Friday, December 31, 2021

Winter 2021-22 Bookshelf

As the old year gives way to the new and the days slowly, slowly lengthen, it’s time to check in on some of the books destined to occupy my evenings for the next few months.

Christine Ezrahi, Dancing for Stalin
(Elliott and Thompson, 2021)
Although it’s true that I mostly read historical fiction these days—with my podcast channel, it’s hard to find time for anything else, and I enjoy visiting the past without having to worry about its dirt, quack medicines, and misogyny—I do occasionally tackle nonfiction. This study of a Soviet ballerina and choreographer sentenced to the Gulag in 1938 but eventually freed and returned to her former position thanks to her husband’s tireless efforts on her behalf, is a major draw for me. In addition to the human interest angle, I have loved ballet for as long as I can remember, read and enjoyed the author’s Swans of the Kremlin, and spent several years researching the life and times of Agrippina Vaganova, who revolutionized Soviet dance education between 1917 and her death in 1951. I look forward to learning more.


 Andrea Penrose, A Question of Numbers
(Andrea Penrose, 2019)
In addition to her Wrexford & Sloane mysteries, featured in last month’s interview with the author for New Books in Historical Fiction, Andrea Penrose self-publishes a second series set in Regency England, this one featuring Lady Arianna Hadley and the Earl of Saybrook and originally put out by Signet/NAL. This series focuses more on the political intrigues associated with the Napoleonic Wars. Lady Arianna, the daughter of a disgraced earl who absconded to Jamaica to escape his creditors, has an unusual past for a society lady and a talent for flirtation and deception, as well as an instinctive grasp of mathematics. On several occasions she also doubles as a chef—in male clothing, of course.

Lord Saybrook, a veteran of the Peninsular War, doesn’t quite fit society’s expectations either because of his Spanish blood. The two share a love of chocolate, then just expanding from a drink to the confection we know today, and by this point in the series their marriage of convenience has blossomed into a love match and a true partnership. In this fifth book, Napoleon has just escaped from Elba and seized the French throne once more. Arianna and Saybrook have no desire to become involved in stopping the emperor’s latest schemes, but Lord Grentham, the head of Britain’s secret spy network, has other ideas …

The puzzles are genuinely puzzling, the couple’s adventures guaranteed to keep you at the edge of your seats, but the true appeal of this series for me is the delightful and well-rounded characters—not only Arianna and Saybrook but their friends, family, and even enemies.


Deanna Raybourn, An Impossible Imposter
(Berkley, February 15, 2022)
Another historical mystery series, already advanced to book 7—this novel has been on my radar since last year, when I conducted a written interview with the author on this blog. Veronica Speedwell is an independent-minded young woman with a mysterious past, living in Victorian England, and she works as a lepidopterist, in part as an excuse to travel to foreign lands. Her partner, known as Stoker, the third son of a noble family, works as a taxidermist.

It would be unfair to go much more deeply into their respective backgrounds and how they reached their current position sorting through the massive collections of Lord Rosemorran. Suffice it to say that Veronica and Stoker have a knack of stumbling over murder victims and at times are charged by their lofty relatives with discovering the perpetrators of such crimes. In this case the summons comes from Sir Hugo Montgomerie, head of Scotland Yard’s Special Branch, and involves one of his family members who may—or may not—be the heir to Hathaway Hall, declared dead during the eruption of Krakatoa some years before the story opens in 1889.

The whole series is delightfully tongue-in-cheek and engaging, and I look forward to talking with the author for New Books in Historical Fiction in about three weeks.

Irina Shapiro, Murder at Ardith Hall
(Merlin, 2021)
These novels came to me via an Amazon recommendation, and I purchased the first book more or less as a test. I was soon hooked, though, and tore through the next four without stopping for breath. The series features Jason Redmond, a US Civil War veteran and surgeon who has unexpectedly inherited an earldom from his grandfather, and Daniel Haze, a local constable in an English village who abandoned a promising career as a London policeman after the accidental death of his young son.

