Tuesday, December 01, 2015

The dark side of the Middle Ages: Dana Chamblee Carpenter's Bohemian Gospel

The averted eyes, the signs of the cross, the looks of awe and fear...

Mouse is an unusual name for a young woman in 13th-century Bohemia, but then she's far from ordinary.  She's intelligent and literate in several languages, yet unbaptized and forbidden to attend Mass.  All are uncommon for her time.  Raised in Teplá Abbey without a mother or father, she grows up knowing she has special talents – healing, for one – and is about to discover how far her power extends, a journey that takes her into the darkest realms of her world and of the human spirit.  

At fourteen, Mouse saves the life of Ottakar, the Younger King of Bohemia, when he's brought to the abbey, gravely wounded by an arrow.  The two form an immediate connection that endures despite their vast differences in social status and the danger they find themselves in – him, because a traitor wants to kill him, and her, because her supernatural abilities and closeness to the king elicit others' enmity.  And her quest to discover more about her personal history proves to be the most treacherous path of all.

Bohemian Gospel is a strong debut, a historical fantasy novel taking place in a setting few readers will recognize or be comfortable in, which works to its advantage.  The supernatural focus was much more prominent than I expected, given the publisher's blurb; this is far from a traditional historical novel.

The brutal court politics, full of bloody betrayals and deadly familial rivalries, call to mind the setting for Maurice Druon's Accursed Kings series.  Ottakar comes to be known as the Golden and Iron King, which itself gives a hint at the book's atmosphere.  I appreciated how period folklore was woven into the storyline (soul cakes, anyone?); likewise, the firm grip held by the church on regulating people's behavior.

Despite this, individual members of the clergy see something in Mouse worth protecting, which makes a refreshing change from stereotype.  Father Lucas, her longtime mentor, calls her an andílek, or angel, and risks much to keep her alive and safe. 

This made for an ideal read for All Hallows Eve, with its creepy suspense and unexpected-yet-apropos ending, but it should work well for any other time, especially if you'd like to take a stroll on the dark side of history.  It was published on 11/16 by Pegasus ($25.95, hardcover, 367pp).  Thanks to the publisher for sending me an ARC at my request.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

An eventful Victorian holiday abroad: Anne Perry's A Christmas Escape

Since we've moved past Black Friday, and the Christmas countdown has officially begun, I thought this would be a good time to focus on a historical novel that evokes the season.  Don't expect a traditional cozy celebration here, though, for there's danger afoot.

Perry’s thirteenth holiday novella takes a sojourn from her familiar realm of Victorian England over to the small Italian island of Stromboli, in the Tyrrhenian Sea. The steep mountainous landscape is picturesque and the weather temperate, even in early December, and Charles Latterly aims to spend a few weeks pulling his thoughts together after his wife’s recent death.

However, despite the beautiful locale and the scrumptious meals prepared by the hostelry’s owner, his stay is extremely volatile. First, most of the other guests – a vibrant teenager and her great-uncle, a grumpy man and his troubled wife, the colonel who tries to save her from potential abuse, and a famous novelist – knew each other from back home and don’t all get along. Also, the volcano sitting atop the village shows signs of reawakening.

There’s a lot of suspense and character development packed into this relatively short work. After one of the guests is found dead – a murder disguised as an accident – Charles realizes the suspect pool is very limited and seeks to find a motive. His growing fatherly rapport with the young woman, Candace Finbar, brings out a new side to his nature. Between knowing that a murderer is nearby and the danger posed by falling lava bombs, the atmosphere is incredibly tense. The notion of a “Christmas escape” turns out to have an unexpected double meaning.

Charles, of course, is the brother of Hester (Latterly) Monk, heroine of Perry’s Monk detective series. Charles has a recurrent secondary role in those novels, and is such an intriguing character here that he deserves the chance to take the lead once again.

