Friday, March 16, 2018

Laura Purcell's The Silent Companions, an eerie multi-period ghost story, plus giveaway

The editor’s note at the beginning of my e-ARC of The Silent Companions begins with a warning: don’t read this book at night. Well, I did, and lived to tell about it – although I found myself looking askance at the dolls on my dresser before scuttling under the covers and turning off the light.

After writing two excellent fictional accounts of the Georgian royals, Laura Purcell has gone full-blown gothic for her third novel, a spooky read set in an English village in Victorian times and the 17th century. Her heroine is Mrs. Elsie Bainbridge, whose terrible story unfolds as she, a mute and bereft woman charged with arson, pens the details for a doctor at the St. Joseph Hospital for the Insane. He doesn’t want to find her guilty and hopes she can save herself.

An atmosphere of dread is conjured up from her tale’s beginning as Elsie, a recent widow, travels by carriage to her late husband Rupert’s family home along with Rupert’s mousy cousin, Sarah. What greets them at the Jacobean manor called “The Bridge” is crumbling disrepair – and something more. The serving maids are untrained, the gardens unkempt, the rooms dusty, and she hears odd hissing sounds at night. The coffin with Rupert’s body awaits burial there, too, with small marks on his skin resembling splinters. Nobody in the nearby village of Fayford wants anything to do with the place, due to rumors of witchcraft and a centuries-old feud. It’s hardly the place for Elsie to raise the child she’s carrying.

Then, after picking the lock of the third-floor garret, she and Sarah discover the previous inhabitants’ dust-choked belongings, two volumes of a 17th-century diary, and a free-standing portrait of a girl, mounted on wood, who resembles both Elsie and Rupert. The presence of these figures, called “silent companions” and reportedly of Dutch origin, adds uniqueness to the classic gothic setting. (Between these figures and the elaborate dollhouse in Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist, the Netherlands is clearly the place to look for creative 17th-century artisanship.)

Equally gripping is the account of Anne Bainbridge starting in 1635, just prior to the Civil War years, as she and her husband prepare for a royal visit. A couple of intriguing details (why does one "companion" look like Elsie?) could have been clarified further, but the mystery about the house’s malevolent presence has a darkly satisfying explanation.

As the suspense heightens, and Elsie and her household find themselves in grave danger, the tone moves from subtly creepy to outright gory – a bit too gory for me in places – and yet more horrors lie in the all-too-real depictions of women’s powerlessness.

The Silent Companions was published this month by Penguin ($16 US, $22 Canada); I read it from a NetGalley copy. Want to win a copy for yourself?  Please fill out the form below to enter the giveaway (this copy was originally provided by the publisher). Void where prohibited, and one entry per household, please.  Deadline next Friday, March 23.  Good luck!

Monday, March 12, 2018

Book review: Harbor of Spies: A Novel of Historic Havana, by Robin Lloyd

Cuba’s capital, Havana, a neutral port during the U.S. Civil War, serves as a base for Confederate trade and plotting and corresponding Union espionage. In Lloyd’s (Rough Passage to London, 2013) exciting second novel, set in 1863, this Spanish-controlled city swarms with activity, from the shipping industry’s constant din to the masquerade dances that serve as an apt metaphor for individuals’ covert motives.

Everett Townsend, a 19-year-old American schooner captain, gets drawn into danger after rescuing an escaped English prisoner. Blackmailed by a Spanish merchant into smuggling cargo through the Union blockade of the South, Townsend gathers a crew and follows his assignment while pondering his moral quandary.

The shipboard action is exhilarating, and intrigue beckons on land, too, with intertwining subplots about a British diplomat’s unresolved murder, a mystery involving Townsend’s late Cuban mother, and his growing affections for an innkeeper’s daughter. The story eventually leads him straight into the dark, cruel heart of the Cuban economy.

This is an involving reading experience for maritime fans and landlubbers alike. One hopes Townsend’s adventures will continue in future books.

Harbor of Spies was published on March 1st by Lyons Press, and this review was written for Booklist's Feb 15th issue.

