Thursday, May 24, 2018

Russia in Historical Fiction: A Journey of Sorrow and Strength, a guest post from Mary Anne Lewis

Today I have a guest essay by a fellow blogger, Mary Anne Lewis of Magic of History, which is a terrific new site focusing on reviews of historical fiction and history in books and on screen. There are a few novels mentioned below which were new to me, and I hope you'll find some worth adding to your own TBRs, too.


Russia in Historical Fiction: A Journey of Sorrow and Strength
Mary Anne Lewis

From the icy winter steppe to the towering palaces in St. Petersburg, Russia never fails to enchant as the setting for a historical novel. While there are many novels from numerous eras set in Russia, it generally isn’t considered as popular as, say, books set in the Tudor era, or the first half of the twentieth century. Perhaps it’s the fact that Russia has such a repressive, bloody history, or that the Russian people tend toward a dark temperament because of all they’ve endured. Or, perhaps, it’s the lack of novels emanating from Russia since the Soviets took over in 1917.

For all of these reasons, the novelists who tackle Russia are a brave lot. It’s a huge country that’s hard to get to. Traveling the land has never been easy. The language is difficult. And, few nations have experienced the political machinations and bloody regime changes that Russia has. It’s difficult to keep the history straight, partially because there’s so much of it, and so much of it is so hard to believe.

Even readers need courage to consume Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Their books aren’t necessarily difficult, but they are sometimes hard to finish. Current day authors have also written about Russia, from the time of Ivan the Terrible to Catherine the Great to the Romanovs to World War II.

If you want to experience Russia of the old days, begin with Anna Karenina. It’s a tragedy, but also a reflection of what happens when infidelity impacts a Russian marriage and family in the nineteenth century. It’s the story of a young woman, Anna, who decides to leave her husband for the infamous Count Vronsky. Anna Karenina is perhaps the best book to showcase the Russian personality, long before the tsar was deposed and the Soviets took over.

 Some would like to go back even further, to the reign of Catherine the Great. Many excellent non-fiction books deal with this topic, such as Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie. One novel that stands out is The Winter Palace, a novel of Catherine the Great by Eva Stachniak. It’s written from the perspective of Varvara, a serving girl who becomes a spy in the Winter Palace. She’s trusted by Catherine the Great, but the two can’t truly be said to be friends. Catherine’s life contains so many highs and lows that a book about her can’t help but be exciting.

Another book that takes place approximately at the same time is Push Not the River, by James Conroyd Martin. It’s the beginning of a trilogy about the wars fought for Polish independence in the latter part of the eighteenth century. Much of the book takes place in Poland, which was part of Russia on and off for many years. The book is supposedly based on a young girl’s diary from the period. Filled with scandals, the book has a soap opera quality about it, but when I wrote a review on Amazon and said that, the author responded to note all of it was in the diary. But books two and three come from his own imagination.

Now to move forward to the end of the Romanov dynasty. Again, numerous books have been written to detail this period. Most people interested in history know about the assassination of the tsar and the tsarina, their four daughters and their hemophiliac son. All their remains have been recovered, and DNA tests show that indeed, all seven were in two graves.

A couple of books I’ll mention aren’t necessarily among the best books about the tragedy, but I enjoyed them. The first is The Passion of Marie Romanov. Written by a Russian, Laura Rose, it’s a rather preposterous story of how third daughter Marie loses her virginity the night before she is murdered. Again, it’s supposedly based on diaries and letters, this time from the Romanov family. Unlikely or not, it’s very readable and imaginative.

 The second book, Anastasia, by Colin Falconer, is set in the 1920s, when rumors were rife that the youngest daughter of the tsar had survived the slaughter. This is another “light” book which can’t be taken seriously. It’s about a woman who claims to be Anastasia and how others try to discover the truth. Colin Falconer has written more than forty books about a variety of historical locales and has a big fan base.

