Thursday, January 18, 2018

Book review: The Lost Season of Love and Snow by Jennifer Laam, set in imperial Russia

Natalya Goncharova, Alexander Pushkin’s young wife, didn’t hold the best reputation among her contemporaries, whose opinions about her flirtatious behavior and rumored infidelities have followed her over the last two centuries. After all, Pushkin died after fighting a duel to defend her honor, and she was blamed for this great loss to the Russian literary world.

However, basing her new historical novel on current research into Natalya’s life and own writings, Jennifer Laam makes a strong case that her name was unjustly blackened.

Set amid the elegant balls and country gardens of 1820s-1830s Russia, The Lost Season of Love and Snow also proves to be unexpectedly relevant to our own time, as women address issues of consent within relationships, deal with “imposter syndrome,” and struggle to have their voices heard.

Only sixteen when they meet at a dance master’s ball in Moscow in 1828, naïve, sheltered Natalya is pleased but a bit flustered after learning she’s caught the interest of her favorite poet, and his kindness and intensity attract her in turn. The scenes detailing their courtship – which proceeds despite her mother’s initial disapproval – form the novel’s slowest section, yet are elegantly rendered. As the wife of a prominent man, Natalya is expected to follow the latest fashions and participate in the coquetry that pervades Tsar Nicholas’s court. Pushkin was known to be sympathetic to the Decembrist revolutionaries, and Natalya realizes she must avoid offending the Tsar at all costs. Laam depicts the difficult path Natalya must tread, graciously deflecting his advances while remaining active in court life.

Her own literary pursuits brushed aside, she grows progressively more comfortable with her beauty and the power it holds. Although she makes the occasional mistake, she never betrays her husband, with whom she has four children, and continues to attract unwanted attention. Combined with her husband’s stubbornness and jealousy, this creates a situation that spins far out of her control. The final scenes between Alexander and Natalya are wrenching to read, even knowing the outcome at the start. (The novel offers a good example of an effective prologue.)

With its focus on interpersonal dynamics and the glamour of court life rather than Russian literary culture, the novel feels slighter than it could have been; more emphasis on Pushkin’s own poems about Natalya, for instance, would have heightened the emotional intensity and added character depth. Still, the novel works well as an introduction to their tragic love story, and to a woman who fought to assert control over her life. It must have been conceptualized and written well before the recent #metoo movement, although it can certainly be read and appreciated with these revelations in mind.

Jennifer Laam's The Lost Season of Love and Snow was published by St. Martin's Griffin this month; thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Guest post by Bill Rapp, author of the Cold War thriller The Hapsburg Variation

I'm pleased to present the following essay by historian and novelist Bill Rapp about the rewards and challenges offered by historical fiction. His new novel The Hapsburg Variation, second in his series of Cold War thrillers, was published in December by Coffeetown Press.

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Re-Creating the Past
Bill Rapp

This may be stating the obvious, but the challenge for anyone writing historical fiction is to create a world he or she has never lived in or experienced because it is, quite simply, a period in time set too far in the past. It is clearly a very difficult task for a writer--or anyone, for that matter--to try to recapture the outlooks, beliefs, attitudes and desires, not to mention physical challenges of simply surviving, in a world so different from one's own.

Of course, that has not stopped a host of writers, many of whom have given us some excellent mysteries or fictional works set anywhere from ancient Egypt and the classical world of Greece and Rome, through the Middle Ages, and right on up to the Second World War and the decades that followed. The reward for us as readers has been the pleasurable reading we've received, for example, in the novels of Margaret Doody, Steven Saylor, David Wishart, and Lindsey Davis set in classical times, or the medieval mysteries of Ellis Peters, P. C. Doherty, Michael Jecks,and Candace Robb, and the more modern pieces from Harold Adams, J Robert Janes, or David Downing and Philip Kerr. 

What these writers succeed in doing, in my mind, is to create an atmosphere that corresponds to one in which they've set their stories, but which also speaks to the modern reader by weaving in more contemporary attitudes and perspectives. Achieving that balance is not an easy task.

For me, the challenge in writing a spy series set during the Cold War is made a bit lighter by two things. First, as a historian, I love reading about and researching the past. It's something I learned to do as a child devouring history books like the American Heritage series, and then honed as a professional skill during those years in graduate school working on my Ph.D. You might even call it that proverbial labor of love. Second, the Cold War is not nearly as far away as ancient Rome, or even Depression-era South Dakota. In fact, I experienced the period as a child and young adult.

