The King’s Witch casts a mesmerizing spell

I love anything historical and witchy—particularly when it can be tied to New England’s (most especially Connecticut’s) witch trials, as Tracy Borman’s The King’s Witch can.

Released earlier this week in paperback, The King’s Witch tells the story of Frances Gorges, a young courtier first to the dying Queen Elizabeth, and then to the precocious daughter of Elizabeth’s successor, King James. Living at the royal palace by force, rather than by choice, Frances becomes the target of the scheming Lord Cecil, as well as at first unknowingly involved in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605—finding love, but putting her and her parents’ lives in danger. Surrounding these events is King James’ obsession with hunting and burning witches—which thanks to Lord Cecil, potentially includes Frances.

In real-life England, as Borman so effectively portrays in The King’s Witch, King James’ paranoia and fear about witches affected all of England during his reign, which spanned from 1603-1625. Among many, his actions created the belief that hunting down witches, and killing them, was as necessary as going to church on Sundays.

That mindset was brought to the New England colonies during the “Great Migration” of the early 1600s, influencing Connecticut’s witch trials, Massachusetts’ witch trials, and the many others that took place throughout young America.

The King’s Witch is a must-read for historical fiction and witch lovers. And now’s the perfect time to read it. Just released this week in paperback, you can throw the softcover in your bag and easily take it anywhere. (Though I don’t recommend pulling it out at stoplights. You’ll get too engrossed and miss when the light turns green.)

An even better reason to read The King’s Witch now is that its sequel, book 2 of Borman’s Frances Georges trilogy, will be released on September 3. It’s title: The Devil’s Slave—and no one is more excited than me to have an advance copy!

For many, The Devil’s Slave will be a perfect book to sink into at the start of fall. And good news for those who haven’t yet read The King’s Witch. If you start it now—which you absolutely should! So good!—you won’t have to wait as long as the rest of us to read its continuation!

Before We Were Yours + The Hellfire Club: New paperbacks with New England connections

Among the books with a New England connection out in paperback this week that I’m particularly excited about are one I’ve read and loved, and one that’s getting closer to the top of my #TBR list: Lisa Wingate’s wonderful Before We Were Yours, which I gave five stars on Goodreads, and Jake Tapper’s The Hellfire Club.

Went to college in New Hampshire

I’ll admit that if not written by Tapper—one of my favorite CNN reporters—The Hellfire Club would probably not be a book I’d be excited about right now. A news and political junkie, I find my brain going into overload these days when it comes to Washington lies, scandals and wrongdoings. Whereas I used to binge watch CNN for hours a day, I now take it smaller bites. So the idea of plunging into a lies-full, White House-related political thriller set in Washington, DC—the center of my current daily angst—does not necessarily appeal.That said, I love Jake Tapper and the thoughtful, straight-forward reporting and commentary he brings to CNN and his weekday and Sunday morning shows. A huge historical fiction fan, my interest is also piqued to see how he brings 1950s DC to life as he tells the story of Charlie Marder—an unlikely Congressman who discovers a conspiracy that reaches the highest levels of governance. So I’m giving it a go.

Tapper’s New England connection? He earned his undergraduate degree from Dartmouth in New Hampshire, graduating with a BA in history in 1991.

Like The Hellfire Club, Lisa Wingate’s Before We Were Yours is historical fiction. Alternating between 1930s Tennessee and present-day South Carolina, it flips between the story of five siblings taken from the shanty boat their family lives on and put into an orphanage, and the journey of a Congressman’s daughter to discover her family’s history while nursing her father back to health. (There’s also some political grooming involved.)

Went to elementary school in Massachusetts

I read Before We Were Yours in hardcover. And now that it’s out in paperback, I just might read it again. You should too. Based on a real-life orphanage director who stole poor children and then placed them for adoption with wealthy clients, it’s engaging and compelling from page 1. I’d actually rate Before We Were Yours as one of the most-memorable novels I’ve read in the past few years.

Wingate, who now lives in Texas, spent several years growing up in Massachusetts. She credits her first-grade teacher Mrs. Krackhardt at Peasley School in Northboro with giving her the confidence she needed to eventually pursue a writing career. Said Wingate: “Mrs. Krackhardt wrote on my report card that she expected to see my name in the pages of a magazine one day, and I suddenly felt incredibly special. She started reading my stories to the class, and I was hooked. I quickly discovered the joy of having an audience, and set out on many, many writing projects.”

Mrs. Krackhardt deserves our thanks!

