Friday, July 29, 2022

Falcons Caged and Free

Like Francesca Stanfill herself, I first encountered—at least in a way that caused me to sit up and take notice—Eleanor of Aquitaine in the stunning film portrayal by Katharine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter (1968). Alternately conniving, coquettish, contemptuous, and loving, Hepburn held the eye every moment she was on screen, and only Peter O’Toole as her equally conspiratorial and estranged husband Henry II had a hope of standing up to her. Just writing this makes me want to watch the movie again.

The real Eleanor was every bit as complex, both admired and reviled in her own time. For reasons explained in our New Books Network interviewFrancesca Stanfill chose to approach her main subject by focusing on a fictional young woman in The Falcon’s Eyes. Read on to find out more.

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

Twelfth-century Europe was not a good time or place to be born female. Even queens had few rights, garnered little respect, and were tolerated largely for their ability to produce male heirs—preferably in quantity and without exhibiting any unfortunate qualities such as independence or intelligence. One notable exception was Eleanor of Aquitaine, queen of England thanks to her marriage (following a scandalous affair and divorce) to Henry II of England—although Eleanor spent many of her later years imprisoned by her no longer loving husband, who suspected her of conspiring with their sons against him.

In this engrossing novel, Eleanor appears first as a shining if distant example for Isabelle, a young countess whose impoverished family is delighted to marry her off to the wealthy if less distinguished Gerard de Meurtaigne. Isabelle initially welcomes the match, but her new husband soon shows a disturbing need for control over his dependents, including his wife. Budding friendships with her maid, her steward, and even the noble Lady Fastrada attract Gerard’s ire, leaving Isabelle yearning for the one sure escape available to medieval women: the convent. Specifically, she longs to join the convent at Fontevraud, which attracts both nuns like Lady Fastrada’s sister and well-endowed laywomen in search of a quiet refuge. But she never expects to find herself face-to-face with Eleanor of Aquitaine herself.

Francesca Stanfill’s multilayered story offers a rich and absorbing picture of medieval life at all levels, from the sorceress living in a hut in the woods to the falcons’ mews and the exigencies of travel. Her sure hand and light touch make this both a memorable and an enjoyable read.

Image: Anthony Frederick Sandys, Queen Eleanor (1858), public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, July 22, 2022

Interview with Louise Hare

It is sad but true that Big Publishing has been slow to recognize that writers come in many diverse types. No doubt there are economic reasons, just as there are economic reasons to favor the tried-and-true (or at least the tried and assumed to be true) over books that push the boundaries in terms of setting, subject matter, or lead character.

Fortunately, the editors at Berkley didn’t take that approach when presented with Louise Hare’s Miss Aldridge Regrets. Her heroine, Lena Aldridge, is a jazz singer down on her luck. It’s London in the 1930s, and almost everyone is down on their luck because of the Great Depression, but Lena has additional troubles and challenges that send her off on a trans-Atlantic adventure. Too bad that she’s traveling with a murderer … 

Read on to find out more.

The main part of Miss Aldridge Regrets takes place on the Queen Mary in 1936. What drew you to this setting and this story?

I wanted to write something fun, and I love the glamour of travel in that period. I was thinking of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile and also, although set in a later period, Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley. I was drawn to flawed characters and those wealthy families who crop up in those twentieth-century crime novels.

The book has such an interesting structure. The first person we meet is actually the murderer, who interjects diary entries throughout the story. Why open the book this way?

Mostly, it was to hook in the reader. I also wanted a dramatic opening! As a reader I always enjoy knowing more than the protagonist so I hope that other readers feel the same. Seeing a little bit of the backstage plotting allows you to see what’s happening when Lena’s not looking.

Describe your heroine, Lena Aldridge. What is she like, as a personality, and where is she in terms of her life and career when the novel begins?

Lena is a vibrant but flawed personality! When the novel begins, she’s in a mess. Her father recently died, her career as a singer/actress is going nowhere, and her married lover has just dumped her. She has nothing to lose when a stranger walks into her life and offers her the chance of a lifetime: a role in a Broadway musical and a first-class ticket on the Queen Mary.

How does she come in contact with Charlie Bacon, and why does she decide to accept an offer that seems too good to be true?   

Charlie Bacon is the stranger who turns up at the London boarding house where she’s been living. She’s not stupid, but after the first murder, which takes place in the nightclub she works at, she decides it’s a good idea to get out of London for a while and the ticket, at least, is genuine.