Another book set in the immediate aftermath of the assassinations is White Road, A Russian Odyssey, 1919-1923, by Olga Ilyin. I loved it. Technically, this isn’t fiction, but rather the story of a young woman caught up in the Bolshevik Revolution, written more than sixty years after the fact. The woman who wrote it lived it. She describes how she fled through Siberia in the midst of a Russian winter with her infant son, all because her husband was an officer in the White Army, which lost to Lenin and the Bolsheviks. She was a member of the gentry, and her book is filled with inspiration and hope. She also details her grief at Russia losing its great artists: its authors and musicians after the revolution, something I had never considered before.

Moving forward to World War II, I’ll recommend a book that’s part of a great series by the recently deceased author Philip Kerr. It’s A Man Without Breath, about intrepid German detective Bernie Gunther. While he isn’t a Nazi, he is sent to Russia in 1943 to investigate the murder of Polish troops, and manages to escape certain death in a labor camp. While most of the series is set in Germany, this book shows that the Nazis weren’t the only cruel ones in the conflict.

I’ll mention one more book in a more modern setting. It’s Stalina, by Emily Rubin, the story of a Russian woman who travels to the United States after the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. While she wants a new life, she’s conflicted. She used to be a chemist in her homeland, but now she’s working in a seedy hotel. Again, it’s a great portrait of a Russian character.

All these books are dark, at least a little. But they open a vista into a mysterious land and the people who have called it home.


Mary Anne Lewis is a former journalist, a historical fiction fan, and the blog mistress of  Once, long ago, she worked in a library.

Monday, May 21, 2018

I Was Anastasia, a novel of identity, hope, and a long-enduring Romanov mystery

The mystery about the fate of Grand Duchess Anastasia, youngest daughter of Russia’s imperial family, has officially been resolved, but the subject still exerts fascination. Was she murdered alongside her parents and siblings after the Russian Revolution, or did she survive?

Incorporating themes of identity and hope, Lawhon’s novel intertwines two strands: one following Anastasia up to that horrific night in 1918 and another about Anna Anderson, whose unwavering claims to be Anastasia inspired and confounded her contemporaries. Anastasia’s story, evoking her youthful spirit, becomes increasingly tense as her world grows dangerously constrained, while Anna’s story unfolds in snapshots flipping backward in time from 1970.

The suspense hinges on the reader’s unfamiliarity with the real history, and John Boyne’s The House of Special Purpose (2013), also about Anastasia, handles the dual-chronology structure more smoothly. However, Anna’s narrative, involving institutionalizations, glamorous excursions, legal battles, and meetings with people who want to support, exploit, or debunk her, compels with its many contrasts.

Recommended mainly for readers unacquainted with this twentieth-century mystery or anyone interested in Anna Anderson’s troubled life.

This short review first appeared in Booklist's February 1 issue, and the novel (which I read last November as an ARC) was published by Doubleday in March. Some additional notes:

- For my review of The House of Special Purpose, see my post Russian History, a Mystery, and a Reviewer's Dilemma, from 2013.  My sentiments remain, and from that you may understand my thoughts about the chronological structure of I Was Anastasia (I'm not revealing anything about the conclusions drawn in either one, though).  The structure also resembles that in the film Memento, which the author cites. I haven't seen the movie but may have to now!

- There's a lengthy author's note at the end that says "spoilers abound below" and goes on to explain and reveal various things, as author's notes do. It addresses potential readers, assuming they won't know the real history. I was surprised by this (the revelations about Anastasia were fairly big news when they appeared). Given that, I found it odd that knowledge of Grand Duchess Anastasia's fate was a hindrance to appreciating the book in full.

- I've read other reviews since I submitted mine, and it's been very well received by many readers who hadn't known Anastasia's story beforehand, and some who did.  So I'll leave it to you to read it and make up your own mind about it.

Friday, May 18, 2018

“THE REAL VALUE OF THIS BOOK”: How the Sears Catalogue Shaped My Novel, a guest post by Ellen Notbohm

Over the years, I've referred many library patrons to the Sears catalog replicas in our reference collection for insight into daily life in the early 20th century. And so I was pleased when Ellen Notbohm proposed to write a post detailing how she'd used one of these catalogs in the research process for her debut historical novel, The River by Starlight, which is set in turn-of-the-century Montana and based on real-life events.  Please read on for more, and welcome, Ellen!