As the series progresses, Redmond slowly grows accustomed to his unwanted status as an aristocrat, and he and Haze develop a satisfying partnership that leads to the solving of several difficult crimes. Here in book 6 the victim is a guest at a séance, and the suspects include Daniel’s wife. These fast-paced mysteries have twisty, clever plots and a host of interesting secondary characters. I look forward to finishing the series in time to interview the author in April 2022.  


Bryn Turnbull, The Last Grand Duchess
(MIRA, February 8, 2022)
The final years of the Romanov family are not on my list of favorite subjects for fiction, not least because it is such a depressing and ultimately tragic tale. But that said, the prospect of a book set in Russia by a writer whose earlier novel, The Woman before Wallis, I enjoyed was enough to draw me in. As in The Woman before Wallis, the author approaches her subject—in that case, the combined scandals of the future King Edward VIII’s love life and the Vanderbilt custody battle—from an oblique angle, permitting a new perspective on familiar territory.

Here the subject is Grand Duchess Olga, the eldest daughter of Nicholas II, who acts as a window onto the dramatic family and societal events that led to the collapse of the dynasty amid war and revolution. The book title must have been a marketing decision, since there were many other grand duchesses—not only Olga’s sisters but her aunts, and those who escaped into emigration continue to pass the rank down even today. Still, that’s a quibble in reference to what looks like a rich and sympathetic portrait of a young woman who came to a brutal end through no fault of her own.

Last but not least, I have been reading and re-reading my own latest novel, due for release by Five Directions Press in late January. Song of the Sinner picks up a month after the end of Song of the Sisters and follows the developing if star-crossed romance between the widowed Solomonida Sheremeteva and Anfim Fadeyev, a government official and merchant, over the course of the next two years. Despite her exalted rank, Solomonida faces the same dilemma that affects many women today, especially in these troubled times: can she meet the needs of her children at the same time as she cares for herself? Read on for a short description.

Song of the Sinner

After surviving marriage to a brute, Solomonida Sheremeteva has sworn never to take another husband. As a boyar’s widow, she at last has the right to choose her own destiny, and she intends to devote her attention to securing a happier future for her daughter. Never mind that she has feelings for a handsome official. His inferior rank means that any association with him can only damage her own child’s prospects.

Anfim Fadeyev could not agree more. He knows as well as Solomonida that a priest’s son should not aspire to the hand of a noblewoman, whatever his achievements in the government and in trade. He needs a mother for his children, not a highborn lover. So when passion overwhelms him and Solomonida one winter’s night, they both face a dilemma: how to respond when the demands of the heart contradict those of the head?

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Gender-Bending Shakespeare

One of the best developments of the last few years has been the willingness to acknowledge that human identity and sexuality are more complex and layered phenomena than the bifurcated he/she many of us grew up with. I still remember learning in school that unidentified persons must be referred to as “he.” These days, even he/she raises eyebrows.

But although society’s willingness to talk about diversity has increased, the diversity itself has existed for millennia, probably since the dawn of time. Jinny Webber’s latest novel—Bedtrick, the subject of this month’s New Books in Historical Fiction interview—explores the fluid understanding of gender in Shakespeare’s plays, which was in part a response to the strict limitations placed on women in Elizabethan England. Webber tackles this question through her fictional interpretation of the life of Alexander Cooke, an actual actor in Shakespeare’s company about whose real life little is known. Read on to find out more.

As usual, the rest of this post comes from the New Books Network.

As Jinny Webber explains in this interview, a “bedtrick” is a literary device through which a character is deceived into spending the night with someone unexpected, trapping that character into an unwanted commitment. William Shakespeare used the device in All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure. So it is a fitting title for this novel about the gender-bending that was so much a part of Shakespeare’s comedies—most notably, Twelfth Night. There were practical reasons for having female characters appear as men throughout much of a play, but Webber takes this historical reality and twists it into the essence of her plot.

