Though Emma Donoghue is best known for her contemporary novel Room, I follow her primarily for her superb historical fiction. Slammerkin (2000), The Sealed Letter (2008), Frog Music (2014), and The Wonder (2106) are each quite different in topic and tone, yet all are fierce, brilliantly crafted novels that make marvelous fiction out of a solid grounding in historical fact.

This time around, Donoghue bases an extraordinary novel on a mystery in the life of British landowner and diarist Anne Lister. You might not think that there are many mysteries left in Lister's life now that a significant group of excerpts from her five million (yep, that's million)-word journal, written partially in code, is available in well-done published editions. You might also doubt that there's much creative gold left in Lister's life now that she's been the subject of one film, one television series, two biographies and myriad other works. Happily—though not all that surprisingly, given Donoghue's talent—you would be wrong.

Learned by Heart focuses primarily not on Lister herself but on Eliza Raine, the first of Lister's lovers. In 1805, the two met as teenagers in their Yorkshire boarding school; their relationship turned passionate before Lister departed the school in summer 1806. Raine, the daughter of an English father and a never-identified Indian mother, believed the two would be partners for life. Unfortunately, she was not the last of Lister's paramours to discover that Anne's heart was more passionate than predictable. Following the demise of their relationship, Raine's mental health deteriorated significantly enough to lead to her confinement in a small private asylum in 1814. It's impossible to retroactively diagnose her mental illness, if indeed she had one for some or all of her remaining 46 years; though it appears that she may have suffered from from some form of psychosis, there's no doubt that the combination of her taboo sexual desires and mixed race also led to her volatility being interpreted more harshly than they might have been for a racially "pure" and heterosexual young woman.

Learned by Heart is structured in two interwoven threads. One traces the relationship between Raine and Lister; the other consists of letters written from Raine to her former lover from the asylum in which she is confined. The juxtaposition works beautifully. The more straightforward and literal narrative grounds readers. The letters, unreliable as they may (or may not) be, give the novel much of its poignancy, mystery and depth. Donoghue brings both women vividly and sympathetically to life; she does an equally excellent job evoking the settings and society in which they lived their equally, if differently, complex lives.

In an Author's Note at the end of book, Donoghue speaks of becoming fascinated by Raine's story when she and her partner—a noted Lister scholar—spent time in the same building where Raine and Lister shared a room as schoolgirls. She wrote the first notes on what would become this novel in 1998, giving it an gestation period of some 25 years. Some books might grow stale or overwritten in a working timeframe that lengthy. Happily, Learned by Heart is not one of them.

Find out more about the author and the book on Donoghue's website. Emma Donoghue's Learned By Heart can be purchased on Bookshop, Amazon U.S., and Amazon U.K. 

Letter from Anne Lister to Eliza Raine,
courtesy of West Yorkshire Archive Service

Page from Anne Lister's coded diary,
courtesy of

NEW THIS WEEK: August 28, 2023

A new novel by Emma Donoghue is always a treat, particularly (to my mind, at least) when it takes the past as its inspiration. Learned by Heart weaves its magic from two historical figures: prolific diarist Anne Lister and Eliza Raine, her first of several lovers and the one about whom the least is known. The main action takes place in 1805, when the two women, just teenagers at the time, become roommates a Yorkshire boarding school. One of the book's two interwoven narratives traces the trajectory of their early lives, love, and separation; the other consists of letters Raine writes after the demise of their relationship, when she has developed mental health issues and been confined in a small private asylum. The novel has special appeal for readers fascinated by Lister (the subject of works including the HBO series Gentleman Jack) and the history of same-sex relationships in the 19th century. But its view of female friendships, women's lives, 19th-century racial and class assumptions, and heartbreak, among other themes, makes it a richly rewarding read whether or not lives like Lister's are your primary interest. Read our more detailed review of the book here and find out more about the author and the book on Donoghue's informative websiteLearned By Heart can be purchased on Bookshop, Amazon U.S., and Amazon U.K. (8.29.23)

This exploration of Ireland during the reign of Queen Victoria is an excellent treatment of the topic. Rather than exploring politics or Ireland's relationship with England in depth, Maxwell focuses on the social and cultural life of Ireland during the period. Ireland's complex religious and sectarian dynamics are deftly explained, as is the experience and aftermath of the Great Famine. That said, my favorite aspects of the book are those that convey what might be called the texture everyday life in Victorian Ireland. The colorful—and sometimes confounding—figures who shaped that life make succinct but vivid appearances, as do the huge changes in technology that characterized the era and transformed its work, class system, and landscape. Maxwell, a former officer at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, is an expert on Irish genealogy; Life in Victorian England displays his gift for placing individual lives in a broader context. Find out more about Dr. Maxwell and his other publications on the Pen & Sword website and buy the book at Bookshop, Pen & Sword, and Amazon U.K. (UK publication date 8.30.23.)

NEW THIS WEEK: August 22, 2023

Catherine Lloyd, Miss Morton and the Spirits of the Underworld: The effervescent second Miss Morton mystery (following 2022's Miss Morton and the English House Party) is set in 1838 Britain. After her father dies with large debts, Lady Caroline Morton decides to earn her living rather than depend on affluent relations. Like many women of the era, she goes to work as a paid companion. Her employer, Mrs. Frogerton, has more money than social connections but hopes to introduce her daughter Dorothy to elite society. In this installment, Mrs. Frogerton brings Caroline along on a visit to medium Madame Lavinia. Curious about the woman's powers, Caroline brings her physician friend Oliver Harris along with her to another session. When Madame Lavinia is murdered soon thereafter, Harris is arrested and Caroline and Mrs. Frogerton must clear his name. Though the mystery is well-paced and -plotted, I have to confess that I read this series primarily for Mrs. Frogerton's warm, ebullient and eccentric presence. Dorothy's experiences in the high-society marriage market are amusing as well. Readers may also enjoy eight Lloyd's Kurland St. Mary mysteries. Find out more about the author and books on Lloyd's website and buy the book on Bookshop or Amazon. (8.22.23)

