Friday, July 30, 2021

Mysteries Galore

It’s no surprise to anyone that the mystery genre, both contemporary and historical, has a large following among readers. Indeed, even novels not classified as mysteries work best if the authors keep readers in suspense about what drives the obsessions of individual characters or how a hero(ine) will succeed in defeating the main antagonist and achieving his or her goals.

But although I try to maintain elements of mystery in my own novels, that is not the focus of this post. I also love to read a good generic mystery, whether it revolves around murder or another, less extreme crime. I have my favorite authors, at times featured on this blog—classic writers like Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie but also Elizabeth Peters, Laurie R. King, Rhys Bowen, and Deanna Raybourn, to name a few. I also enjoy crime writers who don’t have the muscle of big publishing houses behind them. P.K. Adams, with whom I am now co-writing murder mysteries of my own, is one example. Here are three others I’ve read recently or am currently enjoying who are published by smaller presses.

In the interests of full disclosure, I found out about all these authors on Facebook (room for another post there), so I know them in a rather casual way. But I make it a point never to recommend a book I didn’t genuinely enjoy, so in that sense these novels are no different from any other, except in the way I learned of their existence. The only one who even knows I bought her books is A. E. Wasserman, and that’s because I plan to interview her for New Books in Historical Fiction whenever I can clear some space in my schedule.

Sheila Lowe, Poison Pen (Write Choice Ink, 2021)

This recently revised and re-released novel, originally published in 2007, kicks off the Claudia Rose series (currently eight books) with a bang. Claudia works as a forensic handwriting analyst, often testifying in court, so it’s not an enormous stretch when she’s called in to verify a suicide note left by Lindsey Alexander, an utterly self-centered and widely disliked publicist known to Claudia. The suicide note is written in printed capitals on a fresh piece of paper, not Lindsey’s usual style at all, but without a printed document to use for comparison, Claudia struggles to fulfill her task. 

Then the man who hired her to prove the suicide note a fake winds up severely battered in Lindsey’s apartment, and Claudia is the one who finds him minutes after the attack. In conjunction with LAPD detective Joel Jovanovic (pron. Yo-VAN-o-vich), Claudia gradually gets drawn into both the twisty yet ultimately satisfying plot and to Joel himself, all the while trying to stay one step ahead of the killer.

Saralyn Richard, A Palette for Love and Murder (Black Opal Books, 2020)

I’m halfway through this one and loving it, so I just bought the first book as well (Murder in the One Percent [2018]). As a result, I’m a bit out of sequence, but so be it. Both of these are set in the Brandywine Valley in southeastern Pennsylvania, an area I know well, and that’s definitely part of the fun. Both also feature Detective Oliver Parrott, a young (20s something) African-American officer on the Brandywine police force a little bewildered by the opulence of his new work environment.

In this second book, Parrott is investigating the theft of two paintings by Blake Allmond, an artist in his fifties from an old and wealthy Pennsylvania family on the brink of achieving international recognition. Allmond shows up dead in New York City before Parrott even has a chance to interview him, and although the murder is not Parrott’s case, it certainly ups the ante. Parrott is a thoroughly likable and sympathetic character, as is his new wife, Tonya—a Navy SEAL just returned from Afghanistan and suffering from PTSD. I can’t wait to find out how this case plays out and to follow the series from now on.


A. E. Wasserman, 1884: No Boundaries (Archway Publishing, 2015)

This, the only historical fiction writer in the trio, is the one I plan to interview for my podcast. For that reason, she sent me this book, although I purchased two others—the delightful novella The Notorious Black Bart: The Journey Back, 1883 and the latest, 1888: The Dead and the Desperate, which I have yet to read. But the series begins here, with  the twenty-one-year-old Lord Langsford entertaining his boyhood friend Heinrich von Dieffenbacher, on a visit with his father from Germany. Langsford, despite his recent marriage to the beautiful Regina, has a secret that he conceals even from Heinrich, an eyewitness to one of its early manifestations: Langsford’s only deep, heartfelt passion was for someone he knew from their all-male boarding school (possibly Heinrich himself, although the identity of Langsford’s love has yet to be revealed). But homosexuality, a term not even invented in the 1880s, is still a crime under British law as well as a moral abomination in the eyes of society, including Langsford himself. Hence his early marriage—a vain attempt to control and rechannel his desires.

