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!)
Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum – a pivotal location in The Girl Puzzle – was designed in 1834 by famous American architect Alexander Jackson Davis. His plan was for a U-shaped building near the tip of Blackwell’s (now Roosevelt) Island looking across toward Manhattan, roughly level with Seventy-Ninth and Eightieth Street, but only a portion of the building was ever erected, with two wings stretching out at right angles from a central octagonal tower.
There was already a prison on the island, opened in 1832, and the addition of the asylum was part of a policy decision to locate institutions on ‘quiet islands’, including Blackwell’s, Ward, Hart, Randalls and Long Island. With more construction on Blackwell’s Island – including a Penitentiary Hospital, a Charity Hospital, an almshouse, a Smallpox Hospital and more – by 1872 there were eleven institutions operating on the Island. It’s not hard to imagine that these islands were a convenient place to confine undesirable elements of society, notwithstanding the grand and costly architecture.
This 1853 illustration appears tranquil at first glance. The scene is pastoral with a dog frolicking and a couple sitting under a tree. The asylum looks like a museum more than anything else. But what about that building on the left of the picture? What is that?? Is that the Lodge? Or the Retreat? – gentle, caring names for buildings that were anything but those things. As Stacy Horn writes in “Damnation Island – poor, sick, mad and criminal in 19th Century New York”, things at the lunatic asylum “went south almost immediately.” On the day that it opened, June 10th 1839, 116 men and 81 women were transferred there from Bellevue. That’s 197 patients from day 1. The place was only supposed to house 200. Additional structures were added. Horn describes the Lodge, built in 1848, and the Retreat:
“The Retreat was built to house chronic cases, those who were suicidal and generally too “noisy” and unhinged for the main Asylum, but not as violent as the people sent to the Lodge.”
By 1868, 190 women were housed in the Lodge (and there would still have been male inmates too). The building’s capacity was 66. (2)
Nellie Bly’s Ten Days in the Madhouse
When a new asylum for the insane was built on Ward Island in 1872, Blackwell’s Asylum became an all-female establishment. Nellie Bly carried out her undercover work there in September and October of 1887 and brave though she was, Nellie was not fool enough to get herself sent to either the Lodge or the Retreat. Here’s one of her descriptions:
“The insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island is a human rat-trap. It is easy to get in, but once there it is impossible to get out. I had intended to have myself committed to the violent wards, the Lodge and Retreat, but when I got the testimony of two sane women and could give it, I decided not to risk my health – and hair – so I did not get violent.”
Nellie’s expose, detailing cold baths, dreadful food and the violent conduct of some staff had immediate effects. Doctors and nurses in the asylum read her articles and improvements were made, even before a Grand Jury was summoned to visit the Island and inspect the premises.
Entertainments in the Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum
In her 1887 expose, Nellie Bly described hours of tedium with women confined to hard benches with little to occupy them. Mild patients, according to her report, could work in a scrub-brush factory, a mat factory, and the laundry. Patients were expected to do housework, including keeping the wards and nurses bedrooms tidy. An important component of the daily routine was a walk in the asylum grounds but this was wholly weather dependent and strictly monitored by staff. Unruly patients walked roped together to keep them under control.
Other entertainments included dancing and a carousel. Nellie Bly reports that staffed danced with patients and both Halls she was placed in during her stay had a piano. This excellent post by Ephemeral New York, describes an annual Lunatic’s Ball reported by Harper’s Weekly:
The one entertainment that Nellie Bly reports she heard much about, although never experienced due to poor weather, was a carousel. The following image is of the Central Park Carousel, built in 1871, so perhaps the Blackwell’s Island one looked something like this:
It’s hard to imagine a group of grown women in their ill-fitting striped asylum dresses, shawls and battered hats riding round and round, but that’s what they did.
Closing Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum
Following Nellie Bly’s expose, changes were made in the asylum. Improvements were made to food and bathing arrangements as funding increases were approved. But in 1894, the Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum was closed and its patients dispersed into other facilities, particularly the on Ward Island where space became available after the opening of immigration facilities on Ellis Island.
The building, after significant renovation, became the Metropolitan Hospital, specializing in the treatment of tuberculosis. The hospital operated until 1955 but afterwards the building fell into disrepair. Today, only the original Octagon remains, but it has been restored. The building is an apartment complex and can be toured. More information here. If only the walls had words… imagine what stories they could tell.
