Friday, October 30, 2020

Bookshelf, Fall 2020

We’re well into the fall now, with Halloween arriving tomorrow and the clocks going back at 2 AM on Sunday morning, so it’s definitely time to review a few good reads to occupy those soon-to-become considerably longer evenings. Quite a range this quarter, although as it happens I have nothing on the list but historical fiction of various types. That is mostly what I read, between my own writing interests and preparation for my podcast interviews, but I’ll try to come up with a few contemporary suggestions as well for the next go-round.

Finola Austin, Bronte’s Mistress (Atria Books, 2020)
Most of my readers and listeners will be acquainted with the works of Charlotte (Jane Eyre) and Emily (Wuthering Heights) Brontë. This novel focuses instead on the lesser-known siblings Anne and Branwell, in particular Branwell’s affair with an older woman whose marriage has suffered from the death of a beloved child. Lydia Robinson tells her own story in a way that not only inspires sympathy for her plight but hints at sources of inspiration for a few beloved plot points in Charlotte’s and Emily’s novels. I’ll be talking to the author next week for New Books in Historical Fiction, so look for that before Thanksgiving.




Ariana Franklin and Samantha Norman, Death and the Maiden (William Morrow, 2020)
It takes a certain kind of dedication and skill, as well as talent, to complete your mother’s novel series, as Samantha Norman has done here. I had not encountered Ariana Franklin’s medieval mystery series before William Morrow sent me this book for a possible interview—which I then couldn’t fit into my schedule. But I look forward to reading it and, if I have time, its predecessors. 

To quote the press release, “a young female character … finds herself in the middle of mysterious circumstances and must use forensic investigation to deduce what’s happening to a host of young women who go mysteriously missing … and whose bodies re-emerge seemingly drowned from the fens.” The book is set in twelfth-century England, where Eleanor of Acquitaine is acting as regent for her son Richard I while her other son John is determined to upset the apple cart if he possibly can. If nothing else, I’m curious to see what kind of forensic knowledge existed then—it may prove useful in a later Songs of Steppe & Forest novel.

Nancy Burkhalter, The Education of Delhomme (History through Fiction, 2020)
Who could resist a novel that includes not only Frédéric Chopin and his gender-bending lover George Sand but Chopin’s piano tuner, who is the focus of the story. The author worked as a piano tuner herself, and her knowledge and musical sensibility infuse the novel. But Beaulieu Delhomme, the protagonist, has far more going on than his work for Chopin. He’s in love with the fiancée of a man in the French Foreign Legion; he becomes involved in espionage that leads to his imprisonment (as we discover in chapter 1); and he lives in perilous times. Much of the action takes place leading up and during the Revolutions of 1848, in this case in Paris. Find out more from my written Q&A with the author, which should go up on this blog in a few weeks.

Marie Macpherson, The Last Blast of the Trumpet (Penmore Press, 2020)
Marie Macpherson has made a writing career out of reevaluating the career of the sixteenth-century Scottish religious reformer John Knox, known to most people as the man who ruined both football and Christmas. Macpherson’s Knox is not at all the grim preacher of popular culture: he loves women as much as the Bible, and he’s no stranger to a good time. In this third and last novel in the trilogy dedicated to him, Knox goes head-to-head with Mary Queen of Scots. I’ve been clearing other things out of the way, but I hope to set up a written Q&A with Marie soon. In the meantime, check out the (just revamped) New Books Network site to learn more about The First Blast of the Trumpet, including listening to the author bringing life to her own prose in her fabulous Scots accent.

Bernard Cornwell, War Lord (Harper, 2020)
And speaking of endings, I’ve made no secret on this blog that I am, contrary to my own usual literary leanings, a huge fan of Bernard Cornwell’s Lord Uhtred, hero of the Saxon Tales—now renamed the Last Kingdom series after the justifiably celebrated Netflix TV shows based on them. So I could hardly resist Uhtred’s final adventure. In the course of twelve books, he has gone from a child of ten to an old man. During that time, under the leadership of King Alfred the Great and his children, Wessex, the “last kingdom” of the title, has progressed from a lone survivor about to fall to the Danes to the head of an almost-unified England. The new standout is Uhtred’s own Northumberland, and once again he must decide where his loyalties lie.

