Friday, May 26, 2023

Interview with Alison Goodman

Like Alison Goodman, as she notes below, I first encountered Regency London through the novels of Georgette Heyer, which I discovered in my early teens. Even now, I go back to my favorites every so often, although as I have matured, so have my views on which stories I consider favorites.

Heyer wrote her first novel at eighteen, and her early heroines were teenagers. Over the course of her long life, the heroines aged into their twenties, but women over thirty remained bit players—chaperones, governesses, and, worst of all, poor relations, doomed by the dreaded word “spinster” to secondary status even in their own families. So to encounter Alison Goodman’s 40-something unmarried twins—Lady Augusta Colebrook and her sister, Lady Julia—is a pleasant surprise. That the two women, each in her own distinctive way, resist the society that would relegate them to back rooms and lace caps just adds to the fun. And then there’s the disgraced Lord Evan Belford, escaped convict and highwayman, a charmer in his own right.

Alison Goodman was kind enough to answer my questions, so read on to find out more, then seek out The Benevolent Society of Ill-Mannered Ladies when it comes out on Tuesday. You won’t be disappointed. In fact, I can’t help thinking that if Heyer were writing today instead of in the last century, this is exactly the kind of story she would produce.

Your previous novels cover quite a range, from contemporary mystery to fantasy—including the Dark Days Club series, which might be considered Regency historical fantasy. How did this path lead you to The Benevolent Society of Ill-Mannered Ladies?

It has been quite a winding path through many genres to The Benevolent Society of Ill-Mannered Ladies. I suppose it is because I love to challenge myself when I write, and part of that is to write in different genres or to mash them together in ways that I hope will create surprise and delight. I would say the path to The Ill-Mannered Ladies started when I was twelve years old and my mother gave me my first Georgette Heyer historical novel. I immediately fell in love with historical fiction, and particularly books set in the Regency era. So, that love of all things Regency has been sitting in me for a long time. It first showed itself in my Dark Days Club series, which is like Pride and Prejudice meets Buffy, and is now in full throttle with The Ill-Mannered Ladies. The Ill-Mannered Ladies has no fantastical element like the Dark Days Club series, but it is as historically authentic and accurate as that earlier series and has as much action, romance and adventure. Plus it’s funny.

Lady Augusta Colebrook is quite a character. Tell us a bit about her.

Lady Augusta, or Gus as she is known to her twin sister Julia, is the main character and narrator of The Benevolent Society of Ill-Mannered Ladies. She is 42 years old, unmarried, smart, and a wee bit snarky. She is bored by the high society life she leads and is looking for purpose in her life beyond what society says a woman of her age and rank is allowed to do. And so, the Benevolent Society of Ill-Mannered Ladies is born—Gus and her sister decide to use their privilege and invisibility as “old maids” to help other women in peril.

Her sister Julia is quieter and more biddable, yet she always seems to come through in a pinch. How would you describe her?

Julia is, I think, very much the “middle” child. She is the peacemaker between her fiery older twin, Gus, and their younger brother Lord Duffield or Duffy, as his family calls him. Julia seeks harmony and peace in her life, but that does not mean she won’t answer the call to adventure. She has a grounded serenity, and if Gus is ever in any trouble, Julia will come out swinging on her twin’s behalf. She has a lot of quiet gumption.

The twins, like many twins, have a special bond. Among other things, they often communicate without words. Why did you include that element?

I love the idea of a secret language between twins, which has been well documented in real twins, and it provides a lot of fun in the book. Gus and Julia communicate through their expressions: a flick of an eyebrow, a frown, a particular smile. Their secret language gives them an advantage in both social situations and on their adventures, and it really adds to their closeness as sisters in the novel.

Do introduce us to Lord Evan Belford. He is an absolute delight.

Ah, Lord Evan. What a honey! He’s had a bit of rough time of it: fought a duel twenty years earlier as a young man and apparently killed his man so was charged with murder, found guilty, and transported to Australia. Now he’s back in England for his own reasons and happens across Gus and Julia on one of their adventures. And when I say “happens across,” I mean he attempts to hold up their coach and Gus accidentally shoots him. However, he is exceptionally forgiving and so starts a wonderful partnership. His circumstances have forced him to live outside the privilege of his upbringing as the son of a marquess and so he is a rather appealing blend of gentleman and rogue.

In contrast, neither the twin’s brother, Lord Duffield, nor Evan’s, Lord Deele, could be considered at all delightful. Could you give us a brief description of them?

To be very brief, Duffy is Mr. Pompous! He is very much a man of his time—literally titled and very much entitled. Since their father’s death, he is the head of the Colebrook family and he believes it is his right to control his unmarried sisters’ lives. As you can imagine, that does not sit well with Gus at all. Lord Deele is Lord Evan’s younger brother but through circumstances has inherited the family title and wealth and is guardian to their younger sister. He, too, feels that as head of the family he can control the women within it, with disastrous consequences. Both of these characters are emblematic of the misogyny of the period but also have their own needs and goals that, unfortunately, get in Gus’s way. And woe betide anyone who gets in Lady Augusta Colebrook’s way!

Sketch for us, please, the cases that occupy Augusta and Julia in this book.

Without giving too much away, I have structured the novel into three cases (a nod to the wonderful Conan Doyle), each with its own story, but each also part of the overarching story. The first case takes Gus and Julia to a country house to save a wife in dire peril. The second takes them to Cheltenham and a nefarious situation in a brothel. And the third case takes them to a heinous asylum. I call the novel a serious romp, because it is fun and full adventure but also deals with some of the darker aspects of the Regency period.

This novel leaves Lady Augusta with an uncompleted mission. Are you working on the next book now, and can you give us any hints about what to expect?

I am, indeed, working on the next book and having as much fun with this one as I did while writing The Benevolent Society of Ill-Mannered Ladies. It’s another serious romp, this time with two longer cases rather than the three cases in the first book (yes, I’m having fun playing around with structure again!). Anything more, I think, would start to head into spoiler territory for the first book, so I will end by saying you can expect Gus and Julia to be just as resourceful, ill-mannered, and indomitable.

Thank you so much for answering my questions!


