Historical fiction

Step into the Story Highlights

This month at STEP INTO THE STORY we chatted about some fabulous books! To catch up on our highlights:

Our Book of the Month Book Chat was THE PHOENIX CROWN  – check out our discussion on YouTube.

On March 26, Sara Ackerman joined us for our Featured Author Interview to talk about her latest release, THE UNCHARTED FLIGHT OF OLIVIA WEST. Sara was utterly lovely and you can watch our broadcast here.

I did a One-Minute Review of FAST GIRLS by Elise Hooper on Facebook – this title is part of our 2024 Reading Challenge and it was lovely!

And Barb highlighted CAN’T WE BE FRIENDS, the new book by Denny S Bryce and Eliza Knight about the friendship between Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe.

For more fun content including cover reveals, history snippets, and lots of book chat, join our Step Into The Story Facebook group. You can watch our videos on our YouTube Channel – subscribe to get our bi-monthly features!

Have you joined Step Into The Story?

Did you know I’m a co-host of a group called STEP INTO THE STORY that features mostly historical fiction? My bestie Barbara Tanner Wallace and I run a monthly book chat, interview featured authors, do video reviews, and post tidbits about history and historical fiction in our Facebook group, on Instagram @stepintothestorybooks , and on YouTube! For example, in January we read Jenni L Walsh’s new book UNSINKABLE, as well as interviewed Glynis Peters on her latest in her Red Cross Orphans series, THE ORPHAN’S HOMECOMING. This month we are reading THE FROZEN RIVER by Ariel Lawhon – our chat is coming on the 13th – and our featured author is Embassie Susberry, the author of CODE NAME BUTTERFLY, which is a story about Josephine Baker!

We would love for you to join us, share what you’re reading, and maybe even participate in our 2024 Reading Challenge! All the details are in our Facebook Group!

Top Ten Books of 2023

I read 60 books this year, and there were so many standout titles I feel blessed with an embarrassment of riches.  However, I’ve narrowed it down to my top 10 that I can wholeheartedly recommend. These weren’t just fantastic stories, but ones I find myself revisiting in my head or telling others about most often.

10 – The House of Eve by Sadeqa Johnson: What a powerhouse of a book! There is so much to unpack here: racism, colorism, classism, reproductive rights, female ambition; matriarchal families, mother/child relationships… but at its heart are two amazing young women, Ruby and Eleanor, who will capture your heart and have you rooting for them to not just persevere but ultimately triumph. It’s a riveting, heartbreaking, unputdownable read that will stay with you long after the book is over!

9 – Things Past Telling by Sheila Williams: This is a spellbinding, gorgeous page-turner that paints an intimate portrait of Maryam’s life – all 100+ years of it. Incredible attention to dialect and diction and exacting pacing made for an immersive experience…from the first page right to the last. This is a story about a woman who was enslaved but not defined by slavery, who had adventures and used her talents to better her life even in the direst circumstances. It’s a story of love and loss, of joy and sorrow, and demonstrates why we need #ownvoices authors to write these stories so they are not lost.

8 – The Paris Daughter by Kristin Harmel: THE PARIS DAUGHTER examines the power, strength, and frailty of motherhood through Elise, Juliette, and Ruth, women who suffer during WW2 for various reasons but are bound together through their roles as mothers. Until disaster strikes, changing everything forever. It’s a story about lives being shattered and then finding the pieces and putting them back together again – just as Harmel broke my heart and mended it in the end. My favorite title of Harmel’s to date, and simply breathtaking.

7 – A Botanist’s Guide to Flowers and Fatality by Kate Khavari: All the things to love about a Victorian mystery – but set in 1920s London! We have a women in a STEM profession who is also our sleuth, a delicious mystery where the victims were sent poisonous flowers before their deaths, and a love triangle because who doesn’t love a smart, capable woman? Saffron Everleigh is a botanist studying poisonings with her research partner, Dr. Lee. When she’s asked to help with a current investigation, she and Lee descend into a shady social circle filled with drug abuse and dysfunction. The closer they get to solving the murders, the more Saffron finds herself in danger.

6 – A Dreadful Splendour by B.R. Meyers: What an amazing read! Full of twists and turns, fast-paced and tightly plotted, A DREADFUL SPLENDOUR kept me guessing right to the very end! A haunted estate, a spiritualist on the run, and a murder to solve drive this story to a surprising conclusion, especially when an unexpected arrival (or 2!) to the final seance sends the stakes soaring. Brilliantly done, and highly recommend!

5 – Angels of the Resistance by Noelle Salazar: A gripping and unflinching story that explores the lengths Resistance fighters would go to to fight back, as well as the physical and emotional toll on those involved. We meet Lien and Elief when they are fourteen and sixteen, and Salazar does a brilliant job of making us care for two girls who are concerned with typical teenage things: school, boys, family, a social life. The sisters are “eased” into the resistance movement with non-voilent tasks, but before long they are training for tougher missions. It’s brilliantly done, shining a light on the bonds of family, the courage of fighting back, and the long-reaching consequences of doing the right thing no matter the personal cost. Absolutely riveting and unputdownable!