Moreover, the world of conflict and competition, with many of the same adversaries, resembles that of the Cold War (and this after we naively assumed the formal end of the Cold War would usher in a Great Peace Dividend and the End of History). It almost seems as though we've gone full circle, with the daily news filled with stories of Russian meddling and possible collusion in Washington, competition in Latin America and the Middle East, and the worrisome rise of a new global power in the Far East. It is not hard to imagine Karl Baier coming out of retirement today to resume his career at the Central Intelligence Agency, sharing his experience and lessons learned with a new cohort of eager young intelligence officers.

Ultimately, though, it comes down to the characters the writer creates and their ability to move the story in plausible and interesting directions. Those people must fit comfortably into the period the author has selected to place his or her story. They must also speak to the modern reader as credible and engaging characters the reader would like to meet or confront in any time. To paraphrase the great Raymond Chandler, the hero--and the antagonists--must be good enough for any time they inhabit, but the best ones for the period in which they live.

~

About the book:

Eight years into his career with the CIA, Karl Baier once again finds himself on the front line of the Cold War. He is stationed in Vienna in the spring of 1955 as Austria and the four Allied Powers are set to sign the State Treaty, which will return Austria's independence, end the country's postwar occupation, and hopefully reduce tensions in the heart of Europe. But the Treaty will also establish Austrian neutrality, and many in the West fear it will secure Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe and create a permanent division. Asked to help investigate the death of an Austrian aristocrat and Wehrmacht veteran, Baier discovers an ambitious plan not only to block the State Treaty, but also to subvert Soviet rule in lands of the old Hapsburg Empire. Then Baier's wife is kidnapped, and the mission becomes intensely personal. Many of his basic assumptions are challenged, and he discovers that he cannot count on loyalties, even back home in Washington, D.C. At each maddening turn in the investigation, another layer must be peeled away. Even if Baier succeeds in rescuing his wife, he faces the unenviable task of unraveling an intricate web of intrigue that reaches far back into the complicated history of Central Europe. Book 2 in the Cold War Thriller series, which began with Tears of Innocence.

About the author:

Bill Rapp recently retired from the Central Intelligence Agency after thirty-five years as an analyst, diplomat, and senior manager. After receiving his BA from the University of Notre Dame, an MA from the University of Toronto, and a PhD from Vanderbilt University, Bill taught European History at Iowa State University for a year before heading off to Washington, D.C.

The Hapsburg Variation is the second book in the Cold War Spy series featuring Karl Baier. Bill also has a three-book series of detective fiction set outside Chicago with P.I. Bill Habermann, and a thriller set during the fall of the Berlin Wall. He lives in northern Virginia with his wife, two daughters, two miniature schnauzers, and a cat. For more information, go to BillRappsBooks.com.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Gilded Age Gothic: Lauren Willig's The English Wife

Lauren Willig’s The English Wife lends a distinctly American flavor to the Gothic family saga. Rather than a titled English family and their elegant country manor at the center, we have the upper-crust New York elite and their opulent Gilded Age mansions. Rather like the Vanderbilts, the Van Duyvils are of Dutch heritage; after arriving as immigrants centuries earlier, they now sit at the pinnacle of culture, with homes both in Manhattan and upstate along the Hudson.

The novel uses the popular dual-period format to unravel a series of mysteries. On the eve of his Twelfth Night ball in 1899, held on the grounds of his English-style mansion in Cold Spring, young Bayard (Bay) Van Duyvil is found right before he dies, stabbed with a jeweled dagger amid the snow and ice in his lantern-lit gardens.

His distraught sister, Janie, who faces social opprobrium due to her unmarried state, thinks she saw a woman’s figure underneath the ice – and Bay’s British wife, Annabelle, has vanished. What happened?

The papers, sniffing out a scandal, proclaim their theory of a murder-suicide. Rumors had been flying about Annabelle’s affair with her husband's architect. Janie was never close to Annabelle or her brother, but she knows them both better than that. She wants to uncover the truth, and her means to this end is through a newspaper reporter, James Burke. Strangely, in Bay’s last words, he spoke a man’s name: George.

Flashbacks to 1894 reveal the story of Bay’s meeting in London with a down-on-her-luck young actress named Georgie, who has been trying to escape a painful past and see her way out of her current predicament.