Alison Goodman is the award-winning author of eight novels—The Benevolent Society of Ill-Mannered Ladies,  the Dark Days Club trilogy, the fantasy duology EON and EONA, Singing the Dogstar Blues, and A New Kind of Death. She lives in Melbourne, Australia. Find out more about her at

Portrait of Alison Goodman © Tania Jovanovic. Images of Regency ladies, gentleman, and highwayman public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, May 19, 2023

Overlooked Women Artists

Although as a Russian specialist I had long known of the abstract art that became popular in the early twentieth century as part of the Bolshevik experiment, I hadn’t realized until I read this novel that the first abstract painters included a group of five Swedish women, three of whom—Hilma af Klint, Anna Cassel, and Cornelia Cederberg—were painters. The Friday Night Club—so called because the women met every Friday—counterposes the historical story and letters of the group with a contemporary timeline featuring Eben Elliott, an employee of the Guggenheim Museum charged with organizing an exhibit of Klint’s paintings.

Like the Friday Night Club itself, the novel is a collaboration among three authors—Sofia Lundberg, Alyson Richman, and M.J. Rose. I was eager to find out more about both their subject and their writing process, so read on to find out what they have to say.

Although I’ve long known about Wasily Kandinsky, it was news to me that Hilma af Klint preceded him and the other, better-known abstract artists. Indeed, like one of your characters, I at first confused Klint with Gustave Klimt. What made you all want to write a novel about Hilma and her collaborators?

The inspiration for our novel, The Friday Night Club, first came about after a visit to the Hilma af Klint exhibit, Paintings for the Future, at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2019.

At the museum, one of us noticed a small caption underneath a black-and-white photograph of Hilma that mentioned the artist had created a special group called the Friday Night Club, which consisted of her and four other women—Anna Cassel, Cornelia Cederberg, Mathilda Nilsson, and Sigrid Hedman—who gathered each week to provide one another artistic and spiritual sustenance and often performed séances in an attempt to channel spirits to guide them in their work. None of the other four were mentioned anywhere else in the exhibit, and, as we later learned, for all intents and purposes, they have since been relegated to being just a footnote in the now famous and celebrated Hilma’s personal history. Immediately, the question of who these four women were began to simmer, and the idea of a novel started to unfold around our desire to discover more about them.

The three of you collaborated on this novel. The end product is seamless, but what was the experience of collaboration like? What pluses and minuses come from working together?

It was actually seamless. While all three of us would divide and conquer our research—Sofia Lundberg in Sweden examining the journals and written materials of Hilma af Klint and Mathilda Nilsson in the Royal Swedish Archives, and Alyson Richman and M.J. Rose using materials written in English—we transcended the distance between us to work on a unified objective. We wanted to learn what drove these women to come together to seek higher knowledge and to pursue an artistic endeavor like The Paintings for the Temple, at a time when women had such few opportunities, outside of their traditional roles as wives, mothers, and homemakers. There really weren’t any minuses to the collaboration because we all had tremendous respect for each other as writers and we were always exchanging information we were uncovering through our research. Probably the only challenge was trying to make sure when we began working on each of our sections each morning that we retrieved the most current manuscript from Dropbox!

How did you decide to counterpose the late nineteenth-/early twentieth-century story of Hilma and her friends with a twenty-first-century (fictional) story about the (real) exhibit at the Guggenheim that inspired your work?

Being an art lover usually means being curious about the shows themselves and how they’re curated—so we wanted to build upon those parallels. The idea of showing the creating of the modern-day exhibit was part of the idea from the beginning. Once we began doing our early research about the Friday Night Club, or De Fem as they called themselves, we realized there were serious questions about how the group helped Hilma. And it seemed only natural that those questions should be explored in the present-day storyline.

Spiritualism plays an important part in this novel, represented by the characters Mathilda and Sigrid. Could you talk a bit about that element and what, if anything, it meant for you as authors?

At least one of us is heavily interested in spiritualism and we knew it had to play an essential part of the book once we learned through our research that every Friday night this group of creative women held séances in an effort to speak to the spirits and find artistic guidance and inspiration for their work.

Since Hilma, although underestimated, has still received more recognition than her fellow painters Anna Cassel and Cornelia Cederberg, could you tell us a bit about them?

Anna Cassel and Cornelia Cederberg’s early artistic training mirrored Hilma’s. They both received artistic training in Slöjdskolan (now known as Konstfack), a premier art school in their teenage years, and this is actually where they met each other. After they graduated, only Anna and Hilma were accepted to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm, which was a very big milestone for a woman and aspiring artist in the nineteenth century. Anna leaned toward landscape painting, and from what we learned from our research and interviews with family members, she was perhaps more reserved than Hilma but still extremely determined to carve out a unique life for herself as an artist.

We learned Cornelia also made a significant contribution within the group as she was responsible for making the automatic drawings during the Friday night séances. She also allegedly created many of the shapes that occur in Hilma’s paintings.

And what of the fictional Blythe and Eben Elliott? Could you give us a brief description of them and how their story parallels or contrasts with the lives of “The Five”?

Eben and Blythe are both art historians and lovers in the past who attended graduate school together at the Courtauld in London. She is very engaged in spiritualism, and Eben doesn’t believe in it—and that is part of what drove them apart. In some ways we think their relationship will mirror some of our readers who will come to this story as skeptics but in the end might wonder if there is another realm out there.

Where do the three of you go next? Will there be more collaborations?

We are each working on our own novels now but very much hope we can find another topic to collaborate on!
Thank you so much for answering my questions!

Images: Photograph of Hilma af Klint (1895), Late Summer (1903) and Primordial Chaos, no. 16 (1906–7) by Hilma af Klint—all public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Sofia Lundberg is an internationally bestselling author, journalist, and former magazine editor. Lundberg is the shining new star of Scandinavian fiction, translated into nearly forty languages. She lives in Stockholm with her son.





Alyson Richman is a USA Today and #1 international bestselling author. She is an accomplished painter, and her novels combine her deep loves of art, historical research, and travel. She lives on Long Island with her husband and two children.






M.J. Rose is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author. She grew up in New York City exploring the labyrinthine galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the dark tunnels and lush gardens of Central Park.