I’ve talked with Bernard about this series at least three times for New Books in Historical Fiction (The Pagan Lord in 2014, The Flame Bearer in 2016, and War of the Wolf in 2018), but as we get deeper into the story it has become ever harder to avoid spoilers for the series as a whole. So Bernard has kindly agreed to answer my written questions about this last novel, which brings the story of England’s unification to its close with more than a little help from Uhtred. Watch for that Q&A by the end of November.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Interview with Patricia Morrisroe

This will sound strange—perhaps incredible—but my cat loves Beethoven, the Seventh Symphony in particular. Sir Percy and I discovered this quite by accident when he was playing it late one night and she started complaining, loudly, when it ended. Since then, it’s the one piece of music guaranteed to calm her down when she starts roaming around looking for trouble. You can see her here, riffing on the music as it emerges from my computer.


So naturally, when I heard that Patricia Morrisroe had written a novel about the woman to whom Beethoven dedicated the “Moonlight” Sonata, I wanted to find out more. It would have been great to talk with her for New Books in Historical Fiction, because she herself has a fascinating history, as you can see from her bio, below. But I had no space in my schedule at the right time, so we settled on this written Q&A instead.

Read on to find out more, and don’t miss the Five Directions Press Books We Loved in October 2020 link, where I explain in more depth what I loved about this exploration of the under-appreciated life of Countess Julie Guicciardi.

Based on your bio, you have done a lot of writing in your life and have even published several books, but this is your first novel. How did you make the switch to fiction?

It happened purely by chance. An editor mentioned that Beethoven had been in love with a young piano student and thought it had the makings of an interesting novel. I’d never thought of doing historical fiction but figured it would be compatible with my skill set. I was accustomed to doing research, and with Beethoven I had a real-life character whose chronology I could follow. Dialogue came fairly easy because after interviewing hundreds of people over the years, I was attuned to listening to different voices. Since my writing has always been rooted in the contemporary world, it was challenging to suddenly find myself in the early nineteenth century. But I traveled to both Vienna and Naples, where the story takes place, and also read everything I could about the period. I’ve always been interested in fashion, so once I saw pictures of the clothes and hairstyles, it helped bring the characters to life. At one point, Julie cuts off all her hair to emulate the fashionable “Titus coiffure.” That gave me an insight into her personality. And, of course, listening to Beethoven’s music was essential.

And what drew you to the story of Julie Guicciardi?

Of all the women in Beethoven’s life, Julie is among the most mysterious. I knew that Beethoven had dedicated the “Moonlight” Sonata to her and that he’d confessed his love for her in a letter to a friend. I also knew that her portrait miniature was discovered in a secret compartment in his desk drawer after he died. The clues were few but tantalizing. They fed my imagination without overwhelming it.

While I was working on the book, #MeToo was very much in the news. If women in the twenty-first century could be subjected to such abuse, what was it like for a nineteenth-century woman? It was important to me that Julie be strong and never lose her agency, despite some of the appalling mistreatment she suffered. Beethoven is such a titanic figure that it’s hard not to give him the starring role, but I made Julie the narrator so the reader could see him through her eyes.

Who was Julie? How would you describe her past and her personality at the moment we meet her? What does she want from life?

Julie is a smart, witty young countess from a modestly well-off family. Money is central to the family dynamics. Though Julie’s mother grew up on a grand Hungarian estate, her brothers inherited the various properties, leaving Julie’s mother with a modest annual stipend. Julie’s father has a distinguished lineage, but as a court chancellor, he doesn’t make enough to meet his wife’s needs. Her dissatisfaction leads to an event that will change Julie’s life. When we first meet Julie, she is eighteen and, like most aristocratic young woman, obliged to take music lessons. Unlike the cello, which was held between a woman’s legs, the piano was considered the most ladylike instrument. Julie, in her forthright way, asks Beethoven to be her teacher.

Beethoven, even as a young man, was not exactly the romantic hero type. What draws Julie to him?

Beethoven was considered the rock star of his day. While not traditionally handsome, he had enormous charisma, especially when playing one of his soaring improvisations, or engaging in a musical duel with a visiting virtuoso. Even listening to his music today, I’m blown away by his maniacal force and power and also by his sudden tenderness. I tried to imagine what it was like for Julie to hear that music live and to understand that the person playing and composing it was going deaf. Julie is drawn to him because not only does the music exert a spell—Beethoven is the siren to Julie’s Odysseus—but he is also one of the great geniuses of western civilization. How could she not fall in love with him?

What draws him to Julie, so that he dedicates the “Moonlight” Sonata to her?

Julie is so beautiful that she’s known as “La Bella Guicciardi,” and Beethoven has an eye for a pretty face. But she’s also one of the few women who can stand up to him. He respects her intelligence, although he is loath to give her—or anyone—a compliment. He’s so caught up in his music that it’s difficult for him to show any sensitivity to another person. Beethoven dedicates the “Moonlight” Sonata to her, because they’ve suffered through something that inspires him to write the first movement—a funeral march.

