As a reader and writer of historical fiction, I always love the real history behind the stories and often read ‘around’ the novels I’ve enjoyed. No surprise then, that this post from Bookbub was right up my street:
If you click on the photo, you can read the article and see 9 well-known historical novels paired with a non-fiction counterpart. You’ll see The Paris Wife on there, a book I really enjoyed a few years ago. It’s paired with Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. I did read that after finishing The Paris Wife, as well as The Sun Also Rises and as I’d never read Hemingway before, I’m happy to say I got an extra benefit from picking up Paula McLain’s novel.
Of course this got me thinking about my own book pairings. I have a shelf of research books for each novel so choosing just one is not easy, but if I had to do it, here’s how I’d pair each of my 3 books to date:
Find out more about Charlatan here, and The Affair of the Poisons here.
And about The Road to Newgate here and The Strange Death of Edmund Godfrey here.
And finally take a look at The Girl Puzzle here and Nellie Bly, Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist here.
I’m SO tempted now to post a photo of the main non-fiction source for my current work in progress…. but I’m holding that back, at least for now 😉
Sometimes in book-related Facebook groups I’ve seen posts with many comments about whether people read one book at a time or multiple books. I’ve always thought I was in the former category – always having a book on the go, but only one book at a time. Not right now though. It’s partly COVID-19, but also partly format/content related. Here’s the books I’m juggling this week:
I have to tell you, I am loving this book! The story is told by different characters – a teenager, Lily, who doesn’t speak because of a past trauma; Flo, her best friend; and Grace who is (so far anyway) the villain of the piece.
A teenage girl is murdered. The question is why?
This is a real page-turner, slickly written and fast-moving. I love books where you get thrown in with the characters and their back-stories and motivations get slowly revealed as you follow the action.
I’m also reading (on a much more relaxed schedule!) 18 Tiny Deaths: the Untold Story of Frances Glessner Lee and the Invention of Modern Forensics. I first came across Lee a few years ago when my mum and I took a trip to D.C. to go to an exhibition of “The Nutshells of Unexplained Death.” The nutshells are dollhouse models of crime scenes. This might not be everyone’s idea of a mother/daughter outing, but if you know me and my mum at all, you will not be surprised. Mum has always made dollhouses and we both love crime! The 18 houses or dioramas we saw were built by Lee and her assistant when she was in her sixties. They were used to educate detectives on crime scene and are quite incredible in their detail and realism. This book – highly readable and well researched, tells Frances Glessner Lee’s whole story and for anyone who, like me, likes to learn about amazing women from the past, it is just excellent!
So far so good with the book juggling. But then I’m also listening Far From the Madding Crowd on audio loan from my local library. Here’s where I admit that despite doing English at university, I have managed to live my life without reading any book by Thomas Hardy or even watching any tv/movie adaptation.
It’s going to take me a while to get through it. Audio book time is reserved for gardening and dog walking and it’s very warm here so dog walks are on the wane and sweaty gardening is only happening in short stints. But I am enjoying it so far. Farmer Gale is rather charmingly naive and Bathsheba Everdene (ooh – Hunger Games connection?)’s rejection of his proposal had me chuckling.
These are 3 very different kettles of fish/book and I think that’s the only reason I can have them all on the same go at the same time. What’s your experience of book juggling? Does it work for you?
I was a big fan of Lisa Wingate’s last book, Before We Were Yours – about the scandalous adoption agency run by Georgia Tann in the 1940s – and jumped at the chance to review her new book for the Historical Novel Society.
So this is not a review – because that’s for the HNS magazine – but instead its a taster of some of the history behind the story in The Book of Lost Friends.
This is a dual timeline novel, set in Augustine, Louisiana in 1875 and 1987. The earlier story concerns a young woman, born into slavery, called Hannie Gossett. Hannie is eighteen in 1875, but when she was six her family were sent to Texas for the duration of the Civil War. Enter a scurrilous nephew of Hannie’s owners who sells off the slaves as they travel, separating Hannie from her eight siblings and mother. Now eighteen, Hannie is free, but still tied to the Gossett family, trying to earn a portion of land. All of her family members are still missing.
Here’s the real-life Lost Friends advertisement, written by a woman called Caroline Flowers, that inspired Wingate’s story about Hannie. It’s chilling to read and think about people being treated like objects in this way, not to mention the longing and uncertainty they endured not knowing what had happened to their relatives.