Some other notes:

-  I have to give credit to novels that defy my expectations. Although nautical adventure novels aren't my preferred subgenre, Harbor of Spies is much more than that, as I hope the review indicates. Plus, the action sequences on board ship were genuinely exciting and didn't get bogged down in jargon.

- The British diplomat in question is George Backhouse, a historical figure who was posted to Cuba and mysteriously murdered in 1855.

- The author, Robin Lloyd, was a longtime correspondent for NBC News who grew up "sailing in the Caribbean" (per his online bio).

- For Civil War fiction fans, this novel offers a less familiar perspective on events, which I appreciated. I've been reviewing many novels set in and around this period lately, including Charles Frazier's Varina, and I'll be posting my thoughts closer to that book's publication date.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

A dozen new and upcoming historical novels with intriguing cover art

This post is dedicated to historical fiction cover art, one of my favorite subjects, and one I haven't posted about recently. Twelve intriguing covers for new and forthcoming historical novels are below.  Will you be adding any of these to your TBRs, or have you read them already?

Andrews' latest biblical fiction novel has a striking color combination in its design: the blue turning into an almost grey, and the title in a deep red font. The title character's pose is classic (a woman facing away from the reader), but the rest makes it stand out. WaterBrook, Jan 2018. [see on Goodreads]

The creative cover for The Strays (from Australian novelist Bitto) seems perfect for a novel about artists and bohemian types in Depression-era Melbourne. Twelve, Jan 2018. [see on Goodreads]

This novel set among socialites in 1950s America and Havana looks like a decadent read perfect for summertime. Crown, June 2018. [see on Goodreads]

And moving on to something completely different. A dramatic color combo for Cornwell's new Elizabethan-set novel (this is the UK paperback).  It looks respectably historical, and the foregrounded red promises action and turmoil. HarperCollins UK, April 2018. [see on Goodreads]

I chose this one because the setting calls to mind the coastal setting for Poldark, and Costeloe's latest is set in nineteenth-century Cornwall, but some decades afterward. Head of Zeus, May 2018. [see on Goodreads]

I love this evocative portrait of London at twilight - the color of the Thames and the sky above, and check out the little dog in the lower right corner of the image. It makes for an eye-catching Victorian mystery. Minotaur, Feb 2018. [see on Goodreads]

Ann Mah's newest novel takes place in wine country - the French region of Burgundy - in WWII and the present day. The cover design echoes the locale and appears warm, inviting, and earthy. Morrow, June 2018. [see on Goodreads]

Such an edgy cover for Christine Mangan's debut novel set in '50s Morocco: the black and white palette (except the title and author), the dark shadows, the woman's expression and pose, the unusual way her fingers are splayed... it reminds me of a Hitchcock film. Ecco, May 2018. [see on Goodreads]

The cover for Sold on a Monday tells a story, one that will undoubtedly be heartbreaking in parts, but it's one I want to read in hopes that all will turn out well. Not surprisingly, it takes place during the Depression years. Sourcebooks, Sept 2018. [see on Goodreads]

You don't see many historical novel covers based on historical portraits any more, which is unfortunate. This is a classic example of one used for a novel set in Renaissance-era Venice, and it works very well. The Scriptorium, Nov 2017. [see on Goodreads]

I'm always willing to be won over by an attractive historical-looking font. The subtitle says "a romantic mystery of the Hudson River Valley," and both the woodsy backdrop and the title placard evoke the setting and era (late 19th century).  Walrus, Apr 2017.  [see on Goodreads]

The sepia photograph on the cover (colorized a bit) is one that makes me want to find out more about its subject, Margaretha Zelle, better known as Mata Hari. This is a recent reissue of Skinner's novel, first published in 2001. Faber & Faber, 2017.  [see on Goodreads]

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Googling Your Way Into the Past, an essay by E. Thomas Behr

Today I'm welcoming E. Thomas Behr, author of three historical novels, for a post about his research process, which should interest historical fiction writers as well as readers.


