Wednesday, August 04, 2021

The Bohemians by Jasmin Darznik, a shimmering portrait of Dorothea Lange's early years in San Francisco

In her second novel, Darznik presents a shimmering portrait of little-known histories: that of an iconic American photographer, a culture, and a city, all at a time of pivotal transformation.

In May 1918, 22-year-old Dorothea “Dorrie” Lange arrives in San Francisco, full of ambition and dreams. Almost immediately, she’s robbed of her savings and forced to hock her beloved Graflex camera to survive. Through her tight friendship with the effervescent Caroline Lee, a Chinese American woman who speaks unaccented English and wears her own beautifully tailored clothing, Dorrie gets introduced to Monkey Block, a four-story structure that withstood the 1906 fire and earthquake and hosts an enclave of bohemians: talented and freewheeling artists, writers, and performers.

Following months of hard work, Dorrie opens her own portrait studio, with Caroline as her assistant, and weighs pursuing a relationship with Western painter Maynard Dixon. The story compellingly narrates her journey as she learns to observe places and people with a candid eye and present them as they wish to be seen.

“What had struck me most about San Francisco so far wasn’t the newness of the place—that I’d expected—but the absence of the past,” Dorrie relates. In many ways, San Francisco seems to be a city where difference is celebrated, but it treats its Chinese residents abominably and doesn’t acknowledge the incongruity; Caroline has developed a tough exterior to protect against internal pain.

As a character, Caroline has a basis in history (Lange did work alongside a Chinese woman), and her personality as imagined by Darznik is deeply multifaceted and unforgettable. Donaldina Cameron and Consuelo Kanaga are among other real-life secondary figures whose courageous lives are worth heralding.

With its themes of female self-invention and empowerment, xenophobia, and people’s enforced separation during the Spanish flu pandemic, readers will find this novel uncannily relevant for today’s world.

The Bohemians was published by Ballantine this year, and I'd reviewed it initially for August's Historical Novels Review.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Revelations by Mary Sharratt illuminates the remarkable life of medieval English mystic Margery Kempe

“My story is not a straightforward one. Women’s stories never are.”

Margery Kempe, born in the small town of Bishop’s Lynn in Norfolk circa 1373, was a woman who confounded and transformed her medieval world. Married to a much older man, she left her family life behind after bearing fourteen children, taking a vow of celibacy and choosing to pursue a spiritual path.

Following her first pregnancy, she had suffered a mental breakdown and was brought out of it after seeing a radiant vision of Christ which instilled her with a feeling of divine love. Later, as a middle-aged woman, after receiving support and understanding from the anchoress Julian of Norwich, Kempe took a pilgrimage route to the Holy Land and later to Santiago de Compostela. Toward the end of her life, she composed a book thought to be the first English-language autobiography.

Mary Sharratt’s Revelations brings us acutely into the interior life and outward experiences of Margery Kempe, who narrates her story in the first person. It’s a wonderful evocation of an extraordinary figure and the medieval mindset in general. The author is an eloquent chronicler of historical women’s thorny paths to self-fulfillment, and Margery faces significant obstacles on her journey, as a sole female disrupting the gender status quo, and traveling through a world designed for men.

“A questing soul with a hungry mind,” Margery challenges sumptuary laws by dressing in white, as her visions direct her to, and narrowly avoids convictions of heresy at a time when Lollards – followers of John Wycliffe, who translated the Bible into English – are burned at the stake. On her wanderings throughout Europe, Margery sees many strange and wondrous sights (the landscapes are beautifully described), comes into the company of other travelers, and must quickly decide how much she can trust them. Trouble accompanies her everywhere. She remains a sympathetic figure, and at the same time, it’s clear how some of her actions and beliefs are incomprehensible to those around her.

Revelations is an illuminating read for anyone interested in stepping back into a long-ago time and envisioning its main character’s life and accomplishments. Though both are separate stories, it makes for a nice pairing with the author’s earlier novel Illuminations, about Hildegard of Bingen. 

Revelations
was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt earlier this year (I read it from a NetGalley copy).

Sunday, July 25, 2021

The Women's March by Jennifer Chiaverini relates three women's roles in the 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession

On March 3, 1913, a day before President Wilson’s inauguration, suffragists marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC, to advocate for a constitutional amendment. Chiaverini’s impassioned account pulls readers into the organization, staging, and aftermath of this large, historic event, making the details feel freshly alive.