Roosevelt Island today – The Octagon
I visited the Octagon in October 2018, and although the inside was closed so I didn’t get to see the spiral staircase, just being on Roosevelt Island and seeing the building in person was wonderful. There are scenes in The Girl Puzzle that definitely benefited from that research trip. Here’s my then & now photos of the asylum:
My photo, October 1918
Jacob Riis, 1880s (approx)
Sources & further reading:
“Images of America – Roosevelt Island”, Judith Berdy and the Roosevelt Island Historical Society.
“Damnation Island – poor, sick, mad and criminal in 19th Century New York”, Stacy Horn
“Between the world wars, no sport was more popular, or more dangerous, than airplane racing. Thousands of fans flocked to multi‑day events, and cities vied with one another to host them. The pilots themselves were hailed as dashing heroes who cheerfully stared death in the face. Well, the men were hailed. Female pilots were more often ridiculed than praised for what the press portrayed as silly efforts to horn in on a manly, and deadly, pursuit. Fly Girls recounts how a cadre of women banded together to break the original glass ceiling: the entrenched prejudice that conspired to keep them out of the sky.
O’Brien weaves together the stories of five remarkable women: Florence Klingensmith, a high‑school dropout who worked for a dry cleaner in Fargo, North Dakota; Ruth Elder, an Alabama divorcee; Amelia Earhart, the most famous, but not necessarily the most skilled; Ruth Nichols, who chafed at the constraints of her blue‑blood family’s expectations; and Louise Thaden, the mother of two young kids who got her start selling coal in Wichita. Together, they fought for the chance to race against the men — and in 1936 one of them would triumph in the toughest race of all.” (Amazon blurb)
Why read Fly Girls?
Again I’m going to point to the subtitle of the book as I big reason for my interest. It reads: “How five daring women defied all odds and made aviation history.”
There. Who wouldn’t want to read about that? Daring women defying the odds is always a killer of a sales line for me.
This one definitely has me intrigued. I don’t know much about Amelia Earhart and could definitely learn more and I like that fact that these other women get a look-in too. Yup. I’m going to be reading this one for sure.
“From the great courts, glittering palaces, and war-ravaged battlefields of the seventeenth century comes the story of four spirited sisters and their glamorous mother, Elizabeth Stuart, granddaughter of the martyred Mary, Queen of Scots.
Upon her father’s ascension to the illustrious throne of England, Elizabeth Stuart was suddenly thrust from the poverty of unruly Scotland into the fairy-tale existence of a princess of great wealth and splendor. When she was married at sixteen to a German count far below her rank, it was with the understanding that her father would help her husband achieve the kingship of Bohemia. The terrible betrayal of this commitment would ruin “the Winter Queen,” as Elizabeth would forever be known, imperil the lives of those she loved, and launch a war that would last for thirty years.
Forced into exile, the Winter Queen and her family found refuge in Holland, where the glorious art and culture of the Dutch Golden Age indelibly shaped her daughters’ lives. Her eldest, Princess Elizabeth, became a scholar who earned the respect and friendship of the philosopher René Descartes. Louisa was a gifted painter whose engaging manner and appealing looks provoked heartache and scandal. Beautiful Henrietta Maria would be the only sister to marry into royalty, although at great cost. But it was the youngest, Sophia, a heroine in the tradition of a Jane Austen novel, whose ready wit and good-natured common sense masked immense strength of character, who fulfilled the promise of her great-grandmother Mary and reshaped the British monarchy, a legacy that endures to this day.
Brilliantly researched and captivatingly written, filled with danger, treachery, and adventure but also love, courage, and humor, Daughters of the Winter Queen follows the lives of five remarkable women who, by refusing to surrender to adversity, changed the course of history.” (Amazon blurb).
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about 17th Century women over the years – from Madame de Montespan in Charlatan to Anne Thompson in The Road to Newgate but I realise I know very little about these lovely ladies – the granddaughter and great-granddaughters of Mary Queen of Scots.
This fits right in with my interest in famous sisters (have I mentioned that lately??) and, of course, my love of Scottish History.
Will be reading this one sooner rather than later!
