Thursday, January 21, 2021

The Gates of Athens by Conn Iggulden recounts ten pivotal years in ancient Greek history

This rousing series opener brings ten pivotal years in ancient Greek history to energetic life. Spanning from the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE to the Spartans’ valiant stand at the Battle of Thermopylae, the story moves nimbly among the perspectives of Athenian leaders, primarily the politician and general Xanthippus, plus their allies and Persian foes. 

A celebrated historical adventure writer, Iggulden (The Falcon of Sparta, 2019) illustrates both large-scale military maneuvers and minute details, from close-up views of bronze-armored Greek soldiers in formation to fearsome scenes of the immense Persian fleet, bent on destroying Athens. 

The intervening decade between major battles in the ongoing Greco-Persian Wars holds equal fascination as Athens is shaken by infighting that divides its statesmen. These inner political workings are vividly personified via courageous, intelligent, well-rounded characters. 

Iggulden has impressive command of period terminology and largely follows the historical record, filling in gaps with well-thought-out reasoning. This is also an inspiring read about the value of democracy, whose birthplace was classical Athens, and how people fought hard and long to preserve it for posterity.

The Gates of Athens was published in the US on January 5 by Pegasus, and I reviewed it for Booklist's Dec. 15th issue (reprinted with permission).  

Other notes: This book was a revelation. Historical military adventure isn't normally my thing, but this novel is much more than that. It focuses on character development and theme as much as technical details and who-does-what-to-whom. Readers seeking nonstop action may be disappointed by the middle sections that delve into Athenian politics and how its policies were implemented, such as the process by which men could be forced into exile.  Reading it as a PDF on my iPad turned out to be a great advantage, too, since for any unfamiliar terminology I encountered, I could highlight a term, and I had my choice of the Kindle's internal dictionary or Wikipedia for a definition. There was no glossary in my ARC. My appetite is whetted for book two.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes, a women's retelling of the Trojan War

“Sing, Muse,” commands a poet, invoking inspiration for his Trojan War verse, but Calliope, goddess of epic poetry, has her own purpose in mind. She offers a tale not of men’s glory but the experiences of all the women. Except maybe Helen, who annoys her. 

Haynes tells a witty, unapologetically feminist story of women’s suffering, courage, and endurance, which demands that we reconsider our concept of heroism. Following a ten-year siege, Creusa, a young wife, wakes to see her city aflame, while other women of Troy wait along the shoreline to be parceled out as slaves to the Greek victors. 

Showing Haynes’ comedic touch, Penelope writes letters to her husband, Odysseus, growing exasperated as she learns the reasons for his delayed voyage home to Ithaca. Some characters are familiar, others less so, including Oenone, Paris’s abandoned wife. Cassandra’s account is especially wrenching. 

The telling is nonlinear, but the varied stories flow naturally together, ensuring readers won’t be lost. Grounded in the classics, this freshly modern version of an ancient tale is perfect for our times.

A Thousand Ships will be published on January 26th by Harper in the US.  In the UK, the novel has been out for a while (2019) and was shortlisted for the 2020 Women's Prize for Fiction. I submitted this review for the December issue of Booklist. I'd read A Thousand Ships last October and began noticing the number of new and upcoming publications retelling ancient Greek myths from the women's viewpoint, spurred on by the success of Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls and Madeline Miller's Circe. Look for a post about this soon! Haynes is also the author of The Children of Jocasta, fiction based on the stories of Sophocles' Oedipus and Antigone

Monday, January 11, 2021

Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms by Anita Heiss sees the WWII home front from the Indigenous Australian perspective

On August 5, 1944, hundreds of Japanese POWs in a compound on the outskirts of Cowra, a small town in central New South Wales, Australia, organized a mass breakout, driven by the shame brought on their families due to their captivity. With her historical novel using this pivotal event as a starting point, Anita Heiss imagines a gentle romance between an escaped Japanese soldier, Hiroshi, and Mary Williams, eldest daughter of an Aboriginal family that grants him refuge. 

Dr. Heiss, a member of the Wiradjuri nation, makes a unique contribution to WWII literature by depicting the Indigenous Australian perspective on the home front. She warmly depicts the interactions among the Williams family members, their friends, and neighbors, as well as the growing rapport between seventeen-year-old Mary and Hiroshi, who must spend long, lonely days concealed in an air raid shelter, his only respite being Mary’s visits with the meager rations she’s able to give him. 

I found aspects of the love story somewhat far-fetched, but the couple’s ongoing dialogue enables the author to relate the characteristics of their substantially different cultures. Above ground, the story highlights the strength of the Williams parents, Banjo and Joan, who raise their family with dignity on Erambie Mission, knowing that white authorities won’t hesitate to take their children away if they’re found slacking on household cleanliness. 