Q&A with Nick Trout, author of The Wonder of Lost Causes

WonderofLostCauses_PBThis week saw the release of The Wonder of Lost Causes—the sixth book written by Massachusetts veterinary surgeon Nick Trout.

And doggone, aren’t we excited!

A novel, The Wonder of Lost Causes tells the story of single mother Dr. Kate Blunt, her son Jasper who suffers from cystic fibrosis, and a disfigured, abandoned dog named Whistler. Too old and too ugly to be adopted, the dog forms an instantaneous, almost magical connection with Jasper. Whistler does not bark, but he speaks to Jasper in a myriad of mysterious ways. With the clock ticking, the dog’s future hangs in the balance. Jasper would do anything to find him a home, but Whistler has chosen them for a reason that Kate, Jasper and readers will discover together. And according to early reviews, all of us will be inspired.

Eager to learn more and help celebrate The Wonder of Lost Causes publication, Literary New England’s Cindy Wolfe Boynton spoke with Nick Trout:

LNE: You’ve shared that like Jasper, the son in The Wonder of Lost Causes, your daughter Emily has cystic fibrosis (CF). As a former medical writer, I believe CF is a very misunderstood disease. Is awareness about CF one of the reasons you wrote this book?

NT: Absolutely.  I want people to see an honest account of CF, up close and personal, an account that explores the challenges for the child with the disease, and the primary care giver battling with every fiber of their being to keep that child in the fight. But I also wanted to pay homage to care givers of those with any number of chronic diseases, in a broader sense. It doesn’t have to be CF. It could be PTSD, autism, diabetes, opioid addiction. The list goes on and on. The kind of daily fights, frustrations, and struggle to find a path forward for CF can apply far more universally than this one disease.

LNE: I’m wondering about your daughter’s reaction to the book and whether she–as well as your own experiences with CF–are why The Wonder of Lost Causes feels like such a personal story.

Nick Trout author photoNT: I couldn’t have written this book without, to some extent, living it.  I hope the reader will sense the authenticity my experiences bring to the novel.  Sometimes it has felt like I have an obligation to share these experiences, and, if possible, try to parse it into something positive and helpful.

LNE: The Wonder of Lost Causes is your sixth book. And like the previous five, it features an irresistible dog on the cover. You know that any book or magazine with an adorable dog on the cover is always going to be a best-seller, right? Pet lovers can’t resist!

NT: Oh, how I wish it were that simple.  As far as I can tell, the potential to write a bestseller depends largely on whether a receptive audience even knows that this book exists.  It’s exactly this kind of experience, answering thoughtful and thought-provoking questions, that gives me a chance to reach a broader audience, and for that I’m extremely grateful.  Writing something that entertains and resonates helps and, yes, as you rightly point out, adorable dog covers can’t hurt. However, it has to be the right cover.  It’s all about the eyes.  Definitely forward facing, definitely out to make direct contact and, ideally, capable of reaching your soul!

LNE: Where does a full-time veterinary surgeon who also has busy family rsponsibilities find time to write?

NT: It’s hard and getting harder with every book I write.  Perhaps my best opportunity to write comes from the hour-long drive to work and home every day.  Especially early in the morning, I’m at my most creative, and I’ll often dictate ideas, dialogue, character development, into my phone as I drive. Hey, this is Boston.  My quality of driving blends right in.

Patron saint of lost dogsLNE: How did writing The Wonder of Lost Causes compare to writing your previous books? It’s been–what?–five years since the publication of your last novel, The Patron Saint of Lost Dogs? Would love to hear about your process.

NT: This was trickier, but I also wanted to take my time and feel as though I had it right.  After my last book, I wrote an entire book proposal about a heroic WW2 dog named Judy, a remarkable animal with a story not dissimilar to the book Unbroken. The week before hitting up editors, another author signed a deal to write his version of the story, a story that had been sitting there for seventy years!  What were the chances?  This knocked me back, and made me want to focus on fiction, and for me, writing fiction is much more challenging and time consuming than my version of non-fiction.  I also have an excellent agent, Jeff Kleinman, without whom my creative process could not happen. Jeff is tough for all the right reasons, so to satisfy him takes time and effort.

LNE: You’ve said that dogs want to take every bite they can out of life and, unlike people, have learned to live their lives without regret. Is this you, too?

NT: I can definitely claim to be ‘trying’ to live every minute of every hour of every day in that I feel as if I am constantly busting my chops to squeeze in every commitment I take on, both personally and professionally.  But, unlike dogs, being human leaves me flawed.  Like I’ve said before, mistakes are inevitable, but what is not, and what will set you apart, is what you learn from them.