“In The Butchering Art, the historian Lindsey Fitzharris reveals the shocking world of nineteenth-century surgery and shows how it was transformed by advances made in germ theory and antiseptics between 1860 and 1875. She conjures up early operating theaters—no place for the squeamish—and surgeons, who, working before anesthesia, were lauded for their speed and brute strength. These pioneers knew that the aftermath of surgery was often more dangerous than patients’ afflictions, and they were baffled by the persistent infections that kept mortality rates stubbornly high. At a time when surgery couldn’t have been more hazardous, an unlikely figure stepped forward: a young, melancholy Quaker surgeon named Joseph Lister, who would solve the riddle and change the course of history.
Fitzharris dramatically reconstructs Lister’s career path to his audacious claim that germs were the source of all infection and could be countered by a sterilizing agent applied to wounds. She introduces us to Lister’s contemporaries—some of them brilliant, some outright criminal—and leads us through the grimy schools and squalid hospitals where they learned their art, the dead houses where they studied, and the cemeteries they ransacked for cadavers.
Eerie and illuminating, The Butchering Art celebrates the triumph of a visionary surgeon whose quest to unite science and medicine delivered us into the modern world.” (Amazon blurb)
Why read The Butchering Art?
Hmm. Why do I want to read this book? I’m drawn to some of the gruesome stuff in history, I’ll admit. I’ve read some pretty grim stuff about torture and executions that I’ve used in my novels. But I think this appeals because of my roots in Edinburgh and growing up on stories of Burke and Hare grave-robbing and murdering to supply the anatomist, Robert Knox.
Lindsay Harris is someone I follow on twitter and her book has received some great reviews and prizes since it came out last year. Definitely on my Christmas list.
“The story of how and why a group of prominent and influential men in New York City and beyond came together to help women gain the right to vote.
The Suffragents is the untold story of how some of New York’s most powerful men formed the Men’s League for Woman Suffrage, which grew between 1909 and 1917 from 150 founding members into a force of thousands across thirty-five states. Brooke Kroeger explores the formation of the League and the men who instigated it to involve themselves with the suffrage campaign, what they did at the behest of the movement’s female leadership, and why. She details the National American Woman Suffrage Association’s strategic decision to accept their organized help and then to deploy these influential new allies as suffrage foot soldiers, a role they accepted with uncommon grace. Led by such luminaries as Oswald Garrison Villard, John Dewey, Max Eastman, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, and George Foster Peabody, members of the League worked the streets, the stage, the press, and the legislative and executive branches of government. In the process, they helped convince waffling politicians, a dismissive public, and a largely hostile press to support the women’s demand. Together, they swayed the course of history.” (Amazon blurb)
Why read The Suffragents?
Lots of reasons. For one, this book is by Brooke Kroeger. I’ve just used her biography of Nellie Bly extensively in writing my new novel, The Girl Puzzle. Her research is thorough (the index and references/sources are amazing) and her writing style is a pleasure to read. Then there’s the subject matter. I definitely feel that suffragette stories have great novel potential. I’m not sure I’m the woman to do one, but what some of these women went through should be celebrated and remembered. When the 2016 US election was going on my tween/teen kids were SHOCKED to find out that women only got the vote in the US in 1920 and 1918 in the UK (although only for women over 30). I’d love to see some new suffragette movies or books to keep us all aware of how short a time its been since women had equality at the ballot box.
“Underwear — practical garments with a utilitarian function or body coverings that serve an erotic purpose? As this fascinating and intelligently written study shows, the role played by underclothing over the last several centuries has been a varied one.
In a well-documented, profusely illustrated volume combining impressive scholarship with an entertaining, often humorous style, two distinguished clothing historians consider undergarments worn by the English over the past 600 years. Beginning with the Middle Ages, the authors cover centuries of clothing history, including the Tudor period, the Restoration, the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and the twentieth century up to the eve of World War II. Drawing on extensive, research, the Cunningtons illuminate the role and function of underwear: it protected the wearer against the elements, supported costume shapes, served as an erotic stimulus, symbolized class distinctions, and fulfilled other social, sanitary, and economic functions.
Enhancing the detailed, comprehensive text are more than 100 period illustrations and photographs depicting a laced-up bodice of the twelfth century, embroidered linen drawers of the sixteenth century, a hooped petticoat support in bentwood (c. 1750), footed long drawers (1795), nineteenth-century bustles, early nineteenth-century corsets for men, “Frillies for the Tiny Lady” (1939), and much more. A bibliography, appendix, and index complete a valuable reference work that will appeal to costume historians, sociologists, and other readers.” (Amazon blurb)
Why read The History of Underclothes?
