Monday, January 17, 2022

Love & Saffron by Kim Fay, an epistolary novel of food and women's friendship in 1960s America

Fiction and culinary travel writer Fay (The Map of Lost Memories, 2012) has crafted a delectable second novel showing how food can bring people together, even across distances and cultures.

In October 1962, Joan Bergstrom, an unmarried 27-year-old from L.A., sends an admiring fan letter to Mrs. Imogen Fortier, author of a magazine column on Pacific Northwest island life. To thank her, Joan shares a favorite mussels recipe and encloses a saffron packet.

The story is mostly told via the women’s warm-hearted correspondence. They become close while exchanging thoughts on food, their personal lives, and contemporary society.

Their connection nurtures them during tough times and draws in others as well. Imogen’s WWI-veteran husband, Francis, impresses her with his newfound interest in French cooking, while Joan’s friendship with her neighbors’ Mexican carpenter, begun over a shared meal, develops into something more.

Fay’s emotionally generous novel demonstrates how people’s worlds can expand when they open themselves to new possibilities. Readers will be touched by this enriching tale and inspired to embark on their own international culinary adventures.

Love & Saffron will be published by Putnam (US) on February 8th; I reviewed it for the Nov. 1, 2021 issue of Booklist.  The novel is 192pp long, and you can read it in an afternoon (which I did).  There are many scrumptious-sounding dishes described within, so prepare to start googling for recipes. 

This novel is very different in style and tone from her first novel, a quest-adventure set in 1920s Shanghai and Cambodia, and which I'd also reviewed back in 2012. I'd also interviewed Kim Fay about The Map of Lost Memories, and she spoke then about her interest in food and cooking.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

In Love, In War: a guest post by Margaret Walker, author of Through Forests and Mountains

I'm happy to welcome Australian novelist Margaret Walker for a guest post about the background to her latest historical fiction work, Through Forests and Mountains (Penmore, 2021), which focuses on the Partisan women in WWII Yugoslavia. 

~

In Love, In War
by Margaret Walker

How many women do you know who commence an historical novel based on their shoe size? Or their head circumference? Or their height? When I was growing up in Sydney in the 1960s, all three were expected to be British, and the British were small.

I was an eight-pound twin. I was adopted at birth and my mother came from Yugoslavia, the home of large people.

I grew up hating shoes. All they ever did was hurt. I hated shopping. Nothing fitted, and I developed an early and permanent fixation about my size.

Then, in 1970, something wonderful happened. My adoptive mother told me about the women of the Yugoslav Partisans in World War 2 who had battled the Nazis alongside the men. She did it to console me – even at ten I could tell that – and with that heightened sense of romanticism that novelists are born with, I just knew that my biological mother had hurled grenades at cowering Germans. I felt a fierce pride that half of me had been involved in the Struggle for National Liberation, as it was called and, from that day, I was on a mission to teach my small-footed, small-headed world the history that justified every pair of shoes that had ever given me blisters. But first I treated my disproportionate self to a tour of the old Yugoslavia where, at long last, I met women my size.

Margaret in Belgrade vs Margaret in Sydney

My first novel His Most Italian City, about the persecution of my birth mother’s family under Mussolini, was published by Penmore Press in Arizona in 2019 and, with the confidence that gave me, I began to write Through Forests and Mountains about the Partisan women. In 2015, Jelena Batinić published a fabulous book called Women and Yugoslav Partisans, and in 2018 I bought a book of Partisan poems in Croatian, of which I translated about forty. "A Woman Under Arms" by Franjo Mraz is my favourite:

Oh, my rifle, I will never part with you!
You will be with me at the end of my wrist until the last day
Protecting the paths of freedom along which the conquered are moving.
Tremble, look, and listen to the woman warrior, the woman partisan!

So, like me, you want to tell the world about your obsession? You are in distinguished company, and I suggest that two things are essential. One, make your readers care about your protagonist from the first page. You must carry them along emotionally. Two: be such a sensational writer that you can make your reader passionate about carburettors, sushi and Tibetan Mastiffs.

Not interested in the Yugoslav Partisans?

I’m going to make you interested. Great style, emotional characters, racy plot, and a seriously nasty villain.