You mention in the back of the book that you became caught up in Julie’s story, even after her early relationship with Beethoven is interrupted. Indeed, many of the most fascinating parts of the story come later. Without giving away spoilers, what can you tell us about Count Robert von Gallenberg and Count Friedrich Schulenberg?

Robert Gallenberg was a composer of ballet music and Beethoven’s rival for Julie’s affections. He is everything Julie’s mother wants in a son-in-law—handsome, monied, and titled. After he and Julie move to Naples, he works at the Theater San Carlo for the impresario Dominico Barbaja, a former coffee-house waiter, who discovered Rossini and the drink we now call “cappuccino.” When Barbaja takes over Vienna’s Kärntnertor Theater, Gallenberg helps him run it, giving Julie an opportunity to be in the audience when Beethoven premieres his Ninth Symphony. As for Friedrich Schulenberg, I kept picturing him as Robert Redford in Out of Africa. He’s handsome, elusive and independent, a career diplomat who operates in a sophisticated world of spies, affairs, and intrigue. Julie loves him, but in a different way than she loves Beethoven. The two men represent two different types of passion.

Do you have other fiction projects in mind?
I have some ideas floating around, but after dealing with Beethoven, it’s hard to let him go. Musicians have told me the same thing. He grabs you by the throat and demands your full attention. Because he’s so brilliant, you keep hearing different things in the music, so it’s a life-long process. But since I’ve already given him five years of my life, I think we’ll be splitting up soon. I’ll still listen to his music—but not as a nineteenth-century woman.

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

Patricia Morrisroe is the author of Mapplethorpe: A Biography, Wide Awake: A Memoir of Insomnia, and 9½ Narrow: My Life in Shoes. She was a contributing editor at New York magazine and has written for many other publications, including Vanity Fair, the New York Times, Vogue, the London Sunday Times Magazine, Travel + Leisure, and Departures. The Woman in the Moonlight is her first novel. Find out more about her at

Photograph of Siamese cat © 2020 C. P. Lesley. All rights reserved.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Life along the Rivers

A budding opera star, a gifted painter—the hero and heroine of Joan Schweighardt’s latest novel, River Aria, out this week from Five Directions Press—seem destined for a star-studded future. But life is not so simple for these two immigrants from Brazil to Jazz Age New York. Estela and JoJo face poverty and prejudice and family dysfunction; they have to make ends meet in ways that have little to do with music or art. And both harbor secrets that threaten to rip apart their dreams of happiness.

Joan Schweighardt fills you in on these and other elements of her new book, which concludes her Rivers Trilogy. Read on to find out more. And to learn about the earlier books in this intensely dramatic series, listen to my interview with Joan at New Books in Historical Fiction.


In this novel, your main character is Estela. How would you describe her?

Estela is born in 1910 and raised by her Amerindian/European mother in the city of Manaus, Brazil. To some extent, we are all products of where we are from, but in Estela’s case, her physical surroundings are particularly essential to any description of her. Before the South American rubber boom, which began in the late 1800s, Manaus was a small fishing village on the Amazon River in the middle of the world’s largest rainforest. When the demand for rubber became urgent (because of the advent of the automobile), entrepreneurs from all over Europe descended on Manaus and made it the hub for the rubber industry. Since there was nothing there, they had to import construction materials and quickly build mansions, hotels, restaurants, schools, etc. The centerpiece of their construction was the Teatro Amazonas, a magnificent opera house built to attract elite performers. But then the rubber boom ended abruptly in 1912, just a few years after Estela’s birth, and the Europeans fled. The city—with the exception of the Teatro Amazonas—reverted to a state of decrepitude and its peasant population into a state of poverty.

A twist of fate saves Estela from spending her life repairing fishing nets. When she is ten, a Portuguese voice and music instructor comes to Manaus, and seeing the gold dome of the Teatro Amazonas shining high above the gloom of desertion that mars the rest of the city, he decides to stay and instruct a handful of “river brats” in music, opera, and more. The city officials allow him to use the grand lobby of the Teatro Amazonas for his lessons. In this way, Estela receives an elite education and grows up to be a young woman both worldly wise and bound to the mythologies of her indigenous ancestors.

And what of JoJo? Who is he, both in relation to Estela and as himself?

Estela’s mother and JoJo’s mother are the best of friends and, for various reasons that become clear in the early chapters of the book, they raise their children as cousins. But while Estela is enjoying learning about the world in the lobby of the Teatro Amazonas, JoJo quits school at an early age because his grandfather, a fisherman, becomes sick and JoJo is needed to take his place on the fishing boat. JoJo opts not to return to school even after his grandfather recovers, because working on the boat affords him more time to draw and paint.

