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Friday, October 15, 2021

Christmas with the Royals

Back in the days when brick-and-mortar bookstores were common in suburban America, I was browsing the shelves at my local Borders when a title caught my eye: Her Royal Spyness by Rhys Bowen. I picked it up, opened it, and fell in love. It’s 1932, and Lady Georgiana Rannoch, a twenty-something who is “thirty-fourth in line to the British throne,” has fled her ancient but drafty ducal castle in Scotland for the family mansion in London. Alas, the Rannoch family—although rich in property—hasn’t a farthing to its illustrious name due to the unfortunate gambling habits of the first duke, Lady Georgie’s father. And as a member of the royal family, Georgie can’t just go out and get a job, because the only destiny approved by her lofty relatives is to marry the fish-faced Prince Siegfried, who doesn’t even like women. Nonetheless, with a little help from her friend Belinda and a handsome but enigmatic gentleman named Darcy O’Mara, Georgie manages not only to survive but to solve a murder.

Since the day I finished that book, I have wanted to interview Rhys Bowen, the creator of Lady Georgiana and a number of other memorable detectives both amateur and professional. That time has come with Georgie’s fifteenth adventure (and second murder-filled Christmas), God Rest Ye, Royal Gentlemen (Berkley, 2021).


After fourteen books, Georgie’s life and financial circumstances have substantially improved. Georgie and Darcy have married, and they plan to entertain their friends for Christmas at their new estate. As fate would have it, except for Georgie’s beloved grandfather, the only guests able to attend are her brother, the Duke of Rannoch, and his wife, known as Fig—the last person Georgie wants to spend time with.

She’s just about resigned herself to Christmas with Fig when a letter arrives from Darcy’s eccentric Aunt Ermintrude, insisting that they all come at once to her home near Sandringham, close to the Royal Family. The Queen of England has requested Georgie’s presence, although she does not divulge why. Unable to say no to Her Royal Highness, Georgie, Darcy, and the Rannochs head off to Aunt Ermintrude’s house.



At Sandringham, Georgie learns that Queen Mary believes someone intends harm toward her son, the Prince of Wales, now deeply involved with Wallis Simpson. She wants Georgie to find out what’s going on. Georgie’s merry little Christmas is set to become a royal nightmare if she can’t get to the bottom of this mystery.

Bowen’s mysteries are complex and their solutions satisfying, but the real delight of these novels is the way they poke fun at the British class system, exemplified by Georgie’s own mixed heritage as the daughter of a duke and of an actress whose father, a retired Cockney policeman, acts as a constant reminder that being a member of the royal family isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. They’re also, to put it simply, hilarious. If this is your first encounter with them, I promise you have a treat in store.

Photograph of Sandringham House © Immanuel Giel CC BY-SA 4.o via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, October 8, 2021

Bookshelf, Fall 2021

More than my usual amount of reading here—and that’s been true for the last four months, at least. And this list doesn’t include other recent books, such as Rhys Bowen’s delightful God Rest Ye, Royal Gentleman (Berkeley, 2021), like several of those below a Christmas book being released in plenty of time for the holidays. I’ll talk more about that one next week. But with so many titles to cover, let’s plunge right into the current list. 

 

Patti Callahan, Once upon a Wardrobe
(Harper Muse, 2021)
This charming and heartwarming novel explores the early life of C. S. Lewis and how it led to his creation of the beloved Chronicles of Narnia, as told to Megs Devonshire, a young Oxford University student whose eight-year-old brother George has a heart condition that may soon end his life. Although, for whatever reason, I didn’t read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a child (despite being an absolute bookworm), I did read it and its sequels to my own son.

