Eliot Pattison, The King’s Beast (Counterpoint, 2020)
Hard on the heels of July 4 seems like a good time to remember the years leading up the American Revolution, especially the long process by which British colonists began to reimagine themselves as free and independent citizens of a new state. Through the story of Duncan McCallum, a Scotsman sent into exile and indentured servitude, Eliot Pattison brings this mostly under-studied period of the US past to life.
Because of his own experience with injustice and involuntary labor, Duncan establishes bonds with the Native American and black population, both free and slave, and falls in love with Sarah, the daughter of the English nobleman who owned his contract. Having been captured and raised by the Iroquois, Sarah has little interest in her English heritage. If anything, she is an even more staunch supporter of the new way of life than Duncan.
In this sixth book in Pattison’s Bone Rattler series, Duncan has traveled to the Kentucky wilderness in search of a set of giant bones known only as the incognitum. His job is to collect these bones and transport them to Benjamin Franklin in London. But he soon discovers that others less scrupulous than himself are also after the bones, and neither they nor the man who hired them want to see Duncan return from his quest.
A beautifully written novel filled with fascinating, complex characters and meticulous research delivered with a light touch. The scene in a bar where Sarah repels the advances of a pompous redcoat with an “Iroquois haircut” is but one of its many delights.—CPL
Kate Quinn, The Alice Network (William Morrow, 2017)
I really did love The Alice Network. It tells the story of two women, thirty years apart, whose fates become inextricably entwined by the atrocities committed by a French man working for the Germans. In 1915, British orphan Eve Gardiner is recruited to join a network of female spies based in France. The Alice Network is tasked with collecting information that can aid the Allied Powers in winning the war. As a waitress working in a restaurant that caters to German soldiers, the information she gains is invaluable—even if it means she has to get into bed, literally, with the enemy.
In 1947, unwed and pregnant, Charlotte St. Clair makes a pit stop in England on her way to Switzerland for a procedure to take care of her “problem.” Plagued by the desire to locate her cousin, who disappeared in Nazi-occupied France, and with only a name written on a scrap of paper to guide her, she ends up on Eve’s doorstep in London on a rainy night. Eve wants nothing more than to turn her away, but she’s plagued with the memory of what happened to her—and her own act of betrayal—in France. Realizing that her chance for revenge has finally arrived, she accompanies Charlie to France and together they hunt for answers.
This is a story brimming with intrigue, action, betrayal, and romance. The Alice Network was a real thing, and some of the characters are based on real people whose contributions and sacrifices might otherwise be forgotten.—CJH
Erika Rummel, The Road to Gesualdo (D. X. Varos, 2020)
As someone who writes about political marriages and the sixteenth century, I jumped at the chance to read this novel set in Renaissance Italy. Like my May pick, Carolyn James’s historical nonfiction study A Renaissance Marriage, this novel explores the lives of the d’Este family, rulers of Ferrara. Here Leonora d’Este embarks on an arranged marriage with Don Carlo Gesualdo, a noted musician and composer who—as Leonora finds out only after the ceremony—murdered his previous wife after catching her in bed with her lover.
This real-life story is told from the perspective of Livia Prevera—Leonora’s friend, confidante, and lady-in-waiting. Livia has problems of her own: she has fallen in love with Pietro—an archivist who can afford to marry only a woman with money. As Pietro sets off for Rome to meet his assigned bride, the daughter of a wealthy merchant, Livia heads for Gesualdo, not knowing if she will ever again see the man she loves. But romantic intrigue is only one obstacle on the road to Gesualdo, and as darker forces gather, Livia comes to appreciate the inexorable pull of the past.
This thoroughly researched, well-written novel kept me caught up in its twisty plot from the first page to the last. Readers who love Sarah Dunant’s books or Kate Quinn’s Borgia novels can’t go wrong here.—CPL
Sarah-Jane Stratford, Radio Girls (Penguin 2016)
You couldn’t pick a more interesting historical moment for a novel: the place is London, 1926; the BBC is just getting started and everyone has an opinion about whether it is likely to rise or fall. Property-owning women over 30 have the right to vote, but activists are fighting hard to broaden female representation. And with WWI in the rearview mirror, everyone is on the lookout for fascist spies.
The characters that fill the pages of Radio Girls are all fabulous, but Hilda and Maisie especially so. Hilda Matheson, who runs the “talks” program at the BBC (based on the real Hilda Matheson), is a strong woman whom men both admire and see as a threat to “the way things were done” before she came along. We come to know her in good part through the eyes of the fictional Maisie Musgrove—an immigrant from Canada by way of New York, “mousey,” by her own description, poor and neglected. Her fearful ways and inability to speak up for herself make Hilda’s confidence in the face of all obstacles even more apparent. But Hilda sees in Maisie something all the other characters have missed, and when Maisie switches from working for the general director to working as Hilda’s assistant, we get to watch her come into her own. And the real depth of her evolution is in full view when she discovers there is a conspiracy afoot that may hurt Hilda, upend the talks program, and, possibly, throw a wrench into women’s rights generally, all at the same time.
Not only is Radio Girls a great story but the writing is so crisp as to be electrifying in places. Totally entertaining.—JS