavy punching bag at Macaulay’s Martial Arts Self-Defense Courses for Men and Women in Lambeth, an area of London still picking through rubble in 1946. She soon has need to test her emerging skills. First, she pummels the bag as a surrogate for her overbearing father-in-law and legal guardian, Lord Bainbridge. Second, she must try to thwart a kidnapper. Third in the Sparks and Bainbridge mystery 46

series, which debuted with The Right Sort of Man in 2019, A Rogue’s Company is a saucy and witty romp that carries readers from the drawing rooms and studies of Kensington to the sub rosa special guest rooms of the Livingstone Club and the factories and warehouses of Canning Town. Though proprietors of the Right Sort Marriage Bureau, Iris and Gwen are no strangers to crime. With links to Scotland Yard, former British spies, underworld figures, legitimate and not-so-legitimate businessmen, the women are resourceful and innovative investigators. Most appealing are the characters and their histories: forthright Iris, who is haunted by memories of her wartime undercover work; damaged Gwen, who is recovering from her breakdown after her husband’s death in the war; and blustery Lord Bainbridge, who is hiding a deeply personal secret. And then there is delightful six-year-old Ronnie, Gwen’s son. With an ear for characters’ unique lingo and language and an eye for period detail, Montclair’s Rogue is spot on. K. M. Sandrick

THE SLOW MARCH OF LIGHT Heather B. Moore, Shadow Mountain, 2021, $26.99, hb, 368pp, 9781629729282

In 1960 in a divided Germany, the Cold War is actually quite hot if one is engaged in espionage. In the late 1950s, Bob Inama is simply trying to pursue a law degree at Utah State University until he is drafted into the U.S. Army on the eve of 1960. He starts as an enlisted artilleryman, but his college background and basic understanding of German make him attractive to Army Intelligence recruiters. Bob is then immersed in intense German language training to prepare for follow-on insertion into a critical and dangerous operational role. While still training, he meets a pleasant West German girl, Luisa Voight, whose father is a senior police officer in Frankfurt. Louisa’s mother is gone, but her grandmother still lives in East Berlin and is reluctant to move to the West. Luisa, a nurse, finds herself enmeshed in a ring of patriots who try to help East Germans escape the German Democratic Republic, which is a totalitarian hell controlled by the Socialist Unity Party and the Soviets. Luisa soon ends up in Berlin just as Bob is commencing his undercover intelligence collection activities there. Things go badly for Bob as Luisa struggles to smuggle out her grandmother. This outstanding novel is a harrowing

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account based around actual events in Bob Inama’s life. The author chillingly and graphically captures daily existence where the controlling political party, national security apparatus, and media work together to crush all dissent. Bob’s interaction with a café waitress causes him to note “few smiles, little laughter, and heavy hearts” are the way of life there, where government snitch lines are set up to ensnare the “enemies of socialism.” A timely and cautionary tale. My highest recommendation! Thomas J. Howley

A LAND LIKE YOU Tobie Nathan (trans. Joyce Zonana), Seagull Books, 2020, $27.50, hb, 344pp, 9780857427885

Egyptian-born Tobie Nathan orchestrates a love-song to his native land between 1925 and the mid-Sixties in Rushdie-MafouzDurrell strokes. The world begins for our lead character Zohar when his mother must resort to the mystical Muslim zar cult in order to conceive her son. Then, unable to breastfeed her infant, she must put him to a Muslim wet nurse whose daughter was born at nearly the same time, creating the forbidden but unavoidable connection. When Jews invite a Muslim friend to celebrate with them, he insists on tea—but looks the other way when shots of liquor are poured into his cup. And Zohar and two Jewish friends make their living brewing alcohol, which they peddle as Blue Water to Muslim compatriots and British officers alike. Such is the live-and-let-live world before— “We Jews of Egypt,” the narrator tells us, “we were there with the Pharaohs.” And some of them, he suggests, did not feel the need to flee over the parted Red Sea. It is only British colonization followed by Rommel the Desert Fox and his tanks and then the creation of the state of Israel and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood that were able to destroy millennial stasis in the streets of the common people along the Nile. Some journalistic pages covering the big names and events not so familiar to western audiences are helpful if not exactly novelistic. Otherwise, the book opens a door to a world different from what we expect but fundamental to the modern predicament, nonetheless. Ann Chamberlin

THE HELL RUN Anthony Palmiotti, Fireship, 2021, $19.99, pb, 280pp, 9781735354569

The reader follows several initially separate scenarios: namely, the commissioning of a new hastily constructed Liberty Ship SS John Ireland; the increasingly hard life of conquered and oppressed Norwegians in a small northern town under the egregious German occupation; along with the dangers of weather and armed conflict to convoys travelling from England into Murmansk to bring much-needed war materials to Russia. Slowly, Palmiotti weaves these narratives


into a single explosive thread as he highlights how these isolated realities are forced together. Innocent civilians must be evacuated as they face forced labour or elimination! Even the views of the German occupiers enter into this evolving mix as an audacious rescue plan emerges. Drawing inspiration from a highly daring raid carried out by a small flotilla of British warships in World War II, Palmiotti crafts an enthralling adventure that replicates the awful effects of war, including untimely death and destruction of both military and civilian figures. The cruelty and deprivation of forced occupation mesh with the dangers of dealing with winter storms in the high Atlantic along with German air and sea attacks. The reader follows this small naval squadron into the mouth of the Altafjord in German-occupied northern Norway intent on rescuing over 500 non-combatants from under the very noses of the occupying forces. Palmiotti’s characters are not largerthan-life heroes; rather, they are somewhat run-of-the-mill people who have been thrust into unusual situations. Some adapt better than others while others are cut down before any potential can be realized. Importantly, the novel does not conclude with many pleasantries. As further deference to the disruption wrought by major conflict, the surviving characters are caught up in the complex and uncertain waves of war and carried to a doubtful future. Jon G. Bradley

THE COLLECTOR’S DAUGHTER Gill Paul, William Morrow, 2021, $16.99, pb, 384pp, 9780063079861 / Avon, 2021, £7.99, pb, 400pp, 9780008453473

Lady Evelyn Beauchamp is recovering from a stroke in London in July 1972. Her husband, Sir Brograve, is considering whether his wife is well enough to sit for a series of interviews with Dr. Ana Mansour, a professor from the University of Cairo, about Eve’s experience at the opening of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. He is concerned not only about Eve’s sometimes flagging memory. He also worries about the memento she took from the tomb and kept—will she, after all these years, be criticized for entering the tomb surreptitiously with her father, Lord Carnarvon, and archeologist Howard Carter? Will she be castigated as a tomb robber? The Collector’s Daughter is the latest historical novel from best-selling author Gill Paul. She is known for fictionalizing the experiences of well-known women, including Jackie Kennedy, Maria Callas, and Grand Duchess Maria of the Romanovs. This is a love story, chronicling the relationship between Eve and Brograve and the challenges that arise when one member of a pair has difficulty remembering their past history. It captures the hesitancy and

confusion in the days after awakening from a stroke. The narrative switches from the 1920s and tomb exploration to the 1970s, and in the process loses emotional momentum. Eve’s dialogue and reactions often seem frivolous, and her recollections of entering the tomb of Tutankhamun are somewhat matter-of-fact. The reader as a result fails to get a sense of the awe of entering a sacred place that has been closed to the world for 3000 years. The Collector’s Daughter thus is more a series of personal life reflections than a full-blown story of discovery. K. M. Sandrick

YOURS CHEERFULLY AJ Pearce, Scribner, 2021, $26.00, hb, 304pp, 9781501170096 / Picador, 2021, £14.99, hb, 352pp, 9781509853946

This charmer of a book is a sequel to Pearce’s bestselling debut novel, Dear Mrs. Bird, and it’s equally delightful. Undaunted by London life in 1941, our heroine, Emmeline Lake, continues her work at a faltering magazine called Woman’s Friend. Providentially, its terrible advice columnist, Mrs. Bird, has moved on to Livestock and Pet, and Emmy inherits the column, renamed “Yours Cheerfully.” But as World War II grinds along, and Woman’s Friend tries to support both the war effort and their beleaguered readers, conflicts arise. Pearce is a trained historian, and she skillfully illuminates wartime women’s history through the adventures of her humorous, appealing characters, who include a fouryear-old fireball named Ruby. By unleashing the Blitz, Hitler hoped to destroy both British manufacturing and morale; women played a major role in defeating these attacks, because they poured into the workforce, while carrying on with domestic responsibilities. The resulting problems sound drearily familiar: lack of equal rights, pay, benefits, respect, union representation, and child care, or “nurseries,” in British parlance. Emmy and her best friend, Bunty, throw themselves into a movement to demand more nurseries. (This is true to history; by war’s end, the number had increased a hundredfold.) This heartwarming novel moves through laughter and tears, romances and deaths. As she weaves historical events, slang, and popular culture into her story, Pearce brilliantly evokes the era: for example, a salvaged silk parachute becomes a wedding dress… worn over thick woolly underwear. But wedding is followed by parting, and some readers may worry that Emmy’s sweetheart is almost too good to survive the war. We shall see, for Pearce promises to continue the series, which is also likely, in time, to delight viewers of screens big and small. Susan Lowell

THE TUSCAN HOUSE Angela Petch, Bookouture, 2021, $12.99, pb, 384pp, 9781800193901

In 1947, war hero Richard Moorhead

receives an invitation to attend a community celebration in Corbello, Tuscany. Although a pacifist, he had worked with the FAU (Friends’ Ambulance Unit) Quakers at a makeshift hospital during the war. He is constantly dogged by the needless violence of his war days, taunted by nightmares, and unable to move forward with his life, so he hops on his ex-military M20 motorcycle, a small knapsack in the sidecar, and heads for Tuscany. Arriving in Corbello, Richard, a shy, gentle man, avoids the limelight of the congratulatory citizens and doesn’t plan on sticking around, but a friend shows him the old tobacco tower that’s for sale, and he’s instantly smitten. What better than a country life in Tuscany to exorcise his ghosts? Soon after taking ownership, as he is digging a vegetable patch, he comes across a woman’s remains, that the carabiniere identify as Fosca Santino. No sooner is Richard given permission to start renovations, then a young woman arrives from out of nowhere, a small boy in tow. Her name is Fosca Santino and she’s very much alive. Fosca’s story is told through a series of vignettes; her work as a schoolteacher, her husband’s death, her partisan involvement, her close friend Simonetta, the Nazi occupation, local politics, widespread corruption and greed. Fosca is sure the woman in the grave is Simonetta, and that Corbello’s mayor is somehow responsible. I enjoyed the book overall, but my interest waned during what felt like a contrived and hurried ending. Although part of a series, this is a standalone about the devastation of war, the fruitless waste of life, corruption and the opportunistic moment for personal gain. Fiona Alison

HOME FRONT LINES Brenda Sparks Prescott, Bedazzled Ink, 2021, $16.95/£12.50, pb, 233pp, 9781949290530

At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, Betty Anne Johnson is an African American military wife and mother stationed at an airbase outside of Washington, DC. Sisters Lola, Chita, and Rosita are beautiful and proud Montero family members in Matanzas, Cuba, coping with Castro’s cruel socialism and the brutal Russian military occupiers. The novel unfolds through parallel stories of the American and Cuban women learning about the monstrous nuclear threat while navigating jobs, husbands, children, lovers, racism, and treacherous politics. Soon both sets of heroines decide that the safety of their children is all-important and take steps to send them as far as they can from likely target sites. They must hurry. As Chita says in one of Prescott’s many great lines, “By the time the dog gets off the porch it will be too late.” A snooty officer’s wife, a Japanese reporter who is not as she seems, and a conflicted Russian are among the many interesting secondary characters. A hushedup deadly nuclear accident in the US and a

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missing younger brother to the Montero sisters add more complexity. Prescott’s descriptions of daily life around the U.S. airbase and in dilapidated Cuba all feel true. Her prose and plotting are spare but effective, and the storylines, character development, and settings never bog down. In a few places, the fast pacing creates problems in this short novel. The briefly stated cause of the nuclear accident is unclear and improbable. Some of the conflicts between spouses deserve deeper treatment. Overall, Home Front Lines is an unusual rendering of a dangerous time and will engage readers from its first page to the “thriller” ending. G. J. Berger

THE PERFUME THIEF Timothy Schaffert, Doubleday, 2021, $27.00, hb, 368pp, 9780385545747

In Nazi-occupied Paris, Clementine has several strikes against her: she’s gender-fluid, and deeply involved with the artistic, nonheterosexual, nightclub, anti-Nazi community – a community that’s decreasing in numbers every Nazi-occupied day. She’s a retired con artist, now a creator of unique perfumes: a passion that leads her to embark upon one last con. Recruited by singer Zoë St. Angel, who’s involved with the Paris Resistance, Clementine is asked to find a famous perfumer’s recipe book – or, rather, to find or fake it for Oskar Voss, a Nazi bureaucrat who’s a Francophile and perfume addict, in a convoluted plot to frame and discredit Voss. And so Clementine adds yet another career to her resume: Resistance fighter. Clementine now must tread a razorthin line between safety and disaster as she weaves an imitation reality for Voss. While she’s experienced at creating new personas and history, this time the stakes are the highest possible: her life, and the lives of everyone she’s connected with. This time, failure is not an option. This novel offers an entrancing look into a little-known WWII sub-society. The writing’s exquisite, each well-chosen word bringing to elegant life a Paris that no longer exists -and perhaps never existed save in the mind. Clementine and her gorgeous suits, her exotic past, her many and varied lovers, are metaphors for not only the queer society in which she moves, but for the many incarnations of the city of Paris herself. The descriptions of perfumes and their creation are so vivid I sometimes thought I actually discerned those scents on the air. Highly recommended! India Edghill