LNE: On your website, you talk about how fortunate you feel to have a job that provides you with material for “heart-warming stories [that] quite literally walk, hop and slither through [your] hospital doors. Is this a hint that rabbits and snakes might find their way onto the covers of your novels? I’m sorry to say that if you write a book about a boy and his snake, I’m going to have to pass.

NT: Have no fears, I will not be writing about a snake as a central character in a book.  Then again . . .

LNE: What do you hope people will experience, or take away, from reading The Wonder of Lost Causes?

NT: Where to begin.  A better understanding of cystic fibrosis. An awareness of how hard it is to parent a chronically ill child, no matter what the underlying disease or disorder.  A recognition of how a dog, any dog, can brighten your days, change your outlook, give you purpose and make you want to live.  Like most authors, I’m hoping to entertain my reader, but if I can leave him or her changed in some small, sensitive, even miniscule way, I will have succeeded.  It’s a book about the quest for hope and how a creature as unlikely as a dog might just be what you need to get through and lead you to a brighter side.

Lange morphs from profit-maker to political activist in Hooper’s ‘Learning to See’

I use these Dorothea Lange photographs of destitute pea pickers, taken in California in 1936 during the Great Depression, as a tool to teach my college journalism students about the difference between reporting and storytelling.

Consequently, I was thrilled to learn about, and then read, Learning to See by Elise Hooper.

The novel provides a fictionalized account of Lange’s journey from a successful and self-focused portrait photographer in San Francisco in the late 1910s, to a controversial, politically-minded photojournalist during WWII, determined to show the truth about Japanese-Americans being held in internment camps. Hooper creates a compelling narrative, doing a great job blending historical fact with the complicated inner life of her fictional version of Lange, who relentlessly works to have both a career and keep her children and family together, despite a husband unable to provide either consistent financial support or fidelity.

The result is an engaging story that shows how our relationships, circumstances and choices shape not just who we become, but those whose lives we touch. Often selfish, though also a woman who makes soul-breaking sacrifices, Hooper’s Lange comes to life on the page—challenging us to consider like Lange does how and what we are willing to see.

I gave Learning to See four stars on Goodreads and recommend it to historical fiction lovers, those interested in journalism and photography, and to anyone with a desire—or who questions their ability—to make art and a difference.

Like May Alcott, little sister to Louisa and the protagonist in Hooper’s first novel, The Other Alcott, Hooper grew up in Massachusetts. She now lives on the West Coast and had this to say about Learning to See:

Q: Why did you decide to write about Dorothea Lange?

A: After I finished writing The Other Alcott, I decided to be practical and find a new story set closer to home. I’d always found Oregon-born Imogen Cunningham’s abstracted flower photographs to be beautiful and wanted to learn more about her. During my research, discovered that her best friend, Dorothea Lange, had also been a pioneering photographer, although the women had very different views on the purpose of art and photography. When I learned Lange had photographed the internment of Japanese Americans and that these photos had been impounded due to their subversive points of view, I decided to shift my focus from Cunningham to her best friend, Lange.

Midway through writing this novel, the political climate of the United States shifted with the results of the 2016 presidential election. Women took to the streets in January 2017 to express many grievances over the direction of the nation’s policies and values. This energy and rising political consciousness made me believe Dorothea Lange was more relevant than ever since she was a woman who had experienced a political awakening in her late thirties and acted on it. As a result of the worsening economic conditions in California and the breadlines threading down the sidewalk underneath her studio window in the 1930s, she became an activist for democratic values and social justice. Though she sometimes denied any political angle to her art, she often spoke about her desire for her work to prompt conversations about labor, social class, race, and the environment. Her awakening as an activist breathed new life into this project for me and made me more excited than ever to tell her story.

Q: It’s interesting that a woman who is best known for taking such poignant images of women and children had such a conflicted family life.

A: Dorothea’s complex and seemingly contradictory feelings about motherhood fascinated me. Her own father abandoned her family when she was twelve, and this left her with a powerful sense of rejection. So deep was her hurt that she rarely spoke of it to anyone. In fact, it wasn’t until after her death that Paul Taylor learned the truth of her father’s absence in her life. Yet despite the anguish that her father’s abandonment caused her, she fostered her own sons out during the Great Depression, a choice for which her children never forgave her.

