Friday, July 29, 2016

An early look at Emma Donoghue's The Wonder, literary suspense set in rural 19th-c Ireland

In her outstanding new psychologically intense and suspenseful novel, Donoghue (Frog Music, 2014) plunges readers deeply into her protagonist’s confounding situation and its ethical consequences.

In 1859, Lib Wright, an English nurse trained by Florence Nightingale herself, is tasked with an unsettling mission: watching over Anna O’Donnell, an 11-year-old girl in a small Irish village who, so it’s claimed, hasn’t ingested any nourishment in four months. While Anna doesn’t appear to be starving, neither is she blooming with health. Her devoutly religious mother acts proud of her seemingly miraculous restraint.

Believing this “extraordinary wonder” to be a lucrative scam, Lib determines to locate Anna’s secret food source and expose her as a fake. She has two weeks to do so. However, Anna, an unforgettable character, is a delightful, curious child who awakens Lib’s protective nature, increasingly so as Anna’s well-being deteriorates.

Donoghue excels at evoking the social and religious atmosphere that proves difficult for the secular-minded Lib to penetrate. Fervent Catholic piety intermingles with folk superstitions, and the confined setting of the O’Donnells’ meager cabin feels tangibly immediate.

The mystery about Anna forces readers to weigh every word for clues, while the creeping tension compels them to read faster, with a growing sense of urgency. Exploring the nature of faith and trust with heartrending intensity, Donoghue’s superb novel will leave few unaffected.

This starred review first appeared in Booklist's July issue and was their review of the day on Wednesday of this week.  The Wonder will be published in September by Little, Brown (304pp, $27).

Some other notes:

These days Donoghue is best known for her novel Room, but my first experience reading her work was when I was assigned to review Frog Music for Booklist two years ago (you can read that review here).  Both Frog Music and The Wonder fit the category of literary fiction yet also work very well as mysteries or thrillers (personally I'd love to see it nominated for a mystery award or two).  The books have significant cross-genre appeal.  The Wonder's premise is based on historical cases of "fasting girls" in Victorian-era Ireland and elsewhere.  What do you think of the cover?  It's uncomplicated, yet very effective in my opinion.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Book review: The Ninja's Daughter, by Susan Spann

“Last night I killed a girl and left her body by the river.”

Such a shocking confession from a young man would normally compel an immediate response, but Hattori Hiro foresees only trouble if the Portuguese priest he’s been hired to protect, Father Mateo, agrees to get involved.

The year is 1565 in Kyoto, Japan. By this 4th volume in Susan Spann’s mystery series, Hiro and Father Mateo have become known for their crime-solving skills, to Hiro's dismay. Father Mateo’s willingness to help people in need interferes with Hiro’s duties as a covert shinobi (highly-trained ninja spy): “Investigations attracted more attention than he liked.”

Jiro, the merchant’s apprentice who sought the priest’s help, doesn’t actually know if he was the girl’s killer. He had drunk too much sake and woke up to find his would-be lover dead. Although 16-year-old Emi had told him she was a teahouse entertainer, she was really an actor’s daughter. Her low social status makes her death unimportant: the authorities won’t investigate what happened to her.

Father Mateo bristles at this injustice and determines to uncover the truth. After he meets Emi’s family, Hiro finds himself compelled by professional and family loyalty to do the same.

Hiro and Father Mateo make a resourceful team; their partnership works well for their detection and also contributes to readers’ knowledge about the historical setting. Hiro acts as the Jesuit’s Japanese translator (although his fluency is excellent) but in this strict feudal society, Hiro’s role as a cultural translator is equally valuable.

Their investigation takes them from the banks of the Kamo River, whose wooden bridges are guarded by fierce armored samurai, to the inner workings of nō theatre, which has its own social hierarchy. As Hiro explains the finer aspects of Japanese culture to his companion/friend, readers are clued in as well.

