Thursday, March 31, 2016

Book review: Glory Over Everything: Beyond The Kitchen House, by Kathleen Grissom

By 1830, it’s been 20 years since young Jamie Pyke fled his Virginia plantation home. Now known as James Burton, a respected businessman and ornithologist, he mixes in genteel Philadelphia society.  But he holds some dangerous secrets. Despite his fair complexion, his mother was a slave, and he escaped Virginia under violent circumstances.

When the free black man who once saved James’ life begs a favor—to find his son, Pan, who was kidnapped by slave-traders—James feels obligated to act, even though returning to the South could prove deadly. In addition, his world is already crumbling; his relationship with the woman he loves is at risk.

Grissom’s highly anticipated sequel to The Kitchen House (2010) combines a fast-paced rescue mission and James’ journey toward self-acceptance. Although she occasionally relies on tried-and-true character types, Grissom spins a dramatic story line—the suspense never wavers—and captures the racially tense times. The bravery and unanticipated kindnesses James and Pan encounter in their quests for freedom make this an emotionally rewarding novel. Expect strong book club demand.

Glory Over Everything is published by Simon & Schuster in hardcover next Tuesday ($25.99, 384pp).  This review first appeared in Booklist's March 1st issue.

I reviewed The Kitchen House in 2010, and it was one of my favorite reads for that year.  While I feel the sequel can stand alone, I felt that it didn't quite offer the same level of originality or character development.  Still, a good read, and one that should prove popular.  The Kitchen House was a NYT bestseller and book club favorite.  Published initially as a trade paperback, it was later republished in a hardback gift edition, and you don't see that a lot.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

A woman reborn: Goddess of Fire by Bharti Kirchner, set in 17th-century India

Many English-language historical novels set in India take place during the British Raj in the 19th and 20th centuries. Bharti Kirchner’s Goddess of Fire, however, looks further back in time to the mid-17th century, when British and Dutch traders were making early incursions into the Indian economy which set the stage for later colonial rule.

The opening scene is tense and dramatic, and it’s based on a real-life incident. Moorti, a well-educated Bengali woman left a widow at age seventeen, is forced by her late husband’s relatives to ascend his funeral pyre in a ritual known as “sati.” After her last-minute rescue by a tall European man named Job Charnock, a trader with the English East India Company, she’s transported to the distant town of Cossimbazar, renamed “Maria,” and installed at his trading station (called a Factory) as a cook.

This forces her into unfamiliar situations, and the novel details her plight as she adjusts to her new role as a servant working among men who, although friendly, don’t share her Brahmin caste or Hindu religion. As she says: “In order to survive, even in my constricted role, I needed to figure out what really went on here, and as I could already understand, proficiency in English was the key to everything.”

An appealing heroine, Maria is a hopeful dreamer who aims to help ease the transition for her people into a future she sees as inevitable. Her increasing fluency in English puts her at the center of conflicts at the Factory and political negotiations. She greatly admires the man she calls “Job sahib,” though knows she has little chance of winning his heart due to her low position and darker skin tone. However, her cleverness and ingenuity lead him to see her in a new perspective.

The romance between the pair (again, historically-based) feels like a sudden development on his part. In addition, although Maria narrates most of the novel in a lively, open voice, occasional segments break away to show Job’s internal thoughts, which seem awkwardly inserted. Still, it’s refreshing to read a novel focusing on this period of Indian history, and which imagines the life of a historical woman about whom little is known. Her culture and traditions come to life beautifully, as do her struggles and triumphs.

Goddess of Fire was published in hardcover by Severn House in February (288pp).  Thanks to the publisher for enabling my NetGalley access.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Review of Scarpia by Piers Paul Read, a reworking of Puccini's Tosca and its infamous villain

Readers will take away different things from Read’s newest novel, depending on their familiarity with the source material. Newcomers to Puccini’s Tosca will find themselves following a dramatic tale of love, war, honor, and women’s fickleness while learning about the political circumstances of late eighteenth-century Italy, a land where monarchies and Catholicism are threatened by the rising tide of republican thought emanating from revolutionary France. Those with prior knowledge of the opera will also recognize how shrewdly its heartless villain, Baron Scarpia, has been refashioned into a tragic hero.

