Friday, March 27, 2020

Bookshelf, Spring 2020

Hard as it is to believe, another season has come and gone, and Spring has officially arrived. A strange spring, with a rather bizarre epidemic that blew up out of nowhere and is at once mild and deadly, requiring unprecedented measures of quarantining and self-isolating and social distancing to restrain its rapid spread long enough to allow the world’s medical systems to catch up and wreaking havoc on the global economy.

But for all of us confined to our homes until further notice, books offer one reliable refuge. Here from my bookshelf are several literary journeys to a variety of times and places, from the contemporary Cotswolds to nineteenth-century Sicily and the New York art scene, ca. 1910. I’m sure you can find something here to lighten the pressures of life in lock-down.

Stefania Auci, The Florios of Sicily, trans. Katherine Gregor (HarperVia, 2020)

This family saga was a bestseller in Italy, hence its translation and republication here. It came to me for a potential interview, but I couldn’t fit it in even though the subject matter looks fascinating and I love to explore literary places that don’t come my way very often. I’m not quite sure when I’ll get to it, because I have a lot of interviews underway at present—including two for New Books in History that I have yet to schedule. But if anywhere can offer an escape from a world hovering on the brink of disaster into a past filled with sunshine and passion, nineteenth-century Sicily must be that place. Just the cover makes me think of summers at the beach.


Mari Coates, The Pelton Papers 
(She Writes Press, 2020)

A look at Agnes Pelton, a twentieth-century American artist whose work I didn’t know before encountering this lovely, lyrical exploration of her life. Born in 1881, Pelton survived a sickly childhood and lived to be almost eighty. Over her long career, she developed from a mostly realistic painter, if with hints of fantasy, into a “desert transcendentalist” who combined the spiritual principles of Vasily Kandinsky and Madame Blavatsky to create abstract works rich in brilliant colors. I’ll be talking with the author next week for New Books in Historical Fiction, so check in and give us a listen once that interview goes live around the middle of April.


Michelle Cox, A Child Lost
(She Writes Press, 2020)

Book 5 of a series that began in 2016 with A Girl Like You, by an author I interviewed regarding the first two back in 2017. By now, Clyde and Henrietta are married, but the cases keep on coming, even though Clyde has resigned from the Chicago police to work in his family business. Set in the 1920s, this series explores the seamier side of city life as well as the mansions on the North Shore. 

It would be unfair to give away spoilers, but check back on the blog early in May to see what the author is willing to reveal about A Child Lost as well as its immediate predecessors—A Promise Given and A Veil Removed.


Janice Hadlow, The Other Bennet Sister
(Henry Holt, 2020)

The thirst for Austen spin-offs continues unabated, and information about this one landed in my in box unexpectedly this week. Like Pamela Mingle’s charming The Pursuit of Mary Bennet (William Morrow, 2013), this novel by a long-time BBC administrator tackles the least attractive middle sister, Mary. It’s garnering rave reviews, and I’m as big an Austen fan as anyone—especially Pride and Prejudice. So I look forward to seeing Hadlow’s take on a perennial favorite. I’ll be talking with her for my May interview.


Stacey Halls, The Lost Orphan
(William Morrow, 2020)

Captivating, beautifully written novel about a young woman forced to give up her illegitimate newborn daughter, Clara, to London’s Foundling Hospital (the original UK title is The Foundling). That’s hard enough, since the hospital holds a lottery to determine which of the many unwanted babies it will keep, and Clara barely makes the cut. But when, after five years, Bess manages to scrape together enough of her earnings as a shrimp seller to retrieve Clara, she learns that someone claiming to be her baby’s mother took Clara the very day Bess left her daughter in the hospital’s care.

Bess decides to get her baby back. This story about two eighteenth-century women, each desperate in her own way, twists and turns in the most satisfying and unexpected ways, but at its heart it’s a tale of motherhood, its trials and triumphs. Stacey Halls will join me here next week to talk about this and her previous novel, The Familiars.