Why do Estela and JoJo decide to leave Brazil for New York?

Estela’s music instructor knows the managers at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Thinking Estela’s talents are worthy of the stage, he writes to them on her behalf, asking them to consider her as a chorister. In response, they offer Estela a job working in the sewing room. Estela is able to obtain travel papers, in this time (not unlike ours) when immigrants with darker skin are unwanted, only because her birth registration shows that she has an American father. JoJo, whose papers confirm that he too has some American blood, travels with her, ostensibly to attend an art school but in truth to learn more about his parentage.

As happens to many immigrants, the United States doesn’t quite meet their expectations—and that’s true of New York City in particular. What do they find when they at last reach their destination?

Estela has been invited to spend her first nights across the Hudson River, in the town of Hoboken, New Jersey, with her father and his wife, whom she has met only once before. JoJo had expected to go with her, but due to the nature of an argument he and Estela have while still on the ship, he opts instead to take his chances on the streets of New York. He spends his first night with several other homeless men, outdoors behind an abandoned building, with only a barrel fire and a few borrowed blankets to keep him warm. Their circumstances at this early stage are emblematic of the obstacles they will encounter from then on.  Estela will be offered more than she cares to accept; JoJo will need to employ his ample street smarts if he’s going to survive.

The story takes place in 1928–1929. What drew you to this particular time period? How did you research it—especially the operatic scene that is so much a part of Estela’s life, even if not in quite the way she expected?

While River Aria can easily be read as a standalone novel, it is also the third book in a trilogy which begins in 1908 and moves back and forth between the locations of Hoboken, New Jersey, and Manaus, Brazil. Book 2 (Gifts for the Dead) having ended in the first part of 1928, it follows that River Aria could start just after; it begins in the last months of 1928.

As part of my research, I visited the Teatro Amazonas in Brazil, but I could not visit the Metropolitan Opera House that Estela would have worked at on Broadway in New York because that Met location no longer exists. The property was sold in 1966 and razed in 1967 and now supports a forty-story office tower. The Metropolitan Opera, meanwhile, was relocated to Lincoln Center in New York. Since I was not able to visit the old Met, I went to the new one and had a great backstage tour that included time in a long hallway filled with black-and-white photographs from the old Met. My tour guide was an older gentleman who once worked in and remembered the old Met and was willing to answer my many questions about how things had been done then. And, of course, I read books about the old Met. Although I have only attended one opera in my life (La Traviata at the Met at Lincoln Center), I have watched operas on DVD and even YouTube.

This is the third and last novel in your Rivers series. How do you feel about saying goodbye to this world and these characters?

I’ve written quite a lot of books in my life—my own and books I’ve ghostwritten for clients. Each book is a unique journey for me. This last project—these three novels with the same characters (give or take one or two) in the early part of the twentieth century, traveling back and forth between New York and Brazil and covering some of the most astonishing historical moments of the times in both locations—has been an extraordinarily intense literary experience. I have been immersed in it for years now. I made two trips to South America during the writing of the books; I spent time deep in the rain forest with indigenous tribal people; I traveled on the Amazon and some of its tributaries with a guide. I read and read and read. I learned so much.

Estela, who is very dramatic, is fond of saying, My heart is broken; my heart is broken. I fear I may be saying that myself in the weeks and months to come.

Where does your writing path take you next?

I want to write something about my sister, who lived an extraordinary life and died too young. I will also be working on some projects with other writers—anthologies, that sort of thing.

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

Thank you!

Joan Schweighardt is the author of eight novels, a memoir, two children’s books, and various magazine articles. She lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Find out more about her at


Friday, October 9, 2020

Romance, Murder, and Politics in Renaissance Poland

I’ve written before about P.K. Adams’s Jagiellonian Mystery series and how much I enjoy reading a fast-paced detective story set not in the well-traveled (fictionally speaking) halls of sixteenth-century Western Europe but in Renaissance Poland-Lithuania, a time and place much closer to my own area of historical interest.

When the first book, Silent Water, came out in the summer of 2019, I interviewed the author on this blog. You can find out more about the genesis of the series and its setting in that interview.

But when Jagiellon Mystery no. 2, Midnight Fire, appeared this month, it seemed like a good time to reach out to people who prefer to listen to interviews while they’re working or exercising or just letting off steam. Hence my latest New Books in Historical Fiction podcast episode, which explores some of the same territory as the written Q&A but extends the story forward by twenty-five years, just as the series takes a leap from 1518–1520 to 1545.

