In search of Andreas Vesalius

The King’s Anatomist by Ron Blumenfeld

 Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I want to watch a man grapple with a life-long friendship that seems more contentious upon the friend’s death in the context of the burgeoning conflicts between the old and new.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 282

Publisher: History Through Fiction

ARC provided by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Scientific Revolution with a touch of mystery

From the publisher: In 1565 Brussels, the reclusive mathematician Jan van den Bossche receives shattering news that his lifelong friend, the renowned and controversial anatomist Andreas Vesalius, has died on the Greek island of Zante returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Jan decides to journey to his friend’s grave to offer his last goodbye. Jan’s sentimental and arduous journey to Greece with his assistant Marcus is marked by shared memories, recalled letters, and inner dialogues with Andreas, all devices to shed light on Andreas’ development as a scientist, physician, and anatomist. But the journey also gradually uncovers a dark side of Andreas even as Jan yearns for the widow of Vesalius, Anne.

Giveaway

Enter to win a paperback copy of The King’s Anatomist by Ron Blumenfeld. The giveaway is open to the US only and ends on November 5th. You must be 18 or older to enter.


I’m going to start with a content warning here. The dissection scenes are very graphic and I found them too difficult to read. It wasn’t gratuitous, really, just more detail than I could deal with before starting to get nauseated. I skimmed those sections to get to the rest of the story.

There was a certain liberation, even joy, in seeing what we look like under our skins, in seeing our humanness through and through.

Ron Blumenfeld, The King’s Anatomist

Consider yourself warned. Now to the heart of the story. Ron Blumenfeld illustrates the foment of the Scientific Revolution, situated as it was in the context of the Renaissance and the Reformation, and the tension between the old way of looking to authority as having all the answers, whether the authority of the bible, church, or classical writers and the evolving way of looking to demonstrable evidence as the standard of proof for truth, particularly in the sciences.

The Spanish physicians still think that Galen has taught them all they need to know and see no merit in putting their clumsy hooves inside a corpse.

Ron Blumenfeld, The King’s Anatomist

In that sense, The King’s Anatomist is a great travelogue of the period, documenting landmark moments in the context of Jan trying to figure out just how his best friend’s life ended and to make sense of the relationship. The novel hits some high points and some big names in the journey to recreate Andreas Vesalius’s last year or so.

I had been living as if our friendship transcended time and mortality.

Ron Blumenfeld, The King’s Anatomist

There are some very witty bits sprinkled throughout the book, which, along with a very clear writing style, makes it a coherent and well-paced read. Blumenfeld does a great job of bringing a flavor of the language of the period into the style of the book, yet manages to keep it close enough to modern to keep the prose crisp. When I went back through the book, I was surprised by the number of very quotable lines throughout the text.

Reason is a precious gift granted to mankind, but in human relations reason takes us only so far. In the end it is faith in each other—trust, if you prefer the term—and the capacity to forgive that allows love to take root and endure.

Ron Blumenfeld, The King’s Anatomist

However, it has some issues as a story. First, the female protagonist, Anne, is more of a placekeeper than having any developed personality. Blumenfeld treats her in a very old-fashioned way, where she is the vague fulfillment of someone’s ideal of what love should be, but she’s not really a fully fledged character. The other major female character is Jan’s mother, whom we mostly hear about from Jan, and although he mentions the hold she had on him but Andreas helped break, that subplot is never fleshed out. So this woman, as well, is a flat cutout.

With his urging, I learned that I could safely lie to Mother because she thought it unimaginable that I would deceive her.

Ron Blumenfeld, The King’s Anatomist

On the other hand, Jan is very well-developed, as is the mutual school friend of Jan and Andreas, Antoine the bishop, and Jan’s associate/servant, Marcus. Each of them feels three-dimensional, motivated, and convincing. Andreas, though, who is the titular character, comes out a bit flat, partially because of the inconsistencies and omitted explanations of the end of his life. He is clearly driven, but even by the end of the book, I still didn’t feel like I had a handle on his character, but for the fact that he dominated the relationship with Jan and was a brilliant iconoclastic rebel.

I am grateful for my life as I am living it, and unapologetic about my circumstances.

Ron Blumenfeld, The King’s Anatomist

However, I never felt like the decisions Andreas made to the detriment of Jan were ever adequately explained in terms of Andreas’s motivations. Granted, Jan was hero-struck by Andreas and didn’t think critically about him until, it appears, the events that start the quest of the book, but because that was the main character arc in the story—Jan coming to a more realistic assessment of Andreas—it felt like those specific instances needed to be processed more fully by Jan so that he could accept Andreas’s flaws rather than simply fail to see them, as he had until that time, or to be stuck in an in-between place where Jan could not resolve the hero-Andreas with the kind-of-an-ass-Andreas.

If those who study nature—be they physicians, botanists, or astronomers—fail to guard against their human failings in the greater interest of truth and progress, then it will fall to others to correct the record.

Ron Blumenfeld, The King’s Anatomist

The breadth of the novel, though, is a lovely overview of the foment in the intellectual world of Europe at the beginning of the Reformation. Blumenfeld folds in several cameos of well-known figures of the era, which is fun, but what he does exceptionally well is to give a very clear sense of the cultural environment of the time: the reliance on Galen and authority, the taboos associated with dissection, the Inquisition, the various bits and pieces of the early phases of the European wars of religion (particularly Huguenots vs. French Catholics), the suspicion of witchcraft, and the interaction of politics and science (nope, there’s rarely anything completely new). The King’s Anatomist does an exceptional job of creating the context into which these medical and scientific advances began.

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Some quickie reviews: Comfort women in space, rumors of a squirrel conspiracy, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

I’ve let these sit too long and just want to get some quick comments up before I forget everything! It’s one speculative, one cozy mystery, and a historical, so a mix of all the things!