THE EAGLE’S CLAW Jeff Shaara, Ballantine, 2021, $28.99/C$38.99, hb, 352pp, 9780525619444

Acclaimed novelist Shaara paints a very intimate portrayal of one of the most famous battles of World War II: the Battle of Midway. Following approximately six months after the disaster that was Pearl Harbor, this unexpected 48

American victory changed the course of the war and foreshadowed the eventual defeat of the Empire of Japan. The salient observation that “Intelligence is not science. Nor is it tactics” provides a thread that permeates the novel. This saga of June 1942 has been dissected in scores of histories, novels, biographies, and cinematic presentations. There are precious few new details to be discovered, especially as the result is clearly known; nonetheless, Shaara brings a fresh personal touch to the drama. For example, Admiral Yamamato maintained a mistress, Admiral Nimitz played horseshoes to relax, and Lieutenant Baker experienced undiagnosed PTSD. Retelling well-known historical events is fraught with danger. By concentrating on key individuals alternately within both the Japanese and American military hierarchy, the reader begins to see somewhat staid historical characters more as individuals each with his own flaws, foibles, and inconsistencies. The few clear black-and-white maps clarify the vastness of the ocean. Further, the author describes several American soldiers, sailors and airmen and offers insights into their pasts; however, also describing a few Japanese of similar rank would have offered a more balanced narrative. Overall, Shaara weaves together several strands that mesh together in the gigantic battle. He is to be congratulated for eschewing the brutality of combat by concentrating more on the results than on statistics and casualties. He does not pretend that battle is sterile, but creatively focuses the view to portray the overall consequences. Interestingly, a clear denouement offers the reader an insight into the post-action lives of many of the key actors. Jon G. Bradley

LEAVING COY’S HILL Katherine A. Sherbrooke, Pegasus, 2021, $25.95/£21.99, hb, 352pp, 9781643137162

Already imbued with a strong sense of justice, twelve-year-old Lucy Stone is aghast when she finds her newlywed cousin Abigail in tears. She learns that Abigail’s husband has cleared his debts by selling Abigail’s beloved horse without consulting her. When Lucy’s inquiries to a local judge inform her that the man was within his rights, she vows to avoid marriage, also bearing in mind the travails of her overworked mother and other women. Instead, she sets herself on an independent course: earning a degree at coeducational Oberlin College, then making a living lecturing to often hostile crowds in the East and Midwest about the abolitionist movement at a time when few women spoke in public. Soon, Lucy’s satisfying yet grueling life on the lecture circuit is shaken by her decision to add the topic of women’s rights to her repertoire, and by a young man named Henry Blackwell, who is determined to persuade Lucy to change her mind about marriage. Spanning the latter half of the 19th century,

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Leaving Coy’s Hill follows Lucy’s life from her childhood home of Coy’s Hill in rural Massachusetts to her final home in Boston. It is a moving, impeccably researched biographical novel about a woman who in her own day was as important to the feminist movement as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but today is little remembered. Lucy’s sometimes cooperative, sometimes fraught relationship with these two women and other reformers comprises a significant part of Sherbrooke’s story, but it is Lucy’s struggle to reconcile her personal and professional lives, and the clash of her high ideals with human frailty that will resonate most strongly with many readers. My only complaint about this novel is that I thought that the ending was dragged out. But then, I could see where the author was reluctant to leave her heroine behind, as I certainly was. Susan Higginbotham

THE CODEBREAKERS Alli Sinclair, Mira Australia, 2021, A$29.99, pb, 496pp, 9781489296931

In 1943, Ellie Sullivan is already doing her bit for the war effort servicing aircraft for Qantas when she is approached to work for the mysterious Central Bureau in Brisbane. This involves intercepting and deciphering enemy messages on the Pacific front that will be relayed on to Bletchley Park or Arlington Hall. Ellie must sign documents swearing that she will never talk about what she does. Working from a garage attached to a large house, Ellie enjoys the challenging work and especially the close friendships she forms with the other “Garage Girls”. Often outspoken and of the belief that women can do the same jobs as the men, she takes risks and, when there is a breach in security, she puts herself in danger. Two men play important roles in her personal life: her old friend, Louis, and her new love, Harry. The Queensland settings and other aspects of Ellie’s life, including her connection to the Royal Flying Doctor Service, add extra interest. The violent brawls between Australians and American troops – often triggered by unwelcome attention to local girls – are also fact-based. Ellie is such an exuberant and optimistic character who always “sees the good in everyone” that she keeps the reader inspired and interested in her story, much of it based on the real women involved in this little-known aspect of World War II in Australia, history not really known until quite recent times. This is a fresh, brisk and immensely readable novel, filled with generosity and good humour as well as inevitable sad or contemplative passages. It is also a fitting tribute to the women who served and whom General Douglas MacArthur personally thanked for their vital contribution that helped to shorten “the war in the Pacific by up to two years … and save millions of lives”. Marina Maxwell


THE SECOND LIFE OF MIRIELLE WEST Amanda Skenandore, Kensington, 2021, $15.95/C$21.95, pb, 368pp, 9781496726513

Los Angeles, 1920. Mirielle West seems to have it all. A movie star husband, parties with the rich and famous, and two wonderful kids. But that all comes to a crashing halt when she’s diagnosed with leprosy. Secreted away by train to the U.S. Marine Hospital 66, or Carville, in Louisiana, Mirielle is forced to come to terms with her diagnosis. Once there, Mirielle—assuming the pseudonym Pauline Marvin—struggles to both adjust to life in the hospital confines as well as accept her predicament. All she can think about is getting out, even if it means escaping through the fence, and getting back to her family. Even though doing that would subject them to ridicule and a social stigma of being kin to a leper. Despite being a “high hatted egoist” who only cares about herself, Mirielle slowly makes friends with a few other patients—a roommate and workmate Irene, Frank, a young, orphaned girl Jean, and even a few of the nuns. She is determined to find a cure for leprosy and even helps organize parties with Frank. Though, the stigma of her condition and her melancholy before arriving at Carville weigh heavily and Mirielle often lapses back to her old, egotistical self. Skenandore sheds light on a disease and history often overlooked in U.S. history. Though not as famous as the colony on Molokai, Carville was a vibrant home for many suffering from Hansen’s disease, and most chose to remain residents long after their 12 negative tests. Skenandore’s careful attention to the history, community, and stigma resonate perfectly throughout the novel. Though many of the characters are thinly drawn, this works for a place where everyone lives behind a pseudonym, though it does hinder emotional ties to secondary characters. A well-researched and deftly crafted story of identity and strength. Bryan Dumas

THE COUNTRY OF OTHERS Leïla Slimani (trans Sam Taylor), Faber & Faber, 2021, £14.99, hb, 315pp, 9780571361618 / Penguin, 2021, $26.00, hb, 320pp, 9780143135975

When Mathilde follows her Moroccan husband Amine from Alsace to his homeland, she is in for a huge culture shock. The soldier she fell in love with when he was stationed in her village during World War II is a virtual stranger to her; the climate, gender expectations and customs of the country are alien to her; and even the sky seems to be a different shade of intense blue. As the years pass, she both resists and tries to assimilate to her new environment, neither part of the local community nor that of the French colonialists. And all the while unrest is building as

Moroccans are increasingly determined to gain their independence from France. Slimani is clearly a highly regarded author – recipient of the Prix Goncourt no less – but it took me a while to become absorbed in this book. Although the author observes and analyses her characters closely and demonstrates how everyone is motivated by conflicting desires, her omniscient narrative style, flitting from one character to another, paradoxically made it harder for me to feel close to any of them – until my first proper encounter with Amine and Mathilde’s 6-yearold daughter Aïcha. Once I’d connected with the little mixed-race girl navigating her way through the frightening and inexplicable world of adults, I felt more invested in the story of her parents too. Rural and urban Morocco are both vividly conjured up, as is the increasingly tense political situation, in which the author resolutely refuses to take sides. I could have done with a glossary of the occasional Arabic words used, but that’s just a minor quibble. This is only the first part of a projected trilogy, and it is clear from the ending that events are only going to grow more dramatic in the next volumes. Jasmina Svenne

THE WOODCOCK Richard Smyth, Fairlight, 2021, £14.99, pb, 336pp, 9781912054985

Gravely, east coast of England, 1920s. Harriet and Jon have been happily married for two years. He is a naturalist who makes a living from writing articles on birds, shore life and “too many damn invertebrates,” while she keeps house and tolerates her husband’s passion, all too evident in the jars of pickled specimens that fill the workroom. Their simple life is interrupted by the visit of Jon’s close friend David, a novelist and a womaniser, and by the arrival in their small town of the American Maurice Shakes and his two red-haired daughters, Cordelia and Eleanor. Shakes has a dream and the money and intention to build it: a pleasure-ground and a pier that will go half a mile out to sea. This, however, isn’t a David and Goliath story; the building of Shakes’s dream is almost, but not quite, an irrelevance. This is rather a tale of human nature, of temptation, secrets and the cost of pleasure. The story is told in alternate chapters in the first person by Harriet and Jon, each speaking in their own inimitable voice with honesty, pragmatism and humour. Harriet is particularly engaging,

with her down-to-earth attitude towards her husband, her faith and ultimately to her mission. Jon’s love of the landscape, the flora, and the fauna is manifest in every word, and the sounds and smells waft off the page and totally captivate the reader. There are interesting little snippets of information about birds in particular; that woodcock often fall dead to the ground, exhausted from their migratory flight, is particularly poignant. This is a beautiful, beautiful book that mesmerised and transported me; I would quite happily have read about the lives of Harriet and Jon forever. Highly recommended. Marilyn Pemberton

SKELTON’S GUIDE TO DOMESTIC POISONS David Stafford, Allison & Busby, 2020, £8.99, pb, 384pp, 9780749026837

Birmingham, 1928. A funeral is halted thanks to an accusation that the deceased has been poisoned. His widow is arrested for murder. The self-deprecating barrister Arthur Skelton, riding high on his success in a defamation case following a high-profile divorce which has earned him the sobriquet ‘Sir Galahad,’ takes the brief for the defence – possibly because of Mary Dutton’s startling resemblance to Lillian Gish. In his private life Skelton frets about his marriage, fearing that his rather strong-minded wife betrays him, and tries to relax by reading the novels of Elinor Glyn. He is assisted by his clerk, the pragmatic Edgar, who smells of pencil shavings and new suits, knows how to pick a lock and is prone to car sickness. Stafford is a broadcaster and writer of comedy and drama, mainly for radio, and it shows – exhilaratingly so. I was laughing out loud by page twelve and regularly afterwards. Even the smallest cameos delight, as this one: ‘…a solitary waiter who looked as if he might have seen service with Raglan at Inkerman. Heroes who have been nursed by Florence Nightingale are commendable fellows, but you wouldn’t want them bringing your whitebait. Not if you were hungry.’ In his quest to free the widow, Skelton and his clerk are supported by Skelton’s eccentric but observant cousins, who run the itinerant Joy of Jesus Mission (much more entertaining than it might sound). Period details are perfect: the merits of celluloid over bone handles for toothbrushes, Bassett-Lowke model ships and the purple of laundry ink. Stafford’s first novel is an unalloyed delight. I look forward to more. Katherine Mezzacappa

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SKELTON’S GUIDE TO SUITCASE MURDERS David Stafford, Allison & Busby, 2021, £16.99, hb, 352pp, 9780749026882

It is late 1929 when a suitcase is found in a quarry near Wakefield, containing a dismembered corpse. The Suitcase Murder is an instant sensation – and, when the deceased is identified as the late Edna Aziz, the blame immediately falls on the victim’s Egyptian husband, a well-respected but definitely unEnglish physician. Even celebrated London barrister Arthur Skelton must admit that, as evidence goes, Dr Aziz’s case looks doomed… but, after meeting the man, Skelton is convinced of his innocence, and sets out to prove it with the help of his clerks – eccentric Edgar and plucky young Rose – and a small host of colourful characters. The question of course, is: if not Dr Aziz, whodunit? This second instalment in a series boasts lovely writing, an abundance of dry humour, a lively recreation of the time period, and endearingly off-kilter characters. Truth be told, the mystery meanders about in a rather disjointed, not terribly plausible manner: coincidence abounds, evidence trickles by through a number of minor storylines, and it all seems to be resolved more by chance than logic. Still, the writing, setting, and characters are engaging enough to keep the reader’s interest to the end. Chiara Prezzavento

CITY OF DARK CORNERS Jon Talton, Poisoned Pen Press, 2021, $15.99/ C$22.99, pb, 256pp, 9781464213250

1933: Eugene Hammons departed the Phoenix police force under a dark cloud. Now he searches for missing persons as a P.I. One night a mysterious blonde is found dismembered by the railroad tracks in the Arizona desert, with Gene’s business card in her purse. Gene’s been set up. His brother, still on the force, gives Gene the business card and advises him to forget about the case; the girl supposedly fell from a train. Not satisfied with easy answers and despite being warned off, Gene investigates. Victoria Vasquez, a photographer and Gene’s girlfriend, assists him. The clues lead them to the underbelly of the rapidly growing young city of Phoenix, and Gene’s search there will keep you turning the pages past your bedtime. All the characters in this well-written noir are multi-dimensional and satisfying, but the burgeoning city of Phoenix is one of the most vibrant. Talton intimately knows his history and brings 1933 Phoenix to life. The book is 50

filled with historical figures, including a young Barry Goldwater, and Talton’s understanding of the city rings true on every page. Combined with a gripping plot, interesting characters, and compelling prose, you have a satisfying read. If you are a fan of noirs—or even if you’re not—you’ll enjoy this jaunt to the Depressionera Southwest. Recommended. Susan McDuffie

