Friday, May 27, 2022

When History and Fiction Intersect

Many thanks to Joan Schweighardt, who ran this interview with me on the Five Directions Press site today. Alas, three months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the cross-linked post below is as relevant as it was the day it went up.
Your new novel is the fourth book in your Songs of Steppe & Forest series. Can you tell us something about the series as a whole and the newest title, Song of the Sinner, in particular?
The series as a whole explores the boundaries that constrict women’s lives in Tudor-contemporary Eastern Europe—specifically, Russia and the surrounding lands in the 1540s. Unlike my first historical series, where the main characters had arranged marriages—as most people did at the time—in this one I wanted to explore less traditional paths to happiness. These characters embrace love without marriage or emphasize their religious vocations or pursue lovers whom others consider unsuitable. Solomonida, the heroine in Song of the Sinner, strives to balance her love for a man from a lower social class against her belief that she should sacrifice her own needs on behalf of her daughter. Something a lot of contemporary mothers struggle with as well! She also fears that commitment means loss of control over her own fate and even her body, because her first husband was a manipulative brute.

Your Russian-based fiction is an extension of your academic career. Can you tell us the story of how you came to be a scholar regarding all things Russian.
I’ve always loved languages, and when I discovered that my northern New Jersey high school offered Russian, it sounded exotic and fun. So I signed on. When I got to college, I fell in love with the culture and the history—which is a long series of dramatic events worthy of the movies. So when I decided to apply to grad school in history, it made sense to focus on Russia. But I was always more interested in pre-industrial times; hence my specialization in early modern Europe, sixteenth-century Russia in particular. In addition to my novels, written under a pen name to separate them from the academic stuff, I translated and published The Domostroi: Rules for Russian Households under Ivan the Terrible, which is a set of instructions written (probably) in the sixteenth century on how to manage a large urban household, including everything from proper behavior in church to recipes and ways to keep the servants from stealing food and other household goods.
You recently wrote an essay titled The Tangled History of Russia and Ukraine. Which of your novels would you recommend to readers who want to further explore that history from a fictional perspective?
My novels portray a world where what is now Ukraine is firmly situated within the Polish-Lithuanian dual monarchy, as it was in the sixteenth century, revealing the falsehood of current statements that Ukraine is simply a Russian province with no history of its own. They also reveal principles of political life that, despite many changes over the centuries, still operate in today’s Russia—the preference for oligarchy, for example. And they do this in a lighthearted, non-preachy way. I would suggest readers start with The Golden Lynx, which sets the stage for the books that follow. The heroine of that series is a Tatar princess, sent to Moscow without adequate preparation, so she needs explanations of the workings of Russian society that also benefit the reader. The second novel in that series, The Winged Horse, offers a historically accurate view of Crimea very different from anything you might have seen in the news media eight years ago, when the Russians snatched it from Ukraine. (Coincidentally, Winged Horse came out in the spring of 2014, right after the annexation.) The hero of The Vermilion Bird and The Shattered Drum has also spent time in the steppes north of Crimea, in service to a renegade would-be khan.
The other book worth taking a look at in this connection is Song of the Siren, which begins in Renaissance Poland before moving eastward to Muscovy. The heroine of that book, Juliana Krasilska, is firmly convinced that Moscow is a backwater compared to Kraków. That’s not entirely fair, but it does give a clear sense of the separate cultural trajectories of Muscovite Russia and Ukraine, which spent several centuries under Polish influence.
Because you are a historian who has focused all her adult life on a particular part of the world through time, the reader can trust that the settings, clothes, food, weapons, etc. that your characters come into contact with are utterly historically accurate. What about the characters themselves? Do you attempt to get into the minds and hearts of the czars and other personages we might know? Or are they more or less part of the staging on which your fictional characters come alive?

I try to give historical characters the widest berth possible. As a historian, the idea of putting words into the heads and mouths of people who actually lived makes me squirm. It’s not always possible, however, to avoid historical personages entirely. In those cases, I do my best to keep their words in line with their known deeds and emphasize to my readers that we have almost no information about the personal lives of even the best-documented figures in sixteenth-century Russia. That includes Ivan the Terrible himself, although naturally we know more about what he did (or is supposed to have done) than we know about most of his subjects. So in that sense, yes, I restrict the real people to the background and let my fictional characters take center stage.