4 – The Paris Housekeeper by Renee Ryan: THE PARIS HOUSEKEEPER is a riveting tale of risk and redemption. Within the glamorous walls of the Ritz, Vivian secretly helps Jews obtain false papers to escape France. But when the Paris occupation begins, and Nazis move into the hotel, her strategy must change. To anyone outside looking in, she’s a Nazi sympathizer. But Camille, one of the housemaids, knows her secret, and together they hatch a plan to save another maid, Rachel, by hiding her – right under the Nazis’ noses. Full of danger, bravery, resilience, and sacrifice, the story tension builds until the very last moment in this WW2 page turner.

3 – Only the Beautiful by Susan Meissner: Harrowing, brave, resilient, and stunning, ONLY THE BEAUTIFUL paints a bleak and sometimes brutally honest picture of what humanity does to justify its hateful actions. It tackles the topic of eugenics not only in Germany, where it’s easy to point a finger at the villain in the 1940s, but also in the US long after the war is over. With two incredibly likeable heroines, we are taken on a journey that is painful yet somehow never loses its hope. It’s brilliantly done, with an ending that is absolutely perfect.

2 – The Porcelain Moon by Janie Chang: Simply beautiful writing, wonderful characters and a compelling plot will keep you turning the pages in this story that breathes life into a part of history that has been untold for too long. With a backdrop of World War 1 and the Chinese Labour Corps in France, we fall in love with Pauline, whose uncle owns an antique shop in Paris, and who is destined to be sent back to Shanghai to be married; we feel for Theo, who is also burdened with the weight of expectation and tradition; and it’s impossible not to root for Camille, a young wife who is desperate to escape an abusive marriage. Obedience wars with personal autonomy, family expectations with a search for happiness, and Chang examines the lengths people will go to to find their own lives.

1 – The Cuban Heiress by Chanel Cleeton: My first by Cleeton and absolutely not my last! I loved this story so much – I didn’t want to put it down! The setting is both glamorous and mysterious – the opulence of the Morro Castle ship as it cruises from NYC to Cuba and back again, and the steamy heat and dark corners of Havana, giving it film noir vibes. Our main characters, Catherine and Elena, are themselves enigmatic and not what they seem, and the author does an outstanding job of peeling back the layers of character, which in turn ratchets up the tension of the mystery in a perfect pace. It all builts to a fever pitch as the ship nears its destination, only to founder in a storm – a true event that provides the perfect backdrop for the climax. One of my favorite parts is the relationship between Catherine and Harry, which is so perfectly 1930s and “Bogart-ish”.

 

There were so many other amazing stories by Bryn Turnbull, Beatriz Williams, Madeline Martin, Julia Kelly and more on my list – so if you want to see all my reviews you can check out my Goodreads challenge at https://www.goodreads.com/user_challenges/39648837!

New Historical Fiction coming your way!

While still in the early stages, I’m happy to announce I’ve signed on with One More Chapter/HarperCollins for another historical fiction, tentatively titled THE COLDEST NIGHT.  It’s set on board the Titanic, the Carpathia, and also in Halifax as my characters find their secret plans suddenly altered when the Titanic hits an iceberg – clearly changing the trajectory of their lives forever. There are secrets and lies, and the startling realization that riches and fame are no guard against tragedy – or a way to escape justice. I’m super excited about it!

It’s slotted for a 2025 release, so I’ll keep you posted. 🙂

Information Wanted – The Halifax Explosion

I’m a bit late posting my blog on this, as life got a little crazy and I decided that I needed to add my first bout of Covid to the mix (4 days after my latest vaccination. UGH!). However I really wanted to highlight the 106th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion, which is the setting of my next book, WHEN THE WORLD FELL SILENT.
I learned so much while researching this event that happened in Halifax, NS – a place I now call home. Fun fact: despite growing up only a province away, I didn’t learn about the explosion until 12th grade, and I learned about it in a literature class, not history! In Atlantic Lit we read BAROMETER RISING by Hugh McLennan. I LOVED it and through the characters learned about this massive tragedy in Canadian history – the largest manmade explosion until the US dropped the atom bomb on Japan.
It was a natural choice for me to choose this period in Halifax history as the time setting for my book. As I created characters who navigated this tragedy, I also looked for real events and information I could use in developing my story. And while searching for bits and pieces about babies and orphans, I came across this ad from the Evening Post on December 18. The word baby is highlighted, as that was a search term I used at Newspapers.com (what a fabulous research tool!)
Granted, I took a small liberty and used the date of December 23 when one of my characters spies this ad in the paper. But think of it: this child is in the hospital, no one knows her name or who were parents are or where she came from. It is now twelve days after the explosion and no one has come to claim her. Was she orphaned? Separated from her parents? Is someone trying to find her?
The papers were full of these kinds of advertisements and requests for information, and reading through them was, I think, my favorite part of my research process. WHEN THE WORLD FELL SILENT will hit shelves in August 2024… I can’t wait for you all to read it!

