Friday, December 15, 2017

Mr. Dickens and His Carol, a Victorian holiday tale by debut novelist Samantha Silva

It’s November 1843, and Charles Dickens is a man besieged. His latest serial, Martin Chuzzlewit, isn’t selling, and his wife and children expect a splendid Christmas, with expensive decorations and gifts. Other family members, reliant on his generosity, need him to pay their bills.

Citing a clause in his contract, his publisher demands he write a Christmas-themed book to satisfy his fans, but time is pressing. And how can he get in the holiday mood when it’s so unseasonably warm? Bah, humbug! Frustrated yet determined, Dickens embarks on a quest that takes him back to his old haunts and introduces him to a beautiful young seamstress who motivates him.

Making her debut, Silva creatively imagines the circumstances that inspired A Christmas Carol. The characters and atmosphere of Victorian London feel wonderfully Dickensian, and it’s fun to see Dickens gathering new material through his interactions. His writerly dilemmas should resonate with literary types, too.

With the wit and sprightly tone of a classic storyteller, Silva presents a heartwarming tale of friendship and renewal that’s imbued with the true Christmas spirit.

Mr. Dickens and His Carol was published by Flatiron in November; I wrote this review for the 10/1 issue of Booklist.  This is my 3rd and final Christmas review for the season - I've read more of these this year than usual.  A note that this isn't the same story as in the film The Man Who Invented Christmas (which I haven't yet seen but hope to catch over the break), although the premise is similar.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Daughters of the Night Sky by Aimie K. Runyan, an absorbing portrait of WWII's Night Witches

A superb portrait of wartime valor, Daughters of the Night Sky spotlights the accomplishments of the Russian military aviators known as the “Night Witches.” These all-female Red Army regiments flew harassment bombing missions against the Nazis under cover of darkness, in hand-me-down planes and without radios, to diminish the enemy’s strength and disrupt their sleep. It worked.

We see the action from the viewpoint of Ekaterina (Katya) Ivanova, who has dreamed of flying since childhood. With her widowed mother’s support, she enrolls in a military academy for aviators. The story follows her training, her excitement at acceptance into a volunteer regiment led by a renowned female major, and the daring sorties she flies as her best friend’s navigator – and through significant moments of exhilaration, cameraderie, and sorrow. There’s a subtle romantic subplot, and Katya draws sustenance from her beloved’s letters, but it doesn’t overwhelm her dedication.

There are numerous hardships for Katya and her fellow aviators to overcome, from insufficient rations and icy temperatures to subtle resentment and outright sexual harassment. They enter into a man’s world quite literally, as exemplified by the male uniforms and undergarments distributed to them (complete with flap at the front, which they joke could be a place to hold their lipstick), but they modify them to almost fit. Tough and disciplined, they know they must surpass men’s expectations and accomplishments to be taken seriously. Soviet ideals stressed gender equality, and the novel acknowledges Comrade Stalin’s approval of these military women while providing examples of his totalitarianism.

In historical novels about multiple women, authors tend to slot them into compartments, creating characters representing different societal groups through their contrasting backgrounds: the snobby rich girl vs. the ambitious poor one, city-dwellers vs. naïve country folk, etc. Fortunately, as in her previous two books set in early Quebec, Runyan avoids this temptation. The aviators have unique characteristics and motivations, and despite their occasional disputes, she emphasizes how Katya and the others unite to perform their courageous mission. They form tight quartets – pilot, navigator, armorer, mechanic – whose lives are mutually dependent.

It’s a pleasure to see the author grow in strength as a novelist while adapting to a new historical setting. Her tension has grown sharper, her characterizations deeper, the emotional quality more penetrating. At one key moment, I worried she’d plotted herself into a corner, but this wasn’t the case; I found myself impressed by how this situation was resolved. With its absorbing blend of technical details and emotional resonance, Daughters of the Night Sky is a great way to wrap up your historical fiction reading year, or to start your new year of reading in 2018.

I received this copy for review via NetGalley. Daughters of the Night Sky, officially released by Lake Union in January, is the historical fiction pick for Amazon First Reads in December 2017. If you have a Kindle, I recommend selecting it as your choice!

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).