The perspective alternates among three historical figures. Procession co-organizer Alice Paul grows impatient with the national suffrage organization’s focus on state-by-state legislation and pushes for a federal solution. Activist Ida Wells-Barnett, whose background is abundantly illustrated, works to ensure Black women’s rightful place at the voting booth and in the parade. So-called “militant suffragist librarian” Maud Malone challenges politicians to take a stance.

As their plans come together, the story adeptly evokes the obstacles they all face, including Wilson’s opposition, inadequate police protection, and internal divisions about appeasing bigoted Southern white women.

Although some expressions feel overly modern, this politically aware novel about a historic quest for democratic justice compels readers to contemplate everything that has and hasn’t changed over time with voting rights and gender and racial equality.

The Women's March will be published this coming Tuesday by William Morrow; I wrote this review for Booklist's historical fiction issue (5/15/2021). Needless to say, this is a very timely novel.  All three women are historical figures, though only Wells-Barnett's name had been known to me previously.


Friday, July 23, 2021

What Happens Next Is Anyone’s Guess, an essay by Jonathan Harries, author of The Carpet Salesman from Baghdad

Today I'm welcoming author Jonathan Harries with an entertaining post about his writing process for what sounds like an equally entertaining historical adventure series.

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What Happens Next Is Anyone’s Guess
Jonathan Harries

“Come, come,” my wife’s brother said to me. “Surely you plot out your novels. What sort of idiot embarks on a novel without any idea where it will end up?” Well, that’s the gist of what he said. He didn’t use words like “come, come,” but he definitely used “idiot” or it could have been “moron,” I forget. Or perhaps I wasn’t listening.

The Carpet Salesman from Baghdad
is my sixth novel, and I’m in the process of putting the finishing touches to my seventh, The Bodyguard of Sarawak. In none have I developed a plotline on the appropriate app nor pinned an outline to a cork board. I have no notebook with character sketches and elaborate ideas for how they’d develop as the novel plods its way to the finish. I’m sure someone who may have picked one up in the past will be making some sort of disparaging sound and thinking, “Well, there you go. That explains a lot.”

My first novel, Killing Harry Bones, began as a biography of a childhood friend who lived the most colorful—and irresponsible—life imaginable. My initial flirtation with his story happened to coincide with a particularly nasty incident at work involving a despicable swine whose actions I felt were in dire need of redress. I am not by nature a vindictive person, but in his case, I felt a dollop of vengeance was justified. So, I combined the two stories, threw in animal traffickers, poachers, big-game hunters, and ex-Nazis for good measure and began to write with absolutely no idea where the story would end, other than that the bad guys would get their comeuppance. Two other books in the series followed a similar theme.

Now, I imagine the mere mention of the word “theme” means there is some plotting involved. In that respect I suppose there is. All my books have unimaginably awful people getting their just deserts. In the Roger Storm books – Killing Harry Bones, Killing Bobby Fatt, and Killing Valerian Zolotov, trophy hunters and animal traffickers are creatively dispatched by a group of vigilantes hell-bent on saving the planet’s dwindling wildlife. In the Tales of the Sica series—The Tailor of Riga, The Carpet Salesman from Baghdad, and the soon-to-be-completed Bodyguard of Sarawak—a family of assassins who can trace their origin back nearly two thousand years (and just happen to be my own family) take out some of the biggest rotters in history—including Jack the Ripper. The weapon of choice? A millennia-old dagger called a sica, once used in the Jewish uprising against the Romans in around 70 AD.

The Carpet Salesman from Baghdad, which launches on July 27, features a distant relative, Elias Smulian-Hasson, who is summoned from Baghdad to Bombay by David Sassoon, the “Rothschild of the East,” on behalf of the Maharaja of Kutch. The year is 1858, soon after the end of the Sepoy Uprising against the British occupiers of India, and the man Elias is tasked with whacking is an English officer whose cruelty towards the Indian survivors of the rebellion are too much even for his own men. What seems like a standard hit at first turns out to be a lot more complicated, and after surviving an ambush in some caves outside of Bombay, Elias pursues his quarry to the southern Kingdom of Travancore. Here, beneath a magnificent temple in amongst troves of gold and jewels and nests of giant cobras, a fierce battle takes place. Will justice be served up like a fiery chicken vindaloo? Aha, you’ll just have to find out.

