Thursday, December 07, 2017

A gallery of fifteen historical fiction reads for Jewish Book Month

Jewish Book Month, an annual celebration of Jewish literature sponsored by the Jewish Book Council, has been in existence since 1943, though its history extends even further back. This year, it's being held between November 12 - December 12, 2017. The dates change each year, since it takes place just before Hanukkah.

As my way of participating in this event, here are 15 historical novels — family sagas, biographical novels, literary fiction, plus a couple of mysteries — featuring Jewish characters and/or focusing on aspects of Jewish history. Some of these are titles I've reviewed previously, and others are on my TBR. I've aimed to provide examples covering a range of geographic settings.

For additional examples, see the Jewish Book Council's historical fiction reading list. Please leave recommendations for other books in the comments!



The Galapagos Islands, WWII: Frances and Ainslie Conway, a married couple working for the Office of Naval Intelligence, embark on a clandestine mission on these distant islands but keep many secrets from each other. Based on historical characters. [see on Goodreads]



France and Germany, mid-13th century:  the story of renowned German rabbi Meir ben Baruch of Rothenberg, the author’s ancestor, as seen from his wife’s viewpoint. [see my review] [see on Goodreads]



Yemen, 1920: in this intimate saga about Yemenite Jews, a young girl learns about her heritage through the artistry of henna tattoos. [see on Goodreads]



Ireland, 20th century and present-day: the story of the little-known Jewish community in Ireland unfolds through three distinct stories spanning over 100 years. [see on Goodreads]



The US South, 1820s-30s: when a Jewish peddler falls in love with an independent Cherokee woman, he becomes personally entangled in a tragic tale set in motion twenty years earlier. [see my review] [see on Goodreads]



St. Thomas, early 19th century: a lyrical fictional biography of Rachel, a young woman from Paris who later became the mother of impressionist painter Camille Pissarro. [see on Goodreads]



U.S. Civil War: a young Jewish man runs into trouble when he’s asked to infiltrate a group of suspected Confederate spies. [see my review] [see on Goodreads]



London, 1660s and today: in this dual-period literary novel, a modern historian seeks to uncover the identity of a scribe from centuries earlier. [see on Goodreads]



Spain, late 15th century: as the Inquisition solidifies its power across Spain, King Ferdinand's chancellor Luis de Santangel, who comes from a converso family, begins to examine his faith and cultural identity. [see on Goodreads]



Chicago, 1872:  after an Orthodox rabbi is murdered, his daughter, Rivka, teams up with an Irish detective to find the perpetrator. [see on Goodreads]



Connecticut, 1948: after what should be a relaxing summer at "Bagel Beach" along the shoreline turns unexpectedly tragic, the sisters in a close-knit Jewish family must deal with the lengthy fallout. [see on Goodreads]



Palestine, early 20th century: in this work of magical realism (the author's first novel), several Ukrainian families move from Europe to settle in a rural village in Ottoman Palestine. [see on Goodreads]



Cape Ann, 1927: a girl’s secret birth mother and her adoptive mother, one from a prominent Jewish family and the other the  matriarch of a large Irish clan, find their lives intertwining again. [see my review] [see on Goodreads]



Prague, 1592: a Talmudic scholar investigates the murder of a young Christian girl, hoping to exonerate one of his fellow Jews. [see my review] [see on Goodreads]



1920s-1970s Israel, as seen through the experiences of several women over four generations in a Sephardic Jewish family. [see my review] [see on Goodreads]

Monday, December 04, 2017

Mountains and memory: Return to Your Skin by Luz Gabás, a time-slip novel set in the Spanish Pyrenees

Most time-slip novels in the traditional mold are set in countries with a lengthy and well-documented history. Think Anya Seton’s Green Darkness, Barbara Erskine’s Lady of Hay, and, more recently, Nicola Cornick’s House of Shadows, all with British settings.

Thanks to AmazonCrossing and the fluid translation of Noel Hughes, English-speaking readers have the opportunity to read one set in the less-common location of Spain: Return to Your Skin by Luz Gabás, which—as one can guess from the title—involves a reincarnation theme.

The modern story follows Brianda, an engineer in her late thirties, who leaves Madrid to stay with relatives in the remote mountain village of Tiles after suffering unexplained anxiety and a dream involving a dark-haired woman, a rain-soaked night, and an encounter with a mysterious man along a treacherously narrow aqueduct. Brianda has always had a great relationship with her live-in boyfriend, Esteban, but when her visions start invading their sex life, as shown in a disturbingly effective scene, she withdraws from him emotionally.

In Tiles, her aunt Isolina welcomes her warmly to Anels House, although her uncle Colau is as gruff as she remembers and seems consumed by a mysterious anger. Enigmatic Colau, whose family is rumored to be cursed, seems destined to be a typical villain but turns out to have perhaps the most intriguing psychological profile among all the characters. Colau is also a longtime researcher of local history, but what Brianda turns up doesn’t please him. And then she meets an Italian man named Corso who’s restoring his family’s manor, Lubich, across the woods from Anels, and to whom she feels an uncanny attraction.