You have one more book to go in your Steppe & Forest series. Did you know in advance that this series would encompass five books?
I knew from the beginning that the first series, Legends of the Five Directions, would end with the fifth direction (Center). But this series is actually open-ended. I happen to be close to finishing book 5, but I’m working on the plot for book 6, Song of the Steadfast, and I have rough ideas for at least two more books beyond that. Those last two, if I get to them, will move into the 1550s. I can imagine as many as ten, but anything beyond Songs 8 is so hazy as to be almost invisible at this point.
Although Song of the Storyteller is a work in progress, can you tell us a bit about what to expect?
Absolutely. This may be my favorite of the whole series. Lyubov Koshkina, known as Lyuba, first appeared as a six-year-old in The Vermilion Bird, and at the end of that series, she informed me that she was the unnamed narrator of the Legends books as a whole. Here we encounter her just as she is finishing The Shattered Drum and considering what she will write next. She decides to tell her own story: her memories of when, as a sixteen-year-old girl, she was summoned to the first bride show held for Tsar Ivan the Terrible (think The Bachelor, but the prize is a royal crown, not a rose). Her father desperately wants her to win, but Lyuba has fallen in love with a dashing Tatar prince. Her job is to get herself dismissed from the bride show without insulting the tsar while dodging the dirty tricks sure to be played against her by various rivals and their families. And since her best friend, Anna, has also been summoned against her will, Lyuba has to find a way to fulfill her own goals without undermining her friend’s.

Do the novels in your historical series work as standalone reads?
They do, in the sense that I ensure you can pick up any one of them and know what’s going on without having to have read the preceding books. The historical novels are all connected, though, and people have told me that they benefited from knowing that minor characters in one book were central to earlier ones. Some readers also enjoy catching up with old friends. So if I’m asked, I suggest starting with either The Golden Lynx or Song of the Siren. If you like the first book in the series, then you’ll probably like the others as well.
Do you know yet what you will write next?
I’m three chapters into Song of the Steadfast, but I’m taking a break to work out the political background before moving forward. Each Songs of Steppe & Forest novel centers around a romance—in this case, Anna Kolycheva (Lyuba’s best friend, as mentioned above, and Solomonida’s daughter) and a young man named Yuri Vorontsov—but the books are not only romances. Here the political infighting is between the young tsar’s uncles and his recently acquired in-laws, played out against the backdrop of three devastating fires that struck Moscow between April and June 1547. Once I figure out exactly what happened and how I can fit my fictional characters into the history, I’ll get going again. I’ll also be rewriting parts of Song of the Storyteller this summer so that it feeds seamlessly into the sixth book.

Images: 17th-century depiction of Ivan the Terrible (r. 1533–1584); Konstantin Makovsky, The Tsar Chooses a Bride (1886), both public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, May 20, 2022

Bookshelf, Spring 2022

A lot of books on my shelf this quarter, although actually I’ve read most of them—and a few more besides. But they have my interview schedules on both the podcast and the blog jam-packed; they are all good reads; and they are coming out in the next month or two, so this is definitely the time to give them a shout-out. None of these are out yet, although they are all available for pre-order. I’ll supply links when I  post the follow-up interviews.

Anne Louise Bannon, Death of an Heiress (Healcroft House, 2022)
I’ve been waiting for this one after enjoying the first three Old Los Angeles mysteries. There’s something very appealing about the idea of LA as a pueblo small enough to cross on foot, and Maddie Wilcox—the intrepid doctor/winemaker/crusader for justice whose memoirs form the backbone of the series—is a perceptive and clear-eyed observer. Bannon does a good job of conveying the atmosphere of what in the 1870s is still the Wild West, with saloon keepers and brothel owners, prejudice and superstition, and a general attitude among the citizenry that women should mind their place and keep their mouths shut, not go wandering about the pueblo at all hours healing injuries and hunting murderers.

This novel opens in 1872 with an heiress whose legacy is under assault from her brother and the murder of a Native American healer, ruled an accidental death by the prejudiced judge called in to handle the inquest. The threads connecting these two events are long and twisty, but the resolution seems just right. I’ll be talking with the author after the book’s release on June 14, with a New Books in Historical Fiction (NBHF) interview to run in mid-July.

