Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Book review: The Shadow Queen, by Sandra Gulland

Those following the popular trend of “royal mistress” novels will find The Shadow Queen, the newest member of this growing category, strikingly different fare.

In her previous excursions into French history, Sandra Gulland had chronicled the stories of two court outsiders – Empress Josephine and Louise de la Vallière – who never expected to capture a monarch’s heart. Her fifth book depicts an even more unlikely entrant to exalted royal circles: Claude des Oeillets, nicknamed Claudette, a tall, attractive woman with stagecraft in her blood. In rich, descriptive language, she recounts her life story from her youth as a poor traveling player, wandering the French countryside outside Poitiers with her parents and mentally disabled brother, through her unwitting involvement in the notorious Affaire des Poisons during the Sun King’s reign.

Claudette’s rise in status is tethered to that of Mademoiselle de Tonnay-Charente, an aristocratic girl whose beauty is as ethereal as the moon, and whose privileged life seems as unattainable. Their lives intersect several times during Claudette’s teen years. In 1660, the desperate quest for work draws her family to Paris, where she glimpses her dazzling counterpart as she passes by in her handsomely appointed carriage, “her golden earlocks adorned with ribbons, a single strand of pearls tied at the back of her neck… she looked like a creature from another world.”

With these incandescent words, Gulland illustrates Claudette’s growing enchantment with the young woman who calls herself Athénaïs – a name that will surely register with devotees of the period. This fervent, almost romantic desire for Athénaïs and her alluring world will cause the otherwise levelheaded Claudette to forsake her old life, and will push her onto a more glamorous and more dangerous stage than the one she knows.

Claudette’s heart – and the novel’s – lies in the bustling world of the 17th-century Parisian theatre. This atmosphere pulses with activity: the designing of sets, the players’ pre-show stresses and magnificent performances, and the fierce rivalry among playwrights Corneille and Molière and that troublesome newcomer, Racine, who has his own agenda. These vivacious characters and scenes beg the question of why more novelists haven’t made use of this fabulous material. As Claudette mends costumes and takes on minor roles, she sees her widowed mother, the fragile yet brilliant Alix, achieve renown as a tragic actress: another hidden-from-history tale which Gulland places before her audience.

There was a downside to the acting life in this time and place, though. Performers were admired while in their element, but elsewhere they were scorned by many, the church included. As such, Claudette and her associates are forbidden the Eucharist, and proper burial when the time comes, unless they renounce the stage. And so when Athénaïs – now married to the unpleasant Marquis de Montespan – has need of someone she can trust, Claudette trades her comfortable place in the theatre for a respectable position as Athénaïs’ confidential maid.

Through the story of Claudette’s role as suivante to the temperamental Athénaïs, Louis XIV’s favorite mistress, both the opulence and hypocrisy of court life are laid bare. The castle at Saint-Germain-en-Laye is furnished with every luxury, and the view from its turrets so breathtaking, with “the frozen Seine unfurled like a silver ribbon in and around the gentle hills, clouded at times by wreaths of smoke,” that readers may find themselves lingering over that scene just to spend more time there.

However, nearly everyone in this wondrous place hides their true selves behind a mask. To her credit, Athénaïs is no snob and is generous to her maid, but her obsession with eliminating competition for the king’s favor leads them into dicey situations – and leaves Claudette to find her own way out.

Claudette is a sympathetic character over the 30-plus years that her tale extends, though her eagerness to please can be overplayed. She spices her narrative with parenthetical asides and interjections (“Ay me”) that are sometimes charming, sometimes cloying. Her servant's role doesn’t give her a front row seat at the royal court, which may dishearten fans looking for juicier intrigue, but she’s a perceptive storyteller nonetheless.

Servants are granted a uniquely close-up view of royalty, and while King Louis intimidates Claudette, through her eyes he's shown in a more human light. One episode in which she and his valet awkwardly wait outside Athénaïs’ rooms during her noisy lovemaking session with the king shows the author’s flair for comedy as well as drama. Likewise, while Claudette describes King Louis as a “handsome, well-made man,” she can’t help but observe that “His Majesty was taller than most, almost as tall as I was.” Both here and elsewhere, Gulland’s heroine proves to be a loyal, valiant woman who can hold her head up high. 


The Shadow Queen was published in April by Doubleday ($25.95, hb, 336pp).  The Canadian publisher is HarperCollins Canada.  Thanks to the author's publicist for sending me an ARC at my request.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Book review: No Great Mischief, by Alistair MacLeod

Having just gotten word about the death yesterday of acclaimed Canadian writer Alistair MacLeod, I thought I'd use this space today to celebrate his work. Although he had written many short stories, No Great Mischief was his only novel, and it was a significant one, winning the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2001. I'd highly recommend it if you haven't already read it. Below is the review I wrote back when it was first published.  For more information on MacLeod and his life, see the obituaries in CTV News and Halifax's Chronicle-Herald.

On Cape Breton Island, the Gaelic stronghold of Nova Scotia — a land of windswept crags and rocky shores — memories of years long past still reside in the hearts and minds of the people. Over two hundred years after Culloden, families of Scots descent still reminisce about the brave exploits of their handsome Bonnie Prince Charlie, and still lament the fact that the French did not come to his aid.

In 1779, Calum MacDonald — called Calum Ruadh for his red hair — left the Scottish Highlands with his family, bound for a better life in Nova Scotia. At the end of the twentieth century, his descendant Alexander MacDonald works as an orthodontist in Ontario, though his heart has never left his homeland of Cape Breton. While on a visit to his alcoholic eldest brother, living in squalor in a Toronto apartment, his thoughts turn back to his early days growing up with his grandparents and twin sister on the island. His story is told in flashbacks, including flashbacks nested within each other at multiple levels. In a lesser writer’s hands, this might cause one to lose perspective, but here the reader’s attention is held throughout.

Alexander’s tale twines through various happenings of importance: the early deaths of his parents; the unusual friendship of his two grandfathers, one relaxed and jovial, the other careful and contained; and the wild, violent summer spent with his three elder brothers as miners deep within the Canadian Shield. Wherever he or his siblings venture, they’re identified both to themselves and to outsiders as members of the clann Chalum Ruaidh, the “clan of the red Calum.” In this large extended family where relationships matter more than names, distant relatives in Scotland greet their Canadian kin with open arms, grandparents use Gaelic to recount tales of the old country, and even the family dogs are loyal unto death.

Lyrical and moving, No Great Mischief may not be historical fiction in its usual definition, but one would be hard-pressed to find a novel with a stronger sense of history. A Canadian bestseller of local interest yet truly international appeal, this novel is a highly recommended exploration of the pain of exile, the strength of family, and the inescapable nature of the past.

No Great Mischief was published by WW Norton in 2000 and has been reprinted many times since then.  The photo above comes from the 2011 edition.  This review first appeared in the Historical Novels Review in August 2000.

Friday, April 18, 2014

My summer and fall historical fiction picks, part 1

A heads-up that this will be a very self-centered post!  Here are ten books, published between now and this fall, that are on my personal wishlist.  I had a hard time limiting this down, so I'll be posting a second set of ten later on.  While nearly all of them are written by women, they offer much more diversity in terms of historical milieu.

Thanks to the generosity of the publishers and authors, copies of half of these titles are either here or on the way, meaning that reviews will be posted in due course.

A novel about a real-life woman from early American history?  I'm there.  I'm already hearing excellent things about this story recounting Mary Rowlandson's capture by Indians in 1676 Massachusetts and her subsequent difficulties returning to her old life.   NAL, July.  [see on Goodreads]

A brilliant evocation of late medieval Germany.  I was astonished to discover that this story about the creation of the Gutenberg Bible in 15th-century Mainz was based on real characters and events and wondered why it hadn't been told in fiction before.  (This is the only one of the ten I've read so far.)  Harper, September.  [see on Goodreads]

The paths of a blind French girl and a German boy collide and intertwine in occupied Paris.  I've been hearing so many superlatives about the author's compelling, generous storytelling that I have to add it to the list.  Scribner, May.  [see on Goodreads]

Because I loved the author's Flint (reviewed here in 2009), I was excited to see she had a new novel in the works. In this literary adventure, a young woman takes to the Spice Road in the 13th century to search for her storyteller grandfather.  Honno Welsh Women's Press, August.  [not on Goodreads yet]

A debut novel that follows several generations of a family living in coastal North Carolina around the time of the Revolution.  It's an unusual perspective on a familiar war, and since I already gravitate towards literary sagas, this looks right up my alley.  Harper, August.  [see on Goodreads]

Fiction about the women in Genghis Khan's life; set in late 12th-century Mongolia.  Kudos to the author and publisher for continuing to take on the stories of important women from non-Western history.  NAL, November.  [See on Goodreads]

One of the author's specialties is Anglo-Saxon England, and here she interprets the life of Acha of Deira, a young woman married off into a harsh, unfamiliar land in the early 7th century. Since I'd enjoyed her previous A Swarming of Bees, a mystery set at the time of the Synod of Whitby, The Tribute Bride was a natural choice for the TBR.  Acorn Digital Press, April.  [see on Goodreads]

The life of Dorothy Richardson, lover of H.G. Wells, and an important 20th-century British writer in her own right.  What a breathtaking cover!  Not only do I want to read more about this unconventional woman's life, I want to hang the jacket art on my wall.  Thomas Dunne, October.  [see on Goodreads]

A recent Bryn Mawr grad gets drawn into learning more about the mysterious aunt whose existence was erased from their family history.  Romance, secrets, and a setting that sweeps from WWI-era Germany to NYC in the Swinging Sixties; it looks like the perfect read for summer vacation.  Putnam, May.  [see on Goodreads]

You can always count on Barbara Wood for skillful storytelling, adventurous women, and out-of-the-ordinary settings.  Her latest takes place in Honolulu in the early 19th century and focuses on the female half of a young missionary couple.  Turner, September.  [see on Goodreads]

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Grist by Linda Little, a story of women's resilence in rural Nova Scotia

Even sensible girls can be taken in by unexpected attention. Linda Little's resilient heroine, a schoolteacher in rural Nova Scotia in 1875, discovers this to her regret when her landlord’s taciturn, socially awkward brother begins paying court to her. Describing herself up front as a “large, square-jawed girl – graceless but strong,” Penelope McCabe has a warm, honest voice that endears readers to her. How she deals with a situation that becomes progressively more unhappy gains her both sympathy and admiration.

Ewan MacLaughlin’s letters to Penelope are hardly the wooing sort – full of practicalities and odd questions, they’re the opposite of romantic.  It's apparent from the outset that something's off with him.  Maybe he's just shy?  Penelope is curious about his quirky approach, but part of her is pleased regardless. Understandably, she longs for marriage and a family, just like any other hopeful young woman of her time would.

Ewan owns and runs a mill “way up the Gunn Brook,” so he has the means to provide for a wife.  After he and Penelope wed, they board his wagon and ride three hours from town to Ewan’s newly constructed home, which she delights in exploring. Her optimism turns to puzzlement, though, once she gets a better grasp of Ewan’s true nature.

Ill-mannered and controlling, his personality grounded in a warped form of piety, Ewan makes it clear he hates conversation and resents her socializing with anyone. Mills are Ewan’s life, and he’s so talented at building and improving them that his skills are in high demand from all over the province. Forced against her will to run their mill alone, Penelope finds her happiness where she can: in the stark beauty of the landscape, which is beautifully evoked; in her friendship with neighboring farmers; and in unanticipated stolen moments. Ewan takes his revenge for her perceived weaknesses, and it's left to Penelope to protect her family from its effects.

Over the course of this multi-generational story, several chapters draw readers into Ewan’s viewpoint – told in the more distant third person, as feels appropriate – and allow insight into his mindset and why the straight, predictable art of engineering served as a peaceful escape from his rough childhood. Given how he treats Penelope, these sections can be a hard sell in eliciting significant empathy for Ewan, but they succeed in providing background for why he acts as he does. Elegantly written, with lovely descriptions of mill work and the transient joys Penelope finds in family life, Grist is a bleak and bittersweet ode to historical women’s strength and endurance.

Grist was published in 2014 (trade pb, $20.95, 234pp) by Roseway, the literary imprint of Nova Scotia-based Fernwood Publishing, which "aims to publish literary work that is rooted in and relevant to struggles for social justice."  Thanks to the author and Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for the review copy.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Book review: The Orenda, by Joseph Boyden

A noteworthy literary achievement, Boyden’s mesmerizing third novel sits at the confluence of three civilizations in 17th-century Ontario. The narration alternates among Bird, a Wendat (Huron) warrior; Snow Falls, the young Iroquois captive he adopts after killing her family to avenge his wife and daughters; and Père Christophe, a thoughtfully intelligent, multilingual Jesuit missionary. Over some years, as the growing French presence in the New World upsets a fragile balance and threats from the Iroquois become urgent, the French and Wendat move toward alliance, which, tragically, increases the latter’s susceptibility to European diseases.

In this deeply researched work, Boyden captures his characters’ disparate beliefs, remaining impartial even as they pass judgment on the customs they find simultaneously fascinating and repellent in the others. The prose conveys a raw beauty in its depictions of trade journeys, daily life within longhouses, and spirituality; the Huron Feast of the Dead, for example, is presented as a majestic symphony of reverence. The scenes of ritual torture are difficult to read, and the novel offers many intense impressions of cross-cultural conflicts and differences, yet it is most affecting when evoking its protagonists’ shared humanity and the life force—the orenda—burning brightly within each of them.

The Orenda will be published by Knopf on May 13th (hb, $26.95). It was first published by Hamish Hamilton last September in Canada, where it became a national bestseller.  Last month, it was chosen as the winner of the 2014 Canada Reads literary battle

I wrote this starred review for Booklist's March 1st issue.  The Orenda also made it to Booklist's top 10 in historical fiction for 2014 (which also includes two other picks of mine: Emma Donoghue's Frog Music and Henning Mankell's A Treacherous Paradise).

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Downton Abbey readalikes meet the university library

I recently had the opportunity to put up a display of Downton Abbey readalike books at the university library where I work.  The exhibit was timed to begin just after Season 4 wrapped up – it ran during the month of March so I figured I'd have an eager audience.  Even so, I underestimated the huge demand there was for these books, and I found myself scrambling to meet it.

Library book displays are nothing new, so it seems silly in a way to dedicate a blog post to it.  But I thought I might share my experience as a way of encouraging academic libraries in particular to try something similar.  College students are avid readers, as are faculty and staff. 

Also, I've heard from friends in the publishing industry that interest in country house sagas and the Edwardian era is starting to wane.  This is hardly a scientific experiment, but if the success of this project is any indication, this isn't true as far as readers are concerned.

Here are pics of both sides.  I started out with 16 titles purchased just for the display (ordered by my colleague Pam, who oversees our popular reading collections). They were mostly trade paperbacks, both fiction and nonfiction.  Then I supplemented them with more titles we already had in our collections, for a total of 22 in all.  I was fortunate to be given a visible spot on the library's main level, right near the circulation desk.  At the top were two signs I had fun creating:  "Looking for something to read while waiting for Season 5?" and "Reading Fit for a Dowager Countess."

The display went up on Monday, March 3rd.  By Tuesday afternoon, half of the titles had been checked out.  By the end of the week, only six titles remained, and the exhibit was looking very picked over.  So I pulled more relevant titles from our Read & Relax (paperback) and Bestsellers (hardcover) collections to fill up the display again, and anything that looked like it would remotely fit went in.  (For example, Philippa Gregory's Fallen Skies; a couple by Jacqueline Winspear.  We had many other WWI-era novels in our main stacks, but without covers, so I didn't include many of them.  Books on display without covers tend to sit there.) I replenished it twice more, and took away some unused display stands so it didn't look quite so empty.  Some returned items came back to the display.  Still, by the end of March, only three books were left.  It was impossible to keep it filled.  Almost everything added was checked out immediately.

On April 1st, I created a MS Access report to look at the circulation (i.e., number of checkouts) of all 32 items that were on the display at some point.  During the month, all but three titles had been checked out at least once, and many of them had been checked out twice.

I hope to revisit this display next winter, just before Season 5 starts... and next time, I'll be ready with even more books to include.  My next project is a display on novels set in the 1960s, both historical fiction as well as fiction that was written back then and gives a good sense of the era.  The library is organizing a large-scale exhibit and speaker series on the '60s for the fall, so this will be part of it.  I don't know if that book display will be as popular as the Downton one was, but I'll be curious to see how it turns out.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Book review: Wake, by Anna Hope

Wake is skillfully written from the outset, though the initial premise doesn’t feel especially groundbreaking: in post-WWI London, three ordinary women cope with their stagnant lives. Hettie partners single men at a Hammersmith dance hall to support her mother and shell-shocked brother, upper-class Evelyn works as a pension clerk while mourning her lover, and Ada can’t move past her soldier son’s death.

Hope then proceeds to color in their personal histories, revealing the distinctiveness of each character and situation over five days, during the lead-up to the unveiling of the Unknown Warrior’s tomb in Westminster Abbey. As their circumstances change and new people enter their lives, the women are spurred to action. Likewise, as these characters’ stories and others’ are intermixed, readers will be flipping pages to discover their tragic connection.

The background details are vivid, from a crowded West End jazz club to the trenches of northern France, both in 1920 and earlier. This increasingly riveting novel about war’s futility, grief, remembrance, and renewal is a solid effort timed just right for the WWI centenary.

This review first appeared in Booklist's November 1st issue.  Wake was published in February by Random House (hardcover, $26, 284pp); Doubleday published it in the UK in January (hardcover, £12.99).