About a third of the way in, the viewpoint switches to the heroine’s earlier counterpart, Brianda of Lubich. The political situation in late 16th-century Aragon, which grows progressively more hostile, takes a while to untangle due to the many individuals and factions involved. It’s a complex portrait of a dark, painful epoch, particularly for women—and one aspect of the plot, as Gabás explains in an afterword, is drawn from actual history.

Classic time-slip elements are introduced one by one: a churchyard with secrets, revelatory documents and other artifacts, and a secret passion that’s hard to deny. When romantic lightning strikes, though, what happens to the couple’s existing partners: are these situations addressed head on, or are the problems brushed aside? The answer is “some of both,” and in one case, disappointingly, it isn’t handled at all. Also, oddly, the modern characters appear not to have surnames.

The novel, moving slowly at first, gains significant power in the last half as the stakes grow higher, and accusations of witchcraft begin to fly. Its strength lies in its portrait of an era and its tragic aftermath, and the pressure this bears on subsequent generations.

Thanks to the publisher for providing access via NetGalley.

Friday, December 01, 2017

Enchantress of Numbers by Jennifer Chiaverini, a biographical novel of computing pioneer Ada Lovelace

Known recently for her Civil War–era fiction, Chiaverini (Fates and Traitors, 2016) takes a transatlantic sojourn for this exquisite biographical novel. It’s a quintessential example of the form, covering nearly her subject’s entire life in an engaging, evenly paced style.

Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace, was a nineteenth-century English mathematician who is considered an ancestress of the digital age for creating a computing algorithm. Her narration uses an inviting, slightly formal tone that evokes the era.

Much attention is given to Ada’s youth, describing how her overprotective mother, Annabella, seeks to suppress the “bad Byron blood” Ada inherited from her notorious poet father by upholding logic and discipline while discouraging imaginative thought. As Ada matures and finds mentors in inventor Charles Babbage and mathematician Mary Somerville, her relationship with Annabella (a wonderfully complex character) is shown with nuance.

In addition to the well-presented particularities of Ada’s life, including many scenes of society gatherings and technological demonstrations, the novel provokes reflection on interpersonal connections and how they shape one’s development. Wholeheartedly recommended for historical-fiction fans and STEM enthusiasts.

Enchantress of Numbers will be published on December 5 by Dutton. This review was written for Booklist's 10/15 issue.

Some other notes:

- As the daughter of math professors and as a one-time math major (and current math/computer science librarian) myself, I'd been planning to read this novel anyway so was pleased when it showed up in the mail as a Booklist assignment. This is my first experience reading one of Chiaverini's novels. Not long ago, I was asked for recommendations of historical novels that provide a comprehensive portrait of a character by following them through their entire life, or close – and this one fits.

- The portrait on the cover is actually one of Ada (something you don't see much of any more in historical fiction). It was painted in 1836 by British artist Margaret Sarah Carpenter, a scene which is dramatized in the novel.

- Chiaverini has also written the 20-book Elm Creek Quilts series, and some of those books are historical as well.

- Looking for other novels about women in STEM?  See my earlier list, Women in Science and Mathematics: a gallery of historical novels (and read the comments, too).

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Unbound by John Shors, a novel of freedom, love, and the Great Wall of China

Meng was just a lone woman. She had been born with a voice but told by society not to use it, born with eyes but told not to see. Yet her feet and resolve were unbound. And she would travel onward, coming to better know the world that she was a part of, the steps she needed to take to consider herself free.

Seventh of John Shors’ Asian-set novels, Unbound reimagines a legend well-known in China but perhaps less familiar to Western audiences: that of a young wife determined to reunite with her beloved husband, who was pressed into service constructing the Great Wall.

This version of the tale unfolds during the Ming Dynasty, in the mid-16th century. A year after her husband Fan’s departure, his wife Meng, missing him desperately and concerned about his well-being during the harsh winter atop the wall, crafts a warm coat and sets out on foot from Beijing, in male disguise, to bring it to him. Meanwhile, Fan, a talented craftsman responsible for maintaining the Great Wall’s structural integrity over the six miles between Jinshanling and Simatai, struggles to do his task amid increasingly poor health, regular Mongol attacks, and his cruel commander’s jealous rages and threats.

Meng and Fan’s love never wavers throughout the course of this clearly and straightforwardly written novel. Other subplots soon take prominence, though, such as Meng’s friendship with a man she meets en route (their teasing banter is lively and fun) and Fan’s protectiveness toward Bataar, a twelve-year-old enslaved Mongol boy. The question also arises about whether Bataar’s father will find and rescue him. There are no givens about how any of these situations will play out.

Descriptions abound of the Great Wall’s impressive architecture, with its many crenellations and watchtowers spanning the rugged terrain (“like a dragon sprawled across the mountains”) as well as the strategy behind its design. At times the educational purpose slows down the plot—considerable time is spent explaining how the Wall is built, and the information on how a sedan chair operates feels overlong—but anyone interested in Chinese history should find the material fascinating.

The Great Wall of China at Jinshanling
Severin.stalder [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Although the lovers are Chinese, this isn’t a one-sided presentation. The Mongols are fierce fighters, proud of their culture and bounteous grasslands, who want to trade with their resistant southern neighbor. In contrast, the Chinese emperor (who is never seen, only talked about) comes off as rigid and xenophobic. The novel examines the various power differentials of the day: between men and women, the Chinese and Mongols, and the different classes in Chinese society. On her journey, Meng observes how regulations on dress and other customs are selectively relaxed the further one gets from Beijing: a nice touch.