A Christmas Escape was published by Ballantine this month in hardcover ($18.00, 158pp).  That's a bit steep for a novella, but the price is heavily discounted online.  This review first appeared in November's Historical Novels Review.  Although this is the first of Perry's short holiday releases that I've read, I'll be back for more; it made for a pleasant break in between lengthier reads.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

An interview with Nicola Cornick about her new time-slip novel, House of Shadows

Time-slip novels are one of my favorite genres, so when presented with the opportunity to interview Nicola Cornick about House of Shadows, I quickly said yes.  She's known for her well-researched historical romances, so her newest novel is a departure, and a very successful one.

House of Shadows intertwines the stories of characters from three historical periods: Elizabeth Stuart, the "Winter Queen" of Bohemia, and her supporter/champion, William Craven, in the 17th century; Lavinia Flyte, a 19th-century courtesan; and a modern-day woman, Holly Ansell, desperate to locate her brother, Ben, after he suddenly goes missing.  Connecting all three of these strands are Ashdown House, a Dutch-style country house in Oxfordshire, and two objects with dark magical powers, a pearl and a jewelled mirror.  

The historical details and the three intertwined storylines (it would be hard to pick a favorite) made for a rich reading experience, and there's a good amount of romance and unpredictable mystery to keep the pages turning.  You can see an image of Ashdown on the novel's cover. 

How did you first get involved with volunteering and serving as a tour guide at Ashdown House?

I had lived near Ashdown House for almost 10 years before I became involved with working as a tour guide there. I’d driven past the estate so many times and was intrigued by the little white house hidden away in the wood. I wondered about its history. But I was working full time and never seemed to be free when it was open. Then I gave up my day job to write and was looking around for some volunteering work to do. I saw an advertisement for guides to take visitors around Ashdown House and it seemed the perfect opportunity, almost as though it had been meant!

I enjoyed visiting Ashdown and the countryside surrounding it via the novel. Do you have any favorite aspects of the house or grounds to explore, or to tell people about?

Thank you, I am so glad that the book conveyed some of the beauty of the house and its landscape! There are so many things about Ashdown that I love to explore and to tell visitors about. The roof platform is magnificent and gives panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. It’s worth visiting for that view alone! The village of Ashdown is a hidden gem with Victorian Gothic-style stables and the original laundry and farmhouse. There’s so much to see in the woods as well including the old holloways, the sunken tracks along which the drovers used to take their animals up to graze on the high Downs. It’s an ancient and mysterious landscape.

One of your characters comments that the Winter Queen isn’t well-known in Britain, despite being James I’s daughter. Why do you think this is?

I think that Elizabeth of Bohemia isn’t well known in Britain probably because she spent so little of her life here. In Germany and Holland, where she lived for over 40 years, she is famous and there are all sorts of legends about her. Although she was a prominent figure in European culture and politics in the early 17th century it was seen as peripheral to what was happening in England. Plus she was a woman and to a certain extent I think her role has been written out of history.

The dedication to House of Shadows mentions your obsession with Ashdown and with William Craven. What about his life and character impresses you the most?

It is William Craven’s unswerving loyalty and honour that impresses me the most, I think. At a time when many men changed allegiance depending on the political situation he was utterly steadfast in his devotion to the Stuart cause. I admire that sort of integrity.

Did you have the opportunity to do research on site in Europe, in the places where Elizabeth Stuart and her husband once lived?

author Nicola Cornick
Yes! One of the most exciting things about writing the book was the research and the fact that I was able to visit both Heidelberg, where Elizabeth and Frederick lived when they were first married, and also The Hague. Although the Wassenaer Hof in The Hague is no longer standing it was possible to visit some houses of a similar era to get a real feel for the style of architecture and the interiors. I also found online a virtual recreation of Elizabeth and Frederick’s hunting lodge at Rhenen, which was fabulous!

The two items which come to have dark powers, the Sistrin pearl and the Italian jewelled mirror – I’m assuming that both are fictional, but are they based on any real items, or on some aspect of Rosicrucian symbolism (or both)?

The mirror was a completely fictional creation but the Sistrin pearl is based on a real jewel. One day a jewellery specialist came to Ashdown to look at the pearls that feature in some of the portraits. She identified one particularly fine drop pearl as being in the Royal Collection and told me that Elizabeth of Bohemia had inherited it from her grandmother, Mary Queen of Scots. It is called the Bretherin and is said to be cursed. She also told me some other wonderful stories about the jewellery in the portraits. It was a gift for an author!

