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.

Friday, March 10, 2023

Interview with Sherry Thomas

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Sherry Thomas’s Lady Sherlock series, despite having encountered them almost by accident. As with Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell, the charm of Charlotte Holmes more than makes up for the fact that I am not in fact nearly so enchanted with the original Conan Doyle stories. Since the moment I picked up A Study in Scarlet Women—even the title is a delightful nod to the series’ light-heartedness—I have embraced this slightly skewed but always entertaining view of the Great Detective.

I talked with Sherry Thomas when the previous book, Miss Moriarty, I Presume?, came out, and you can hear that conversation at the New Books Network. But whether you listen there or not, do read on to find out more about the series as a whole and the latest installment, A Tempest at Sea, in particular. And if you read madly all weekend, you’ll be ready when the book releases next Tuesday, March 14, from Berkley Publishing!

This is your seventh mystery featuring Charlotte Holmes. People who’d like to know more about the series can listen to our podcast interview on the New Books Network, but can you provide a short summary/refresher of who Charlotte is and how she becomes Sherlock Holmes?

Of course! Everybody under the sun has a take on the great consulting detective and the Lady Sherlock series is my entry into the wild, wild world of Sherlock Holmes pastiche.

Believe it or not, I’d originally intended for my gender-bent Holmes to be a teenage girl living in the suburbs of contemporary Austin, TX. But then my YA editor told me that mysteries don’t sell very well in YA, so I decided that I would write my Lady Sherlock for the adult commercial market. In order to capitalize on my historical romance readership, my Lady Sherlock mysteries would be set in the Victorian era, in the 1880s, the time period of the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories.

But that was when women had very limited public roles. What kind of a woman would become a consulting detective? Wouldn’t her family object? And what about the general public? Would they entrust their thorniest problems to a female investigator?

Thus was born Charlotte Holmes’s backstory. In pursuit of some agency over her life, a scandal erupts and she becomes an outcast and has to run away from home in order to avoid being locked up for the rest of her life.

But then her downfall turns into her salvation, as in this new wilderness she finds herself, and she encounters the lovely Mrs. Watson, former demimondaine, who encourages her to monetize her powers of observation and deduction. Who, in fact, puts up her own money so that Charlotte can hang out her shingle as Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective. The nominal Sherlock Holmes is explained away as a bedridden invalid and Charlotte, his “sister” and oracle, then very logically receives clients on “his” behalf and leaves the house for investigations when such is called for.

And why does Charlotte board the Provence?

Professor Moriarty featured very little in the canon stories but has become an iconic character for any modern Sherlock Holmes adaptation. So in the first six Lady Sherlock books, those two potential archenemies orbited ever closer to each other, until things came to a head in book 6, Miss Moriarty, I Presume?

In the wake of those events, Charlotte has been lying low. Until she gets something of an irresistible offer—help the crown retrieve an important dossier of documents, and the crown will tell Moriarty to back off.

But this dossier proves harder to find than she originally anticipates, and her last lead leads her straight to the RMS Provence. She is in disguise, trying to find the dossier while eluding Moriarty’s minions. But during a storm-tossed night in the Bay of Biscay, a murder happens aboard the Provence. So now instead of investigating a murder, she has to try to avoid being swept up in the investigation as well.

One character we didn’t get to talk about during the interview, because we ran out of time, is Charlotte’s sister Olivia (Livia) Holmes. Livia is quite different from Charlotte in personality. How would you characterize her and her role in the novels? And what does she seek from her steamship voyage?

Charlotte is fearless and largely immune to peer pressure—she is Sherlock Holmes, after all. Livia, on the other hand, stands for all the wonderful women I’ve met in my life and career who do not see how wonderful they are and who have lost a portion of their self-belief along the way because they have for one reason or another been criminally undervalued.

Charlotte ran away from the oppressive Holmes household. Livia, however, is the dutiful, browbeaten daughter who has stayed. Their wonderful cousin Mrs. Newell invites Livia to accompany her on this ocean voyage. At the beginning of the trip, all Livia is hoping for is a lovely respite from her parents. But at the end of the books, she will be asking for a great deal more.

Trouble starts even before everyone boards the steamer, and Livia is the one who witnesses it. Who is Roger Shrewsbury, and how does he come into conflict with his future fellow passengers, the Arkwrights?

Roger Shrewsbury is one of the people Livia despises the most, because he unwittingly compromised Charlotte, leading to Charlotte’s exile from polite society. But he isn’t remotely evil, just a complete dumbass, one from a privileged enough background to have never really needed to grow up.

On the day of the Provence’s departure from Southampton, when passengers are gathered in the hotel lobby, waiting to be ferried to the pier, Shrewsbury simply can’t stop staring at Miss Arkwright. And when her brother—Mr. Arkwright, an Australian millionaire—angrily demands why Shrewsbury is so rudely gaping, Shrewsbury blurts out that it’s because he has seen Miss Arkwright before, as the centerpiece at a bachelor party—the naked centerpiece, no less.

Even today, in most places and most circles, this would be a bombshell announcement, let alone in Victorian England, where people covered up piano legs because they were, well, legs.

Needless to say, trouble ensues!

