Friday, December 31, 2021

Nancy's 2021 List: Historical Fiction and Suspense

I told a friend recently that I don't find enough time to read historical fiction, my favorite genre. The reason: I have a fulltime job, kids, and my own books to write. But after making this declaration, I took another look at my Kindle list and at the books stacked by my bed. And you know what? That statement is not in every respect accurate, as Ong Chi Seng said in one of my favorite films, Bette Davis's The Letter.

I've actually read quite a few historical novels in 2021! Now not all of them were published in this calendar year. But that's OK. People don't confine their reading to the year of publication.

So I decided to share my first-ever end-of-year reading list. And I have three reasons. 

First, I want to shine the light on these amazing authors. Some are big bestsellers, and some are with small publishers and frankly need more attention paid. 

The second reason is I realize that I walk a particular line in my reading. I like classic historical novels of queens and kings and soldiers and spies. But I also like murder mysteries and thrillers set in the past.

The third reason is I realize after examining my 2021 list that I read books set in "popular" eras: World War II and the Tudor era. But I enjoy stories in many, many other periods too, from 11th century England to 20th century Mexico and India. 

So without further ado, here is my list of fiction set in the past that I read in 2021...



Dazzlepaint, by Erica Obey. A layered murder mystery set in Woodstock in 1919 that draws on some deliciously eerie legends of the Catskills. 

The Lost Apothecary, by Sarah Penner. This page turner kept me up past 2 a.m. because I had to know what was going to happen to the characters in both 1791 London and the modern day city.

The Bombay Prince, by Sujata Massey. The third book in one of my favorite historical mystery series being written today. Bombay solicitor (and Zorastrian) Perveen Mistry is a fantastic protagonist!

Anticipation, by Melodie Winawer. I love it when science enters the story, and this thriller weaves medical mysteries and mystical possibilities into the rich history of Greece. 

The Women of Chateau Lafayette, by Stephanie Dray. You just have to stand back and applaud the skill of a novel running on different time tracks that manages to pull you into characters' lives like this.

Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. I know I'm a little late to the party here, but I was blown away by the atmosphere and dark tension in this imaginative novel.

The Hollywood Spy, by Susan Elia MacNeal. I don't miss a Maggie Hope mystery. And this installment took Maggie to one of my favorite settings of fiction and film: 1940s Los Angeles. Superb pacing.

Cut From the Earth, by Stephanie Renee Dos Santos. This novel really gets at the drive to create art--and what it could cost someone in past centuries. I loved the "trip" to 18th century Lisbon.

The Strange Case of Eliza Doolittle, by Timothy Miller. A delightful reimagining of a Sherlock Holmes adventure, this is the first in a new series. Lots of surprises here!

The Nicholas le Floch Affair by Jean-François Parot. Yes, it was written in 2009. But I've just discovered this translated series set in pre-Revolutionary France thanks to the fantastic (and sexy) TV series running on MHz.

The Stolen Lady: A Novel of World War II and the Mona Lisa, by Laura Morelli. If somehow you didn't realize that art could be at the heart of page-turning mystery and emotional turmoil, then drop everything and start reading.

The Vanished Days, by Susanna Kearsley. I'm a longtime fan of this author, who always manages to marry haunting stories of love and loss to magnificent history. Here it's Scotland in the late 17th and 18th centuries.

Death of a Showman, by Mariah Fredericks. Gilded Age mysteries don't get much better than this series featuring resourceful lady's maid Jane Prescott. Here Jane dives into Broadway misdeeds.

Katharine Parr, the Sixth Wife, by Alison Weir. One of my favorite historians writing a novel about my favorite wife of Henry VIII? Irresistible. Weir's series found fresh angles to The Six.

The Rose Code, by Kate Quinn. When I hear the words "Bletchley Park," I come running. But it turns into a sprint when the book is by Quinn, who pens such stirring and beautifully researched historical stories.

The Lions of Fifth Avenue, by Fiona Davis. How could I not devour a novel set in one of my favorite buildings in all New York City--the New York Public Library? I loved the strong female protagonist.

The Steel Beneath the Silk, by Patricia Bracewell. Any fan of The Vikings or The Lost Kingdom needs to read this amazing series about the 11th century's Emma of Normandy.

Sharpe's Assassin, by Bernard Cornwell. Paris right after the Battle of Waterloo yields a fantastic setting for espionage and adventure. I interviewed Cornwell  for BookTrib on his writing career.