They take huge risks in sheltering Hiroshi but – not without some disagreement among them – choose to act out of human kindness, and with the knowledge that they and the Japanese are both fighting against the Australian government at the time. Forbidden to own their hereditary lands, Aboriginal people have their lives strictly controlled and aren’t able to vote – the people at Erambie have less freedom than even the Italian POWs working on farms nearby. The writing flows easily throughout this sensitively drawn story.

I read this from a personal copy. Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms was published by Simon & Schuster Australia in 2016.  The novel may not be easy for non-Australians to find these days, but it's worth seeking out for its storyline, history, and viewpoint.

Monday, January 04, 2021

The Last Garden in England by Julia Kelly, a multi-period novel centered on an Edwardian garden

A country house in rural Warwickshire is the scene for Kelly’s touching, immersive read, which has definite appeal for aficionados of Downton Abbey and Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’ The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2008). Over a century, five distinctive women are connected through a historic Edwardian garden, each struggling in different ways between family and societal expectations and achieving their hearts’ desires. 

In 1907, Venetia Smith arrives to design an elaborate new garden for Highbury House’s wealthy residents. Decades later, the British home front comes alive through the tales of Highbury’s widowed young owner, her restless cook, and a neighboring land girl as the estate is requisitioned during wartime. Lastly, a contemporary designer uncovers mysteries while aiming to replicate Venetia Smith’s original plans.

Subplots involving love, loss, and hope for new beginnings gracefully intertwine, and readers will be enraptured by the garden theme, from the labor and artistic expression involved in their craftsmanship to the therapeutic power of nature’s beauty. Like gardens themselves, these pages invite lingering and thoughtful reflection.

The Last Garden in England is published by Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster on January 12th.  I read it back in August last year and reviewed it for the 10/15/20 issue of Booklist from an Edelweiss e-copy. Isn't the cover beautiful?

Thursday, December 31, 2020

An abundance of upcoming WWII fiction for the first half of 2021

Since I'd posted earlier about historical novels not featuring WWII, I thought it only fair to include a gallery of forthcoming fiction set during this prominent era.  All will be appearing in the first half of 2021. There are more where these came from; I selected a dozen out of personal interest and in an attempt to provide a variety of locales, without considering the cover designs.  As it happens, many offer a similar look: women in period-appropriate garb (and seriously spiffy hairdos) with their back to the reader.  Links go to the book's page on Goodreads.

Above we have a mix of debut novels and new releases from established historical novelists. Kristin Beck's Courage, My Love (Berkley, April) features two young Italian women who join the resistance during the Nazi occupation of Rome. The Historians (Harper Perennial, Jan.), from Swedish novelist  Cecilia Ekb√§ck, is a conspiracy thriller set amidst tensions surrounding Sweden's neutral status in the war. Saint-Malo, a historic coastal town in Brittany, is the locale for Mario Escobar's The Librarian of Saint-Malo (Thomas Nelson, June). It reveals the love story between a librarian and her longtime sweetheart and her determination to protect the library's book collections during the war.

Another debut, The Girl from the Channel Islands by Jenny Lecoat (Graydon House, Jan.), called Hedy's War in the UK, centers on a young Jewish woman, a refugee from Vienna, and the daring choices she makes to survive the Nazi occupation of the island of Jersey. Madeline Martin's first mainstream historical, The Last Bookshop in London (Hanover Square, Apr.), another novel with obvious appeal for bibliophiles, evokes the value of stories in its tale of Grace Bennett, a bookshop employee in wartime London. The Rose Code by Kate Quinn (Berkley, Mar.), her followup to The Huntress, promises to be another twisty historical novel, this time surrounding three women involved in codebreaking activity at Bletchley Park. I visited Bletchley on vacation last year, back when we could still travel, so this novel is high on my TBR.

Canadian author Jennifer Robson writes that her newest book, Our Darkest Night (Morrow, Jan.) is based on true events; it focuses on a young Jewish woman from Venice who takes refuge with a former-seminarian-turned-farmer to escape the Holocaust. Virginia Hall, an American spy who worked with Britain's SOE during WWII, is the subject of Erika Robuck's biographical novel The Invisible Woman (Berkley, Feb.). Bestselling thriller writer Lisa Scottoline's first historical novel is Eternal (Putnam, Mar.), which centers on three friends as Mussolini comes to power in Italy; it promises a story of love, loss, and tested loyalties in the heart of Rome.