Jade Beer, The Last Dress from Paris (Berkley, 2022)
In 2017, Lucille agrees to fulfill an urgent request from her ninety-year-old grandmother, Sylvie: accept a free ticket to Paris and retrieve a dress made in the 1950s by the noted designer Christian Dior. When Lucille reaches her destination, she discovers that the one dress belongs to a set of eight, all owned by Sylvie, but was sold years ago—as her grandmother has known all along. The hunt is on to find the missing dress and see the entire set conveyed back to London.

This present-day story intertwines with chapters, each named after one of the eight Dior creations and set in the 1950s, that gradually reveal how the dresses came into Sylvie’s possession and the complicated truth that lies behind her request to Lucille. This book releases on June 21, and I’ll be hosting an NBHF interview with the author around that time.

Dianne Freeman, A Bride’s Guide to Marriage and Murder (Kensington, 2022)
The fifth in an absolutely delightful historical mystery series featuring Frances Wynn, the dowager Countess of Harleigh, set in Gilded Age Britain. The daughter of a wealthy American, Frances was sold off at eighteen to an impoverished earl, who promptly spent her fortune on wine, women, and impressing Edward, Prince of Wales—the future Edward VII. After an initial, understandable reluctance to commit herself to another husband, Frances has yielded to her attraction to her next-door neighbor George Hazelton—an English gentleman but not a titled one, employed on slightly mysterious assignments for the Crown.

In this book, they are all set to marry, and Frances believes her only problem is her interfering mother. But the night before, she learns that two warring robber barons both plan to attend. Sure enough, the more disreputable of the pair is murdered during the wedding. The police suspect Frances’s younger brother, forcing her and George to cancel their honeymoon in the hopes of solving the crime. Meanwhile, the long-suffering Inspector Delaney does his best to keep them from meddling in his investigation, with the usual mixed results. This latest installment comes out on June 28, which leaves you plenty of time to devour the first four entries in this light-hearted and engrossing series. I’ll be hosting a written Q&A with the author here on June 24.

Louise Hare, Miss Aldridge Regrets (Berkley, 2022)
Another murder mystery with an interesting twist. Lena Aldridge is a mixed-race singer who has never known her mother. It’s 1930s London, and the Great Depression has made work difficult to find for almost everyone. After a series of theater jobs, Lena has fallen on hard times, reduced to singing in a crummy Soho bar owned by her best friend’s husband. Her father, a pianist, has died a few months before, and when the bar owner is murdered one evening, Lena accepts what seems like a too-good-to-be-true opportunity to travel all expenses paid to New York for a starring role in a Broadway show. What happens next defies her expectations in both good and bad ways.

The twist is that the first person we meet in the novel is not Lena but the murderer, who reappears from time to time throughout the novel commenting on and evaluating decisions without revealing their identity. I did eventually figure out what tied the threads together, but even then Hare managed to deliver more than one surprise at the end. This book comes out on July 5, and I’ll be hosting a written Q&A here on July 22.

Catherine Lloyd, Miss Morton and the English House Party Murder (Kensington, 2022)
I had not heard of Catherine Lloyd before her publicist sent this book my way, but a little digging turned up the fact that she has eight previous novels in a separate series, set during the Regency in the English village of Kurland St. Mary. I’ve now read most of those and enjoyed them, as well as this latest opening to a second series.

As the title suggests, the new novel features Lady Caroline Morton, whose illustrious heritage has been tarnished by the financial ruin and suicide of her father a few years earlier. We are now in early Victorian Britain, but the economic opportunities of young women—even noblewomen—are still extremely limited. Caroline’s family would support her, but life as a poor relation has its drawbacks, and she has taken a position as companion to a wealthy but less-cultured widow, Mrs. Frogerton. But when Caroline’s cousin insists on celebrating her birthday with a house party and invites Mrs. Frogerton and her daughter to attend, Miss Morton (she prefers to avoid the “Lady” as inappropriate to a woman with a job) can’t refuse. A succession of uncomfortable encounters with her past culminate in the troubling disappearance of a trusted servant, then an outright murder that hardly anyone else will admit could be anything but an accident—all taking place in a classic locked-room setting when floods prevent anyone within the house party from leaving the estate. This well-written mystery will make its debut on May 31, and I’ve timed a podcast interview with the author to run on the New Books Network in early June.