The City of Tears by Kate Mosse. An author who has deeply inspired me with her blend of suspense, historical atmosphere and richly drawn characters. And here she's writing about the Huguenots!

Next Year in Havana, by Chanel Cleeton. I was late to discovering this 2018 novel, but wow, this author knows how to write compelling characters and ripped-from-the-pages history. (And romance.)

I fear I may have left someone out from my reading list of the year and for that I fervently apologize!!

Head's Up: There are so, so many historical novels and mysteries coming out in 2022. I'm already looking forward to Garden of Sins by Laura Joh Rowland, The Strange Case of the Dutch Painter by Timothy Miller, The Next Ship Home by Heather Webb, And By Fire by Evie Hawtrey, The Prophet's Wife: A Novel of an American Faith by Libby Grant, and Unnatural Creatures by Kris Waldherr.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Sharing the Cover: 'The Fugitive Colours'

I'm thrilled to reveal the cover of my next novel, The Fugitive Colours. The book will be published in May 2022 in the U.S., the UK, Canada, and Australia.

It's a novel about art, silkweaving and espionage, set in London in 1764, and featuring as my main character Genevieve Planché, a Huguenot artist caught between her ambition and protecting those she loves most.



Here's my publisher's description of the book and yours truly:

‘The Fugitive Colours’ reunites readers with Genevieve and again reveals the dazzling world of glamour and treachery in Georgian England. 

 

Now living and working in Spitalfields, Genevieve is struggling to keep her silk business afloat. When she one day receives a surprise invitation from an important artist, Genevieve grasps at the promise of a better life. 


 But she soon begins to suspect that her own secret past has more to do with her entrée into London society than her talent. One wrong move could cost her not just her artistic dreams but the love of those she holds dear. And watching from the shadows are ruthless spies who wish harm to all of England.


A sequel to Nancy Bilyeau’s The BlueThe Fugitive Colours again reveals a dazzling world of glamour and treachery in Georgian England, when beauty held more value than human life. She immerses readers in a fictionalized account of real lives and events whilst staying faithful to the historical and social context.

Nancy Bilyeau, a Michigan native, has worked as an editor on the staffs of InStyleRolling Stone, and Good Housekeeping. Passionate about history and art, she wrote an award-winning trilogy set in Tudor England before creating a heroine, Genevieve Planché, who holds personal significance. Nancy is descended from a Huguenot settler who came to America in 1661 and draws on her fascination with French Protestant refugees when writing the character of Genevieve Planché, a Huguenot artist. Today Nancy lives in upstate New York with her husband and two children.

You can preorder the paperback or ebook on amazon: https://tinyurl.com/fugitivecolours

It's up on Goodreads if you could go there and click "want to read." The first advance reviews popped up this week!

And if you're a blogger or reviewer, it's up on NetGalley.

I love the way it continues the visual look of The Blue:




Thursday, September 16, 2021

Interview with Julieta Almeida Rodrigues

 A fellow member of the Historical Novel Society, Julieta Almeida Rodrigues, published a fascinating novel, Eleonora and Joseph: Passion, Tragedy and Revolution in the Age of Enlightenment. I asked her recently about what's next in her writing plans.

JAR: Interesting that you should ask this question because your novel The Blue is still very much in my mind today, though I read it in 2018. At the time, I wrote a very short Review that read:  

 What I most loved about The Blue by Nancy Bilyeau is the idea! How art and money combine to form a magnificent 18th century tale of international espionage. As the daughter of a Portuguese collector who did not miss a porcelain sale in the famous Lisbon auction houses, I was brought up with the notion that the blue to be found in exclusive pieces was invaluable. As a child, I lived with these pieces around me. As an adult reader, I loved going back to The Blue and see how, in retrospective, my father had been so justified in his choice of what he sought to collect. 

 Three years later, I am starting a novel that incorporates your idea: that art and money combine in ways that are set to pleasing the eye and can lead to awe-inspiring plots. I am not going into details for the moment; I will only mention that I found a narrative for a work of art that I saw in Istanbul in 2013. It is an extraordinary piece, dating from the late eighteenth century, that makes me shiver every time I look at its reproductions. Two friends of mine from Columbia University wrote a non-fiction book about it. I recall their surprise – and their encouragement - when I said I would like to write a novel incorporating their work.

 Anyway, I designed a plot that combines two settings that are very dear to me: the area of Ajuda in Lisbon – where the attempted assassination of King José of Portugal (1714-1777) took place - and Constantinople (as Istanbul was known until the end of the Ottoman empire), where the piece of art I am referring to was conceived.

