It’s been a while since I ran my last Bookshelf post, so with another lovely writing week taking up much of my time, this seems a good moment for one. Several of these books will eventually become the basis of podcast interviews at New Books in Historical Fiction (NBHF); others relate to the recently renamed (Mostly) Dead Writers’ Society (DWS) on GoodReads or to the developing catalogue at Five Directions Press. Most are by less well-known writers—some traditionally published, others not. Because isn’t that the fun part of reading: discovering a new writer, preferably one who has produced lots of books? So here we go, more or less in order.
Anchee Min, Empress Orchid (Mariner Books, 2005)
Just finished this account of the early years that Cixi, the last empress of China, spent in the Forbidden City, between her selection as the fourth concubine of Emperor Xianfeng to his death and her ascension to the role of joint regent for their son. We watch her grow from a naive sixteen-year-old left to her own devices in the imperial palace to the emperor’s favorite companion and adviser to a capable woman who, even in her mid-twenties, defends her own and her son’s interests within a court that insists on underrating her intelligence and her talents. I read this as part of the DWS’s 2017 exploration of revolutions, starting with the Boxer Rebellion, and enjoyed it very much. The Boxer Rebellion doesn’t actually appear until the sequel, The Last Empress, but the earlier Taiping Rebellion forms part of the backdrop here. The same author's Becoming Madame Mao is also a favorite of mine.
Bren McClain, One Good Mama Bone (University of South Carolina Press, 2017)
Sarah Creamer, dirt-poor and widowed by an alcoholic who leaves her with a son he had with her best friend, struggles to pay the mortgage on her farm and raise a boy that’s not hers despite her own mother’s scornful comment: “You ain’t got one good mama bone in you, girl.” Salvation appears in the form of a young steer, destined to compete in a 1952 cattle show. But when Sarah discovers what may happen to her steer if he wins the prize, her developing instincts as a mother force her to reconsider where her true loyalties lie. My February interview for NBHF.
Beatriz Williams, The Wicked City (William Morrow, 2017)
A dual-time novel alternating between a modern-day New Yorker warned to stay out of a haunted basement in modern-day Greenwich Village and a flapper who loves to party in the same building in 1924, when it hosted one of the city’s most notorious speakeasies. By the author of A Certain Age, another Jazz Age story that I loved, this book was sent to me for an NBHF interview, but I was already booked; I plan to interview the author in July, when she will have another new novel, Cocoa Beach.
Lissa Evans, Their Finest (Harper Perennial, 2017)
This novel, originally published in the UK, has already become a major motion picture. Set in London in 1940, it follows the career of Catrin Cole, who works on propaganda films for the Ministry of Information and ends up producing a largely manufactured “true” story about two sisters at Dunkirk. In the current political climate, and especially as a specialist in Russian history, how could I resist? Another potential NBHF interview that I received too late to fit into my schedule.
Denise Allan Steele, Rewind (Five Directions Press, 2017)
A delightful, hilarious novel set in 1970s/80s Scotland and modern-day California. Karen Anderson at seventeen lives for ABBA, the Hustle, and the attentions of her school's bad boy, until he breaks her heart by taking up with the local tramp. Karen escapes to university, where she meets and falls in love with Jack, a cool guitar-playing student who hates Margaret Thatcher as much as she does. Thirty years later, married to Jack and living in California with two teenagers who barely give her the time of day, Karen falls into the middle-aged trap of wondering about the road not taken. Can you rewind the book of love, and if you can, should you? With a legion of Scots relatives to my name, I find this story irresistible. It’s like a journey home, with laughs.
Ronald E. Yates, Finding Billy Battles and The Improbable Journeys of Billy Battles (Xlibris, 2013 and 2016)
These first two books in a planned trilogy weave tales of the author’s family into a semi-fictional account of a nineteenth-century Kansan who travels the world, as rediscovered by his great-grandson a hundred years later. The author’s years of writing and teaching journalism give him an ear for dialogue, a knack for description, and an instinct for the telling anecdote that together make for sharp observations and a compelling style. The books read like a combination of travelogue and diary, with a good deal of history seamlessly tossed into the mix. My March NBHF interview.
Tiffany Reisz, The Night Mark (MIRA Books, 2017)
Another dual-time story, but this one involves time travel, like the Outlander series. Faye Barlow, reeling from the death of her beloved husband, takes a job photographing the South Carolina coast. Pulled toward the Bride Island lighthouse during one assignment, she keeps returning, drawn by the legend of a keeper’s daughter who drowned under mysterious circumstances in 1921. One night, a rogue wave drags Faye into the past, where she becomes caught up in a love story that is not her own. As a historian, I often fantasize about visiting the period I study, in reality or through fiction (as in The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel), so I leaped at the chance to interview this author when her book comes out in April.
Michelle Cox, A Girl Like You and A Ring of Truth (She Writes Press, 2016 and 2017)
Two mystery novels set in 1930s Chicago, starring Henrietta Von Harmon and Inspector Clive Howard. Henrietta, despite her aristocratic-sounding name, has sole responsibility for her nasty mother and seven siblings since her father committed suicide after the great crash of 1929. She has just established herself in a job at a local dance hall when the floor matron turns up dead. When Inspector Cox recruits her help in solving the crime, love enters the picture. In book 2, buried family secrets threaten Henrietta’s and Clive’s prospects for happiness, even as another crime casts a shadow on their budding romance. What can I say? I love 1930s mystery stories of the Agatha Christie/Dorothy Sayers type, and these two books appear to be in that mode. My May NBHF interview, scheduled for right after the second book’s appearance in April.
Ariadne Apostolou, West End Quartet (Five Directions Press, 2017)
Four young women living in 1980s Manhattan join together to form an urban commune called Group, dedicated to feminist politics, anti-nuclear protests, and various other radical causes. When the Reagan years end, Mallory, Jasmina, Gwen, and Kleio travel along different paths, never quite losing contact but no longer close. Through separate novellas we trace crucial events in the lives of the first three (Kleio has her own book, Seeking Sophia, released in 2013), ending with their reunion in Greece just as Kleio is facing a big decision of her own. A richly realized and often poignant character study of four women who set out to change the world, only to discover that more often the world changes us.
That should keep me busy for a while. Check back every so often as the individual posts go up to find out more about what I thought of each individual book.