A more thorough copy edit would have caught the occasional typos and misspellings. But for anyone curious about the Great Wall or the lives of average people during part of its construction, Unbound is definitely recommended.

Unbound was published in August in trade pb and ebook. Thanks to the author for providing me with a review copy.

Friday, November 24, 2017

A Christmas Return by Anne Perry, a holiday mystery novella set in Victorian times

This compact little gem, Perry’s fifteenth Christmas novella, demonstrates her proficiency in writing Victorian-set mysteries. The protagonist is Mariah Ellison, grandmother of Charlotte Pitt from another of Perry’s series.

One day in mid-December, Mariah receives an unusually heavy Christmas pudding at her London residence. Cutting into it, she discovers an ornamental cannonball—a gift that signals events from her past. The sender is Peter Wesley, grandson of her estranged friend Rowena, and he desperately needs Mariah’s help.

Twenty years earlier, in the village of Haslemere in Surrey, Rowena’s lawyer husband, Cullen, had suddenly refused to continue defending his client. Dr. Owen Durward had been accused of raping and murdering a teenage girl, and nobody knew the reasons behind Cullen’s change of heart. Then that same night, Cullen himself was killed, and Durward was subsequently acquitted.

Now Durward has returned to Haslemere again, wanting to dispel any lingering sentiments about his guilt. This dredges up immense pain for the Wesleys, since he’s spreading rumors that Rowena was the cause of his past troubles. Rowena isn’t the fighting sort, so Mariah and Peter decide to take action.

A plain woman in her eighties, Mariah has a reputation of being sharp-tongued and tetchy. In one of many skillful unveilings of human nature’s many facets, the story delves into the origins of her bitterness—and the courage she must exhibit to overcome it.

The atmosphere of close-knit village life in the 1890s feels pitch-perfect, from the homeliness of residents’ holiday decor to the gossip that spreads like a dreadful stain. The characterization is superb, and the work’s short length is perfect for the material. The spirit of the Christmas season is cleverly evoked through the underlying theme that it’s never too late for reconciliations and second chances.

Anne Perry's A Christmas Return was published by Ballantine this month (hardcover, 177pp). In the UK, the publisher is Headline. I reviewed it for November's Historical Novels Review.  This is my second experience with one of her Christmas novellas, the first being A Christmas Escape from 2015. You don't have to have read the Thomas & Charlotte Pitt novels to enjoy this one.

Want to win a copy for yourself? I have an extra, which I'll be giving away to an interested blog reader. Just enter your info in the form below by Friday, December 1st, and I'll draw a random entry after that.  This giveaway is open internationally.  One entry per household, please; void where prohibited.  Good luck!

Update, 12/2:17: Giveaway entries are closed, and a winner has been selected via Random.org. Congrats to Michael C!  I've sent you an email and hope you'll enjoy the book.
Thanks to all who entered!

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Women of World War II: a gallery of historical novels, new and old

Over the last few days, my husband and I have been getting into the historical crime drama series The Bletchley Circle on DVD, since we'd missed seeing it when it aired on PBS. Set in 1952, the show focuses on a quartet of women formerly part of the code-breaking team at Bletchley Park during wartime, and how they reunite to trap a serial killer. We've only seen the first season so far, and I can highly recommend it for its insights into the postwar era and women's lives and hidden talents.  Plus, there are scenes of almost unbearable suspense; you may not want to watch too late at night!

Along these lines, and per a reader's request, here are 10 historical novels evoking women's wartime efforts. This gallery mixes current reads, forthcoming titles, and some older novels which appeared before the period became trendy, and which are deserving of a second look.

In this inspirational novel, four women of different ages and economic backgrounds become friends during their work at a small-town Michigan factory contracted to build ships for the US war effort.  Bethany House, 2006. [see on Goodreads]



Baldwin's literary novel is based on the real life of Noor Inayat Khan, an Indo-American woman who became an undercover wireless operator for the British government in occupied France.  Knopf Canada, 2004.  [see on Goodreads]



Beard's debut dramatizes the story of ordinary women who traveled to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, in the 1940s to work on a clandestine mission whose true purpose was kept from them.  William Morrow, February 2018. [see on Goodreads]



First in a trilogy, The Chestnut Tree takes place in a small Sussex fishing village and follows the lives of a group of women determined to help with the war effort, and who participate in different ways. Thomas Dunne, 2003. [see on Goodreads]



Basing his novel on the wartime lives of his two grandmothers, Cleave depicts a young aristocratic Londoner who forges an inner strength through her traumatic experiences, and two men who love her. Simon & Schuster, 2016. [see on Goodreads]



An adventurous young Welsh singer travels the world during wartime, entertaining the troops, and is asked to assist the British Secret Service, a job she keeps secret from the man she loves. Touchstone, 2012. [see on Goodreads]



The immense courage and heroism of military nurses during WWII are depicted via the author's depiction of two friends half a world apart, one stationed in France, the other in the South Pacific. William Morrow, 2017 (this is the paperback cover). [see on Goodreads]