This is an era when it pays to be especially careful, with the country in turmoil as rival daimyo vie for power after the shogun’s death. Father Mateo is being pressured to leave Kyoto for his own safety, which adds to the tension. The situation is amusingly lightened on occasion through the comments of the household’s maid, Ana, and the presence of Gato, their cat.

The Ninja’s Daughter is a complex and well-balanced mystery, with enough background included for series newbies and plenty of enticement to continue with the next book. It also comes with an undeniably powerful, setting-appropriate ending.

The novel is published by Seventh Street in trade paperback and ebook on August 2nd (230pp).  Follow the rest of the tour at Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.


Friday, July 22, 2016

Irina Reyn's The Imperial Wife, a sharply written tale about female ambition

How do high-powered women navigate their world? What concessions should they make to achieve domestic harmony?

Reyn (What Happened to Anna K., 2008) raises these important questions through the parallel tales of Tanya Kagan Vandermotter, head of Russian art at a New York auction house, and Catherine the Great, the intelligent German princess who deposed her ineffectual husband to claim Russia’s throne for herself.

Feeling obliged to compensate for her modest Russian Jewish immigrant background, Tanya is ultracompetent at her job, and coordinating an auction for a medallion that probably belonged to the empress would cement her career. However, her bestselling-writer husband chooses that moment to flee, seemingly threatened by her success.

Readers are treated to fabulous set pieces as the plot moves from the glittering Saint Petersburg court in the eighteenth century to an opulent party in the company of Russian oligarchs along the modern Côte d’Azur. With its sharp characterizations and unexpected twists, Reyn’s novel keeps readers on their toes. Both women elicit compassion due to their position as outsiders, and their stories intertwine in playful and profound ways.

The Imperial Wife is published this month by Thomas Dunne, an imprint of St. Martin's Press ($25.99, hb, 288pp). This review first appeared in Booklist's June 1st issue.

Some more thoughts:

The ARC that I read had a different cover than the one above, and I think it suits the story of The Imperial Wife better, as it has a more contemporary feel.  This may be because I've read fiction about Catherine the Great before (most recently Eva Stachniak's The Winter Palace), but I found the modern story the more memorable of the two.

This is an atypical multi-period novel in that the two plotlines are primarily related by theme.  Also (there wasn't enough room to say this in a short review) the fictional sections about Catherine the Great are taken from the bestselling novel that made Tanya's writer husband famous.

Finally, some people will dislike the ending, but I thought it was appropriate.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Book review: Monterey Bay by Lindsay Hatton

Margot Fiske is a combustible mix of intellectual shrewdness and emotional need. Tall and appearing older than 15, she has lived an unsettled life alongside her quirky father.

In 1940, his latest “industrial transformation” scheme brings them to the Monterey Bay coast, where she meets real-life biologist Ed Ricketts. She initiates an affair with this tequila-swilling nonconformist, infuriating her father. Attempting to tie Ricketts to her, Margot convinces him of her value as his sketch artist, but his heart isn’t easily captured.

In this world of economic ambition and competitive jealousy, sea creatures are tragic commodities, trapped for food or killed and sold as specimens. In scenes set in 1998, their wonders are exhibited at the Monterey Bay Aquarium (its origins creatively imagined), where Margot is administrator.

A product of her neglectful upbringing, Margot exhibits an unfeeling attitude toward almost everything except Ricketts, making her a challenging heroine. Debut novelist Hatton’s authoritative writing elicits strong emotions, and in this biographically shaped historical novel she brings to life the realm of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, including Steinbeck himself, Ricketts’ brooding patron.

This review first appeared in Booklist's June 1st issue. Lindsay Hatton's Monterey Bay is published today by The Penguin Press ($27, hb, 320pp).   Some more thoughts below.

Ed Ricketts was a real-life marine biologist who inspired the character "Doc" in John Steinbeck's Cannery Row (1945), which I hadn't read beforehand.  Knowledge of the novel isn't necessary for appreciation of the book, although those with greater familiarity with Cannery Row should pick up on additional nuances.

As for Margot, I have to say that I disliked her intensely.  Although I don't need to feel an affinity with protagonists in order to enjoy a book – it's more important that they be well-developed and interesting her attitude and later actions made the novel an uncomfortable read. I did feel sorry for her, though. Unlike Ricketts and Steinbeck, Margot is fictional.  You can read more about the author's background and inspirations for her characters in her interview with the Monterey Herald last Saturday.

For another viewpoint, see the starred review from Kirkus, which is relatively spoiler-free. I liked its description of Margot's "jagged coming of age."

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Painter of Souls by Philip Kazan, a novel about the young Fra Filippo Lippi

“No matter how stained something is, there’s always something bright underneath.”

Pippo Lippi, the young Florentine who becomes the Carmelite friar Fra Filippo Lippi, has the innate gift of seeing into people’s purest selves and representing them in art. Philip Kazan’s first US-published novel is first in a projected series that imagines the life journey of the renowned painter, and there’s considerable joy in reading about an artist with an eye for the world’s beauty.

However, despite the glorious frescoes that adorn its convent walls and ceilings, Florence in the early 15th century hardly resembles paradise. Boys band together in the streets, essentially raising themselves while stealing food, and later, if they survive adolescence, selling their bodies to older men. Young Pippo, who’d fled his home after his father's death and his mother’s subsequent mental collapse, scrounges vellum from the trash, employing what tools he can to express his artistic talents.

The Painter of Souls is a novel of contrasts: the grim poverty of the inner city versus the quiet sanctity of religious houses; Filippo’s dual roles as friar and painter, which he never expected would be possible; the choice between chastity and carnal pleasures; and the unsavory realities of life, set against people’s dreams of heaven. More than that, though, it evokes the inner and outer struggles of a man who comes to bridge these disparate worlds through his magnificent art.

His isn’t a story without controversy. It’s one thing to show the humanity of biblical figures, but another to model their faces on ordinary, sinful people.

Filippo has guidance along his unusual path. He has several mentors (maestros) who nurture his talent, including the painters Masolino and Masaccio – the similarities in names occasionally gets confusing, but they’re based in history – and two understanding religious leaders, Fra Antonio in Pisa and Prior Pietro in Florence. The words used to describe one could fit the other as well: “He sees the world as clearly as he sees Heaven.”

Over five centuries have passed since Filippo Lippi lived, but in keeping with its characters’ depictions, their dialogue is down-to-earth and accessible. There’s humor in the telling, too, which suits Filippo's personality:

“He is soaked and frozen, but although by rights he should be miserable, he is feeling strangely virtuous. This, perhaps, is the penance the prior should have given him. As he trudges into the town he is even hoping that tomorrow’s weather will be even more vile. That way, he can positively bathe in virtuous suffering.”

This is a rewarding story that draws readers fully into its place and time. For those wanting a close-up view of artists at work, too, the novel will have strong appeal.

The Painter of Souls was published in the US by Pegasus in May ($24.95, hardcover, 272pp).  The UK publisher is Orion.  Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy at my request.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Some recent essays about historical fiction

I've recently come across three thought-provoking essays on the historical fiction genre and thought I'd share the links.

First is Francis Spufford's "It Feels More Honest to Write Fiction."  This article for the Guardian, by the British author of the debut novel Golden Hill, explores his transition from nonfiction history to historical fiction and the shift in thought processes that this involved.  As he discovered, it's a daring, unsettling task to move from using facts as a constant reference point to relying on one's own imagination and assumptions in order to tell stories.

Here's just a snippet:  "What I notice now, is that I hardly seem to be writing in words, the way I used to. I mean, of course I am. A novel is a long, long string of words; is made of no other material at all. But that’s what it ends by being. It begins as a set of decisions about character, and time, and angle of vision, all taken before the final embodiment of those things in words... Good writing in fiction is always doing an impossibly large number of things at the same time, and most of that happens beneath the surface, where the reader never sees it directly."