The First Sister by Linden A. Lewis

r/suggestmeabook: I’d like a trip to the future where humanity is split into two battling factions and there are horrors in either group.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 351

Publisher: Skybound Publishing

Series: The First Sister Trilogy

ARC provided by NetGalley

Dystopic future scifi

From the publisher: This epic space opera filled with “lush prose” (Publishers Weekly) follows a comfort woman as she claims her agency, a soldier questioning his allegiances, and a non-binary hero out to save the solar system.

Voiceless women who fight each other for position, a disgraced soldier unjustly charged with losing a battle, and a missing son of the elite: these are the protagonists in Linden A. Lewis’s gripping drama placed centuries in the future. Each character is distinct and has a fascinating character arc, and the plot moves at the perfect place, with unexpected twists which are earned by Lewis’s ability to lay the groundwork.

Humanity has split into two groups. The Geans, on Earth and Mars, are ruled, at least in a large part, by the Sisterhood, a religious group which gives some women power by serving up their sisters as confessors and prostitutes to the military. The Icarii split away from Earth, no longer wanting to be involved in an endless war, and settled on Mercury and Venus (yes, there’s a magic element found on one of the planets that explains how that’s possible). The former are considered militant; the latter are technocrats who have manipulated their genes to survive, creating a separate species of humanity.

As is so often the case in the best science fiction, the postulated world reveals insights into our own, showing how both theocracies and technocracies can go wrong, showing how they impact the lives of the powerless. If that doesn’t appeal to you, it’s a great story as well, and I strongly recommend checking out this amazing book.


War of the Squirrels by Kristen Weiss

r/suggestmeabook: I want to watch an amateur sleuth figure out a murder while sorting out alien enthusiasts, retired spies, and rich kids.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 224

Publisher: Misterio Press

Series: Wits’ End Cozy Mystery

ARC provided by GoddessFish

Contemporary cozy mystery

From the publisher: All Susan wants is to get through this visit from her controlling parents without tumbling down a black hole of despair. But galactic forces are colliding at her whimsical B&B, Wits’ End, and her parents have plans of their own.

The silly pun of the name gives you a feel for what’s to come. Kirsten Weiss does a nice job of creating tension in a small town which has a disproportionate number of murders, and gives some really clear descriptions—to the point that I remember little scenes vividly six months after I finished the book (told you I was behind!). The traveling corpse is pretty cute, and the murder victim is appropriately dislikable. However, the tale stretches credulity, and the squirrels, well, they’re more or less in the background to create the pun and some silly shenanigans to keep the alien enthusiast motif. The earlier book(s) appear to play into the story more than I’d like for picking up one mid-series, as there are constant references to a prior event, but that’s on me for starting with the fourth book in the series (although I usually ask if prior books are required reading before picking up mid-thread).

Easy, quick read when you’re in the mood for something light.


Fiery Girls by Heather Wardell

r/suggestmeabook: I’m in the mood to watch immigrant girls overcome their differences for the common good.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 273

Publisher: Self

ARC provided by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Progressive era working women

From the publisher: In 1909, shy sixteen-year-old Rosie Lehrer is sent to New York City to earn money for her family’s emigration from Russia. She will, but she also longs to make her mark on the world before her parents arrive and marry her to a suitable Jewish man. Maria Cirrito, spoiled and confident at sixteen, lands at Ellis Island a few weeks later. She’s supposed to spend four years earning American wages then return home to Italy with her new-found wealth to make her family’s lives better. But the boy she loves has promised, with only a little coaxing, to follow her to America and marry her. 

This well-researched book occasionally falls a little flat. The transformations of the two protagonists, particularly Maria, feel a bit rushed, although the overall pace of the book is a little slow. It’s at its best when highlighting the efforts of the girls to unionize; the purely imagined parts are where it begins to flag a little. If you’re not familiar with the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, it’s a pretty good introduction to the tragedy and the women whose lives were radically changed by it.

Spotlight on: The Fey and the Factory Girl by Nadine Galinsky Feldman

 Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Giveaway

Enter to win a paperback copy of The Factory Girl and the Fey by Nadine Galinsky Feldman! The giveaway is open to US addresses only and ends on October 28th. You must be 18 or older to enter.

Pages: 360

Publisher: Self

Publication date: October 14, 2021

ARC provided by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

19th century Scottish Fantasy

From the publisher: Jane Thorburn straddles two worlds: her life as a “factory girl” in Scotland’s mills, and her birthright as fairy royalty. Abandoned by her parents as an infant, and uncertain about the true motives of the Fey, she learns to depend only on herself. All she wants is to be a great weaver and to maintain her independence.

The Fair Folk, fighting for their very survival, have other plans for her, as does the handsome and charismatic Robert Stein. What life will she choose? And will she even have a choice?

A historical fantasy inspired by the author’s ancestors, The Factory Girl and the Fey is an affectionate tribute to the women who helped fuel Scotland’s Industrial Age, from the workers to the poets…and to the Fey who remind us that magic is real when we believe in it.

Excerpt

Beitris continued to heat the poker. In the calm voice of one who spent many, many years calming nervous young mothers, she said, “This is nae yer bairn. This is a changeling. Whit ye’ll see will look strange, cruel even, but you must trust me. Set it in the cradle noo.” 

Still doubtful, Elizabeth placed the changeling in Jane’s cradle with the same care she would have given her own child. Stepping back to give the old howdiewife room was one of the hardest things she’d ever done. 

Beitris grabbed the now-hot poker in both hands, wielding it like a sword between her weathered arms as she moved toward the cradle.

“Dinna hurt her!” Elizabeth cried. 

Ellen grabbed hold of Elizabeth. “This isnae Jane, remember. Beitris will bring the real Jane back.” 