Called the "Night Witches" by the Germans, this all-female squadron of Russian military aviators was known for courage, daring, and precision. Runyan's third novel (after two historicals about the early settlement of Quebec) follows a young pilot who takes to the skies for her country. Lake Union, January 2018. [see on Goodreads]



From the 1930s through the postwar years, two young African-American women from Mississippi, lifelong friends, find that their destinies lead them across America and Europe; their story involves their wartime service.  BlueHen, 2002. [see on Goodreads]



In this novel about determination and identity, Ida Mae Jones, a light-skinned black woman from Louisiana, decides to pass for white to join the WASPs (Women's Airforce Service Pilots) when the United States enters the war.  The heroine is eighteen, and although this book is classified as YA, it should interest adult readers as well.  Putnam, 2009. [see on Goodreads]

Looking for yet more on this topic?  See Part 1 and Part 2 of my "women at war" lists, which I'd posted back in 2011.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

By Light of Hidden Candles by Daniella Levy, a multi-period novel of cultural heritage, faith, and love

Entertaining, culturally rich, and fearless in speaking of complex theological questions, American-Israeli author Levy’s debut novel delves into the history of Spain’s crypto-Jews—descendants of Jewish people who secretly observed their faith following expulsion or forced conversion. The story is structured into three intertwined narratives, two contemporary and one historical.

Alma Ben-Ami, a gregarious college student who defies the stereotype of observant Jewish women, gets excited after discovering an engraved gold ring and a box of ketubot—Jewish marriage contracts—covering 24 generations in her family’s female line. Her memory-impaired grandmother, who was born in Morocco’s Spanish protectorate, can no longer recall the ring’s history.

Shortly thereafter, at the family Judaica shop in Manhattan, Alma meets Manuel Aguilar, a Spaniard whose former priest had discouraged his curiosity about Judaism. When they enroll in the same NYU archives program and study abroad in Madrid to research their genealogies, their growing closeness affects their friendship, since Alma won’t date anyone outside her faith.

A separate strand presents the experiences of Míriam de Carmona, Alma’s ancestor, living with her spice-merchant father, Abraham, in the judería of Lorca in southeastern Spain in 1492. Abraham’s decision to sell kosher wine to a converso family attracts the Inquisition’s attention.

Young people often explore questions of religion and identity in college, so Alma and Manuel’s in-depth discussions about her Jewish customs, his Catholicism, and where they overlap and differ all feel honest and real. Their humorous banter keeps the pacing brisk.

It’s difficult for Alma to keep kosher in modern Spain, and the story explains the importance of these traditions and emphasizes the tenacious survival of the Jewish people. In the 15th century, Míriam faces her own romantic dilemma, and her fear of discovery by the Inquisition is terrifyingly palpable. The plotline relies on coincidence at times but has an enjoyably satisfying outcome.

By Light of Hidden Candles was published by Kasva Press in 2017; I reviewed it for November's Historical Novels Review based on a "read now" copy I found at NetGalley, which has become a worthwhile source for new book discoveries for me. The novel can be considered an example of New Adult fiction. It's also a good choice for Jewish Book Month, which runs this year from November 12 - December 12.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Blood Moon by Ruth Hull Chatlien, a tense fictional account of the Dakota War of 1862

Ruth Hull Chatlien spins a taut and believable tale in her second historical novel, Blood Moon, which dramatizes Sarah Wakefield’s six-week captivity among the Dakota people in 1862, along with her four-year-old son and infant daughter.

The wife of Dr. John Wakefield, a government physician at the Upper Sioux Agency in southern Minnesota, Sarah had previously formed friendships among the Sioux (as she calls them), relationships which stand her in good stead after hostilities break out between the white settlers and Indians. Sent away from their home by John for her safety, she and her children see their journey tragically disrupted; they are taken into the custody of Chaska, a friendly “farmer Indian,” and his not-so-friendly relative, Hapa.

Vowing to return her to her husband when it’s possible to do so, Chaska brings Sarah under his protection, and she comes to see him and his kindly mother, Ina, as adopted family members. Both are sympathetic characters, and it’s only thanks to them that Sarah survives. Still, there are many close calls, with many of Chaska’s compatriots vowing to kill all white settlers—she sees examples firsthand.

Through her narrative, Sarah deftly illustrates the political tensions that lead up to the U.S.-Dakota War: restrictions imposed upon the Dakota, combined with drought and their subsequent hunger, have driven the Indians to the breaking point. The complex situation is painted in many shades of gray, with many Dakota people wanting to avoid violence. “The longer I am with them,” she states, “the more I understand that their attitudes toward whites are neither uniform nor predictable.”

An intelligent and courageous woman, Sarah already knows how to speak Dakota to some degree, and the story shows how she learns to follow their ways and behave in a culturally acceptable manner, despite disdain from other white captives. The author provides considerable detail on the Dakota culture, including their dress, language, and kinship relations. That said, Sarah longs to return with her children to the white settlers’ world, and to her husband.