Kelly Rimmer, The German Wife (Graydon House, 2022)
Despite my frequent complaints about the ongoing avalanche of books set during World War II, they keep coming my way, and once in a while one of them catches my attention. At first, I thought this one was set in the 1950s, which is the reason I agreed to take a look—and one part of it is. But the action then is counterposed to the 1930s and 1940s, in both the United States and Germany, and the story moves seamlessly back and forth between the two countries and two points of view: Sofie Rhode as the German wife of the title and Lizzie Miller, a hard-scrabble woman from the Dust Bowl who doesn’t take kindly to German scientists showing up in her home town right after the war.

Rimmer’s portrayal of Sofie, a woman who inwardly resists Nazism yet nonetheless finds herself on the wrong side of a war she doesn’t want, is the high point of the novel—thought-provoking and compelling without pulling punches. Lizzie, too, emerges as a fully formed if troubled person, haunted by her past. You can find out more about the book, due June 28, from our written Q&A, scheduled for July 8.

Francesca Stanfill, The Falcon’s Eyes (Harper, 2022)
Another unexpected find—very long at 800+ pages but nonetheless captivating. Isabelle, a young countess living in Provence in the twelfth century, has neither looks nor fortune nor a pliant demeanor to guarantee her a husband. Her parents have reconciled themselves to keeping her at home as a drudge for the rest of her life, but an unexpected marriage proposal from Lord Gerard de Meurtaigne—who has money but not the aristocratic heritage Isabelle can provide—sends Isabelle’s life in a new direction. Her parents insist she accept, and she does, even though she has never set eyes on her prospective bridegroom. What else is a medieval woman to do?

At first, Isabelle’s marriage pleases her more than she expected, but soon elements of darkness creep in to disturb her happiness. What happens next should be experienced, not divulged, but we know from the beginning that Isabelle attends the death of Queen Eleanor of England and Aquitaine, the shining example of a twelfth-century alternative to Isabelle’s conventional upbringing. The road between those two opening scenes takes Isabelle through a lifetime of challenges, but it’s well worth following to the end. The chance to do so comes with the novel’s publication on July 5; I will be interviewing the author in July, but exactly when and in what format remains undetermined.

Friday, May 13, 2022

Interview with Connie Hertzberg Mayo

It’s New York at the turn of the twentieth century, and Lilian Dolan is living in a small apartment with her younger sister, Marie. To support them both, Lilian talks her way into a job as a nursing assistant at the New York Cancer Hospital. She wants to become a nurse, so this seems like a good opportunity for her, and she has support from her cousin Michael, if not from her mother, because of an unspecified conflict that becomes clear only toward the end of the novel. But many of the hospital nurses shun her, and although Lilian establishes a rapport with several of the patients, her yearning to find out more about medicine brings her into contact with a new head surgeon who clearly has more insidious intentions toward her than Lilian herself is prepared to face.

In addition to the details of medical care at the time, this novel manages to incorporate an astonishingly vast swath of New York city life: the gay scene in its various manifestations, race relations, sexual harassment, and the right to euthanasia all play a part without ever overwhelming the story. At its heart is Lilian—brave, alert, intelligent, naïve, and loving. Following her pursuit of happiness and self-worth is a journey well worth taking.

Your first novel, The Island of Worthy Boys, was set at a charity school in late 19th-century Boston. The Sharp Edge of Mercy takes place in turn-of-the-century New York. What draws you to this time period?

I love the stuffy Victorian morals of this era, especially in cities, because there is such contrast between how people “should” behave and the gritty reality of urban life. It was also a time of enormous technological change—telegraph, telephone, recorded music, electricity and so much more—which reminds me of today, just with different technology.

And what inspired this particular story?

I wanted to write a novel about medical ethics, and when I heard about the New York Cancer Hospital, which was the first cancer-only hospital in the country, I knew it would be a great setting for a story with that theme.

When we first meet Lilian Dolan, your heroine, she’s moved away from her mother and is living in a small apartment with Marie, her sister. Give us a brief overview of their situation, please, at this early point in the novel.

Lillian is pretty young herself—she’s nineteen. And like many young people, she sees the world in black and white. She has judged her mother harshly for some decisions her mother made and left with her fourteen-year-old sister Marie. Marie is blind and cognitively impaired from a bout with scarlet fever, so Lillian has taken on quite a challenge in caring for her sister while working full-time.

And how would describe Lilian, as a character? What does she want in life?