Once on the boat, Charlie pulls some strings to have them assigned to a dining table with the Abernathy family. Who are they, and why does he do that?

The Abernathys are a very wealthy New York family, with lots of influence. They also have plenty of secrets! The initial plan for Charlie and Lena is to ingratiate themselves with the Abernathys because their sponsorship might open doors for her.

And what can you tell us about Franklin Parker, the second murder victim?

He’s the patriarch, a bit past his best after suffering from a stroke. Even though he’s wheelchair bound, his influence is still felt strongly by his daughter’s family, the Abernathys. In his younger days he was definitely a tyrant who used his power to get people to do his bidding.

Lena soon decides that the only person on the ship she can really trust is Will Goodman. Who is he, and how do he and Lena become friends?

Will is the leader of the band that plays in the fancy first-class nightclub on board the ship. Lena is biracial but passing as white. When she meets him, he’s the only person she’s met onboard who sees her for who she is. She’s drawn to him because with everyone else she has to put on an act; with him she can be herself.

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

I do! I’m currently writing a sequel to Miss Aldridge Regrets, which will be set in Harlem and will follow Lena’s adventures once she arrives in New York.
Thank you so much for answering my questions!

Louise Hare is the London-based author of This Lovely City and Miss Aldridge Regrets. Find out more about her and her books at

Image: RMS Queen Mary public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, July 15, 2022

The Wild, Wild West

If ever there was a perfect setting for murder mysteries, the ever-advancing US frontier in the nineteenth-century seems like that ideal location. Imagine a time when Los Angeles was a two-bit town surrounded by ranches and vineyards, when California was literally full of gold diggers, and even the train didn’t yet run directly from San Francisco to LA. Guns were ubiquitous, alcohol and gambling poorly regulated, and crime frequent. The problem wasn’t finding dead bodies but separating those that needed further investigation from the many where perpetrator and cause of death appeared all too obvious.

This is where Anne Louise Bannon has chosen to set her historical mystery series featuring Dr. Maddie Wilcox, the widowed owner of one such rancho and vineyard, whose unconventional profession is both welcome and eyebrow-raising in a town where “good” women remain literally and metaphorically confined within the boundaries of hearth and home. Maddie is also distinguished by her beliefs that charity demands her services and, more shocking still, that all men and women were created equal. And thanks to her forthright temperament, she has little compunction about sharing her views with the many other less enlightened folks whom she encounters along her path. As Anne Louise Bannon explains in our recent New Books Network interview, this combination of professional knowledge, place in society, and relative independence make Maddie the ideal go-to person when suspicious deaths are uncovered.

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

Los Angeles in the 1870s is not the sprawling city we know today. A rapidly growing pueblo of perhaps 7,000 residents, it features vineyards and ranchos, worked by an army of transient men as likely to shoot one another up in bars as stagger home after a heavy night’s drinking. Although ethnically diverse, it is riven by racism, and its relatively small female population is relegated either to the home or to its brothels. When the son of Robert Gaines, one of the pueblo’s wealthier citizens, sets out to rob his sister of her lawful inheritance, he raises eyebrows, but even the town judge has to admit that the son’s behavior is entirely within the law.

In this simultaneously repressive and unbridled town, Maddie Wilcox stands out. As a widow who owns her dead husband’s vineyard and rancho, she has a degree of freedom that most women lack (although Maddie takes care not to defy convention too obviously). And as a licensed doctor, her profession takes her all over Los Angeles as she visits patients in need of care. So when Lavina Gaines, that young woman whose inheritance is now filling her brother’s pockets, dies of strangulation, Maddie sets out to seek justice for her friend. This is, after all, the third suspicious death in the pueblo since the court ruling against Lavina, and Maddie has been called in to assess the circumstances of all three.

This is the fourth Old Los Angeles mystery by Anne Louise Bannon, and readers may want to begin with the first, Death of the Zanjero, before working their way through the series. But even if you start here, you’ll enjoy plunging into Maddie Wilcox’s world. These are fast-moving, well-paced mysteries that often incorporate actual historical incidents and personages and open a vista on Los Angeles that we seldom see.

Images: Photograph of the Los Angeles Plaza in 1869, showing the terminus of the Zanja Madre, mentioned in Bannon’s novels; line drawing of Los Angeles ranchos in the 1840s—both public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, July 8, 2022

Interview with Kelly Rimmer

At the heart of the best fiction—especially that devoted to that mammoth physical and moral catastrophe that was World War II—stands a question: what would we do under such circumstances? No matter that the vast majority of us struggle to handle—at times even to acknowledge—the moral dilemmas of our own time. We can hope that we might have done better in facing the conflicts of the past.