As she held on to Elizabeth, Ellen squeezed her eyes shut in anticipation of disaster. This was all her fault. She had caused this to happen, back on the day of the baptism. Until now she had managed to shut away the memories, but now they rushed forward to taunt her. 

That day dawned bright with sun and promise. Ellen arrived early to help. They dressed wee Jane in a white lace gown that had once been Elizabeth’s. Jane, tiny as a doll, swam in the dress, her head nearly disappearing amidst the layers of fabric. Ellen wished for more time to alter it, as Elizabeth was too fatigued and sad to do it herself. This would have to do, though. The town would likely gossip about the child’s ill-fitting gown, but that mattered less than giving her God’s protection as soon as possible.

Tradition called for someone to offer a gift of bread and cheese to the first person she met on the path to the church. Ellen volunteered, honored to play a role in this special ritual. Carrying Jane in one arm, light as a cloud, and the basket with the food offerings in the other, Ellen headed toward the kirk, with Elizabeth and Robert to follow a few minutes later. 

Ellen didn’t have to wait long before an old man, listing to the right and hunched over a too-short walking stick, ambled toward her. His clothes were rumpled and torn, and they hung on his gaunt frame. Poor man, she thought. Apoplexy had robbed him of his dignity. As she neared him, his face twisted in a grimace. Perhaps the news of a new, precious babe would help to cheer him.

Holding the basket out toward him she said, “Good sir, we offer ye a gift from this new bairn.” 

He stopped without speaking, looked at her, then at the baby, his face twisting even further into a sneer. “Pah!” He spat on the ground and walked away, leaving her standing with the basket still outstretched. Jane started to whimper and squirm. 

“Sir?” Ellen pleaded to his back. “Please, sir, dinna curse the bairn this way.” 

Yet he kept moving, ignoring her completely.  

“Whit shall we do?” she asked Jane, her knees shaking from the encounter. Jane responded only with sleepy sucking sounds. “Well, I see ye dinna want tae help me. I’ll have tae fix this myself.”  

Normally the streets bustled with activity as townspeople prepared for morning service, but today they were oddly empty. Ellen continued to murmur loving words to Jane as they walked, praying for someone else to cross their path. She walked to within a block of the kirk when a young couple appeared. The woman, not more than eighteen, was ripe with her own child. 

Ellen nearly dropped to her knees in gratitude and relief. Holding out the food offering with trembling hands, she said, “Good folks, this is a gift from a new bairn that we offer ye.” She hoped she didn’t look too desperate.

“Aye, of course,” the young woman said, patting her own belly. “May I see the lass?”

Ellen held Jane up and the woman drew in a sharp breath, her eyes alight with the sight of the young beauty. Her mouth twisted and turned, not in bitterness, but rather in protection. To express a child’s beauty aloud would invite evil influences.

“Thank ye,” the woman said. “We would be honored.” 

Her husband, who stood next to his wife, silent until now, accepted the basket of food, then tipped his hat and bowed to Jane. “Welcome tae the world, lass,” he said. Then the young couple continued on their way.

The baptism occurred as planned, and Ellen breathed easier, telling herself that no harm would come from tucking away the unfortunate details of the first encounter. Surely the goodwill of the young couple would render the old man’s bitterness moot and bring good fortune to the child. They would put the incident behind them, and no one needed to know. 

Yet the scene unfolding in front of Ellen in the tiny flat, with a new mother numb with fright and a howdiewife wielding a hot poker, was no mere bad dream. She moved her mouth in prayer, begging for forgiveness and hoping Beitris could bring Jane back home. Then she remembered her children were present, stunned silent but wide-eyed and open-mouthed. “Go back tae the flat,” she said. “We will protect wee Jane.”

About the Author

Nadine Galinsky Feldman is an author of women’s and historical fiction. Her novel What She Knew was a finalist in the 2016 Next Generation Indie Book awards. The Foreign Language of Friends was a finalist in the 2012 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, Chick Lit category. It was also named a Gold Medal Winner, Women’s Issues, in the 2011 eLit Book Awards.

As an editor, Nadine produced Patchwork and Ornament: A Woman’s Journey of Life, Love, and Art by Jeanette Feldman, which won the 2010 Indie Excellence Award for Best Memoir.

Her first book, When a Grandchild Dies: What to Do, What to Say, How to Cope, provided grief support to an underserved population.

When not working on her many writing projects, Nadine loves traveling, gardening, genealogy, and yoga. She lives in the beautiful Hudson Valley of New York state.


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Ginger Rogers’s less famous cousin

The Limits of Limelight by Margaret Porter

 Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Giveaway

During the Blog Tour, we are giving away some fabulous prizes!

Grand Prize Winner: Choice of an autographed paperback or an ebook or an audiobook, plus an acrylic 16-oz sippy “go” cup with straw.

2nd and 3rd Prize Winners: Choice of an autographed paperback or an ebook or an audiobook.

Runners-up (5): Reproduction vintage Ginger Rogers & Fred Astaire postcard, plus author-autographed bookplate.

The giveaway is open internationally and ends on October 6th. You must be 18 or older to enter.

From the publisher: Pretty Oklahoma teenager Helen Nichols accepts an invitation from her cousin, rising movie actress Ginger Rogers, and her Aunt Lela, to try her luck in motion pictures. Her relatives, convinced that her looks and personality will ensure success, provide her with a new name and help her land a contract with RKO. As Phyllis Fraser, she swiftly discovers that Depression-era Hollywood’s surface glamour and glitter obscure the ceaseless struggle of the hopeful starlet.

Lela Rogers, intensely devoted to her daughter and her niece, outwardly accepting of her stage mother label, is nonetheless determined to establish her reputation as screenwriter, stage director, and studio talent scout. For Phyllis, she’s an inspiring model of grit and persistence in an industry run by men.