Googling Your Way Into the Past
E. Thomas Behr

Author of Blood Brothers: Courage and Treachery on the Shores of Tripoli, The Most Bold and Daring Act of the Age, and the forthcoming Doppelgänger: An American Spy in Occupied France.

The challenge and pleasure of writing historical fiction is creating a vivid sense of another place and time for readers. That challenge, I believe, goes beyond simply describing an earlier world; it means to immerse one’s characters in that world so deeply that it comes alive in the characters’ speech, actions, thoughts, and feelings.

Thanks to Google, it’s not essential to have expert knowledge of the historical world that you want to bring to life in your fiction. The purpose of this article is to share some of the approaches I use in researching the background for my historical novels.

It starts with context, which for me means authoritative history. I can find the books I want on Google; in most cases they are available from Amazon, slightly used, for under $5.00. (An obvious disclaimer: always follow fair use principles and always acknowledge your sources.) Like other authors, I create complex biographies for my main characters that form the foundation for the character’s actions and thoughts in the novel itself. I do the same with physical locations − not only the details of what the settings look like, but also the politics, economy, social norms, and mostly the people – what the inhabitants feel. The result is that readers get to see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and sense what it’s like to live in that created world.

For example, my current novel nearing completion, Doppelgänger, is a World War II spy story. The following is a description of London during the Nazi Blitz drawn from on-line details.

The area around Bedford Square, a small residential close of perhaps 40 small, mostly two-story homes, had been hit with high explosive bombs. It looked as if a giant fist had smashed the entire block to rubble. Neighbors, rescue and first aid workers were clawing through the clutter to get to survivors. Stretcher bearers carried the wounded to the nearby ambulances through the chaos of shattered bricks, timbers, and broken glass. The dead bodies were stacked in open spaces along the street.

Exhausted as he was, as much from the horror he was experiencing as the exertion itself, Walter still forced himself to join a group pulling in almost furious anger at a jumble of still smoking wreckage. “There are children in here!” one of the rescuers urged. With the other rescuers, he feverishly helped clear the ruin of what had been a home: pieces of roof and shattered rafters, a long ragged strip of wall covered with ripped, blistered pink and blue chintz wallpaper, the splintered half of a carved table, beams with ragged plaster lath stuck to them, torn curtains, the broken shards of a lime-green vase, a drenched photo album.

Ten minutes later, they reached the bodies.

When a novel takes place in an historical setting like a city, I like to include period maps. These too, are easily found on Google. For Doppelgänger, I’m using copies of the 1939 Michelin Guide for France and a 1940 Map of London so that readers can walk the streets with the characters. And with the satellite view feature of Google maps, I’m often able to zoom in to street level and describe the actual buildings.

The same access to detail in Google exists with natural settings. In my most recent published novel, The Most Bold and Daring Act of the Age (2017), a Napoleonic War saga set in Algiers, I wanted to establish the setting of Kaf Ajnoun, the djinn-haunted Cave of the Devils in the forbidding mountain fortress of Idinen. Google gave me the detailed topographic features and dozens of photos of this eerie, nightmare landscape.

Kaf Ajnoun
Source of image:
Google also provides a means to create action scenes that otherwise would be hard to describe. For example, I wanted to give readers the experience of a sandstorm in the Sahara desert. I’ve never been to the Sahara, and have no interest at all in ever being caught in a sandstorm myself. But when I Googled “Sahara desert sandstorm” and clicked on “videos,” I discovered that some brave (foolhardy) soul had posted a YouTube cell phone video of a sandstorm overwhelming him in all its roaring, choking, purple-black fury. I just described what I saw in the video.

In my first novel, Blood Brothers: Courage and Treachery on the Shores of Tripoli (2011), I created a massive cavalry battle between opposing Bedouin armies, but I wanted the action to be real, and not a Hollywood version of a cavalry charge. Once again, Google to the rescue. I found an on-line copy of Napoleon’s manual of cavalry tactics, translated into English. I was able to give readers the feel of riding into the swirling dusty maelstrom of a battle that would have happened 200 years ago.