 The way ideas travel is wondrous at times. I just finished The Museum of Innocence, the novel by Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish Nobel Prize winner. I also read The Innocence of Objects, the illustrated catalogue of the objects which are part of the museum that Pamuk opened to bring the book alive. Pamuk says his idea for the novel and the museum came at the same time. His notion that objects have a life of their own is rather intriguing. I enjoyed this ideia much more than the love story; I found the romance tiresome at times. Pamuk says some collectors are bashful – they have a wound hidden inside a broken heart – and their collections are a consolation, a palliative for an invisible pain. I had never thought about it this way, but this was certainly the case with my father.

  Then he makes another challenging assertion. He says, “Our museum has been built on the contradictory desires to tell the stories of objects and to demonstrate timeless innocence.”

 Do objects have a timeless innocence? I find this view rather poetic. Objects conjure up feelings; but are they more innocent than people, if wittingly or unwittingly, we happen to compare them? The blue pigment of the porcelain pieces in your novel, The Blue, is far from innocent – and I love it that way!

 Nancy, thank you very much for this opportunity; I appreciate it. The beginning of a novel is a state of elation, and I feel very much at that threshold! 

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

You can find out more about her novel on Goodreads. 


 

 To learn more about Julieta, go to  https://www.julietaalmeidarodriguesauthor.com/

 

Monday, September 13, 2021

Talking About Crime Fiction

 I'm honored to be among the authors on a library panel discussing the research and writing of crime fiction on Tuesday, September 14th. 

Anyone can watch this panel--it's online and free. You just need to register ahead of time. To do so, go here: https://newcity.librarycalendar.com/events/police-procedurals-cozies-and-historicals-writing-and-researching-crime-books



Saturday, August 21, 2021

Erica Obey Interview: A Mystery in Woodstock

The New York town of Woodstock proves a perfect setting for the historical mystery Dazzle Paint, written by Erica Obey, a longtime resident. While many people think of the 1969 rock festival when you say "Woodstock," it's a place with a fascinating history that stretches much further back. There's mystery and magic in Woodstock, evocatively captured by Obey in her fifth novel.

Erica Obey

In its glowing review, Publishers Weekly described Dazzle Paint as a "sprightly paranormal mystery"  with a plot set in 1919 "that involve Communists, Kaiser Wilhelm, Lord Kitchener, Masons, anti-Semites, artists, trade unionists, and all manner of 'bogies, bogles, boggarts, abbey lubbers and buttery spirits.' ” It seems clear that Obey's background--she holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and taught courses on Arthurian romance, fantasy and mystery fiction at various colleges, including Fordham--plays a role in crafting her novel. Also of note: She is the president of the New York chapter of Mystery Writers of America.

The story of Dazzle Paint: Gavin Fellowes, a damaged WWI veteran turned cynical psychic investigator, arrives in Ker-Ys, a Utopian art colony in Woodstock, NY, to investigate a series of purported fairy kidnappings of Communist garment workers who have taken over the failed Overlook Mountain House above the village. He is rapidly confronted with the willful blind spots of the well-meaning artists and the burgeoning anti-Semitism of the Catskills. With the help of Kate Ames, an illustrator and dazzlepaint designer who once might have been kidnapped by the fairies herself, Gavin must dig beneath the myth and legend to uncover an all-too-real occult threat that looms over Europe in the aftermath of the Great War.

Dazzle Paint


I caught up with Obey to ask her about Dazzle Paint and its inspirations.

Nancy Bilyeau: How much of a role did living in Woodstock play in the creation of the plot in 'Dazzle Paint' and when did its various elements come to you? 

Erica Obey: Oh, I think everything! I’ve been living up here for twenty years, but it hardly took that long to realize that you can’t live in these woods without feeling the voices of those that came before you. The colony where I live, Byrdcliffe, is truly a special place, which nurtured not only Bob Dylan but also artists as diverse as Sara Teasdale and Isadora Duncan.

On the porch of "White Pines" at Byrdcliffe. The arts colony was founded in 1902
 and is still offering residencies to artists and writers.

NB: Why did you pick the year you did to set the story in, and do you think the effect of World War One on America is at all misrepresented in our culture?

EO: The aftermath of WWI crystallized attitudes and issues that we are still grappling with today. As I’m sure indigenous Americans find ironic, nativism has always been part of the American psyche, dating back to Astor Place riot of 1849, which was over rival English and American actors performing Macbeth.  However, the massive immigrant influx in the wake of WWI and the Russian Revolution irrevocably coupled immigrants with criminality and Communism.

