1860: As the clash between the states rolls slowly to a boil, Elizabeth Packard, housewife and mother of six, is facing her own battle. The enemy sits across the table and sleeps in the next room. Her husband of twenty-one years is plotting against her because he feels increasingly threatened—by Elizabeth’s intellect, independence, and unwillingness to stifle her own thoughts. So he makes a plan to put his wife back in her place. One summer morning, he has her committed to an insane asylum.
The horrific conditions inside the Illinois State Hospital in Jacksonville, Illinois, are overseen by Dr. Andrew McFarland, a man who will prove to be even more dangerous to Elizabeth than her traitorous husband. But most disturbing is that Elizabeth is not the only sane woman confined to the institution. There are many rational women on her ward who tell the same story: they’ve been committed not because they need medical treatment, but to keep them in line—conveniently labeled “crazy” so their voices are ignored.
No one is willing to fight for their freedom and, disenfranchised both by gender and the stigma of their supposed madness, they cannot possibly fight for themselves. But Elizabeth is about to discover that the merit of losing everything is that you then have nothing to lose…
There are plenty of comparisons to be made between Elizabeth Packard and Nellie Bly. Both brave. Both resolute. Both grounded in self-belief. Both seeking change and better circumstances for women. Both building relationships with the doctors responsible for their care. But there are also key differences.
Nellie Bly entered the Blackwell’s Island Asylum of her own free will. She did so at great personal risk, yes, but with some confidence that her incarceration would be of a reasonably short duration. She also had a goal in mind – the promise of a job at the New York World newspaper. Elizabeth Packard didn’t have a choice. The wrongful imprisonment and mistreatment of women was important to both, but while Nellie moved on to other issues and causes, Elizabeth Packard’s whole live became devoted to women’s legal rights.
In some ways, Elizabeth Packard is who I imagined Nellie Bly was before I learned her whole story. Although Nellie gets a lot of credit for changing the way asylums were viewed and funded, for me her achievements are in the field of work for women, and succeeding in a man’s world. Elizabeth Packard not only survived her incarceration, she fought to change the system that put her there.
The Woman They Could Not Silence is a fabulous read. Definitely my top non-fiction book of the year. If you enjoyed The Girl Puzzle, you should definitely read this book!
I hesitated over starting this book quite simply because it’s by Ruth Ware which meant once I’d started, I’d be reading it while brushing my teeth, making the dinner, (driving if that weren’t highly illegal and dangerous) etc etc. I wasn’t wrong. One by One gripped me from the get-go. Great claustrophobic setting (a ski lodge in bad weather), a strong cast of suspects/victims, some likeable, some not; some with secrets, some with more secrets, and an attrition/death rate that openly references Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. For me, there was a bit too much skiing description (I hate skiing) but I enjoyed sussing out who the baddie was… and changing my mind about that a good few times along the way. A good’un.
For me, one of the biggest (and toughest) decisions when setting out to write a new book is figuring out whose story I’m writing, and who is best placed to tell it. I’ve made false starts on more than one occasion. In The Road to Newgate I started out with only one first person narrator and ended up with three. I’ve read books on the topic (for example The Art of Perspective by Christopher Castellani) and I’m always interested as a reader to see what other writers do and consider how those choices impact on the way characters and plot develop.
Which brings me to Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano. Here’s a little bit of the blurb:
One summer morning, twelve-year-old Edward Adler, his beloved older brother, his parents, and 183 other passengers board a flight in Newark headed for Los Angeles. Among them are a Wall Street wunderkind, a young woman coming to terms with an unexpected pregnancy, an injured veteran returning from Afghanistan, a business tycoon, and a free-spirited woman running away from her controlling husband. Halfway across the country, the plane crashes. Edward is the sole survivor.
The novel tells two stories really. At the forefront is what happens to Edward afterwards. He leaves hospital, moves in with his aunt and uncle, and tries to cope with life and school now that he is ‘the boy who lived’, albeit without the joys of Hogwarts, Butterbeer and Chocolate Frogs. He does have his own Hermione though, a new best friend called Shay.
The other story line keeps the reader on the plane – from boarding to the crash – and its hard to read at points because here we are getting to know the hopes and dreams of individuals who we know from the very outset are going to die. And yet it’s not a gloomy book. Sad, poignant, funny and even hopeful – definitely not gloomy.
I didn’t actually do a head-count of how many different character points of view, Napolitano uses in the book, but its certainly a crowd. There’s those mentioned in the blurb above and others too. She sets up it from the get-go. By page five we have been introduced to – and been in the heads of – six characters: Edward, his brother, and his parents Jane and Bruce, a grumpy disabled man called Crispin Cox objecting to having his wheelchair tested for explosives, and a young woman, Linda Stollen, who has an as yet unused pregnancy test kit in her pocket. Another three pages in and now there’s a Filipino woman with bells on her skirt, Benjamin Stillman, a black soldier on his way to see his grandmother, an attractive air stewardess and Wall Street ‘type’ called Mark Lassio.
So what’s the key to carrying this feat off? As a reader it works for me because the narrative form is established right from the start. This isn’t a case of a writer having a primary main character and then ‘head-hopping’ into a different character without warning, just because it suits them to do so. That can be a real weakness in a story, breaking the bond of confidence that the reader has with the author. Not so here. With Ann Napolitano there’s no question that the reader can trust her. By page eight the reader/writer contract has been established. Shortly thereafter, her wider structure is clear as she alternates chapters between Edward’s post-crash life and the hours of the flight, but in both cases the narrative time-line moves forward with each point of view (even with internal back stories) firmly bolting on, one to the other, in a linear fashion. It’s really very well done!
Writing like this is not easy. Many of the interviews I’ve read with Napolitano focus, perhaps unsurprisingly, on the inspiration for the story, Edward’s character and life after trauma, but I did find some interesting questions on her process. For anyone who reads the book (and really it is super gripping, beautifully written, and moving) it’s worth hearing this from its author:
“Dear Edward took eight years to finish. I spent the first year taking notes and doing research (I don’t let myself write scenes or even pretty sentences during that period) and then I spend years writing and re-writing the first half of the book. In this novel, the plane sections came fairly easily, but I re-wrote Edward’s storyline countless times.”
Read more about Ann Napolitano and Dear Edward here:
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!)