Friday, May 12, 2023

Out of Ireland

The United States, as people say, is a nation of immigrants. There have been waves of immigration from various parts of the world, as well as a shameful history of involuntary immigration, but—although some people like to deny this part—what most of us have in common is that our ancestors came from somewhere else.

People don’t pick up and leave home unless driven by a need more powerful than the natural love of all things familiar. Poverty, hatred, fear, desperation, the yearning for a better life—these are natural sources of tension and drama. As Marion O’Shea Wernicke discusses in our New Books Network interview, she found inspiration in her grandmother’s story. Read on—and listen—to find out more.

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

Most people have heard of the Irish famine in 1848 and of the resistance movement against British sovereignty that consumed much of the twentieth century. In this attempt to understand her great-grandmother’s life, Marian O’Shea Wernicke examines the years between the famine and the Easter Rebellion of 1916. In the process, she creates a compelling tale of a young Irish girl, Mary Eileen O’Donovan, whose impoverished family forces her to marry a neighboring farmer in his forties when Eileen, as she’s known, has barely passed her sixteenth birthday.

In material terms, it’s a good match, but it is not what Eileen wants from life. A bookish girl, she has ambitions of studying to become a teacher, but pressure from her family puts paid to those plans. Eileen grudgingly agrees to wed John Sullivan and does her best to make him a good wife. When she becomes pregnant, the couple’s newborn son unites them for a while, but John’s morose nature and frequent drunkenness make him a difficult man to love, especially for an idealistic girl.

When the crops fail and Eileen’s younger brother falls foul of the Fenians, Eileen and John decide their only choice is to emigrate. But leaving Ireland turns out to carry a high price as well …

Friday, May 5, 2023

Interview with Shelley Noble

It’s 1899, and Louis Comfort Tiffany is preparing a series of dramatic artworks made of colored glass to show at the Paris World Exposition the next spring. His workshop is unusual by the standards of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: not only does he hire women artists, but he pays them at rates similar to those of his male employees. Shelley Noble’s new novel, The Tiffany Girls, due out on Tuesday, follows the intertwined stories of three of these women: Emilie Pascal, Grace Griffith, and the real-life Clara Driscoll—whose obituary was republished by the New York Times earlier this year. Shelley was kind enough to answer my questions, so read on to find out more.


I noticed on your website that you have published, in addition to a lot of contemporary novels, a historical mystery series set in the early twentieth century. Did this lead into The Tiffany Girls, and if not, what did spark your interest in Tiffany and his female staff?

My latest Gilded Age Manhattan series literally led me to the Tiffany Girls. I was researching turn-of-the-century (19th–20th) psychology for A Secret Never Told, which dealt with a group of particularly murderous psychoanalysts, when an article about the discovery of Clara Wolcott Driscoll’s family letters appeared in the feed. Being easily enticed into unexpected rabbit holes, I opened the link and read about the almost simultaneous discovery of two batches of her personal letters (1906) that shed light on this little-known department in the Louis C. Tiffany Glass Company and led to an exhibit and book titled A New Light on Tiffany. I was captivated. The Tiffany Girls became my next novel.

Emilie Pascal is the first of your women artists that we meet and the most troubled. How would you characterize her personality and her goals as an artist?

Emilie is passionate and driven—passionate about art, about creativity, about life. But she has seen how passion can destroy, and she is determined to succeed in her art no matter what she must sacrifice.

And what takes Emilie away from Paris?

Her father, a respected Parisian portrait painter, is abusive and is finally outed as a notorious art forger. He is sought by the police and Emilie knows she must reinvent herself far from the scandal if she is to realize her future as an artist. She has seen an exhibit of Tiffany’s glass works, has heard of his division of anonymous women artists, and determines to become one of them.

Grace Griffith helps Emilie out from the moment of their first meeting, but the two don’t entirely share the same goals. What does Grace want from life, and what stands in her way?

Grace is down-to-earth with “the new woman” notions. She is fair and compassionate, and is one of the best drafters in the women’s division, but she aspires to be a political cartoonist and change society through her drawings. Of course, she can do this only under a pseudonym, because journalism is still a male domain. But one day …

Each of these young women has a male interested in her—indeed, Emilie has more than one. But both are reluctant to encourage romantic relationships. Why, and what can you tell us about Emilie’s Leland (and Amon) and Grace’s Charlie?

Women of the time were just encountering widening work opportunities. “The new women” of the early twentieth century were interested in getting an education and pursuing a career, not only as teachers and nurses but as shop “girls,” typewriter “girls,” telephone “girls,” and so on. No married women need apply. And when a working girl became engaged or wed, she was immediately let go. Many of the girls at Tiffany’s were anxious to be married, but those who wanted careers had to make the decision to stay single. Grace and Emilie are both young, pretty, and intelligent, and they naturally attract young men. Charlie is older, a seasoned journalist, a bit world weary, but he sees Grace’s potential and nurtures her career. The glassblower Amon calls to Emilie’s passion, but she is afraid to allow him to get too close. Leland is cultured, rich, an art dealer who is charming and comfortable with an artistic eye. Of course, both men appeal to Emilie’s warring nature. But neither Grace nor Emilie is willing to sacrifice her goals by ceding them to matrimony.

Clara Driscoll is the third of the Tiffany Girls to merit inclusion in your book description. She’s in a very different place in her life from Emilie, Grace, and their cohort, though. What’s most important for us to know about her?

Clara was an actual person, the manager of the women’s division, but she was also an artist, responsible for some of Tiffany’s most iconic pieces. She did this, as did all the women, mostly without receiving personal recognition for her work. But from everything we know, she never resented Tiffany. It took several workers to complete a lamp or window or decorative item, a collaborative effort. But Tiffany was the driving genius of the work, and I like to think that his artists recognized that.

Last but not least, we have Louis Comfort Tiffany, who is simultaneously the center of the women’s working life and peripheral to their personal stories. Was he fun to write? What should we take away about him and his art?

Tiffany himself was harder to write. He was definitely the center of his artists’ world; he is also a bit of an enigma. We have bits and pieces about him: he had to fight his father (the jeweler) constantly in order to be free to follow his own art. He was a philanthropist, loved the new automobiles and fast speed, was evidently a loving husband and father, and stuttered when he became upset. He did leave a few writings about art, and these helped me with his work and attitude to his art and artists. What I did imagine was that, most of all, besides being an artist and creator of brilliant works, he was also human.