One way these individuals tried to find answers was by advertising. The Lost Friends database, where Wingate found and was inspired by this and other stories, is a project run by The Historic New Orleans Collection – a website to lose yourself in for a few hours if ever there was one.
Within that, The Lost Friends database is an easily searchable record of nearly 2500 advertisements placed in the Southwestern Christian Advocate (a methodist newspaper published in New Orleans and distributed to preachers, post-offices and thousands of individual subscribers) between 1879 and 1900.
Many advertisements are much shorter than Caroline Flowers’, but all have the same polite and restrained sense of yearning for answers. And of course they are not lost friends being sought here, but real, flesh and blood, lost families. Written by sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, grandparents, aunts and uncles – each one is a real human story of loss and suffering. Here’s just one that caught my eye with the poignant lines, “I left two or three other sisters behind, but I can not think of their names. I was small when I left…”
I’m still reading The Book of Lost Friends so I don’t know how Hannie’s fictional journey to find her lost family will turn out. But I’m now interested in reading this book:
In it, Heather Andrea Williams “follows those who were separated, chronicles their searches, and documents the rare experience of reunion.”
I’m reading The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel right now and one of my favorite characters across the trilogy is the painter Hans, the younger Holbein. Throughout the books, Hans is busy painting portraits and I thought it would be fun to bring together the paintings referenced in the novels.
One of my favourite parts of Wolf Hall is when Thomas Cromwell gets to look at his own portrait, as painted by his good friend Hans. Perhaps he might have felt a bit better about it if he had looked at Hans’ self-portrait too. As it is, Cromwell has to content with himself with his son, Gregory’s casual surprise that his father hasn’t always known he has the face of a murderer.
By book 3, Gregory is old enough to be married and his busy father pairs him up with no less than Queen Jane’s sister, Elizabeth. Here they are:
Which takes me to other royal women. Here’s a Holbein sketch believed to be Anne Boleyn and his portrait of Henry’s fourth wife (for all of six months) Anne of Cleves. Now I am only on p579, but I’m pretty sure this portrait will rate a mention before the story is complete.
Anne of Cleves
And what about Henry, the ‘mirror and the light’ I believe (or at least the mirror anyway… Cromwell might be the light. Again, I’ve not finished the book yet.) Here he is in all his familiar glory…
Holbein’s time spent painting this next picture (or as it was then, mural, on the walls of Whitehall) also comes up in The Mirror and the Light. Even though the original (as well as the portrait of Henry above) was destroyed by a fire in Whitehall in 1698, thankfully there was a strong tradition of copying famous and well-loved images. Here then is a copy of Holbein’s mural of Henry and Jane, imagined with Henry’s parents, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York.
But where I started all this today, was with a description in the novel of Holbein painting of someone who is barely a character at all. Meeting the new French ambassador, Marillac, Cromwell mentions a previous ambassador, Dinteville, now disgraced. He “thinks of the ambassador, muffled in his furs, splendid as Hans painted him: the broken lute string, the skull badge he retained in his cap.” Here he is on the left:
With under 200 pages to go, I wonder how much more I will hear or see of Hans Holbein? If anything comes up, I’ll be sure to come back and update this post!
….. and I’m back! I flew through the last chapters and have a couple more Holbein portraits to add for the record. First here’s Christina of Denmark (also somewhat confusingly to my mind, the Duchess of Milan) who Henry seems to favour in looks over Anne of Cleves. Not sure I’m seeing what he was seeing but you can make your own mind up…
Christina of Denmark
Anne of Cleves
And lastly here’s Henry’s son Edward, whose painting gets a mention when it is presented to the King as a gift. Yet another incredible painting!
Okay. New week, new plan. Every Monday I’m going to post something about a book I want to read/want to recommend/have on my mind.
And so I’m kicking off with a new piece I have up on the Historical Novel Society website, based on a Q&A I was lucky enough to do with historical novelist Stacey Halls. I’ve read both Hall’s books now and am a definite fan. There are so many great books about these days, but I’d put her very high on my list of go-to authors. The Lost Orphan (The Foundling in the UK) is one of my favourite books so far this year.
Forced to abandon your child into public care with only a token and a number to trace them again by, what token might you choose?
You can read my write up by clicking here:But here is the full set of my questions and Stacy’s answers:
What was the original spark for the novel?
