House of Velvet and Glass

Do those who miraculously miss the boat that sinks, the plane that crashes, the train that goes off the rails, feel a sense of relief – or guilt? Have they changed their destiny – or was the outcome unavoidable? Katherine Howe examines the consequences and controls of fate in her historical novel The House of Velvet and Glass.

Using the sinking of the Titanic as her catalyst, Howe weaves historical fiction into the lives of the Allston family – those who sank with the ship and those left behind. Helen, and her daughter Eulah, died at sea on the Titanic en route back to Boston from a successful European campaign to find a husband for her daughter. Helen’s husband, a former seaman and now successful businessman, remained behind with Sibyl and her brother, Harley.

Following her mother’s interest in séances, Sibyl, the unmarried eldest child, visits a medium, hoping to contact her dead mother. She comes away with a mysterious scrying glass in a velvet box; under the influence of opiates, Sibyl can see events in the glass. As she looks for her mother and sister within the glass’ misty aura, she finds instead a future catastrophe.

As the chapters move back and forth, following each member of the family at different times and places, the focus of the story is a little hazy, and you may wonder where it is going.  Although the present is set at the aftermath of the Titanic, with Sibyl’s search for solace, the plot has more to offer than just another Titanic story.

Howe revisits the patriarch’s youthful adventures in Shanghai that foreshadow Sibyl’s talents and a surprise solution at the end to the mystery of their paranormal inclinations.  Helen’s and Eulah’s fateful voyage also become part of the action with descriptions of passengers and shipboard romance. Harley, the youngest and only son, recently expelled from his senior year at Harvard, brings Dovie, his ethereal lover into the plot as well as Benton, his professor and Sibyl’s love interest – both catalysts who help Sibyl realize her hidden talents.

Howe weaves traces of the supernatural into historical events – similar to how she used New England history in her first book, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. For Downton Abbey fans, the story echoes the nineteenth century era of  World War I with its fashion and emerging technological advances.

An ominous clock ticks away throughout the narrative, marking the lives of the characters, bringing them closer to the inevitable, and Howe poses some philosophical questions about chance, fate, and how choices can affect both.

A clever mix of mystery, romance, history, and the supernatural…if you enjoyed Howe’s first book, you will like this one too.  I did.

The Technologists

Using the ongoing rivalry of the Harvard elite and the MIT futurists, Matthew Pearl mixes post Civil War Boston with a slow-moving historical thriller.  The story opens with compasses gone awry causing boats to collide in Boston harbor; then bank windows melt with an unsuspecting customer leaning against the pane toppling to the street.  A promising opening, but the action slows immediately.  The search for the perpetrator suddenly switches to the confrontation between  Harvard old-school classical learning vs the new school in town – MIT with its suspicious sciences and new technology in the nineteenth century.

A team of MIT seniors (the first class about to graduate from the fledgling school) drives the action: scholarship student (known as “charity scholar”) Marcus Mansfield, a Civil War veteran and former factory worker with a brilliant mind; Robert Richards, blue-blood Boston dropout/transfer from Harvard; Edwin Hoyt, the quiet brains of the outfit; and token woman scholar, Ellen Swallow, who manages to rise above the trials of being among the all-male nineteenth century class.  To demonstrate that MIT students can think and solve problems as well as their Harvard rivals, the group works secretly to uncover the villain and save the reputation of their alma mater.

The historical context uses the then-new controversial revelations of Darwin and the suspicion  of machinery to add to the fear, with the underlying supposition that technology somehow is behind the city’s destruction. After the thrilling opening events, however, Pearl settles into flashbacks of the recently ended Civil War, and the culture of the late 1860s in old Boston.

After more catastrophes, a little romance, and continued drama among the collegiate, the mystery is solved and the unlikely genius behind the technological crimes is uncovered – but the revelation is a long, tortuous journey.  I tend to like my thrillers – historical or otherwise – to be fast paced and hard to put down; this was not a page turner.  Although I finally did finish The Technologists, it took longer than it deserved. I’d had the same feeling with Pearl’s other bestseller, The Dante Club –  the end was worth getting to, but also a relief to get to the end.

Russian Winter

Winter is coming soon to some places – even here in the tropics, the sun sets in a different spot as it sinks into the ocean, the wind blows a little chillier, mornings are crisper.  Not too many fireplaces where I live, but if you have one, Daphne Kalotay’s Russian Winter could be cozy solace as you sip your hot chocolate or brandy.

A romantic mystery involving a famous Russian ballerina who defected with precious jewels, Russian Winter slowly unravels the life of one of the Bolshoi’s stars, Nina Revskay.    Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, who defected to the United States in the sixties, died recently – giving Kalotay’s book an eerie timeliness.

The story meanders back and forth from Nina’s flashbacks; in the present Nina is an old frail woman who is mysteriously bitter about her past and holds a terrifying secret.  She decides to sell the jewels she hid in her escape from Stalin to the free world, with her amber bracelet and earrings holding special value for their personal history and provenance.

Drew, the young associate at the Boston auction house where the jewels will be sold is dealing with her own personal demons; Grigori Solodin, a professor of Russian literature, who owns the necklace in the amber set, is determined to discover the jewel’s link to his parentage. They both have questions that Nina is reluctant to answer.

Kalotay sprinkles her narrative with historic references to Russian life before and after Stalin, including information about the labor camps and amber mines.  Kalotay  also documents the changes in the work and life of artists living in Soviet Russia and offers clear and detailed insights into that culture.  The cast of Russian characters has a number of minor supporting characters, with the principles including Vera Borodina, Nina’s childhood friend; the Jewish composer, Aron Gershtein, who is in love with Vera; Nina’s renowned poet husband, Viktor; and Viktor’s devious mother…

{Nina}:  “People think I fled Russia to escape communism.  Really I was escaping my mother-in-law.”

The complexity of the plot and the number of characters may keep you off-balance, but in the end, love letters, a poem, and the jewels come together for the final revelation of betrayal and misunderstanding – and, of course, a happy and satisfying resolution.

Russian Winter is a slow read – you may doze off now and then while reading – but the artistic movements are graceful and the Cold War history unnerving.

Related Article:  How Stalin’s Daughter Defected

The Rebellion of Jane Clarke

Not such a stretch today for a young woman to forego her parent’s plans for her future and decide for herself.    But not so common in colonial Massachusetts when your father is a Tory sympathizer and you’re not so sure about your own feelings.

Sally Gunning’s The Rebellion of Jane Clarke combines historical narrative with the impressions of a young woman who has dared defy her father, and refused to marry the enigmatic Phinnie Paine, her father’s choice for her – because she’s not sure she knows either her father or her prospective mate. As punishment, her father sends her from her home in Santucket to Boston, where she finds herself in the middle of pre-Revolution chaos.


John Adams


Follow Jane’s self- discovery as she grows from a confused observer and sometimes reluctant participant to a woman with convictions who discovers, almost too late, that her trust has been betrayed. Gunning cleverly uses language and events to bring her characters to life, and if you are a fan of John Adams, you’ll appreciate his minor role.

The romantic subplot only adds to the drama.

The Rebellion of Jane Clarke is an easy read, full of  historical references, with an ending that will make you smile.