Finally, and most important, this kind of access to historical detail allows the characters themselves to experience what it means to live in the fictional world of the novel. Blood Brothers tells the story of America’s 1805 war with Tripoli and the incredible march of General William Eaton’s rag-tag army of mercenaries and a handful of US Marines across 500 miles of merciless Sahara desert. The details come from General Eaton’s letters, available on-line.

Each night they camped by large, spring-fed cisterns. One evening, after the men and animals had taken their fill and the water bags had been replenished, Kirkpatrick stood with Eaton, looking at the perfectly aligned stonework of the well’s sides disappearing below into the darkness.

“Who in the world do you think built these wells, General?”

“Marc Anthony’s Roman legionnaires,” answered Eaton. “These are the remains of Roman forts, built a day’s march apart.” He looked at the ruins around them, then ran his hand over the rough weathered stones on the well’s rim.

“This was the kingdom Anthony and Cleopatra meant to enjoy together.” Eaton looked up at the star-strewn sky above them. “Such great dreams. How does it go? ‘Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space.’ And now the grave that clips them together lies only in our imaginations. So much for dreams. But this stonework has held up for almost two thousand years. I wonder if we Americans will leave a legacy like this behind us. People we can’t imagine, in a time far distant, will say with respect and wonder, ‘Ah. The Americans were here.’”

Monday, March 05, 2018

Madeline Miller's Circe, historical fantasy about a mythological sorceress and feminine power

In her stirring follow-up to the Orange Prize–winning The Song of Achilles (2011), Miller beautifully voices the experiences of the legendary sorceress Circe.

The misfit daughter of the Greek sun god, Helios, her powers are weak and her speech too much like a mortal’s. But her unexpected talents in witchcraft prove threatening to the Titans’ realm, leading to her banishment to the remote island of Aiaia. There she resides, carefully perfecting her herb lore, until her solitude is disrupted by visitors both human and divine.

With poetic eloquence (“the days moved slowly, dropping like petals from a blown rose”) and fine dramatic pacing, Miller smoothly knits together the classic stories of the Minotaur, the monster Scylla, the witch Medea (Circe’s niece), events from Homer’s Odyssey, and more, all reimagined from a strong-minded woman’s viewpoint.

Circe’s potential rival, Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, is another memorable character, and the novel speaks to women’s agency, war’s traumatic aftermath, and how strength emerges from emotional growth. This immersive blend of literary fiction and mythological fantasy demonstrates that the Greek myths are still very relevant today.

My review of Circe first appeared in Booklist's March 1 issue, and the novel will be published by Little, Brown just over a month from now. on April 10th. Readers may want to note that it falls closer to the "fantasy" end of the historical fantasy spectrum (it's being classified by the publisher as historical fiction, though a good part of the novel takes place in the realms of Greek mythology).

Friday, March 02, 2018

Writing Historical Fiction: Reflections on writing about a foreign history and culture, an essay by Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger

I'm pleased to welcome Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger to the blog today. In addition to her newly published historical novels, described below, she's the author of "Souvenirs from Kiev," a short story that won 2nd place in the Historical Novel Society's Short Story Award 2014, and which was published in Distant Echoes, a 2017 anthology with 19 stories receiving honors in recent HNS competitions.


Writing Historical Fiction:
Reflections on writing about a foreign history and culture
Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger

I am an American, living in Austria, a regular visitor to Italy, and my latest novels take place in the former Austrian Tyrol, which now belongs to Italy.

Confused? Stick with me. I’ve got a story to tell.

In 2005, I started writing a story that took place within the systematic oppression of the Austrian Tyroleans. Their province was severed in two and annexed by Italy in 1920. For reasons that require an entirely different telling, I got interested in this history. The more I researched, the deeper the story got under my skin and, the next thing I knew, I was working on the Reschen Valley series.

