In her debut novel Cleopatra’s Shadows, Emily Holleman took it upon herself to focus not on the mythological and lauded Cleopatra herself, but rather her two sisters — one younger, one elder. One her beloved, one her father’s enemy. The two focal characters are the usurping queen Berenice the Shining, and the small, almost entirely neglected Arsinoe. Weaving back and forth fluidly in alternating chapters named “Elder” and “Younger,” Holleman tells the tale of a tense three-year period in the fading Ptolemaic dynasty as Berenice orders a coup on her own father in order to claim his throne as her own and rule Egypt as she believes is her right. As Berenice reigns, she takes on every luxury and every horror her station can provide, all with determination to be seen as a strong and unwavering ruler. Meanwhile, 8-year-old Arsinoe attempts to make peace with the fact that anyone she ever loved abandoned her during the coup, reaching out at first meekly and then with desperation to the few caretakers and friends still within the palace walls. Despite her efforts, her nights are dogged with dreams that seem to predict not her own destruction, but the destruction she may cause.
Holleman has done a fantastic job focusing in closely and personally on characters that history leaves mostly to our imagination. Her efforts to bring humanity and empathy to these two lives lived and actions committed in such an era are remarkable. If you’re looking to indulge in some Game of Thrones-esque dramatic history led by two strong female narrators, Cleopatra’s Shadows is an excellent choice.
In the debut novel The Red Storm by Grant Bywaters, life isn’t easy for William Fletcher, former-boxer-turned-private-detective living in segregated 1930s New Orleans; not many white people are willing to respect, let alone hire, an African American private eye. When his former employer and mob associate, the violent Bill Storm, reappears in Fletcher’s life with a final request – to locate Storm’s daughter – Fletcher figures things couldn’t get worse.
But then, Storm is found shot in the head, and his killer seems to be gunning for his daughter. She hires Fletcher as protection, setting off a chain reaction of escalating violence between the police and different mob factions. Fletcher has to use all of his boxing experience and investigative instincts to survive the coming storm.
The Red Storm is a treat for any hardboiled detective or historical fiction fan and especially so for fans of boxing as the book is rife with references. Bywaters is frank in his depictions of violence, be it a boxing match or a fight between mobsters. He also never lets the reader forget the time period he’s writing in either; not only does he reference specific events and places in New Orleans history but he also doesn’t shy from the slang or the racial issues. Counterpoint to the rampant casual racism and segregation is Fletcher himself, who won’t let anything impede his investigations.
It’s easy to understand why Bywaters won the Best First Private Eye Novel Competition sponsored by the Private Eye Writers of America (PWA) and Minotaur Books, with his professional experience as a licensed private investigator adding authenticity to Fletcher’s fictional investigations. Reminiscent of Walter Mosley and James M. Cain, mystery fans will appreciate this new voice in hardboiled detective fiction.
In Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg, the title character is a flawed human being who reaches out to the poor around her yet never gives up on life’s pleasures. Mazie Phillips-Gordon is a self-proclaimed good time girl. Her favorite things in life are cigarettes, alcohol and having fun. Despite her hedonistic ways, Mazie is also a pushover for the vagrants who populate her Lower East Side world during the Great Depression.
Attenberg sets up the story as a documentary on Mazie told in part through her diary and also through the interviews and observations of people who knew her. By using different points of view, Attenberg allows us to see the good in Mazie that she often fails to see. She and her younger sister Jeanie are rescued by their sister Rosie who takes them away from their abusive father and ineffectual mother. However, both girls go through rebellious periods making life difficult for Rosie. In an effort to try and curb Mazie’s life spent in bars and speakeasies, Rosie’s husband has Mazie work in the ticket booth at his movie theater. Feeling confined in the box office – which she refers to as her ‘cage’— Mazie manages to keep her spirits up by helping the homeless people in her neighborhood. Attenberg may refer to Mazie as a saint in the title, but this book recounts the unvarnished world of a woman who lived life to the fullest.
In The Immortal Nicholas by Glenn Beck, a simple farmer named Agios supplements his meager earnings by harvesting precious frankincense. Following a series of tragic events, he gives up on life and wanders aimlessly, numbing his sorrow with alcohol. When he meets Caspar who is searching for frankincense, Agios’ life is changed forever as he starts on a journey to meet the newborn baby that Caspar and his friends, Melchior and Balthazar, are seeking in the town of Bethlehem. Soon Agios learns that this child, Jesus, is destined to be the King of Kings, and he feels compelled to protect Jesus and his parents as they try to avoid capture by the evil King Herod.
Beck’s premise for this book is to try and give Santa Claus a Christ-centered reason for being. Agios represents Santa but he is more of a misguided soul doomed to wander eternally through the world than the jolly man most of us know. Until Agios fulfills his mission, he remains immortal and goes through many personal tragedies. While he does eventually change his name to Nicholas and begin handing out gifts to deserving people, the core of the story is about Agios and his struggle to find meaning in life.