And just for fun—because what’s better than a brand-new mystery series with twenty books already written?—Agatha Frost, Pancakes and Corpses (Pink Tree Publishing, 2017). 

I love historical fiction; don’t get me wrong. I love interviewing authors and thinking about their books. But once in a while it’s nice to put my brain on hold and let a gifted contemporary writer sweep me into a world where it makes perfect sense that a cafĂ© owner and baker (or a lighthouse librarian, like Eva Gates’ Lucy, with the help of a resident Burmese cat) could be continually confronted by dead bodies and cases only she can solve.

I came to this book via Courtney J. Hall, one of my two co-founders at Five Directions Press, who loves the entire series. When I saw on Twitter that Agatha Frost was giving away six of her titles for free because of the pandemic, I downloaded them, then sprang for the first two in the series so I could get in at the beginning. I started this one a few days ago, but now that I have a bit of free time between interviews, I hope to tear through the rest of it. And if the end is as good as the beginning, I have lots more to go....

Friday, March 20, 2020

Working from Home

With the sudden need for “social distancing” in response to the coronavirus outbreak, many people have to work from home who never did before. It’s not an easy transition, especially for a natural extrovert (which as a novelist I am not, or I would spend fewer hours alone in my office communing with imaginary people). Not knowing whether the new situation will last for weeks or months only makes the adjustment harder. But it can be done.

I know. I started working from a home office in 1994, and I love it. At the time, it was a practical decision: my son had just turned six, and we’d come through an entire month’s worth of ice storms. The schools closed day after day, and when they did open, they started two hours late, which for morning kindergarten was the same as not opening at all. I’d given up a teaching job because the scheduling didn’t work, and being unemployed made that January possible for my family. But when I saw the ad for an editorial position in my specialty that let me work remotely, I wasted no time in submitting an application. I’ve never looked back.

So for those of you facing this reality for the first time, I thought I’d use this post to offer a few suggestions for making teleworking feasible. I hope you’ll find them useful—and by all means share your own tips in the comments. There are many more things I could say, but I’ll focus on these five.

Be dedicated. Sure, one advantage of working from home is that you can monitor food bubbling in the slow cooker and run the laundry in the background, but those distractions can grow until they eat up the workday. It’s important to keep them in their place. You made it through the day without cleaning the bathroom before, and you can do it now. To paraphrase an advice book I read back in the 1990s, “If you can complete the chore in 90 seconds, do it. Otherwise wait till the workday is done.”

Of course, a particular hurdle right now is that so many schools and child care centers are closed, which further complicates life for working parents, even teleworking parents. But if you can swap time with another parent (preferably a co-parent) or find an older child or relative to babysit or, with kids over the age of eight or so, get the young ones involved in projects or caught up in a good book, you can clear enough individual hours to keep domestic life from overwhelming the time available for work. This is a good time to loosen restrictions on TV watching and similar activities, so long as the kids understand that it won’t always be that way.

Stay connected. Exactly how this happens depends in part on your job and your personality, but it’s an essential element of making teleworking less burdensome. When I started, I had all my editors on speed-dial and talked to them several times a day. Now it’s e-mail that keeps me in touch. Others rely on video-conferencing or Messenger. It’s not the same as hanging around the water cooler, and working from home may mean you don’t get the latest gossip or updates on company policies, but it will help you avoid stir-craziness and a sense of isolation.

Be flexible. It’s not going to be perfect. It never is, but the domestic sphere has its own special challenges. The cat barfing on the rug in the middle of the video conference, the kid having a meltdown right when you’re humming on that memo, the spouse walking around chatting just when you picked up the phone to call your boss—these are all examples of what P. G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster described as life sneaking up on us with a sock filled with sand. Good news: the person on the other end of the call probably has similar issues—or will soon. Laugh, if possible, and share the silly story, then move on.