While Ginger soars to the heights of stardom in musicals with Fred Astaire, Phyllis is tempted by a career more fulfilling than the one she was thrust into. Should she continue working in films, or devote herself to the profession she’s dreamed about since childhood? And which choice might lead her to the lasting love that seems so elusive?

Excerpt

“We’ve been studying our fellow passengers,” Ginger explained to her mother. “There’s one lady who wears a monocle and carries a tiny dog and speaks with a veddy, veddy affected accent. We’re convinced she’s pretending to be English.”

She plopped onto the narrow sofa that opened into a bed, clutching pen and paper, and crooked a finger. “Come here. I’ve got a present for you, but not one I can put in a ribbon-wrapped box. You’re getting a new name. To use professionally.”

Helen cast a questioning look at Lela.

“There’s nothing wrong with Helen Nichols,” her aunt declared. “It’s elegant and refi ned, and easy to pronounce. Four syllables, like Ginger Rogers.” With a smile for Helen, she added, “That nickname you gave her when you were a tot turned out to be perfect for show business. Spicy and strong, that’s my girl.”

With a twitch of her auburn head, Ginger opined, “Helen is pretty enough, but not unique or memorable. If she dislikes what I came up with, I’ll keep thinking.”

“What is it?” Helen wanted to know.

“Phyllis. Fraser—with an ‘s.” Ginger handed over the paper. “It has alliteration. You’re an English scholar, you know what that means. I think it suits you. We’ll try it out when I introduce you to people at RKO-Pathé. When you go home, you can be Helen again. Write it out. An actress has to practice her autograph.”

She followed instructions. Dissatisfied with the plain P and F, she tried a more graceful, fl owing version. “How’s this?”

“Perfect!” Ginger placed a beautifully manicured finger on the paper. “Write it again. And again. I want that whole sheet covered—front and back—before we get to Salt Lake City.” With a glance at her mother, she added, “We’re calling her Phyllis from now on, so she’ll get used to it.”

That night when she settled into her bunk, the new name echoed in her mind, keeping time with the steel wheels pounding the steel rails. 

Phyl-lis Fras-er. Phyl-lis Fras-er. Phyl-lis Fras-er.

About the Author

MARGARET PORTER is the author of more than a dozen works of historical fiction, including The Limits of Limelight (September 2021) and the award-winning Beautiful Invention: A Novel of Hedy Lamarr. Her critically acclaimed novels have been translated into several foreign languages. Other writing credits include nonfiction, newspaper and magazine articles, and poetry. She studied British history in the U.K. and afterwards worked professionally in theatre, film and television. Margaret and her husband live in New England with their dog, dividing their time between a book-filled house in a small city and a waterfront cottage located on one of the region’s largest lakes. When not writing, she keeps busy reading, tending her extensive rose gardens, or playing the mandolin.

More information is available on her website and blog. You can also connect with her on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and Goodreads.


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Nurses, spies, romance, and the Sinai and Palestine campaign

Windswept by Annabelle McCormack

 Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I want a romance between an endearingly plucky nurse and a man who could ruin her set in Palestine and Egypt during WWI.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 440

Publisher: Self

Series: Windswept Saga

ARC provided by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

WWI British Middle East Romance

From the publisher: May, 1917. Ginger Whitman left a life of wealth and privilege in England to train as a battlefield nurse and serve in the Great War. Working on the brutal frontlines in Palestine, she finds a wounded soldier hiding in her camp. The soldier claims to carry intelligence unmasking a secret plot against the British—and that traitors within British intelligence are searching for him. Desperate and dying, the soldier entrusts a coded message to her care.

Giveaway

Enter to win a paperback copy of Windswept by Annabelle McCormack! The giveaway is open to US addresses only and ends on October 22nd. You must be 18 or older to enter.


This action-packed romance set among British troops in Palestine and Egypt is a ripping tale. The well-bred lady becoming a nurse is fairly common, but Ginger’s ambition to be a doctor, the Middle Eastern setting, and the addition of the spy world makes this anything but a run-of-the-mill WWI romance.

Rules for good reasons. Rules that, when broken, incurred a father’s wrath for dismissing a wealthy “well-matched” marriage proposal in favor of a doctor who couldn’t help bolster her family’s estate. Rules that stopped her from entertaining thoughts of the London School of Medicine for Women in favor of a much more “sensible” nursing education.

Annabelle McCormack, Windswept

The characters are vivid and likable or hate-able (shouldn’t that be a word?) as applies. My only quibble is that the heroine, Ginger Whitman, despite both being described as and demonstrating intelligence and independence, manages to not figure out whom to distrust for a good portion of the book, even though it’s obvious to the reader about 15% into the story. Usually that uncharacteristic obliviousness drives me nuts, but Ginger is charming enough that it didn’t bother me as much.

Death made equals of cowards and heroes, friend or foe.

Annabelle McCormack, Windswept

Ginger’s inability to see what is evident to readers is explained, to some extent, by the facts of her upbringing: privileged, denied any opportunity to assert herself until the war gave her the option of nursing, and conditioned to put The Family over all. She’s often unnecessarily consumed by guilt, but that’s really not uncommon for women raised in a role of subservience (or anyone in a patriarchy).

The bleak horror of her work had numbed her to the idea of a merciful God. Why would he listen to prayers for the mundane and ignore the cries of humanity slaughtering itself?

Annabelle McCormack, Windswept

As for the looming British Mandate (1918-1948) issues, Annabelle McCormack lets the facts stand without the patriotic protagonists doing much but some questions and a sense of duty to country. After all, the conflict was a result of the Ottoman Empire’s actions, right? However, McCormack does hint at the trouble in the future as the mentioned, but not actually in the book, T.E. Lawrence is making promises to the Arabs he’s courting while the British are simultaneously making the same kinds of promises to the Zionists. (I’m slightly disappointed Gertrude Bell earned no mention, though.) It’s hard to ignore, though, as a person of our era, well aware of the bloodshed that the former colonial power wreaked on the region.