 NB: How did you research the religious and class tensions that existed in the Hudson Valley in the 1910s and 1920s?

 EO: We are lucky to have a great historical society with extensive archives here in Woodstock as well as many residents whose family roots run very deep in this community. In fact, I lived in terror of a long-time resident reading a detail and crying, “WRONG!” I had a great deal of support from the Historical Society of Woodstock’s archivist, JoAnn Margolis, as well as Richard Heppner, the Town Historian, and Fern Malkine-Falvey, who fact-checked the book for me. I’m sure there remain many errors, but they are entirely my own.

Arists at work on the town's Green.

NB: Is the character of Kate Ames based on a real person? What inspired her?

 EO: Kate and Melisandre’s origins lie in two pairs of girls who captivated the turn-of-the-century imagination, only to be later exposed as hoaxes. The Fox sisters were adolescent spiritualists famed for their table rapping. Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths wittingly or unwittingly perpetrated the Cottingley Fairy Hoax, which convinced even such an arch-rationalist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I have always been fascinated by the question of whether these girls believed in what they were doing or whether they were the victims of cynical adult manipulation. (Or both. It’s obviously not an either/or question.)

 NB: What about Gavin Fellowes? What was his genesis?

 EO: There’s a lot of me in Kate – in particular her reticence. However, because she is so self-contained, I wanted a second narrator whose rational brain is at odds with his emotional/mystical one. The book is intended to be poised between two explanations and I would hope Gavin’s epistemological uncertainty would echo the reader’s.

NB: How closely are the arts and political groups in your novel to the real groups that came to Woodstock in the early 20th century?

 EO: With the exception of the Byrdcliffe Colony, which I fictionalized as Ker-Ys, all the groups and locations in the novel are carefully researched and historically accurate. The American Communist Party did hold a summit at the Overlook Hotel in 1920, and it was this, not the later beatniks and hippies, that put Woodstock on Hoover’s watchlist. I did deliberately fictionalize Byrdcliffe because its past sins are at once more venial and far worse. In particular, the Whiteheads’ anti-Semitism is appalling and undeniable. On the other hand, the more criminal behaviors I invented for Ker-Ys never took place.

 NB: Can you explain the term "dazzle paint" and its importance in the early 20th century?

 EO: Dazzlepaint is one of the most sophisticated forms of camouflage ever invented. Attempts to conceal or disguise troops and weapons are nothing new; think of Macbeth’s Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane. Somewhat less successful attempts include a rather ambitious plan to disguise horses as cows and haystacks to avoid aerial surveillance during WWI. But while rowboats and small crafts could be easily disguised as logs or outcroppings along the shore, it was impossible to use this approach to protect Allied ships from the threat of Germany’s U-Boats on the open sea. Not that people didn’t try: the first attempt to disguise a battleship as a floating island was so top-heavy, the camouflage fell off before the ship even left the harbor. In contrast, dazzlepaint doesn’t try to hide the fact you’re seeing a ship; its jagged lines and awkward angles are instead meant to confuse your perception of the vessel’s direction, speed, and size, so that it is impossible to accurately aim a weapon at it. Modern technology has reduced dazzlepaint to nothing but an elegant artifact, but it remains a tribute to the artistic power of misdirection (which in my mind is a central theme of this book).

NB: Do you think there is a magical element to this part of the Hudson Valley that feeds your fiction and also feeds some of the artistic and political groups that have been drawn here?

EO: It’s very easy if you live in the Hudson Valley. Folklore and mythology are part of the air we breathe. The tradition of legends and hauntings stretches from Washington Irving and Sleepy Hollow all the way to the twentieth-century Pine Grove UFO sightings. There are plenty of jokes about LSD in the water in Woodstock, but many of my neighbors would agree that there is a sense the boundaries between worlds have been lowered up here.

 NB: How close is 2021 Woodstock to the popular stereotype of the town? In other words: what is it with tie-dye?!

 EO: Despite its Bohemian reputation, Woodstock has always been a small town, where everyone knows everyone and families have roots (and feuds) going back centuries. The change over the last year has been seismic, with the Hudson Valley becoming one of the hottest property grabs in the country, and a lot of the long-time locals are (justifiably) feeling pushed out by affluent newcomers who have caused housing prices to skyrocket. 