A WOMAN OF INTELLIGENCE Karin Tanabe, St. Martin’s, 2021, $27.99, hb, 384pp, 9781250231505

It is 1946. Katharina is single and living her dream life as an interpreter for the United Nations in New York City by day, and partying with her friends by night. Her life is fulfilling, but society expects her to marry. Tom is a pediatric surgeon from a very wealthy family, and to all appearances, Katharina’s ideal life is laid out in front of her once they walk down the aisle. Now the pressure is on to become a proper wife and mother. The book opens with Katherina in the park with her two young sons. Tanabe’s dialogue is witty and engaging, making New York City of the late 1940s feel alive. This draws the reader into the story immediately. Tom imposes his strict ideals on what a wife and mother should be and won’t allow her outside help. Katherina feels trapped in her role and totally inept at keeping the chaos of two little boys under control. She sits up nights watching the street activity from her seventh-floor apartment window, in exile from her former life. On a rare outing alone, she is approached by Lee Caldwell, an FBI operative, who has been watching her. He needs Katarina to make contact with a former college friend and lover, Jacob Gornev, who is a known Russian spy. The plan is to become Jacob’s courier and intercept documents leaking out of the Department of Defense. This is just what she needs to again feel valued and competent. Not only is she now spying for the FBI, but she is keeping under the radar of her controlling husband who thinks she is dutifully at home. This is an enjoyable, immersive read with clandestine meetings, covert activities, and a romance – a wonderful escape into 1940s New York City. Janice Ottersberg

THE DEVIL MAY DANCE Jake Tapper, Little, Brown, 2021, $28.00/ C$35.00, hb, 336pp, 9780316530231

U.S. Congressman Charlie Marder and his wife, zoologist Dr. Margaret, share sips of Jack Daniel’s as they bemoan the passing of Salvatore “Lucky” Luciano at a Forest Lawn gravesite in Glendale, California, with Frank Sinatra and members of his Rat Pack in 1962. The pair has been enlisted by Attorney General Bobby Kennedy to use their connections in Hollywood and find out exactly what kind of favor Sam “Momo” Giancana wants Sinatra

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to get from his friends, President Jack Kennedy and his father, Joe. The Marders soon become entangled in murder when they open the trunk of their rental car and find the body of a young woman, shot through the eyes. They soon learn of a similar murder – actor and Sinatra rival Chris Powell, the victim of a presumed Mob hit, also shot through the eyes. The Devil May Dance is the second in the Charlie and Margaret Marder series of historical thrillers. The first, The Hellfire Club, was published in 2018. The story provides an intimate look at film stars, hangers-on, and the Hollywood press. Tidbits of information dish on the likes of John Wayne, Rock Hudson, songwriter Jimmy van Heusen, Lauren Bacall, and Rat Packers Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, and Dean Martin. Scenes are often tense and spiteful, and dialogue is sleazy, crude, and debasing. Whether or not the depiction is historically accurate, the net effect is an extended immersion into the seamy side of life. Action and plotting are not strong enough on the thriller side to lift or lighten the mood. There is little dancing in this Devil. K. M. Sandrick

IN ALL GOOD FAITH Liza Nash Taylor, Blackstone, 2021, $27.99, hb, 375pp, 9781982603977

Taylor’s latest novel is filled with sweet surprises. Set during the Great Depression, the storyline alternates between May Craig, the heroine of Taylor’s first book, now a married woman with two children in rural Virginia, and Dorrit Sykes, a teenager in Boston. Two deaths set these characters on journeys that will ultimately converge when the woman and the girl form an unlikely friendship and decide to take control of their destinies. Ultimately, they help each other find faith in themselves. When May’s father-in-law commits suicide over his financial affairs, May uses her ingenuity to keep the family afloat by opening a candy business, but her generally loving husband balks at the idea of her working outside the home and discourages her efforts, threatening their marriage. Dorrit’s mother, a believer in Christian Science, dies due to an ectopic pregnancy. Dorrit, afflicted with paralyzing anxiety, is torn between the restrictive beliefs espoused by her mother’s religion and the adventurous life she reads about in Nancy Drew books. When her father takes her to Washington for a protest march, Dorrit is thrust into a dangerous world and soon must fend for herself. Historically, the novel delves into a shameful aspect of American history: the treatment of World War I veterans during the Depression. “In Washington, veterans arrived full of enthusiasm and veterans departed, discouraged and fatigued.” The media, the police, and the government heap abuse upon these men and their families, and yet, many ordinary people—like May and Dorrit—come to each other’s aid and manage to survive


and even thrive despite the hardships. This emotionally engaging novel is a timely reminder of Americans’ resilience in the face of adversity. Trish MacEnulty

TWO BOYS AT BREAKWATER Boston Teran, High Top, 2021, $22.00, hb, 300pp, 9781567030167

Two Boys at Breakwater is an ambitious novel. Film Noir meets revolutionary gay activism. Dean Teranova, whose father is a thug, and Guy Prince, whose father is a mobster, meet as boys in 1957, at ten and eleven years old, and after a decade in juvenile detention, they reunite to bring NYC to its knees. The novel is embedded in a time when five crime families ruled the nation’s largest city and the gay world was rising up in protest. Beyond the violence, Two Boys at Breakwater is a love story. Caught up in an internecine bloodbath involving the Carpetti crime family generated by the rape of a young woman and the daring defiance of Guy’s father, the two young men must also face down the wrath of two homophobic police detectives who are on the hunt for Guy’s father. The game is on. In such a world, who can be trusted? Only people who truly love one another. I wanted to be swept up into Dean and Guy’s story of love in a time of lawlessness and historic defiance. I wanted to believe in their love for one another and the ensuing acts of self-sacrifice leading to salvation. But I wasn’t. I wasn’t sold that an eleven-year-old boy could fall passionately in love with a ten-year-old at first sight. I wasn’t sold that the clever father would abandon his son to go into hiding, and I wasn’t sold that the Mafia couldn’t gruesomely take care of its own problems Soprano-style. The plot has numerous holes, and the dialogue just doesn’t ring true to the characters, who all sound far too educated, even with an occasional “fuckin’” thrown in. In the end, this novel rather reads like a first draft. Peter Clenott

NO JOURNEY TOO FAR Carrie Turansky, Multnomah, 2021, $14.99, pb, 368pp, 9780525652953

In 1909, Grace McAlister, her brother Garth, and her sister Katie were sent from England to Canada, among the thousands of British Home Children taken from their families, often under suspicious circumstances. Grace was adopted by rich parents, the Hamiltons, but Garth and Katie, like many of the British Home Children, were forced into indentured servitude. Ten years later, Grace Hamilton is about to turn 18 and her parents are launching her into Toronto society, trying to find her a well-to-do husband. They stress that Grace is not to tell anyone she was a British Home Child, as there is stigma attached. Then she

finds a trunk in the attic that could help her locate the McAlister family. This is a gripping saga of a family torn apart. The second book in the McAlister Family series, it can be read as a standalone, but reading the first book, No Ocean Too Wide, is recommended in order to get the complete story. We learn the tragic and true history of the British Home Children, who were taken from their families and their country between 1869 and 1939. This is the story of a struggle against extreme injustices that were forced on young children against their will. It also depicts the determination of a family, fighting against odds and across the ocean in order to reunite. There is a gentle Christian message of trusting God during hard times, and there are also two romances that occur in the midst of turmoil. Similar in vein to Lisa Wingate’s Before We Were Yours, this is a heartrending novel that is not to be missed. Bonnie DeMoss

WINTER FLOWERS Angélique Villeneuve (trans. Adriana Hunter), Peirene Press, 2021, £12.00, pb, 180pp, 9781908670670

Our central character is Jeanne Caillet, whose husband Toussant sustained near-fatal facial injuries in the First World War and has, since then, been confined in a military hospital which specialises in such disfiguring wounds. “I want you not to come,” he tells her by letter and, obedient and loving, Jeanne does as he tells her and does not go, applying herself to the task of keeping her daughter fed. Jeanne’s great skill is her ability to create exquisite artificial flowers, using silks and satins and velvets, from which she composes sought-after decorations for the hats, corsages, bosoms, waists, dining tables and flower displays of the rich. Although commanding high prices from wealthy clients, the sourcing of materials, plus the endless hours each creation takes to complete, means that the profit from her labours is insufficient, resulting in little money for food or fuel for the stove. Eventually Toussant is discharged but, unsurprisingly, it is not a homecoming anyone could imagine or wish for. A white mask now covers that part of the face that barely exists any longer, and their reunion is equally distorted by what has happened and is still happening to them. Wrapped in unremitting poverty and surrounded by characters whose lives are as tragic and hopeless as their own, the little family will struggle on, reforming their own, strangely changed, relationship and raising their child, Leonie/Leo, the five-yearold whose resilience and acceptance of her circumstances is virtually the only positive element in this unashamedly bleak story. The locations are lightly, convincingly and effectively drawn for us. The construction of the narrative is cinematic in its effective precision. Julia Stoneham

FIERY GIRLS Heather Wardell, Independently published, 2021, $18.95, pb, 324pp, 9781988016092

In 1909, two very different young women arrive at the immigration portal of Ellis Island: Rosie Lehrer, tasked with the responsibility of earning enough money to help her Jewish family leave Czarist Russia, and Maria Cirrito, who along with her brother is supposed to spend four years in America before returning to Italy with cash to fund her parents’ dream of opening a bigger restaurant. Shy and lacking in confidence, Rosie nonetheless finds her sudden independence enthralling, while the vivacious Maria longs for the day when the young man she loves will keep his promise to follow her to America. Skilled at sewing, the newcomers soon find their way to New York’s garment factories, where each is drawn into the labor movement and, fatefully, to employment at the Triangle Waist Company. Narrated in the first-person present by Rosie and Maria, Fiery Girls vividly depicts, as one might expect, the harsh conditions faced by easily exploited workers when labor laws were still in their infancy and the ruthlessness of the men who ran the factories that churned out ready-to-wear garments. Yet there’s another side to the novel as well: the exhilaration of being young with a little money to spend on oneself, the fun of an afternoon at the moving pictures or at Coney Island, the satisfaction of picking up American slang. While there’s plenty of grimness here, there’s also a lot of grit in the shape of its two memorable heroines, who are worthy of that description in all senses of the word. Susan Higginbotham

ALL THE LITTLE HOPES Leah Weiss, Sourcebooks Landmark, 2021, $16.99, pb, 368pp, 9781728232744

Thirteen-year-old Allie Bert Tucker is sent by her father from her home in the Appalachians to live with her pregnant aunt Violet in Riverton in North Carolina’s tobacco country after Bert’s mother dies in child birth. There, Bert finds an aunt slowly going mad and a good-for-nothing uncle, Larry, who is never around; though that’s for the best. Lucy Brown, also 13, lives with her bibliophile family on a small tobacco farm where they also keep bees. Lucy’s older brother and brother-in-law are both fighting in the war—one somewhere in Europe and the other in the Pacific. After a crazy, rainy night where Violet throws Bert out, the Brown family brings Bert in as one of their own. Lucy is a fan of Nancy Drew mysteries and can’t let the disappearance of Larry go. However, their lives are turned around when German POWs are brought to Riverton. Two more disappearances bring Lucy and Bert to unusual sources for help. Told in alternating chapters between Lucy and Bert, Weiss (If the Creek Don’t Rise) crafts a wonderful coming-of-age story and weaves in the oft-unknown history of German POWs in North Carolina and the need for beeswax by the U.S. Government. Bert and

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Lucy’s friendship, tested, mended, and tested again, rings true for young girls growing up in difficult times. An eclectic and fun secondary cast often help Lucy and Bert solve their little mysteries. The rural Southern community is wonderfully detailed, and Lucy and Bert make for captivating characters in this charming story of finding home. Bryan Dumas

WAKING THE TIGER Mark Wightman, Hobeck Books, 2021, £9.99, pb, 330pp, 9781913793333

Singapore, December 1939. The shadow of war in Europe and the expansionist ambitions of Japan hang over the British colony. Inspector Maximo Betancourt’s life is in turmoil following the disappearance of his wife the previous year. Formerly of the Singapore CID, he is now demoted to a new position as the sole member of the Special Investigations Unit of the Marine Branch, responsible for dockside disputes and Customs irregularities. When the body of a young Japanese woman is discovered down by the docks, Max is infuriated that she is dismissed as “just another tart” whose luck has run out, and determines to solve her murder. The author captures the steamy, seamy atmosphere of the port city, and the island of Singapore, with its multi-ethnic community. Max’s investigation soon leads him into dangerous waters – war-profiteering, sextrafficking and secret societies, including the infamous Sleeping Tigers – as we move from the suteretsu red-light district, through louche nightclubs to the elegance of Raffles Hotel and the Bukit Timah Turf Club. The plot rattles along at a fine pace, with a well-drawn cast of supporting characters. I was myself drawn in to our flawed, yet compassionate hero’s search for the truth about Akiko Sakai’s murder. Mary Fisk