I don’t believe I knew who would be in the book initially (other than Elias) or who he’d meet or where he’d meet them until shortly before he did. I really like it when my characters make their own decisions as to where they’re going, and I become no more than a chauffeur dropping them off at their destination and picking them up when they’re ready to leave. It’s more fun for me—which is why I write—and I hope more entertaining for my readers.

If you’re one of them, then I appreciate you very much. You may also like to know that every cent I make on all my books go to different animal and wildlife charities.

Bio

Jonathan Harries began his career as a trainee copywriter at Foote, Cone & Belding in South Africa and ended it as Chairman of FCB Worldwide with a few stops in between.

After winning his first Cannes Lion award, he was offered a job at Grey Advertising in South Africa, where he worked as a copywriter and ended up as CEO at age 29, just before emigrating to the US. Like most immigrants in those days, he started once again from scratch. After a five year stint as Executive Creative Director of Hal Riney in Chicago, he was offered a senior position at FCB. Within ten years, he became the Global Chief Creative Officer and spent the next ten traveling to over 90 countries, racking up 8 million miles on American Airlines alone.

He began writing his first novel, Killing Harry Bones, in the last year of his career and transitioned into becoming a full-time author three years ago, just after retiring from FCB. He’s been writing ever since while doing occasional consulting work for old clients.

Jonathan has a great love of animals, and he and his wife try to go on safari every year. They’ve been lucky enough to visit game reserves in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Tanzania, India, and Sri Lanka.

Blurb

What if my highly dubious story of a two-thousand-year-old family of assassins turned out to be true?

Can you blame a chap for wanting to turn his otherwise humdrum family into a bunch of assassins?

It turns out you can.

I found this out soon after my novel The Tailor of Riga was published, and I received a bunch of beastly emails and threats from incensed family members horrified that I’d portrayed them as the descendants of bloodthirsty hitmen.

Then, out of the blue, a package arrived from a long-lost cousin in Argentina that changed everything.

It was the diary of an unknown ancestor, Elias Smulian-Hasson, summoned from Baghdad to Bombay by the enormously wealthy David Sassoon to take on an assignment for the Maharajah of Kutch.

His mission was to find and kill a British officer responsible for some of the most brutal acts of retribution against Indian survivors of the Great Sepoy Uprising and retrieve a fortune in stolen gemstones. Elias pursues his quarry from Bombay to the Kingdom of Travancore, where the contemptible swine is planning to rob the vaults of the richest temple in the world.

Priceless treasures, mysterious maharajahs, unspeakably evil villains, and the beautiful Mozelle Jacob, a woman Elias will pursue to the ends of the earth, all blend together like a spicy chicken vindaloo in the next saga of the sica.

The Tailor of Riga (see the review at Kirkus), the first book in the Tales of the Sica, is free on Kindle between July 23-27, for anyone interested in getting started with the series.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

The Lengthening Shadow by Liz Harris, a saga set in England and Germany between the world wars

The title of this fast-paced and memorable saga, spanning from 1914 through 1934 in England and Germany, reflects the historical atmosphere: the darkness spreading across the land as the Nazis rise in power and influence, and its chilling effect on the people living beneath it.

Each volume in the Linford series focuses on different characters. In this third entry, the protagonists are Dorothy Linford, eldest daughter of Joseph, chairman of a prominent London-based building company; and her troubled younger cousin, Louisa. Although some material overlaps with the previous two books, they can all be read independently, and readers familiar with the saga will appreciate how Harris has avoided spoilers for The Dark Horizon (book one) and The Flame Within (book two) – this is very skillfully done!

Serving as a nurse with the Voluntary Aid Detachment during WWI, Dorothy meets and falls in love with one of her hospital patients, Franz Hartmann, a German internee. Disowned by her parents after their marriage, Dorothy moves with Franz to Germany, where they raise two children. Although she misses England dreadfully, she loves the friendliness and religious amity in their small town, Rundheim.

Through the experiences of the Hartmanns and their neighbors, the novel shows the subtle and, later, overt pressures that ordinary German citizens felt to support Hitler, even against their better judgment. One scene set in 1933, where the view from a mountain hike sweeps from the beauteous natural backdrop to the swastika flags flying from windows below, evokes an unsettling contrast.

As her worry and fear grow, Dorothy has painful decisions to make. Back in England, Louisa, a surly teenager, must reassess her priorities after a major wrongdoing. The characters realistically grow and change, and readers will turn the pages eagerly, hoping for optimistic endings for them all.