To Charlotte’s and Livia’s dismay, their mother, Lady Holmes, also finds her way onto the boat. What troubles them about her being there?

On a most visceral level, Livia is dismayed because it tries her soul to be around Lady Holmes, especially as the unmarried daughter Lady Holmes deeply disdains.

Charlotte, who is in disguise and does not have to deal with Lady Holmes as a dutiful daughter, is more concerned about how and why Lady Holmes has turned up on the Provence.

Lady Holmes has no use for foreign travel. And she has no money to afford tickets for herself and her maid. Yet here she is, on a steamer bound for Egypt and India. Who put her on the Provence and what is their purpose?

No Lady Sherlock novel would be complete without Lord Ingram Ashburton. He too is traveling by sea, with his children and their nanny. Will you tell us a bit about his contribution to this story?

This is Lord Ingram’s most prominent outing in the entire series. Charlotte, in disguise, has to maintain a low profile. Which leaves Lord Ingram to participate in the murder investigation in an official capacity, and we will be seeing a good bit of how it unfolds from his point of view.

Last but not least, we have Mr. Gregory, who is assigned to help Charlotte whether she needs him or not, and Inspector Brighton, who has been more adversary than assistant in previous books. What can you tell us about them?

Readers first met Inspector Brighton, a ruthless Scotland Yard investigator, in book 5 of the series. In this book he is headed to Malta to train the local constabulary in modern detection methods and the Provence happens to be his ride. So when the murder happens, the captain asks him to take charge of the matter.

Mr. Gregory is referred to at times as The Great Lover in the book. He is a very handsome older gentleman who has had a storied career as a seducer in the crown’s more clandestine services. 😀

I love this entire series, so I hope Charlotte will accept many more cases. Will she, and will you give us a hint of what mystery will occupy her next?

Thank you! I have just recently signed the contract for books 8 and 9 in the series, so there will be two more books at least.

And I wish I could tell you more about what will happen in book 8, but I am still trying to wrap my own head around what seems a very fractured plot at the moment. (No worries, it’s always like that at the beginning of a Lady Sherlock book.) But from what I have written so far it seems like Charlotte herself might be in a bit of trouble, as in she might have to account for her movements and whatnot to the police.

We shall see!
Thank you so much for answering my questions!

It is my very great pleasure. Thank you for having me and thank you for your support of the series!

Sherry Thomas is the author of historical romances, YA fantasy, and the Lady Sherlock series, which begins with A Study in Scarlet Women. Find out more about her at

Photograph © Jennifer Sparks Harriman.

Friday, March 3, 2023

Defeating Infantile Paralysis

One of the tragic side-effects of the politicization surrounding COVID-19, its origins, and the remarkably rapid development of vaccines aimed at preventing infection has been the resurgence of polio—another highly transmissible, devastating disease that was once close to eradication. In part, the vaccination campaign for polio was so successful that most people now, although they have heard of the disease, have never encountered anyone stricken by it. They have no idea just how terrible—and terrifying—it was in the days when it appeared to be both incurable and impossible to prevent.

In my latest interview for the New Books Network, Lynn Cullen takes us back to that time in the 1940s when even the world’s most dedicated scientists did not know how polio moved through the body, how it was transmitted from one person to another, and how it wreaked so much havoc on vital organs. In particular, Cullen follows the career of one woman, Dorothy Horstmann, a doctor and medical researcher who devoted her life to finding out how polio worked and where intervention might be successful. She went on to apply the same skills to other illnesses, but only after she devoted more than twenty years to studying the disease known as infantile paralysis, although it did not only affect children. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was one notable example.

It’s a gripping tale, a fictionalized but mostly true story, and one particularly relevant to our time. So give the interview a listen, and then read the book.

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

The essential contribution of this novel can be summarized in one sentence: like most of its future readers (I assume), I had never before heard of Dorothy Horstmann and her fundamental role in the research that led to the near-eradication of polio, despite having benefited hugely from her work. Throughout the 1940s, 1950s, and into the 1960s, she devoted her considerable talents and endless hours to tracking how polio spread throughout the body, but like the other remarkable women portrayed in this novel, she was forced because of her gender to play second fiddle to Doctors Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, her academic colleagues. Their contributions, of course, were also real and worthy of acclaim, but it was Dr. Horstmann—too often dismissed as “Dottie” or “Dot,” as if she were someone’s secretary—who made the crucial discovery that early in its path from the digestive to the nervous system, the polio virus created antibodies in the blood. That finding made the polio vaccine possible by defining an entry point for medical intervention.

Reading this novel has a particular resonance at this moment, when polio outbreaks are again affecting US cities because of vaccine hesitancy and the final eradication of the disease has been deterred in certain countries by political concerns—not to mention the COVID-19 pandemic, which has changed everyone’s experience of quarantine and disease. But I would like to emphasize that this is, first and foremost, a novel, centered on complex characters, a gripping plot, and the age-old battle between science and nature. I don’t know, for example, whether Dorothy’s love interest is a real person or the author’s way of contrasting the attractions of home with the pull exerted by fulfilling work. In the end, it doesn’t matter, because The Woman with the Cure works as a story, provoking questions about the choices its heroine makes and what we might do in similar circumstances—and that’s what counts.