Willig knows the conventions of the gothic mystery well, revealing clues bit by bit, and sensing exactly when to upend readers’ expectations for where the plot is leading. She captures the trappings of affluence among New York’s high society members, the gossip that follows their every move (and in which they willingly participate), and the gilded prison in which they live. None of the wealthy characters has full agency, including Janie’s cousin Anne (a terrific secondary character), a sophisticated divorcee who trades barbs with Bay’s mother while chafing at her dependence on the Van Duyvils’ largesse.

The author also adds some deliciously tart observations on the era herself:

They had been returned early, but already people were milling about, making sure of their seats. No one wanted to miss the trial of the century. Never mind that last year there had been another trial of the century and another one the year before that. There were still ten months left to the century and this was the trial of it. For now.
Janie’s romance is predictable in parts, but her feelings about her status as the family wallflower ring true. As its well-crafted mystery unfolds, the story also offers a sharp reminder that nobody truly knows what it’s like inside a marriage besides the couple themselves.

The English Wife is published by St. Martin's this week; I read it from a NetGalley copy.

Monday, January 08, 2018

Interview with Clarissa Harwood, author of Impossible Saints, set in early 20th-century England

I'm pleased to present this interview with historical novelist Clarissa Harwood, whose debut novel was published by Pegasus last week. Impossible Saints takes readers back in time to England of 1907 and follows the separate ambitions and growing love between Lilia Brooke, a schoolteacher turned militant suffragette, and Paul Harris, an Anglican clergyman. Clarissa is a fellow blogger and member of the Historical Novel Society, and after receiving an advance copy of her novel in the mail, I knew I wanted to read it.  I highly recommend it for its nuanced characterizations and depiction of how her hero and heroine's challenging romantic relationship reflects their personalities and the era they lived in.

Why does historical fiction appeal to you as a reader and writer?

I’ve always found that historical fiction communicates a fuller, deeper truth than dry facts and dates do. To be able to convey that authentic historical experience through storytelling is a powerful and dangerous thing! I’m also fascinated by the tension between historical accuracy and historical authenticity. Perfect accuracy is impossible without a time machine, of course, but even the things we can know for certain about the past can’t be exactly reproduced because readers wouldn’t find them compelling or even believable.

For example, I once read this line in a novel by George Eliot: “Where do you hang out?” If a character in a historical novel were to say this, readers would certainly object to this use of apparently modern slang. As a reader, I’m often jarred by modern-sounding language. I remember seeing the word “cash” used repeatedly in a novel set in the Renaissance and wondering why this respected historical novelist would use anachronistic language. Imagine my surprise when I looked up the word in the Oxford English Dictionary and found that “cash” was indeed used as early as the sixteenth century to indicate ready money.

I’ve had to cut some wonderful Victorian and Edwardian phrases out of my writing to avoid creating this jarring effect. For example, I’ve seen the phrase “she looked at him with all her eyes” in Victorian novels and think it’s a lovely way to describe a woman gazing at her child or suitor, but when I used it in an early draft of one of my novels, my critique partners told me it made them think of a spider!

It’s a delicate balancing act for an author to create an authentic setting that readers find believable while avoiding the kind of accuracy that distances readers instead of inviting them into the story. But I love the challenge, and I love to see how other authors handle it.

Rather than being a large-scale epic about the suffrage movement and other happenings of the day, Impossible Saints has a tight focus on two individuals, their relationship, and how historical events impacted them and vice versa. You’d written on your blog about how the original version of the novel was considerably longer and had a large cast of characters. During the revision/streamlining process, how did you decide what to leave out, and what to leave in?

Deciding what to include and what to exclude is always difficult, but I’m fortunate to have people with great editorial eyes looking at my work—critique partners, beta readers, my agent, and my editor at Pegasus. It also helped to keep my focus on Paul and Lilia’s personal and relational development. As a reader and writer I’m always more interested in characters’ psychological depth and complexity than on large-scale epics. Although thorough research on the time and place is essential, the story won’t grab me if the protagonist isn’t three-dimensional.

I’ll admit I was dismayed when Laura, my agent, first suggested killing off a fairly major character in Impossible Saints, but Laura has an uncanny ability to detect which elements of a story should be left in and which should be left out (I call her a synopsis whisperer), so I knew I could trust her judgment. I was also disappointed when I realized on my own that I had to kill off my only Canadian character and put a New Zealander in his place! It’s obvious to me now that both “murders” improved the novel.