Vitellio Scarpia is a flawed protagonist, a hotheaded Sicilian adventurer “possessed by the spirit of vendetta.” Following some youthful recklessness, he loses his fortune but later ascends to become a loyal, trusted officer in the pontifical army. Scarpia’s background is richly imagined, and Floria Tosca, a young woman with a glorious singing voice, is mostly a minor character whose story interweaves with his. There are numerous nonfiction digressions from Scarpia’s story, some of which are fairly dry, but they illuminate the context of his turbulent times.

Scarpia was published this month by Bloomsbury USA ($27, hb, 384pp).  This review first appeared in Booklist's November 15th issue; I actually read it last September.  I'm a reader who wasn't already familiar with Tosca, but I read over a synopsis after finishing this book (not beforehand, as I wanted to avoid spoilers!).

Monday, March 14, 2016

An English Rose: an essay by S.K. Rizzolo, author of On a Desert Shore

In today's post, S.K. Rizzolo offers a thought-provoking essay about racial attitudes in early 19th-century English society and the plight of those of mixed race.  If you're a fan of the British period film Belle (2013), you'll find her post of particular interest.  The 4th and newest volume of Rizzolo's Regency mystery series is On a Desert Shore (Poisoned Pen Press, March 2016).


An English Rose
by S.K. Rizzolo

Readers of Georgette Heyer’s Regency novels are familiar with her references to skin care products such as Denmark Lotion or Olympian Dew. A young lady’s fair and blooming complexion could be just as critical to her success as her dowry and social position. Then, as now, those with unsightly spots sought to avoid embarrassment. But the ideal of complexion went much deeper than that. It was, in fact, tied to anxieties about Britain’s Empire, notions of proper Englishness, and the desire to maintain boundaries of class and race.

In my novel On a Desert Shore, Marina Garrod receives every advantage of the privileged young lady. Rumored to be the heiress to vast wealth, she debuts in Society with the hope of making an eligible alliance. But to bigoted eyes, there’s a problem. All her father’s money cannot make her into a genuine “English Rose” (pink cheeks and red lips with pale skin)—for Marina is the daughter of a Jamaican planter and his slave-housekeeper. My novel is about Marina’s plight in the England of 1813, a time when attitudes toward race were hardening, in part because of growing fears of cultural and racial contamination.

Her experience as a mixed-race heiress in Georgian England was not unique. In his dissertation entitled Children of Uncertain Fortune: Mixed Race Migration from the West Indies to Britain, 1750-1820, Dan Livesay estimates that, by the end of the 18th century, as many as a quarter of rich Jamaicans with children of color sent them home to England to live in a free society. On the whole these children were the lucky ones who had escaped the astoundingly brutal and oppressive sugar island. Still, families sometimes challenged the inheritances of their mixed-race kin, and the position of these young people would have been equivocal. It’s difficult to imagine how they might have felt. While Britain had halted its participation in the slave trade in 1807, slavery itself endured for several more decades in the colonies. Apologists for the institution, like Marina’s father, failed to justify a practice that was increasingly seen, according to the poet S.T. Coleridge, as “blotched all over with one leprosy of evil.” Here Coleridge refers to the arguments of West India merchants and slave owners, calling them “cosmetics” designed to conceal a horrible reality.

Deirdre Coleman asserts that the British public of the day had a “fascination with complexion.” And my research revealed that this was especially true of white Creole women (Creole is an ambiguous term that sometimes meant the Blacks of Jamaica and sometimes a person of any race who had spent a lot of time there). I encountered stories of the white Creole women’s attempts to preserve their complexions so that when they returned to England they could seem like legitimate English roses. They wore elaborate sunshades and even flayed their skin with the caustic oil of the cashew nut! Often they created what even some contemporaries called an artificial and unhealthy pallor.

Why? This was a society in which all-powerful white men exploited black women at their own whim and will, a society in which wives were often confronted with the humiliating results of open infidelity—their husbands’ slave children. It was important to the Creole ladies, whose skin could become tanned or weathered in the tropical climate, to maintain strict boundaries through their complexions. In other words, “whiteness” as a marker of status and breeding. But, ironically in this racially mixed society, it might not be possible to determine someone’s precise background just by looking. There might have been little visible difference between a Creole lady and her husband’s mulatta or quadroon concubine.