I did a lot of research into 17th century Rosicrucianism for the story as well since Elizabeth, Frederick and William Craven were all said to have been involved with the Knights of the Rosy Cross. Curiously, though, it is Ashdown House itself that bears the most striking resemblance to Rosicrucian symbolism. The cupola on the roof looks exactly like images of the “invisible Rosicrucian College” dating from the early 17th century.

The story of early 19th-century courtesan Lavinia Flyte felt very real (I even googled her name to see if she’d been an actual person!). Did anyone inspire her story?

Lavinia’s story came from another aspect of Craven family history. The first Earl of Craven of the Second Creation was the first lover of the notorious Regency courtesan Hariette Wilson, who gave him a pretty scathing write up in her memoirs. That was the seed for the idea of Lavinia and her diary. Jane Austen, a relative by marriage of the Earl, disapproved of the fact that Craven’s charm hid a want of moral character. She is said to have based the character of Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility on him.

Structuring this novel must have been incredibly complex! Had you planned from the beginning to include three time-period strands, rather than the more usual two?

I’m not a planner when I write so I didn’t set out to write three time period strands, rather they evolved as I went along. I began with the intention of writing Elizabeth and William’s story and I thought I would need a contemporary strand as well in which to unravel the historical mystery. Then Lavinia popped up and was very real to me, hence the first person sections from her memoirs.

That said, I did find the structure hugely complex and am only writing a dual timeline for my next book!

What about the time-slip genre appeals to you? Do you have any favorite time-slips that inspired your own writing?

I have always loved the timeslip genre and can trace the appeal back to when I first started reading it as a teenager: A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley and Astercote by Penelope Lively were my childhood favourites, leading to Green Darkness and The House on the Strand. These days I particularly love Susanna Kearsley’s fabulous time slip novels and anything by Barbara Erskine, the Queen of the genre!


House of Shadows was published by Harlequin MIRA UK this month (£7.99, paperback, 476pp).  UK and international readers (US included) can obtain copies at Book Depository.   For more information, visit the author's website at http://nicolacornick.co.uk; she's also a contributor to the popular Word Wenches blog.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

A visual preview of American historical fiction for 2016

There was a time, a mere decade ago, when historical fiction set in the United States was considered unfashionable.  Compared to their more glamorous British and European cousins, these books were dismissed as dreary and unexciting by many editors, agents, and readers.   Fortunately, this isn't the case any more; American settings are flourishing.  Here are 15 upcoming historical novels, all set to be published in 2016, that use American political and social history as a backdrop.

The close friendship and clandestine romantic relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and AP reporter Lorena Hickok, which spans thirty years.  Albert's previous biographical novel, A Wilder Rose, was one of my favorites of 2013.  Persevero Press, February 2016.

A literary love story set during the last year of the Civil War, featuring a young Irishman and a woman from the South who travel across the ravaged landscape of Georgia, fleeing bounty hunters.  It's being mentioned in the same breath as Cold Mountain.  St. Martin's, January 2016.

The story of a pioneer family in frontier Ohio at the time of Johnny Appleseed; Chevalier's second American-set historical novel after The Last Runaway.  Viking, March 2016.

An epic about Martha "Patsy" Jefferson, oldest daughter of one of the Founding Fathers, and guardian of his controversial legacy.  William Morrow, March 2016.

This sequel to The Kitchen House, a favorite read of mine from five years ago, is also a standalone novel that begins in Virginia in 1830, and features a young man passing as white whose secret threatens to be revealed.  Simon & Schuster, April 2016.

The setting of Harrigan's newest historical novel sits close to home for me: Springfield, Illinois, in the 1830s and '40s, as a young Abraham Lincoln comes into his own.  Knopf, February 2016.

How much did Mary Surratt know about the plans for Lincoln's assassination?  Susan Higginbotham's first novel set in the U.S. examines her story, basing her novel on primary sources.  Sourcebooks Landmark, March 2016.

