The Hazelbourne Ladies Motorcycle and Flying Club by Helen Simonson

The Great War is over, and the summer of 1919 should be one of celebration, but Constance Haverhill has lost her mother to the Spanish influenza. Constance also lost the job managing Lord Mercer’s country estate, which she held all through the war, to a man.

An old style war plan flies across the centre of the image, slightly angled away from the viewer. We view the side of the plane. The title is in red letters just above the plane, and the author's name is just below. The sky in the background is yellow, grey, and blue.

Beyond Amelia by Heather Stemp

This month will see the release of Heather Stemp’s third and final book in her Ginny Ross series Beyond Amelia. Each of these three Middle-Grade/Young Adult novels can be read as a stand alone, but readers who enjoy historical fiction may enjoy reading the entire series.

A woman in profile wearing an ornate crown with a veil of gems.

The Phoenix Crown: A Novel

Suling came to with a jolt. The church bells were tolling, but it was a wild uneven jangle of noise. There was a din of crashing timber and a final metallic reverberation. She stood up and immediately fell down again as the ground heaved. You couldn’t be a native of San Francisco without recognizing an earthquake, and this was a big one.— Kate Quinn and Janie Chang. The Phoenix Crown: A Novel

The Phoenix Crown; A Novel — a historical romance set in San Francisco, in 1906, in the days leading up to, during, and the aftermath of the the big quake — must have been a logistical challenge for Janie Chang, who lives in the remote area of the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia, Canada and co-author Kate Quinn, who resides in the San Francisco, California area of the United States. Neither are strangers to the occurrence of earthquakes living upon the Cascadia subduction zone running from Vancouver Island to California.

“Yes, San Francisco,” she murmured. “It’s a godless place,” the woman tutted. “Rotten with sin and depravity. Full of painted harlots, heathen Chinee, and wicked millionaires.”

The chapters where the main characters’ stories alternate between Suling — an orphaned, Asian-American young woman, who is engaged to a wealthy older man — and Gemma — also an orphan and disgraced soprano — would be straightforward-ish to write. However, how did the authors choreograph chapters with dialogue between the two lead voices and other characters while keeping track of the plot, not to mention a natural disaster? 

If you liked Janie Chang’s previous book, The Porcelain Moon: A Novel of France, the Great War and Forbidden Love, you’ll love The Phoenix Crown. (There may be similar allusions to Quinn’s previous works that her fans will recognize, but I’m unfamiliar with her books.) Suling is practically the lost twin of Pauline, because the two main characters are both orphans, and have the misfortune of being betrothed to old, wealthy, and repugnant men.

They are both focused on escaping from the oppressive cultural tradition of an arranged marriage that benefits their respective uncles financially. Both young, Asian, women enjoy embroidery, but they’re different from each other in one significant way — but it would be a spoiler to reveal how they are essentially unalike. 

Suling works in her Third Uncle’s laundry in San Francisco’s Chinatown, among other jobs, where she visits her late mother’s friend, Madame Ning, at the Endless Palace of Joy brothel. (Third Uncle appears to be what the third male born in a family is in relation to their niblings, versus an uncle three times removed.) 

Author Chang lived in Vancouver prior to her move to the Sunshine Coast a few years ago, where Vancouver’s Chinatown was also a red light district in 1906 like San Francisco. But at the turn of the twentieth century it looked nothing like it does now in the twenties, with its intricate, colourful mosaics, dragon festooned gate, and Asian-inspired architecture to encourage tourism. In the past, Chinatown looked like any block of wood Western-movie-style buildings that the rest of the city’s shops resembled.

Vancouver’s China Town in 1906 when it was a red light district, as was San Francisco’s Chinatown. 

The other main locale of the book is Nob Hill, where the extremely wealthy and their richlings looked down upon the poorlings below. There we meet one of the residents, Mr. Henry Thornton, the owner of the bejeweled Phoenix Crown that the book takes its title from, rumoured to be stolen from the Forbidden City.

Phoenix crowns or hats, fengguan, were worn by noblewomen or brides and were adorned with kingfisher feathers, dragons, pearls and gems. The luxurious headgear became popular during the Ming dynasty. 