I get my story ideas from places, and this one came to me when I visited the Foundling Museum in Bloomsbury, London. I wasn’t looking for a story idea – in fact I’d just finished the first draft of The Familiars the week before – but I was so moved by the museum and the concept of the Foundling Hospital, which was established in the 1730s for babies at risk of abandonment. I was particularly moved by the tokens left by mothers who hoped one day to claim their children – they were like secret deposits that only the mothers knew about, and would describe to prove their identity if they ever found themselves in a position to claim their son or daughter however many months or years down the line. They are all worthless objects like scraps of fabric, coins, playing cards, made priceless because of their significance; they were the only things connecting the mothers with their children. The idea came to me to write about a woman who has saved enough to buy her baby back, as a fee was payable for the care the child had received at the hospital – only to be told her daughter has already been claimed.
You have two very different narrators, both flawed in some ways. How did they come to be and how do they help you explore themes of motherhood, nature v nurture etc?
I’m not a writer who dreams up a character and feels compelled to write a story about him or her – all my characters develop from my story idea, or rather I create them to fit into the story. The problem is then they do take on a life of their own – I feel as though all my characters, particularly my main ones, have their own souls, and don’t always do what I want them to, and they often surprise me. I knew that the two narrators in The Foundling – Bess and Alexandra – had to be very different, each providing different things for their daughters. Bess is straightforward and Alexandra complicated, exhibiting characteristics we would now associate with mental health disorders including OCD, PTSD and agoraphobia. Saying that, she was the easier one for me to write; I felt as though she was channeling me and I was just a medium for her voice. I’ve never written anyone quite like her before.
Historical fiction is sometimes criticized for a lack of diversity in its characters but you have people of colour and immigrants feature in this story. Was that a conscious decision, a natural result of your research, or a bit of both?
A bit of both. I wanted the London in the book to reflect the London I live in now, and the city in the Georgian period was just as diverse as it is now. It was a few decades before mass immigration, but I think there’s a preconception that London was white until 1945, and that’s just not the case.
This is such a vivid picture of mid 18th century London. Did you have any research highlights?
Loads! London has taken on many personalities in its lifetime but the Georgian city was particularly rich, with new wealth from the empire and overseas trading. The book might have been set 250 years ago but there’s so much that we would recognise: the theatre, gin, magazines, hot chocolate, shopping. But as well as that, it was also a place of crushing poverty that led directly to high mortality – in London, 75% of children died before their fifth birthday. It was also much smaller then, with a population of about 750,000 at the turn of the 18th century – it’s ten times that size now – and its boundary was much smaller. Where the Foundling Hospital was located in Bloomsbury was the very edge of the city, with countryside beyond, and Lambeth (where I live) was completely rural.
The book is called The Lost Orphan in the US and The Foundling in the UK. Do you have a view on that, or a preference of one over the other?
The Foundling was the working title of the novel while I was writing it, and was changed for the American market because I think the word foundling is less known there.
You have jumped period from The Familiars – early 17th century – to mid 18th. What’s next?
My third novel is set at the turn of the 20th century, which feels like a huge leap forwards in terms of modernity – they had cars and phones then, so it feels almost contemporary to me!
Reading this book and chatting with Stacey made me really want to visit the Foundling Museum in London. I love these tokens and the part they play in the novel.
Thanks for joining me for my first Monday Bookishness post! Have you read The Lost Orphan/The Foundling? What did you think? Any views on the different titles and cover styles? I’m leaning toward the American version on this one…
We are living in strange times. Many of us are finding we need new ways to work and also new ways to relax. Some of us are more isolated than ever before. Others, like me, are actually less so. I’m used to having a traveling husband, one kid away at school and the other two out at school and swim practice from 7.30am until after 6pm most days. Now we are all home and thankfully, all feeling well.
We are on week 3 of online school & college. For the first two weeks I stopped my work in favor of theirs. We established some new routines, took dog walks, implemented new exercise plans and looked at what we can do in the house to keep that feeling of moving forward in life, while we all know that for now there is nothing more important than standing still. I also washed a lot of dishes and the laundry ramped up.
For those two weeks I definitely couldn’t settle to writing and even reading was tough. On social media I saw a lot of buzz from authors, suggesting that a thin silver lining on this ghastly cloud might be people having more time to read new books. But I haven’t been feeling that way. I’ve watched the news compulsively, checked on twitter, talked to family and friends and tried to monitor the situation in both the UK and the US – becoming doubly anxious in the process.
One thing that has helped though, is re-reading. Last week I picked up a copy of The Masqueraders by Georgette Heyer as part of a facebook challenge to post all the many covers of all her many books. It was never my favorite Heyer by any means and yet I found myself sitting down and opening it up. I’ve re-read many of her books umpteen times, but this was only my second time around with this story. And what unexpected fun it was.