But then, the best way to explore potential scenarios is one that inflicts no permanent harm. As Kelly Rimmer notes in this week’s interview, fiction offers “immersive empathy,” allowing us to experience the struggles of others and test out potential solutions to problems that we hope never to face. Rimmer’s The German Wife, released just ten days ago, does exactly that. By contrasting the experiences of one woman who, although not a Nazi sympathizer, lives through and even to some extent profits from Hitler’s rise to power with those of another who survives a hardscrabble childhood in drought-ridden Texas, Rimmer pushes us to think more deeply about how small accommodations made in the moment can in the end support a despotic, immoral system—a lesson important for any age, including the present. Read on to find out more.

What was the inspiration for this novel about German rocket scientists after World War II?

I live in Australia, a few hours’ drive from the Parkes Observatory, one of the sites involved in the relay of video footage which enabled the first moon landing to be televised. In 2019, I went to a festival at the telescope to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing. As I wandered the event with my children, I found an exhibit about the history of the US space program, and that’s where I discovered the involvement of German scientists. The whole scenario seemed incredible—just a handful of years after Germans and Americans were on opposite sides of a brutal war, they came together to develop rockets? My curiosity flared, and I soon discovered Operation Paperclip and all of the complexities around it. This book is a direct result of the research rabbit hole that curiosity sent me down!!

When we meet Sofie Rhodes, the German wife of your title, it is 1950. Where is she at this moment in her life?

We meet Sofie just as she’s arriving in the United States, and we learn at the outset that although she’s a mother to four, only two of her children are with her. She’s been separated from her husband for five years, and she’s anxious about the changes they have each undergone in that time—can their marriage be a happy one again after everything they’ve been through? Sofie is deeply conflicted—grateful to have a fresh start in America but also shamed by some of the events of her past and unsure if she deserves the grace she’s been offered.

And who is she, by which I mean how would you describe her personality?

Sofie is the daughter of a German aristocrat, and for much of her life she has taken her family’s wealth for granted.  Only after her father’s death in the early 1930s does Sofie learn that her family’s financial circumstances are more tenuous than she could have imagined. She’s grown up alongside a wealthy Jewish family, and their eldest child, Mayim, has been her best friend since kindergarten. By the time we meet her in 1950, Sofie has lived through extreme “ups” and “downs,” and she’s evolved into the kind of woman who will do whatever it takes to keep her family safe.

We see her husband, Jurgen, mostly through her eyes. But what you can tell us about him, including what brought him to the United States?

Although the character of Jurgen is entirely fictional, his career trajectory loosely follows the career of a real-life German rocket scientist, Wernher von Braun. Jurgen is a man who is passionate about science and progress, and equally passionate about his family. The Nazis ultimately weaponize these things against Jurgen to force him to work on their fledgling rocket program. He is brilliant, but he also believes it’s his role to shelter his wife and children at all times, and that leads him to make some questionable choices along the way.

In this new, postwar stage of his career, Jurgen works for Calvin Miller. Miller’s wife, Lizzie, is your other female narrator. Her story is intersposed with Sofie’s. Why did you choose to include Lizzie’s perspective?

This was always going to be a book about the intersection of the American community with the German families who came to live at Huntsville to work on the space program, but there were so many fascinating scenarios I could have written about from the American side! Having lived through some extensive and brutal droughts on the land in Australia, I’ve wanted to write about drought for a long time. It's a particularly wearying natural disaster—like a slow-motion catastrophe that’s completely beyond the control of its victims, and the mental health toll that takes can be every bit as dire as the physical effects. Probably because of the things I’ve witnessed through extended droughts myself, I was drawn to the idea of writing a character who finds her entire life transformed by those shocking dust bowl years.  

To put it mildly, the two women don’t get along. What can you tell us about that?

When we meet the women, Lizzie is caring for her brother Henry, who has been acutely psychologically injured by his experiences in the European theater of the war; Sofie arrives in Huntsville with a truckload of baggage from her own experiences on the opposite side of the same war. In these polarized times, I loved the idea of writing about two women who meet and both have legitimate points to make but get caught up in arguing their point and forget to find the humanity in their “opponent.”  I wanted to write a story about two women who were instant enemies, but who might have been friends had they met under any other circumstances.