The historical portrayal of Biblical era life seems accurate and even compelling, but the story is not a warm and fuzzy Christmas tale for children. Beck is aiming at adults here, and trying to bring the message of Christ into Christmas without the typical commercialization of the holiday season. Whether or not you are a fan of Beck, The Immortal Nicholas is an interesting alternative to traditional holiday stories.
Young and wealthy Charles Fairfax dies suddenly of what appears to be an acute gastric illness. In late 19th century New York City, such an event is fairly common even among the higher echelon of society. However, Charles’ death seems too unexpected to the young man’s father. He calls on a friend, Frank Malloy — once a NYC Police Detective Sergeant and now a private investigator — to look into his son’s death. As Malloy quickly learns, this death is more than questionable. It is Murder on Amsterdam Avenue. With the help of his fiancée, Sarah Brandt, Malloy is able to navigate through the New York aristocracy to uncover some shocking secrets in the Fairfax family history. This book marks the 17th in Victoria Thompson’s Gaslight Mystery series, and whether or not you’ve read any of the previous titles, Thompson has set up a delightful romp.
One of the best elements in the story is the relationship between Frank Malloy and Sarah Brandt. Both are widowed with young children and the way that they care about each other while solving the mystery is touching yet realistic. Thanks to Thompson’s eye for detail, you will feel as if you are stepping back in time to late 19th century America. For fans of Anne Perry’s Charlotte and Thomas Pitt series or Charles Todd’s Inspector Ian Rutledge mysteries, the Gaslight Mystery series is definitely worth a read. However, you may want to start with the first book in this series, Murder on Astor Place, to get more of the back stories for these characters.
“Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived” is an old mnemonic device for remembering the order and fates of Henry VIII’s six wives. In The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory, the reader meets the wife that survived, Kateryn Parr. Written in first person from Kateryn’s point of view, the story delves into the many trials that she endures as a wife and queen. When the 31-year-old Kateryn marries 52-year-old Henry in 1543 to become his sixth wife, she has been twice widowed, and all of her marriages have been arranged. Before Henry proposes, Kateryn is set to marry Thomas Seymour, the man she actually loves. However, no one dares go against the tyrannical Henry, so Kateryn puts her love aside to marry the king.
At first, Henry dotes on Kateryn, buying her expensive presents and exotic birds from all over the world to fill her aviary. She can even tolerate Henry’s grotesque physique, the open festering wound on his leg and his fumbling attempts at love making. Yet, she's constantly reminded of her ill-fated predecessors as she wears their gowns and jewels, sleeps in the same bed and even raises their children.
As Gregory portrays Kateryn, it's her religious leanings that put her in constant danger. She's a devout Reformer who subscribes to the new church that Henry created primarily to marry Anne Boleyn. However, there are many Papists in the court who want England to return to the Catholic Church, and Kateryn’s religious sentiments make her powerful enemies. Henry is starting to waver between Reform and Catholicism as his health deteriorates, and begins to fear that, in breaking from the Church, he is doomed to eternal damnation. As Henry’s mental health also declines, he sees heretics and traitors everywhere, and not even Kateryn is safe. When she discovers the King is about to have her arrested, Kateryn must swallow her pride and humiliate herself in order to avoid the executioner.
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Life could not be any more taxing for Zacharias Wythe, the newly designated Sorcerer Royal of the Society of Unnatural Philosophers in Zen Cho’s debut novel Sorcerer to the Crown. The magical transfer of power from the previous Sorcerer Royal has left him with a mysterious affliction that hurts every night at midnight. Rival magicians want to overthrow him not only because they believe he murdered his predecessor but also because Zacharias is a former slave who now holds the highest position in British magical society. The British government wants Zacharias to wage a magical feud against a group of witches in Southeast Asia who threaten British colonial interests there. To top it all off, England’s magic — fueled by a bond with Fairyland — is failing, and Zacharias’s newest task is to learn why, all while knowing his detractors would happily blame the decline of British magic on its newest Sorcerer Royal.
In order to stop the continued magical decay, Zacharias travels to Fairyland to see the Fairy King. On the journey there, Zacharias meets Prunella Gentleman, a young woman working at Mrs. Daubeney's School for Gentlewitches. Prunella has a few problems of her own, including her biracial parentage and lowborn station in society, and the “gifts” found in her father’s valise. Her decision to accompany Zacharias back to London so she can find a husband sparks a chain of events that will challenge the racist and sexist attitudes of the magical peerage and change magical society in England forever.
Fans of Gail Carriger and Susanna Clarke, as well as Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, will enjoy this book immensely. It’s the first of a trilogy that promises to be an entertaining mix of Regency romance, political intrigue, social commentary and magical mayhem.