Hoover's second novel, following The Quickening, is likewise set in the U.S. Midwest, and deals with the aftermath of the mysterious disappearance of two German-American sisters during the WWI years.  Black Cat, March 2016.

Re-introducing a girl formerly held captive by the Kiowa to white culture proves a traumatic experience, as Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd discovers when he's asked to transport her to relatives in post-Civil War Texas.  William Morrow, April 2016.

The close friendship between Isabella Stewart Gardner, society doyenne in Gilded Age Boston, and noted painter John Singer Sargent.  Harper, July 2016.

The story of an African-American musician, from his birth in WWI-era Georgia to his musical career in Harlem, his travels overseas, and his imprisonment with his best friend in Buchenwald.  The author's website says the main character, Harlan, is based on her paternal grandfather.  Akashic, May 2016.

Known for her lively epics spanning centuries of Texas life, Meacham offers a new 600-page novel centering on a wealthy heiress and a farm boy whose destinies intertwine in early 20th-century Texas. Grand Central, April 2016.

The story of two women's friendship in Golden Age Hollywood, and their adventures and desires in a glittering world where dreams can come true or falter.  NAL, January 2016.

A woman seeking to reinvent herself in the raw, ambitious world of miners and fortune-seekers in 1898 Alaska finds her past catching up with her. She Writes Press, May 2016.

The latest in Thorland's Renegades of the Revolution series brings readers to New York in 1778, and to a young woman of Dutch extraction who takes the side of the rebels.  NAL, March 2016.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Phillip Margulies' Belle Cora: an American Moll Flanders tells all

One expects certain things from a tell-all memoir. Juicy, scandalous details. Brash, larger-than-life personalities. A dramatic story that offers (or purports to offer) an intimate perspective on high-profile events.

Phillip Margulies' Belle Cora offers all this and more. Although this 600-page tome is actually a novel, not a real autobiography, its genesis was a real-life woman about whom little is known, an infamous madam from San Francisco's Gold Rush days. (Cora was her surname, which she obtained after marrying prominent gambler Charles Cora, legitimizing their longtime relationship. Or so the story goes.)

In addition, the writing quality elevates the novel above the dishy fare you might expect. Belle – or Arabella Godwin, Harriet Knowles, or one of the other names she assumes – has an educated mind and uses it. She narrates her riches-to-rags-to-riches (etc.) saga in a witty voice that combines the wisdom gained through a lifetime of hard-won experience with her observations on whatever segment of her life she’s relating.

Here’s the premise: following the devastating San Francisco earthquake of 1906, respected dowager Mrs. Frances Andersen decides to reveal the truth of her personal history, to the embarrassment of her heirs. It spans over 70 years, from a childhood of privilege in New York City’s Bowling Green neighborhood to her forced relocation to her resentful aunt’s farm near the Finger Lakes, her stint as a mill girl, her transformation into a high-class parlor house girl, then the shipboard voyage to California, heeding the call of adventure and riches.

Trouble arrives in the form of Belle’s cousin, Agnes, who becomes her perpetual rival and enemy – as does anyone falling into the category of “Good Christian Woman.” Throughout her life, Belle constantly veers between the paths of virtue and notoriety, the former while in pursuit of her true love, Jeptha Talbot, and the latter because it brings her wealth and power she can’t achieve otherwise. Reinventing herself becomes a forte, and so does illusion, both necessary in a scandalous profession where, she says, “we went to bed under the pretense that a forbidden romance was moving forward at impossible speed.”

The era’s social history is well detailed, from the peculiar Millerite movement (and its Great Disappointment) to the chaos of 1850s San Francisco, with its Vigilance Committees stockpiling power against the municipal government. The narrative bogs down in explaining all the details about the inner workings of city politics, but the aspects dealing with Belle’s emotional entanglements proceed at a cracking pace. Belle emerges triumphant, an American Moll Flanders who survives everything life throws at her and, in the end, has learned how to live, and to tell her story, without shame.