That’s because I realise that I’ve no interest right now in the unexpected. I don’t need any more worry about what is going to happen. The real world is offering that in spades. What I enjoyed – and what didn’t know I needed – was gentle humour, heroes and villians, romance, and adventure. The Masqueraders delivered. I read. I relaxed.
Of course I talked to my mum on Facetime about this. And she reminded me of my Dad, and how in his last months, when he knew that his pancreatic cancer was incurable, he re-read all his John Dickson Carr crime novels – and escaped. It seemed strange to us then. Not so now. Here’s my copy of The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey, which used to be my Dad’s. Readers of The Road to Newgate might want to take a look at this one 😉
And it doesn’t have to be a book either. This is the time for classic movies, for re-watching James Bond films in order, or Star Wars, or timelessly watchable favourites like Some Like It Hot, Singing in the Rain, The Scarlet Pimpernel or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. We’ve watched a couple of remarkably similar Liam Neeson movies as a family and the predictability is honestly part of the pleasure! I’ve also been sneaking off from the family for half hour indulgences with episodes of the new BBC series of Mallory Towers. With nothing more to worry about than how mean Gwendoline will be and when Darrell will ever figure out what’s up with Sally, I’ve loved every nostalgic minute so far.
Here’s the cover from the series I first read (and re-read) in the 70’s and a photo from the new series.
I hope everyone out there is finding ways to relax and cope with the stress and uncertainty that we’ve all been thrown into by this virus. All I can tell you is that this is mine. Comfort reading. Maybe it will work for you too.
Who reads audio books? Up until this week, not me. But with the big news that The Girl Puzzle is going to be made into an AUDIO BOOK I thought it might actually be a good idea to listen to one.
Here’s my very first pick, recommended by a friend:
A twisty, compelling new audiobook about one woman’s complicated relationship with her mother-in-law that ends in death…
From the moment Lucy met her husband’s mother, she knew she wasn’t the wife Diana had envisioned for her perfect son. Exquisitely polite, friendly, and always generous, Diana nonetheless kept Lucy at arm’s length despite her desperate attempts to win her over. And as a pillar in the community, an advocate for female refugees, and a woman happily married for decades, no one had a bad word to say about Diana…except Lucy.
That was five years ago.
Now, Diana is dead, a suicide note found near her body claiming that she longer wanted to live because of the cancer wreaking havoc inside her body.
But the autopsy finds no cancer.
It does find traces of poison, and evidence of suffocation.
Who could possibly want Diana dead? Why was her will changed at the eleventh hour to disinherit both of her children, and their spouses? And what does it mean that Lucy isn’t exactly sad she’s gone?
Fractured relationships and deep family secrets grow more compelling with every chapter in this twisty, captivating new audiobook from Sally Hepworth.
I LOVED IT! Loved the book, loved the whole listening experience. It made me enthusiastic to do laundry! And walk my dogs (although I like that anyway) and do the washing up (a major occupation right now as we are having our kitchen redesigned and have no sink or dishwasher).
It’s definitely a different experience from reading but I found it perfect for keeping my mind busy when my hands were doing something. The only downside was when I sat down I didn’t feel like just listening but I wanted to know what would happen so I probably got more jobs done than I usually do… maybe that’s not a downside at all. There were certainly moments when if I’d had the book I would have sat down and read the whole thing and felt frustrated. And in some ways the experience was longer than I wanted it to be (I can read much faster than I can listen)… but it also meant I could have more than one book on the go. Right now I’m reading this for research:
And I’m also reading this for pleasure:
And I’m so thrilled with this audio experience that I’ve started this, which I have in hard copy but think I’m going to really enjoy listening to for the next week or so (it’s 18hrs long!)
After all these last busy days talking about Nellie Bly, it’s a pleasure to take a break and celebrate someone else’s publication day! Fellow Crooked Cat author Katharine Johnson’s The Suspects is out today. Katy’s books are perfect for curling up with: engrossing crime stories with great characters with lots of secrets. Who doesn’t love a book with a secret! Here’s my review…
“The Suspects is a gripping page turner, full of strong characters with dark pasts and secrets – all revealed at just the right moments – by talented thriller writer, Katharine Johnson. Five graduates in late 1980’s Bristol buy a house together, despite knowing little of each other outside of their new workplace. Tied together financially, they have no idea how they will be tested when they discover the body of a man in their basement after a drunken New Year’s Eve party. The Suspects works so well because the strength of its characters and the secrets they’re hiding. Their actions and reactions are believable. As the police close in on the truth, the tension experienced by narrator Emma, and the rising panic and mistrust felt within the group, is palpable. This is a book to be read in one or two great gulps. Addictive reading.”