And what of you? Are you already working on something else?

I’m currently working on a new historical novel about three women who in the early 1900s must overcome scandal, the male patriarchy of New York society, the overbearing morality of the times, and their own preconceptions about each other to establish the first women's only club in Manhattan.
Thank you so much for answering my questions!

Shelley Noble is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of sixteen novels of historical fiction, historical mystery, and contemporary women’s fiction—most recently, The Tiffany Girls. Find out more about her at

Images: poster for the 1889 Exposition universelle de Paris, photographs of Clara Driscoll in 1901 and of her famed Dragonfly lamp all public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Photograph of Shelley Noble from the author’s website.

Friday, April 28, 2023

Interview with Olga Wojtas

A time-traveling Scottish librarian with a chip on her shoulder because the school she proudly attended (the Marcia Blaine School for Girls) was panned in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and a feminist philosophy that she does her best to inflict on a past where it is very much unwelcome—who could resist such a heroine? Certainly not me. Olga Wojtas’s tongue-in-cheek approach to history—a trait she shares with her main character, Shona McMonagle—makes a nice change from the more serious historical fiction that so often crosses my path. I have yet to read the second novel, Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Vampire Menace, but I have read the first and the third.

Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar (book 1) takes place in the Russian Empire on a date that is never specified but can be deduced from clues in the text. Shona knows she has a mission, but not what it is, and much of the action involves her swanning about St. Petersburg high society trying to figure it out before her assigned week ends and she is summoned back to contemporary Edinburgh in disgrace. It’s all very lighthearted, especially the contrast between Shona’s view of her own near-omnipotence and the reality that lies right under her nose.

Book 3, Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Weird Sisters, has just come out. For this one, Shona remains in Scotland but travels far into the past, where she encounters Macbeth. Yes, that Macbeth. Also Lady Macbeth, King Duncan, the three witches—I could go on, but you get the idea. There’s even a cat with three names, in an unspoken but, I assume, not unintended nod to T.S. Eliot. To celebrate her latest publication, Olga Wojtas agreed to answer my written questions, so read on to find out more about Shona and her various missions.


This is the third novel featuring your time-traveling librarian, Shona McMonagle. What was your inspiration for this series?

I’m a journalist and a news junkie and was getting stressed out by current events, so I decided to write a comic romp where the reader could relax knowing that everything would work out and there was no jeopardy. Normally there’s character development in novels, with the protagonist going on a literal or metaphorical journey. I don’t have anything like that—my heroine is exactly the same at the end of her missions as at the beginning and has learned nothing. A great influence was P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster books, where Bertie constantly gets into terrible scrapes and has to be bailed out by Jeeves.

Shona goes first to tsarist Russia and then to fin-de-siècle France. How do you pick your settings?

I studied Russian and developed a love of its literature, especially Tolstoy. That was the inspiration for the first novel because I could steal some scenes: the grand ball; the duel in the forest; the drama involving a train. The second novel was inspired by the time I lived in Grenoble in France, which is in a valley surrounded by mountains. It had a vampire theme, and I imagined a French village surrounded by mountains so high that the sun never reached it. There’s a vampiric link with Aberdeenshire in Scotland, which led me to introduce a real person, the Scottish-American opera star Mary Garden. She became Debussy’s muse in Paris at the beginning of the twentieth century, which suggested the time period.  

Before we get to the current novel, tell us a bit about the Marcia Blaine School for Girls and its proprietor. And how does The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie get in there?

The Marcia Blaine School for Girls is where Miss Brodie teaches in Muriel Spark’s novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. It was based on James Gillespie’s High School in Edinburgh, Scotland, the school Dame Muriel attended and where I went as well. I’ve fictionalized the school even further, giving it the motto Cremor cremoris, the crème de la crème. My heroine, Shona, is appalled by Dame Muriel’s novel, which she believes has brought the school into disrepute. A librarian in Edinburgh’s Morningside Library, she spends her time preventing the book falling into the hands of readers. One day the school’s founder, Miss Blaine herself (who Shona calculates must be over two hundred years old but appears to be a woman in her prime, like Miss Brodie) turns up in the library, and Shona finds herself sent on a time-traveling mission. The aim of every Blainer is to make the world a better place, and time traveling means they can make previous worlds better as well.

From the title of this novel, it’s pretty clear that Shona will meet Macbeth and the three witches. What is her mission, to the extent that she knows herself?

It has to be said that Shona rarely, if ever, has a proper grasp of what her mission is. She occasionally muses that it would be easier if there were written instructions, but this usually results in a pain in her big toe as though someone has trodden on it very hard, so she tries not to complain too audibly. In this instance, she knows that Shakespeare’s Macbeth is historically inaccurate but finds events panning out in such a way as to suggest they’re following the play. She’s afraid that this may change the whole course of history, so she decides that her mission must be to prevent King Duncan being murdered when he comes to stay with the Macbeths.

Your three witches are, shall we say, a little more approachable than their Shakespearean counterparts. Describe for us, please, Ina, Mina, and Mo.

They’re sisters, Ina being the eldest and Mo the youngest. Ina and Mina always talk in verse, catalectic trochaic tetrameter to be precise. (Think of the Shakespeare version: “When shall we three meet again? / In thunder, lightning, or in rain?”) Unfortunately, Mo has never mastered poetry, and her two big sisters constantly mock her for this failing. They also tell her she’s a rubbish witch, but when there’s a genuine crisis, it turns out that family is the most important thing.

Another character we meet early on is a black cat known alternately as Hemlock, Spot, and Frank. Please say a bit about him and his multiple identities.

He’s a typical cat in that he’s conned two households into thinking that he belongs to them, so that he gets fed twice. He mooches between the witches’ cavern, where Mo has named him Hemlock, and Glamis Castle, where Lady Macbeth has named him Spot because of the white spot on his chest. However, he explains to Shona that he’s not actually a cat but an inadvertent time traveler called Frank, who can’t stand William Shakespeare.

Shona does, in due course, meet Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. What should we know about them in your rendering of the tale?