On this topic, the depiction of Sarah and John Wakefield’s mismatched marriage deserves acclaim for its realism. Sarah, a six-foot-tall farmer’s daughter, has a scandal in her past that’s not of her own making. The historical character’s own memoir alludes to this, but without going into detail; the explanation given in the novel feels plausible.  John, from a blue-blooded New England family, is a talented, adventurous physician who’s prone to occasional violence and verbal put-downs. Keeping to the mindset of mid-19th century mores, Sarah is a caring mother who does her best to be a good wife, feeling that John saved her from a life that could have been worse. One specific scene toward the end, relating to their relationship, exudes power, meaning, and character.

Recommended for an in-depth look at a little-known but important event from 150 years ago that was tragic on many fronts and had lasting consequences.

Blood Moon was published by Amika Press in June; thanks to the author for providing me with an e-copy.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Wonders Will Never Cease by Robert Irwin, a fantasy of medieval history and lore

Irwin’s entertaining literary fantasy has a solid historical framework yet is stuffed to the brim with well-known myths, rumors come to life, and imaginative tales created of whole cloth. Its protagonist (or maybe antagonist) is Anthony Woodville, a figure from England’s Wars of the Roses.

After he appears to be killed at the Battle of Towton and later revives, his life becomes overlaid with occult happenings. A disembodied head prognosticates, and the dead walk again. Various characters, including “knight prisoner” Thomas Malory and the royal alchemist, relate episodes from Arthurian lore, the Welsh Mabinogion, the Canterbury Tales, and more.

Characters from stories appear in the tangible world and historical figures surface in paranormal realms. Anthony’s mother claims descent from the fairy Melusine, and his sister, a widowed commoner, secretly marries King Edward. With so much strangeness around, Anthony has trouble discerning what is real.

History and fiction are interlaced throughout with dexterity and wit. Perhaps best appreciated by medieval enthusiasts, Irwin’s novel invites discussion on the value of stories and how they communicate our place in the world.

Robert Irwin's Wonders Will Never Cease is published by Arcade in the US this month; in the UK, the publisher is Dedalus.  This review was submitted for the 10/15 issue of Booklist.

Other notes:

- The publisher describes it as "for fans of T. H. White, George R. R. Martin, and Philippa Gregory," who aren't usually authors you'd see compared with one another, so this gives you a sense of the book's potential cross-genre appeal. For those most familiar with Philippa Gregory's work, Anthony Woodville's sister, Elizabeth, is the "White Queen" from her novels.

- This is the author's first new novel in 17 years; he's best known for The Arabian Nightmare, an epic fantasy set in medieval Cairo.

- Although prior knowledge of the many myths and legends tucked within isn't necessary, I think that the more familiar readers are with these elements, the more they'll appreciate the novel.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

The Vineyard by María Dueñas, a 19th-century epic of reinvention, family, mystery, and love

Mauro Larrea has become a self-made man in 1860s Mexico City by means of courage and brawny determination. Over decades, this native Spaniard has risen from silver miner to wealthy entrepreneur, owning a lavish colonial mansion, but thanks to an investment mishap involving a deceased gringo, he’s lost most of his fortune. If knowledge got out, it would not only ruin him personally but also disrupt his grown children’s social prospects. Now, at 47, he’s faced with starting over.

Indebted to an unscrupulous moneylender, then traveling to Havana on an errand for a family friend, he gets caught up in a marital squabble, which leads, eventually, to his winning substantial properties in Andalusia—an abandoned house, vineyard, and winery—in a bold gamble. He travels to the small Spanish town of Jerez, at the heart of the sherry trade, hoping to quickly sell them to a new buyer. Then Soledad Claydon, the former owner’s cousin, makes her appearance.

The narrative is eventful, the translation is nimble and smooth, and each of the three settings is presented in abundant, skillfully realized detail. It’s also refreshing to see mature people in leading roles. However, what prevents The Vineyard from being an engrossing story from start to finish is that Mauro doesn’t demonstrate significant depth in the beginning, and the story is his alone for nearly half the book.

The strong and intelligent yet vulnerable Soledad, a London wine merchant’s wife who insists on telling Mauro about her lost family legacy, is the novel’s real star. Through the pair’s interactions, many nuances get added to his character. Finding her company intoxicating, Mauro gets drawn deeply into the Montalvo family’s affairs, which conceal many secrets.

As a romantic epic with a hint of mystery, The Vineyard works well, though it takes a while to hit its stride.

The Vineyard, which has been translated from Spanish by Lorenza Garcia and Nick Caistor, was published by Atria in October. In the UK, the title is A Vineyard in Andalusia. This review first appeared in November's Historical Novels Review.

Monday, October 30, 2017

In which I read my first Nordic noir: The Shadow District by Arnaldur Indriðason, a Reykjavik wartime mystery

Have you ever picked up a novel in an unfamiliar genre, expecting to be pushed out of your comfort zone, only to discover it fits your tastes very well?

As a librarian I’ve been aware of the popularity of Scandinavian noir but hadn’t read any of these books, figuring most were too dark and violent. Then a copy of Arnaldur Indriðason’s The Shadow District showed up. I began reading on Saturday morning and was finished by Sunday afternoon.

The subtitle says “a thriller,” but I’d call it more of a traditional crime novel, of the police procedural variety (sort of). The pacing is methodical, which disappointed some people on Goodreads, but I don’t think historical fiction readers will mind. The crimes aren’t graphically described, either.