One revision felt like the narrative equivalent of the Hokey Pokey. Early in the novel, Lilia attends a cathedral service to hear Paul preach. An early draft of that chapter included the whole sermon, and my critique partners ordered me to cut it down. I needed to write the whole sermon for myself to understand what Paul was trying to convey, but readers didn’t need (or want) to read the whole thing. As the revision process continued, the sermon became shorter and shorter until there were only two sentences left by the time the novel went to my editor. I was highly amused when my editor asked if I could include more of the sermon so its effect on Lilia would be clearer. I keep all my old drafts, so the whole sermon was still there to pick and choose from. (You put the sermon in, you take the sermon out, you put the sermon in and shake it all about…)

I enjoyed reading about the different traditions within the Anglican Church, including Paul’s preference for the elaborate ceremonies and formality of “high church” practices, and the conflicts he runs into because of this. How did you come up with his character, and how did you research this aspect of your story?

About twenty years ago, Paul popped into my head as a serious adolescent with his ecclesiastical ambitions fully formed! At the time I’d just started my doctoral studies and had no time to write fiction, but the Victorian literature I was studying certainly influenced Paul’s character development. Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers was an important early inspiration for Impossible Saints with its focus on the lives and loves of cathedral clergymen. The Oxford Movement, which evolved into Anglo-Catholicism, influenced many writers of the time. I made its founder, John Henry Newman, Paul’s hero. I was also influenced by poets with connections to Anglo-Catholicism such as Gerard Manley Hopkins, who became a Jesuit priest, and Christina Rossetti, who worked with “fallen” women in a penitentiary run by an Anglican sisterhood. But Paul is also my response to the stereotypes of priests and ministers that I see too often in contemporary fiction—they’re either villains or unbelievably perfect saints.

During the twenty years between the conception and publication of Impossible Saints, I was experiencing a sort of personal Oxford movement. I was raised in an evangelical Protestant church that I eventually left, but in my thirties I discovered the beauty and mystery of more “ritualistic” churches. The rich symbolism of the Anglican church in particular appealed to me on a literary as well as a spiritual level.

Did you know from the beginning that you wanted to tell the story from the viewpoints of both Lilia and Paul?

Yes, I did. The genesis of the novel was a vivid scene I imagined between Paul and Lilia when they first met as adolescents. It was in a meadow where Lilia was pretending to be Jeanne d’Arc, leading her army of brothers. This confrontation between a fearless girl and a quiet but stubborn boy set them up as equals from the start, and I felt both of their stories needed to be told. This scene was eventually cut from the novel, but Paul and Lilia both refer to it.

I love stories told from dual points of view. I’m fascinated by the very different perceptions two people can have of the same situation or relationship, and I enjoy exploring those perceptions as a novelist.

The experiences Lilia faces as a leader in the Women’s Social and Political Union are traumatic, especially as the movement becomes more militant. Was there anything unexpected or surprising you encountered as you learned more about the suffrage movement?

When I first started researching the suffrage movement, I knew very little about it, so many things surprised me. The biggest shock was the violent way the suffragettes were treated by police and prison officials. The militant suffragettes were represented in the media at the time as “unwomanly,” disorderly criminals, but even their most extreme activities such as setting bombs in letterboxes or empty buildings paled in comparison to the backlash against them. During public speeches and peaceful protests, they were assaulted physically and sexually by bystanders and the police. When they were arrested for destroying property and went on hunger strikes, they were force fed in brutal ways. Whatever one’s opinion may be of their militant activities, they didn’t hurt people, only property. Yet they were attacked physically, and some of them died later from the injuries they sustained in prison.

Personally, I’m a pacifist, so I wouldn’t have done what the militant suffragettes did, but I understand their motivation. They had been agitating for the vote quietly and politely for many years, but the government was ignoring them. Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union, reasoned that the only way to get the government’s attention was to attack what the Englishman cared about most—property. In My Own Story, she points out, “Window-breaking, when Englishmen do it, is regarded as honest expression of political opinion. Window-breaking, when Englishwomen do it, is treated as a crime.”

How does your academic background and career inform your writing?

As a student, I came close to choosing history as a major, but English literature won out. For my PhD I specialized in nineteenth-century British literature, and as a professor I’ve had the pleasure of teaching the great writers of that period. My knowledge of nineteenth-century literature and culture constantly inspires me with ideas for novels. But there is a disadvantage to being a novelist with an academic background—I had to unlearn my formal academic writing style and figure out how to tell a good story in an engaging way!

Thanks very much, Clarissa!

For more information, please see the author's website at http://www.clarissaharwood.com.