Her main character, Alexander Cooke, is a gifted actor with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the company where Shakespeare serves as playwright. Sander, as Alexander is known to family and friends, specializes in female roles, which in Elizabethan times could be played only by males—usually pre-pubescent boys. Only a select group of confidants knows that Sander was born Kate Collins, a village girl who fled her home to avoid an unwanted marriage and found her place among the traveling actors of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

When Sander’s brother—Johnny, another member of the acting company—gets his lover pregnant and refuses to marry her, Sander steps in to protect the mother-to-be, Frances, and her unborn child. Although it is illegal for two women to marry in sixteenth-century London, Sander persuades a priest to perform the ceremony. Frances’s position as Elizabeth I’s Silkwoman is secured, but the story of Sander and Frances is just beginning. Like all married couples, they must find a way to live together, even as England itself suffers from unrest and uncertainty caused by the aging queen’s reluctance to name her successor. Filled with quotations from Shakespeare and an insider’s view of his plays, this is a charming story of love triumphing in the midst of intolerance.


Image: C. Walker Hodges’ conjectural reconstruction of the Globe Theatre (1599–1613), Folger Shakespeare Library, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, December 17, 2021

The Recommendation Algorithm

One of the down sides of an Amazon account is the slew of “you may like” messages that deluge my e-mail account at the rate of half a dozen or more per day. It beats me why anyone, even a computer programmer, might decide that because I just spent $50 on a salad bowl combo that wasn’t even shipped to my house, I must be in perennial need of salad bowls. But this is the world we live in, and most of the time I just click delete and move on.

There are other reasons why I don’t put a lot of stock in Amazon recommendations. Most important is that I often search books for work, so I have no desire to read them for myself. I also buy books—and other items—for family members, who have quite different tastes from mine. Those purchases, understandably, mess up the algorithms and result in a lot of suggestions in which I have no interest.

That said, the Amazon recommendations have had their uses. The best example is the time I searched for a particular book on the French Revolution (again for work), which generated a “you may like” for Baroness Orczy’s classic, The Scarlet Pimpernel. My grandfather gave me an illustrated copy of that book for my fourteenth birthday, and I loved it, but the copy itself had vanished long ago. I bought the book, re-read it from the perspective of a long-married adult, and seven years later that chance find led to my first published novel—The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel, which simultaneously paid homage to and gently critiqued Orczy’s original.

Recently, for whatever reason, the Amazon recommendations have been on a roll. First, when I was looking into Sherry Thomas’s Lady Sherlock series for a New Books Network interview, the computers directed me to Andrea Penrose, whose Wrexford & Sloane (and Lady Arianna Hadley) books I love every bit as much as Lady Sherlock. My interviews with Sherry Thomas and with Andrea Penrose can be found at New Books in Historical Fiction (just click on the authors’ names in this sentence).

Then the recommendations threw up Irina Shapiro’s forthcoming Murder on the Sea Witch, book 7 of her Redmond & Haze mysteries. Again, I read the first one, enjoyed it thoroughly, and am working my way through the others, in preparation for talking with the author sometime next spring.

Most recently, the recommendations directed me to Pam Lecky, the author of three mysteries (so far) featuring Lucy Lawrence. I’ve yet to dive into those, so I don’t necessarily have plans to do more than enjoy them, but the opening of the first one looks good. I look forward to reading them as soon as I’m caught up on Lady Arianna and Redmond & Haze.

So the story has, at least temporarily, a happy ending. Three out of three is pretty good results, although if we go beyond the last few weeks, the rate is more like three out of three thousand.

Now, if I can just convince the algorithms that, honestly, one salad bowl is enough …

Friday, December 10, 2021

Swords into Plowshares

If asked to summarize in one word what ended the Napoleonic Wars, most people would say “Waterloo.” And indeed, the Battle of Waterloo, fought between Napoleon’s legions and the Allied troops under the leadership of Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, did wreak such havoc on the emperor’s reputation that it eventually brought to a close the ongoing conflict for supremacy between France and Great Britain, which had simmered throughout the previous century.