The leadership in London had never dressed wounds or held soldiers’ hands as they wept over lost limbs.

Annabelle McCormack, Windswept

However, in the context of the book, there appear to be no alternatives to those living in those times, which is a reasonable position. Even now it’s hard to come up with a solution for resisting the Germans in the Middle East during WWI without using the local interests to British advantage. It’s tempting to say that the powers that be should have done something different, as it should have been clear from the beginning that going back on promises would probably create longterm animosity, but it’s difficult to predict how different choices during WWI would have lead to better outcomes for more people. The rule of unintended consequences is a bitch.

[P]eople who feel betrayed and mistreated have a tendency to act irrationally.

Annabelle McCormack, Windswept

Windswept’s blooming romance in the midst of machinations of so many parties is a great read with characters you’ll love and hate well.


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“Unclean, unclean,” they must cry

The Second Life of Mirielle West by Amanda Skenandore

 Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I want to watch how a privileged, self-centered young woman deals with leprosy and all it entails in 1920s America.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 304

Publisher: Kensington

ARC provided by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

1920s Medical Drama

From the publisher: 1920s Los Angeles: Socialite Mirielle West’s days are crowded with shopping, luncheons, and prepping for the myriad glittering parties she attends with her actor husband, Charlie. She’s been too busy to even notice the small patch of pale skin on the back of her hand. Other than an occasional over-indulgence in gin and champagne, which helps to numb the pain of recent tragedy, Mirielle is the picture of health. When Charlie insists that she goes to the doctor to have a burn checked, the consequences come fast. The diagnosis–leprosy–is devastating and unthinkable.

Giveaway

Enter to win a paperback copy of The Second Life of Mirielle West! The giveaway is open to US residents only and ends on August 13th. You must be 18 or older to enter.


Mirielle West feels so sorry for herself, it’s hard for the reader to, but it’s a good thing. When the horrifying ordeal is happening to someone self-centered and in so much denial, you aren’t swamped in the bleakness of life for a leper, even if it’s a little improved at United States Marine Hospital Number 66 (better known as “Carville”) when compared to most of history. Like Mirielle, I grew up reading stories of lepers in the Bible, where they rang the bell and cried, “Unclean, unclean” to warn others of their presence, and was shocked to learn in my teen years that leprosy, now referred to as Hansen’s disease, persisted to the current day.

There’s a reason that the word “leper” has come to mean an outcast or untouchable. That was exactly what happened to someone with the disease throughout the world and history (and is still the case in the few places around the world where it clusters). In the early 20th century, a patient was likely to be treated no better than a wanted criminal; lepers were unable to vote in Louisiana until 1940.

Hell, our families would be better off if we were dead.

Amanda Skenandore, The Second Life of Mirielle West

The Second Life of Mirielle West honors the leprosarium, its inhabitants, and its staff by Amanda Skenandore’s masterful character development and sense of place. Mirielle is a fabulous character: I spent a good deal of the time wanting to slap her, but, in the end, I loved her and her complexity. It’s part of the author’s genius that you end up feeling compassion for everyone from the harsh nun who runs things at the hospital to the impossibly out-of-touch Hollywood husband.

With the stark, dreary whiteness all around them, she understood why he did it. It was an escape from the tedium of their daily lives and the horrors of the disease. It gave them something to talk about in the dressing clinic when she unbandaged and dressed their feet.

Amanda Skenandore, The Second Life of Mirielle West

Skenandore also does a marvelous job in how she delivers the information about the disease. Anyone wanting a study in how to deliver exposition would do themselves a favor by reading this novel. I came to that conclusion when I realized how much I learned about leprosy and how patients were treated and couldn’t come up with a single time when I felt that the story was bogged down in explanations. You learn as Mirielle does, and she cannot absorb it all in one sitting (mostly because it takes her so long to accept the diagnosis and pay attention). No long paragraphs about the disease or its history—it all comes out organically and never breaks the pace.

The seemingly inconsequential details and events she left out of her letters built one upon the other to shape her life here.

Amanda Skenandore, The Second Life of Mirielle West

The novel also examines how we deal with loss: loss of privilege, autonomy, health, loved ones, and our sense of self. It also manages to raise the question of whether we are our best selves when we are overly pampered, and although leprosy is rather an extreme remedy for privilege, the point is subtly made that a life that requires nothing of us is unhealthy as well. Which is worse, the physical leprosy, or a emotional/intellectual/spiritual one? (“Must we have one or the other?” Mirielle would have probably asked.)

There are two types of patients at Carville: those who count themselves among the dead, and those who have the pluck to claim their place among the living. The choice is yours.

Amanda Skenandore, The Second Life of Mirielle West

Mirielle also is a case study in assumptions. She assumes so much about her fellow patients, not to mention the staff, but it all mostly adds up to a blanket assumption that no one can understand her pain, whether because they are too insensitive or boorish or because they have not suffered like her. Little by little, she begins to learn, grudgingly, that no one is immune to pain, even with a disease that numbs.

None of their names stuck in her addled mind. All she noticed was their disease. A few had islands of lesions across their skin—dry, thick patches more or less circular in shape. One had pea-sized blisters up and down her arms. Another hadn’t any eyebrows, only thickened, red skin in their place.

Amanda Skenandore, The Second Life of Mirielle West

And then there are the wonderful touches that root the story in Louisiana. Mirielle isn’t the fan of gumbo that I am, but she takes to Southern sweet tea. I share her difficulty with understanding a thick Cajun accent, although I’d be willing to bet she’s not as mesmerized by it. Mardi Gras is celebrated at the facility with the grudging consent of the Sisters of Charity, and the descriptions of their floats made it come to life. Levees surround the grounds on three sides, holding back the mighty Mississippi, but it’s not to be missed that they are three of the four barricades keeping patients restricted to the grounds.