First of all, that there’s no such person as Lady Macbeth. Her real name was Gruoch, which is the name I use. Second, she and her husband speak Scottish Gaelic—his name literally means “son of life.” They’re a devoted couple, although she’s very definitely the one in charge. He does what he’s told, or at least he tries to. She usually has to sort things out.

I assume that Shona will embark on additional missions. Do you know where Miss Blaine will send her next?

I do.

Ah, were you looking for a bit more? In that case, I can exclusively reveal that the title of the next episode may well include the word “gondola.”
Thank you so much for answering my questions!

A great pleasure—thank you!

Olga Wojtas is the author of the Miss Blaine’s Prefect series and of cosy crime novellas. She lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Friday, April 21, 2023

Long Shadows

As anyone who read my written interview with C.S. Harris to celebrate last year’s release of When Blood Lies, the previous installment in this gritty historical mystery series set during the second half of the Napoleonic Wars, must realize, I am a hard-core fan of the Sebastian St. Cyr novels.

A large part of my enjoyment comes from following the maturation of Sebastian himself, as well as his relationships with various family members and love interests. But there are many other recurring characters—Hero Jarvis and her father; the actress Kat Boleyn; the Earl of Hendon, forever befuddled and somewhat appalled by the unconventional behavior of his heir; the Dowager Duchess of Claiborne; the pain-riddled surgeon Paul Gibson and, most recently, his live-in lover and fellow physician Alexi Sauvage—whose development I eagerly follow. So when I learned that another book in the series was in the works, I actively pursued the opportunity to feature the author on my New Books Network channel.

And the result was a wonderful conversation about how a young woman who set out to be an archaeologist wound up writing historical mysteries set in the 1810s. Read on—and most of all, listen—to find out more, including a hint as to what to expect from the next installment, What Cannot Be Said.

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

Fans of Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, know that the individual tales that form his saga combine complex, fast-paced, often political mysteries with a series of revelations about his family’s history that it would be churlish to reveal. All this takes place against the background of the Napoleonic Wars, mostly in Regency-era London with its vast social gap between the aristocratic rich and the starving, crime-ridden poor.

The eighteenth of Sebastian’s adventures, Who Cries for the Lost, begins a few days before the Battle of Waterloo, a cataclysmic event—unknown to the characters, obviously—that will end Napoleon’s military ambitions once and for all. A mutilated body is fished out of the Thames River and taken to Paul Gibson—a friend of Sebastian’s who served as a surgeon during the Peninsular War—for an autopsy. When Paul’s lover identifies the victim as her former husband and an aristocrat, the creaky wheels of the London policing system grind into gear. The Thames River Police may provide as much hope for justice as the costermongers and wherry boatmen of the city deserve, but a nobleman falls under the jurisdiction of Bow Street.

As the number of corpses rises and pressure from the Prince Regent in Carlton House intensifies, Sebastian must race to solve a series of baffling, seemingly disconnected murders before the outcry demanding a solution leads to the arrest and execution of his friends. Meanwhile, the country anxiously awaits reports from the Duke of Wellington’s army on the Continent, further stoking the tension, even as Sebastian confronts the reality of his nation’s past misdeeds during the war and wonders whether those atrocities explain the crimes being committed in the present.

Friday, April 14, 2023

Bookshelf, Spring 2023

What follows is just a few of the many books that have recently been or are still on my bookshelf for the spring. I’d also like to remind you of Erica Neubauer’s Intrigue in Istanbul, which I included in my winter list although it came out just last week. Other Spring 2023 highlights include Molly Greeley’s Marvelous, Sherry Thomas’s Tempest at Sea, Kristen Loesch’s The Last Russian Doll, and C.S. Harris’s Who Cries for the Lost—all covered (or due soon to be covered) elsewhere on this blog.

And now, on to the May and June novels I have been enjoying. All forthcoming books this time around, although I've made my way through a fair number of older novels as well in the last few months.

Amy Barry, Marrying Off Morgan McBride
(Berkley, 2023)
This classic historical romance matches Epiphany Hopgood, better known as Pip, with Morgan McBride—a free-ranging cowhand who has been stuck for years on a farm in Montana looking after his younger siblings. Pip, a fabulous cook whose outward appearance fails to attract the men of Joshua, Nebraska, answers an ad for a mail-order bride, not realizing that the person who placed the ad was not the intended groom but his young sister, Junebug, desperate for help in the kitchen.

When the truth comes out, Pip insists on staying, because the alternative is to return to a place where she’s never felt wanted. And sparks fly, both angry and passionate, as a result. As with all romance novels, we have a pretty good idea of where things will end up, but the road to get there is long and winding, and the antics of the irrepressible Junebug will keep you laughing along the way. You can find out more from my blog Q&A with the author on June 2, just after the book’s release.

Katharine Beutner, Killingly (Soho Press, 2023)
As a Mount Holyoke alumna, I couldn’t resist this psychological suspense novel based on the true-life disappearance of Bertha Mellish, a student, from the campus in 1897. As the author notes in the book, the result is deeply fictionalized—it would have to be, given that the real case was never solved and the little hard evidence that remains of what happened is tantalizing but not conclusive—but that doesn’t make the story any less compelling. On the contrary, Beutner fleshes out the bare bones of the incident, delving into Bertha’s past in Killingly, Connecticut, as well as her relationship with Agnes Sullivan, a would-be doctor from a poor Boston family who has been forced to conceal her Catholic upbringing to gain admission to the college. Through the overlapping stories of Agnes, the missing girl’s sister Florence, Dr. Henry Hammond, and the inspector whom Hammond hires to find Bertha, Katharine Beutner keeps us on the edge of our seats as she unravels their tangle of secrets and lies. I’ll be talking with her on the New Books Network in time for the novel’s release in early June.

Sofia Lundberg, Alyson Richman, and M.J. Rose,
The Friday Night Club (Berkley, 2023)
This co-written novel explores the lives of a little-known group of Swedish abstract painters. Three of the five—Hilma af Klint, Anna Cassel, and Cornelia Cederberg—were artists who drew their inspiration from the seances conducted by the other two during their regular Friday meetings. For reasons explained in the novel, the women’s artworks received so little recognition in their time that Klint secreted her paintings, stipulating that they could be viewed only twenty years after her death.