SUBMARINER SINCLAIR John Wingate, Sapere, 2021, $9.99, pb, 242pp, 9781800552098

In the middle of World War II, Sub-Lieutenant Peter Sinclair, Royal Navy, commands a small warship, Chaser 25, on escort duty for coastal convoys in the English Channel. The work is bleak but dangerous enough, with German mines, aircraft, and warships constantly threatening. Sinclair escapes from the dreary assignment unexpectedly when orders arrive assigning him to the valiant British submarine flotilla operating against Axis shipping from the beleaguered Royal Navy base on Malta in the Mediterranean. Sinclair transitions quickly into the closed community that is a submarine’s crew and immediately comes face to face with the constant danger his new shipmates have lived with for so long aboard the submarine HMS Rugged. Attacking and being attacked in turn become a way of life for the young officer in an environment where life expectancy is measured in days rather than decades. Whether hitting 52

Axis supply ships carrying fuel for Rommel’s Afrika Korps, braving depth charges from the deadly Italian destroyer squadron the “First Eleven,” or raiding German-held positions on the Sicilian shore, Sinclair and his fellow sailors don’t shrink from giving their all. The story is a solid wartime tale, with author John Wingate’s own long experience as a naval officer very evident in the authenticity of the action and the shipboard routine. He brings alive not only the frantic action and palpable fear on a vessel in combat, but also the mundane naval life that takes up the far greater part of a sailor’s time even in war. Wingate’s occasional viewpoint shift to German or Italian characters is weaker and stereotyped, but by and large the novel is a realistic, engaging narrative. Loyd Uglow

WAR NURSE Tracey Enerson Wood, Sourcebooks Landmark, 2021, $26.99/C$38.99, hb, 304pp, 9781492698166

Julie Stimson is Superintendent of Nurses at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis in April 1917 when she is asked on short notice to develop and lead a team of nurses to assist with the care of war casualties in Europe. The daughter of a wealthy professional family in New York, Julie always hoped to become a doctor but, being a girl, this was deemed impossible. Nursing was the obvious fallback choice of profession; she is irked by this throughout her life. She is assigned to a field hospital receiving trainloads of war-wounded patients with a wide range of injuries and burns. The numbers greatly exceed the space and facilities available. Her staff often find themselves working around the clock to provide care. She finds her role is not only to lead and support her nurses but also to develop strategies to work more effectively within an outdated military and medical environment. The more personal side of her character is displayed in her somewhat ambiguous but close connection to Dr. Fred Murphy. The novel’s main themes are Julie’s overarching struggle to improve the organization of field hospitals and the choice she has to make between her mission in life and her love for Dr. Murphy. Wood presents a story that engages the reader on many levels. She helps us not only to learn about but also to feel the frustrations of a woman confined by the very limited expectations of her sex and her role. Like Florence Nightingale, she is appalled by the conditions facing the war-wounded and determined to improve them. This novel is a thoughtful presentation of the issues facing an intelligent woman who must address the dictates not only of the military and medical establishment but also the expectations of society itself. Valerie Adolph

SMALL ACTS OF DEFIANCE Michelle Wright, Allen & Unwin, 2021, A$29.99, pb, 342pp, 9781760292652

Based in Nazi-occupied Paris, Small Acts of

REVIEWS | Issue 97, August 2021

Defiance is award-winning Australian shortstory writer Michelle Wright’s debut novel. Wright lived in Paris for eleven years and conducted extensive research into French World War Two events and locations. Lucie is a teenager wrenched from her life in Australia after a family tragedy. Homeless and penniless, her French-born mother insists their only option is to relocate to Paris and throw themselves at the mercy of Lucie’s uncle, an authoritarian semi-recluse with a secret life. Arriving just as the Second World War spreads into France, Lucie is plunged into a strange and confronting world of fear and deprivation. She takes refuge in art, sketching the faces and scenes around her. As the Nazis’ campaign against Jewish citizens’ freedom and rights escalates, Lucie is drawn into a dangerous world of underground activities, with tragic results. Small Acts of Defiance is a beautifully written, engrossing story of hope and despair, with believable characters forced to fight for their physical and moral survival. Christine Childs

M U LT I -P E R IOD PAINT AND NECTAR Ashley Clark, Bethany House, 2021, $15.99, pb, 352pp, 9780764237614

This multi-generational romance takes place primarily in 1929 and in present-day Charleston, South Carolina. Lucy Legare unexpectedly inherits an old house, although she has no idea who the benefactor is. She is determined to uncover the history of the house and its previous owners, but her efforts are hampered by the attractive Declan Pinckney, a construction company owner’s son, whose father threatens that the house must be acquired at any cost because of valuable silver buried on the grounds. Lucy soon discovers the owner during the 1930s and ´40s was her great-grandmother, renowned Charleston watercolorist Eliza Ravenel, and that Declan’s great-grandfather was William Pinckney, with whom Eliza was very much in love. This places Lucy and Declan in odd juxtaposition, although neither can ignore the attraction. The story background is always haunted by the missing silver, now feuded over for more than a century by the Pinckneys and the Legares. The story alternates between Eliza’s and William’s story and Lucy’s and Declan’s. I wasn’t quite sure who owned the house when, and I couldn’t always follow the trail of the silver. The love affair between William and Eliza is heartfelt, both sad and joyous, and both time periods are well described. A few incidents feel contrived and don’t fit together smoothly, and there is a sense, at the conclusion, of incidents having happened solely so that something else could, particularly in the present-day narrative. The prologue might have been better woven into the narrative, rather than having its own voice, as it feels superfluous. Overall, a good read, but for me the tale


would benefit from fewer elements. This will no doubt intrigue readers interested in the Charleston Renaissance, as it speaks to the rampant present-day destruction of the old, vs the preservationist attitudes of earlier times. Fiona Alison

THE LOST DAUGHTER R. P. G. Colley, Rupert Colley, 2020, $14.99/ C$17.99/£10.99, pb, 381pp, 9781838013455

Twenty-first-century Britain finds Elizabeth Swingle in a very grim place: an unhappy marriage, a difficult daughter, and caring for a mother struggling in the throes of dementia. When Elizabeth’s mother begins speaking German, she realizes that it is more than a sad trick of that dementia. Rather it is a key to her mother’s Nazi past and her participation in the infamous “Lebensborn” program, an attempt to produce pure Aryan children. And when Elizabeth discovers an old card marked with a cryptic “50” and German writing, she knows she needs to find out more about her own mysterious past. When she goes to Germany, Elizabeth is met with a wall of silence. Her search will lead her to truths about both her mother and herself. Colley has a deft hand for creating a story that is impossible to put down. The plot moves seamlessly from 2001 Britain, back to the immediate post war period, and then to 1943 Nazi Germany. He creates characters that are inadvertently flawed yet highly sympathetic. He introduces the reader to the horrors of Nazi Germany but also to a love story as moving as it is remarkable. He creates a sense of pathos but also hope in human frailty. This book is highly recommended. Anne Leighton

THE GIRL FROM THE ISLAND Lorna Cook, Avon, 2021, £7.99, pb, 394pp, 9780008379063

1940: unable to leave their sick mother, sisters Persephone and Dido are trapped on Guernsey by the German invasion. They fear the worst when they discover an officer will be billeted in their house, but are startled to discover it’s their childhood friend Stefan. But can he be trusted? 2016: after years of living in London, Lucy returns to Guernsey to help her sister Clara clear and sell the house they have just inherited from their cousin Dido. The house seems strangely lacking in personal items, until Lucy discovers a box of cryptic shorthand notes and an old photograph. Can she and neighbour Will discover what happened to Persephone and Dido during the Occupation? This dual-period novel is about love, trust and the bonds between sisters. The volatile relationship between Lucy and Clara is particularly well delineated and demonstrates how the person who knows you best also has the greatest power to hurt you. Persephone is in many ways an admirable heroine, in her

determination to protect Dido, her childhood friend, Jack, and her Jewish friend, Lise, while covertly rebelling against the Nazi regime and fighting her feelings for Stefan, the boy who kissed her and then left her without an explanation when they were teenagers. Unfortunately, since Persephone is so busy with everything else, her supposedly close relationship with her sister is never fully explored. It felt to me as if there was a void at the centre of the book where Dido ought to have been, as she never comes fully to life. That said, there is much to admire in the research, characterization, and plotting of this novel, especially the deft placing of endof-chapter cliff-hangers. Jasmina Svenne

THIS OTHER ISLAND Steffanie Edward, Bookouture, 2021, $10.99/£8.99, pb, 310pp, 9781800193628

In London in 2000, thirty-something Yvette receives a call from her father, Joe, from the hospital. After calling her mum, Dolina, who is estranged from Joe, Yvette rushes to the hospital. There she finds her father recovering from a stabbing during an apparent robbery in a back alley. Yvette’s parents are part of the Windrush Generation. Yvette was brought up in St. Lucia by her aunt and, when five and a half, was reunited with her parents in London. Now she has a good job, her own flat, a car, and a steady boyfriend. Her father, who has a terminal illness, implores Yvette to locate his attacker. He believes the assault is connected to an altercation he had with the attacker while aboard the ship conveying them to England. That man is part of some family secrets that Joe has held close to his heart. Yvette is drawn into an investigation to learn the truth. This is Steffanie Edward’s first novel, but it doesn’t read like a debut. Edward credits her mother with the unusual plot, which is based on her mother’s initial voyage from St. Lucia to England. The novel’s characters sound realistic, not only due to Edward’s heritage, but also particularly in the contrasting dialogue between the older Caribbean generation, who use patois, and the younger, who speak standard English. We also learn much about the different West Indian cultures, especially the differences between the French and English-speaking islanders. The earlier hardships and abusive conditions faced by members of the Windrush Generation in England are shown succinctly. Although the circumstances of their children have much improved, they still face an identity crisis, as revealed in the first-person voices of the characters, who narrate the events during the 1960s and later in 2000. This historical novel deserves to be a bestseller. Waheed Rabbani

THE OTHER CIPHER Heidi Eljarbo, Independently Published, 2020, $10.99, pb, 247pp, 9798572286533

This artfully told historical mystery is Book Two in the Soli Hansen Mysteries. Autumn 1944—the midst of World War II— and in German-occupied Oslo, Norway, Soli Hansen, art historian and proprietor of Holm’s Fine Art Shop, has an eidetic memory. She’s been recruited by the Art Club, an underground resistance network intent on saving precious art works from Hitler’s spies. The Nazis hunt a particular 17th-century portrait of a woman. Can Soli beat them to it? She is aided by her friends, Heddy Vengen and Detective Nikolai Lange, and the cryptographers working with “Z”—one of whom, art collector Henry Gran, has gone missing. What are his connections with Leon Ruber, and Ruber’s Italian Jewish heritage? And a cryptic, manuscript art ledger recording a 1613 sale? There are many mysteries to solve. But Heddy’s father, Nazicollaborator Carl Vengen, complicates things for the Art Club. So does his assistant, the “bright but irritatingly pedantic” Sophus Bech. Also, readers are treated to a parallel narrative set in 17th-century Antwerp, Belgium. There, Fabiola Ruber seeks a painter who might capture her in the same way that an Italian master painter had during her youth in Valetta, Malta, for which she longs. In the background are Norwegian politicians, like the pro-Nazi Minister President Vidkun Quisling, and Olva V, Norwegian Crown Prince. We take in the streets, buildings—and food—of Renaissance Antwerp and WWII-torn Oslo. Norwegian artists discussed include Edvard Munch, Hans Ryggen, and Theodor Kittelsen, but center canvas are Baroque painters: Frans Francken, Joos de Momper, and especially “the great” Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, whose chiaroscuro technique inspired the up-andcoming Signor Peter Paul Rubens. We meet Rubens—and his The Honeysuckle Bower, portraying himself and his wife, Isabella— alongside Fabiola. Will Soli? You’ll have to read Eljarbo’s entertaining book to find out. Mark Spencer

TOOTH OF THE COVENANT Norman Lock, Bellevue Literary Press, 2021, $16.99/£12.99, pb, 288pp, 9781942658832

Nathaniel Hawthorne had some less than hidden skeletons in the family closet – he was the great-great-grandson of John Hathorne, one of the foremost judges in the Salem witch trials. Unlike others, Hathorne never expressed regret over his role in the deaths of more than a dozen people based solely on “spectral evidence.” His descendant was shamed by the association, and it has been suggested Nathaniel changed the spelling of the family name to distance himself. Lock adopts the style and tone of a Hawthorne novel to create metafiction on steroids. The conceit is that Hawthorne, in 1851, is writing a character (dubbed Isaac

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Page) who represents himself, sending him back to 1692 to save those condemned as witches by his ancestor. The title, “Tooth of the Covenant,” refers to doubt’s place in the covenant of belief – a tooth to “bite and gnaw where conscience has its quick.” Hawthorne uses as temporal anchor John Hathorne’s spectacles, which have survived as a family heirloom. Yet when Isaac dons the spectacles in 1692, he begins to see the world through Hathorne’s eyes, calling all he thinks he knows into question. Lock is a literary chameleon, and his efforts in pastiche have been uniformly fascinating. As part of the American Novels series, he’s taken on a variety of 19th-century authors – Melville, Thoreau, Twain. Unfortunately, he’s better at holistic balance while riffing on some styles than others (e.g., Poe in The Port-Wine Stain, a stronger offering than this one). While it suffers in comparison to some of Lock’s other works (it’s hard to drive the nail straight home with every hammer swing), when considered as a creative homage that asks questions relevant in both the 17th century and our own, this novel certainly deserves attention. Bethany Latham

THE SILK HOUSE Kayte Nunn, Orion, 2021, £8.99, pb, 375pp, 9781398700185 / Hachette Australia, 2021, A$19.99, pb, 384pp, 9780733646546