The setting is Iceland, predominantly Reykjavík; the timeframe is both the present day and 1944. A ninety-year-old pensioner is found to have died in bed in his flat—not an unusual scenario. But when the hospital pathologist learns he was smothered, it becomes a police matter. Konrád, a retired detective, can’t resist getting involved when he learns about old news clippings in the man’s apartment about a young woman’s unsolved murder during WWII. Strangely, Konrád has a personal connection to that older case: his own father, a con man, had helped arrange a fake séance for the girl’s distraught parents.

The two murders, 70 years apart, are linked through more than just Konrád, of course, and it’s up to him to discover how. Back in 1944, during a late-night romantic tryst, an Icelandic woman and her American soldier boyfriend discover a young woman’s body behind the National Theatre in the city’s Shadow District. Two detectives, an Icelandic policeman and a Canadian-born man representing the American military police, team up to solve the crime.

“It’s not exactly a tough job… being a cop in Reykjavík,” remarks Thorson, the Canadian, to his unofficial new partner. The city’s population isn’t large, and there are a couple of “small world” scenarios in their investigation. The writing is deceptively straightforward. Midway through, I was surprised to note how complex the storyline had become. Good mysteries focus as much on character as plot, however, and The Shadow District emphasizes its characters’ humanity, the victims’ included.

All of their experiences draw in interesting elements from Icelandic history and culture, from the island’s American occupation during WWII, and the controversial romances between Yanks and local women (which becomes known as the “Situation”), to the deep-rooted beliefs in the “hidden people,” or huldufólk, in the country’s rural regions. Also, all Icelanders are addressed by their first names, and the author either assumes you know this or will pick it up from context. Similarly, the characters disdain excessive formality and, when called “miss” or “sir” by police, make it clear that it isn’t necessary.

There’s a bit of repetition early on, and the 1940s-set chapters aren’t noted as such, which creates some initial confusion. Taken as a whole, the novel stresses how the past is as alive as ever. The Shadow District is first in a new series, and I’ll be reading the others. Fans of other wartime mysteries, like those of Charles Todd, may want to try it.

The Shadow District, which is a LibraryReads pick for November, will be published by Minotaur in early November; Harvill Secker published it in the UK in May. It's translated from Icelandic by Victoria Cribb.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Gone Before Christmas by Charles Finch, a short Victorian holiday mystery

One nice consequence of the ebook revolution is that shorter works of fiction, like novelettes and novellas, can be published and bought as single titles. Charles Finch’s newest release, Gone Before Christmas, is one of these. While it may not be as long as other volumes in the Charles Lenox series (Goodreads estimates it as 80 pages), it’s a fully-fleshed-out historical mystery with the same intricate puzzling, dry humor, and Victorian ambiance.

In the days that lead-up to Christmas in 1877, Lt. Austen, of the British Army’s proud Grenadier Guards, is found to have vanished after entering the cloakroom at Charing Cross Station to retrieve a forgotten hat. His fellow officers, with whom he’d been lunching before their separate train journeys, are baffled.

So is Scotland Yard—who gets alerted because of the cloakroom’s blood-spattered wall. The situation appears grim. Austen worked in intelligence, and all conclude he never would have turned traitor, but it’s possible he was attacked and kidnapped by French spies. That’s why Lenox, partner in a successful London detective agency, is called in.

Meanwhile, Christmas preparations at Lenox’s home are in full swing, with his wife Lady Jane in charge, but the tree he’s been stuck with—a dried-up, spindly thing reminiscent of the one from the Charlie Brown Christmas special—may not last that long. The humorous banter between Lenox and his older brother, Sir Edmund, is a joy to witness, and some secondary characters, like Annie the housekeeper and even Mrs. Attlebury of Sussex, don’t need a lot of page-time for their personalities to impress.

The story’s full of details on subtle class distinctions, and you also get fun lines like this:

“France and England were rather like an unhappy couple out to supper at friends’: not presently at war, except in the sense that they were continually at war.”

As for the mystery itself… looking back, I see that the clues are all there. Lenox caught them sooner than I did (but then, he’s the professional). One aspect that confused me, though: what’s Lt. Austen’s first name? Two versions are given, and if one was a nickname/middle name, that wasn’t obvious.

It may not seem so in the beginning, but the storyline’s warmth and generosity do suit the holiday season well. The ebook ($1.99) also contains a teaser for Finch's upcoming The Woman in the Water, a prequel to the Lenox series.  This was a personal purchase.

Monday, October 23, 2017

The Revolution of Marina M by Janet Fitch, an epic novel of the Russian Revolution

Timed for the centenary of the Russian Revolution, this mammoth epic from best-seller Fitch (Paint It Black, 2006) presents this tumultuous epoch from the viewpoint of a passionate, resilient young woman.

The daughter of a bourgeois St. Petersburg family in 1916, Marina Makarova finds herself caught up by revolutionary fervor. First enamored of her older brother’s friend, then irresistibly drawn to a Bolshevik poet, she finds her family relationships and friendships torn apart as the country’s political and social order ruptures.