Sarah MacLean, Knockout: I was won over to Sarah MacLean's work when I read the self-description on her website. "I write books," she notes. "There's smooching in them." That same pithy, often irreverent voice is on full display in Knockout, the third of MacLean's Hell's Belles series (after Bombshell and Heartbreaker) along with a supersized helping of female fierceness and a series of explosions (some figurative, some not). In choosing Knockout as one of their best books of the summer, Entertainment Weekly noted that the "third Sarah MacLean makes righteous female rage oh-so-sexy and empowering. Her books have always buzzed with a feminist undercurrent, but she devours misogyny and sets fire to the patriarchy with her latest.” Publishers Weekly notes, "It’s a joy to revisit the Hell’s Belles; series fans and new readers alike will get a kick out of Imogen’s time in the spotlight." You can purchase the book on Bookshop and Amazon and find out more about MacLean and the Hell's Belles series on her website. (8.22.23)

Alyssa Maxwell, Murder at the Elms:
Alyssa Maxwell revisits turn-of-the-century Newport, Rhode Island with a new novel every August, and I'm one of the myriad readers who are glad she does. Each of her Gilded Newport novels centers on one of the town's "cottages" (by which is meant, enormous opulent mansions). This time around it's the Elms, a huge but elegant home inspired by French chateaux and built for coal magnate Edward Julius Berwind. The stately serenity of the home's design makes the perfect foil for the labor disputes, jewelry theft and murder that drive the mystery plot, and the Berwinds among other historical figures make convincing appearances. As always, Maxwell builds an intriguing plot from thoughtful historical research; on a lighter note, series fans will enjoy seeing journalist-sleuth Emma Cross now married to her longtime beau Derrick Andrews. Kirkus sums it up: "Combining mystery with real-life personalities from the Gilded Age makes for an entertaining and informative read." Purchase the novel at Bookshop or Amazon and discover more about Maxwell, this series, and her Lady's Maid series on her website. (8.22.23)

NEW THIS WEEK: August 15, 2023

Isabel Cañas, Vampires of El Norte:
Set in the Rio Grande Valley in the 1840s, Cañas' second novel is an electrifying blend of horror and history. Among the book's many strengths is its brilliant exploration of monstrosity, which appears in both supernatural form and in the all too human oppression human beings visit on each other both individually and collectively; tellingly, the latter feels more damaging than the former. Cañas' book is at once a romance, a war narrative, a horror story, and an indictment of colonialism, strikingly different types of narratives she interweaves flawlessly. This is an immersive and original book. Its predecessor, The Hacienda, is also excellent. An added shout-out goes to Vi-An Nguyen's suitably dramatic jacket design, one of my favorite works of cover art this year and a creation that conveys the distinction and drama of Cañas' tale. You can purchase the book on Bookshop or Amazon and find out more about the author and her work on her website. (8.15.23) 


I love Alis Hawkins' Teifi Valley Coroner historical crime series featuring partially-sighted ex-barrister Harry Probert-Lloyd and his "chippy" assistant, John Davies. So I was delighted to see that she has a new series set in Oxford University and to talk to her about A Bitter Remedy, which was published by Canelo in March 2023 and introduces readers to young Welsh polymath Rhiannon Vaughan and Oxford don Basil Rice. Alis grew up in Ceredigion in west Wales and currently lives on the Welsh-English border.  The Teifi Valley series is set in the area in which she grew up and has twice been shortlisted for the prestigious CWA Historical Dagger award. You can buy the book on Amazon US and Amazon UK and find out more about Alis on her website, Twitter,  Instagram, and Facebook page. All that said, here's our conversation. —Suzanne Fox

Q. I was fascinated to see that your first novel also dealt with a university, though in a different fashion and time period(s). I see that you attended Oxford; could you talk a bit about why the university setting appeals to you as a fictional world—what possibilities for themes, tensions, or plots it offers?

I had great fun in Testament inventing my own fictional university city—a third medieval university to go alongside Oxford and Cambridge. I called the city Salster and gave my fictional college an exciting backstory as a hotbed of Lollard (early Protestant) heretics!


Chris Nickson will be familiar to So19 readers from our interviews on two of his Tom Harper novels, Two Bronze Pennies and The Molten City. The publication of his fifth Simon Westow mystery offers the chance to speak with him about a series set in the same city, but at a quite different time. Chris's first mystery series features Richard Nottingham, Constable of Leeds in the 1730s. Two books about 1950s private enquiry agent Dan Markham are also set in Leeds, as are the Tom Harper books and two Lottie Armstrong novels. It's clear that, as Chris says, Leeds is in his DNA. Find out more about Chris on his website (which includes some great background materials on historic Leeds as well as info on all of his books), Twitter page, and Instagram. Buy The Dead Will Rise on Amazon UK, Amazon US, and Bookshop. With thanks to Chris for his time, here's our chat.

Q. For those who aren’t yet familiar with you and your books, tell us a little about yourself.

I write historical crime novels, mostly set in my hometown Leeds. I've always written, it seems, and for a long time made my living as a music journalist (while living in Seattle and after) and writing quickie unauthorized celebrity bios. All an excellent education for a novelist, it seems. 

My passion for Leeds history began when I lived abroad, and remains now I'm back where I grew up. Thankfully. 

Appearing this week: Kai Thomas' IN THE UPPER COUNTRY

Very nice to see Kai Thomas's luminous In the Upper Country appear from Viking today. Check out our preview of the book and, if you can, my conversation with Kai in Publishers Weekly