This story is interlaced with a contemporary timeline featuring Eben Elliott, an employee of the Guggenheim Museum in New York charged with organizing an exhibit of Klint’s paintings—a choice that brings him face to face with his own past. Even more impressive than the interweaving of these disparate story threads is the collaboration of the novel’s three authors. Like their nineteenth-century counterparts, they have created a single, seamless work of art. They will be answering my written questions on the blog the Friday after their book’s release on May 16.

Shelly Noble, The Tiffany Girls
(William Morrow, 2023)
We tend to think of Tiffany’s as a jewelry store, but its founder, Louis Comfort Tiffany, was perhaps best known for his dramatic artworks composed of colored glass. He was also unusual in that he both hired women artists and paid them the same rates as men. This novel juxtaposes the stories of three “Tiffany Girls,” as they were called at the time: Emilie Pascal, who flees France to escape possible criminal charges accrued by her abusive father, an art forger; Grace Griffith, who enjoys the security of her work at Tiffany’s but yearns to use her talents in producing political cartoons for the local papers; and Clara Driscoll, the real-life director of the women’s division and an artist in her own right. The result is a rich portrayal of working-class life in New York around the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Shelly Noble will be answering my questions here on the blog in just a few weeks, after her novel comes out on May 9.

Ginny Kubitz Moyer, The Seeing Garden
(She Writes Press, 2023)
Nineteen-year-old Catherine Ogden appears to have everything: youth, wealth, birth, breeding, and beauty. No one in New York high society is surprised when she attracts the attention of William Brandt, an up-and-coming business tycoon from California. It’s 1910, and the job of women like Catherine is to marry well and make their families proud.

After a visit to the Brandt estate near San Francisco, Catherine accepts William’s proposal of marriage. But is it William himself who appeals to her, or his house and gardens? As the wedding day draws closer, Catherine must decide whether to fulfill her own expectations of marriage or those of her family.

The author’s descriptions of the landscape and its effect on Catherine are exquisite. I look forward to talking with her about both her setting and her richly realized characters on the New Books Network in July. The novel, though, will come out in May.

Marian O’Shea Wernicke, Out of Ireland
(She Writes Press, 2023)
This fictional look at the US immigrant experience in the late nineteenth century follows the life of a young Irish girl, Mary Eileen O’Donovan, whose impoverished family forces her into marriage when Eileen, as she’s known, has barely passed her sixteenth birthday. Giving up her ambitions to become a teacher, Eileen tries to be a good wife to John Sullivan, her much older husband. When the crops fail and her younger brother falls foul of the Fenians, she and John decide their only choice is to emigrate. After considerable effort, they reach the United States, only to discover that their troubles are just beginning. Find out more by listening to my New Books Network with the author, due in mid-May.

Friday, April 7, 2023

You Want Murder with That?

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the joys and discomforts of switching sides and talking about my own books on the New Books Network rather than asking questions of other people. Here I’m back in my familiar chair, talking with G.P. Gottlieb about the latest of her Whipped and Sipped Mysteries, a fun contemporary series featuring the amateur detective Alene Baron and her police officer boyfriend, Frank, who solves murders for a living.

One thing I love about this series—in addition to the recipes at the end of each volume—is that Alene’s life inside and outside the café she owns are just as important to the story as the crime of the moment. For someone whose main preoccupations are taking care of her kids, her ailing father, and her employees, this seems very true to life. Murder is both horrifying and compelling, but for Alene solving one is at best a fascinating distraction—one that Frank and her family and friends often urge her to leave to the professionals. Read on—and listen to the interview—to find out more about Alene’s latest case.

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

In Charred, the third of G.P. Gottlieb’s Whipped and Sipped Mysteries, her heroine, Alene Baron, has a lot on her mind. Chicago is in lockdown, a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, complicating Alene’s already hectic life. The vegan café she owns can serve only takeout, and her three kids complain constantly about school via Zoom and the near-absence of opportunities to interact with their friends. Alene’s ex-husband is, as ever, no help. Her aging father also requires assistance, a reality complicated when his usual caretaker falls ill with the virus. Alene struggles to find time even to visit the café, never mind bake. But with her livelihood at stake, she must keep showing up, no matter how many conflicting demands tug her in other directions.

On the up side, Alene’s romance with Frank, a police officer, is progressing—although they have yet to make the relationship permanent. And conflict among her staff members has eased, even though they still argue about the best approach to the pandemic and the homeless man who regularly stations himself outside the café and insults staff and customers as they go in and out, among other issues.  

All that changes when Kofi, the boyfriend of a Whipped and Sipped staff member, stumbles over a charred corpse while searching for wood he can use in his artwork. Kofi’s girlfriend begs Alene not to involve the police, despite Alene’s protests that keeping secrets will undermine her relationship with Frank. Soon Alene has no choice but to find out what’s behind the mysterious death, even if it means delving into the long-buried secrets of her own family.

Friday, March 31, 2023

Life as a Battlefield

Jacqueline Winspear is known to millions as the author of the Maisie Dobbs novels, which feature an intelligent, compassionate, upwardly mobile detective whose experience as a battlefield nurse during World War I informs her understanding of both the victims and the perpetrators of the cases she investigates. In The White Lady, Winspear examines the long-term effects of war on those forced to become killers if they want to survive.

As she notes during our recent New Books Network interview, both Maisie Dobbs and Winspear’s latest heroine, Elinor White, were not so much created as encountered—Maisie at a traffic light and Elinor as a memory of a woman the author met in childhood. You’ll need to listen to the interview to hear those stories, but read on to learn a bit more about Elinor, recruited into espionage at the age of eleven and still fighting for justice and for peace more than thirty years later.

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

It’s just after World War II, and Elinor White (born Elinor de Witt, which also means “white”), a single woman in her mid-forties, lives as a recluse in a village near Tunbridge Wells. One day in 1947, while on a walk, she encounters a recent arrival named Rose Mackie and is drawn to Rose’s three-year-old daughter, Susie. When thugs from London threaten Rose and Susie, Elinor brushes off the skills she polished during the two world wars and, with the help of a former colleague who has risen through the ranks at Scotland Yard, sets out to discover exactly what the thugs have planned for Rose’s husband, Jim. While trying to put a stop to it, she uncovers a web of intrigue and corruption that reaches to the very top of society.