Separate work from life. The nice thing about an office elsewhere is that you can walk out and lock it at the end of the workday. Home offices don’t come with that perk. But you can create it. Keep your office e-mail off your phone and tablet; change your clothes; pour a glass of wine (in moderation!); pick up a book, which can’t interrupt you with demands for answers to work-related questions. Even starting the same domestic chore—cooking, for example—that threatened to distract you at 10 AM can signal to your brain that the workday is over and relaxation can begin.
And last but not least,

Enjoy the upside. For as long as you’re teleworking, you can’t get stuck in traffic. You don’t need to dress up for work. There’s no charge for lunch, and you can eat whatever you have on hand. You can start the coffee pot whenever you want, play the music you like in the background, have a cup of tea when the fancy strikes. Instead of spending time at staff meetings, you can monitor what’s going on with your kids. And you still have a job. With so many people losing their sources of income due to the shuttering of businesses, that may be the biggest benefit of all.

Who knows? By the time the crisis ends, you may be just a bit sorry to get back in the car or on the train and leave that cozy home office behind.

Images of home offices purchased by subscription from, nos. 37476468 and 110224490.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

For Love and Money

Like many young women, I read romances by the cartload in high school and college. Not bodice rippers, for the most part, but everything by Georgette Heyer I could get my hands on, as well as Emilie Loring, Barbara Cartland (a real guilty pleasure, those), and more Harlequin romances than I care to count.

In recent years, I’ve rather lost my taste for the classic romance. With rare exceptions, they seem too predictable and, in the case of many historical romances, too disconnected from the moral standards of the time periods they claim to depict. But I still write romance into my novels, because I can’t imagine a story that isn’t enhanced by the love and conflict that characterize an emerging relationship. And the fiction I prefer to read—mostly historical, not least because of the demands of this podcast—almost always includes romantic elements as well.

So, as I wrote last summer, it’s been a great pleasure to discover the thoughtful, well-crafted historical romances penned by Maya Rodale. It was only when I began preparing for this week’s New Books in Historical Fiction interview with her, though, that I also discovered her nonfiction study of romances, which we used to kick off our conversation. So listen to the interview; read her latest Gilded Age Girls Club novel, An Heiress to Remember, when it comes out at the end of this month; and watch for the follow-up post on the Literary Hub, which should go up next week.

As always, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

As Maya Rodale notes early in this interview, romance novels tend not to get the same respect as other categories of fiction, historical or otherwise. Here, and in her Dangerous Books for Girls, she argues persuasively that this bad reputation is an attempt by life’s insiders to undermine the central message of most romance novels: that outsiders, too, have the right to love, success, and happiness. But the message is nowhere more evident than in her Gilded Age Girls Club series, in which a small group of wealthy women make it their goal in life to support female-run businesses and their staffs.

In An Heiress to Remember, the heroine, Beatrice Goodwin, suffers from no lack of money; her family has plenty of it—enough to insist that their beautiful daughter wed a duke to bring them prestige in society, even though Beatrice has fallen in love with Wes Dalton, one of her father’s employees. At twenty, Beatrice gives in to her parents’ demands, but sixteen years later, she is back in New York, having scandalously divorced her duke. It is 1895, and wives are not supposed to take that kind of initiative.

Beatrice finds her family situation much changed. The man she loved has gone on to build a wildly popular department store directly opposite her own, and the combination of his desire for revenge and her brother’s mismanagement has placed the family fortune in jeopardy. But Beatrice has no intention of standing by while Dalton buys her father’s cherished store out from under her and destroys it. She sets out to beat Dalton at his own game, because if anyone knows what women want from a department store, she does. And before long, Dalton has to worry that she may succeed in her quest.