The Second Life of Mirielle West is not to be missed—it’s a novel that will resonate long after you finish.


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Medea in Chicago

Devil by the Tail by Jeanne Matthews

 Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I want a mystery set in 1867 Chicago with a plucky heroine navigating the corrupt and seamy city with the assistance of a former rebel soldier.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 252

Publisher: D. X. Varos, Ltd.

Series: Garnick & Paschal Mystery

ARC provided by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Historical mystery

From the publisher: Quinn Sinclair, who uses the name Mrs. Paschal professionally, and her wryly observant partner Garnick get two cases on the same day – one to help a man prove he didn’t kill his wife, another to help a lawyer find reasonable doubt that his client killed her ex-lover’s new bride. As the detectives dig deeper, they unearth facts that tie the cases together in disturbing ways.

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Jeanne Matthews has done a great job of starting the action of Devil by the Tail in medias res—I felt sure there was an earlier installment, but, no, there is simply a lot of backstory that is effectively ladled in so that you want to know more. Her depiction of Chicago in 1867 evokes a city bursting with postwar growth and riddled with corruption.

Only those with nothing to lose can afford to pull the Devil by the tail.

Jeanne Matthews, Devil by the Tail

This mystery drags her heroine, Quinn Sinclair AKA Mrs. Paschal, through a couple of whorehouses, which is problematic for a woman who wishes to stay respectable. However, Quinn comes to realize that she can’t be as judgmental as she had been in the past when she realizes how little stands between any given woman and prostitution in a world that doesn’t allow for women to make a living in very many ways.

Detective Paschal, self-styled heroine and daring non-conformist, afraid to lose her respectable, cozy niche at the boardinghouse breakfast table, afraid of the opinion of a bunch of prissy old hens.

Jeanne Matthews, Devil by the Tail

The themes of men and women and how they relate is interwoven through the story, as are the twin mysteries of the man claiming to be falsely accused of murdering his wife and the woman who is on trial for an arson that killed the bride of the man who jilted her as well as the bride’s father.

Quinn’s mind stretched in equipoise like a clothesline hung with contrary reasons and contrary feelings, not to mention a load of dirty linen.

Jeanne Matthews, Devil by the Tail

The misogyny of the period (which can still be seen today) is on full display, as is the tendency of people to judge on the superficial. Clothing, then as now, is a huge signifier of class, wealth, and respectability, and Matthews takes care to let us know what the ladies are wearing as well as how the dress is coded in that period.

Tightly corseted in a low-cut canary yellow dress, she resembled a belted balloon, the upper bulge near to bursting.

Jeanne Matthews, Devil by the Tail

Euripedes’s version of Medea is used to great effect to frame the mystery and its various suspects. In case you don’t remember the play (I was grateful for the reminder within the novel), Jason (of Jason and the Argonauts) dumps Medea, who has killed her brother for him, in order to wed another, and Medea takes her revenge upon the bride. As Matthews deftly insinuates, Jason is as much at fault as Medea, but society immediately makes Medea the sole problem, a horrifying corruption of womanhood.

Men could walk unmolested wherever they chose while women had to skitter about like prey.

Jeanne Matthews, Devil by the Tail

In this mystery, Medea is introduced by a reporter who has no regard for truth, only for the sales of the newspaper, and he threads Medea into his descriptions of the crime, knowing that the play had toured in Chicago relatively recently. Women latch onto this myth as much as the men, often becoming quite ugly about other women in the process.

The leech showed up in Rock Island penniless, a runaway from some little prairie town, all rags and fleas.

Jeanne Matthews, Devil by the Tail

Then there’s the recent Civil War, which is also handled cleverly. Garnick, the former rebel, had been a POW in Camp Douglas, a hellhole which is only lightly discussed, although the Confederate dead play a role in the story. Garnick has disavowed the Cause, wishing he’d never put on the uniform, which mitigates any issues a reader might have about a sympathetic Johnny Reb. Hopefully this history will be explored more in future installments.

No way to justify going to war to keep people in chains. At first I had some notion of loyalty to my neck of the woods, allegiance to kith and kin like the states rights firebrands preached.

Jeanne Matthews, Devil by the Tail

Another theme from the time that Matthews works into the story is that of the prejudice against the Irish. Quinn is often having to sidestep her Irish roots, hearing people disparage the Irish regularly. Her heritage is also at the root of her dispute with her former mother-in-law, who can’t stand to let Quinn inherit from her dead son.

You can wall people in, but I learned you can also wall them out.

Jeanne Matthews, Devil by the Tail

The characters are well-formed, the themes interesting, and the mystery absorbing. There’s a little bit of a let-down in that not all of the people we find out are engaged in nefarious dealings are served justice, but, of course, that can be one of the downsides of historical fiction: the constraints of the facts (unless, of course, you’re Quentin Tarantino). I’m really looking forward to the next installment of this well-constructed mystery series.


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Spotlight: Paris in Ruins by M.K. Tod

Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Summary, Excerpt, Praise, and Author Bio

Pages: 370

Publisher: Heath Street Publishing

ARC provided by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Franco-Prussian War

From the publisher

Paris 1870. Raised for a life of parties and servants, Camille and Mariele have much in common, but it takes the horrors of war to bring them together to fight for the city and people they love.

A few weeks after the abdication of Napoleon III, the Prussian army lays siege to Paris. Camille Noisette, the daughter of a wealthy family, volunteers to nurse wounded soldiers and agrees to spy on a group of radicals plotting to overthrow the French government. Her future sister-in-law, Mariele de Crécy, is appalled by the gaps between rich and poor. She volunteers to look after destitute children whose families can barely afford to eat.

Somehow, Camille and Mariele must find the courage and strength to endure months of devastating siege, bloody civil war, and great personal risk. Through it all, an unexpected friendship grows between the two women, as they face the destruction of Paris and discover that in war women have as much to fight for as men.