September Reads

My reading was a bit slower this month – there’s been a lot going on plus finishing up the veg garden which has made for weekends of canning and freezing and not reading! But I did manage to read three great historical fiction titles. What’s so cool is that they are so very DIFFERENT from each other. Three Words for Goodbye is set in the late thirties before the beginning of WW2 and takes place mostly in settings around Europe. The Fire and the Ore is set in the 1850s in Utah. And The Roaring Days of Zora Lily is a 1920’s tale that takes place mostly in Seattle (with a stop in Hollywood). The styles of the authors are also very, very different. I find I have something to learn from each book, and can recommend all three!

IF NOT NOW, WHEN?

Time is funny. It can feel like it’s dragging, or feel like it’s whizzing by. Sometimes it feels like both at the same time. But I think all of us can agree that it’s like there’s some kind of hazy time warp thing that happens when we think about the Covid 19 pandemic. It’s like from 2020 to late 2022 or early 2023, time exists in this nebulous space, where it all runs together and is measured by illness, lockdowns, or gas price hikes. Just the other day, my husband said something and then furrowed his brow and said, “That was in the spring of… oh heck, during the pandemic somewhere.”

This liminal space had different effects on different people. I ended up finding it beneficial—it forced me to slow down, enjoy nature, think about the direction of my life. My husband knew he had a lay-off coming so we had to look at how that would affect our lives. He transitioned to working from home most of the time; we learned we needed separate offices but liked joint lunch breaks and after work walks. We celebrated our 25th anniversary but couldn’t take the vacation we wanted, instead opting for a single night in a local hotel. I got closer and closer to a milestone birthday, while actually feeling younger than I had in a very long time. We even bought a couple of kayaks and started hitting the nearby lakes.

I have this theory that things show up in our lives when we need them. In that first year of the pandemic, Charlotte Ledger from One More Chapter (part of HarperCollins UK) emailed me, asking if I’d consider writing something with a Canadian setting. First of all, having a publisher ask for Canadian-set books is unusual, so she had my attention. But what was more unusual was that she was looking for historicals. At that point, I’d been publishing contemporary settings for fourteen years. It wasn’t the first time I’d been asked about historical, though…my former editor at Mills and Boon brought it up as well. It was like the universe was saying “nudge nudge, you know that genre you love to read? You need to write one of those.”

I was instantly intrigued, excited, and scared to death.

And really, the whole reason why I hadn’t tried this genre before is all about fear. Fear of getting things wrong, fear of it being crap, fear of failure full stop. And also… a little bit of fear about how much work it would be. Scared of the research, the scope of these kinds of stories…

Looking back, I think I was so afraid because I have a very healthy respect for the complexity of historical fiction, no matter the time period or what “flavour” it is. I thought about it, thought about soon turning 50 (yes, that’s the magic number), thought about this opportunity, and sent her an idea.

There’s a part of the Hero’s Journey called Answering the Call to Adventure, and while I’m not going to Mordor to destroy the One Ring, I do feel like this was a clear moment where I could either keep on doing what I was doing—it wasn’t like I wasn’t enjoying myself!—or I could take a leap into something unknown and challenging and just go for it.

You can guess what I did.

It really came down to me looking in the mirror and saying, “If not now, when?” What was I waiting for? I finished up my current contract while researching my World War 1 story, then dug into writing a tale of love and loss set during the Halifax Explosion, the largest ever man-made explosion until the atom bomb was used in World War 2.

Let’s be clear: there was a huge learning curve. At first, I had this story as a dual timeline between 1917 and the late nineties, but then I ended up axing the more contemporary timeline and instead added a second female point of view in the WW1 timeline. While the story did end up following my revised outline pretty closely—and the level of plotting I did is a blog for another day—at the revision stage I ended up changing one of the points of view from third person to first. Pacing, diction, balancing historical events with the characters’ stories… all new to me. But I finished it and was really proud of myself. I told myself that even if Charlotte ultimately passed on it, I’d done something out of my comfort zone and I could shop it around.

But she bought it. And so here we are, mid-process, and I’m experiencing things like they are firsts all over again even though I’ve been doing this for a while. It’s ridiculously fun, exciting, and hard work, and I wouldn’t change a thing. And I’m already working on the next book…

I guess what I’m saying is that stepping out of your comfort zone, taking some risks, not letting fear “drive the bus” as Elizabeth Gilbert says, can be a really great thing. Failure is never permanent; you just try again or take the lessons learned (there are always lessons) and move on. But the chances of having regrets is greatly reduced when you simply look in the mirror and say, “If not now, when?”

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