In the planning stages, I considered what the premise of a novel about women fighters ought to be and, after a few false starts, I decided to tell the story of a man who, in the ordinary course of his life, has trouble with women. He’s mechanical. He’s hopeless at female games. His love life is a series of brief, shallow relationships. However, as the war progresses, he finds himself in a position where he is forced to deal with women fighters.

How he responds to this provides the conflict, and conflict is important in novel writing. It gives the reader interest. In order to resolve it, I toyed with the idea of introducing romantic elements between him and the female protagonist.

Here I encountered a problem.

The Yugoslav Partisans were not allowed romance. The Anti-Fascist struggle was too important. The women who fought became hardened until they were almost like eunuchs. Their periods stopped. If they had children, they left them in the care of others and went off to fight.

Then I discovered the poems of Josip Cazi, a political commissar with the Partisans. As I read his verses, a picture emerged of a soldier whom I imagined might ‘lay his rifle tenderly next to hers’. So many of his poems were about his relationships with women, and their style is remarkably sentimental for wartime.

‘Jelice, my apple girl in blue. My partisan rose with the wild hair in the blushing dawn, in pearls of dew. My small hero.’

If he can do it, I can do it, I thought. (And, despite the rules, there must have been some fun and games amongst the Partisans because Jelena Batinić includes a quote from a German who observed that many of the women were pregnant.)

From that moment, my male protagonist was doomed to be smitten, poor fellow, and I hope I have made this clear to the reader from the beginning of the novel. By the time my manuscript assessor suggested that I might like to develop my dot-pointed romance, the horse had bolted, and honestly it was so much fun to write that I almost considered going in for the whole Mills and Boon thing – Her Gun at his Heart, A War on More Fronts Than He Anticipated, Surrender! – and so forth.

'I have spoken with the commissar,' Anton began, 'who has given us permission to marry. If you'd like,' he added.

'Oh...' said Mara and put a hand to her lips. 'Oh.'

Anton waited for her to say something else. When she didn't it was obvious, even to him, that her mind had not been on love.

In an effort to emphasise to her the uniqueness of the privilege granted them he said, 'They don't generally allow it.' Still no reply. He added desperately, 'The commissar's reply ran along the lines of what he thought would be in my best interests, or rather, you understand, our best interests.'

'I understand,’ said Mara.

'What he meant was, I can't go back to sea, so...'

'Marriage might be a sweetener?'

'Well, yes, I expect you could put it like that.’

She started to laugh. That thoughtless, girlish laugh that had so often wounded him. He felt lonelier than ever. He was aware, by then, that he had blown his chance of getting her that little bit closer to him for a longer time, instead of always being part of an army on the move. What might happen tomorrow? Where would they be sent? When would he see her again? What sort of struggle against the Axis powers might it be for him if he no longer had access to her heart? If only he could start again and ask her properly in a way that any young woman would like to be asked. But had he? No. He’d just done it his way, as usual.

But she stopped laughing and looked up at him fondly.

'Of course, I'll marry you, Anton,’ she said. ‘What would I do if you weren’t here?'



Note: Quotations from the poems, translated by Margaret Walker, are from Po Šumama i Gorama, Pjesme Boraca Narodnooslobodilačkog Rata [Through Forests and Mountains, poems of the fighters in the war of national liberation], published in Zagreb in 1952.

 ~

Margaret Walker is a teacher. She has a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Sydney, and diplomas in Education and Professional Communication. Her short stories have been published in Australia and England.  Visit her author website at:  https://www.mwalkeristra.com.

Thursday, January 06, 2022

The Last Rose of Shanghai by Weina Dai Randel, an epic love story set in Japanese-occupied Shanghai

Set amid the maelstrom that was Japanese-occupied Shanghai beginning in 1940, Weina Dai Randel’s third novel is charged with incident and emotion matching its setting. It reads as if the author poured every ounce of creativity and feeling into her writing, and based on her comments at the end, this was the case.

At its essence, The Last Rose of Shanghai (named after the female lead’s favorite jazz song) tells the love story between Aiyi Shao, a young, sophisticated heiress who owns a nightclub called One Hundred Joys, and Ernest Reismann, the Jewish pianist she hires to attract new customers to her once-popular venue.

Ernest is newly arrived by ship from Nazi Germany with his younger sister, Miriam, and desperate for work after learning that Shanghai – the only port not requiring an entry visa – is flooded with other refugees. His foreignness is the problem, not specifically his religion; many Shanghainese, including Aiyi, are unaware of the antisemitism over in Europe. That remains true until it isn’t. When Japan forms an alliance with Germany, the Britons in Shanghai’s International Settlement become the enemy, and restrictions eventually tighten against the Jews.

The backgrounds of Aiyi and Ernest are gradually layered: she is reluctantly engaged to her conservative cousin, Cheng, yet despite her independent streak, she understands the importance of family. Ernest faithfully sends funds home for his parents to join him, not realizing until later that his efforts are futile (of course, the reader knows this). Their love affair is fiery and necessarily furtive. These passionate characters are flawed individuals who sometimes act out of selfishness, but with the world stacked against them in so many ways, it’s easy to root for their happiness.

The historical background comes alive with full-bodied color and sound, plenty of twists in the action, and brilliantly painted word-images: “… all of us Chinese in Shanghai were like trapped fish in a sunless marsh. To avoid the hook of death and go on living, we had no choice but to remain unseen under water,” Aiyi says. The author also weaves in cultural information, like the tones used to pronounce Aiyi’s name correctly (which Ernest never quite masters) and the bat mitzvah ceremony young Miriam prepares for. Anyone seeking an original focus on the frequently dramatized WWII era should pick up this book for a gripping emotional journey.

The Last Rose of Shanghai was published by Lake Union in 2021; I read it from NetGalley.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Isabel Allende's Violeta spans 100 years in a South American woman's amazing and eventful life

Allende has crafted many unique heroines of passionate, resilient spirit in her internationally best-selling historical novels, and Violeta Del Valle is no exception.

Born during the Spanish flu outbreak in an unnamed South American country (clearly based on Chile) in 1920, Violeta addresses her memoir to a beloved relative, Camilo, during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. She spins a captivating, cinematic tale of her century-long existence, intertwining large-scale political and social transformations with reflections on her life.

The spoiled daughter in a family with five older sons, Violeta watches the Del Valles’ finances tumble into ruin during the Depression. After losing their illustrious home, her family finds refuge in a remote southern farming town with many Indigenous residents and German and French immigrants.

This supposed exile becomes an enriching experience for Violeta. Her love life is complex, tumultuous, and unpredictable for readers, who will eagerly follow her narrative, which Violeta recounts in a style that’s remarkably forthright about her own and others’ personal failings.

The characterizations are intriguingly layered, and as people’s lives are buffeted by dramatic changes, including a military coup that destroys her country’s democracy, Violeta comes into her own strength. Allende has long been renowned as an enchanting storyteller, and this emotionally perceptive epic ranks among her best.

Violeta will be published by Ballantine in January; I reviewed it from a NetGalley copy for the 12/15 issue of Booklist (I made it a starred review).

There was no room to say this in the review, but past readers of Allende's work may recognize the name Del Valle, and Violeta is indeed connected to the characters from her first novel, The House of the Spirits.  It's not a major part of this book, and you definitely don't need to read any others first, but the link is mentioned. Other Del Valle family members figure in Allende's Daughter of Fortune and Portrait in Sepia.

I'll be back after the New Year with more posts. Thanks for visiting my site, and best wishes for good reading for 2022!

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Best-of-year historical fiction roundups from around the web

Now that 2021 is drawing to a close, media outlets have been publishing their "best of" lists from the past year.  I've collected those that focus on historical fiction, though there aren't as many of these as I've found for other genres.

NPR's Best Books 2021 (which used to be called Book Concierge) has a historical fiction category with an impressively wide range of subjects and subgenres. I like how they include literary fiction (The Sweetness of Water), historical romance (Wild Rain), historical fantasy (A Marvellous Light), and books for younger readers (Finding Junie Kim) under the same umbrella. Among my own favorites on this list: Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray's The Personal Librarian and Laird Hunt's Zorrie.  Here are the NPR selections as a list rather than a visual graphic.