Three storylines in two timelines make up this evocative tale. In 1768, Rowan, a young maid with a healing gift and the sight, joins the household of a silk merchant in Oxleigh. MaryLouise is an impoverished pattern-drawer in 1768 London whose designs modeled on wildflowers and herbs, both efficacious and poisonous, are like nothing seen before. In the present day, Thea, a history teacher and hockey coach, accepts a job at an exclusive boys’ academy in Oxleigh. She finds herself playing housemistress at the Silk House to thirteen boarders who are the first female students ever to attend the school. All three stories are entwined well, with time and place firmly grounded, and the changes in the town over the centuries welldescribed. Rowan’s personal growth follows a particularly interesting arc, as she is tasked by the merchant’s wife with the ultimate in herbal concoctions in dangerously suspicious times. The addition of the enigmatic housekeeper, Dame Hicks, in the present day, presages a sense of the unknown. As in many gothic novels, the house is a character in its own right, a living organism, thrumming with history and the centuries of life it has guarded within its walls. The Silk House exudes haunting peculiarities which indicate the dead don’t rest in peace. Still groaning under the weight of unfinished business, the edifice appears to be seeking someone with whom to open a channel between past and present. Paranormal events plague Thea: walls that aren’t solid, dirt piles which rise up through the floor, beetles in the tea leaves, dead fish in the pond. Nunn evokes 54

a haunting sense of foreboding through her writing, and I particularly liked her inference that the woven silk yardage could hold something ominous within its threads. Well recommended for those who enjoy eerie gothic tales. Fiona Alison

THE LAST MONA LISA Jonathan Santlofer, Sourcebooks Landmark, 2021, $16.99/C$24.99, pb, 400pp, 9781728240763

Jonathan Santlofer’s new book is sheer delight. It’s filled with depictions of art, murder, art, romance, and art. Did I mention art? Luke Perrone, a struggling painter and art professor, is fascinated by stories of his great-grandfather, Vincent Perrugia, the museum worker who stole the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1911. The plot hinges on the possibility that the Mona Lisa in the Louvre is not authentic and the only key to the truth lies in Perrugia’s missing journal. When an Italian professor finds the journal and contacts Luke, he rushes to Florence to discover the truth about his mysterious greatgrandfather, but a shadowy figure also wants the journal. When almost everyone associated with the journal winds up dead and his own life is threatened, Luke realizes he’s in over his head and turns to a rogue Interpol agent for help. While he’s trying to unravel the mystery of his great-grandfather’s theft, he’s confronted with another mystery: why is a beautiful American woman suddenly so interested in him? It’s no surprise that the author is also an artist. His character’s knowledge of the topic is wide-ranging and enlightening, and the prose is written with an artist’s eye: “I imagined the stone in liquid form spilling forward like waves of lava, hardening and taking the shape of stairs, the movement trapped within.” The story is based on actual events. Vincent Peruggia did actually steal the Mona Lisa, and a con man and an art forger were likely connected with the case. The rest is fueled by the writer’s imagination as he takes readers on a wild ride, all the while introducing us to a world of fabulous art. Trish MacEnulty

THE BERLIN ZOOKEEPER Anna Stuart, Bookouture, 2021, $11.99/£8.99, pb, 353pp, 9781800194328

Anna Stuart has not penned a straightforward narrative of love and discovery during wartime; rather, she has crafted a complex, layered and multi-decade tale anchored in the world-famous Berlin Zoo. Heavily damaged during the latter years of World War II, the stressed keepers attempted to keep the animals safe during the slow, deliberate destruction of their city via constant, intense aerial bombing. This is often a distressing task as more and more animals, as well as family, friends, and colleagues, succumb to war and disease. In contemporary times, a stained, crumpled scrap of yellow paper with seven scrawled names in her late mother’s hand vaults Bethan

REVIEWS | Issue 97, August 2021

into an intense and sometimes confrontational past shrouded in mystery. The question of “What’s so secret about it?” initiates her quest to decipher the names and, more personally important, their relationship to her mother. Describing situations via extensive and intense dialogue, Stuart vividly illustrates the horror of the times, perhaps ghoulishly illustrated by the comment following the death of a close friend: “Why did He snatch Sasha… because… Hitler would have made a crap angel!” Further, the understandable but unfortunate practice of “gifting” newborns of deceased mothers explicates both the depths and heights of civilians mired in war. What role might the confused elderly lady who visits the same bench every day at the Zoo play in Bethan’s journey? Is she the connection between past and present? The chronicle is complex as the characters engage their love of animals with their own vulnerability. Realistically, there is a denouement, but some key personality strands are left untied, so readers have their own opportunity to ponder and reflect. Jon G. Bradley

EYE OF A ROOK Josephine Taylor, Fremantle Press, A$32.99, pb, 232pp, 9781925816716

2021,

Australian writer Josephine Taylor’s first novel is a psychologically penetrating and honest read that juxtaposes two women, one Victorian and one modern-day, who suffer from the same debilitating medical condition. In 1866, newlyweds Emily and Arthur Rochdale visit the London office of a physician who proposes a drastic cure for Emily’s chronic gynecological pain. Emily and Arthur are despondent; she can barely function and has withdrawn from society, and he struggles to help her. From boyhood on, Arthur has strived to speak up for those who cannot, but he isn’t sure whether to trust the surgeon and his diagnosis of “hysteria.” In 2009, a Perthbased academic, Alice Tennant, is struck down by the same disorder, which makes sitting excruciatingly painful and prevents physical intimacy with her older husband, Duncan. Taylor places readers in the moment with Arthur, Emily, and Alice as they process the pain they all endure and how it changes their outlook on life. An emotional support system can make a big difference. Emily writes letters (which read as believably Victorian) to her sister-in-law, Bea, who provides reassurance and understanding. Alice sees many traditional and alternative medicine practitioners but finds few answers – this hasn’t changed over time – and Duncan’s patience soon wears thin. In researching the history of women’s health, however, Alice taps into a new vein of creativity. Eye of a Rook dares to travel to uncomfortable places of the flesh and spirit, and does so with lyricism and visceral empathy. It beautifully describes landscapes, like England’s Peak District and the Australian countryside, and the mental respite they offer. Toward the end, the two timelines intersect in an ingenious


way. The novel should prove validating for anyone suffering from an invisible illness, and eye-opening for anyone unfamiliar with vulvodynia, which is little-known but not as rare as one would guess. Sarah Johnson

THE WORDS WE WHISPER Mary Ellen Taylor, Montlake, 2021, $12.95, pb, 351pp, 9781542018395

Zara, a hospice nurse, returns to the home of the Italian grandmother who helped raise her and her older half-sister. Zara’s skills are now needed by the family. But before her grandmother dies, she asks Zara to clean out the attic and display every item. After days of dragging boxes, furniture, and clothes to the garage, Zara discovers her grandmother is searching for a box she hid years ago. Inside are precious items saved from the old woman’s days in Italy during World War II. Inside the box are a journal and a valuable emerald brooch. As Zara and her sister read through the saga of the war years, they pull information from their grandmother that she has never discussed with her American family. Even at the end of her life, she is only willing to tell small bits and pieces at any one time. The girls learn about daring and heroics and find answers to questions about their forebears that they didn’t know they had. The story is a luscious interweaving of a spy thriller and a family saga. The reader is at once entranced by the activities of a seamstress during the war and the process by which the granddaughters discover who they are. In the midst of this process, for example, Zara meets the husband of a woman with cancer that she cared for in the last weeks of her life. This woman prepared a bucket list for her husband, which ended with “take Zara to dinner”. He did. Zara’s reactions to this budding romance form an essential part of her self-discovery and a joyful sub-plot for the book. Lorelei Brush

THE SECRETS OF THE LAKE Liz Trenow, Pan, 2021, £8.99, pb, 336pp, 9781529036619

In 2019, 84-year-old Molly Goddard is forced to turn her memories back to the time when she, her father, and brother Jimmy first arrived in the English village of Wormley and found Mere, its lake, seventy years earlier. Police have come to ask questions about what they recently found at Mere’s bottom. Could the bones belong to Jimmy, who was last seen in 1950? Could the patch of red cloth be a portion of the mac he once wore? Molly asks herself: can she bear it? The remembering? She must, she tells herself. The Secrets of the Lake deftly switches from elderly Molly’s trepidation to teenage Molly’s encounters with the beauty and the ugliness of the world: the ups and down of her first crush, the sense of outrage and determination to thwart a powerful landowner’s deceit and

manipulation, the joys and frustrations of watching out for a special needs younger brother, and the recognition of untoward and devastating consequences of her actions. The story is unsettling as readers anticipate the thrust of the narrative. It is imaginative as it draws readers into a story within a story about the mythical monster of the lake. It is deeply moving as readers become acquainted with Jimmy’s new friend Eli and Molly and Jimmy’s WWI shell-shocked father. An emotional tour de force. K. M. Sandrick

THE STORYTELLER OF CASABLANCA Fiona Valpy, Lake Union, 2021, $14.95, pb, 376pp, 9781542032100

In 1941, thirteen-year-old Josie, her sister, and parents, fearing Nazi atrocities on Jewish families, flee Paris for the relative safety of Vichy France in Casablanca, Morocco. They reside there, awaiting entry permits to the U.S. Having received a journal as a Hanukah/ Christmas present, Josie begins to write about her experiences. She’s talented, wishing to be a writer, and can read a whole book in a day. She writes about their new home close to the Atlantic Ocean and the bustle and smells of life in Casablanca. The family socializes with other refugees. Josie’s papa is involved in some activities which she doesn’t quite understand. In 2010, Zoe, her child, and husband Tom arrive in Casablanca from England. Tom is on a new posting from his shipping company and works late. Experiencing marital difficulties, Zoe is also bored since the Casablanca then is much different than “the days of Bogart and Bergman”. However, when Zoe accidentally finds Josie’s diary hidden underneath floorboards, she becomes engrossed in reading about that family’s life some seventy years earlier. This novel’s theme of discovering a diary in present time and reading about past events may sound familiar. But by having a precocious thirteen-year-old write the journal, Fiona Valpy adds intrigue into the earlier narrative and a present-day perspective from the mature Zoe. Furthermore, the alternating chapters in Josie’s and Zoe’s first-person voices keep us intimately involved and engrossed. While Josie sounds a bit advanced for her age, her account should appeal to both YAs and adults. We learn much about Vichy French and Moroccan history, cuisine, and life. We also get a better understanding of the problems of the European refugees and the North African migrant crisis. Zoe also grasps astute Josie’s perspectives on family life to mend her broken heart. The novel’s adaptation would make a fantastic sequel to Casablanca. Waheed Rabbani

T I M E SL I P

WHISPERS OF THE RUNES Christina Courtenay, £9.99/$15.99/C$17.00, 9781472282675

Headline, pb,

2021, 361pp,

In 2021, Sara Mattsson, a York silversmith, pulls a seax – a short sword – from an archaeological dig. She reads its runic inscription and is catapulted into the 9th century. Cue for an epic romp as Sara meets Rurik, a shipwrecked Viking. As a 21st-century woman, Sara must learn to cope with everyday living in the Viking age. Everything, from underwear to cleaning her teeth, is explored. Fortunately, Sara happens to be granddaughter of a Viking scholar, speaks Old Norse, and learns quickly. But what Sara really enjoys exploring is Rurik, a man with the honed, hardened body of Viking life, but surprisingly 21st-century views on consent and respect. Despite Rurik’s progressive character, the details of Viking life are solidly researched, and the encampment of the Great Heathen Army is vividly brought to life. I have to say that some plot twists and misunderstandings that divide the couple tested my credibility. But this is not that sort of book. This is fun fantasy, for a girl to imagine some hot Viking re-enactment. Courtenay lovingly describing toned muscles, neatly combed hair, and the magnificent fitness of a Viking lover. Helen Johnson

H I STOR IC A L FA N TA SY THE LINDEN’S RED PLAGUE Ann Chamberlin, Epigraph Books, 2021, $19.95, pb, 332pp, 9781951937881

Ann Chamberlin brings the Nordic legends of a banished Valkyrie, Brynhild, and hero, Siegfried, to life in the historical fantasy, The Linden’s Red Plague. Brynhild awakens from a deep sleep that Odin induced by stabbing her with a sleep-thorn because of her disobedience. He condemned her to sleep until “sons are sires,” and she meets a man her equal. Unaware of how many years have passed, Brynhild finds herself on Iceland’s treeless, volcanic island and discovers a sword she recognizes from her past. Brynhild meets the sword’s owner, Siegfried, who has a scar of a linden leaf on his back. After disclosing their pasts, they realize that Brynhild saved Siegfried’s pregnant mother after his father was slain in battle. Their subsequent adventure together reveals whether Odin has sent Siegfried as a hopeful omen or as a curse to claim Brynhild’s maidenhood and thus her magical youth and strength. As this is the second book in The Valkyries series, I strongly recommend that you read the first book to familiarize yourself with the backstory. Author Chamberlin’s prose is rich in sensory descriptions of the landscape and everyday tasks, with unique metaphors.