This story occurs alongside an exploration of Elinor’s past, beginning with her girlhood in Belgium under German occupation during World War I and extending to her service as an intelligence agent against the Nazis twenty or so years later. Eventually the two threads of Elinor’s history and present intersect, revealing the achievements and the regrets that drive her.

Here, as in her Maisie Dobbs series, Jacqueline Winspear demonstrates a deep and multifaceted understanding of the effects of war on those forced to fight. Her books are thought-provoking, emotionally satisfying, and well worth your time.

Friday, March 24, 2023

Beyond the Magic Castle

We don’t often think of fairy tales as having much connection to real life. We talk about the fairy-tale endings of rom-coms or even real people living fairy-tale existences, but most of us recognize those seemingly idyllic situations as illusions. Life contains happiness but also sorrow, and relationships are always complicated. Even less do we see the magical elements—lonely, haunted castles; witches riding brooms and casting spells; princes turned into frogs—as anything more than delightful escapes from our prosaic everyday lives.

But as Molly Greeley shows in her wonderful new novel, Marvelous—the subject of my latest interview on the New Books Network—at least one well-known fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast, grew out of an extraordinary set of historical circumstances. Before Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm—and long before Disney’s singing Belle—the story of Pedro Gonzales (Petrus Gonsalves) and his wife, Catherine, circulated out from the sixteenth-century French court of Henri II, acquiring layers of magic and meaning that gradually obscured the real-life couple at the heart of the tale. Stripped of its veils—although still fictionalized—it becomes a story for grownups who know that it takes more than a magic wand to make a marriage work. And watching Pedro and Catherine struggle with their own preconceptions and problems as well as the complex demands placed on them and the often careless insults meted out to them by their world makes for a rich and rewarding adventure.

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


Once in a while, a novel comes along that is both different and special. Marvelous  is such a book. Retellings of fairy tales are not unusual, and some of them are quite good. But here Molly Greeley explores the real-life story that gave rise to one of the best-loved tales, Beauty and the Beast. In doing so, she raises issues of inclusion, trust, acceptance, the effects of trauma, and basic humanity—all in a gentle, non-preachy way.

Pedro Gonzales, later known as Petrus Gonsalvus or Pierre Sauvage (Pierre the Savage, which itself says a great deal about other people’s views of him), was born on Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands, around 1537. We know from early on that he was abandoned by his mother as an infant, presumably because he was born covered in hair—a rare genetic condition that was seen at the time as evidence that a child was the spawn of a devil. His adoptive mother, Isabel, belongs to the indigenous people of Tenerife, the Guanche, whose culture and religion have been all but obliterated by the conquering Spaniards. So she and her son, Manuel, are also, in a sense, outcasts.

When Pedro is around nine, pirates kidnap him, and he winds up at the court of the French King Henri II and Henri’s wife, Catherine de’ Medici. Henri, charmed by Pedro’s combination of strangeness and acumen, takes the child under his wing and gives him a royal education, as well as financial support. But the effects of Pedro’s abandonment, early mistreatment, and capture—heightened by the suspicion and disrespect of his fellow nobles, most of whom see him as little better than a trained monkey—leave him feeling perennially unsure of himself.

When Catherine de’ Medici arranges his marriage to her namesake, the beautiful sixteen-year-old daughter of a merchant who has fallen on hard times, Pedro has no idea how to talk to this girl who is half his age. Her discomfort—how many teenage girls want to marry, sight unseen, a taciturn man in his mid-thirties who looks like a Wookie?—plays into Petrus’s fears, and the newlywed couple struggles to find a connection. But when fate deals Catherine a hand she has both anticipated and feared, she rises to the challenge, and Pedro begins to realize that she is nothing like the mother he lost.

Greeley does a great job in conveying the sensory experience of her two leads and, by alternating Pedro’s view with Catherine’s, charting their individual growth, which in turn creates a credible portrayal of their developing relationship. If you love books focused on family and identity, as well as stories set just a little off the beaten path, this is definitely a novel for you.

Images: Nineteenth-century rendering of Beauty and the Beast and sixteenth-century depiction of Petrus Gonsalves and his Catherine, both public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, March 17, 2023

Interview with Kristen Loesch

As I write this post, Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified aggression against its neighbor Ukraine has entered its second year. With President Vladimir Putin apparently set on turning the country he leads into an international pariah, it is simultaneously dispiriting to recall and difficult to believe that just over thirty years ago, the Soviet Union dissolved into its constituent republics—the very agreement that Putin seeks to overturn, although at the time it sparked great joy and hope.
Thus it seems fitting that Kristen Loesch, the author of The Last Russian Doll,  begins her debut novel in that period of celebration but quickly reverts to the Soviet experiment that preceded it, deftly intertwining the two threads as they build to a dramatic conclusion. I would have loved to chat with her for the New Books Network, but an overcrowded schedule made that impossible, so read on to find out more.

In the current climate, it’s hard to remember the optimism sparked by the changes that Russia underwent in 1991. What made you decide to set your story there and to contrast it with the preceding century?

It may have all started when a friend of mine showed me her handwritten correspondence with someone she knew who was living in Moscow in 1991. The sense of destiny, of inevitability, in those letters was wondrous to behold. This was around the time I had completed a YA thriller set in contemporary Moscow, a manuscript that wasn’t in any way fit for publication. I’d already been toying with the idea of pivoting to a historical novel—I studied history with a focus on Russia and Eastern Europe for my undergraduate degree, and in my postgraduate work I looked at civil society in post-Soviet Russia. Profoundly moved by those letters, I decided to pluck the main character out of that present-day YA thriller and place her in 1991 Moscow instead. Needless to say, she became very different by the end of that process (she is Rosie, and more on her below!).


As for choosing revolutionary Russia (and the ensuing decades) for the second narrative, I think whenever you examine the end of an era, it’s always illuminating to look at its genesis as well. It’s like holding up a mirror: Much of the optimism, as you say, for true political change, for an overhaul of society, for the disruption of the status quo, also existed in 1917. And I think I liked the idea of the fall of the Romanov dynasty and the collapse of the USSR acting as bookends. In between these two major events, of course, is a unique and devastating period of Russian history, the lessons of which should never be forgotten; that is where the majority of the novel takes place.