Lady Liang-kuo wearing a late Tang dynasty silver phoenix crown from

As Lucy E M. Black says about the importance of historical fiction, it “amplifies particular moments in ways that allow us to reflect on elements from the past and how they may apply to our current circumstances.” The Phoenix Crown is no exception.

Nob Hill, San Francisco, 1906, before the earthquake where much of the Phoenix Crown takes place, where the wealthy of the city lived at the top of the city. 

Nob Hill, San Francisco, 1906, after the devastating earthquake.

The authors capture the terror of not only the moment of the earthquake and its aftershocks, but also the uncontrollable fires that followed.

Nob Hill, San Francisco, 1906, filled with the smoke from the post-quake fires.

In Chinatown, thousands of homes and businesses were lost, and many Chinese-Americans perished, perhaps Suling’s relatives and friends were amongst the victims. However, the advantage of the records of the mostly male Chinese immigrants being destroyed, was that survivors of the disaster had the opportunity to become American citizens.

The city’s birth and immigration records were also lost during the disaster, and many of San Francisco’s Chinese immigrants took advantage of the loophole to claim American citizenship. This enabled them to send for their families to come join them in the United States.

The latter part of the novel takes place in Paris, France where readers are treated to cameo appearances by some characters from Chang’s Porcelain Moon at the antique shop, La Pagode —once an actual movie theatre, which is now closed permanently.

“Is that rose-scented incense?” [Suling] had asked La Pagode’s proprietor. After nearly an hour of conversation reminiscing about the foods they loved, Louis Deng introduced her to his son and niece, Theo and Pauline. Then he gave her an earthenware jar of pickled mustard greens and a bundle of incense sticks. 

La Pagode, 1977, Paris, France.

The Phoenix Crown’s descriptions of the creation of beading, embroidery and fine hauteur garments had me reminiscing about my first trip to San Francisco nearly forty years ago, when I found a shop lined with tiny wooden drawers from floor-to-ceiling stocked with every shape, colour and size of bead imaginable. I chose from these miniature treasure chests of gold and crystal beads with which  to hand-embroider lace for my wedding dress. 

I also enjoyed sharing dim sum in Chinatown with a newly-found friend I met on the plane on the trip over. Her photographer husband gifted me with one of his posters of the changing San Francisco skyline over time, that I still have framed on my wall.  

The Phoenix Crown also made me curious to discover other historical books set in Vancouver’s storied Chinatown by renowned local authors. I found many to put on my to-read or re-read list, including: The Jade Peony, All that Matters, Disappearing Moon Cafe, Conjoined, and The End of East.

In addition to having courageous, independent female characters with passion projects in fashion, opera, art, and botany; the authors build suspense with a countdown to the earthquake, intertwined complicated romances, infuse intrigue with a murder mystery, relate to today’s reader with LGBTQ+ issues, and touch our hearts with the plight of Chinese immigrants in America in the early 1900s. 

Kate Quinn is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of historical fiction. A native of Southern California, she attended Boston University, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in classical voice. A lifelong history buff, she has written four novels in the Empress of Rome Saga and two books set in the Italian Renaissance before turning to the 20th century with The Alice NetworkThe HuntressThe Rose Code, and The Diamond Eye. All have been translated into multiple languages. She and her husband now live in California with three black rescue dogs.

Born in Taiwan, Janie Chang has lived in the Philippines, Iran, Thailand, New Zealand, and Canada. Her novels often draw from family history and ancestral stories. She has a degree in computer science and is a graduate of the Writer’s Studio Program at Simon Fraser University. She is the author of Three SoulsDragon Springs RoadThe Library of Legends, The Porcelain Moon; and co-author of The Phoenix Crown, with Kate Quinn.

Publisher: Harper Collins (February 13, 2024)
Paperback 9″ x 6″ | 400 pages
ISBN: 9780063339972

Home is the Lands and Rivers: A Girl Called Echo Omnibus by Katherena Vermette

This special omnibus edition of Katherena Vermette’s best-selling series features an all-new foreword by Chantal Fiola, a historical timeline, and an essay about Métis being and belonging by Brenda Macdougall.