When a woman named Janet Schaw traveled to North America and the West Indies between 1774-76, she wrote in her diary about putting on and off her delicacy “like any piece of dress.” To me, this points to the performative aspect of femininity. A woman can don a mask of beauty and gentility to further her ends or play her role in society. This is precisely what Marina cannot do to her tormenters’ satisfaction. And yet she is not afraid to express her fellow feeling with African slaves or her contempt for slavery. You will have to read the book to find out what happens after her failed London season. In essence, she is shipwrecked “on a desert shore” in an alien land, even though she is half English and has been mostly reared in England. She is no true English rose.

There’s an unforgettable scene in another novel, an anonymous abolitionist work of 1808 called The Woman of Colour, which introduces Olivia Fairfield, the natural daughter of a West Indian planter and a slave. Like Marina Garrod, Olivia travels to England. In the scene a curious little boy at a tea party compares his hand to Olivia’s, interrogating her about her skin color. Her response: “The same God that made you made me…[as well as my servant Dido, a] poor black woman—the whole world—and every creature in it! A great part of this world is peopled by creatures with skins as black as Dido’s, and as yellow as mine…”

Which leaves us with one of my favorite Shakespearean sonnets, a satiric poem making the point that, after all, what we deem beauty has nothing to do with outward show. After criticizing his beloved for her varied imperfections, including the lack of “roses” in her cheeks, the speaker says: “And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare / As any she belied with false compare.”

The famous portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray. Belle was the daughter of an enslaved African woman and Sir John Lindsay, a British naval officer. After Lindsay brought his daughter to England, she lived with the Earl of Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice, at Kenwood House in Hampstead.

Much speculation has arisen in regard to this portrait, whose artist is uncertain. Why does Belle point at her own cheek in a curiously awkward gesture? Perhaps she calls attention to her contrasting complexion in order to suggest that any difference is only “skin deep.”

S.K. Rizzolo earned an MA in literature before becoming a high school English teacher and author. Her Regency mystery series features a trio of crime-solving friends: a Bow Street Runner, an unconventional lady, and a melancholic barrister. On a Desert Shore is the fourth title in the series following The Rose in the Wheel, Blood for Blood, and Die I Will Not. Rizzolo lives in Los Angeles.

About On a Desert Shore:

London, 1813: A wealthy West India merchant's daughter is in danger with a vast fortune at stake. Hired to protect the heiress, Bow Street Runner John Chase copes with a bitter inheritance dispute and vicious murder. Meanwhile, his sleuthing partner, abandoned wife Penelope Wolfe, must decide whether Society's censure is too great a bar to a relationship with barrister Edward Buckler. On a Desert Shore stretches from the brutal colony of Jamaica to the prosperity and apparent peace of suburban London. Here a father’s ambition to transplant a child of mixed blood and create an English dynasty will lead to terrible deeds.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Two library displays: the Dust Bowl and Downton Abbey

Historical fiction has been getting a nice showing at my library.  I recently put together a couple of book displays:  one on fiction about the Dust Bowl, to accompany a national traveling exhibition and program series that we'd hosted ("Dust, Drought, and Dreams Gone Dry"), and another to provide reading suggestions for Downton Abbey fans after Sunday's finale (sob!).

These are two separate exhibits, in different parts of the building, although books from one have occasionally migrated to the other.

I'd previously written up a post on an earlier Downton-themed display in April 2014.  This new one has many of the same titles, plus some more recent publications.  It's been going fairly well; although the display isn't quite as popular as last time, about 1/4 of the books were checked out in the first couple of days.

For anyone interested in seeing lists of titles included in both displays, along with book cover images and links to publisher blurbs, they're online at my library's website:  Dust Bowl Fiction and Downton Abbey Display.

And!  I have a new image at the top of the blog, a photo of Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland, taken during our visit there in September 2014.  An early name for Bamburgh was Bebbanburg, which fans of Bernard Cornwell's Saxon novels will recognize as the home of Uhtred. Check out my husband's Flickr page for more dramatic pics of Bamburgh.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

My top 10 posts from the past 10 years

This month I'm celebrating Reading the Past's 10th anniversary, a nice milestone!