To say that Waterloo brought peace to Europe would be an exaggeration: conflicts within states continued, as did wars between Russia and Turkey and attacks by colonial powers on communities in other parts of the world. But between 1815 and the outbreak of World War I ninety-nine years later, Europe did not experience an all-continental war of the type launched by Napoleon Bonaparte.

Even so, as we can see from Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe’s Assassin: Richard Sharpe and the Occupation of Paris, published by Harper in the United States this past Tuesday, Waterloo did not mark the actual end of the war so much as the beginning of the end. As Cornwell himself notes in his nonfiction book Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles (New York: Harper, 2014, 316), although Napoleon may have lost 30,000 men during the battle on June 18, he estimated that he could field 300,000 a few days later. “All is not lost,” he wrote to his brother Joseph.

But it was, and this novel explores the reasons why. Sharpe’s Assassin follows Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe, the hero of more than twenty books and by now advanced to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, from Waterloo to Paris. Sharpe’s job is first to free an English spy being held in the town of Ham, then keep that spy safe as they travel to Paris, full of sullen citizens who still support the emperor (the return of the Bourbons in the form of King Louis XVIII pleases no one in this book) but are tired of fighting for him. Yet a small (fictional) secret group of loyalists known as La Fraternité (the Brotherhood) has sworn to protect Bonaparte in life and avenge him in death or defeat. Does the group exist in fact as well as in name? Does it really plan to assassinate the Allied leaders, starting with Wellington? Can Sharpe discover the members in time to prevent any such plot? And what will Sharpe himself do once the war that has consumed so much of his adult life finally staggers to its end?

Although the Sharpe series is Cornwell’s longest-running, the previous installment appeared in 2007. In the interim, we have made the acquaintance of Uhtred of Bebbanburg, the Saxon lord raised by Danes and adamant rejector of Christianity as a proper faith for warriors. Lord Uhtred has become the star of thirteen novels and a hit Netflix TV series, The Last Kingdom, now entering its fifth (and final) season. For those—like me—who first encountered Cornwell’s work through Uhtred, two things about this latest novel are important to know. First, you need not have read any of the previous Sharpe books to enjoy this one. Selected parts of the hero’s past are presented as needed, and the whole is easy to follow.

Second, Sharpe is not Uhtred, but he does resemble Uhtred in certain ways that should appeal to readers of the Last Kingdom series. Sharpe goes his own way, whatever orders he receives from the military brass. He has risen through the ranks from a disadvantaged background, making him both prickly about being given the respect he deserves and fiercely loyal to his men (most of whom come from the same social class that he does) and strong in their defense. He is smart and experienced, a man who fights hard when fighting becomes necessary but doesn’t embrace violence for its own sake.

Sharpe doesn’t quite have the complexity of Uhtred, the split loyalties that force the Saxon lord into constantly questioning what matters to him most. That makes Sharpe a little less interesting to someone like me, who skims through the war scenes in search of interpersonal conflicts and development. But Sharpe has his friends and foes, his loves and losses, his own version of split loyalties more appropriate to the early nineteenth century, which draw readers into his story. And the writers among us will appreciate Cornwell’s note at the end, where he mentions that Sharpe got to pick his own ending, which proved as much a surprise to the author as it perhaps does to the character. Sharpe’s story may not yet be over, but it does come to a place of rest—and the war-torn nations of Europe find a respite from their struggles as well.

Image: Jan Willem Pienamen, The Battle of Waterloo (1824), showing the hatless Duke of Wellington mounted in the center and the wounded Prince of Orange being carried from the field in the left foreground (an incident attributed to Sharpe in the novel)—public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, December 3, 2021

Not Austen's London

I stumbled onto Andrea Penrose’s Wrexford & Sloane series through an Amazon recommendation and decided to give it a whirl. I ripped through it in a couple of days and immediately read the rest of the series. Having enjoyed Wrexford & Sloane so much, I’m currently working my way through another, loosely related series by the same author—this one featuring Lady Arianna Hadley and the Earl of Saybrook. We talk about both in my latest interview for New Books in Historical Fiction

The series opens with Murder at Black Swan Lane, which features a brutal murder in a London church, ca. 1811, committed over the possession of a book by someone identified only as the “Golden One.” Charlotte Sloane—a young artist who supports herself under the pen name A.J. Quill—arrives in time to produce a detailed sketch of the body but flees the scene when the Bow Street Runners arrive.