The Codebreakers by Alli Sinclair (MIRA Australia, Mar.) is about the women covertly working for the intelligence organization called the Central Bureau in 1943 Brisbane, cracking codes that may shift the course of WWII in the Pacific. Deborah Swift's newest romantic WWII saga, The Lifeline (Sapere, Jan.), takes place in Nazi-occupied Norway and deals with the covert seafaring operation known as the Shetland Bus.  And the setting of S. Kirk Walsh's The Elephant of Belfast (Counterpoint, Apr.) should be obvious; the blurb reveals it's inspired by historical events and features a female zookeeper's bond with an elephant in the Belfast zoo during the Blitz.

This is my last post for this year, and I'll be glad to see 2020 gone. Thanks for reading my site, and I send my wishes for a peaceful 2021 and an upcoming year of great reading to everyone.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Fifty Words for Rain by Asha Lemmie, a dramatic coming-of-age novel set in post-WWII Japan

With her first novel, Asha Lemmie proves herself a talented writer unafraid to take chances. Her heroine’s situation is unique, and her journey to adulthood is one that won’t leave the mind quickly. 

Noriko “Nori” Kamiza is only eight when her beautiful mother brings her to her family home in Kyoto in 1948 and abandons her at the gates, making her promise to obey and keep silent. We soon learn why: Nori is illegitimate, the product of her aristocratic mother’s affair with a Black American GI, and her appearance and very existence are a deep source of shame.

For two years, Nori remains isolated in the mansion’s attic, cared for by her stern grandmother’s maid and educated well, but she’s subject to regular beatings and attempts to bleach her almond-colored skin. Her life changes when her teenage half-brother Akira arrives at the house to live after his father’s death. 

The dynamic that forms between them – the beloved heir and the accursed bastard – is mesmerizing. After being hidden away for so long, Nori is hungry for attention but afraid to misstep. She worships Akira for easing her restrictions and standing up for her, which nobody has done before. For his part, Akira clearly cares for his little sister, but he’s a brilliant violinist with plans of his own; she isn’t his entire world, like he is hers.

This is literary fiction with many quotable lines and a cinematic, fast-moving plot. Nori’s path to maturity is unorthodox and beset by dramatic, often shocking shifts in circumstance. Nori is bright, curious, and – understandably – not in good control of her emotions. Readers may struggle with some of her choices. They also won’t fail to empathize with her as she learns self-acceptance, overcomes prejudice, and emerges as a powerful force of her own.

Fifty Words for Rain was published by Dutton in September (I reviewed it for November's Historical Novels Review). Its publication was moved up after it was chosen for the Good Morning America book club, and it subsequently became a NYT bestseller.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Snow by John Banville, a chilling historical mystery set in 1950s Ireland

Snow: cold, soft, brilliantly blinding. It muffles sound and casts a thick shroud over whatever lies beneath. The symbolism is apropos in Banville’s newest crime novel, the first to be written under his own name rather than the pseudonym (Benjamin Black) he’d established for genre-fiction purposes.

Snow takes place in County Wexford, Ireland, a time when the Catholic Church reigned supreme and buried its adversaries. One frigid day in 1957, Detective Inspector St. John (pronounced “Sinjun”) Strafford arrives at Ballyglass House to investigate a murder. The body of Father Tom Lawless, longtime friend of the Osborne family, lies on the floor of the ornate library, throat cut and private parts removed. A parish priest’s killing is bizarre enough on its own, and almost no one seems upset about it. Strafford shares the privileged Protestant background of the Osbornes but finds, to his annoyance, that this doesn’t gain him any ground in his sleuthing.

The story appears to follow a standard country-house mystery plot, with a closed-in setting and characters fitting familiar types: a refined patriarch, his attractive younger wife, their rebellious adult children. Banville peels away at these tropes as the personalities behind the theatrical parts make themselves known. Strafford is himself an intriguing figure, both in his career – most policemen in the Garda are Catholic – and in his reactions to the women he meets.

That said, he’s surprisingly slow on the uptake in pinpointing motive. An interlude late in the story, seen from Father Tom’s viewpoint, makes things clear for anyone who hasn’t yet figured it out. Banville has a consummate hand with establishing atmosphere, though, in sentences of chillingly ethereal beauty: “Surely such a violent act should leave something behind, a trace, a tremor in the air, like the hum that lingers when a bell stops tolling?”

Snow was published by Hanover Square Press in October; in the UK, Faber and Faber is the publisher. I reviewed it for the Historical Novels Review from a NetGalley copy. This novel seemed apropos for this time of year in the US Midwest. This is my first time reading one of John Banville's (that is, Benjamin Black's) crime novels; if you've read others you'd recommend, please comment.