The links that emerge between Lewis’s history and his fictional world are fascinating to any writer, but the true poignancy of this story lies in Megs’ struggle to reconcile the concept of emotional truth with her own search for a single right answer, the reason she is so drawn to mathematics. The contrast between her straightforward approach and George’s instinctive wisdom make this both a delightful and thought-provoking read. The developing relationship between Megs and Padraig Cavender, a fellow student working with Lewis, highlights and promotes Megs’ dawning awareness that reality can’t always be crammed into a mental box and imagination may have a value she has failed to see. I requested this book from NetGalley and was so glad to have the chance to return to Aslan’s universe through the eyes of an author I hadn’t encountered before. 


Nicola Cornick, The Last Daughter of York
(Graydon House, 2021)
Another author new to me, although not on her first novel by any means. What drew me to the book description was the link to Richard III and the Princes in the Tower, a perennial interest of mine. But that is just one element in this novel, which blends historical fiction with elements of fantasy. For that reason, it’s hard to summarize without giving away crucial details. Suffice it to say that three threads intertwine: a thirteenth-century bride who steals the Lovell Lodestar, a treasure entrusted to the Lovell family, and disappears; a twenty-first-century woman, Serena, mourning the loss of her twin eleven years before the book begins and trying desperately to recover her memories of the night when that tragedy happened; and Lady Anne Neville, who marries Sir Francis Lovell in 1465, when she is five years old (he is only eight), and remains loyally at his side as the reign of Edward IV flowers, ends, and gives way to the rule of his eldest son, then his brother, and last the usurper Henry VII.

At first, the three threads appear to be quite separate, but as the story progresses, they intertwine ever more tightly until all becomes clear at the end. This novel doesn’t release until mid-November, but I’ll be hosting a written Q&A with the author at that time, so I needed to get my act in gear so as to draw up questions in time for her to respond.

 

Joanna FitzPatrick, The Artist Colony
(She Writes Press, 2021)
I’m interviewing this author soon, so expect more information about the book in a couple of weeks. In brief, it explores the thriving art community of Carmel, California, in 1924. Among the very real artists and intellectuals (Henry Champlin and Robinson Jeffers both make an appearance, and Katherine Mansfield, the subject of Fitzpatrick’s previous novel, provides an indirect but important clue), FitzPatrick constructs a mystery surrounding the apparent suicide of a talented painter, Ada Belle Davenport. Ada Belle’s sister, Sarah—also a painter but based in Paris, where she is about to break out with a one-woman show—has to put her plans on hold to act as executrix of her sister’s estate. 

But it soon becomes clear that there’s more to Ada Belle’s suicide than meets the eye, and Sarah decides to find out the truth. In addition to the mystery, this novel shines a light on Carmel’s Japanese community and the discrimination it suffered even before the internment camps made that underlying prejudice impossible to ignore.

 

Dana Mack, All Things That Deserve to Perish
(Dana Mack, 2020)
Another novel intended to form the basis of a New Books in Historical Fiction interview, this one is set in Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany in 1896, and its heroine—Elisabeth (Lisi), a gifted pianist—confronts the reality of nineteenth-century expectations of women. Lisi herself is the daughter of a Jewish banker, but her wealth attracts the attention of several young noblemen, and her mother insists that Lisi marry one of them and forget about her music. But Lisi has other ideas.

I haven’t read this one yet, so I can’t say much more about it, but what appealed to me was the unusual time and place. Contrary to the belief of all too many publishers, many fans of historical fiction prefer to diversify their reading, and this book offers one way to do that.

 

Andrea Penrose, Murder at the Royal Botanic Gardens
(Kensington Books, 2021)
This is the fifth murder mystery featuring the Earl of Wrexford and Lady Charlotte Sloane. I encountered the first one through an Amazon recommendation. The Kindle edition was on sale for $0.99, probably as a promotion for this new book (the price has gone back up now), and the publisher’s tactic worked: I figured it was worth a try. I downloaded and read it, then bought nos. 2 and 4, which were also on sale. By then I was hooked, so I approached the author to see if she’d be interested in an interview. Fortunately, she said yes.