As you mention in your historical note, these are morally complex characters, whose justifications are sometimes difficult to accept. That’s part, I think, of what makes the novel so engrossing. But without giving away spoilers, what made you decide to tackle this subject head-on?

I have always loved fiction that delves into the grey areas. Few things in real life are truly simple or universal, and so I love to read and write books that explore scenarios that make us wonder “but what if …” or “but what would I do if that was me?” The true power of fiction is that it is a kind of immersive empathy—it can take us deeper into ourselves, even as it’s taking us out of ourselves.

What made this book so challenging to write was that I knew my readers would view the story through the lens of 2022, when we all understand the historic events that happen parallel to my fictional story. My characters have no such advantage—they are just making choices day by day, trying to protect their loved ones and to survive challenging times. I wanted to write characters my readers could empathize with, but we should feel conflicted about some of the choices they make along the way. If I’ve done my job right, we should even come away wondering where they went wrong, and if we’d actually have the moral courage to make different choices for ourselves.

This book has just come out. Are you already working on something new?

I’ve just about finished the first draft of an as-yet-untitled novel which will hopefully come out in 2023. It’s a story about some of the heroic women of the Special Operations Executive during World War II.
Thank you so much for answering my questions!


Kelly Rimmer is the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and worldwide bestselling author of contemporary and historical fiction, including The Warsaw Orphan and The German Wife. Find out more about her at


Images: Portrait photo of Wernher von Braun and snapshot of the rocket scientists of Operation Paperclip in the late 1940s, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Friday, July 1, 2022

Designer of Dreams

To paraphrase Sir Percy Blakeney in the 1982 BBC production of The Scarlet Pimpernel—still the best of the various versions of this classic, including the original novel—fashion never was my forte. I’m an academic by temperament and by training, so even if I did have the wherewithal to dress myself in haute couture gowns, it would both look and feel odd. Standing out in a crowd is one thing; appearing to have come from another universe something quite different.

But despite the choices I’ve made in my own life, I can appreciate a beautiful dress for the work of art that it is, and that applies especially to the mid-twentieth-century creations of Christian Dior. The gown in this gorgeous book cover is just one example. 

Because he made his mark starting in 1947 and died ten years later, most of the images of Dior’s gowns are not yet public domain, although this collection of toiles (physical blueprints for planned gowns made out of cheap linen or cotton to test the structure of the dress) from the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris is one exception. In my most recent interview for New Books in Historical Fiction, the author Jade Beer talks about how an exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London—Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams (2019), which included a similar setup as well as many finished pieces—inspired her latest dual-time novel. Read on to find out more.

As always, the rest of this post first appeared on New Books in Historical Fiction.

London, 2017. Lucille will do anything for her beloved grandmother. So when Granny Sylvie volunteers to send her to Paris to retrieve a beloved Dior creation left in the city many years ago, Lucille accepts. Why not escape for the weekend, when home means dealing with her hostile, demanding boss and a mother so uncaring that she’s forgotten Lucille’s birthday for five years in a row? Not long after arriving in Paris, however, Lucille discovers that the one dress is actually eight, and two of those are missing, including the Maxim’s, which she was specifically tasked with bringing back to London. Soon she is searching all over the city, in the company of her new friends Veronique and Leon, while her boss screams his frustration over the phone.

This present-day story intertwines with one set in Paris in 1952, featuring Alice Ainsley, the young, newlywed wife of Britain’s ambassador to France. Alice’s wealth and her position in society require her to look and act the part of the perfect hostess. Who better to dress her for that role than Christian Dior, whose New Look is taking the fashionable world by storm? Alice soon becomes the envy of her insulated social set, but her apparently blissful existence conceals great insecurity and hurt. Her husband has lost interest in her since the honeymoon, and the couple only grows farther apart over time.

Jade Beer does a wonderful job of interweaving these two timelines, keeping us guessing as to how they connect well into the book. And the contrast between Lucille’s modern approach to life, even when it lets her down, and Alice’s more limited options, despite her apparent prosperity, reveal the vast gulf between the 1950s view of women and our own, as well as the subtle ways in which one generation’s choices influence those of the next.

Images: Photograph by Joe DeSousa of the Christian Dior Exhibit at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, 2017, CC0 1.0 universal public domain; photograph of the outfit known as the Bar Suit or the Maxim’s (after a restaurant in Paris favored by the avant-garde), 1947, from an exhibit held in Moscow in 2011 © shakko, CC 3.0, both
via Wikimedia Commons.