Do I even need to answer that? I can’t wait to read this book. Even if I’m not planning on mentioning my character’s underwear, I really think I ought to know what’s going on (or not) in this department. I’ve recently ‘jumped’ period and been writing a novel set in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries so I’ve had a lot of new stuff to learn. One of the things I like about this new book is that the two time periods – although only thirty years apart – are quite different. Think cars, the telephone, electric light. But also think goodbye corsets and hello bras. I’ve had a lot of ground to cover and definitely think I could do with this book to make sure I’m not making any major gaffes. Plus what if I jump period again? Maybe back in time, I’m thinking. Way back. Watch this space…
“In Georgian London: Into the Streets, Lucy Inglis takes readers on a tour of London’s most formative age—the age of love, sex, intellect, art, great ambition, and fantastic ruin. Travel back to the Georgian years, a time that changed expectations of what life could be. Peek into the gilded drawing rooms of the aristocracy, walk down the quiet avenues of the new middle class, and crouch in the damp doorways of the poor. But watch your wallet—tourists make perfect prey for the thriving community of hawkers, prostitutes, and scavengers. Visit the madhouses of Hackney, the workshops of Soho, and the mean streets of Cheapside. Have a coffee in the city, check the stock exchange, and pop into St Paul’s to see progress on the new dome. This book is about the Georgians who called London their home, from dukes and artists to rent boys and hot air balloonists meeting dog-nappers and life-models along the way. It investigates the legacies they left us in architecture and art, science, and society, and shows the making of the capital millions know and love today.” (Amazon blurb)
Honestly, I love this kind of book. It’s meat and drink for me as a novelist. Often when I’m writing it’s the nit and grit of everyday life that’s needed to make a period come alive. I’ve no plans right now to write a novel set in Georgian London but, as a die-hard Georgette Heyer fan, I don’t want to rule it out. If I just happened to have this book on my bookshelves, who knows what might happen 😉
For The Road to Newgate, these two books in a similar vein were brilliant for writing about the 17th Century:
With 2 weeks to go until the official publication date for The Road to Newgate, I thought I’d do a little update post on the kind of things keeping me busy/awake at night.
To party or not to party?
One of my main preoccupations in the last month or so has been trying to decide whether to have an actual in-person book launch. I am not good at such things and the whole look at me, look at me, aspect makes me feel deeply worried! Add to that that over here in the Mushroom Capital of America (aka the Kennett Square/West Chester area of Pennsylvania) we are already in week 3 of the long summer holidays and lots of people are away and… nope. No party planned.
BUT… I am having an online launch on facebook. Not quite sure how this will go, but I’m hoping to do some giveways and have some friendly authors talking about books and particularly about the importance of antagonists to make stories exciting to read. I will talking about this unpleasant chap (among others!)
Ah, book blogs. Book bloggers are awesome at a) reading lots of books and b) sharing their love of books. For The Road to Newgate I’m doing a couple of tours – one this week and another in August. I’ve also done some outreach of my own and so hopefully there will be people reading the book very soon and talking about how they found it. All fingers and toes are crossed. Links will be posted as things appear.
Writing about stuff about the book (Yay. This is the bit I love)
Recently I’ve written about 17th century coffee shops – very important to my character Nat but not the favourite place of his lovely wife Anne. Read that here.
I’ve also done a piece about jobs for women in the 17th century, a time when a married woman pretty much belonged to her husband. Read that one here.
And I have another coming out next week about childbirth and midwifery. Loved writing that one. Will post a link when it is published but here’s a picture from one of the books I refer to in the article, Jane Sharp’s The Midwives Book, published in 1671.
Other bits and bobs are in the works too.
Today I posted off 2 signed copies of The Road to Newgate plus two of the little books my mum has made. One went to a friend’s mum, someone who super kindly read my last book as it struggled through the proof reading stages and helped me catch some late errors that the publisher had missed. And the other went to the winner of a blog giveway. It’s a funny thing to send your words out into the world!
Oh yes that. Mmm. Well it’s not easy to make a lot of progress during the summer with 3 kids at home and either demanding food or to be driven somewhere. Plus there is the World Cup and now Wimbledon to distract me. However, I am plotting and thinking and doing all that background stuff that will pay off when the time comes. Soon I hope!
Today I’m continuing to showcase the history blogs I read/love/admire by interviewing the writer behind Party Like 1660, a site devoted to all things Louis XIV written by Aurora Von Goeth.
