Monday, February 19, 2018

Book review: The Secret Life of Mrs. London, by Rebecca Rosenberg

Historical fiction readers know it’s no picnic being a famous author’s wife. These admirable women have endured their husbands’ egos, partying, and infidelity, supported them through illness, and sacrificed their own writing ambitions in their favor.

All of these were true of Jack London’s second wife, Charmian Kittredge London, yet she may be the least known of these heroines today. As such, biographical articles revealing the true history of her life and the couple’s partnership come as a surprise. A well-educated heiress and travel writer who personified the early 20th-century “New Woman,” she was hardly a shrinking violet. And still her importance in his life is overlooked because, as London’s muse, spouse, and editor, she held roles that were kept in his shadow.

Rosenberg’s strong debut, the first novel to focus on this deserving subject, presents Charmian in her element. An unapologetically bold and sexually liberated woman, Charmian loves her adventurous husband but chafes at settling for less than she deserves.

It opens at their extensive ranch home among the redwoods in Sonoma Valley, California, in 1915. President Wilson is weighing his options for entering WWI, and against this politically troubled historical backdrop, Charmian is doing her best to support her husband’s career: “Jack’s golden rule: write a thousand words a day. And my job is to keep him to it.” And if she can work in a “grand lolly” afterwards that will satisfy them both, and hopefully give her a child, so much the better.

However, their sex life is stalling, their new home’s construction is a money pit, and he discourages her writing efforts. Despite being a dedicated Socialist, he also gets upset when she points out the contradiction between his longtime beliefs and his desires to expand their land.

author Rebecca Rosenberg
While Jack encourages her flirtations, she quickly gets in over her head after she participates in an on-stage magic show by the charismatic Great Houdini – and forms an unlikely friendship with his wife, Bess, whose quirkiness and childlike looks belie a deeper wisdom. Depictions of Charmian’s complicated relationships with both Houdinis are a highlight of the book. The "Magic Man" himself has an electrifying presence, one to which Charmian isn’t immune.

Her passionate quest for love and purpose unfolds against the stirrings of war, Houdini’s death-defying escapes, and the surprising intersection between them (Houdini’s unique contributions to the war effort are fascinating, yet little-known).

Through her dynamic narrative, Charmian is presented as a flawed and fascinating character whose eventful life holds our attention. Her phrasings are occasionally clichéd (“…shatters my heart into a million tiny pieces”), but she comes across as a force of nature with an original outlook on her world.

From the sun-drenched waters of Hawaii to the skyscrapers of the nation’s capital, the novel explores the risks and secret joys of following one’s heart.

The Secret Life of Mrs. London was published on January 30 by Lake Union/Amazon (348pp). View the other stops on the blog tour.



Thursday, February 15, 2018

White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht, an unflinching saga of family and the Korean "comfort women"

“Comfort women” is a euphemism for the girls and women forced to serve as prostitutes by Imperial Japanese forces during WWII—perhaps 200,000 in all. Official recognition of their plight was long in coming, and even today, statues commemorating them are controversial; the issue remains a sticking point in Japanese-South Korean relations. Bracht’s debut novel, focusing on two courageous Korean sisters torn apart by the war, unflinchingly explores this subject and its long aftermath.

Her prose is fast-paced and lyrical—not an easy combination to achieve—in her alternating portraits of Emi, an elderly Korean widow in 2011, and her older sister Hana, who had sacrificed herself to protect Emi when Japanese soldiers came walking along the beachfront near their home in 1943. For generations, their family’s women have been divers, haenyeo, on Korea’s Jeju Island, feeding their children with the fruits of the sea. One can sense their strength as they hold their breath for long minutes underwater, and this same strength helps them endure what follows. Transported to Manchuria by train, Hana finds herself trapped in a brothel where each woman is assigned a “flower” name and raped numerous times a day.

Emi’s story, as she boards a plane to visit her children in Seoul, initially seems undramatic in comparison, but subtle points revealing her truth emerge: occasional nightmares, her hesitation about flying (why?), hints at an unhappy marriage. Driving the plot forward are questions about Hana’s fate, and whether the sisters’ lives will ever intertwine again.

This emotion-filled literary saga carries readers into the world of Koreans—and Korean women in particular—as they suffer first under Japanese occupation and then their own country’s civil war. It’s difficult to read at times, but compelling all the same, and the author allows a sense of hope to filter through.

White Chrysanthemum was published by Putnam this month in the US, and by Chatto & Windus in the UK. I wrote this review for February's Historical Novels Review.

This thought-provoking novel couldn't be more relevant. With the 2018 Winter Olympics currently underway in PyeongChang, South Korea, the issue of the "comfort women" is very much in today's headlines. See this article from Voice of America last Friday regarding the Japanese and South Korean leaders' discussions about their countries' controversial 2015 agreement relating to these women.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Historical fiction award winners from ALA Midwinter 2018

Last night in Denver, many literary awards were announced at the American Library Association's Midwinter conference. Although I didn't attend this year, I was paying attention on social media while tuning in to Olympics figure skating on the TV behind me.

Here are the historical novels that were honored at the Reference and User Services Association's Book and Media Awards ceremony. Links go to the ALA press releases.

2018 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Fiction: Jennifer Egan's Manhattan Beach, a fast-paced historical novel set in WWII New York.

2018 Reading List, which selects the best in genre fiction for adult readers (descriptions are mine):

In the Historical Fiction category, the winner was Linnea Hartsuyker's The Half-Drowned King, a stellar epic of 9th-century Norway. I wrote a starred review of it for Booklist last year and am excited to see it win. The next book in the trilogy, The Sea Queen, will be out this summer.

On the Historical Fiction short list:

The Confessions of Young Nero, by Margaret George, in which the oft-maligned Roman emperor offers a different view of his early life [see my review];
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, a sweeping saga about Koreans in 20th-century Japan [see my review];
Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York by Francis Spufford, an adventurous journey through 18th-century New York;
Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions: A Kopp Sisters Novel by Amy Stewart, continuing the story of a female deputy sheriff during the WWI years.

And in the Romance category, the winner was Alyssa Cole's An Extraordinary Union, a novel of espionage and forbidden love during the Civil War, with a free black woman as heroine. This is one of many accolades the novel has received.

On the 2018 ALA Notable Books list are several historical novels:

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (also the most recent Walter Scott Prize winner)
The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (the latest Booker Prize winner)

Novels on the Notable Books list are literary fiction, while the Reading List covers genre fiction. Since novels in the historical fiction genre can also be literary, there is some overlap.

Congrats to the winners and shortlisted authors!

Friday, February 09, 2018

The Countess of Prague by Stephen Weeks, a wild and witty mystery of early 20th-century Europe

This first entry in a projected ten-volume series welcomes a sassy aristocratic heroine who steps outside her exalted circles to solve crimes and has a great time doing so. It’s 1904 in Prague, and Countess Beatrice “Trixie” von Falklenburg gets drawn into an irresistible mystery when her great-uncle Berty is informed that a body caught in the Vltava River is that of his old army batman, Alois. However, the old soldiers’ home still claims Alois as a current resident.

Alois had been Uncle Berty’s representative in a Tontine, an investment lottery in which the member with the last surviving nominee reaps all the benefits, so his death would be bad news for Berty. Curiously, someone besides Berty clearly has a motive for wanting Alois to appear alive, but who?

The intrepid Trixie dives eagerly into the investigation, although for her family’s sake, she can’t let on that the “Alois” in the home is probably an impostor. Her madcap adventure takes her from an unusual fancy-dress ball to the fashionable spa town of Marienbad to a train bound for London. She chops off her hair, dons a poor urchin’s garb, and gets accused of murder. Most shockingly, she says “thank you” to a servant for the first time ever.

The Countess is absolutely delightful. She charms everyone from her mini-garrison of urchin helpers to King Edward VII himself, and her excitement at breaking free of her snobby social confines is infectious. Her French ladies’ maid, Sabine, and her courageous butler, Müller, are equally as fun. The mystery involves many characters who appear only fleetingly and gets somewhat convoluted. Careful reading is needed to keep the many plot points straight. Pre-WWI Prague comes alive in its elegance, and it’s hard to say who will look forward to her next adventure more: Trixie, or her readers.

The Countess of Prague was published in 2017 by Poisoned Pen Press; I read it from a NetGalley copy.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

As Bright as Heaven, Susan Meissner's affecting novel of a family during the Spanish Flu pandemic

Writing with tremendous empathy, Meissner shows how a family is transformed by tragedy and hope during the 1918 influenza pandemic.

Pauline Bright has finally made her peace with death after the passing of her infant son, Henry. When her husband Thomas agrees to take over his elderly Uncle Fred’s mortuary business in Philadelphia, he sees it as an opportunity to improve their circumstances. For Pauline, though, their big-city move and new profession are a natural progression for her ongoing grief.

She and her three daughters narrate in turns, in styles fitting their ages and personalities. Evie, fifteen, loves books and learning and develops a fond attachment to a fellow student. Twelve-year-old Maggie, full of curiosity and youthful eagerness, has a huge crush on an older male neighbor who’s about to leave for war. The chapters from six-year-old Willa are realistic in their innocence and brevity. Kept away from the dangerous chemicals in the “Elm Bonning Room,” Willa makes friends at school, but peer pressure makes her avoid a German-American classmate without knowing exactly why.

Meissner shows the impact of larger events via more intimate moments. In September, the Brights attend the Liberty Loan Parade, a massive public event that serves to spread influenza. Soon, the disease lands on their literal doorstep, changing their respectable home and business into a processing site for the newly dead. At this height of emotional turmoil and sorrow, one split-second decision—the rescue of an orphaned boy—gives them the strength to carry on but has repercussions.

This affecting portrait of our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ time feels authentic, from Philadelphia’s extensive streetcar system to the brazen sounds of Prohibition-era speakeasies. Its touching story of mortality, love, and grace will also have readers pondering the many forgotten lives that the Spanish Flu snuffed out too soon.

As Bright as Heaven is published today in hardcover & ebook by Berkley; I wrote this review for February's Historical Novels Review. This year marks a century since the influenza epidemic of 1918-19. Reading this novel gave me a sense of what it was like to live through those traumatic circumstances.

Friday, February 02, 2018

Writing Novels about the Thirty Years War, a guest post by Laura Libricz, author of the Heaven's Pond trilogy

Over the years, I've often been asked for recommendations of novels set during the Thirty Years War (1618-48). They're relatively few and far between, and so I was glad to learn about Laura Libricz's series set in Germany during that time. I'm happy to present her guest post focusing on her experience writing her Heaven's Pond trilogy. The second and latest book, The Soldier's Return, was published in pb and ebook in September.

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Writing Novels about the Thirty Years War
Laura Libricz

The Thirty Years War started as a religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics but ultimately evolved into a broader, bloodier political conflict that included England, Spain and France. The marks left by the war are still evident today in certain parts of Germany. The list of academic analyses, in-depth historical compilations, local research and autobiographies is long, and there are some great references available. I’ve read many in both English and German and appreciate the research and the passion historians have invested in their work, sharing their findings and helping us to understand this many-faceted period. But novels set in Germany during the Thirty Years War, written in the English language, are hard to find. I wanted to read a novel that would really capture the mood of the era, look into the people involved, people like you and me.

My love of German literature began in university when I was looking for any excuse not to go to the computer room and work on code. It was a guilty pleasure that eventually turned into my major. My professor told me not to worry about the career, just to concentrate on what I loved to do. I loved to read German literature, to wrestle with the English translations and to write my own original verse and essays in both English and German.

After I finished university, I went to Germany to spend the summer with my brother, to work and master the language. I was amazed to see the scope of the scars left by the Thirty Years War on the Franconian area I live in. The next town over, a bus stop is named Schwedenschanze in the spot where the Swedes were entrenched during the war. In many cities, you will find streets named after famous generals: Pappenheimer Strasse, Mansfeldstrasse. Streets, churches and schools are named after the Swedish King, Gustav II Adolph. Almost every historical landmark had been burnt to the ground during the war. Now, twenty-seven years later, I am preparing to leave the country that was my home for close to half my life. As a tribute to these years, I present to you my trilogy, Heaven’s Pond.

The Master and the Maid is the first book in the series and begins the story in 1616. It’s about a young woman who loses her home, her job and her freedom. Katarina is a 24-year-old barmaid from Nuremberg. When her fiancé trades her to the patrician Sebald Tucher in order to pay his debts, she is forced to relocate to the Sichardtshof farm, the Tucher country domicile. She meets a crazed archer who foists the care of a mysterious newborn child on her, involving her in a family feud fueled by religious differences.

The Soldier’s Return is the second novel in the series. The year is 1626, and mercenary soldiers terrorize the countryside. The war has stormed through Franconia for the past eight years. Witch hunts are raging through the south of Germany as well. Katarina, Sebald Tucher, and the rest of their makeshift family at the farm are now ten years older and war-weary. Can these unlikely companions fight together to survive?

The third book, Ash and Rubble, is in the early revision stages. The year is 1632 and the Protestant city of Nuremberg is besieged by the estimated 150,000-man-strong Swedish army comprised of soldiers and camp followers, under the command of the Swedish king, Gustav II Adolf. The opposing Imperial forces, under the command of General Wallenstein, make camp nearby with similar numbers. A deadly standoff ensues. The child of the first two books, Isabeau, is now 16 and living in Nuremberg with Katarina and Sebald Tucher. Can they escape the besieged city? How can they even make the decision to stay or go? This is the series climax.

The Sichardtshof Farm, the main setting of the novel, was a real farm owned by the Nuremberger patrician Sebald Tucher. The character of Sebald Tucher in the Heaven’s Pond trilogy is loosely based on him. I fashioned him to be a man of the times: enlightened, embracing the philosophies of the age, a modern man open to new discoveries and concepts.

The main character, Katarina, embodies what is missing from all the research I do: the female voice. Lost, because few female voices remain. This is where the expert empathy of the historical novelist is put to the test. Can I give her that voice? She must grapple with issues that I am passionate about: motherhood vs. womanhood, the art of forgiveness, different types of love, the illusion of freedom. What sacrifices do we make to save others? These issues are timeless: owning one’s true desires, the sneaky nature of addiction, the role women play in war as human spoils.

A screen adaptation in collaboration with the Blue Heron Book Works is also in the works.

For more information, please visit: www.lauralibricz.com.  If you’d like to read more about my inspiration and research, please refer to previous articles published on some of your favorite blogs:

Hoydens and Firebrands, Reconstructing the Thirty Years War
History, The Interesting Bits, Bamberg and the Witch Hunts
Cryssa Bazos, The Thirty Years War
Mary Anne Yarde, Author’s Inspirations, The Master and the Maid
Mary Anne Yarde, Author’s Inspirations, The Soldier’s Return
Dirty, Sexy History, Masters and Maids
Blue Stocking Belles, The Master and his Wife
The Maiden’s Court, The Thirty Years War

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About the Author

Laura Libricz was born and raised in Bethlehem PA and moved to Upstate New York when she was 22. After working a few years building Steinberger guitars, she received a scholarship to go to college. She tried to ‘do the right thing’ and study something useful, but spent all her time reading German literature.

She earned a BA in German at The College of New Paltz, NY in 1991 and moved to Germany, where she resides today. When she isn’t writing she can be found sifting through city archives, picking through castle ruins or aiding the steady flood of musical instruments into the world market.

Her first novel, The Master and the Maid, is the first book of the Heaven’s Pond Trilogy. The Soldier’s Return and Ash and Rubble are the second and third books in the series.

For more information, please visit Laura Libricz’s website and blog. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Goodreads.