The radical Maverick Festival in Hurley was founded in 1915

Novelist and poet Hervey White, Maverick's founder, 


Traditionally, Woodstock has always been a combination of liberal and conservative, united by a stubborn individualism and a constitutional resistance to being told what to do. So the same impulse that drove Dylan to create some of the most iconic protest music in history also drives the bikers and hunters with their “Live Free or Die” bumper stickers.

NB: In our time, "conspiracy theory" is a dirty word (or phrase). Do you have a view of conspiracies in history that surface in popular culture and how we can think of them differently?

 EO: There have always been conspiracy theories and secret doctrines, going back far before the Eleusinian Mysteries. They flourished in the 19th century, when amateur antiquarianism was replaced by professional historiography, especially among the (entirely male) Edinburgh school of rationalists. But WWI was a hotbed of very real conspiracy theories, beginning with the Zimmerman telegram, which finally drew the United States into the war. It is well-documented how British Intelligence sought a way of conveying the telegram’s information to the United States without betraying that they had cracked the Axis codes. Despite the admittedly horrible uses conspiracy theories have been forced to serve, I would argue they have always had an anti-authoritarian, anti-rational bent that articulates the concerns of marginalized thinkers.

 NB: Do you have advice for other authors who want to research an area for bits of history that can be woven into popular fiction?

 EO: Every historical novelist has to find their own ways of engaging with the past. For me, it’s two very different sources: Landscape and archives. I love ruins and old buildings and happily, the Hudson Valley is replete with both. I love driving through old towns with either abandoned or repurposed architecture and trying to envision the lives of those who originally occupied those buildings.

 I’m also an archive junkie. Archives are a priceless resource.  I could cite a variety of examples, but I’d like to shout out to Miss Stone, the Woodstock Social Studies teacher who assigned her 7th-grade students the task of creating an oral history of Woodstock life. The assignment dates back as far as 1963, but the carefully hand-written copies remain in the archives of the Historical Society of Woodstock to this day (in FAR better penmanship than my own. Grammar and spelling counted too.)

 NB: What's next for you? Will there be another book with these characters?

 EO: I’m moving on to a contemporary Hudson Valley series, featuring a female programmer and the AI bot she taught to write (and solve) mysteries. Each book is a classic traditional mystery, and the entire series is a love letter to all the Golden Age mysteries I read growing up – as well as the small-town way of life that is rapidly vanishing from the Hudson Valley.

 


Dazzle Paint can be ordered through the bookstore The Golden Notebook and bookshop.org.


Tuesday, December 8, 2020

My Christmas Ghost Story

Last year I wrote a mystery set in New York City in December 1912 that revolves around a young Irish American widow named Helen O'Neill. It's a tale with a ghostly element, and that's something I've wanted to do for years--write a Christmas ghost story.

I'd like to share some reviews:

"The Gilded Age splendors of the Morgan Library come to life in this wonderful, warm-hearted tale of Christmases past, present, and future. Bilyeau weaves a wealth of gorgeous period detail into her ghost story of old New York, delivering genuine chills, family drama, and poignant romance with equal skill. A gorgeous holiday treat!"
—Mariah Fredericks, author of Death of a New American

"All the characters are poignantly human, and their social and cultural backgrounds add rich shadings to their actions. The warmhearted theme of second chances is well balanced with the mysteriousness of the woman’s identity, which Helen gets in trouble trying to uncover. Add a touch of Irish magic to the plot—Helen’s unusual dexterity with her hands reminded her late mother and husband of the aes sidhe—and you have an entrancing ghost story with a touching message."
--Sarah Johnson, Reading the Past

"An enchanting story of the newly rising immigrants and the wealthy of old New York which you can read as quickly as you'd watch a film of The Christmas Carol and will also leave you feeling lovely. Has the author reinvented the much-adored annual Christmas novella? Curl up for an hour or so with a cup of something lovely and read The Ghost of Madison Avenue this season." -- Stephanie Cowell, author of Marrying Mozart

The ebook is priced at 99 cents for one week, up until December 15th. And it is available as a paperback as well--making it an excellent stocking stuffer. You can order the book by clicking here.
 

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Sharing My Research on Coney Island

I'm honored to be asked to be a guest of the "Ask the Expert" series at Coney Island Museum. It will be a zoom, the focus is Dreamland and turn-of-the century Coney Island. I have a whole batch of great vintage photos and postcards loaded up to show. It's tomorrow evening--I know it's the night before Thanksgiving. But I promise to make it interesting.
So if you'd like to escape to 1906 Coney Island for a bit, please stop in. 🙂 The $5 fee goes to the nonprofit Coney Island Museum, which has been closed since March and could really use our help! Register here: