Sunday, August 12, 2018

Beneath an Indian Sky by Renita D'Silva, a multi-period saga set in England and India

Author D’Silva transports readers to her native India in a new multi-period novel exploring her frequent themes of difficult family dynamics and the limited choices open to the country’s daughters.

In 1936, Mary Brigham, raised in her aunt and uncle’s London home, is preparing her debutante season and planning to be presented at court. An atypical historical novel heroine, she dreams only of marrying well and raising a family—at least until an old friend of her late parents alludes to their lives in India and a terrible tragedy she can’t recall.

Chapters set eleven years earlier introduce Sita, a girl from a wealthy Indian household, and show how her unusual childhood friendship with Mary developed. In the beginning, both Mary and Sita are equally sympathetic: Mary for her sorrowful past and determination to face up to it, and Sita because she can never attain her parents’ approval.

Despite some confusing aspects of their juxtaposed narratives—the girls’ ages aren’t mentioned, for one—the novel smoothly depicts their transformations into adulthood. Sita ends up marrying a prince and moving into his opulent palace, where her mother-in-law makes her life miserable. Years later, what happens at Mary and Sita’s reunion twists their lives irrevocably and leads to a devastating secret left for Sita’s granddaughter, Priya, to uncover decades later. Priya, a modern documentary filmmaker depressed over her husband’s infidelity, plays an unfortunately small role, although her presence serves to bring the earlier stories full circle.

The plot gets over-the-top dramatic toward the end, and colonial Indian politics remain mostly in the background. Also, too many women have the tendency to faint when confronted with bad news. Still, readers desiring a satisfying excursion to a land of jasmine breezes and delicious cuisine may wish to follow the story and indulge in all the lush atmospheric details.

Beneath an Indian Sky was published by Bookouture in 2018; I read it from a NetGalley copy and wrote this review for August's Historical Novels Review.  D'Silva has written a number of family sagas, many of which have historical elements, including A Daughter's Courage (which I reviewed last year).

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Susan Spann's Trial on Mount Koya, a Shinobi mystery of 16th-century Japan

One might expect a Shingon Buddhist temple to be a peaceful site of sanctuary, but the opposite holds true in the atmospheric sixth novel of Susan Spann’s Shinobi Mysteries.

Set in 1565, this entry brings her protagonists – the shinobi assassin Hiro Hattori and the Jesuit priest whose life he's pledged to protect, Father Mateo – to the remote summit of Mount Koya. Hiro has been sent by his cousin, a master ninja, to carry a directive to a spy who’s been living there as a priest. Having left their housekeeper Ana behind at a nyonindo (women’s hall), since females aren’t allowed to enter the sacred precincts atop the mountain, they approach the temple and are welcomed by the very man, Ringa, that Hiro hopes to find.

However, shortly after Hiro communicates his message to Ringa, a brutal snowstorm enshrouds the temple, forming the right conditions for a locked room-style mystery. Then, later that night, Ringa is discovered horribly murdered. Subsequent deaths follow at regular intervals, with the bodies posed as Buddhist judges of the afterlife. Creepily, the personalities of the late priests seem to resemble those particular Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. The small population at the temple is quickly dwindling, with the perpetrator clearly among them – and if the pattern holds true, Father Mateo could be next.

While Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None is the story’s inspiration, the author spins the basic outline into a mystery specific to her chosen cast and setting, making it a very clever homage indeed. There are a multitude of priests of diverse ages, talents, and backgrounds. As is often the case with many characters introduced at once, their personalities take a bit to settle in, but their particular perspectives emerge in time. On site as well are a mysterious pilgrim and his son, and as outsiders, they fall under suspicion.

The growing friendship between Hiro and Father Mateo is a highlight. Consumed by revenge and loss after his lover’s death in the previous book, Hiro isn’t able to acknowledge how much this affects his judgment, but Father Mateo provides support and sage advice. Cat lovers will appreciate the prominence and entertaining personality of Hiro’s cat, Gato, in this entry, too.

What puzzles the detective pair is not only the bizarre nature of the murders, but also the motive. Perhaps it derives from an internal power struggle, or it could be a madman’s work. As the stakes get higher, the suspense level rises. Fortunately, Spann plays fair with her readers, since -- as it turns out  -- the clues are present from the outset. Readers may be tempted to reread from the beginning, noting how well the mystery was constructed.

Trial on Mount Koya was published in July by Seventh Street. Thanks to the publisher and Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for the e-galley copy via Edelweiss.

During the Blog Tour, five copies of Trial on Mount Koya are up for grabs.  Note that because this is the last stop on the tour, the deadline is tonight. To enter, please enter via the Gleam form below. Good luck!

Giveaway Rules
– Giveaway ends at 11:59pm EST on August 8th. You must be 18 or older to enter.
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– Only one entry per household.
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Trial on Mount Koya

Monday, August 06, 2018

The Sea Queen by Linnea Hartsuyker, a tale of Viking-era Norway

The “sea queen” is Svanhild Eysteinsdotter, a strong-willed woman with a difficult path ahead. In ninth-century Norway, six years after events in The Half-Drowned King (2017), Svanhild loves the seafaring life she led with her husband, the raider Solvi, but knows her intellectually-minded son’s needs take priority.

Alongside their marital strife, Solvi pursues revenge against Harald, Norway’s king. He’s not alone. Throughout the country and elsewhere, disaffected exiles and noblemen resentful of Harald’s taxes rise up against him. Svanhild’s brother, Ragnvald, king of Sogn, is Harald’s loyal man, and as pockets of rebellion join forces, helping Harald achieve a united Norway becomes increasingly dangerous.

Although less action-oriented than its predecessor, this second in the Golden Wolf Saga captures the era’s warlike atmosphere, where blood-feuds last generations; an early incident of stark brutality haunts Ragnvald long afterward. Through her multi-faceted characters, Hartsuyker adeptly evokes female alliances, the complications of love and passion, and vengeance both terrible and triumphant. She juggles many subplots and settings effectively, with scenes moving from Norway’s harsh, picturesque coast to sulfurous Iceland and Dublin’s muddy harbor.

The Sea Queen will be published by Harper on August 14th. I wrote this review for Booklist's August issue. I also reviewed the first book last year and look forward to reading the final installment, The Golden Wolf, next summer.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

The Haunts of London: Jeri Westerson's medieval mystery The Deepest Grave

In his entertaining 11th adventure, Crispin Guest, known throughout late 14th-century London as the Tracker, has his hands full with two perplexing cases.

The first is rather grisly: Father Bulthius of St. Modwen’s asks him to investigate the “demon’s march” of corpses from the graveyard. The dead are supposedly unearthing themselves and dragging their coffins around after dark. Crispin can hardly believe it until he visits the parish church and sees a shadowy figure carrying a heavy object, and then the empty grave. Something mysterious is clearly afoot. His apprentice, Jack Tucker, a devout lad, is too creeped out to be enthusiastic about their venture but dutifully follows where his master leads.

In the second instance, Crispin receives a note from an old lover, Philippa Walcote, who’s now a prosperous mercer’s wife. Her seven-year-old son, Christopher, is accused of murdering his father’s neighbor and competitor; even worse, the boy confessed to the crime. With nowhere else to turn, Philippa requests Crispin’s help.

The novel offers a compelling balance of situations and emotions. There are some hilarious moments spurred by Jack’s reluctance to go skulking about amongst the graves (who can blame him?). Crispin, a disgraced knight and longtime bachelor, also broods a bit about his unusual household. Jack and his wife, Isabel, are living at Crispin’s place and are expecting their first child imminently, and Crispin is sort-of-but-not-quite a member of Jack’s growing family. Both his home life, and meeting Philippa and her son, leave Crispin pondering what might have been.

Westerson wonderfully evokes the streets, taverns, and other haunts of medieval London, when the city’s outskirts were still rural, as well as period mentalities (among other mysteries, a religious relic appears to have a mind of its own). Crispin’s backstory is woven in so well that newcomers won’t feel lost, either.