Belle Cora was published by Doubleday (hb) and Anchor (trade pb), with the latter appearing in October 2014 ($16.95, 608pp).  I requested this via NetGalley some time ago and am embarrassed to have only gotten to it now; it's definitely worth the read.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Book review: Along the Infinite Sea by Beatriz Williams

Two heroines – one beautiful and innocent, the other beautiful and jaded – share the stage in Williams’ cinematic novel, which wraps up her trilogy about the upper-class Schuyler sisters. Left pregnant by a prominent (and married) senator, Pepper Schuyler has traveled south to Palm Beach in 1966 to sell the vintage Mercedes roadster she’s spent the summer helping to restore. She hopes the money – an astounding $300K – will help her establish a new life away from her relatives and her ex-lover, who wants to pressure her into an abortion.

To the surprise of the world-weary, cynical Pepper, the buyer takes interest in her situation. Annabelle Dommerich, a mysterious widow of European extraction, claims to have personal experience with Pepper’s predicament, and she also knows the car intimately well. “Twenty-eight years ago, I drove from my life across the German border inside that car, and I left a piece of my heart inside her,” Annabelle tells her.

Her story, which unfolds alongside Pepper’s, is the more gripping of the two. In 1935, Annabelle de Créouville, aged nineteen, spends the summer at her father’s villa along the gorgeous Côte d’Azur. There she falls in love with Stefan Silverman, a wounded Jewish man her brother asks her to help (which she does, unquestioningly). Playing out amidst the sun-dappled islands of the French Riviera, their affair is divinely romantic, but Annabelle is kept ignorant of the intrigue surrounding Stefan’s presence. We know from the beginning about Annabelle’s eventual marriage to Johann von Kleist, a baron and high-ranking Nazi, but, in tantalizing fashion, Williams keeps us guessing about the man with whom she escaped to America.

With its multiple twists, clever dialogue, and well-balanced blend of romance and thrilling adventure, the novel is smart and sexy escapist reading. It cries out for a film treatment.

Along the Infinite Sea was published by Putnam on November 3rd ($26.95/C$32.95, hardcover, 456pp).  This review first appeared in November's Historical Novels Review.  If you missed the first two books in the series, they're The Secret Life of Violet Grant and Tiny Little Thing.  I recommend them all, and you don't need to read them in order (although I did).

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Place, time, and memory: Lucy Foley's The Book of Lost and Found

Spanning most of the 20th century, The Book of Lost and Found is the sort of sweeping multi-period saga I seek out, one that promises to carry me away on a journey of discovery along with the characters.

In 1986, Kate Darling is a 27-year-old photographer still mourning her mother, June, a celebrated ballerina; the two had been exceptionally close. After the subsequent death of June’s adoptive mother, Evie, Kate is shaken to learn that Evie had withheld information about June’s birth mother. An exquisite decades-old sketch of a beautiful dark-haired woman with a striking resemblance to June leads Kate to renowned artist Thomas Stafford, now an elderly widower living on Corsica.

Intervening sections reveal the tale of a long-ago love that transformed Tom’s life. He and Alice Eversley, born into different social classes, become friends as children, when their families vacation on Cornwall during the lazy summer of 1913. They meet again at an English house party in 1928. Although separated due to life circumstances, neither forgets the other.

“How could a mere few strokes of pen do that, exert such a pull of memory and emotion?” Foley’s elegiac tone suits her story about love, loss, and people’s connections to the past. Each locale is skillfully described, from the rocky Corsican coast, with its heady scent of herbs and salt, to the bohemian 1920s and, later, the terror of wartime France. While Alice is a brave, unselfish heroine, at times Kate feels immature in comparison. For example, I puzzled at her habit of wearing jeans and crumpled T-shirts for important meetings. The novel also jumped abruptly from one viewpoint to another in the later sections.

While imperfect, this debut novel has much to recommend it. Fans of Kimberley Freeman, Lucinda Riley, and Rachel Hore will want to look for it.

The Book of Lost and Found was published by Back Bay/Hachette in August ($14.99/C$17.99, pb, 432pp).  Previously, it was published by Harper UK.  I reviewed it for the Historical Novels Review's November issue.  Which cover do you like best?  The US design, at top left, is based on an actual photograph of the Corsican coastline, which amazed me.  What a view!