How the Sears Catalogue Shaped My Novel
Ellen Notbohm

How much research is enough? Writers of historical fiction know the dilemma well. We fall in love with our characters and want to know them as intimately as we can. What did their environment look like, smell like, feel like? What did they eat, wear, have in their homes? What were the tools of their trade, how did they conduct business, spend leisure time, celebrate holidays, doctor themselves and their families?

Researching my historical novel The River by Starlight involved six cross-country trips. Close to 100 books and numerous notebooks bulging with documents and newspaper clippings cram a seven-foot bookcase in my office. But as delightful karma would have it, the book I consulted more than any other, the one I dog-eared with use, cost me all of $1.50.

I found the 1902 Sears Catalogue on a lonely back table at a used book sale. As much an anthropology lesson as any textbook, author Cleveland Amory called it “a view of the American scene at the turn of the century with an excitement and accuracy that would defy the most eminent historian.”

“THE REAL VALUE OF THIS BOOK IS PLAINLY SHOWN IN EVERY PRICE QUOTATION” blares the front cover. From the Sears catalogue I learned what everything from thimbles to pianos cost, what they looked like, how many choices there were. What men, women and children wore in every imaginable situation, what size range was available (“Fat men usually experience much difficulty getting a shirt in the right shape.”). How credit worked. How it all reflected the larger economic picture of the country.

Details from the catalogue colored my descriptions of home furnishings, tools and weapons, toiletries and potions. Stoves and washing machines, hay loaders and hobby horses, paint and fabric colors. I acquired some rusty artifacts of homestead life and was able to see what they looked originally.

I wrote a frisky scene giving an intimate look at the layers of societally-required undergarments my female lead, Annie, dares to forego on a sweltering summer day. There’s a charged scene wherein you can all but smell the “overpowering cloud of Le Muguet” enveloping the town’s queen busybody. A gorgeous tortoise shell hair comb becomes an heirloom and a pair of “ugly cloth-top lace-ups” leads to disaster. We see and feel the fabrics used in a prostitute’s costume, a child’s nightgown, a wedding quilt, a funeral shroud, the garish handkerchief of the queen snoop’s informant.

It was exhilarating to slather on such details throughout the story. But how much is enough? Alas, much was lost to the delete button, “cool research,” as more than one editor called it, that didn’t move the story forward. An example: the reader knows Annie and her sister Jenny shared glasses of lemonade out on Jenny’s porch. But they don’t get to see the original version of the scene: Annie sticking a pinkie through a door screen (“handsomer than the cut shows”), opening Jenny’s refrigerator (nope, Sears didn’t call it an icebox) and pouring the lemonade into ruby-stained tumblers while Jenny finishes up her work with a white cedar dash butter churn (“peculiarly adapted for milk and butter purposes”) and puts the butter into brass-locked molds (“securing the utmost possible rigidity”).

But writing those kinds of details helped me experience the world in which my characters lived, and empathize with its beauties and challenges. Even when deleted, the details remained embedded in the story by virtue of how they influenced the thoughts, dialogue and deeds of the characters.

A battered old cast-off catalogue—$1.50. Creating a richly faceted portrait of another time—priceless.


Ellen Notbohm
(credit: Andie Petkus Photography)
An internationally renowned author, Ellen Notbohm’s work has informed and delighted millions in more than twenty languages. Writing from her experiences raising children with autism and ADHD, her perennially popular Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew has been an autism bestseller since 2005. In addition to her four award-winning books on autism, Ellen’s articles, columns and posts on such diverse subjects as history, genealogy, baseball, writing, and community affairs have appeared in major publications and captured audiences on every continent. Her article collection for Ancestry magazine (2005 – 2010) related stories both poignant and uplifting gathered during extensive research for her long-awaited debut novel, The River by Starlight, published in May 2018. A lifelong resident of Oregon, Ellen is an avid genealogist, knitter, reader, beachcomber, and thrift store hound who has never knowingly walked by a used bookstore without going in and dropping coin.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Ain't Misbehavin' by Jennifer Lamont Leo, a sweet 1920s-era love story

Dot Rodgers and Charlie Corrigan are sweethearts, though their personalities are very different. It’s 1928 in Chicago, and fun-loving Dot wants to live it up, donning a sparkling frock for a downtown New Year’s Eve party, where she’ll spend time with old friends, chat with the musicians, and maybe get a lead on a future singing gig.