The New York Times presents their best new historical fiction of the season with a dozen recent releases, as well as an overall "best of" for 2021. There's a bit of overlap between them. The focus is, as you'd expect, literary fiction, and I haven't read any of these!

In The Times (London) we have critics Nick Rennison's and Antonia Senior's 15 top favorites of the year. Without a subscription you'll need to sign up for a free login, which gets you access to a limited # of articles. There's a nice mix of literary and commercial here, including Elodie Harper's The Wolf Den (set in Pompeii before the infamous eruption of Mt. Vesuvius), which I also loved. It will be published in the US next March.

In Canada, the CBC has 12 books for the historical fiction lover's shopping list, which includes some novels set in very recent history.

British magazine Woman and Home offers many historical novels (not all by women) for consideration for your TBR, conveniently divided by historical era.

Cosmopolitan has a lengthy list of 27 best historical novels from the last year. While it was posted in late October, some fall reads are included.

Lastly, Goodreads announced their most popular choices for Best Historical Fiction a few weeks ago, and I actually read nine of the nominees (but not the winner, Taylor Jenkins Reid's Malibu Rising).

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

In Protector, Conn Iggulden continues his saga of the Greco-Persian Wars with the heroic story of Themistocles

In 480 BCE, the Persians are back, more determined than ever to crush Athens. Picking up where The Gates of Athens ended, the story continues exploring how the Athenians and their Spartan allies come together, not without difficulty, to repulse Persian invasion forces on land and sea despite being vastly outnumbered.

Three major battles – first Salamis, then Plataea and Mycale the following year – are skillfully choreographed, giving readers an overarching picture of the many moving parts alongside firsthand perspectives of the military commanders. The starring role belongs to Themistocles, an Athenian statesman and general whose tactical genius is matched by pride in his own abilities, a flaw which irritates his fellow leaders.

Iggulden makes a persuasive case for recognizing Themistocles as Western civilization’s ultimate savior. Being inside this heroic character’s head as he strategizes is a breathtaking experience.

The dialogue feels realistic while offering a sense of the momentous through many quotable lines and stirring oratory, particularly from the politician Aristides. Devotees of the ancient world will relish this exciting historical novel.

Protector was published in November by Pegasus, and it was out in the UK in May from Michael Joseph. I wrote this review for Booklist's Oct. 1 issue.  As with the previous book, The Gates of Athens, this series isn't just for military history fans (a group I don't consider myself part of), although the battle scenes really are sharply done. The characterizations are first-rate, and it was great to have the sense of being there while history was being shaped.

Thursday, December 09, 2021

Review of Diane Gaston's holiday-themed Regency romance, Lord Grantwell's Christmas Wish

In her Regency romance featuring two estranged lovers, Gaston adds a dash of Christmas spice to a heartwarming story about the meaning of home and family.

When Lillian Pearson arrives at the palatial Yorkshire estate of Lord Grantwell in December 1817, she’s freezing, starving, and utterly frantic. Her Portuguese former brother-in-law is tailing her, convinced that she murdered her late husband.

Lillian knows she’s innocent, and she takes risks in asking Grant to hide her. They’d had a passionate affair years earlier, in Lisbon, until he caught her giving Wellington’s secret plans to the French—or so he believes. He’s never forgiven her.

Having recently become the guardian of his late brother’s orphaned stepchildren, Grant’s hands are full. But when he sees how well Lillian cares for young William and Anna, his heart starts softening.

The children are adorable, though traumatized from their earlier life; frustratingly, we don’t get the full backstory for their odd situation (they’d previously lived with their hard-hearted grandfather, not their mother and stepfather). Readers get to experience the joy of Regency-era Christmas traditions and children’s pastimes as Lillian and Grant try to give William and Anna a happy holiday, falling in love in the process.

Lord Grantwell's Christmas Wish is a Harlequin Historical title and the second in the author's Captains of Waterloo series, though it stands alone. I reviewed it initially for the Historical Novels Review last month. The first book, Her Gallant Captain at Waterloo, told the love story of Grant's estate manager and good friend Rhys Landon, a fellow soldier he'd met in Portugal, and the woman he married.  Rhys and his wife are major secondary characters in this volume. This romance has impressive depth for a novel of just over 200 pages.