Meanwhile, Heinrich falls madly in love with a London shopgirl, a match that would be barred to him as the son of a count, even if his father had not chosen to observe a family tradition dating back to the time of Charlemagne that promises Heinrich to the Catholic Church. The moment Heinrich’s father discovers the unwanted attraction, he hauls his son back to Germany without giving Heinrich a chance to say goodbye. But it’s when Heinrich tries to escape his heritage and return to London that he becomes involved in a murder and assassination plot that only Langsford can unravel.

These novels straddle the line between murder mystery and suspense: sometimes we know the identity of the murderer but not the motivation or the context; other times the author chooses a more traditional path, with an investigation that uncovers an unsuspected but plausible villain. But what also distinguishes them—in addition to Langsford himself, a complex and intense Sherlock Holmes type—is their placement in history writ large. Whether it’s a planned assassination of Otto von Bismarck, anarchist bombings by Irish radicals, or politicking to manipulate transcontinental railroads, the background to the books informs and highlights the personal issues of Wasserman’s complex characters.

Friday, July 23, 2021

Bookshelf, Summer 2021

Here we are, close to the middle of summer, so I thought this would be a good time for another bookshelf post. I’ve been reading nonstop, so many of the books that were originally on my list have already moved through the system, so to speak, giving rise to blog Q&As and New Books Network podcast interviews that you can find by checking the month-by-month archive on the right, beneath my book covers. But between now and the official beginning of fall around September 21, I still have quite a few titles on my list.

Jai Chakrabarti, A Play for the End of the World (Knopf, 2021)
Given my repeated complaints that the major publishers never seem to tire of books set during World War II, it may seem odd that I have three such books on my shelf at the moment. But each of them has a unique approach to the subject that appeals to me. Jai Chakrabarti’s A Play for the End of the World, due for release on September 7, begins in a Warsaw orphanage in August 1942, four days before the staff and children are evacuated to Treblinka, where all but two of them will perish. The directors of the orphanage, who can already anticipate what will happen, try to prepare the children by staging a production of Rabindranath Tagore’s The Post Office, a play about death and how to prepare for it. Thirty years later, those two survivors are invited to restage the play in Bengal, and through the prism of their journey—in particular, Jaryk’s, the younger former orphan who follows to reclaim his friend’s ashes—we see not just the effects of what they went through in 1942 but all the years between. In this way, the book is less about the war than about the postwar experience of those who lived through it. If all goes well, I’ll be hosting a written Q&A with Jai Chakrabarti in mid-September.

Mary Martin Devlin, The La Motte Woman
(Cuidono Press, 2021)
Of all the books on the list, this is the only one that’s already out—just last month—and it’s a gem. Set before the French Revolution, it follows the career of a real-life woman, Jeanne de La Motte-Valois, who was reportedly the inspiration for William Thackeray’s Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair. Born into poverty as the descendant of a legitimized son of King Henri II, Jeanne is determined to reclaim the position to which she believes she’s entitled. To that end, she manipulates a series of lovers, most notably the powerful Cardinal-Prince Louis de Rohan, and launches a scandal that ultimately sweeps up  Queen Marie Antoinette and contributes directly to the overthrow of the monarchy in 1789 and the queen’s execution four years later. You can hear us talking about it in a couple of weeks on the New Books Network.


Michelle Gable, The Bookseller’s Secret
(Graydon House, 2021)
This is the second book set, at least partially, during World War II—much of it also in 1942—but it takes a quite different approach from Chakrabarti’s. This dual-time story contrasts the life of a fictional contemporary author with one big hit and a bad case of writers’ block to the wartime experience of the real-life Nancy Mitford, who after four not very successful novels is supporting herself by working at a London bookstore. She’s also tasked with spying on various members of the French government in exile, as a result of which she forms a long-term relationship with a French count that contributes to the breakup of her unsatisfactory marriage. The focus is not, however, on the war so much as the process by which Nancy breaks out of her doldrums to write The Pursuit of Love, the novel that makes her famous and mirrors in interesting ways the contemporary half of the book. The Bookseller’s Secret is due to release on August 17, so check back around the 20th to see if Michelle Gable has answered my questions.