Dot’s grateful for her job selling hats at Marshall Field’s – after her father kicked her out, she needs to make her own way in the world – but loves the thrill of performing for a crowd. Charlie, however, prefers cozy small-town life to glittery social gatherings, especially when they involve illegal liquor and loud people of questionable morals.

A war veteran and churchgoer who helps run a dry goods store, he’s quiet and conservative; he also senses the underlying discontent the partygoers try to hide. Plus, he has other plans for the evening that involve offering his girl a diamond ring. However, although they love one another, both grow convinced they don’t belong in each other’s world.

Leo confidently sets her spirited inspirational romance during Chicago’s exuberant Jazz Age. She brings a full complement of 1920s-era slang to her portrait of this dynamic era, when investments were soaring, the latest fancy roadsters had heaters, and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre was shaking up local news. The story skips along while also tackling serious issues, like women’s need for independence and the importance of judging people on their own merits.

Dot’s experience of religion is colored by her estranged preacher father’s hypocrisy, but with the help of Dorothy L. Sayers (who wrote books about theology in addition to detective stories -- that was new to me), she gets a new perspective on her spiritual life. The novel’s faith-based elements are lightly interwoven into the plot.

Dot’s and Charlie’s love story endures many ups and downs, and they sometimes make decisions that feel too hasty, but both are good people at heart. Since this is a romance, a happy outcome is assured, and subplots involving Charlie’s old flame, Italian gangsters, and the lead-up to Black Friday add color and drama to this sweet tale.

Jennifer Lamont Leo's Ain't Misbehavin' was published by Smitten Historical Romance in March. Thanks to the author and Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for providing me with a review copy. There's also a tour-wide giveaway:

During the Blog Tour we will be giving away two signed copies and two eBooks of Ain’t Misbehavin’ AND an Ain’t Misbehavin’ Compact Mirror! To enter, please enter via the Gleam form below.

Giveaway Rules
– Giveaway ends at 11:59pm EST on May 18th. You must be 18 or older to enter.
– Giveaway is open to US & Canada residents only.
– Only one entry per household.
– All giveaway entrants agree to be honest and not cheat the systems; any suspect of fraud is decided upon by blog/site owner and the sponsor, and entrants may be disqualified at our discretion.
– Winner has 48 hours to claim prize or new winner is chosen.

Ain't Misbehavin'

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Immersive Research for Historical Fiction Writing, a guest post by Jacqueline Friedland, author of Trouble the Water

Today I'm welcoming Jacqueline Friedland, author of Trouble the Water (SparkPress, May), who's contributed an essay about researching the historical atmosphere of the pre-Civil War South.


Immersive Research for Historical Fiction Writing
Jacqueline Friedland

It’s difficult to be immune to the intrigue of the old South, the plantation lifestyle, the hoop skirts and debutante balls, unparalleled opulence juxtaposed with the astonishing horrors of American slavery. I struggle to digest the perversity of a government-sanctioned system of slavery, but I am utterly seduced by the heroics of those who refused to sit idly by, those who risked their own lives to fight for the freedom of others and that which they knew was right. I chose to write my first novel about the antebellum South in order to showcase the human compassion and bravery that was a bright light during this dark era, and I knew I would have to dive headfirst into the 1800s if I wanted to get it right.

My foundation in the history of the American South was fair at the outset, as I had majored in United States Culture and Literature during college. I devised a plan to deepen my understanding of the time period through a form of immersion. As a lover of books, I did what I always do when I have questions: I began reading. I read every novel I could get my hands on that had a plot based in any Southern state in the years preceding the American Civil War, from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind to Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, and everything in between. Some of the most useful were Mudbound by Hillary Jordan, The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom, The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, and Jubilee by Margaret Walker, to name just a few.