Bestselling author, architect and Westminster resident Charles Belfoure will join Baltimore County Public Library for a librarian-led group book discussion on Friday, September 25 from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. in The Ivy Bookshop tent at the Baltimore Book Festival. Mr. Belfoure will discuss his new historical novel, House of Thieves, as well as his well-regarded first novel The Paris Architect. Both stories feature an architect who ends up using his skills for precarious endeavors. In The Paris Architect, set during the Nazi's occupation of France, Lucien Bernard collaborates with a local industrialist to design hiding places for the Jews. In House of Thieves, architect John Cross is forced by gangsters to use his blueprints to expedite home burglaries to save his son from a gambling debt. Recently, Charles Belfoure answered questions for Between the Covers about House of Thieves.
Between the Covers: You do such a masterful job placing readers in late 19th century Manhattan. What made you choose New York’s Gilded Age for your setting and this lively time period?
Charles Belfoure: That was my favorite period in architectural history and I was also fascinated by the social history of the period. I spent a lot of time doing research on the worlds of the super-rich, the miserably poor and the underworld of the Gilded Age.
BTC: You introduce your readers to John Cross, an architect who gets drawn into the criminal underworld to protect his family. Did you have anyone from real life in mind when you created this character?
CB: I came across a real historical figure named George L. Leslie. He came from a wealthy family in the Midwest and had come to New York in the 1870s to practice as an architect, but gave it up because he preferred the life of a bank robber. When I was young, I had done a project for a Mafia boss who’s since been murdered. That was also an inspiration for doing a book about the underworld.
BTC: In many ways this story is a tale of societal contrasts. Was this deliberate on your part?
CB: Yes, there was an incredible contrast between rich high society and the miserably poor in New York City. The poor of that time had no social safety net like unemployment insurance or Medicaid to help them as they do today. The poverty was staggering. I wanted the lives of people in these two different worlds to intersect.
BTC: Both of your novels revolve around the world of an architect using his skills and training in ways never imagined. Can you talk a little about your own world as an architect?
CB: I still practice as an architect or as a historic preservation consultant. I help recycle historic buildings into new uses. As an architect, I’m doing three buildings on Eutaw St. on the block up from the Hippodrome and one on Howard St. As a preservation consultant and historic tax credit consultant, I’m currently working on a dozen buildings.
BTC: Tell us about your Baltimore roots?
CB: I grew up in Woodlawn in the 1960s and early 1970s. I graduated from Woodlawn Senior High. Woodlawn is right on the western city-county line so I went into Baltimore City quite a bit on the bus. I’d go down to Howard St. to go to the big department stores and movie theaters. It’s strange that I now work on projects on Howard St., which is this dangerous rundown deserted area so different from when I was a kid with crowds of shoppers. I think I do these historic rehab projects to try to bring back the city the way it used to be.
BTC: Baltimore has its share of noted local authors? Do you have a favorite?
CB: Anne Tyler, one of America’s finest novelists. No one has a finer insight into human nature than she does. She’s the only writer that I’ve read consistently.
BTC: Are you working on a third novel?
CB: Yes, it’s set in England in 1905 and about an architect who has hit rock bottom.
Mr. Belfoure will be signing copies of both novels, available for purchase, during the event.
There are some books you just do not want to end. Paula McLain's new historical fiction novel Circling the Sun is just that kind. Richly atmospheric and thick with romantic nostalgia for 1920s British colonial Kenya, this literary treat is like eating a ripe peach over the kitchen sink: satisfying and juicy with just the right amount of messiness.
It is the story of aviator Beryl Markham, who in 1936 became the first woman to fly solo from east to west across the Atlantic. But McLain feels Markham was just as noteworthy for her sometimes scandalous earlier on-ground adventures.. This lesser-known past comes to life in a dialogue-fueled, first-person narrative set magnificently "before Kenya was Kenya."
Irreverent and unsettled, the former Beryl Clutterbuck is a trailblazer. She was one of the first successful racehorse trainers of her era in a time when male trainers dominated. She bucked tradition at every turn, owing her independence to her upbringing. Abandoned early on by her mother, she was reared by her horse-training father and influenced by the local Kipsigis tribe. It is not surprising that this independent and fearless young woman's natural ambitions are at odds with the times. Her relationships were often rollercoaster, unhappy affairs. Even the love of her life, Denys Finch Hatton, is not hers alone. She shares the seductive safari hunter with her friend, the hospitable, aristocratic coffee farmer Karen Blixen, who would go on to write Out of Africa under the pen name Isak Dinesen. It is a perilous love triangle that is the heart of the story.
McLain, whose previous book was the hugely popular The Paris Wife, about Hemingway's first spouse Hadley Richardson, deftly recasts Markham as avant-garde if not ethically suspect. The ability to make us care about this heroine from the other side of the world almost 100 years ago is testament to McLain's richly textured storytelling and smart supply of interesting characters from drunks and expats to tribesmen and royalty. If it makes you want to read Markham's own superb memoir West with the Night or revisit Dinesen's Out of Africa, McLain has done her job.