Here’s the official book blurb…
Shallow Grave meets The Secret History in this quirky psychological thriller. When you’re bound together by secrets and lies who do you trust? Bristol, 1988. Five young graduates on the threshold of their careers buy a house together in order to get a foot on the property ladder before prices spiral out of their reach. But it soon becomes the house share from hell. After their New Year’s Eve party, they discover a body – and it’s clear they’ll be the first suspects. As each of them has a good reason from their past not to trust the police, they come up with a solution – one which forces them into a life of secrets and lies. But can they trust each other?
I loved both Shallow Grave and The Secret History and wanted to see where Katy would take this. Both that movie and the book were very much in my mind when I started reading but almost at once I forgot about them and became immersed in this totally original story. Congratulations, Katy! It’s another great book.
For more about Katharine Johnson’s novels, click on the book cover above or find her on Goodreads, Bookbub and Amazon.
So tomorrow is the 1st of December and Christmas is officially open for business in our house. Child 3 has been trying to change that, embarking on a list for Santa designed on Canva (I kid you not) some weeks ago, but we have held resolute. On the side, however, I have been building up quite a list of books I’d love to get my hands on this year. All non-fiction and chosen for wildly different reasons, but all lined up and ready to share.
I’ll be posting one book a day. I’m excited to share my #historywishes and if you have read them already or are interested in any of the books I’m featuring, I’d love to hear from you.
As a historical fiction fan, I was super happy to get the chance to read The Secret Life of Mrs London, by Rebecca Rosenberg. Here’s the scoop:
San Francisco, 1915. As America teeters on the brink of world war, Charmian and her husband, famed novelist Jack London, wrestle with genius and desire, politics and marital competitiveness. Charmian longs to be viewed as an equal partner who put her own career on hold to support her husband, but Jack doesn’t see it that way…until Charmian is pulled from the audience during a magic show by escape artist Harry Houdini, a man enmeshed in his own complicated marriage. Suddenly, charmed by the attention Houdini pays her and entranced by his sexual magnetism, Charmian’s eyes open to a world of possibilities that could be her escape.
As Charmian grapples with her urge to explore the forbidden, Jack’s increasingly reckless behavior threatens her dedication. Now torn between two of history’s most mysterious and charismatic figures, she must find the courage to forge her own path, even as she fears the loss of everything she holds dear.
In the last few years I have read a fair few novels based around the wife/mistress/sister of a famous historical figure. Here are just some I could mention:
It’s a great idea – a way to explore a famous life through the eyes of the person closest to them, and to look at the pleasures – and sometimes perils – of living with and loving someone who is highly driven and creative. So how would this one stack up? Well, for me, The Secret Life of Mrs London can take a place on the shelf next to any of these. It has all the same hallmarks of great writing, engaging characters, relationship drama and a vibrant evocation of a different time and place.
Mrs London, Charmain, is a complex character. She loves Jack London but feels her own writing is lost in the tide of his success, his reliance on her as his secretary and his ambitions to build a California mansion, Wolf House. Jack also maintains separate sleeping quarters, leaving Charmain sexually frustrated and open to temptation. This comes in the form of handsome Harry Houdini, another fascinating character, who brings with him into Charmain’s life, his child-like wife, Bess.
The Secret Life of Mrs London is a warm, engaging portrait of a woman struggling to find herself. Like the best of these ‘wife’ stories, although my initial attraction for picking them up is find out more about the famous name, as a reader, I stay for the wife’s story. Charmain struggles to put herself first. She has to remind herself that this is her life, even as she fears being “nothing without Jack.” How she succeeds and/or fails had me totally gripped. Highly recommended.
About the Author:
California native Rebecca Rosenberg lives on a lavender farm with her family in Sonoma, the Valley of the Moon, where she and her husband founded the largest lavender product company in America, Sonoma Lavender. A long-time student of Jack London’s work and an avid fan of his daring wife, Charmian, Rosenberg is a graduate of the Stanford Writing Certificate Program. THE SECRET LIFE OF MRS. LONDON is her first novel, following her non-fiction, LAVENDER FIELDS OF AMERICA.
Rebecca Rosenberg’s next historical novel is GOLD DIGGER the story of BABY DOE TABOR.