I read one novel after another after another, and then mentally synthesized all this fiction, which allowed me to develop a broader sense for the atmosphere of the antebellum South. Feeling that I had strengthened my foundation, I then moved onto drier non-fiction and primary sources about the specific issues on which I aimed to focus. I read many accounts documenting the Underground Railroad, the life of various abolitionists, and political strife over slavery. I also read first-hand slave narratives, including accounts of escapes and attempted escapes. I scoured books about William Lloyd Garrison and other notable abolitionists of the time. I particularly enjoyed All on Fire by Henry Mayer, which was not only informative, but immensely readable.

After this intense reading tour, I finally felt prepared to begin my novel, which takes place between the years 1842-1853 and delves into not only the horrors of slavery, but also heroic attempts to subvert the “peculiar institution”. Of course, additional questions arose as I wrote. How fast does a horse travel? How long does it take to cross the Atlantic by steamship? When did the steamship become a common mode of transportation anyway? For these questions, I can say thank goodness for local libraries and even google.

Perhaps the most useful part of my research was the professor in my writing program who understood my tendency to get lost in details, to become thoroughly engrossed in interesting tidbits about the time period, even if those details had absolutely nothing to do with my book. This professor said to me, knowing the years I had already devoted to learning my era, “Stop it. Enough. Just write your story already.” So I did.


Jacqueline Friedland holds a BA from the University of Pennsylvania and a JD from NYU Law School. She practiced as an attorney in New York before returning to school to receive her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. She lives in New York with her husband, four children, and a tiny dog. Trouble the Water is her first novel. (author photo credit: Rebecca Weiss Photography.)

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Article note: Interview with Mindy Tarquini and Susan Meissner about their novels on the Spanish Flu

This year marks the centennial of the 1918-19 influenza pandemic; my library will be offering an exhibit program about this global public health disaster in the fall. There have been a number of historical novels published about the "Spanish flu" recently (which was nicknamed such, even though it didn't originate or hit hardest in Spain).  I'll put together a list of them for a future post.

For May's Historical Novels Review, I got the idea to interview two authors, Mindy Tarquini and Susan Meissner, who both set their novels in the historical American city of Philadelphia at the time.  Other than a similarity of location and topic, the books are pretty different, and their characters probably wouldn't have known one another.

This article is now posted on the Historical Novel Society's website. Please click the link to read it: Philadelphia, 1918: Susan Meissner and Mindy Tarquini discuss their new novels.

Thanks very much to both authors for answering my interview questions!

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Review of Alison Weir's Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen, book three in the Six Tudor Queens series

Jane Seymour, the queen who bore Henry VIII’s longed-for son and died shortly afterward, left little behind in period sources, and popular history stereotypes her as meek and plain. Best-selling Weir’s impressive novel shows why Jane deserves renewed attention. Without any dull moments, Weir illustrates Jane's unlikely journey from country knight’s daughter to queen of England.

To evade the domestic scandal stemming from her brother’s unhappy marriage, the devout, sympathetic Jane comes to court as one of Katherine of Aragon’s maids of honor. This third volume in Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series offers new angles on its earlier subjects: Katherine, aging, resolute, and losing influence, yet kind to her ladies; and sharp-tongued Anne Boleyn, whose religious beliefs Jane finds dangerous.

A woman of principle, Jane courageously holds her own among prominent court personalities, no easy feat. Later, as Anne’s influence wanes, Jane intelligently navigates a path amid a surprising romantic pursuit by King Henry, whose love and generosity initially overshadow his crueler side, and her family’s ambitions.

From the richly appointed decor to the religious tenor of the time, the historical ambiance is first-rate. With her standout novel in the crowded Tudor fiction field, Weir keeps the tension high, breathing new life into a familiar tale and making us wish for a different ending.

This starred review was published in Booklist's latest historical fiction issue (4/15/18).  Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen will be published next week by Ballantine in hardcover and ebook (576pp).  I think this is the best in the series so far. One theme of this book is: don't underestimate the quiet ones. Jane is a terrific character, and her story is well worth reading even if you think you've had enough of all things Tudor.

Also: the fourth volume in the series, about Anne of Cleves, has a title and a cover on Goodreads (it's still early, so it's not clear if they're final). I really like them both -- it's a great way of presenting her in a new light from the get-go -- and hope I get the chance to review the book next year.