The Deepest Grave is published today by Severn House; thanks to the publisher for NetGalley access. I reviewed the novel for August's Historical Novels Review.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Interview with Lisa Jensen, author of the historical fairy-tale retelling Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge

Lisa Jensen, who I'd spoken with in 2014 about her historical fantasy Alias Hook, has returned to the literary scene with another new twist on a familiar story. The original fairy tale upon which Beast is based should be apparent from the title, but this isn't the familiar Beauty and the Beast story we all know; tweaking the perspective makes all the difference. Opening long before "Beauty" comes on the scene, Beast is seen through the eyes of a young chambermaid, Lucie. Soon after she comes to work at Ch√Ęteau Beaumont, home of the handsome chevalier Jean-Loup, a terrible event spurs her to take revenge — resulting in dramatic transformations involving Lucie, the cruel Jean-Loup, and a beautiful young woman named Rose. The story is set in early 17th-century Burgundy, France, and is geared toward mature YAs and up.  Please read on!

Your previous novel Alias Hook took a new look at the story of Peter Pan, while Beast reworks the traditional Beauty and the Beast fairy tale in new and creative ways. What appeals to you about recasting old stories in a different light?

It usually arises out of my dissatisfaction with the original, and my craving as an author to rewrite it! I always found Captain Hook far more interesting than Peter Pan, so in Alias Hook, I wanted to explore what it must be like for a grown man to be trapped eternally in a world run by beastly little boys.

In the same way, I always adored the Beast character in Beauty and the Beast. But the moment all thinking women dread is when the magnificent, noble Beast turns into a bland, boring handsome prince in the end. Beast does all the work of wooing Beauty. It's Beast she falls in love with. Why should the Prince get the girl?

I thought Beast, in all his soulfulness and sensitivity, deserved to be the hero in his own tale.

While Beast is set in France’s Burgundy region during the reign of “Henri Quatre,” it also successfully conveys the timeless nature of the fairy-tale realm. How and why did you choose the historical period?

Beauty-and-Beast tales (and many other so-called Animal Bridegroom tales) have been around at least since the Greeks. But this particular fairy tale is very French in origin. The first version to be written down was by a French authoress, Mme. de Villeneuve, and published in 1740. It was a bit long and rambling, but the essence of the story was there. A shorter, streamlined adaptation was published by another Frenchwoman, Mme. de Beaumont, in 1757. This is the version of the tale we recognize today.

I had spent some time in the Burgundy region of France, so that was the area I picked. I discovered that everything in rural France looks like a fairy tale, even today! And I decided to use the Henri Quatre period (short window though it was), ca. 1600, because I wanted my book to take place at least 100 years before those other published editions. I think of mine as the origin story from which all future versions of this tale might have evolved.

How did you research the historical setting and locale?

Backwards! I started out with the date, working backwards from the publication dates of those first two version of the story. Then I studied up on what was going on in France around that time. Eh, voila — Henri the Fourth, quite an interesting character in his own right. I decided that my Prince character, Jean-Loup, Chevalier de Beaumont, had earned his knighthood fighting with Henri, then the Prince of Navarre, against the Spanish invaders. And since I was already familiar with the villages and churches of Burgundy, that's where I chose to place the enchanted chateau.

Servants can make insightful narrators; they can observe everything around them while their behavior and feelings often go unobserved by people from the upper classes. At what point during the writing process did you realize that Lucie the chambermaid, rather than Beauty/Rose, had to be the heroine for the story you wanted to tell?

My idea was always to create a heroine worthy of Beast, another woman on the scene who had the sense to fall in love with Beast as he was. So it couldn't be the Beauty character, who is so willing to forget the Beast she says she loves and waltz off with the Prince, a complete stranger! And I always knew the story would be told from Lucie's viewpoint, my protagonist, as we watch her evolve from lowly servant into heroine.

In my story, Beauty (Rose) is more like the antagonist. When she comes to the chateau, the traditional fairy tale plot kicks in. Her appearance interrupts the relationship beginning to develop between Lucie and Beast, and when Lucie realizes Rose has the power to break the spell that created Beast — that Lucie might lose him forever — she'll do anything to try and stop it!