Friday, January 05, 2018

The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey, an original mystery of 1920s Bombay

“As the only female lawyer in Bombay, you hold a power that nobody else has,” a British government official tells Perveen Mistry in this first of a refreshingly original mystery series – and he’s right. It’s 1921, and Perveen is a solicitor in her father’s law firm. Even though she can’t appear in court, her position and gender mean she’s the only individual with the means to look into a potential instance of deception and fraud.

A Muslim mill-owner's three widows, who live in purdah with their children in his mansion on Malabar Hill, appear to have given away their rightful dower and inheritance. Perveen suspects they didn’t realize the implications of their signature, and when she visits the three individually, it appears that she’s correct. When she discovers a body on her return visit to the Farid family, she suspects a member of the household did it – but who?

There’s considerably more to the plot than a traditional murder mystery, though. Though only 23, Perveen has a professional, mature demeanor that helps her gain the widows’ confidence, and there’s a reason behind it: she’s been through a lot in her short life. Massey depicts her backstory in chapters set back in 1916. This allows for two stories running in parallel: who committed the crime at Malabar Hill, and what trauma did Perveen endure? While I was struck by the abrupt jump back in time initially, I came to feel that this increased the suspense.

The setting for this story is absolutely key, and from the Mistry residence on the city’s outskirts to the prestigious Taj Mahal Hotel along the harborfront, the layout of historical Bombay is described in clear, thorough fashion (the maps at the beginning are helpful but not absolutely necessary). Perveen and her family are Parsis – descendants of immigrants from Iran – and followers of Zoroastrianism, and the novel explores the religion’s traditional and more orthodox beliefs. Bombay contains a multiplicity of cultures, classes, and languages, and I came to admire Perveen’s ability to steer a fine path through it all.

What comes through most strongly in this entertaining work, though, is the status of women, and how much Perveen had to accomplish to get where she is. The Widows of Malabar Hill also makes you think about how critical the support of family and others can be for women in desperation; where would the novel's characters have been without it?

I'm looking forward to the next book in the series.

The Widows of Malabar Hill is published on January 9th by Soho Press; I read it from an ARC received at BookExpo last year.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

The Glass Forest by Cynthia Swanson, psychological suspense set in postwar America

A good way into reading Cynthia Swanson’s The Glass Forest, I asked myself why I was turning each page with a mixture of eagerness and dread. After all, nothing remotely graphic had happened, other than a suicide that was reported early on.

There were plenty of hints, though, that something terrible could occur at any moment. Escalating tension in a marriage. Signs of something dark and twisted about the dynamics within the Glass family. A mystery about the fate of an intelligent career woman whose efforts weren’t appreciated.

The premise: in 1960, Angie Glass, a young wife besotted with her handsome older husband, Paul, and their baby son, travels with her family from bucolic Door County, Wisconsin, to her brother- and sister-in-law’s modern home along the Hudson. Paul’s brother Henry has been found dead, an apparent suicide. Henry’s wife, Silja, has taken off for parts unknown, leaving a note saying she couldn't stay any longer.

Henry and Silja’s daughter Ruby, aged 17, appears strangely composed; perhaps she’s in shock? But Angie wonders if it’s more than that. As Ruby’s aunt-by-marriage, Angie feels it’s her role to mother and comfort Ruby, a quiet and friendless girl, but their closeness in age – she’s just 21 herself – makes her attempts awkward. There were moments I winced at Angie’s naïveté, but I worried alongside her as she gradually absorbed the truth about her husband’s family.

The viewpoint revolves among Angie and Ruby in the novel’s present day, and that of Silja starting in 1942, when she was a bespectacled 20-year-old college student from Brooklyn’s Finnish-American community whose experience of love came from feature films. When Silja meets a Cary Grant lookalike, a GI about to leave for war, she's thrilled – which leads her into an impulsive decision, and a life, that she comes to regret.

Mentions of movie stars, popular singers, and the Nixon-Kennedy television debates denote the timeframe, but what brings the period alive more vibrantly is the author’s evocation of social mores. This was a time when men ruled the household, even if they weren’t the breadwinner, and women had few options for escaping an unwanted marriage.

This novel’s psychological suspense is well articulated, and – without giving anything away – the sense of fear is occasionally generated by what does not happen as much as what does. Because it makes you keenly aware of what people are capable of.

The Glass Forest will be published by Touchstone/Simon & Schuster on February 6th; find it on Goodreads here.  Thanks to the publisher for granting access via Edelweiss. This is the last book I read in 2017, and the first one reviewed for 2018.