I had moved to Austria three years earlier while working on an entirely different historical novel based in Ukraine. Because I have Ukrainian roots and speak the language, writing that seemed easier than the undertaking I began in 2005. For that Ukrainian novel, I had the background and language necessary to confidently depict the culture. When I began tackling the Austrian-Italian conflict, I was running up against brick walls not only in the limited research available in English, but also in understanding the Tyrolean and Italian cultures and their intricacies. I had the daunting task of portraying a foreign world as accurately as possible, a world that was also foreign to me.

Not only were the differences in the Italian and Austrian cultures important, finding the parallels between my characters were key for development. I avoided taking sides in this conflict. So, more importantly than getting the specific details and differences down, I was also looking for common ground available to my characters. Further, when I studied their specific language barriers and cultural barriers, I found a lot of dry hay to play with, and I started lighting matches for the purposes of intensifying the tension as well as for creating complexities and layers, even humor.

I also had to make decisions about how I present this foreign world to an English-speaking audience. The techniques of introducing foreign words for the purpose of authenticity, for example, must be done with careful consideration. Secondly, I had to assure that certain aspects of the foreign world were not so foreign that they would disorient or distract. This selection process created a nagging worry about not being able to do justice to the Tyroleans or the Italians.

For starters, I would like nothing more than to have these novels translated into German and Italian. I believe both of these cultures are still trying to come to terms with their history. My fear is that, with a translation, the culture, the language and even the world I’ve created for this series will come out filtered. And with a heavy dilution, you have the risk that those who live within these cultures – these languages! – will not be able to recognise the world I have so painstakingly created for a foreign audience.

Which begs the question: What right do I have to write about this conflict in the first place? Will my novels fail in those countries?

Someone once wisely said that there is no such thing as bad publicity. This is what I imagine is going to happen when the book gets distributed in German- and Italian-speaking countries: Either the reader is going to say, “This is such hooey! An American wrote it,” or they are going to say, “This is so great! An American wrote it!” In the end, I remind myself that my job is to write a story about characters people will recognise and empathise with. Emotion is a novelist’s common denominator no matter where their story takes place. And because I most definitely have a story to tell, that must take priority in the craft.


Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota and now lives in the mountains of Austria with her hilarious dog, royally possessive cat, and phenomenal husband. Her series, Reschen Valley, is releasing throughout 2018 and 2019. No Man’s Land and The Breach, the first two in the series, are available now and on March 15th, respectively. You can join her newsletter for special deals, book launches, releases and promotions at:

Her novels are available in e-book and paperback formats (and Kindle Unlimited) on Amazon under:

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Winner and finalists for the 2017 Langum Prize in American Historical Fiction

The Langum Charitable Trust has just announced the winner and finalists for the Langum Prize in American Historical Fiction for 2017.

Laurel Davis Huber's The Velveteen Daughter (She Writes, 2017) has taken top honors.

From the press release: "Laurel Davis Huber’s The Velveteen Daughter composes the documented but unassembled lives of author and artist, as well as mother and daughter Margery Williams Bianco and Pamela Bianco. While Margery Williams Bianco’s Velveteen Rabbit is still cherished by contemporary generations, her daughter Pamela Bianco was arguably more famous in her lifetime ... While the novel includes vivid scenes of bohemian life both in Wales and Italy, as well as Greenwich Village and Harlem, The Velveteen Daughter is ultimately a novel about the intimate dynamics of familial and romantic love with its myriad expectations and disappointments."

For some background, read the author's guest post for this site, On Researching The Velveteen Daughter, and my review of the book from last July.  It's an excellent selection.

The two finalists for the prize are Wiley Cash's The Last Ballad (Morrow) and Janet Benton's Lilli de Jong (Doubleday).

In addition, in the prize announcement, David J. Langum, Sr., Director of the Langum Charitable Trust, discusses three notable works of American historical fiction from 2017: Eleanor Henderson's The Twelve Mile Straight, Jennifer Egan's Manhattan Beach, and Jane Kirkpatrick's All She Left Behind.

For more information, see the Langum Charitable Trust website.