War has a way of teaching lessons—if only Camille and Mariele can survive long enough to learn them.

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Excerpt

Although laughter followed, the conversation soon returned to the perilous state of Paris.

“Our leaders have been too busy organizing a new republic and ensuring positions of power for themselves,” said Ernest Garnier, whose bald head and white beard conferred an air of authority.

Camille knew Garnier and his son Jules, who was developing a reputation as a portrait artist. She leaned forward. “And what do you think of our new government, Monsieur Garnier?” she asked. “Will these men be able to lead us through such difficult times?”

“Our government has too many republicans with radical views for my liking,” Ernest Garnier replied. “And too many neophytes. This is a time for men of experience, not men who merely know how to appeal to the masses.”

Garnier’s reply reminded her of the speeches she’d heard at the republican club. “And the women, Monsieur? How do you feel the women can best be of service?”

“Well, the actresses of the Comédie-Française have turned the theater into a convalescent hospital, and there’s a rumor that Sarah Bernhardt will do the same with the Odéon. Perhaps they will need volunteers. No doubt Bernhardt’s relationship with Kératry will enable her to get all the necessary supplies.” Garnier’s eyes twinkled.

Camille had no idea why the men laughed in response. She made a mental note to ask
Bertrand on the way home.

“But to answer your question, Mademoiselle, I don’t believe actresses are suitable companions for a young lady like you,” Garnier continued, bringing the lighthearted moment to an end. “Women like you should stay at home and leave the worrying to us.”

Despite the man’s condescending attitude, Camille smiled to acknowledge his opinion. A few seconds later, she felt a tap on her shoulder. When she turned to look, André tilted his head and gestured at a window next to a potted palm. She waited until the next round of conversation got underway before joining him.

“That conversation was becoming tedious,” André said. “Too many men who think they could do a better job. I doubt any of them have military experience. I need a breath of air. Will you join me on the balcony?”

“When did you join the Guard?” Camille asked after they moved onto the balcony. “I didn’t realize you planned to do so.”

André stared at the street below, where a dog sniffed the ground beneath a lamppost. “I feel it’s my duty. I’m not a man who desires combat, but the times call for extraordinary measures. If men like me refuse to enlist, the National Guard will be dominated by extreme factions who believe in overthrowing the government.”

Camille pressed her lips together. “How will Paris withstand the kind of siege those men are expecting? There won’t be enough food for everyone. The shops and trades won’t have enough business. The poor . . . I can’t imagine what the poor will do. Life is difficult enough for them now. And the Prussians . . .” Suddenly, she felt as if she couldn’t breathe.

“Do you wish me to be frank?” André’s tone remained neutral.

“Of course.”

“Paris can withstand a siege until the level of suffering demands surrender. It’s September. The weather is warm, and for the moment, we have an abundance of food. Come November or December, the poor will be dying in the streets from cold and starvation. People like us will find ways to manage, but others will soon run out of money. Think of the little children who’ll be affected and the women whose husbands will lose their livelihood, or even their lives. Those people won’t be able to keep a roof over their heads. And to make matters worse, the radicals might seize the opportunity to create further turmoil. We could even face another revolution.”

“You make it sound dire, Monsieur and I applaud your decision to enlist. As for me, I hope to volunteer at one of the hospitals.”

“You don’t plan to heed Monsieur Garnier’s words, then.”

“No, Monsieur. His opinions are firmly entrenched in the past. Fortunately, my father
permits me a little more liberty. I chose to remain in Paris in order to be useful.”

“I’m certain you will be more than useful.” He turned to face her. “Will you go to the meetings in Montmartre?”

After attending the club at Restaurant Polignac, she’d spent hours considering André’s request, weighing the dangers against her desire to contribute to the country’s future and the bolder approach to living she’d adopted since Juliette’s death. Ultimately, she had sent him a letter confirming her participation.

“Yes. I gave you my word, Monsieur. I’ll attend the next meeting and let you know what happens.”

He did not smile. “Don’t write anything down. Tell me in person.”

Praise

“The story of two women whose families were caught up in the defense of Paris is deeply moving and suspenseful.” -Margaret George, author of Splendor Before the Dark: A Novel of the Emperor Nero

“Tod is not only a good historian, but also an accomplished writer … a gripping, well-limned picture of a time and a place that provide universal lessons.” -Kirkus Reviews

“M.K. Tod’s elegant style and uncanny eye for time and place again shine through in her riveting new tale, Paris in Ruins.” -Jeffrey K. Walker author of No Hero’s Welcome

About the Author

Paris In Ruins is M.K. Tod’s fourth novel. Mary began writing in 2005 while living as an expat in Hong Kong. What started as an interest in her grandparents’ lives turned into a full-time occupation writing historical fiction. Her other novels are Time and Regret, Lies Told in Silence, and Unravelled.

Beyond writing novels, Mary’s award-winning blog, www.awriterofhistory.com features the reading and writing of historical fiction. When she’s not writing, or thinking about writing, you can find her hiking, golfing, traveling, or hanging out with friends and family. Mary is married and has two adult children and two delightful grandchildren.

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Fiery Girls by Heather Wardell

A book blast from Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Progressive Era Historical Fiction

Giveaway

During the Blog Tour, the publisher is giving away a $20 Amazon Gift Card! The giveaway is open internationally and ends on April 9th. You must be 18 or older to enter.

From the publisher

Two young immigrant women. One historic strike. And the fire that changed America.

In 1909, shy sixteen-year-old Rosie Lehrer is sent to New York City to earn money for her family’s emigration from Russia. She will, but she also longs to make her mark on the world before her parents arrive and marry her to a suitable Jewish man. Could she somehow become one of the passionate and articulate “fiery girls” of her garment workers’ union?