This had me curious about what the most popular posts out of 1145 in all have been over the past decade, according to Blogger's statistics.  Here they are:

#10:  The Boer War, Britain's Vietnam, a guest post by the late historical fiction author T. D. (Tim) Griggs about the last days of empire, comparing Britain in the late 1800s with America in the following century.

#9: A visual preview of the winter season: Downton Abbey readalike edition.  In November 2012, Downton Abbey's influence on historical novels was emerging.  This post contained blurbs for a dozen upcoming novels of interest to fans of the show.

#8:  Bestselling historical novels from 2009 looked at the top historical fiction sellers from that year, according to Publishers Weekly.  Unfortunately PW is longer producing these annual compilations.

#7:  Bestselling historical novels from 2011, the same thing for 2011.

#6: An updated post, which has almost no content in itself, other than a link to my historical fiction picks from BEA 2011.  It's odd this one ranks so highly, but it's probably because of the keywords used in it.

#5: A Puritan Maiden's Diary: The Early American Primary Source That Wasn't, an essay about discovering how a diary supposedly written by a teenage girl in 17th-century Rhode Island was actually a piece of historical fiction written in the late 19th century.  I reported the error to the Library of Congress, and it's since been taken out of their archive of primary sources recommended to teachers for use in the classroom.

#4: A report on Sarita Mandanna's novel Tiger Hills, which looked at this expansive saga set in Coorg in southern India between 1878 and WWII.

#3: The power of point of view, author Victoria Wilcox's guest essay about how she used different points of view to show the many facets of Doc Holliday's character, even ones that don't agree with our own moral values.

#2:  My 1000th blog post, another milestone post, which previews 10 new and upcoming historical novels that caught my interest in October 2014.


#1:  The Billy Sunday Snowstorm, author Barbara J. Taylor's guest post, written to mark the 100th anniversary (3/1/2014) of the time when charismatic preacher Billy Sunday was snowed in at his tabernacle overnight with many Scranton residents during an unexpected blizzard.  The snowstorm was featured in Barbara's debut novel Sing in the Morning, Cry at Night.  This post has been read nearly 29,000 times to date.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Book review: At the Edge of the Orchard, by Tracy Chevalier

The search for happiness, the complex entanglements of family life, and people’s reactions to trying circumstances: these themes are familiar and universal. What makes Chevalier’s eighth novel distinctive is how she links them to the mid-19th century world of trees and the care she takes with her realistic characters. It also moves beautifully between different styles and viewpoints, and the plot offers many surprises.

By 1838, the Goodenoughs have spent years living amid the muddy wetlands of northwestern Ohio, growing fruit trees as a requirement of their settlement – but not everyone blooms where they’re planted.

For the father, James, apples are sustenance, a delicious reward, a symbol of prosperity, and justification for his family’s continued stay in an inhospitable land. For his neglected wife, Sadie, they’re a hateful obstacle to returning home, and also, through her love for strong applejack, they provide a means of escape. The arduousness of frontier life, which Sadie detests, is illustrated in meticulous detail. The Goodenoughs have lost half their children to fever; the remaining five get embroiled in their parents’ spiteful feud. Their orchard becomes a battleground.

Part Two introduces an unsettling mystery: what drives nine-year-old Robert, the youngest son, to flee his home? Out in California in the 1850s as an adult, following rumors of a grove of giant sequoias, he stumbles into a job working for an eccentric Cornish plant collector. He actively avoids long-term commitments, women included, but later finds his past has followed him there.

Historical figures like John Chapman, aka Johnny Appleseed, are woven credibly into the story. Both Ohio’s Great Swamp and the American frontier itself are long gone, but the novel recaptures these settings through its elegantly written, emotion-filled narrative. One of Chevalier’s strongest novels, it will also leave you pondering the awe-inspiring splendor of nature and people’s connections to it.

This is a preview of a soon-to-be-published title:  At the Edge of the Orchard will be published by Viking on March 15th in hardcover ($26.95or C$34.95, 285pp).  The UK edition, from The Borough Press, appears on March 10th (£16.99, hb, 304pp).  This review first appeared in the Historical Novels Review's February issue.