Image: B. Altman’s, one of the department stores anchoring the Ladies’ Mile, New York City, ca. 1915, via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, March 6, 2020

The Fifties Mystique

After almost eight years as host of New Books in Historical Fiction, I’m in the delightful position of receiving more books from publishers and publicists than I can ever hope to cover in my podcast interviews—at least until I retire and can bump up the number to one a week instead of a couple of times a month. Meanwhile, my attempts to sustain regular blog posts require a constant stream of new material. This happy coincidence bears fruit this week in a pair of summaries of books too new even to have made it onto my most recent quarterly Bookshelf post—although now that I think of it, spring is not far away, meaning that the springtime roundup should follow early next month.

Both books came to me from William Morrow, a steady supplier of great historical fiction whose efforts I greatly appreciate. Otherwise, the two novels have little in common except that the main action takes place in 1951–52 and features a quite ordinary woman who finds herself in circumstances she didn’t anticipate, confronting secrets that threaten to undermine her family and her own peace of mind.

Kayte Nunn’s The Forgotten Letters of Esther Durrant came out this past Tuesday, March 3. In 2018, Rachel Parker, a young marine biologist, leaves New Zealand for a research project counting clams on the Scilly Isles, off England’s southwestern coast. When her boat goes down in a storm, she winds up on an almost deserted island where she discovers a cache of unsent letters written more than sixty years before. But who was the writer, and who the unknowing recipient?

The novel shifts back and forth between Rachel’s academic and romantic journey and the attempts by a young Londoner named Eve to record the memoirs of her grandmother, one of the first female mountaineers. But the heart of the story is Esther Durrant, first seen traveling with her husband to the Scilly Isles in 1951, where she wakes up the next morning and discovers that her husband has left her in the care of his friend, an innovative psychiatrist who treats a handful of patients—mostly male war veterans—in what is, to all intents and purposes, a mental institution on the island. Esther suffers from depression caused by the loss of her infant son to SIDS, a condition not yet named and recognized in 1951, and the doctor believes that life on the island may help her come to terms with her loss.

Esther, Rachel, and the people they encounter are richly imagined, complex characters, and the atmosphere of the isolated and largely depopulated islands that bring both Esther and Rachel, in a sense, back into the world is both pervasive and haunting. Also visible are the long-term effects of World War II, six years ended by the time the book opens, on the men who fought. The hidden secrets, where Eve and her grandmother fit in, and the identity of the letter writer you will have to find out for yourselves.

In some ways, Gretchen Berg’s debut novel, The Operator, which is due out next week but already available to preorder, couldn’t be more different. Here the war forms at most part of the backdrop, which matches the vastly different experience of war in Europe and the American Midwest.

Set in Ohio, The Operator begins in 1952 but moves backward and forward in time to include the childhood and early womanhood of its heroine, Vivian Dalton. Unlike Esther Durrant, who has a college education and lives a relatively affluent life in London, Vivian has to leave school in her early teens to help support her family through the Great Depression. She lands a job as a telephone operator, an occupation that from the standpoint of 2020 seems as archaic as that of coal stoker for a steam-powered locomotive.

Yet at the risk of dating myself, I can remember the first in-house telephone my parents owned when I was a child. It had no rotary dial and certainly no keypad. It was merely a handset, which you picked up. When the operator answered, you gave the number you were calling—Oxford 402, say—and the operator made the connection, just as Vivian does in this novel. Not surprisingly, perhaps, operators could listen in on the calls, although they were supposed to do no such thing.

And that’s exactly what Vivian is doing when she hears gossip that personally affects her family. And although the secret, when it’s finally revealed, is itself a relic of the 1950s which it’s hard to imagine having quite the same impact in our scandal-ridden and “everything out in the open” time, like all hidden truths it has consequences that no one could have predicted when the events first happened.

Here too the writing is vivid and engaging, Vivian and her trials and triumphs (not least with her older sister, Vera) beautifully realized and sympathetic, and this glimpse of a time that is irretrievably gone yet still with us in the form of older relatives and friends bittersweet.

As a professional woman, I can’t say that I’ve ever dreamed of returning to the 1950s, and some of the incidents in these novels remind me of why. But as virtual journeys to an almost forgotten and perhaps unmourned past, these books offer excellent reads.