Maria Cirrito, spoiled and confident, lands at Ellis Island a few weeks later. She’s supposed to spend four years earning American wages then return home to Italy with her new-found wealth to make her family’s lives better. But the boy she loves has promised, with only a little coaxing, to follow her to America and marry her. So she plans to stay forever. With him.

Rosie and Maria meet and become friends during the “Uprising of the 20,000” garment workers’ strike, and they’re working together at the Triangle Waist Company on March 25, 1911 when a discarded cigarette sets the factory ablaze. 146 people die that day, and even those who survive will be changed forever.

Carefully researched and full of historic detail, Fiery Girls is a novel of hope: for a better life, for turning tragedy into progress, and for becoming who you’re meant to be.

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About the Author

Heather is a natural 1200 wpm speed reader and the author of twenty-one self-published novels. She came to writing after careers as a software developer and elementary school computer teacher and can’t imagine ever leaving it. In her spare time, she reads, swims, walks, lifts weights, crochets, changes her hair colour, and plays drums and clarinet. Generally not all at once.

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A tale of three orphans

The Girl in the Painting by Tea Cooper

 Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I want to follow two generations of orphans through their struggles, particularly two numerate women.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 383

Publisher: Thomas Nelson

ARC provided by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Late 19th/early 20th century

Giveaway: Enter to win a paperback copy of The Girl in the Painting by Tea Cooper! The giveaway is open to the US only and ends on March 31st. You must be 18 or older to enter.

From the publisher: Australia, 1906. Orphan Jane Piper is nine years old when philanthropist siblings Michael and Elizabeth Quinn take her into their home to further her schooling. The Quinns are no strangers to hardship— having arrived in Australia as penniless immigrants, they now care for others as lost as they once were.

From a Liverpool workhouse to an Australian orphanage, and from a gold rush town to a solid municipality, this tale of three orphans brings in trauma, history, mystery, and social commentary, all within gripping and fast-moving prose. Tea Cooper’s writing illuminates and penetrates, and the plot is well-conceived.

From the water, Sydney didn’t look like much. A small, ugly town, surrounded by barren sandy coves, the trees—short and stunted—clinging to the rocks.

Tea Cooper, The Girl in the Painting

The three orphans are a brother and sister, Michael and Elizabeth Quinn (originally Ó Coinn), and a girl they foster, Jane Piper. Their stories are told in tandem, beginning in 1906 with nine-year-old Jane at the Maitland orphanage, whose life is covered for around a decade. The second thread covers the 1860s to 1870s, with the Quinn’s emigration from England through their life in frontier Bathurst and then to sedate Maitland.

Acumen? What was an acumen? Another A word. She hadn’t had time to look up aptitude and accountant yet, and now she had to remember acumen.

Tea Cooper, The Girl in the Painting

There’s not a lot of discussion of the traumas of their disrupted families, but it’s evident in the way the characters act. Michael and Elizabeth are deliberate in their patronage of the orphanage and of individual orphans, which I read as a tacit understanding of the difficulties those young people would face. Watching the mentoring is more effective than a discussion of it.

Jane discovered there was a whole lot more to arithmetic than she thought. But most fascinating of all was Elizabeth’s abacus. Why didn’t everyone use one?

Tea Cooper, The Girl in the Painting

Cooper also shows the early maturity of these kids, having the responsibility for their own survival thrust upon them early in life. It’s alway surprising to me to remember that kids in other times and/or other places have had to take on so much more than the ones in my life (or that I was).

Michael scrubbed Father MacCormick’s large white handkerchief across his face, drew in several slow breaths, and tried to remember he was a man.

Tea Cooper, The Girl in the Painting

Be prepared, though, if you’re sensitive: there are some fairly detailed depictions of PTSD as well. I’m not a mental health professional, but they match up to the things I’ve had psychiatrists describe (and articles out there on it). Although no one was calling it that back then, there had to be some recognition of the symptoms.

In the corner of the room, in a damp-smelling space between two cabinets, a figure huddled, knees drawn up to her chest, her hands cradling her bent head as though protecting it.

Tea Cooper, The Girl in the Painting

Issues of class, social norms, bigotry, and sexism are all raised by the plot and characters. In particular, both Elizabeth and Jane are numerate and trusted with accounting, which they both recognize is unusual for their sex, and Michael’s attitudes toward their abilities is contrasted by other characters, again, illuminating by example rather than discourse. Overall, the various social issues are handled sensitively.

Angry, red swollen blisters peppered her skin. His words dried in his throat. By all that was holy, something wasn’t right, and he’d be finding out what it was.

Tea Cooper, The Girl in the Painting

I loved all three of these characters. Watching all of them grow and handle the challenges of their sundry lives was a pleasure. I wondered if Cooper was trying to portray Jane as neurodiverse, possibly on the spectrum, but in the historical context, no one would have termed it that way, and I’d be interested to hear if people from that community read her that way.

Numbers had a practicality, a definitive no-nonsense, no-alternatives, no-misinterpretations, black-and-white reality. She always found a certain security and comfort in the neatly lined-up columns and rows of the account ledgers.

Tea Cooper, The Girl in the Painting

The minor characters were also well done—the endlessly catty fellow orphan, the town gossip, the villain…well, he was a little mustache-twirly, but I enjoyed it. The backdrop of Australian history is nicely integrated as well. Despite the fact that Thomas Nelson is publishing this novel, there’s no overt Christianity aside from the cultural Catholicism of the Irish-born Quinns.

It wasn’t only Michael who disapproved of her friendship with Jing. Mr. Li thought her as much of an infidel as people believed the Celestials to be.

Tea Cooper, The Girl in the Painting

Tea Cooper gives a masterclass in The Girl in the Painting about how to “show rather than tell” works, and it will definitely be a book I’ll be recommending and re-reading for a long time.