No one faulted Maynard and Paul for not attending to their children, but people questioned Dorothea’s choices and this criticism stung her. Her ambitions and talents put her at odds with many of the norms of the time when few women were the breadwinners in their families. So, although she sometimes felt guilty and selfish, she persevered with work she believed was necessary and important. This tension between ambition and parental duty drew me into her story. While I wrote this story, there were times when I struggled to make sense of Dorothea’s choices to foster her children out to strangers, especially after she married Paul Taylor, but I had to remember that in the early 1900s commonly accepted ideas about child-rearing and child development differed from today. People tended to emphasize the resilience of children and overlook their emotional needs. In some ways Dorothea reminded me of another woman from the same era who is celebrated for her humanitarian work: Eleanor Roosevelt. Like Lange, Roosevelt had a fraught relationship with her children stemming largely from her active political career outside the home. The fact is that women who chose to pursue careers in the early 1900s lacked role models, mentors, affordable childcare options, and other supports that are now widely accepted to be critical to balancing motherhood with work outside the home.

Q: Why didn’t Maynard or Paul do more to help with the care of their children?

A: The expectations of the time were that women tended to children. It was that simple. Regardless of social class, it never appears to have entered into people’s consideration that men could have played a hands-on role with raising their sons and daughters. And this trickled down to the children of this generation. Interviews with Dan Dixon when he was an adult reflect that his hurt feelings were aimed mostly at his mother. He never seemed to hold Maynard accountable in the same way that he blamed his mother for leaving him.

Q: What happened to Lange’s impounded photos of the Japanese American internment?

A: The army impounded the images until after the war and then they were quietly placed in the National Archives. In 1972, Richard Conrat, one of Lange’s assistants, published some of them when he produced Executive Order 9066 for the UCLA Asian American Studies Center. It wasn’t until 2006 when Linda Gordon and Gary Y. Okihiro published their book Impounded that the photos received widespread attention. In 2017, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum produced an exhibit entitled Images of Internment: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II to commemorate the seventhy-fifth anniversary of FDR’s infamous Executive Order 9066. I visited the show and viewed photographs by Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, and others. Seventy-five years later these photos are still relevant and serve as a powerful reminder of the importance of maintaining civil liberties in our democracy.

Literary New England interview with ‘The Age of Light’ author Whitney Scharer

“… You should own your creativity. You should own your art, and call yourself an artist, or writer, if that’s what you are. And so I hope that people read this book [and], if they are creative people, they take away this lesson from the story.”

Those are the words of author Whitney Scharer on Lee Miller, the protagonist in Scharer’s debut and much-buzzed-about novel, The Age of Light.

Literary New England’s Cindy Wolfe Boynton interviewed Scharer yesterday, just hours before she flew from her Massachusetts home to the United Kingdom for several book events. Scharer will be back in the U.S. by early March for a cross-country book tour, including several stops in New England.

Review: Read Jennifer Tseng’s Mayumi, and you’ll be floating in a Sea of Happiness, too

MayumiI have an acute case of Writer Envy. I felt it coming on earlier this month, as I sat in a surprisingly comfortable folding chair at Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., to hear author Jennifer Tseng read from her debut novel Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness (published by the always fabulous Europa Editions).

Jennifer Tseng at bunches of grapesDespite my exhaustion from traveling all day and sleeping little the night before, I found myself leaning forward as she spoke. I couldn’t help it. Her sentences were like Sirens–poetic pathogens made up of words and phrases that lured, serenaded and hummed; that I wanted to get closer to; that wonderfully infected me with pure, unadulterated jealousy: How come I’ve never written anything as gorgeous and compelling as that? I want to! I want to now!

She started the reading at Chapter 1:

It began at the library. While the young man waited quietly to be helped, I stood neatly in thrall to the world outside the window. Momijigari was ending; leaves were falling in drifts like snow. Blackcaps were eating the trees, striking the bark with their beaks then rapidly chewing it, in that annual burlesque of sheer appetite I always found vulgar. When I turned, he cleared his throat and asked for a library card. He explained with darting, downcast eyes that although he’d been coming to the library with his mother since he was a child, he’d never had his own card. There was something in his manner–softness, reverence, a hesitation in the face–this is particular to a son close to his mother. Doesn’t intimacy foster reverence more completely than anything that can be taught? As I handed him the form and then watched as he filled it in–his fingers fumbling a bit with the tiny pencil–I didn’t think of having him yet, I simply gaped at his beauty. I had the thought: he is out of reach, a thought that, had I been younger, might have spurred me on, but in middle age, warned me to retreat.