Gill Paul, The Collector’s Daughter
(William Morrow, 2021)
I’ve been a big fan of Gill Paul’s novels ever since I read The Lost Daughter, her 2019 reimagining of how the life of Grand Duchess Maria—one of the four daughters of Emperor Nicholas II—might have worked out if she had not been assassinated by the Bolsheviks in 1918. Jennifer Eremeeva conducted that interview for the New Books Network, and I hosted a written Q&A here when Gill’s next novel, Jackie and Maria, came out last year. But I was determined to talk to her in person, and that will happen in conjunction with this year’s release, due on September 7, of The Collector’s Daughter. This beautifully written, thoroughly engrossing story focuses on Lady Evelyn Herbert—the daughter of Lord Carnarvon, who funded Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. Eve, as she was known, harbored a desire to become an archaeologist and was present at the opening of the tomb. Indeed, she was the first person to enter the sealed chambers in three thousand years. But the novel begins and ends with Eve in her seventies, exploring the nuances of her long and happy marriage and how it withstood her increasing loss of memory, the result of strokes caused by a car accident in 1935. The book flips back and forth between Eve as a young woman and Eve struggling to recover from each setback, and in that respect it is truly a tale for the ages. Stay tuned for more information about our New Books in Historical Fiction conversation sometime in mid-September.


Stephanie Marie Thornton, A Most Clever Girl (Berkley, 2021)
Here is the third book connected with the 1939–1945 period, but it too is really about the postwar environment—the consequences of the war, if you like. Two American double agents, one operating in the Cold War world of 1963 and the other attempting to infiltrate fascists during World War II, find their loyalties tested as they balance the conflicting demands of love and country, the United States and the USSR. Even though the 1960s (and even the 1940s) are far removed from my area of interest as a historian of early modern Russia, the espionage and Soviet angles—especially given that both spies are female—are enough to draw me in. Thornton’s new book releases in mid-September, but I will be interviewing her on this blog toward the end of that month or in early October due to the number of other commitments I already have.

Friday, July 16, 2021

Choreographing the Royal Wedding

Writing historical fiction, even about a period one knows well, demands a lot of research. Many novelists, including myself, enjoy that part almost as much as plotting the story and creating characters. Of course, there are times when all I want is a quick answer: How much can you see through a mica pane? How would a sixteenth-century doctor treat an arrow wound? Exactly how do you store spider webs so you have them on hand to treat a future injury?

But establishing the broader picture can be important too. Each novel addresses different areas of life and therefore raises new questions that demand answers. For that situation, works offering comprehensive, in-depth examination of specific topics provide the perfect solution. This is when I put on my rather dusty historian’s cap and dive into the academic literature.

For my current work-in-progress, Song of the Storyteller (Songs of Steppe & Forest 5—and yes, 4 is still to come out, but it’s in the final stages), Russell E. Martin’s A Bride for the Tsar: Bride-Shows and Marriage Politics in Early Modern Russia has become a kind of bible. There are other books I turn to with every new addition to the series, but this one has a particular relevance for the current story. So it’s no surprise that I jumped at the chance to interview Martin for New Books in Russian and Eurasian Studies on the appearance of his latest study about what happened after the bride show, The Tsar’s Happy Occasion: Ritual and Dynasty in the Weddings of Russia’s Rulers, 1475–1725

Just as I expected, he has a lot of fascinating things to say about the important political statements that could be conveyed by a royal wedding. And you thought it was all about heart-shaped confetti and gift registries.

So give the interview a listen. It’s a lot of fun. The book, too, is a great read, filled with stories of family conflicts, international intrigue, disgruntled nobles, and dirty tricks. But whether you have the mental energy to tackle a serious study after a long day at work or not, you can watch one of my heroines carrying the bride’s train a few books from now.

The rest of this post comes from New Books in Russian & Eurasian Studies.