I’ll let Aurora introduce herself…
I am Aurora, a German 17th century historian with a passion for the time of Louis XIV, his court, its occupants and etiquette. Hopefully soon published author, orange tea drinker and mother of cats.
When did you start your blog and what was your motivation? How did you pick its name?
I started Party Like 1660 at the end of last year, so it is relatively new. My motivation for creating it was my love for French history, especially everything Louis XIV – something I have been fascinated with since my teen days. Over the years I collected a bit of knowledge about his court, something I used to call useless knowledge, since I had no place to share it. I always had the longing to share this knowledge, but was not quite sure how I should do it. I might also have been a little insecure. By the end of last year, Party Like 1660 was born and my first post was about Louis XIV being beaten up by his little brother Philippe.
The name for my blog dates back to a old picture sharing one I used to run years ago, but do not have anymore, and I thought it was the perfect name for what I had in mind with this history blog. The 1660’s were certainly the fun years during the Sun King’s reign, with plenty of festivities and gossip. The first ever garden party in Versailles was held in the 1660’s and it lasted a week.
Has your blog turned out the way you anticipated?
I anticipated and still anticipate for this blog to be a bit of a encyclopedia on the court of Louis XIV: something that features short biographies of the people who lived there, articles on important events, court gossip, a easy guide on 17th century etiquette, which is one of my favourite topics, and place to share little known but very interesting happenings. After a bit less than a year of blogging, we are well on the way of getting somewhere and the resonance is quite satisfying.
What is your best blog-related moment?
My best blog related moment or moments are the kind comments and messages I receive for my reviews of the BBC Two series Versailles. In them I invite my readers to have a closer look at the history behind the show and explain what we see on screen in a historical context.
What’s your favourite post?
There are several that I like much, like the Versailles reviews or Louis XIV’s morning routine, but my favourite is the one about Philippe de Lorraine also know as the Chevalier de Lorraine. It was the first “larger” thing I wrote, already before the blog was born, and currently it is the most detailed article on the internet about him, of which I am a little proud. He is one of my favourite historical persons as well and very interesting. Information about him is quite sparse too. I guess that is another reason why it is my fave post.
How to you pick what to write about?
It is pretty much always random. I have a little self created calendar of important dates, thus I write about those when they come up, but mostly I pick the topics randomly. There are many things I want to write about in the future, like Nicolas Fouquet and Vaux-le-Vicomte or how one of Louis’ mistresses chased after the Queen’s carriage. Some topics I wrote about so far have been suggested or influenced by my lovely Twitter followers. For example “The Last Days Of Louis XIV”, in this case my followers wished for day-today updates instead of one long post on the matter.
Do you have a schedule for posting and/or a favourite social media platform?
I do not have a schedule and post whenever I find time. Twitter, clearly. I love Twitter because it is quite simple to use and you can meet great people there.
What are your go-to sources for research?
My collections of books, both in English and German, various diaries, like the one of Dangeau. It is brilliant. Also the archives of Chateau de Versailles and Gallica of the Bibliothèque nationale de France along with the letters of the time.
Do you have other writing projects you are involved in?
Yes. My first book, which I made together with Jules Harper, is nearly finished. It is a short biography of Louis XIV, that also covers topics that aren’t too well known, like various health issues. Another book is in planning: it will be a collection of court anecdotes, and after it perhaps a short biography about Versailles or Louis XIV’s brother Philippe.
If you could go back in time and be one historical character or live in one era which would it be?
If I could go back in time, I certainly would be a mignon. Those were the closer friends of Philippe de France. I would live in Saint-Cloud, the little sister of Versailles, and be merry. If I could travel back in time for commercial use, I would probably be some kind of tour guide that helps 21th century people to survive court life by teaching the who-is-who and etiquette.
Are you a historical fiction fan? If yes, what/who do you love to read? If not, why not?!
I don’t read much historical fiction. I never really did. There are some great stories out there, but I am a rather critical reader, especially when the work is French history related. I pay attention to details nobody else would probably notice, which is a bit of a kill joy for myself. On the other hand, it is rather great for helping authors of historical fiction, something I do as well, with their work. Sometimes the devil is really in the detail.
Reading that last answer makes me even happier (relieved!) that Aurora liked my novel Charlatan, calling it “a captivating tale”. Thank you again for reading it Aurora 🙂