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Woman Reading by Felix Volloton, circa 1800s

January is the Month of Firsts. Resolutions and new hope shine bright. With those inspiring feelings, I present the January Pre-Reads! The Pre-Reads has been a long standing feature of 19th Century Modern, falling on the last Wednesday of the month. The feature came about when I became a full fledged Librarian and was granted access to some sites for ordering. Despite Historical Fiction being a low draw for my library patrons, I eagerly created a list for myself of 19th century books being published in the next six months that cropped up for reviewing. Since not many share my zest for the 19th century era in real life, I took my list to the blog to share with like minded people. Voila! Pre-Reads was born! Eight fiction and eight non-fiction books that are highly reviewed and cover the gamut of sub-genres are listed alphabetically by title. Sources utilized are Library Journal, Kirkus Review, Publisher’s Weekly, and Amazon. As always non-fiction books are extraordinarily difficult to come by. As such some of these will not be published for quite some time. I am still tweaking my sources for the non-fiction segment. Do note, I have not read any of these titles and cannot personally recommend any in good conscience. However, each fiction book is highly reviewed from multiple sources, so more than one critic likes it!


The Abduction of Smith and Smith by Rashad Harrison

Jupiter Smith, a Union solider and former slave, returns to the plantation where he worked to look for his wife and family, only to find everyone gone and the plantation in ruins. The one person left is the insane plantation owner. In an act of mercy, Jupiter strangles his former master and heads west to search for his family in San Francisco. Soon after, Archer Smith, a Confederate soldier and the owner’s son, arrives home and finds his father murdered. He sets out in pursuit of Jupiter to avenge the death. In San Francisco, Jupiter falls in with a group of thugs known as “crimpers” who abduct men and sell them to merchant sailing vessels. When Jupiter finds the opium-addicted Archer being shanghaied, they both become forced crew members on a ship bound for China and captained by a merciless devil of a man. The duo soon realize that it’s their past connections that might save them from the darkness ahead.

An Affair Downstairs by Sherri Browning

In 1907, Lady Alice Emerson, younger sister of Thornbrook Park’s mistress, Lady Averford, has no intention of marrying, despite societal expectations and family pressure. However, she still wants to experience love and pleasure. To that end, she has her sights set on the rugged estate manager, Logan Winthrop, a brooding loner with a dark past. Logan has likewise fallen for the impetuous, independent Alice, but he knows they can never give in to their desires. As Lady Averford finds her sister one unsuitable marriage prospect after another, Alice and Logan are inevitably forced to choose between love and propriety.

Beyond All Dreams by Elizabeth Camden

Anna O’Brien leads a predictable and quiet life as a map librarian at the illustrious Library of Congress until she stumbles across the baffling mystery of a ship disappeared at sea. Thwarted in her attempts to uncover information, her determination outweighs her shyness and she turns to a dashing congressman for help.

Luke Callahan was one of the nation’s most powerful congressmen before his promising career was shadowed in scandal. Eager to share in a new cause and intrigued by the winsome librarian, he joins forces with Anna to solve the mystery of the lost ship. Opposites in every way, Anna and Luke are unexpectedly drawn to each other despite the strict rules forbidding Anna from any romantic entanglements with members of Congress.

From the gilded halls of the Capitol where powerful men shape the future of the nation, to the scholarly archives of the nation’s finest library, Anna and Luke are soon embroiled in secrets much bigger and more perilous than they ever imagined. Is bringing the truth to light worth risking all they’ve ever dreamed for their futures?

Brentwood’s Ward by Michelle Griep

This action-packed novel is set in the days of the Bow Street runners, amateur neighborhood police in early 19th-century London. Spoiled heiress Emily Payne means to escape her unloving father by taking up with Henley, a handsome cad. Unknown to her, however, her father has run afoul of the smugglers with whom he’s been doing business and has made his own plans to skip town. He hires experienced lawman Nicholas Brentwood to watch out for his daughter in his absence. There’s one pursuit after another: Brentwood chases Emily as she sashays around town, oblivious to the danger she’s in; unscrupulous characters chase first her father’s business partner, then Emily; Brentwood chases Henley and the smugglers; and finally Emily and Brentwood chase each other as the only safe havens in a perilous world.

Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman by Tessa Arlen

Lady Montfort’s annual summer costume ball is the social event of the season. Planned in minute detail by Lady Montfort and dependable housekeeper Mrs. Jackson, the party is proclaimed a huge success until the next morning when Lord Montfort’s troublesome nephew, Teddy, is murdered. A new servant girl and a headstrong young female guest have gone missing, too. Fearing her son may become a suspect after observing him fighting with Teddy the day before, Lady Montfort does some sleuthing with the help of Mrs. Jackson, and their investigation reveals dark secrets.

Gabriel’s Atonement by Vickie McDonough

Gabe Coulter regrets having to kill the desperate cowboy who attacked him after losing everything at the gambling table. To assuage his guilt, Gabe tries anonymously returning the money to the man’s widow. Strong frontier woman Lara Talbot, however, refuses to take what she sees as charity, though her family dearly needs it. She would rather help her grandfather gain a tract of free land in the upcoming great land rush. Without revealing his role in her husband’s death, Gabe befriends and assists Lara. Their feelings for one another are complicated by his deception and fear, her stubbornness, and the constant danger from land-hungry “sooners” and revenge-minded thieves.

Murder by Sarah Pinborough

In 1896, police surgeon Thomas Bond, who was present at the climax of the torso murders investigation, still feels “an awful sense of dread when walking the streets of London.” Bond’s worries increase after Edward Kane, a friend of the late killer James Harrington, shares some incriminating letters that Harrington sent to him years before. When more violence follows, the authorities have reason to hope that the Ripper himself may finally be identified and brought to book. The author’s ingenuity in weaving her macabre plot becomes fully evident by the powerful, jaw-dropping end, and she skillfully instills fear in the reader even with innocuous phrases.

The Revenant: A novel of revenge by Michael Punke

The American West of the 1820s is a harsh and unforgiving place, something that experienced trapper and frontiersman Hugh Glass knows all too well. After narrowly surviving an attack by a grizzly bear, Glass is robbed and abandoned by the two men in his company who were charged with watching over him. Left defenseless with life-threatening injuries, Glass channels his need for revenge into a will to live. He survives on his rage, along with his knowledge of edible plants, ingenuity, and a good sense of geography in a largely unmapped land. He encounters trappers, troops, trading-post owners, explorers, and Native Americans, both friendly and antagonistic. BEING MADE INTO A MOVIE STARRING LEONARDO DICAPRIO.


Creole City: A chronicle of early American New Orleans by Nathalie Dessens

In Creole City, Nathalie Dessens opens a window onto antebellum New Orleans during a period of rapid expansion and dizzying change. Exploring previously neglected aspects of the city’s early nineteenth-century history, Dessens examines how the vibrant, cosmopolitan city of New Orleans came to symbolize progress, adventure, and culture to so many.

Rooting her exploration in the Sainte-Gême Family Papers harbored at The Historic New Orleans Collection, Dessens follows the twenty-year correspondence of Jean Boze to Henri de Ste-Gême, both refugees from Saint-Domingue. Through Boze’s letters, written between 1818 and 1839, readers witness the convergence and merging of cultural attitudes as new arrivals and old colonial populations collide, sparking transformations in the economic, social, and political structures of the city. This Creolization of the city is thus revealed to be at the very heart of New Orleans’s early identity and made this key hub of Atlantic trade so very distinct from other nineteenth-century American metropolises.

The Diary of Olga Romanov: Royal witness to the Russian Revolution by Helen Azar

In August 1914, Russia entered World War I, and with it, the imperial family of Tsar Nicholas II was thrust into a conflict they would not survive. His eldest child, Olga Nikolaevna, great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, had begun a diary in 1905 when she was ten years old and kept writing her thoughts and impressions of day-to-day life as a grand duchess until abruptly ending her entries when her father abdicated his throne in March 1917. Held at the State Archives of the Russian Federation in Moscow, Olga’s diaries during the wartime period have never been translated into English until this volume. At the outset of the war, Olga and her sister Tatiana worked as nurses in a military hospital along with their mother, Tsarina Alexandra. Olga’s younger sisters, Maria and Anastasia, visited the infirmaries to help raise the morale of the wounded and sick soldiers. The strain was indeed great, as Olga records her impressions of tending to the officers who had been injured and maimed in the fighting on the Russian front. Concerns about her sickly brother, Aleksei, abound, as well those for her father, who is seen attempting to manage the ongoing war. Gregori Rasputin appears in entries, too, in an affectionate manner as one would expect of a family friend. While the diaries reflect the interests of a young woman, her tone grows increasingly serious as the Russian army suffers setbacks, Rasputin is ultimately murdered, and a popular movement against her family begins to grow.

Lincoln’s Greatest Case: The river, the bridge, and the making of America by Brian McGinty

In the early hours of May 6, 1856, the steamboat Effie Afton barreled into a pillar of the Rock Island Bridge—the first railroad bridge ever to span the Mississippi River. Soon after, the newly constructed vessel, crowded with passengers and livestock, erupted into flames and sank in the river below, taking much of the bridge with it.

As lawyer and Lincoln scholar Brian McGinty dramatically reveals in Lincoln’s Greatest Case, no one was killed, but the question of who was at fault cried out for an answer. Backed by powerful steamboat interests in St. Louis, the owners of the Effie Afton quickly pressed suit, hoping that a victory would not only prevent the construction of any future bridges from crossing the Mississippi but also thwart the burgeoning spread of railroads from Chicago. The fate of the long-dreamed-of transcontinental railroad lurked ominously in the background, for if rails could not cross the Mississippi by bridge, how could they span the continent all the way to the Pacific?

The official title of the case was Hurd et al. v. The Railroad Bridge Company, but it could have been St. Louis v. Chicago, for the transportation future of the whole nation was at stake. Indeed, was it to be dominated by steamboats or by railroads? Conducted at almost the same time as the notorious Dred Scott case, this new trial riveted the nation’s attention. Meanwhile, Abraham Lincoln, already well known as one of the best trial lawyers in Illinois, was summoned to Chicago to join a handful of crack legal practitioners in the defense of the bridge. While there, he succesfully helped unite the disparate regions of the country with a truly transcontinental rail system and, in the process, added to the stellar reputation that vaulted him into the White House less than four years later.

The Match Girl and the Heiress by Seth Koven

Nellie Dowell was a match factory girl in Victorian London who spent her early years consigned to orphanages and hospitals. Muriel Lester, the daughter of a wealthy shipbuilder, longed to be free of the burden of money and possessions. Together, these unlikely soulmates sought to remake the world according to their own utopian vision of Christ’s teachings. The Match Girl and the Heiress paints an unforgettable portrait of their late-nineteenth-century girlhoods of wealth and want, and their daring twentieth-century experiments in ethical living in a world torn apart by war, imperialism, and industrial capitalism.

The Nuns of Sant’ Ambrogio: The true story of a convent in scandal by Hubert Wolf

In 1858, a German princess, recently inducted into the convent of Sant’Ambrogio in Rome, wrote a frantic letter to her cousin, a confidant of the Pope, claiming that she was being abused and feared for her life. What the subsequent investigation by the Church’s Inquisition uncovered were the extraordinary secrets of Sant’Ambrogio and the illicit behavior of the convent’s beautiful young mistress, Maria Luisa. Having convinced those under her charge that she was having regular visions and heavenly visitations, Maria Luisa began to lead and coerce her novices into lesbian initiation rites and heresies. She entered into a highly eroticized relationship with a young theologian known as Padre Peters—urging him to dispense upon her, in the privacy and sanctity of the confessional box, what the two of them referred to as the “special blessing.”

What emerges through the fog of centuries is a sex scandal of ecclesiastical significance, skillfully brought to light and vividly reconstructed in scholarly detail. Offering a broad historical background on female mystics and the cult of the Virgin Mary, and drawing on written testimony and original documents, Professor Wolf—Germany’s leading scholar of the Catholic Church, and among the very first scholars to be granted access to the archives of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly the office of the Inquisition—tells the incredible story of how one woman was able to perpetrate deception, heresy, seduction, and murder in the heart of the Church itself.

The Playboy Princes: The apprentice years of Edward VII and Edward VIII by Peter J. Beer

Although they were not subjected to the intense media scrutiny that the Royals are today, two Princes of Wales and two namesakes have appeared and captured the fevered imaginations of the public in their wilder early days—later to become Edward VII and Edward VIII respectively. Both have uncanny parallels with modern day princes. The former was, like Charles today, stooging around for years while waiting for a record-breaking mother to either allow him to ascend to the throne—or die. Edward’s romances, too, were the subject of much gossip and, incredibly, one of his mistresses was great-grandmother to one Camilla Parker-Bowles. This Edward had slightly more gravitas than his successor and the man who would briefly become Edward VIII played the playboy to the hilt, irresistibly reminding one of Prince Harry today. Where Harry has caused newspaper and political controversy with his Nazi regalia at parties, Edward seriously flirted with Fascism—but both have been of more than slight concern to the Establishment. This dual biography offers a compelling portrait of men living for the moment, knowing that a later life of solemn duty beckons.

Secret Lives of the Underground Railroad in New York City: Sydney Howard Gay, Louis Napoleon, and the record of fugitives by Don Papson and Tom Calarco

During the fourteen years Sydney Howard Gay edited the American Anti-Slavery Society’s National Anti-Slavery Standard in New York City, he worked with some of the most important Underground agents in the eastern United States, including Thomas Garrett, William Still and James Miller McKim. Gay’s closest associate was Louis Napoleon, a free black man who played a major role in the James Kirk and Lemmon cases. For more than two years, Gay kept a record of the fugitives he and Napoleon aided. These never before published records are annotated in this book. Revealing how Gay was drawn into the bitter division between Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, the work exposes the private opinions that divided abolitionists. It describes the network of black and white men and women who were vital links in the extensive Underground Railroad, conclusively confirming a daily reality.

Sophia: Princess, suffragette, revolutionary by Anita Anand

In 1876 Sophia Duleep Singh was born into Indian royalty. Her father, Maharajah Duleep Singh, was heir to the Kingdom of the Sikhs, one of the greatest empires of the Indian subcontinent, a realm that stretched from the lush Kashmir Valley to the craggy foothills of the Khyber Pass and included the mighty cities of Lahore and Peshawar. It was a territory irresistible to the British, who plundered everything, including the fabled Koh-I-Noor diamond.

Exiled to England, the dispossessed Maharajah transformed his estate at Elveden in Suffolk into a Moghul palace, its grounds stocked with leopards, monkeys and exotic birds. Sophia, god-daughter of Queen Victoria, was raised a genteel aristocratic Englishwoman: presented at court, afforded grace and favor lodgings at Hampton Court Palace and photographed wearing the latest fashions for the society pages. But when, in secret defiance of the British government, she travelled to India, she returned a revolutionary.

Sophia transcended her heritage to devote herself to battling injustice and inequality, a far cry from the life to which she was born. Her causes were the struggle for Indian Independence, the fate of the lascars, the welfare of Indian soldiers in the First World War – and, above all, the fight for female suffrage. She was bold and fearless, attacking politicians, putting herself in the front line and swapping her silks for a nurse’s uniform to tend wounded soldiers evacuated from the battlefields.