The dominant impression of Russia in the news media and politics, even today, is that it is and always has been an autocratic power controlled by a single despotic ruler. But historians of the fourteenth through the eighteenth centuries have long realized that this vision was to some extent a myth projected by the central authorities to support a system that was in fact oligarchic but competitive in nature. A fundamental step in recognizing the gap between that myth and reality was the identification of marriages between aristocratic clans as a determinant in political alliances, followed by a new understanding of patron-client relations and other interpersonal connections within the elite.

In The Tsar’s Happy Occasion: Ritual and Dynasty in the Weddings of Russian Rulers, 1495–1745 (Cornell University Press, 2021), Russell E. Martin explores the ways in which the weddings of tsars and lesser members of the royal family worked to integrate brides and their families into the elite while moderating tensions among the nobility. The whole occasion was elaborately choreographed and developed over time as the needs of the original dynasty, the Daniilovichi, to extend and sustain the lineage by managing the number of heirs gave way to the new Romanov dynasty’s attempts to establish its legitimacy, followed by a squabble for power between two branches of the later Romanovs (Peter the Great and his descendants). And the stakes were high—the book is full of examples of poisoned brides, recalcitrant exiles, bridegrooms executed for failing to judge the balance correctly, and more. Through this in-depth but beautifully written study, we gain a new appreciation of the importance of ceremony and ritual in creating and promoting visions of how the world does and should work at specific points in time.

Friday, July 9, 2021

Shakespeare in Love


As a historian and a historical novelist, I always, in a sense, have a foot in the past. I have also read enough about the past to know that I really wouldn’t want to spend much time there, especially as a woman who, by the standards of most centuries before our own, definitely does not know her place. Yet even I sometimes think, “Oh, if I could just spend one day in 1530s Moscow—suitably vaccinated and dressed, with a translator chip to handle the language and some kind of handy but undetectable recording device. What I could do with the sounds and smells and sights of this place that I have studied most of my life yet can never experience in the flesh!”

I’m sure most of my fellow writers of historical fiction feel the same way. The past is, as David Lowenthal memorably noted, “a foreign country”—and one we can never visit. All our research into attitudes and lifestyles and even events come up short at the insurmountable barrier that time as we know it flows in one direction. The results of all that work are more than speculation but less than fact, which is the reason that historical fiction can be plausible and well informed but never accurate, in the scientific sense.

Still, the yearning to travel in time lingers, and there are few better ways to satisfy the urge than through reading a thoughtful, funny novel like Jessica Barksdale Inclán’s The Play’s the Thing, in which a junior professor (also named Jessica) struggling with the need to get tenure and the aftermath of certain bad decisions in her personal life wakes up one morning in Shakespeare’s clothes cupboard. She’s half-convinced she’s crazy, or at least caught in an astonishingly detailed dream. But as the author explains in my latest New Books in Historical Fiction interview, the character Jessica plows through with the help of soap, water, a good memory of all she’s read about Shakespeare’s life and world, and a strong sense of humor that serves her well. Will she make it home or change her definition of home? To find out, you have to read the book.

As always, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction. You can also find a transcript featuring parts of the interview on LitHub.


In a sense, those of us who love historical fiction live vicariously in the past. Many of us also fantasize about traveling in time—meeting our favorite writers in the flesh, hanging around with royalty, living the aristocratic lifestyle. We tend to forget or understate the very real benefits of the present, amenities we take for granted (indoor plumbing, central heat and air conditioning, refrigeration) and intangibles such as human rights and the presumption of innocence, still implemented in patchwork fashion across the globe.

Professor Jessica Randall, modern-day heroine of The Play’s the Thing (TouchPoint Press, 2021), experiences this conundrum firsthand. One evening, while she is doing her best to stay focused on a dreadful amateur production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, she allows herself a brief escape—only to end up in an Elizabethan theater, watching an original performance of the play with (as she realizes only later) the Bard himself in the role of Shylock. She stumbles out of that setting and back into her seat in the twenty-first-century auditorium, but later that evening, turned somnolent by student essays and one too many glasses of wine, Jessica finds herself locked in what turns out to be William Shakespeare’s cupboard. When he at last deigns to unlock the door, he informs her that she is the latest among hundreds of screaming Jessicas who have been making his life hell for months.