I won’t say too much about this particular novel, to avoid spoilers. But the series, set in Regency England sometime after 1809, is distinguished by two things. First, the characters are wonderfully complex and compelling—not only Wrexford and Charlotte but many of the minor characters as well. Second, each book explores a particular area of scientific inquiry, at a time when science as we know it was just coming into being as something distinct from magic. So the first book deals with alchemy’s transition to chemistry, the second with the development of steam power, the third with electricity, and so on. But don’t be deceived: the science blends seamlessly into fast-paced mysteries that Wrexford and Charlotte race against the clock to solve, strengthening their relationship and revealing their secrets a little more with every adventure.

 

Anne Perry, A Christmas Legacy
(Ballantine Books, 2021)
As with Patti Callahan’s Once upon a Wardrobe, I requested this book through NetGalley. Over the last decade I’ve rather lost touch with Inspector Thomas Pitt and, in a series I loved even more, Inspector Monk. That’s not because I like the novels any less but because so many other things have claimed my attention. So I welcome the chance to return to the world of Pitt and his wife—or, in this case, their maid Gracie, who has left their household, thinking to make a clean break with police work in all its forms, only to discover a mystery of her own when one of her friends expresses concern about the treatment of the old lady she works for. The official release date for this novel is November 9, so I’ll be sure to finish the book and post my review on the NetGalley site by then.

 

 

Sherry Thomas, Miss Moriarty, I Presume?
(Berkley, 2021)
Sherlock Holmes has spawned an entire industry of fiction featuring his past, his loves, his putative children, and earlier adventures that Conan Doyle mysteriously failed to record. As someone who never quite got into the original stories, I tend to resist the spinoffs unless they have compelling hooks of their own. Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell series is one example, Bonnie MacBird’s scrupulously canonical collection of Holmes/Watson adventures another. Sherry Thomas’s Lady Sherlock series is now a third. As with Andrea Penrose’s books, I encountered this novel by chance—although via a different route—and decided to read the first book in the series to get a sense of it before agreeing to an interview. Again, the characters drew me in; I read the rest of the novels, and I will be talking with Sherry Thomas in a couple of weeks.

In brief, these books go beyond adding to the Sherlock Holmes legend. They reimagine what it might have been if Sherlock (and Watson and several other important characters, as suggested by the title of this sixth installment) had been a woman. Enter Charlotte Holmes, a short blonde with a love of ostentatious fashion and of baked goods in all their forms, leaving her with something other than the typical Basil Rathbone physique. But despite her physical differences, Charlotte has a mind every bit as logical and penetrating as her brother Sherlock, whose imaginary presence makes it possible for her to ply her trade in sexist Victorian London.

To be honest, I can’t help thinking that Charlotte and her associates are so far away from the original Holmes that they might be better off in their own universe. The link seems more a marketing decision than a literary one. But that said, it’s tremendous fun to watch Thomas tweaking the canon, and the mysteries are fiendishly complex yet, in the end, wholly believable. I’ve read all six and thoroughly enjoyed the ride, but Miss Moriarty, I Presume? is the best of the lot.

Friday, October 1, 2021

Interview with Stephanie Marie Thornton

It’s a cliché to say that truth is stranger than fiction, although clichés exist precisely because they capture a speck of reality. But coincidences do happen, and the one I have in mind here is that shortly after I finished Stephanie Marie Thornton’s new novel, A Most Clever Girl, published in mid-September by Berkley, my husband began reading Sean McMeekin’s mammoth Stalin’s War: A New History of World War II. And every time he said to me, “You won’t believe what was going on in Roosevelt’s government,” I replied, “Yes, I would. I read it in that novel I told you about.”

A novel is not academic history, of course, but it can be far more fun to read, especially in the hours after work. I was delighted when Stephanie Thornton agreed to answer my questions. Read on to find out more.

You have written eight historical novels about women known from history or ancient literature. How do you pick your subjects? Specifically, what made you want to tell Elizabeth Bentley’s story?