So read on to find out more, and stay tuned for future announcements about the joint murder mystery that P. K. and I have produced and hope to see published over the course of the next year or two. Yes, as I’ve mentioned before, we decided it was too good a coincidence to waste—she knowing a lot about sixteenth-century Poland and I about sixteenth-century Russia. Magical things can happen if you take a ride outside your comfort zone, and reading about Bona Sforza and her troubled relationship with her son, Zygmunt August, is one place to start.

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

Most novels about the sixteenth century written in English take place in Italy, France, or England—with the occasional foray into Spain or Portugal. P. K. Adams’ Jagiellonian Mystery series is a welcome exception. Set at the glittering Italianate court of King Zygmunt I of Poland/Lithuania and his son, Zygmunt August, these books map fictional plots onto real historical incidents to create fast-paced, fluid stories that are as much about the tensions of a culture in transition as what drives a person to commit murder.

In Midnight Fire (Iron Knight Press, 2020), the heroine, Caterina Konarska (formerly Sanseverino) returns to Zygmunt I’s court twenty-five years after the events of Silent Water, the first book in the series. Caterina and her husband undertake the long journey from Italy in search of a cure for their young son, Giulio, who suffers from mysterious fevers that have stumped the doctors in Bari.

In Kraków Caterina discovers a court far different from the one she left a quarter-century before. The old king is dying; his wife, Bona Sforza of Milan and Bari, struggles to hold on to power; and their son, Zygmunt August, threatens to cause an international scandal by marrying his beautiful but disreputable Lithuanian mistress, Barbara Radziwiłł.

Queen Bona offers Caterina a deal: persuade Zygmunt August to give up Barbara, and Bona will arrange an appointment for Giulio with Poland’s premier physician. Seeing no alternative, Caterina accepts. But as she sets off for Vilnius with her son, she has no idea of the danger she faces or the layers of treachery she will encounter in Zygmunt August’s Renaissance palace.

Friday, October 2, 2020

The Unknown Degas

A run-down house, an old diary offering insights into late nineteenth-century social life, a boyfriend with secrets, and a young heroine graduating from college on the brink of the Second Wave of the Women’s Liberation Movement, in a decade almost as dramatic as our present—these ingredients intertwine with the historically attested but little-known story of the painter Edgar Degas’s visit with the New Orleans branch of his family in Linda Stewart Henley’s sparkling debut novel Estelle.

In our New Books Network interview, Henley reveals how she found out about Degas’s journey and researched his family relationships. We also talk about how she became a fiction writer, why she added the more contemporary angle, how New Orleans itself has changed over time, and what made this short period in Degas’s life so crucial to his development as an artist. So read on to get a sense of the story, then listen to the interview.

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

Most people think of Edgar Degas as a French painter of ballerinas. But few have heard that his mother came from New Orleans or that he spent five months in the city between October 1872 and February 1873. That five-month period proved crucial to Degas’s career, moving him from the status of a relative unknown dabbling in the not-quite-respectable world of the Paris Opera into an artist of renown. And although he went back to painting ballerinas—many of his most famous works date from 1873 and later—it was his study of his brothers, A Cotton Office in New Orleans, that won him the critical acclaim that pushed him into the next stage of his career.

In Estelle (She Writes Press, 2020), Linda Stewart Henley takes this vital transition as her starting point for a dual-time story in which a young woman named Anne Gautier, twenty-two years old and fresh out of college, inherits an old house on Esplanade Avenue in New Orleans in 1970. While overseeing renovations and dealing with protestors opposed to urban renewal that displaces the poor, Anne discovers an old journal that sheds light on Degas, his friends and family and sojourn in the city—in a house just down the street from hers. Her attempts to uncover more information reveal mysteries both personal and artistic, and soon Anne must tackle some very basic questions regarding what she wants from life.

Interspersed with Anne’s story is the narrative of Degas’s sister-in-law, the Estelle of the title, as she welcomes her visiting brother-in-law and observes his adjustment to family life. Estelle has troubles of her own: she’s pregnant with her third child, she’s losing her eyesight, and her marriage suffers as the family cotton business struggles to stay afloat in the aftermath of the US Civil War. Yet she perseveres, and these relatively quiet domestic scenes contrast well with Anne’s more dramatic conflicts and with the occasional diary entries reproduced from the journal Anne has discovered. The end result is a thoroughly enjoyable tale of the changing fortunes of a great city and the life of an artist, told through the perspectives of three women governed by expectations that are in some ways quite similar, although the options available to them are not similar at all.

Image: Edgar Degas, A Cotton Office in New Orleans (1873), public domain via Wikimedia Commons.