Now that the New Year is officially behind us and winter well underway, it’s time for another skimming of my toppling (virtually, because all these are e-books for me) to-be-read pile. None of these books is actually available yet, although Andrea Penrose’s The Diamond of London will be out a week from Tuesday, but that’s why they are still on my bookshelf instead of (in most cases) already consumed. A combination of long-treasured authors and new-to-me finds, these are all historical fiction, including a couple of mysteries.
Stephanie Dray, Becoming Madam Secretary (Berkley, 2024)
As a Mount Holyoke alumna, I had long known the name of Frances Perkins, the first female cabinet secretary in the US government. But I wasn’t five pages into this novel before I realized that I didn’t have the slightest idea who she really was.
The daughter of an old New England family that traced its descent to the Revolutionary War, Frances defied expectations that she would live a conventional life for an early twentieth-century woman, instead enrolling in a doctoral program at the School of Social Work in New York City, moving into a settlement house in Hell’s Kitchen, and promptly breaking every rule by insisting on offering direct assistance to starving mothers and children—even if that meant taking on the corrupt politicos of Tammany Hall and winning them to her side.
From there, she moved into fire safety regulation and efforts to limit the workweek, especially for women and children, to what was in the 1920s considered a scandalously short fifty-four hours. Tapped as FDR’s secretary of labor, Frances accepted on the grounds that she could push for a national insurance program as one reliable path out of the Great Depression. We know it as Social Security.
But this is not a textbook. It’s a wonderfully intimate portrait of a social reformer who faces many challenges and struggles with her personal and emotional life. I’ll be hosting the author on this blog around the time of the book’s release on March 12, 2024.
Laurie R. King, The Lantern’s Dance (Random House, 2024)
It’s no secret that I love the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and his young wife, Mary Russell. This latest installment in the series begins with Russell and Holmes arriving at a small house in the French countryside. There they discover that their intended host and his family have left for parts unknown because of a recent attempted break-in. Holmes sets off in search of the missing family, while Russell, whose twisted ankle has yet to heal, remains in the village to see what she can figure out about the intruder, identified only as a dark-skinned man probably from the Indian subcontinent, and his goals.
She unpacks a series of boxes and discovers, in addition to paintings and photographs, a lantern designed to act as a kind of early projection camera and a coded journal written in a woman’s hand, with an introduction in French. Having little else to do with her time, Russell exerts herself to crack the code, and the rest of the novel is told from the alternating perspectives of Russell and Holmes, interspersed with chapters from the journal. As each short journey into the past reaches its end, its impact on the present becomes clearer, by the end revealing a secret thread running through Holmes’s past. You too can find out the details when the novel comes out on February 13, 2024.
Clare McHugh, The Romanov Brides (William Morrow, 3/12/24)
What can I say? Romanovs. Anyone who reads this blog must know by now that I’m fascinated by Russian history, and although there are, in my view, many interesting stories besides those that involve the guys who lost the royal farm, so to speak, I’m always a sucker for a new angle on the Romanovs, even the last of them.
This novel focuses on two sisters, Ella and Alix—German princesses who were supposed to accept their grandmother Queen Victoria’s plans for them but instead struck out on their own. Ella married Grand Duke Sergei (here Serge), the brother of Emperor Alexander III. At her wedding, Alix—better known as Empress Alexandra—met and captivated the tsar’s son Nicholas. And the rest, as they say, is history. I haven’t started this one yet, so I can’t say much more, but I’ll have it done well before the release on March 12, 2024, and will host a written interview with the author here around that time.
Andrea Penrose, The Diamond of London (Kensington Books, 2024)
I’m also a huge fan of Andrea Penrose’s work. In this latest novel, she has temporarily abandoned the Regency mysteries for which she is best known, although not the period in which they are set. The titular Diamond of this fictional biography is Lady Hester Stanhope, tagged even today with adjectives such as “notorious” and “eccentric.” Raised according to the tenets of Jean-Jacques Rousseau by her politically radical and mentally unstable father, Lady Hester eventually makes her escape to London. At twenty-four, she is regarded as almost too old to wed, but her ties to the politically powerful Pitt family, which boasts two prime ministers among its ranks, mean that she is still a “catch” for men of ambition.
Lady Hester wants none of it. She’d rather dress in men’s clothes and sneak out to prize fights with her cousin Camelford, known to society as the “Half-Mad Lord,” or ride hell-for-leather across the moors. And so the stage is set for what will become, over the course of the book, a spectacular and wholly unconventional life. I’ll be discussing the details with Andrea Penrose on New Books in Historical Fiction around the time of the book’s release on January 23, 2014.
Kate Quinn and Janie Chang, The Phoenix Crown (William Morrow, 2024)
Kate Quinn and Janie Chang are both independently acclaimed authors of historical fiction. Here they combine their skills to tell a story about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake from multiple points of view. One line follows the story of Alice Eastwood, a botanist whom we meet in London five years after the tragedy. Her perspective is contrasted with that of Gemma Garland, an aspiring opera star whose unique voice can’t quite compensate for the migraines that sideline her just as she’s about to make her mark on the world. The third narrator is a young Chinese-American named Feng Suling (“Suzie” to the rich white customers who can’t be bothered to learn her name), with a gift for embroidery and a grand ambition: to escape the arranged marriage her uncle plans for her and reunite with Reggie, the love she has lost.
How these three stories intersect and overlap, united by the Phoenix Crown and the man who owns it, I’ll leave for you to discover. Each chapter is marked by its proximity to the forthcoming earthquake (unknown to the protagonists, of course), but even without that impending threat, the story will draw you in and keep you hooked. The book is due on February 13, 2024, but because of scheduling conflicts, I won’t be able to publish my New Books Network interview with the authors until April.
Deanna Raybourn, A Grave Robbery (Berkley, 3/12/24)
This series featuring the lepidopterist Veronica Speedwell and her partner (in every sense of the word)—the taxonomist Revelstoke Templeton-Vane, known as Stoker—is an utter delight. There are mysteries, sure, but there is also a great deal of humor, and I no sooner finish one than I long for the next.
The latest installment, due on March 12, opens with a golden marmoset that has developed a crush on Stoker and consequent jealousy of Veronica, who returns the animal’s dislike in full measure. Their eccentric boss, Lord Rosemorran, has already filled his own estate to the brim with curiosities of all sorts, and in chapter 1 it becomes clear that he has additional items stashed in various London warehouses, which Veronica and Stoker will one day be charged with cataloguing (assuming they can ever make their way through the existing collection).
One such item is a wax statue of a young woman in medieval dress, and Lord Rosemorran’s irrepressible youngest daughter, Lady Rose (who shares the marmoset’s sentiments about Stoker and Veronica) demands that Stoker insert a mechanism in the wax statue that will make it appear to breathe. This is clearly a setup for a mystery to come, but I haven’t proceeded far enough to say anymore—and besides, why spoil the fun?