Not to give too much away, but some of the action is seen from the viewpoint of a candlestick. How easy/fun, or how complicated, was it to place her in locations where she could see what was happening?

It was a challenge, but it was also fun! This character narrates the story, in and out of human form, so I had to keep that voice consistently strong from page to page — even during the time the character is inanimate. And the sheer necessity of moving the character around to comment on the action led to some serendipitous moments — as when the silver candlestick is stolen, prompting Beast's enraged reaction! Why does Beast get so angry when the old man plucks a rose from his garden? Now we know!

What was the experience like in writing your first book for a younger audience?

Originally, I wrote this book for adults. I wanted some distance from the fairy tale we all think we remember from childhood, to create a new perspective, a new way of looking at the story. But, as it turned out, a YA editor fell in love with the book and bought it for Candlewick Press. We spent two years editing it to make it age-appropriate (my editor, the intrepid Kaylan Adair, is very thorough). But be warned: there are still so many ways my book is not the Disney Version!

Thanks very much, Lisa!

Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge was published this month in hardcover and ebook by Candlewick Press.

Monday, July 23, 2018

An uneasy inheritance: Rahna Reiko Rizzuto's Shadow Child, set in mid-20th-century America and Japan (plus US/Can giveaway)

Rahna Reiko Rizzuto’s second novel has a terrific opening – a small masterpiece of plot and atmosphere – that elicits many questions. The mystery surrounding their answers unspools over the course of this multi-layered, moody, occasionally meandering work.

Sometime in the early 1970s, Hanako (Hana) Swanson returns late to her barren NYC apartment. She expects to find her twin sister, Keiko (Kei), from whom she’s been estranged for six years, waiting for her. Kei had insisted on flying to see Hana, saying she needed to give her a promised inheritance from their mother. What Hana finds, though, is her sister lying in the bathtub, unconscious and bruised. This makes Hana remember seeing a shadowy man in the lobby, someone who did a double-take upon seeing her. Who was he, and was he Kei's attacker?

The sisters had grown up together in a remote Hawaiian village. Hana was known as the good, responsible one, while Kei was the rebel. Their loving mother, Miya, was prone to odd fevers and episodes of mental instability, while their stepfather, Arnie, proved a steadying influence. The girls, whose mirror-image, “hapa haole” (part-white) appearance sets them apart, were once very close, but their interests diverged, and then a tragic incident involving a cave broke their bond for good.

While desperate to learn what happened to her sister, Hana fears revisiting the past. She tells of bearing physical and mental scars testifying to the trauma she suffered.

The plot vibrates with tension throughout. Rizzuto increases the suspense by interspersing Hana’s segments, in which she remembers her unusual childhood, with those of a newlywed named Lillie in California beginning in 1942. Abandoned as a baby, and raised by white parents, Lillie is an American of Japanese ancestry who has just married Donald, a man of similar heritage.

Lillie's dreams of starting married life on the East Coast are set aside when Donald insists that they join his parents in Los Angeles. In the days after Pearl Harbor, however, anyone of Japanese appearance falls under suspicion by the government, and even by former neighbors and friends. “She was a Jap now,” Lillie thinks, and her sudden realization feels piercing: “She’d become an enemy alien, when she had always only been herself.” Not knowing how to speak Japanese, and restricted from travel, Lillie feels trapped.

The question of identity, which sits at the novel’s heart, is an issue that all three women struggle with. How do society’s views affect who you are? If you grow up as the mirror image of someone else, how can your individuality flourish? In the case of Lillie and her daughters, how has Lillie’s traumatic past manifested itself in Hana and Kei, and what is Hana withholding from her narrative? It’s always clear that Lillie and Miya are the same person, and the reason for her transformation, and the identity of the twins’ father, is resolved in a realistic way by the end.