Lillian wants to be a nurse, but she is too young to start a nurse training program. She’s very smart and has a strong stomach, so she will be well suited to be a nurse someday. In a different era, she would probably become a doctor. There were some female doctors at the time, but it was not easy.

She becomes a nursing assistant at the New York Cancer Hospital. What is this job like for her?

Her job duties are menial, and although she doesn’t mind them, she just can’t stop her mind from wondering about all sorts of things related to the patients and the hospital. This doesn’t win her many friends at the hospital.

It’s clear even from the short description on your website and the back of the book that this is at its heart a novel about sexual harassment—an experience all too familiar to contemporary women as well. How does that theme play out in your novel?

When the new surgeon at the hospital takes interest in Lillian, she is enormously flattered even though in the back of her mind, she starts to see red flags. They engage in Socratic debates about all the things that Lillian has been wondering about. Of course, he is a predator that understands how much Lillian craves intellectual validation. Once Lillian understands that she is in over her head, she doesn’t know how to extricate herself. I think this is a position that a lot of smart young women find themselves today, so I hope this resonates.

This novel just came out. Do you already have another in the works?

My third novel is outlined, but I have not had any time to work on it recently. It’s set in Boston in 1958, so a departure from my usual turn-of-the-century timeframe. Boston took a brownstone neighborhood called the West End by eminent domain and completely destroyed it to put up buildings for Mass General Hospital and midrange apartment buildings that the former residents couldn’t afford. My story is about three families that live together in one of those brownstones, and each family has a reason why moving will be catastrophic for at least one family member. The story also includes a young, idealistic draftsman on the city planning board who slowly realizes what this will mean for the West End residents.

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

Thank you for the opportunity!

Connie Hertzberg Mayo is the author of The Island of Worthy Boys, which won the 2016 Gold Medal for Best Regional Fiction from the Independent Publisher Book Awards. Her latest novel, The Sharp Edge of Mercy, was published by Heliotrope Books in May 2022. Find out more about her and her writing at


Images: Interior (1880s) and exterior (1893) of the New York Cancer Hospital, today the Memorial Sloane-Kettering Cancer Center, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, May 6, 2022

A Civil War Veteran at Scotland Yard

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I found this series by serendipity and read it first out of curiosity, then with increasing enthusiasm. What drew me in was the combination of complex but satisfying plots and the growing friendship between a rural English policeman and a US Civil War surgeon turned reluctant earl—each with his inner strengths and conflicts.

Lord Redmond and his buddy Daniel Haze have now reached their seventh adventure, with the eighth due for release in another month or so. They are the creation of the incredibly prolific Irina Shapiro, who graciously took an hour away from crafting their adventures to talk with me for a New Books Network interview. As you’ll hear, she has a lot of interesting insights into her characters. Read on, then listen, to find out more.

The rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

Jason Redmond, a US Civil War surgeon, never expected to step into his father’s shoes as the heir to an English earldom. When he first shows up to claim his inheritance, with a scrawny twelve-year-old former drummer as his ward, Jason plans to inspect the property, then return to his home in New York. But the discovery of an obviously murdered body in the local church first casts suspicion on Jason, then involves him—first in performing the postmortem and later in helping the parish constable, Daniel Haze, solve the crime. By the end, Jason has decided to stay in England for a while.

Six books and as many cases later, Haze has moved to London for reasons explained in Murder at Ardith Hall. When the corpse of Blake Upton, a renowned Egyptologist, is traced to a ship in the London Docks, it seems only natural that Daniel should involve his friend Jason in finding out who among the potential suspects had the means, motive, and opportunity to dispatch the Egyptologist to his eternal rest in the arms of Osiris. And in this variation on a locked-room mystery—the archaeologist must have been killed just before the Sea Witch docked—a surprising number of passengers and crew have something to gain from Upton’s murder. Moreover, the grisly means used to kill Upton point to someone familiar with ancient Egyptian funerary customs. Jason and Daniel have their work cut out for them if they are to find the culprit before the impatient head of Scotland Yard decides that Daniel’s first case as an inspector will also be his last.

Irina Shapiro has a gift for tricky but ultimately satisfying plots and for delving into her characters’ inner lives. Jason and Daniel have come a long way since their first appearance in Murder in the Crypt a few years ago, but  let’s hope they have many adventures yet to come.

Images: The Egyptian goddess Maat and London Streetscape, 1878, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.