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Weaving in Nordic mythology provides insight into ancient beliefs and culture. The tale is told from Brynhild’s first-person perspective until midstream, where it diverts to the point of view of Gudrun, Siegfried’s love interest, to explain what happens to him after he leaves Brynhild, promising to return. The abrupt switch in viewpoint jolts the storyline and downplays the role of Siegfried in the tale. The Linden’s Red Plague might appeal to readers who enjoy Nordic mythology and legends. Linnea Tanner

DARK ROADS Bernard Davis, Independently published, 2021, £9.50/$13.95, pb, 491pp, 9798701217742

Mathew de Quincey, a skilled swordfighter, is hired by William Marshall, the king’s righthand man. With his apprentice, Will, he travels the long dark roads by cart from South Wales to the North of England to draw maps of large estates’ lands where trouble is brewing. In Coningeston Hall (in modern-day Cumbria), the Lord dies and is succeeded by his son, Godfrey. He is not a good man, nor is Elsprick, his bailiff. Over the Pennines the Lord of Alnwick Castle has found a suitable husband for his daughter, Eleanor. She prefers sword fighting to the feminine life of quiet embroidery and runs away with the help of Guy, her father’s master at arms. Soon all three storylines converge on the lands of Coningeston Hall, where all hell is let loose between the various warring factions under the evil influence of the Elf-Knight. I enjoyed much of this novel but had grave reservations about some of it. The author makes it clear the novel is more a vague interpretation of mediaeval history than reality. Then there is the supernatural/occult aspect – the Elf-Knight. What is the point of this? If he is meant to be the Devil, why is there no mention of God or Christianity? (The ‘good’ characters seem to attend mass only to slow the action down!) King John is on the throne while his brother, King Richard, is in prison abroad, but whose side are the rebels on? What does Mathew de Quincey believe? My main problem is the grammar. I have no objection to self-published novels – far from it – but most writers are not editors or proofreaders and need both. Self-published writers everywhere, take note. Sally Zigmond

THE WITCH’S HEART Genevieve Gornichec, Titan Books, 2021, £8.99, pb, 400pp, 9781789097061 / Ace, 2021, $26.00, hb, 368pp, 9780593099940

Gods and goddesses are enjoying a popular revival. Genevieve Gornichec has done the same for Angrboda, witch and mother of Norse god Loki’s children. The story opens as Angrboda, who has lived many lifetimes, attracts the attention of Odin, chief of the gods. But she refuses to share all her magical secrets, including her gift of prophecy. Odin ensures she is burnt to death three times and 56

her heart ripped out – but she escapes to a faraway forest. Loki, god of mischief, appears with her heart in his hands – literally and metaphorically. She initially doesn’t trust Loki but eventually falls for him. He is often an absent husband, and their three children are strange and magical. She is helped by the hunter goddess Skadi. But Angrboda’s quiet life is disrupted with dreams that she fears have a link to Odin. Has he tracked her down? Gornichec intertwines dramatic and amusing tales of the gods that we might or might not know. The first part of the novel is quiet and slowly paced but speeds up with action and threat as Angrboda realises her children will have a role in the prophesied demise of the gods. Kate Pettigrew

BECOMING LEIDAH Michelle Grierson, Simon & Schuster Canada, 2021, C$22.00, pb, 336pp, 9781982141202

Becoming Leidah is set in 19th-century Norway at a time when Christianity coexisted with beliefs in pagan or folkloric gods. The people of the fishing village of Ørken are puritanical in their new beliefs but also resort to the old ways and punishments for the unexplained. Against this backdrop, Leidah Pietersdatter is born with blue, webbed hands and feet to Pieter, a human father, and to Maeva, a folkloric or mythical creature who was robbed of her skin and natural form by Pieter. Thus begin years of solitude and insecurity for Maeva, whom the townsfolk reject because she is an outsider; loneliness for Leidah, who just wants to be an average child; and delusion for Pieter, who believes all will be well. Woven into this plot line are three fantastical forces: Maeva’s fantastical shape-shifting past lover; the spirit of a witch, who protects Maeva and Leidah; and the Fates. The book jumps between narrators, the real and mystical worlds, and the past and present to bring characters’ stories together and paint the big picture. It comes to a head when Maeva can no longer survive in the real world, and Leidah shows signs of fantastical powers. She may have to find her true home, too. Becoming Leidah is a complex novel with many layers of realities, voices, themes, and times that the author spins together to the final scene. The writing is rich with imagery that evokes the town, the people, and the sea, which plays an integral role. The attempt at a lyrical or fairy-tale voice sometimes feels over the top, and there is no tidy ending, perhaps leaving an interpretation open to the reader. Those looking for an unusual kind of reading experience should consider this novel. Franca Pelaccia

A SUMMONING OF SOULS Leanna Renee Hieber, Rebel Base Books, 2020, $15.95, pb, 243pp, 9781635730630

Eve Whitby and her Ghost Precinct face off for one last confrontation in Hieber’s thrilling

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final chapter in the Spectral City series. Set in a slightly alternate New York circa 1899, Eve Whitby—a Sensitive who has seen ghosts since a child—squares off with Albert Prenze, who was thought dead (A Sanctuary of Spirits) but is masquerading as his twin brother, as she and her team of mediums—all with unique and special abilities—attempt to unravel the sinister events swirling about his city mansion. Complicating matters is Eve’s growing romantic feelings toward Det. Jacob Horowitz. Albert’s growing psychic powers continually put Eve and her team in danger and slowly, they come to understand that Albert wants to rid New York of all spirits. Hieber creates a delightfully moody and evocative city where spirits wander side-by-side with the living, there for anyone who can see them. Secondary characters, like the wild and charming Maggie, steal a little of the limelight from Eve, but always to the overall benefit of the story. Eve and Jacob’s burgeoning feelings add a light air to the overall tense, fast-paced plotting. Hieber does a good job maintaining the rigid social norms that existed during the Gilded Age and highlights the struggles women found in workplaces outside the traditional roles—especially for a woman who can speak with the dead. Creative uses of people like Harry Houdini and an acknowledgment of the charlatans who occupied the realm of spiritualists grounds the story in historical facts. Readers are advised to start with the first in the series. Bryan Dumas

THE PLAY’S THE THING Jessica Barksdale Inclán, TouchPoint Press, 2021, $16.99, pb, 256 pp, 9781952816345

In this historical fantasy, suspend disbelief and take a comedic romp through Elizabethan England, circa 1598. Travel to Will Shakespeare’s time with the bard as your guide. Literature professor Jessica Randall is ripe for adventure, her life in a slump—endless marking, uninspired students, and frustrated, nonexistent personal life. With The Merchant of Venice as the mechanism, she’s transported to 1598. At rehearsal, she suddenly feels hazelnut shells beneath her feet. Later, pondering Shylock, she awakens in Shakespeare’s closet! He is annoyed she doesn’t vanish like the visitations from the other Jessicas. Will speaks in Elizabethan English, quoting lines from his plays, entertaining for Shakespeare aficionados. Along with Jessica, the reader recoils at the rats and bed bug bites, tastes the pasties and cherry tarts, and shudders when Will takes her to a hanging as entertainment. This Will is young, handsome, broke, and on the cusp of greatness. They share passion, and she becomes his muse. We are privy to this great writer’s human side, his sorrows and longings as Inclán, like the bard, taps the complexities of the human heart. Both at a crossroads, they help each other move forward. We encounter Lord Pembroke, thought to be the Fair Youth of some love sonnets. Was


Shakespeare bisexual? Jess works as a scribe for writer Lady Mary Sidney, who suggests a re-working of Merchant to dispense with the anti-Semitism, which could be the portal back, but not before Jess hides Will’s leather folder of erotic poems in St. Helen’s church. Critics praise Shakespeare’s sonnets for their profound insight into love, passion, death, and time. For me, Inclán takes too much license with historical fact in the final chapters, but it’s an engaging read. Gail M. Murray

SHALLOW WATERS Anita Kopacz, Atria/Black Privilege, 2021, $26.00/£20.00, hb, 224pp, 9781982179663

This epic incorporates the Yoruba sea goddess Yemaya (also known as the Mother of Fishes and Mother of Africa), with the Middle Passage and Underground Railroad from the perspective of Yemaya herself. When the story begins, she’s a mermaid who’s lost her parents and falls in love with the fisherman Obatala. She manages to accompany the slave ship where Obatala and his fellow villagers sail into captivity. Yemaya’s supernatural powers allow her to transform herself into human form and learn the languages and ways of the people she encounters in her search for Obatala. Not understanding why Africans know her name and venerate her, Yemaya’s life borders between human and magical. She meets enslaved and free Africans, slave owners and slave hunters, Natives who’ve escaped the Trail of Tears into small encampments, and Quakers who aid escaped slaves on their road to freedom. Ralph Waldo Emerson makes a cameo appearance, his transcendental philosophy resembling the Yoruba belief in the Great Spirit. Magical stories require a willing suspension of disbelief, and it’s not difficult with this novel’s momentum. Stories such as that of the Flying Africans, recounted here (and significant in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon), show how enslaved Africans have the power to escape through their imaginations. We see a mermaid goddess, now human, suffering along with those enslaved and constantly challenged. Yemaya is befriended by Africans and whites who honor her healing powers and superhuman strength—which can cause her to be labeled a witch. If she comes in contact with water, these strengths increase even when she walks on two legs. The book’s short chapters and presenttense format add to the narrative drive.

Whether or not raised on Western religion and mythology, readers will gain fresh understanding of an African mythic realm through Yemaya’s distinctive voice. Highly recommended. Jinny Webber

SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN Shelley Parker-Chan, Mantle, 2021, £16.99, hb, 416pp, 9781529043389 / Tor, 2021, $27.99, hb, 416pp, 9781250621801

Shelley Parker-Chan’s debut is a historical fantasy of medieval China which reimagines the birth of the Ming dynasty. In the era of harsh Mongol rule in China, the ordinary people suffer famine and deprivation. A father takes his two surviving children to a fortuneteller who predicts greatness for his eighth-born son but nothing at all for his daughter. However, the young woman is determined to escape this fate and, when bandits ransack their home, she sets out to the monastery in the guise of her brother Zhu in a bid to fulfil the destiny given to him. As a boy Zhu becomes a monk and a warrior, leading a rebellion against the Hu and becoming the founding emperor of the Ming dynasty. Parker-Chan’s storytelling is wonderful, full of humour, pathos, and great characterisation. Zhu’s rise from starving peasant to powerful leader takes time and skill. While death may be a constant presence, we are reminded throughout of Zhu’s strategic thinking and ability to gain the upper hand. This is a wonderful fictional introduction to Chinese history and mythology, and an epic tale of war, love, friendship, sacrifice and triumph that will delight fans of historical fiction and fantasy alike. A perfect choice for fans of Zen Cho’s historical fantasies or those who enjoy the epic historical adventures of Theodore Brun or Tim Hodkinson. Lisa Redmond

THE LIGHT OF THE MIDNIGHT STARS Rena Rossner, Redhook, 2021, $28.00, hb, 416pp, 9780316483469

Mid-1300s, the Hungarian woods. As descendants of King Solomon, Hannah, Sarah, and Levana possess sacred magic. But their abilities will be put to the test when a black mist envelops the land, spreading fear and death. When their community is blamed and attacked, the family barely escapes. However, what they leave behind, their Jewish faith and magic, may be the only thing that can save them from the darkness continuing to spread across the lands. From shapeshifting to miraculous healings to reading the stars to riding on cloud dragons, The Light of Midnight Stars starts off as a strong example of folklore at its finest. We meet a faith-filled family with abilities that gradually strengthen and define each sister. Then tragedy takes the lives of people they love, and the sisters quickly lose their spark. They’ll

do whatever they can to protect their family, even if it means meeting men they should avoid, allowing another’s husband to force himself on one of the sisters, and sacrificing their happiness. One sister almost justifies the continued rape she suffers in her mind, going so far as to protect the man in battle, which is a hard swallow. Hannah is the only one who uses her fantastical powers to help her family and to seek justice. I’d hoped the other two sisters, also magically gifted, would use their abilities to better their lives. Conversely, Rossner illustrates how faith can strengthen a person in their darkest hour as well as the cost of suffering (both as a strength and at times a weakness) for those you love. There is a haunting dissonance coupled with a harmonious beauty contained within Rossner’s prose. The story is a love letter to the women of Jewish faith who have been chased from their community and must find their roots again. J. Lynn Else

THE HIDDEN PALACE Helene Wecker, Harper, 2021, $28.99/C$35.99, hb, 469pp, 9780062468710

With The Hidden Palace, the follow-up to her historical fantasy The Golem and the Jinni, Wecker returns with a layered novel of many complex characters, including even richer developments of the golem Chava and the jinni Ahmad. These two near-immortal creatures must hide their true natures while trying to avoid causing further harm to the human beings whose lives they irreparably altered in the first book. Wecker portrays the Syrian and Jewish immigrant communities of early 1900s New York with astute detail. On the level of theme, she explores what gives life purpose, and how relationships can build honest connections that surmount both great differences and uncomfortable similarities. These ideas are most evident in the bond between the golem, whose nature is empathetic and drawn to serve others, and the jinni, whose nature is fiery, temperamental, and unable to express care for anyone. One of Wecker’s great successes in The Hidden Palace is her depiction of the convincingly childlike but intelligent Kreindel, a girl whose tough exterior hides deep wounds. That she hides a protective but lethal golem in a basement adds magical realism to a deeply affecting portrayal. Early on, when Kreindel’s rabbi father grows secretive, Wecker narrates: “What are you doing in there, another child might have asked, or even Why don’t you talk to me anymore? But Kreindel was trained in her own ways, and she knew that one couldn’t solve a mystery by merely asking questions.” Both a second golem and a female jinni enter the plot, neither of whom have learned the hard lessons that Chava and Ahmad have. To keep their worlds safe, Chava and Ahmad must access both their greatest supernatural powers and their deepest human impulses. Judith Starkston