With heightened immediacy, Fitch’s novel presents a richly described, on-the-street view of the revolution’s transformative, often violent throes in Marina’s “beloved and heartbreaking city,” from the behavior of newly emboldened servants to rampant hunger and poverty, and speculators negotiating backroom deals. Fitch provides an excellent sense of history’s unpredictability and shows how the desperate pursuit of survival leads to morally compromising decisions.

It’s unusual for a novel of this length to follow a single narrative thread, and the ending turns bizarre, but the momentum rarely slackens. Fitch’s cinematic storytelling and Marina’s vibrant personality are standout elements in this dramatic novel.

The Revolution of Marina M will be published by Little, Brown in November (hb, $30/ebook, $15.99, 816pp).  This review was submitted to Booklist for publication in the Oct 15th issue.

As you'll see, I was kept busy reading over the summer, with this lengthy novel, the previous one (Time's Betrayal, at over 1100 pages), and a couple of others whose reviews are forthcoming. For readers interested in the Russian Revolution of 1917 and its aftermath, I hope to post a reading list of additional historical novels in the near future.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Time's Betrayal by David Adams Cleveland, a unique American epic of history, family, and identity

How are our lives unknowingly motivated by our ancestral past? In its scope, artistry, and depiction of the interlinked cause-and-effect patterns spanning more than a century, Cleveland’s (Love’s Attraction, 2013) third novel raises the bar for multi-generational epics.

At its heart is one man’s quest to uncover the truth about his late father, John Alden III, who disappeared behind the Iron Curtain in 1953 for reasons unknown. Peter Alden’s recollections begin with his own 1960s youth at the Etonesque Massachusetts prep school co-founded by his abolitionist great-grandfather: a place where his father’s reputation as a star athlete, archaeologist, and war hero looms large.

The expansive yet tightly controlled narrative, in which numerous mysteries are compellingly unearthed, spins out to encompass post-WWII Greece, the race to decipher the ancient Greek script known as Linear B, the Vietnam War, the Berlin Wall’s dismantling, and a Civil War battle’s aftermath. The writing is gripping throughout, incorporating both haunting lyricism, in its characters’ yearning to recapture a lost golden age, and a high-stakes tension evoking the best Cold War thrillers.

Cleveland is particularly strong in presenting the complicated entanglements of love and betrayal and the barrier between freedom and oppression that each generation contends with. While its length may appear daunting, this unforgettable tour de force is well worth the time.

This (starred) review was submitted for Booklist's October 15th issue, which is just out - and the book itself is just out.  It was published in hardcover on October 1 by Fomite Press ($24.95, 1170pp).

Some other notes:

- This is the best book I've read all year, and I've read many excellent ones.  It's also the longest novel I've read, ever—see the page count above—but, after reading the first 100 pages, I was hooked and eagerly looking forward to the next thousand. I took a week off in mid-August, planning to catch up on work around the house and read maybe 100 pages a day so I'd have it finished by the deadline. Instead, I spent a good part of the week with this book and don't regret it.  (It does move quickly.)

- Condensing the reading experience into a review of just over 200 words wasn't easy; there's so much more that could be said. I could also note that there are two strong and multi-faceted female characters, and multiple complicated love affairs, and that the storyline delves deeply into the real-life history of the Cambridge Five spy ring who passed secrets to the Soviets up through the 1950s. I never considered Cold War thrillers to be my type of book, but this novel was.  For more information, you might read the publisher's blurb on Amazon.

- What to compare it to?  For the family saga aspect and mysteries related to it, it would appeal to Kate Morton's fans, although it's more ambitious than even her novels.  It should be on the radar of readers of spy thrillers, obviously. It's also a moving coming-of-age tale. Best of all is seeing how the multiple story lines, characters, and time periods come together.

- The book arrived with glowing blurbs from Robert Olen Butler and Bruce Olds, the latter of whom had said, among other things, "It is in a league of its own and a class by itself," which is true. I can't think of another novel quite like it.  If you read it, I hope you'll come back and tell me what you thought!

Saturday, October 14, 2017

A visual preview of the winter-spring 2018 season in historical fiction

Through reading historical fiction, readers have the opportunity to identify with characters from around the world, experiencing their cultures and personal histories along with them.   As such, here's a collection of 10 novels from my "want to read" list and the settings where they take place.  All will be published in 2018. Where will your historical fiction reading take you next?



Japanese-occupied Korea and Manchuria, in the story of a "comfort woman" during WWII and her sister, who searches for peace and healing in the present day.  Putnam, Jan 2018.



Early Maoist China, as a family is torn apart in the wake of consequential decision. Little A, March 2018.



Havana in 1958 and Miami in the present day, as a young writer uncovers her grandmother's life during the Cuban Revolution.  Berkley, Feb 2018.



1950s Iran, in the company of feminist poet Forugh Farrokhzhad, whose feminist, modernist poetry created controversy in her world.  Ballantine, Feb 2018.



Revolution-era America, as Eliza Schuyler meets a charismatic young officer and forges a place for herself in a fledgling nation. William Morrow, April 2018.



Early 17th-century Rome; a YA novel-in-verse focusing on Italian baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, a courageous woman who fought for artistic achievement in a world of controlling men. Dutton, Mar 2018.



1920s Bombay, with the first female lawyer in the city investigating whether a wealthy Muslim's three widows were deliberately misled into forsaking their rightful inheritance. Soho, Jan. 2018.