The settings are as vividly rendered as the characters’ psychologies: impersonal and crowded New York City, a small-town Hawaii untouched by tourism, the internment camp at Manzanar, and places darker still, following Lillie’s arrival in unfamiliar Japan. The chapters told from the viewpoint of “Koko” (both girls together, using a nickname created from their own names) are confusing, but effective all the same.

Recommended as a unique look at sisterhood, the aftermath of trauma, and the careful path these women travel to find healing and acceptance.

Shadow Child was published by Grand Central/Hachette in May; I received an ARC from a Shelf Awareness giveaway.

Thanks to the publisher, I have the opportunity to offer a giveaway for readers in the US and Canada: two hardcover copies are up for grabs. Please fill out the form below for a chance to win. One entry per household; void where prohibited. Deadline Sunday, July 29.

Update: The giveaway is over.  Congrats to Canadian readers Linda and Judith!  Your books are on the way.

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Russian Revolution, as seen through 12 historical novels

This year (tomorrow, to be exact) marks a century since the execution of Russia's tsar, Nicholas II, and his family in 1918, following the Russian Revolution. Novels set during this tense, violent, chaotic period continue to fascinate for their depictions of a country's history, up-close and wrenchingly personal, during a time of great change. Following are a dozen works of historical fiction set during the period, both new/upcoming and older. Their viewpoints range from Romanov family members and aristocrats whose opulent world falls apart, to ordinary Russians empowered by revolutionary fervor, to men and women simply trying to survive the times as best they can.  Listed below the cover are the perspective each book conveys.

Leonka Sednyov was the kitchen boy who fled from the Romanov family's house of captivity in Ekaterinburg and was one of the last to see them alive; a multi-period mystery. Viking, 2003. [see on Goodreads]

Katya Vogt, a young woman from a Mennonite farming family on the Russian steppes, sees the social order in the country torn apart. Milkweed, 2004. [see on Goodreads]

St. Petersburg's chief police investigator looks into a couple's brutal murder in winter 1917, during the last days of imperial Russia and the immediate lead-up to the revolution. Doubleday, 2003. [see on Goodreads]

This upcoming novel centers on sisters Militza and Anastasia, both Princesses of Montenegro, who are fascinated by the occult and are responsible for bringing Rasputin into the imperial family's circle. Head of Zeus, Aug 2018; also to be published by HarperCollins in the US, Jan. 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Marina Makarova, daughter of a bourgeois St. Petersburg family, falls in love with a Bolshevik poet and observes (and takes part in) many other dramatic events of the time. Little, Brown, 2017. [see on Goodreads] [see my review]

Follett incorporates a variety of viewpoints in this blockbuster epic of WWI and the Russian Revolution: aristocrats, soldiers, ordinary workers, and many more. [see on Goodreads] [see my review]

Grand Duchess Olga, eldest daughter of Nicholas and Alexandra, falls in love with a soldier (a fictional episode) in the days preceding her family's downfall.  Out of print and first published in the 1970s, but worth seeking out. [see on Goodreads]

Maria Feodorovna, who became the mother of Nicholas II, narrates her tumultuous life story, from her youth as a Danish princess through her marriage to the imperial heir and the fall of the Romanov dynasty. Ballantine, July 2018. [see on Goodreads]

Gerty Freely, a young woman in Edwardian England, travels to Moscow to become a middle-class family's governess and gets caught up in the upheaval as the country descends into revolution.  Faber, 2016. [see on Goodreads]

Grand Duchess Anastasia and Anna Anderson, who claimed Anastasia's identity, are the two protagonists (or sole protagonist?) of this multi-stranded historical thriller with the themes of identity and hope. Doubleday, March 2018. [see on Goodreads]

In 1916, Sashenka Zeitlin, an impressionable teenager from a well-off Jewish family, leaves her parents' beliefs behind and joins the Bolshevik movement as a spy, a decision with severe repercussions decades later. Simon & Schuster, 2008. [see on Goodreads]

Mathilde Kschessinska, the petite star of the Russian Imperial Ballet who became mistress to the last tsar, Nicholas II, looks back on her life at age 99.  FSG, 2010. [see my review] [see on Goodreads]