For the popular History Girls blog (which is celebrating its 5th anniversary), Australian historian and writer Gillian Polack surveys the changes we've been seeing in history and fiction in an essay entitled Treasuring History Through Fiction.  "Two decades ago," she writes, "there was a vast gulf between historians and fiction writers. This hasn’t always been the case. It wasn’t so much the case in the time of Walter Scott. And it’s not the case right now. It’s now socially far more acceptable to read certain types of fiction as part of enjoying history. The way history is written into many novels has changed: it’s more sophisticated, more aware and far more researched."

For those who pay attention to the genre, this is an important read that focuses on the state of historical fiction today, and how people think about history -- and what this means for both readers and writers. She bases her conclusions on research she's conducted, including interviews with historical novelists.  I'm in the process of reading her new academic book on the subject (mentioned in the article).

And for Fiction Writers Review, Mary Volmer (whose new novel Reliance, Illinois I'll be reviewing shortly) has a piece called "The Tourist, the Expat, and the Native: A Traveler's Approach to Crafting Historical Fiction."  

She writes: "Although historical novelists write from research, rather than personal experience, about places in time that we cannot physically explore, we employ a traveler’s hunger for discovery, her sense of wonder and displacement; we apply her reflective instinct. The work of the historical novelist is an ever-deepening process of immersion, from tourist to expat to native."  And she details the changes that writers undergo as they become more fluent in the world their characters inhabit.

Don't just go by my summaries, though; it's best to read the pieces linked above in full.  You may find yourself mentally underlining apt phrasings while taking in their insights.  Or you may disagree, of course, but the issues raised are worth pondering.

Saturday, July 09, 2016

The aftermath of loss: Ashley Hay's The Railwayman's Wife

Ashley Hay’s The Railwayman’s Wife is a novel tailor-made for librarians and book lovers (like me) who enjoy literary fiction. Set in the Australian seaside town of Thirroul beginning in 1948, it navigates the emotional changes in a young woman, Anikka Lachlan, over the course of her first year as a widow.

UK & Australian cover
After her Scottish-born husband, Mac, dies in a railway accident, it’s suggested that Ani replace the librarian in Thirroul’s Railway Institute Library after her retirement. Ani has always loved to read – Jane Eyre is her favorite novel – and although her new work schedule disrupts her routine with her 10-year-old daughter, Isabel, she finds comfort in helping her fellow townspeople find the right books.

During this painful time, she develops friendships with some of her neighbors, including Roy McKinnon, who fears that his gift for poetry deserted him in peacetime, and Frank Draper, a doctor who can’t escape his past failure to prevent the deaths of recently liberated concentration camp victims. Ani is taken aback by Frank’s occasional brusqueness but comes to realize where it comes from.

This is a bittersweet, introspective novel that follows people’s search for hope and understanding even in the most trying circumstances. It evokes Ani’s feelings not only of loss also but of frustration at life’s unfairness, since she and Mac had come through years of war unscathed only for him to die tragically young anyway. It’s also understandably strange for her to spend her days surrounded by the sound of trains, one of which killed her husband.

US cover
Ani holds onto her memories of Mac, reflecting on the fact that they’ll have no more conversations with one another: “It still throws her to realize she’ll learn nothing more directly from her husband, only secondhand anecdotes about him. And such things can never be hers to claim.” Through others’ stories, Ani discovers a side to Mac she probably wouldn’t have ever known otherwise.

Chapters about their married life, but seen from Mac’s viewpoint, add to the story’s poignancy and originality. Through these sections – which feel shocking when first encountered, because one doesn’t expect to reach the minds of the dead – we learn how much Mac strived to make himself feel worthy of her.

The Railwayman’s Wife is too deep and multilayered of a book to offer simple answers, but eloquently describes how people seek their own paths out of bereavement and loss.

This was a personal purchase; I’d bought the UK edition (Allen & Unwin, 2014) back when it came out, before I heard that a US edition would be published (Atria/Simon & Schuster, April 2016, $26). This is my second entry in the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

For background on the story, see Ashley Hay's essay in Library Journal: Reading the Rails: How Australia's Historic Railway Libraries Inspired a Novel.