Like Jennifer, protagonist Mayumi is a 40-something-year-old librarian who lives on a small island remarkably like Martha’s Vineyard. As Kirkus described in its review, Mayumi is also a woman “emotionally marooned in a loveless marriage, clinging for warmth to her 4-year-old daughter, and drifting toward middle age [who] finds unlikely, forbidden love and gasp-inducing passion in the arms of an alluring 17-year-old.”

It’s a complicated love story that, as it unfolds, Mayumi can’t help but compare to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. She, after all, is not just a librarian, but a voracious reader and re-reader. Yet Mayumi is no Humbert Humbert. And the relationship Mayumi and the never-named boy develop is nothing if not beautiful, despite the social mores she unapologetically sets aside:

I saw within myself a cup marked complacency and a cup marked disappointment, the contents of both spilling over. I saw that I had been staring impassively for years at the spectacle of my own pain overflowing, as if at a hideous waterfall. Now I turned my gaze toward the young man. … I saw that there was also within me an empty cup marked pleasure and I resolved at once to fill. I refused to be thwarted.

Who of us who’ve reached middle age haven’t felt that kind of longing for fulfillment of desire, whether that desire be for love, sex, the creation of art, the exploration of new places or so many other things? All of us have dreams and desires that are more than just wants. The brave, unconventional and unexpectedly erotic Mayumi shows that while taking risks and going after fulfillment has the potential to end in despair, it can also lead unimaginable happiness, unexpected friendships and unregrettable moments.

Someone said Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness “veers more toward the lyrical than the lurid,” and it’s so true. No one who reads Maymui will be surprised to learn Jennifer is also a poet. Each sentence sings.

Jennifer Tseng at libraryA few days after that Bunch of Grapes event, I had the pleasure of spending part of an afternoon with Jennifer. Despite the rain, we sat on the back porch of the West Tisbury Library as I recorded an interview with her for the Literary New England Radio Show. That conversation will air at 8 pm Monday, July 6. We’ll also give away copies of Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness on that show, so don’t miss tuning in.

If you you’re going to be in Martha’s Vineyard this weekend, you can meet Jennifer in person at 6 pm Saturday, June 27, at the West Tisbury Library. As the flier below shows, the event will feature bubbles, cake, book talk, book signing, Mayumi swag and more.

In the meantime, no matter where you are, pick up a copy of Mayumi. Within a matter of minutes, you’ll be swimming in your own Sea of Happiness. Even for writers susceptible to contracting Writer Envy, this ravishing novel is absolutely worth the risk.

– Cindy Wolfe Boynton

Mayumi library flier

Celebrate William Styron’s birthday by adding to your #TBR list

William Styron GraveWilliam Styron Grave2Today would have been writer William Styron’s 90th birthday. The author of Sophie’s Choice, The Long March, Set This House on Fire and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Confessions of Nat Turner, among other works, was born June 11, 1925 in Newport News, Va. Styron died on Nov. 21, 2006, at age 81 and was buried here, at the West Chop Cemetery in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.

As he wrote about in several forms, Styron struggled with severe depression and the urge to commit suicide, which he described most vividly in his memoir Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness. His first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, also tackles the subject, telling the story of a woman struggling against insanity and the desire to kill herself. This YouTube video from Open Road Media features Styron reading a short excerpt from the work:

The quote on Styron’s grave comes from the end of Darkness Visible: “And so we came forth, and once again beheld the stars.” It is a translation of the final line of Dante’s Inferno, Canto XXXIV, line 139: E quindi uscimmo a rivider le stelle.

In 2011, I had the pleasure of meeting Styron’s youngest daughter, Alexandra, at the Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival. There, she read and signed copies of Reading My Father, a powerful and mesmerizing memoir about her father who, as she candidly describes, was a drinker, a carouser and “a high priest at the altar of fiction.” Styron helped define the concept of the “Big Male Writer.” But he was also a loving father and a husband–a complex, compelling man who Alexandra was able to better understand through the writing of this book, and that she so generously shares with us. It’s a fabulous, insightful and inspiring read.

One of the official blurbs for the book says:

Alexandra offers a vivid look at the experiences that shaped William Styron’s life and his novels: the death of his mother; his precocious success with Lie Down in Darkness; his military service and his early loves. From Europe, where he helped found the Paris Review and met his wife, Rose, to New England where he would live out his storied career, William Styron is vivid in all his epic, tragic complexity in Reading My Father.

I loved Reading My Father and believe a most appropriate way to celebrate Styron’s life and birthday would be to add it, or one of his books, to your summer reading list. I’m adding Sophie’s Choice and The Confessions of Nat Turner to mine.

– Cindy Wolfe Boynton