February brings an onslaught of new 19th century inspired reading choices! For this month’s Pre-Reads I actually had to narrow down the fiction selection to eight because there was a multitude of well-reviewed books debuting. I also discovered an upgraded vendor website expands my jurisdiction to non-fiction titles and their summaries. Returning readers to the blog know the drill with Pre-Reads.
For those new readers . . . Hello! As a librarian by trade, I have some access to books that have not been released or published yet. I cull only sixteen of the highly-reviewed fiction and non-fiction titles from Library Journal, Kirkus Review, Baker and Taylor, Publisher’s Weekly, and Amazon, loosely focused on the 19th century. So there is a nice mix of Steampunk and Regency, occasionally late 18th century inspired bits, all the way through the Edwardian period before the world converges into the Great War.
Personally, I have not read any of these titles, but I certainly hope to! If you have the chance to read some, please let me know your opinions. I am curious to hear if there is a disparity between critical reviewers and the masses.
Now, for your February sneak peak . . . *pulls the thick red velvet curtain aside* . . .
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.
Almost Famous: Stories by Megan Mayhew Bergman
Short, punchy sketches of women either completely neglected by popular memory or better known for their association with men. Hence we have Lucia Joyce, daughter of James, in “Expression Theory,” Dora Millay occupying the shadow of her sister, Vincent, in “Dora Millay’s Film Noir Period,” and the steady dissolution of Oscar Wilde’s niece in “Who Killed Dolly Wilde?” Bergman’s strongest stories concentrate on the historical moments in which her cast of characters (which includes conjoined twins, lady stunt motorcyclists, and smart-mouthed horn players) function as vectors, precisely because these women—lesbians, artists, and African Americans—remain outsiders in their own era. The larger-than-life boat racer “Joe” Carstairs makes her private island into a refuge for lost souls in “The Siege At Whale Cay”; the painter Romaine Brooks shuns even her servants in “Romain Remains”; and Butterfly McQueen repudiates both God and her most famous role, the maid from Gone With the Wind, in “Saving Butterfly McQueen.” But for all its veneration for these women, the collection becomes repetitive—too many devoted friends narrating the story of their doomed and famous peers, too many aging burnt-out dames and, overall, too little access to the actual voice and psychology of its heroines.
Doctor Death by Lene Kaaberbol and Elisabeth Dyssegaard
Set mainly in 1894 in provincial Varbourg, France, Kaaberbøl’s excellent first in a new historical series introduces Dr. Albert Karno and his scalpel-sharp 20-year-old daughter, Madeleine, who must figure out who murdered lovely 17-year-old Cecile Montaine. Days later, Father Abigore, the Montaine family priest, is murdered as well, and his body is stolen during a violent attack on the hearse transporting it. The investigation pushes passionate aspiring physician Madeleine well beyond conventional expectations for a proper young woman. She goes to Heidelberg to seek the aid of a dashing academic, and later to the forest-ringed Bernardine convent where Cecile was attending school until her disappearance.
Into the Savage Country by Shannon Burke
A masterpiece of historical accuracy and exciting storytelling. Set in the 1820s, this bawdy tale of unwashed mountain men and foul-smelling fur trappers follows a 22-year-old tenderfoot named William Wyeth, who is seeking his fortune as a trapper with such real-life notables as Jim Bridger, Jedediah Smith, and Hugh Glass. Wyeth is an idealistic young man, eager to prove his worth to his doubting father, and just as eager to win the affection of Alene Chevalier, the destitute widow of a friend. Then a rival for Chevalier’s attention shows up: the unscrupulous Henry Layton, an old enemy of Wyeth’s. Layton plans to start his own fur company and invites Wyeth (who needs money) to join, which is too tempting for Wyeth to refuse. Their Market Street Fur Company must compete with other American, British, and French trapping outfits, as well as the Crow and Blackfeet Indians, in western Wyoming’s inhospitable Wind River Mountains. Wyeth and his party contend with bear attacks, betrayal, and murder—and not all of them keep their hair. Meanwhile, Wyeth wonders if Alene will still be waiting when he returns from the mountains.
Karen Memory by Elisabeth Bear
Rollicking, suspenseful, and sentimental steampunk novel introduces Karen Memery, a teenage “seamstress”—that is, a prostitute—at Madame Damnable’s Hôtel Mon Cherie in Rapid City. This Pacific Northwest city of an alternate 1878 is home to airships, surgical machines, and other mechanical wonders that can also be put to horrific use. As Karen meets and begins to fall for Priya, another sex worker who escaped from evil pimp Peter Bantle, they learn that Bantle has more dark plans than brothel competition. U.S. Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves and his Comanche partner, Tomoatooah, also tie Bantle to the gruesome murders of some of Rapid City’s most vulnerable women.
My Heart Stood Still by Lori Copeland
Pulling off as many cons as they have, it is surprising that the McDougal sisters had not yet been hauled off to jail. But their luck ran out in Sisters of Mercy Flats when their wagon was attacked, and each sister was rescued by a different man. Anne-Marie, the middle sibling, is saved by the handsome but silent Creed Walker, a Crow warrior. Times are hard in a land split by the Civil War. While traveling back to Anne-Marie’s home of Mercy Flats, the couple find their faith and trust in each other growing, along with an undeniable attraction. Unfortunately, both have committed themselves to others. It seems as though God has already set the course for their lives, but sometimes even his plans can change unexpectedly.
The Season of Migration by Nellie Hermann
A sensitive novel about a crucial turning point in the life of Vincent van Gogh.Shortly after being dismissed from his post as a lay preacher in a Belgian mining town, van Gogh stopped writing to his younger brother, Theo, for 10 months, the only gap in their voluminous correspondence. As Hermann imagines it, the passionate, awkward, unfocused van Gogh knows he’s once again disappointed his parents, and a visit from Theo—comfortably ensconced at Goupil’s, the art dealership where Vincent once worked—makes it clear that his brother too is worried about him. “[D]on’t you want improvement in your life?” Theo asks. “[Y]ou’ve changed so much that you’re just not the same any longer.” This loss of faith by the person closest to him unnerves van Gogh, already shaken by his encounter with the grim realities of mining life and his inability to provide the soothing religious reassurances his father d oles out as a minister. Hermann combines an account of Vincent’s long walk toward Paris to see Theo in May 1880 with letters describing his transformative stay in Belgium, which he plans to deliver by hand so his brother can understand what has happened to him.
Secrets of a Scandalous Heiress by Theresa Romain
Augusta Meredith, who has money from her family’s cosmetics fortune but no title, is used to circling the edges of the beau monde. Marrying the right man could give her access to the inner circle, but the only fellows buzzing near her are pathetic fortune-hunting losers. So she accompanies a friend to Bath for a change of scene—and name, registering as Mrs. John Flowers in order to escape the taint of industry and the inevitable fortune hunters. The trip is already going poorly when Josiah “Joss” Everett recognizes her. Everett, who’s also an outsider of sorts, agrees to keep her secret if she will reciprocate by keeping mum about his reasons for being in Bath, which involve blackmail and Joss’s adulterous cousin, Baron Sutcliffe.
The Buffalo Soldiers: Their epic story and major campaigns by Debra Sheffer
This riveting narrative focuses on the Buffalo Soldiers, tracing the legacy of black military service and its social, economic, and political impact from the colonial era through the end of the nineteenth century.
Jane Austen: Love is like a rose by Andrew Norton
Whereas many aspects of Jane Austen’s life are well known and documented, others are shrouded in mystery. This was not as a result of any action on her part. It was principally because of the actions of her sister Cassandra, who, after Jane’s death, deliberately destroyed numerous letters sent by her to family and friends. Jane’s family and friends have alluded to the fact that, at the turn of the 17-18th century, she fell in love with a person whose identity has remained a mystery. Is it possible, after a passage of more than two centuries, and despite the fact that Cassandra destroyed letters written by Jane at the time in question, for this mystery lover to be identified? The answer is yes. Barrington Court in Somersetshire is one of the National Trust’s most prestigious properties, and evidence is produced for the very first time that this property was Jane’s inspiration for ‘Kellynch Hall’, home of Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion.
Little Demon in the City of Light: A true story of murder in Belle Époque Paris by Steven Levingston
The titular figure in this lively popular history is Gabrielle Bompard, a young woman who became infamous as the accomplice in a garish and notorious murder in 1889 Paris. Mistress of the con man Michel Eyraud, Bompard and her tragic story became a historical footnote; her case at trial rested on a precedent-setting hypnotism defense. In seeking to absolve her of responsibility, the reference to hypnotic suggestion (then an intensely researched subject in the medical community) brought into the spotlight opposing scientific camps, represented by Jules Liégeois—a law professor from Nancy who argued that the hypnotized criminal was not morally culpable—and the eminent Parisian neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, onetime mentor of Freud, who insisted the hypnotist could not override an individual’s moral makeup. Before reaching the spectacular trial, however, journalist Levingston (coauthor of The Whiz Kid of Wall Street’s Investment Guide) spends the first two-thirds of the book meticulously recounting the crime, principal characters, and relevant cultural context. Though limited as a cultural history, the book is lovingly constructed from available sources, including newspapers, memoirs, and secondary histories, and immerses the reader in a period whose newfound obsessions—science and pseudo-science of the mind, criminal forensics, mass media, the macabre, and fame—have a seminal connection to our own time.
The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes by Conevery Bolton Valencious
The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, suffrage, and scandal in the Gilded Age by Myra MacPherson
Beautiful and ambitious Victoria Claflin Woodhull and her sister, Tennessee (Tennie) Claflin, whirled into New York City in 1868, en route to becoming two of the most infamous women in America. After establishing themselves as spiritualists, they called on millionaire Cornelius Vanderbilt, a known believer in mediums. Vanderbilt, entranced by the two—especially Tennie, who became his lover—offered his support, and in 1870 the sisters opened Woodhull, Claflin and Co., the first female-owned brokerage firm. Their boldness attracted the attention of women’s rights activists, and they soon received a visit from the venerable Susan B. Anthony at their Wall Street office. Woodhull became involved in the suffrage campaign, but on her own terms—which often put her at odds with established organizations—and cemented her radical reputation when she publicly announced she was a free lover. She then exposed the marital infidelities of influential minister Henry Ward Beecher, leading to a sensational trial that ultimately drove the sisters out of the country.
Strong Boy: The life and times of John L. Sullivan, America’s first sports hero by Christopher Klein
In the late 1800s, boxing matches were little more than “savage human cockfights.” Though prizefighting had rules, few participants followed them; moreover, the sport itself was mired in corruption and always on the run from the law. All that began to change when “Boston Strong Boy” Sullivan stepped into the ring in the late 1870s. A wondrous ” ‘engine of destruction’ manifest in flesh in blood,” Sullivan drifted into boxing at age 19 after demonstrating his prowess in impromptu brawls that caused him to lose jobs as a day laborer. He began his career by taking part in local matches around his native Boston. In 1880, Sullivan met his first two championship-level opponents and demolished them both. He traveled all over the country to take part in exhibition fights, and he earned a reputation as a fearsome opponent who never lost a match. Two years later, Sullivan finally had his much-desired shot at the heavyweight title in a bare-knuckle, illegal brawl. He defeated the reigning champion and then began another successful fight, outside the ring, to require that prizefights be conducted under Marquess of Queensberry rules, under which contestants had to wear gloves and put an end to such practices as head butting and wrestling.
Victorian Los Angeles: From Pio Pico to Angels Flight by Charles Epting
Before the oil boom and rise of Hollywood brought today’s renowned landmarks to downtown Los Angeles, an entirely different and often forgotten high Victorian city existed. Prior to Union Station, there was the impressive Romanesque Arcade Station of the Southern Pacific line in the 1880s. Before UCLA, the Gothic Revival State Normal School stood in place of today’s Los Angeles Public Library. Elsewhere the city held Victorian pleasure gardens, amusement piers and even an ostrich farm, all lost to time and the rapid modernization of a new century. Local author Charles Epting reveals Los Angeles’s unknown past at the turn of the twentieth century through the prominent citizens, events and major architectural styles that propelled the growth of a nascent city.
The Wilderness of Ruin: A tale of madness, fire, and the hunt for America’s youngest serial killer by Rosanne Montillo
Explores a dark period in 19th-century Boston when a notorious serial torturer attacked young boys. At the center of the author’s historical tapestry is Jesse Pomeroy, whose relentlessly abusive childhood may have inspired the many beating and torturing rages against youth in the Boston area in the 1870s when he was 14 years old. He became known as both the “Red Devil” and one of America’s youngest serial killers. With cinematic narration, Montillo retraces Pomeroy’s sadistic crime spree involving the vicious persecution of boys along the Chelsea, Massachusetts, waterfront and, later, in South Boston, after his mother relocated the family. Once his conviction and sentencing to reform school was completed, however, Pomeroy was released into hi s mother’s custody only to resume his crimes with murderous intensity. The author shares these bloody details with grisly accuracy through the deft interpretation of journals, newspaper articles, books and Pomeroy’s own autobiography. Though this morbid decade in Boston’s history could stand on its own, Montillo effectively incorporates divergent narrative threads profiling the lives of novelist Herman Melville and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Melville was fascinated by Pomeroy’s crimes and enlisted Holmes to explore the nature of madness and the psychological unraveling of Pomeroy who, in 1875, as the area still recovered from the Great Boston Fire, was handed a death sentence by hanging (after much official deliberation, the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment). Montillo creatively revives this tarnished New England era with the meticulous focus of a seasoned archivist and the graphic descriptive powers of a historical novelist.