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A LT E R NAT E H I STORY CIVILISATIONS (UK) / CIVILIZATIONS (US) Laurent Binet (trans. Sam Taylor), Harvill Secker, 2021, £16.99, pb, 320pp, 9781787302297 / Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2021, $27.00, hb, 320pp, 9780374600815

The book opens in AD 1000. Freydis Eriksdottir, Erik the Red’s daughter, leads a band of Viking warriors who travel as far as Panama, where their story ends, and Freydis disappears in the annals of history. The reader moves five hundred years forward. Christopher Columbus sails for the Americas. Captured by the Incas, he and his men remain as “guests” and do not return to Europe. Thirty years later, Atahualpa, the last Inca Emperor arrives in Europe. A far-sighted and for the times quite liberal leader, he overturns the established order and establishes his own empire. It looks as though the vast majority of Europe will be ruled by Incas. That is, until the Aztecs arrive, setting the scene for a major confrontation. This is an intriguing and entertaining look at history which turns the facts on their head, providing a 180-degree look using a series of “what if” scenarios connected. The book is thought-provoking with an excellent translation from the French, which allows the story to flow. However, I would have liked to have seen the author take history further, or alternatively left an opening for further development. This is a rich seam which needs further mining. Recommended. Mike Ashworth

WIDOWLAND C. J. Carey, Quercus, 2021, £14.99, hb, 446pp, 9781529411980

England, April 1953. But this is a quite different country – one that succumbed to Germany in 1940 and has since been under occupation. Rose Ransom, aged 29, works in the Ministry of Culture in Whitehall. There is a gender imbalance with two women for every man – the men either killed in the fighting or sent to work “on the mainland” for the German cause. All women are allocated a caste according to their racial characteristics and intellect, the Nordic-Aryan features being most favoured. Rose was classified in the highest category (known informally as Gelis, in honour of The Leader’s niece Geli Raubal), which gives her a relatively highranking post for a British citizen. She is given the Orwellian task of ‘editing’ novels from the 58

English fictional canon to make them in line with the current ideology, i.e., primarily to amend and downgrade the role of intelligent and capable women and other undesirables, such as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights and characters in Little Women. And then Rose is tasked to investigate some resistance activity in the so-called Widowlands – a run-down area of Oxford where widows, spinsters, and other elderly (and hence considered useless) women have to live in very spartan conditions. As always with alternate histories there has to be a substantial back-story, so that the reader is informed of how affairs have developed and the divergence from the actual course of history. This is well-researched and entirely plausible, giving an air of verisimilitude to the narrative. There is occasional use of 21stcentury phrases such as ‘politically correct’ and ‘back in the day’ which probably would not have been deployed by citizens of an occupied UK in the early 1950s. Nonetheless this is an excellent work of fiction, both entertaining and intelligent, with an absorbing and enjoyable storyline. Douglas Kemp

C H I LDR E N & YOU NG A DU LT MAZIE Melanie Crowder, Philomel, 2021, $18.99/ C$24.99, hb, 352pp, 9780525516743

Seventeen-year-old Mazie has had one big dream for as long as she can remember: To make it on Broadway as a singer and dancer. But she’s a small-town girl from Nebraska, and her ambition baffles her peers, who expect to marry young, have lots of babies, and become farm wives. Her family and her boyfriend, Jesse, appreciate her talent, but they don’t understand why she can’t stay home and work in community theatre instead of leaving behind everything and everyone she knows and loves. Even Mazie doesn’t entirely understand it, but she knows she has to find out if she can achieve her dream. When her Nana leaves her enough money to spend six weeks in New York, she jumps on a train and heads for Broadway. Crowder perfectly captures the voice of her plucky Nebraska protagonist as well as small-town America in the late 1950s, with its telephone party lines, square dances, and hard-working farmers. I could almost smell the cow manure and feel the dust from the fields coating Mazie’s skin during a heat wave. And when Mazie moves to New York, the city sounds and smells are just as vivid. Her

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experiences of auditioning and repeatedly being rejected feel heart-wrenchingly true, and Mazie’s maturation from innocent country girl to streetwise performer is utterly believable. Crowder also opens a window onto a fascinating bit of performing arts history through Mazie’s involvement with traveling musicals called “industrials,” which were financed by big companies to teach and entertain their salesmen. This young adult novel is a thoroughly engaging read! Clarissa Harwood

JACOB AND THE MANDOLIN ADVENTURE Anne Dublin, Second Story Press, 2021, $10.95, pb, 225pp, 9781772601626

Anne Dublin’s novel shares the true story of a group of orphans who immigrated from Mezritsh, Poland, to a farm school in Canada in 1927. She brings to life the people who saved dozens of Jewish children before the Germans decimated their town in World War II. One of those children is thirteen-year-old Jacob, a kind boy, and a talented musician. He appreciates his life at Mezritsh Children’s Home, but he misses his life with his aunt, uncle, and cousins, who, when they could no longer afford to feed him, made the impossible decision to send him to the orphanage. Although Jacob’s life is marked by extreme poverty and tragedy, it is also filled with kind, caring adults. They do everything in their power to make sure he has a happy life despite the loss of his parents and baby sister in the 1918 pandemic. When a stranger from America comes to town and invites the older orphans to join him on a journey to Canada, Jacob and 37 of his classmates jump at the chance. They are given three weeks to learn English and prepare to leave behind everything and everyone they have ever known. As they journey to their new home, they share their talents with the world. As members of the Mandolin Orchestra, they hold concerts in train stations along the way to fund their journey. Dublin’s story captures the awe of the children as they cross the sea and embark on a new life. She skillfully honors the innocence of her characters and young readers while dealing frankly with the antisemitism, poverty, and danger the orphans faced both at home and abroad. I highly recommend it for ages nine and up. Melissa Warren

MONSTROUS DESIGN Kat Dunn, Zephyr, 2021, £12.99, hb, 470pp, 9781789543681

1794. In Paris the French Revolution is on the brink of collapse. Chaos looms while dark forces gather, determined to take power. A small group of young people, outcasts called The


Batallion des Morts, find themselves facing new enemies and old. Olympe, a mysterious aristocrat with dark and dangerous powers, has been kidnapped and taken to London. Camille and Al find themselves in the city’s seedy underbelly in a desperate attempt to find and rescue her. In Paris, Ada finds herself involved with an old adversary as he makes a bid for nothing less than becoming the next king of France. The story follows directly on from Dangerous Remedy, the first in the series. It can be read as a standalone as there is sufficient backstory to guide a new reader. The plot is tight and totally believable and the characters are strong, while the culture and times of both revolutionary France and London form an exciting backdrop. The relationships between the main characters, both male and female, are sensitively handled, and contribute to the character development. This is YA at its best. I’m off to buy the first instalment of what is going to be a very popular series. Recommended. Mike Ashworth

THE STORY OF BODRI Hédi Fried (trans. Linda Schenck), illus. Stina Wirsén, Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2021, $17.99, hb, 32pp, 9780802855657

The Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor describes what it was like to listen to Hitler’s threats on the radio and experience their consequences when his army invaded her unnamed country. She is Jewish, her best friend, Marika, is Catholic, and their dogs, Bodri and Bandi, are also best friends. When the Nazis come for Hédi and her family, they must leave Bodri behind. At that point, the narrative switches to Bodri’s point of view as he awaits the return of his family through the changing seasons. Thinking about Bodri gives Hédi and her sister the will to live. Observing these horrific events through the eyes of both the young child and her dog will connect elementary-age readers to this powerful and necessary story. Both are powerless to stop the cruelty of a man and his millions of followers; all they can do is survive and be there for each other. Wirsén’s watercolors effectively convey the characters’ emotions and the evil that hovers, as well as the enduring love of a girl and her pet. Lyn Miller-Lachmann

MY CONTRARY MARY Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows, HarperTeen, 2021, $18.99, hb, 498pp, 9780062930040

Betrothed to Prince Francis, the Dauphin of France, as a child, Mary Queen of Scots has spent more time in France than she has in Scotland. The French court is a perilous place in which to live, especially since Mary is an E∂ian (a shapeshifter), a mouse in a strict Verities kingdom. If her secret were known, Mary could be in mortal danger. Mary has a host of allies: her husband Francis, her four ladies-in-waiting (all named Mary), and Aristotle Nostradamus, better known as Ari, daughter of the famed seer and advisor to Queen Mary de’ Medici. When the King dies suspiciously, a multitude of power-hungry nobles try to use Mary to wrest control from the new King Francis. Who can be trusted?

Even among her trusted friends, not everyone is to be trusted. The Lady Janies (or will they now be known as the Lady Jane-Marys?) return to the fantastical world created in My Lady Jane, pitting E∂ians against Verities in a deadly match: a delightful and clever metaphor for Protestants and Catholics. Told from the points of view of Mary, Francis, and Ari, My Contrary Mary offers readers possible alternative lives for Mary and Francis, much happier than their real ones. Like their previous books, the authors take great liberties with actual history, but that is where the fun begins. This book is laugh-out-loud, with subtle references to pop culture that readers may miss if they’re not careful. It’s exceedingly creative, and fans of the previous books will certainly enjoy it. Simply put, it’s a fun read for all. Meg Wiviott

FLIGHT Vanessa Harbour, Feiwel & Friends, 2021, $16.99/C$22.99, hb, 226pp, 9781250761439

At least twice during their long history, the famed Lipizzaner horses of the Spanish Riding School had to be removed from their home in Vienna to places of safety. This happened during World War I and again only a few decades later, when war once again broke out around the world. To avoid both the Nazis and Allied bombers, the horses were relocated to remote locations in Austria, where they could be hidden safely among farms in rural communities. In this debut novel for middle-grade readers, Harbour’s characters embark upon a dangerous mission as they try to secretly remove a herd of Lipizzaner stallions from under the watchful eye of Nazi soldiers after a sadistic officer callously shoots one of the prize stallions. They intend to move the stallions to join a herd of mares held safe at an estate over the mountains, many miles away. Jakob is a teenager who has kept his Jewish heritage secret from everyone after seeing his parents arrested and taken away by the Nazis. His identity is known only to Herr Engel, a master horseman in charge of the stallions. Together, they plan the arduous escape. As they steal the horses away, a young Roma girl named Kizzy secretly follows them, but joins their company when Jakob discovers her. Like the Jews, her Roma people have been ruthlessly executed by the Nazis; Kizzy witnessed her parents’ murder but was able to hide and escape the soldiers. This highly recommended novel is a thrilling adventure story that also shows two young people discovering their hidden strengths and learning to accept the differences of other people. John Kachuba

enrich their poor family and possibly grant eternal life. In the desert, near the ancient Silk Road, the brothers and their mother find a strange oasis. A community there protects its earth deity, which is about to have a child—just as the aweto seekers arrive. The result is a pitched battle with painful (and bloody) consequences, and the beginning of a strange journey for our two brothers and the angry princess on their tails. The watercolor illustrations in this young adult graphic novel are stunning, with bright colors glowing between Jun’s energetic lines. This is the first of four books, and perhaps appropriately, it ends on a heart-rending cliffhanger. Young readers might be confused or distressed by the violence, but teens and adults will revel in this gorgeous book with a heart of gold. Carrie Callaghan

THE WOODCARVER’S DAUGHTER Yona Zeldis McDonough, illus. Kaja Kajfez, KarBen, 2021, $17.99, hb, 128pp, 9781541586673

When a Russian pogrom burns her father’s woodcarving shop, twelve-year-old Batya’s family decides to move to America. Mama, Papa, Batya, older brother Avram, slightly younger sister Gittel, and four-year-old Sara board a ship for New York City. They experience seasickness, and little Sara becomes seriously ill. Although Sara recovers, she is now deaf. The family struggles in New York City to find work, make friends, and learn English in school. While skipping school, Batya finds a woodcarving shop full of men like her father, eastern European immigrants. In the shop, they carve beautiful carousel horses. Batya is a talented woodcarver, but as a female she is prohibited from the profession. Could things be different in America? This shop would be a perfect place for her father to work, but she found the shop skipping school—should she tell her father? Early 20th-century New York City is beautifully brought to life through the eyes of a courageous, young, female, Jewish immigrant. Batya and her family are easy to love, and their various struggles engage the reader. This story teaches about many interesting topics: Russian pogroms, immigration, woodcarving, carousels, Jewish culture, deafness, gender issues, and much more. Ages 8-13. Elizabeth Caulfield Felt

THE HUNT IS ON

DA VINCI’S CAT

Nie Jun (trans. Edward Gauvin), Graphic Universe, 2021, $9.99, pb, 136pp, 9781728420219

Catherine Gilbert Murdock, Greenwillow, 2021, $17.99, hb, 288pp, 9780063015272

Two brothers, one who can command insects with the tap of his drum and another who can affix wings and fly like an insect himself, are crossing the Gobi Desert in search of a magical plant, the aweto. This plant, which grows on the top of an earth deity and is rumored to contain the soul of the deity, could

Renaissance Italy and present-day New Jersey? Different times and places that are spotlighted in this book. In Italy, Federico is a proud 11-year-old aristocrat who is a hostage to the pope, which brings him acquaintances like Michelangelo and Raphael. Federico, due to his class and his confinement, is lonely. He is delighted when a kitten emerges from a