You have two heroines and two heroes, one each for past and present. Tell us what we need to know about Rosie at the beginning of the novel.

At the outset of the story, Rosie is in incredible pain, and she is in denial of it. She’s a workaholic who keeps herself busy, keeps herself distracted, to avoid feeling that pain, confronting uncomfortable truths, and engaging with her trauma overall. She maligns her mother for always turning to fairy tales, but Rosie tells herself her own stories about her life and her future as a coping mechanism. To Rosie, her mother is a prime example of how pain can overwhelm a person, can drag them under, and on some level Rosie is terrified that that will happen to her.

You could say that she’s someone who’s very out of touch with her true self, with her desires, with her deeper emotions, and that’s by design. Having become what her father (whom she idealizes) wanted her to be, Rosie’s real quest is not only to understand her family, to grapple with the past, or even to heal her wounds, but also to discover who she wants to be.

And who is Antonina? What is most vital to know about her?

First of all, Antonina was named after Tonya in Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago! (I always liked Pasternak’s Tonya; I feel she gets the short end of the stick.)

Tonya is, at the beginning of The Last Russian Doll, somebody who has no idea of her own strength. As a privileged young bride, she starts out innocent and a bit dreamy, sort of mournfully drifting through life without much agency or ambition. Until she meets Valentin, the greatest passion she ever feels for anything is for poetry, long walks, and reminiscing about her childhood home. In a way, she seems like a “doll” both inside and out. But Tonya is, as we learn throughout the novel, capable of so much more than she appears to be on the surface. Her challenges are incredible, but so is she.

Rosie’s counterpart is Lev, although she also has a boyfriend in London. Antonina’s is Valentin, and she initially has a husband. How would you characterize these male characters of yours?

Lev, as a member of the military in 1991, is the embodiment of many of the tensions that existed in Russia at that time. I think on the one hand, he’s been brought up to fear change; but on the other hand, deep down, he knows that the time has come. Part of his struggle is reconciling his upbringing, his lifestyle, his whole identity, with the often troubling reality of the military, the secret police, and the regime itself. His family are hardliners, but they’re losing their grasp on him, and alongside Rosie we begin to see the cracks appear.

Valentin, who begins the book as a Bolshevik orator in prerevolutionary Russia, is one of my favorite characters. You could call his idealism, his politics, his devotion to the cause very naïve, in the same way that his initial infatuation with Tonya is naïve. Valentin is a romantic; he believes in a utopia, he believes in happy endings (partly in response or reaction to a lonely childhood). In drafting his character, I had the thought that he’s not unlike Victor Laszlo from the film Casablanca; like Laszlo, he has the ability to stir great emotion in people; his passion is often contagious; but also like Laszlo, he can be blinded by his principles.

The final version of The Last Russian Doll contains much more of Valentin’s perspective than the original version(s), and I loved writing those scenes.

Another important connecting force—although we won’t say what connects him!—is Alexey Ivanov. Sketch his character and his role in the story, please.

As a famous writer and historian in 1991, Alexey starts off as an unobtrusive if enigmatic presence. He’s elderly, he’s mild-mannered, and he’s easily dismissed and overlooked by Rosie, who only sees him as a means to an end; he’s her ticket back to Russia. But as the story unfolds, we understand that there is more to Alexey than what he chooses to show to Rosie in the opening scenes of the novel. Alexey is one of the threads that binds the two narratives (Rosie’s and Tonya’s) together—but it takes time to discover how. I will add that people who know the landscape of Soviet dissident literature may pick up on a few biographical similarities between Alexey Ivanov’s character and the real-life figure of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, but these similarities are superficial and arbitrary. Alexey is not based on anyone in real life.

As the title suggests, dolls play an important role in Raisa’s quest. The image of nesting dolls does appear, connecting the female characters to one another. But most of the dolls are rather creepy porcelain look-alikes. Talk to us about them, and why you decided to use them in your story.

Matryoshkas are lovely and inherently interesting, with their many layers, but I’ve never found them creepy or uncanny. Porcelain dolls, by contrast, have always unsettled me. That’s probably why I was first drawn to writing about them! But in terms of using dolls in the story, Tonya’s character was originally inspired by the Russian fairy tale “Vasilisa the Beautiful,” which features a talking wooden doll. Wanting to use dolls as a motif in the novel and to explore related themes (the interior versus the exterior; outer beauty versus inner; surface versus substance), I started to research them, and discovered that there is quite a proud tradition of porcelain doll making in Russia, one that receives almost no attention (by contrast to nesting dolls, which have come to symbolize Russia to the rest of the world, for better or worse). The more I learned about porcelain dolls, the more fascinated I became, and when I realized that their heads are often hollow—and that you can remove the top of the scalp to look inside the head—I just knew that that was where Rosie’s mother was going to hide her darkest secrets.

For further reading on Russian porcelain dolls, check out the fantastic nonfiction book The Other Russian Dolls: Antique Bisque to 1980s Plastic by Linda Holderbaum.

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

I’m currently revising my second novel, which is a gothic murder mystery set in 1930s Shanghai and 1950s Hong Kong. It’s partly inspired by my grandfather’s tumultuous early life in northern China and his harrowing escape following the Communist Revolution, as well as my grandmother’s experiences under Japanese occupation. I also wrote a tiny, 200-word “microfiction” story for the online journal Flashback Fiction about a young Chinese woman who swims from the mainland to Hong Kong—and that young woman has become the main character of my second novel! (A bit of parallel, there, with what happened with Rosie!) Overall, it’s been a joy and a revelation to draw on my family history and heritage for this project, and I’m incredibly excited for what will come next.
Thank you so much for answering my questions!

Kristen Loesch holds a BA in History, as well as a Master’s degree in Slavonic Studies from the University of Cambridge. The Last Russian Doll is her debut historical novel. Find out more about her at

Images: Leaders of the Soviet republics signing the Belovezh Accords, which dissolved the USSR, by U. Ivanov, RIA Novosti archive, image #848095, CC-BY-SA 3.0; Boris Kustodiev, Bolshevik (1920), public domain; collection of bisque dolls from St. Petersburg by Ninara from Helsinki, Finland, CC BY 2.0, all via Wikimedia Commons.