My aim is always to tell the stories of women who have been forgotten by history, or at least whose real stories are gathering dust. I stumbled across a reference to Elizabeth Bentley while researching Cold War spies and was intrigued by this woman whose life is virtually unknown today. What was interesting to me was that everyone knows about Joseph McCarthy, but his accusations regarding communists infiltrating the US government were based on hot air. Elizabeth Bentley—whose many testimonies were secretly confirmed by the FBI via Project VENONA—was vilified and then forgotten due to the fact that no one could corroborate her accusations and because she was seen as a hysterical, menopausal woman. Project VENONA was declassified in 1995 and now we know the truth of Bentley’s story, which I felt needed to be told.

The first person we meet in A Most Clever Girl is Catherine Gray, banging on the door of a Connecticut apartment and carrying a gun. It’s November 1963. Can you give us a brief description of Cat, as she’s known, and what makes her angry enough to kill? I’m not asking for the full story, which is revealed throughout the book, but for what Cat says (and implies) at the beginning.

Catherine Gray is a college student who is reeling both from the death of her mother and President Kennedy’s assassination. She shows up on Elizabeth Bentley’s doorstep demanding answers to the shocking mystery she just uncovered about her family. What she doesn’t expect is for Bentley to ensnare her in her own story of becoming a controversial World War II spy and Cold War informer!

This initial confrontation gives way to a bargain, initially lasting one hour, in which Elizabeth Bentley will tell her story. We move back in time, then, to the 1930s. How does Elizabeth portray herself as a young woman? What draws her to the Communist Party?

Despite her gold-plated education, Elizabeth was a very lonely young woman—she was actually called a “sad sack” by her classmates at Vassar. When her father dies, Elizabeth is left to fend for herself during the height of the Great Depression. She’s drawn to the Party when she meets a friend—Lee Fuhr—who takes her under her wing and introduces her to the Party. Wanting to help protect her country against the burgeoning worldwide Fascist movement while also enjoying this new friendship, Elizabeth decides to join the Party.

The crucial transition for her occurs in conjunction with her introduction to a man who goes by the code name of Timmy. (She has other names for him, just as he does for her.) Tell us how that initial connection comes about.

Elizabeth’s first foray into the world of spycraft comes about through a position she lands at the Italian Library in New York, where she smuggles out Italian Fascist propaganda. From there, she is introduced to Timmy, who recognizes in her a talent for reading people. Given her lack of family and personal attachments, he taps her to join the Party Underground and become a full-fledged spy and eventually, a handler.


Together, Elizabeth and Jacob Golos, aka Timmy, form an extraordinary spy partnership. What can you tell us about that?

Elizabeth and Jacob Golos were partners in espionage who eventually broke the Communist Underground rule against forming close friendships and unnecessary emotional connections. They fell in love, and when Jacob’s position as head of a massive Soviet spy ring was exposed, Elizabeth stepped in and took over as handler. Between the two of them, they ran one of the largest Soviet spy networks in America.

One of the costs to Elizabeth of joining the Center (the secret administrative heart of the Communist Party of the USA) is that she has to abandon her friends in the active—that is, open—Party. But she does make one friend within the inner circle, and that’s Mary Tenney. Who is Mary, and how do they become friends?

Mary Tenney is a honey-trap for the Party, meaning that she sleeps with high-ranking government officials in order to spy on them. She and Elizabeth become friends when Elizabeth takes over as her handler—Mary Tenney becomes the sister Elizabeth never had.

And what of you? This novel came out in September 2021. Are you already working on something new?

I’m always working on something new! (In between teaching and hiking and baking and cheering at my daughter’s volleyball games.) My next project is a mother-daughter story that spans both the French Revolution and the Regency period. It’s been quite a change from the Cold War, but I’m loving it!

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

Stephanie Marie Thornton is a writer and high school history teacher who has been obsessed with infamous women from history since she was twelve. She lives with her husband and daughter in Alaska. A Most Clever Girl is her latest novel. You can find out more about her at https://www.stephaniethorntonauthor.com.

Photograph of Elizabeth Bentley (1948) by C.M. Stieglitz, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.