Will assures Jessica that she will soon vanish into the ether and return whence she came. She’s convinced it’s an elaborate dream, because how could it be real? But when dawn arrives, she is still in 1598, Will is asleep on the mattress next to her, and she can hear rats rustling under the filthy straw. Perhaps it’s not a dream after all. At that point, to keep herself sane on the off-chance that she can’t find a way home, Jessica decides she’d better apply her knowledge of the future to clean up Shakespeare, his rooms, and her own act before those rats in the corner give them both bubonic plague.

Jessica Barksdale Inclán approaches her main character’s dilemma (there’s a funny story in the interview about how author and character come to have the same first name) with a deliciously light touch. The dialogue sparkles, Jessica’s struggles and flaws never fail to ring true, and the contrast between her unmistakably modern views and Will Shakespeare’s Elizabethan take on life are simultaneously revealing and thought-provoking. If you’re looking for a scientific explanation of time travel (assuming that such a thing exists), you won’t find it here, but the novel is, in every respect, a fun read. It will stay with you long after you reach the end.

Image: Procession of Characters from Shakespeare’s Plays, unknown nineteenth-century artist, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, July 2, 2021

Interview with Joy Lanzendorfer

Although California certainly had a long history before 1848, the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in that year caught the attention of many on the East Coast who might otherwise have stayed at home. In her new novel, Right Back Where We Started From (Blackstone Publishing, 2021), veteran writer Joy Lanzendorfer traces the effects of that initial push westward on three generations of one California family. She has a lot of interesting things to say, so without more ado, I launch into my questions!

At its heart, this is a novel about the history of California, told through the lives of three women: Vira Sanborn; her daughter, Mabel; and her granddaughter, Sandra. What drew you to write this book in this way?

Sandra is loosely based on my grandmother, who was a dramatic presence in my life. I heard lots of stories about her and my grandfather growing up, but I never knew which of those stories were true. It made me think about family myths and how generational identity feeds into personal identity. If you grow up believing stories about your family that aren’t true, and you build the foundation of yourself on top of that, what does that say about who you are? This is Sandra’s struggle in Right Back Where We Started From.

At its core, this is novel about what happens when women pursue greed and ambition with the same ruthlessness as men. It’s a matriarchal story about a grandmother affecting a daughter and a daughter in turn affecting her child, and how dark and messy those dynamics become when mixed with American ideas about success and wealth.

Your story begins, in effect, in the middle, in 1913. Mabel is talking to Sandra, then called Emma. Why start there?

I needed a scene to show the formation of Sandra’s beliefs about herself. In that chapter, which occurs when she’s a child, Mabel is reinforcing the myths that their lives are based on, which is that their family was once rich and successful and it was all stolen from them. It was important to show that Sandra has been fed these beliefs and to suggest to the reader that they aren’t entirely true, which is why the scene ends with Mabel making the dubious claim, “Don’t worry, your mama will always tell you the truth.”

The scene underscores the complexity of their mother-daughter relationship. The major way Sandra feels love from her mother is when she talks about how great their family used to be, because Sandra is special by association and is therefore receiving attention and validation. It’s the major way Mabel and Sandra connect emotionally, and so these beliefs are an important part of Sandra’s adult identity later on.

We next connect with Sandra at twenty-six, in a funny scene where she is in Hollywood and dressed in a sandwich board advertising an orange juice company. What’s going on here, and what does it reveal about Sandra?

When we meet Sandra as an adult, it’s 1932 Hollywood. She has a job wearing a sandwich board over a scanty orange dress to advertise Rayo Sunshine, a new juice shop that’s opened up, which happens to be shaped like a giant orange. Sandwich boards aren’t a common way to advertise anymore, although we still pay people to wave signs and dance around on street corners. Sandra is supposed to hand out coupons for a free glass of orange juice. She figures she’ll use the opportunity to try to get discovered by a Hollywood producer and goes over to Paramount Studios to hand out her coupons. She thinks she has invented a new way to get attention (and get paid for it at the same time), but soon learns that there are few tricks that haven’t already been tried when it comes to people seeking fame.

Early on, we get a sense that all is not as it seems in the Sanborn family. Sandra receives some letters from her ex-husband that cast doubt on her own beliefs about her background. What does she discover?