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wardrobe made by Leonardo da Vinci. Soon, another unexpected visitor also emerges from the closet: a man named Herbert, from New Jersey. After a number of visits, Herbert stops visiting Federico entirely. Enter Bee, a young girl from Brooklyn whose mother is an art dealer and whose family speaks Italian. Energetic Bee is flummoxed by a cat who keeps appearing and disappearing through a closet. When Bee herself enters this closet, she finds herself in the world of Renaissance Rome where she fast becomes Federico’s friend and ally. As the book progresses, the plot becomes more intricate, and the stakes rise higher as Federico and Bee try to navigate the alliances and feuds of Renaissance artists in order to get them to create a work of art that will help Bee and her family in contemporary times. The back-and-forth between centuries and what this has to do with artwork can be difficult to keep track of, though the author is skilled at inserting fun chase scenes and interactions with characters. In addition to stealthy art history mentions of Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael, the sometimes cruel atmosphere of Rome is described with interesting details. Haughty Federico is a difficult character to empathize with at first, but once Bee enters the story, the reader is charmed by her exuberance. The adventure is a fun way of introducing middle schoolers to art history with the help of a timetraveling cat. Xina Marie Uhl

POISON PRIESTESS Lana Popovic, Amulet, 2021, $17.99/C$22.99, hb, 288pp, 9781419745928

Times are difficult for women of little means in 17th-century France, especially if they are young, poor orphans working in the candlemaking sweatshop run by the cruel Monsieur Prudhomme. But 19-year-old Catherine Monvoisin vows to escape her poverty and free herself to build the life she desires. When a supernaturally talented fellow candlemaker mysteriously escapes the factory, she deliberately leaves behind her grimoire for Catherine, whom she recognizes as being gifted with prophetic visions. Catherine is eventually rescued by marriage to a gay Parisian jeweler. He treats her kindly and gives her a life of comfort, but his spendthrift ways soon have them deeply in debt, and Catherine once again finds herself facing poverty. She begins giving psychic readings to earn money. Her fame as a “divineress” spreads throughouttheParisianunderworld,prompting the influential Marquise de Montespan to consult her. The Marquise has been one of King Louis XIV’s courtesans and desires to be his favorite, his official mistress. Without prompting from the Marquise, Catherine divines that the title will, indeed, become the Marquise’s, and when that comes to pass, the impressed Marquise rewards Catherine with a beautiful home and pays off her husband’s debts. But there is a price to be paid; Catherine must become the Marquise’s divineress, subject 60

to her every whim. In this devil’s bargain, Catherine soon finds herself embroiled in court intrigue and jealousies, entanglements that lead to multiple “accidental” murders abetted by her black arts. This is an interesting novel with an original and engaging plot. Some readers may find it objectionable that justice is not duly served on Catherine, but others will overlook that, recognizing that humans are complicated creatures, none of us purely good nor purely evil. John Kachuba

NILE CAT Angela Cecil Reid, Sand Chat Books, 2020, $14.99, pb, 292pp, 9781838114701

In December 1871, 14-year-old twins Rose and Lily accompany their mother and Egyptologist father to Egypt. After Rose is given a small cat statue, she begins having strange dreams of the ancient past through the eyes of a cat named Miut. Around Miut’s neck hangs a valuable secret that must be delivered to the high priest’s tomb before its sealed, a mission the followers of Seth hope to stop. Even more curious, a man named Mr. Baxter begins watching Rose’s every move and seems unusually interested in her statue. Unfortunately, her concerns are dismissed by the adults. When Rose finds herself pursued by a stranger during a visit to Cairo, Rose and Lily must find ways to prove these suspicions to their parents before the shadows chasing Rose, and Miut, catch up with them. Nile Cat is a grand middle-grade adventure that sweeps readers back in time, first to Victorian-era Egypt and then to the reign of King Ramesses II. The twins grow in self-confidence as they learn to speak up for themselves and show courage amid dangerous situations. Some of the villains are slightly melodramatic, but this fits well with the novel’s style. I truly enjoyed the wondrous sight-seeing chapters of the Giza pyramids and Saqqara (spelled “Sakkara” in the book). I did get slightly lost as Rose and Lily were running through the Saqqara/Sakkara tunnels, but I still felt the urgency of the situation despite being a bit turned around. This is a great introduction for young readers to learn about ancient Egypt as they unravel the mystery of Rose’s dreams and Mr. Baxter’s strange behavior. Nile Cat is a marvelous, hard-to-put-down read. I wonder if a sequel is in store? I quite enjoyed experiencing both ancient and not-so-ancient Egypt through the intrepid sister duo. Highly recommended.

REVIEWS | Issue 97, August 2021

J. Lynn Else

HOLLOW CHEST Brita Sandstrom, Walden Pond Press, 2021, $16.99, pb, 352pp, 9780062870742

Shell shock, battle fatigue, combat exhaustion, and post-traumatic stress injury: These clinical terms mask the unimaginable suffering of veterans. Brita Sandstrom dares to show the true nature of their suffering in the form of terrifying beasts, the war wolves. And she brings to life an unlikely hero to face them, eleven-year-old Charlie Merriweather. Charlie is no stranger to fear and loss, the kind that can scar a heart forever. He survived the London Blitz in the Goodge Street bomb shelter; his father did not. And even though World War II is over and the soldiers are returning home, air raid sirens still sound in his dreams. Charlie wakes early each morning covered in a cold sweat. He does not race to pack his bag and catch the school bus, but instead dresses his grandfather and fetches the rations from the corner store. It seems much of his childhood remains locked in the Goodge Street shelter. Charlie is filled with hope and purpose despite the bad dreams and the weight of caring for an ailing grandparent. His brother Theo is returning from France, and Charlie knows that he will make everything right again. But when Theo returns, Charlie quickly realizes that the brother he has longed for is gone. In his place is a frightened, broken, and dangerous man. Worse yet, Charlie discovers Theo has been followed home by the war wolves. The same beasts who devoured Theo’s heart on the battlefield are now stalking Charlie. Sandstrom’s story is one of empathy, love, and courage. More importantly, it is one of understanding. As Charlie faces each of his brother’s wolves and meets several of their other victims along the way, he discovers that while there is no path back, there is a path forward. Highly recommended for ages eight and up, along with the publisher’s teaching guide. Melissa Warren

BRONTË Manuela Santoni (trans. Matteo Benassi), Graphic Universe, 2021, $14.99, pb, 184pp, 9781728412900

In this graphic novel, Santoni, an illustrator and comic artist, brings the lives and achievements of the 19th-century Brontë sisters to adolescents ages 13 to 18. The classic novels of Emily Brontë (Wuthering Heights, 1846) and Charlotte Brontë (Jane Eyre, 1847) are often studied in college courses and dramatized in films. Santoni combines visual text with written language. Illustrations and context cues make the work easily accessible. She uses bold, sweeping lines in black and white. Text is sparse, making this a quick, fluid read. Charlotte, the oldest and strongest character and driving force behind their writing and publication, is presented with pronounced cheekbones and dark clothing. Emily is depicted as proud, stubborn, and talented. Anne, the youngest and sweetest, is drawn with soft lines. The novel opens on the windswept moor,


not unlike Wuthering Heights, using pathetic fallacy—nature reflecting the trials of the sisters: their ailing father, dwindling finances, and alcohol and opium-addicted brother, Branwell, who’s lost his position due to adultery. The sisters support each other emotionally. They decide to publish. Emily balks as “most people think that literature isn’t a woman’s business,” making the reader aware of the 19th-century chauvinistic climate limiting decent women to marriage and governesses. Charlotte proposes male pseudonyms. Sadly, all three sisters perish young, but not before leaving a literary legacy. I personally disliked the cover as too cartoonish with an alien look to the sisters. Would it encourage young readers to seek out the original novels or complete further reading of their biographies? Excellent timelines and notes on chapter designs are appreciated. Santoni has also produced graphic novels on Jane Austen and Mary Shelley. Gail M. Murray

DON’T BREATHE A WORD Jordyn Taylor, HarperTeen, 2021, $17.99, hb, 352pp, 9780063038882

In 1962, Connie is a student at Hardwick Preparatory Academy, a prestigious school in New York. In the midst of the high paranoia that surrounded the Cold War years, she volunteers to be one of six people to test out a new fallout shelter for four days. The test is led by a young, handsome, and popular teacher who begins the experiment with bizarre rules and even stranger methods. As the weekend continues, Connie finds herself questioning the teacher’s methods and motives, but is she brave enough to speak out? In the present day, Eva is the new kid at Hardwick Preparatory Academy. She is having a hard time making friends, especially since most of the Hardwick students have been together since the fifth grade. Then she meets Jenny due to a shared hatred of math, and she is introduced to “The Fives,” a secret society. She soon begins the rituals that will lead to membership. Eventually Eva starts to realize there is more to this group than secret hand signals and meetings, especially when she is told to never discuss a fallout shelter that is rumored to be located somewhere on campus. This is interesting historical fiction which looks at the early Cold War years and the fear that led to fallout shelters. The characters are well written, especially those in the earlier timeline. The mystery is engaging, although the plot is slightly predictable. Overall, this is an entertaining story of four days in a fallout shelter and how it led to a secret and privileged society. I would recommend this to anyone interested in young adult historical fiction set in the 1960s. Bonnie DeMoss

THE KING’S BROAD ARROW Kathryn Goodwin Tone, Marron Press LLC, 2020, $16.99, pb, 354pp, 9781734002805

1775. At thirteen years old, Sam has grown up hearing about the Broad Arrow Laws—laws that reserve all trees suitable for ship masts for the Crown and Royal Navy. His father’s sawmill business needs to trade these same trees to survive the upcoming winter. When Sam attempts to deface a tree marked by the broad arrow symbol, he’s caught and sent to a British prison ship. There he meets two men who will give him hope in the midst of terrible darkness. Sam wants to go home, but fate has other plans for him, and his journey is just beginning. Sam constantly wrestles with courage. He believes that because he feels afraid, it makes him unworthy of fighting for his country. He also doesn’t understand why people, like his best friend, would leave their home and family to fight against seemingly insurmountable odds. While imprisoned and trying to survive unconscionably harsh conditions, he learns about moral courage, physical courage, and the scars people hide inside. From prisoner to escapee to rebel, Sam meets legends like Paul Revere, Thomas Paine, George Washington, and Alexander Hamilton. Each man instills in Sam new insights on why they’re inspired to fight for freedom. Goodwin Tone does a great job bringing the dangers of British-occupied New England to life as Sam travels from one city to the next. Sam performs numerous tasks including helping in a saw mill, making ink, using a printing press, preparing cannons in battle, etc. I enjoyed experiencing all the nuances of life in late 18th-century America. Sam grows as a character as his experiences teach him not only about courage but also purpose. An exceptionally well-researched and entertaining story that will delight readers of any age. I eagerly anticipate the sequel. J. Lynn Else

THE RABBI AND THE PAINTER Shoshona Weiss, illus. Jennifer Kirkham, Kalaniot, 2021, $19.99, pb, 32pp, 9780998852782

This picture book imagines a friendship between two historical figures: Rabbi Judah Aryeh and the Renaissance painter known as Tintoretto. They lived near each other in the Venice of the late 1500s. Although it was

rare for Jews and Christians to interact, Weiss imagines their first meeting on a bridge as the rabbi, when a child, helps the busy painter gather some fallen supplies. He is working on a Last Supper. The young boy recognizes a Passover ceremony, and their consultations begin. The boy becomes a rabbi and a translator—a bridge between cultures and the two monotheistic religions. The painter continues his furiously paced work until recognition of his Last Supper is achieved. Illustrations capture the vibrant, multicultural city of Venice while the developing friendship’s close-ups are endearing. We only get tantalizing glimpses of Tintoretto’s masterpiece (understandably a painting difficult to display in the simpler style of illustrator Kirkham). Still, Tintoretto’s proto-impressionist genius might have been illuminated more fully in word and deed beyond that he “didn’t have patience for the rules other painters followed.” Eileen Charbonneau

A SITTING IN ST. JAMES Rita Williams-Garcia, Quill Tree, 2021, $17.99/ C$21.99, hb, 480pp, 9780062367297

For many years, Madame Sylvie Guilbert has been mistress of Le Petit Cottage, a plantation in St. James, Louisiana. Originally an aristocrat from France, she married a slaveholder by the name of Bayard Guilbert while still very young. In the more than sixty years since, she has despised living in Louisiana. She has never forgotten the decadent and indulgent life that she once lived at the French royal court. When the plantation begins to suffer and the family is close to bankruptcy, Sylvie’s wastrel of a son, Lucien, has a plan. He intends to marry his son, Byron, off to the daughter of a neighboring plantation owner. While all of this goes on, Sylvie makes up her mind to have a portrait painted of herself. A Sitting in St. James is a beautiful and masterfully written narrative that shows the horrors of slavery. This book is a rather complex one because there are so many layers. All the characters are well written with unique quirks and personalities. Many of them are memorable and feel very human. There is the clever and unassuming Thisbe, the personal slave of Sylvie, who endures all kinds of cruelty. There is arrogant Sylvie who has delusions of grandeur, reminiscing about her earlier life in France. The cruelty of the slaveholders is something that consistently stands out in the narrative. It feels very raw and real. Another aspect that stands out is the richness of the language and culture. The languages of Creole and French are interspersed through certain parts of the book. One final thing that I liked was the author’s note, which provides a lot of important context. This was one of the most unique books I have read in a while. Elizabeth K. Corbett

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CONFERENCES

The Society organizes biennial conferences in the UK, North America, and Australasia. Contact Richard Lee <richard@historicalnovelsociety.org> (UK), Jenny Quinlan <jennyq@historicaleditorial.com> (North America), or Elisabeth Storrs <contact@hnsa.org.au> (Australasia).

© 2021, the Historical Novel Society, ISSN: 1471-7492 | Issue 97, August 2021

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