Philadelphia of 1918, at the height of the Spanish flu pandemic; a family takes in an orphaned child who gives them hope for the future. Berkley, Feb. 2018.



The years from 1492 to the present, as the history of Spain and Portugal's secret Jews unfolds via the story of Columbus's interpreter and his descendants, who come to settle in New Mexico. Doubleday, April 2018.



Albany, New York, in 1879; the heroine of Oliveira's earlier novel My Name Is Mary Sutter, searches for two sisters who have gone mysteriously missing. Viking, Feb. 2018.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Beyond the Pale by Elana Dykewomon, an immersive journey into Jewish women's history

First published in 1997, Elana Dykewomon’s Beyond the Pale came to my attention through an email newsletter from its publisher, Open Road, which had reissued the Lambda-award winning historical novel as an ebook in 2013. It was only $1.99 and had many positive reviews, so I snapped it up.

The title refers to its heroines’ eventual emigration to America from the Pale of Settlement, the region in western Russia where Jews had been allowed to live since Catherine the Great’s time.   The sentiment could also reflect the terrible anti-Semitism they and their families were forced to confront, again and again.

Beyond the Pale follows the coming-of-age stories of two women: Chava Meyer, born in 1889 in Kishinev, the capital of Bessarabia (modern Moldova); and Gutke Gurvich, who was brought to the city as a child by her mother a generation earlier, and who grows up to become a talented midwife. Unlike most tales of immigration, the novel devotes about equal time to their lives in Europe and the United States.

Their paths cross several times, firstly at Chava’s birth; Gutke is the woman who delivers her. Years later, they meet up again while traveling to Odessa, and finally once more amid the teeming working-class immigrant community on New York’s Lower East Side. There Gutke and her partner become role models of a sort for Chava, a teenager awakening to her love for another young woman.

Jewish life and traditions at the turn of the 20th century are re-created with depth and fullness, from the bathhouses of Kishinev to the sweatshops of the Lower East Side, and the varied social movements to improve labor conditions (and the pushback from employers). For anyone seeking a historical novel that “takes you there,” this will be your book. The novel has many scenes that will stay with me: the birth of Chava’s younger sister, Sarah, in which their rabbi father blames the spirit of Lilith for his newborn’s wandering eye; Chava and her cousin Rose’s dinner at the New York apartment of Gutke and her partner, who dresses like a man; plus other, more tragic moments, such as the 1903 pogrom that devastates Chava’s family (a historical incident). The only real drawbacks to the telling are a couple of disconcerting viewpoint switches.

October is LGBTQ History Month, and Beyond the Pale has become a classic novel in this field. It’s also an immersive read for anyone interested in Jewish history, immigrant themes, or a work that celebrates the supportive relationships between women of all ages.

Monday, October 09, 2017

The Research Journey, a guest post from Barbara Ridley, author of When It's Over

Barbara Ridley, whose debut novel When It's Over is just out from She Writes Press, is here with an essay about her research discoveries.

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The Research Journey
Barbara Ridley

When I embarked on the journey of writing my novel When It’s Over, I had no idea how much research would be involved, where that research would lead me, or how much fun it would be. I was writing a novel based on my mother’s experience as a refugee during World War II, and I had recorded an oral history with her twenty years before her death, so I figured I had most of what I needed. Plus, as a child growing up in Britain in the 1950s and ’60s, I was raised on so many anecdotes about “The War," I often felt as if I had lived through it myself.

As I began to write, however, I realized my knowledge just scratched the surface. There was so much I didn’t know. When did rationing go into effect? When did the bombing start? How did ordinary people cope with the war dragging on for 6 years? Maybe because my father had been a historian, it was in my blood somehow: I felt compelled to understand what life was like and to get the details right.

So I researched. I read books, both fiction and non-fiction, found wonderful resources online, and did some good old-fashioned on-the-ground research in the British Airways Museum at London’s Heathrow Airport, the “Mass Observation” archives at the University of Sussex, and walking the streets of Prague, Paris and London—the settings used in the novel.

But then I made a remarkable discovery that changed the focus of the second half of the novel: I came upon boxes of letters that my father had written during the last two years of the war. By then it was clear that Hitler would be defeated, so the burning question became: what kind of society should be created out of the ruins of war?

I had always known the Labour Party had won the election of 1945, with a huge majority, and had gone on to pass landmark legislation that established the National Health Service and other pillars of the welfare state. But how was it that Churchill, the heroic war leader, suffered such a huge political defeat immediately after the victory parades were over? My father was active in the progressive political movement of the time, and his letters provided unique insights, which I was able to incorporate into the novel.




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credit: Limor Inbar
Barbara Ridley was raised in England but has lived in California for more than thirty years. After a successful career as a nurse practitioner, which included publication in numerous professional journals, she is now focused on creative writing. Her work has appeared in literary journals, such as The Writers Workshop Review, Still Crazy, Ars Medica, The Copperfield Review and BLYNKT. This is her first novel.

Ridley lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her partner and her dog, and she has one adult daughter, of whom she is immensely proud. She enjoys hiking, backpacking and cross-country skiing in the mountains. Visit her online at barbararidley.com, Facebook, and Twitter.