The letter that is forwarded from her ex-husband is from a man named John Hollingsworth, who Sandra has never heard of before. In the letter, he says that he’s her father. This is shocking to Sandra, who has always been told that her father was Arthur Beard, a rich prune rancher who died in the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. But the letter includes a picture of Mabel as a young woman, so Sandra knows John Hollingsworth at least knew her mother. Thus she’s confronted with a mystery—who is John Hollingsworth, and is he really Sandra’s father?

She doesn’t respond to these disturbing letters, although she keeps them for years. Why doesn’t she follow up, and why not just throw them away?

This is the key to Sandra’s psychology, basically. She knows, on some level, that she hasn’t been told the whole story about her family, but she’s invested in the idea that she comes from special stock. To admit that might not be the case is truly scary to her. So her solution, when presented with John Hollingsworth’s letters, is to ignore them. And yet deep down she knows there’s something to the letters, so she doesn’t throw them away either. She’s essentially in denial. And since she isn’t willing to look at the truth, the book begins to tell you what she can’t face: the real story of her family. 

We then jump back in time to Portland, Maine, in 1851, where Vira Webb and Elmer Sanborn meet under extraordinary circumstances. Please fill us in both on the lightning incident and what causes the Sanborns to leave Maine for California.

You can read the chapter here (it’s a quick read). It’s the story of how Sandra’s grandparents meet and involves Elmer saving Vira when she’s almost struck by lightning. It’s a play on the idea of being struck by love, but despite the wonderful way they meet, reality will soon set in when Elmer decides to take Vira with him to the California Gold Rush.

In alternation with chapters featuring Sandra, we follow Vira throughout her cross-country journey, then switch to Mabel as a girl and young woman. What can you tell us about her?

Mabel is probably the most difficult character in the book. She grows up very cloistered as a young lady in Victorian San Francisco society. Vira is determined to keep Mabel safe and find her a good marriage, and Mabel chafes at the constraints. She can’t even take a walk by herself, and she feels like her future is planned out for her. So she does what any teenager would do: she rebels. She sneaks out. It puts her in a disastrous situation that leads to her downfall and being disinherited by her parents.

When we meet Mabel again, she’s a different person, someone who has had to do a lot of hard things to survive. She regrets her teenage rebellion but is very angry that one mistake caused her to lose everything. She’s determined to regain what she lost, but the wild side of Mabel, the passionate part that makes her run toward adventure, is still there, leading to some bad decision making.

All three of these women, sooner or later, realize that their ambitions can only be achieved through the men in their lives. Each of them responds in ways that undermine their relationships with their husbands. What can you tell us about this element of the novel?

Someone told me there isn’t a lot of romance in this book, but I think most of the relationships start out great. It’s just that the novel reflects the transactional nature of marriage in the past. In Vira’s case, marriage means losing power. She’s shocked Elmer wants her to go with him to the Gold Rush, which to her means leaving everything she knows for “the uneven gamble of striking it rich.” But she doesn’t have much choice in the matter, so she tries to be a good wife and believe in her husband’s promises. When that trust is broken dramatically in the Nevada desert, she resolves to take control of the marriage—which doesn’t end well.

In Sandra’s case, she meets Frederick during the Great Depression. He’s a German immigrant, a photographer, and—like Sandra—a charismatic and manipulative person. Sandra is attracted to him, but she also wants to marry someone rich. Frederick isn’t interested in being rich. So again, there’s a power dynamic that has to do with the economics that come with marriage and the imbalance between men and women. Marriage is about love, but it’s also a partnership, and in these cases, these partnerships are on unequal footing. It leads to some problems, let me tell you…

This novel came out in May 2021. Do you already have another one in the works?

Yes, I do. I’m working on a novel about a school bombing. I have an essay collection in the works too. I just need the time to work on them both!
Thank you so much for answering my questions!

Joy Lanzendorfer writes both fiction and nonfiction, which she has published in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The Washington Post, on NPR and with the Poetry Foundation, and in many other venues. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. Right Back Where We Started From is her first novel. Find out more about her and her writing at

Image: A woman and three men panning for gold in California, 1850—public domain via Wikimedia Commons.