Switch to the next morning, when the Earl of Wrexford roars with outrage to discover, first, that A.J. Quill has ridiculed him yet again over his romantic liaisons and, second, that there’s a Bow Street Runner on the doorstep convinced that the earl has committed murder. Why? Because the victim in the church turns out to be a clergyman who has been conducting an escalating and vitriolic public feud with Wrexford, known throughout the city for his hair-trigger temper and his absolute refusal to tolerate fools gladly.

In Regency England, peers can be tried only in the House of Lords, so Wrexford is not in immediate danger of being hauled off to Newgate Prison. But sufficient evidence will doom even the highest nobleman to conviction and execution. So the hunt is on for the killer, with Wrexford forced to ally with the one person who seems to have his—or is it her?—finger on the pulse of criminal London: A.J. Quill, aka Charlotte Sloan.

The series continues with Murder at Half Moon Gate, Murder at Kensington Palace, Murder at Queen’s Landing, and (as of September) Murder at the Royal Botanic Gardens. Through each book, Charlotte’s and Wrexford’s relationship deepens as more of their past, especially hers, comes to light. The characters are complex, the plots challenging, and the solutions satisfying. But what really sets this series apart is its rich and varied portrayal of Regency London itself and its focus on the scientific developments of the period, which paved the way for life as we know it. This is the London of Jane Austen’s time, but it is not the London depicted in Austen’s novels. 

As ever, the rest of this post comes from the New Books Network.

Great Britain’s Regency Era (1811–1820) has long been wildly popular as a subject of historical fiction yet overly focused on the romance genre. The towering figures of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer have tended to dominate the field to the point where even novels that are not primarily romances exist within Austen’s world.

But as we can see from Andrea Penrose’s  Wrexford & Sloane mystery series, far more was going on during the Regency than parties and marriage politics. Penrose’s London is a gritty place filled with canny urchins, men and women of science, engineers and international businessmen, gamblers and disgraced lords and satirists who make their living off the foibles and follies of the well-to-do.

One such satirist is Charlotte Sloane—a young artist who writes under the pen name A.J. Quill. Her network of contacts—including the two urchins who live with her, known as Raven and Hawk—proves invaluable in untangling a series of murders, the first of which Bow Street is all too eager to blame on the Earl of Wrexford. She and Wrexford become reluctant partners, then friends, and by the time we reach book 5, Murder at the Royal Botanic Gardens, they are planning their wedding.

Wrexford is an acclaimed amateur chemist, an interest that brings him into contact with most of London’s scientific elite and accounts for his and Charlotte’s attendance at a symposium being held at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew. The death of a prominent botanist, visiting from the United States (then at war with Britain), is first written off as the result of a weak heart. But certain clues point to murder, and Wrexford and Sloane’s friends and family urge them to investigate. They soon realize this crime may have international implications, and the hunt for the killer is on.

As with the Lady Sherlock mysteries, it’s best to read this series from beginning to end, as each book develops Charlotte’s and Wrexford’s relationship, revealing new insights into their past. The characters are fascinating, the plots fast-paced and complex, and the settings richly described. If you’ve been avoiding novels set in the Regency because you associate the era with pale and predictable romances, this series will open your eyes.

Image: The Great South Sea Caterpillar, Transformed into a Bath Butterfly (1795), James Gillray’s satirical portrait of Sir Joseph Banks, a famous botanist whose contributions to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew are mentioned in several of the Wrexford & Sloane novels, including Murder at the Royal Botanic Gardens; public domain via Wikimedia Commons.