The Lengthening Shadow was published by Heywood Press in 2021; I reviewed it for May's Historical Novels Review. This is the third and last book in the Linford series.  The author's next historical novel, The Darjeeling Inheritance, out in October, is set in India in 1930.  I look forward to reading it.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Those I Have Lost by Sharon Maas, a wartime saga set in India and Ceylon

Sharon Maas is a novelist whose works I’ve been meaning to read for some time, since her books promised to bring me to places beyond the familiar sites we see so often in historical fiction.

Set in India and Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka) before and during the WWII years, Those I Have Lost takes an angle on the war that will be new for many readers. Events are seen through the eyes of Rosalind (Rosie) Todd, who narrates a heartfelt story of coming of age, love, and loss.

A girl of English heritage raised in a household free of cultural prejudice in pre-Partition India, Rosie loses her beloved mother at age 10, and her passing leaves her and her father, an academic scholar, in deep grief. When her late mother’s good friend, Silvia Huxley, pays a visit and asks to take Rosie to live with her family in Ceylon, sharing proof that it’s what her mother would have wanted, her father reluctantly agrees that a girl of Rosie’s age needs a woman’s guiding touch, and lets her go.

The Huxleys, who live in a “bungalow” (really a mansion) at a tea plantation in the green hills near the city of Kandy, are the parents of three boys, the younger two of whom, Andrew and Victor, were Rosie’s playmates on her earlier visits there. Graham, considerably older than his brothers, was a more distant figure and now works as a surgeon. As the war approaches, all three brothers sign on, to their mother’s anguish. Furthermore, Andrew has fallen in forbidden love with Usha, Rosie’s friend and the Huxleys’ housekeeper's daughter, whose marriage had been arranged with another man. And Rosie’s father vanishes after an enigmatic note, leading her to think he’s away in the mountains following an Indian guru. In other words, her personal life and the world around her are in turmoil.

Those I Have Lost is a briskly paced saga enhanced by its colorful, lush setting of mango trees and sweetly scented frangipani and its richly developed secondary characters and social contexts. The viewpoint of Usha’s mother, Sunita, is never seen firsthand, but we sense her thoughts based on her reactions to events, and her admonition to Usha to “remember her place.” The Catholic priest called “Father Bear,” an old friend of Rosie’s family, is refreshingly different from stereotype; he’s a self-described “Christian freethinker” who tells amusing dad-jokes.

I found the story most gripping during the war years, as Rosie and the Huxleys wait on tenterhooks to hear news of the three sons. A couple of the plot twists (there are many) were too much for my taste, but I did enjoy this story and the interactions among its multicultural cast.

Those I Have Lost was published by Bookouture this month; I read it from a NetGalley copy, and this review forms part of the publisher's blog tour.


Author Bio:

Sharon Maas was born into a prominent political family in Georgetown, Guyana, in 1951. She was educated in England, Guyana, and, later, Germany. After leaving school, she worked as a trainee reporter with the Guyana Graphic in Georgetown and later wrote feature articles for the Sunday Chronicle as a staff journalist.

Her first novel, Of Marriageable Age, is set in Guyana and India and was published by HarperCollins in 1999. In 2014 she moved to Bookouture, and now has ten novels under her belt. Her books span continents, cultures, and eras. From the sugar plantations of colonial British Guiana in South America, to the French battlefields of World War Two, to the present-day brothels of Mumbai and the rice-fields and villages of South India, Sharon never runs out of stories for the armchair traveller.

Please visit the author at: https://www.sharonmaas.com/ and at https://twitter.com/sharon_maas.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Her Heart for a Compass, a Victorian coming-of-age novel by Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, and Marguerite Kaye

Ferguson, the well-known former British royal, in collaboration with romance author Marguerite Kaye, has crafted a debut historical novel of thought-provoking escapism. She bases her protagonist, Lady Margaret Montagu Douglas Scott, on a distant great-aunt and, incorporating autobiographical elements, weaves a fictional coming-of-age adventure for her.

In 1865, flame-haired Margaret, the Duke of Buccleuch’s second daughter, ignites a scandal after fleeing her betrothal party. Torn between duty and personal desires, she shares confidences with other women weighing these issues, including best friend Princess Louise, and is forced to make difficult choices that leave her seeking self-reflection. She also learns to use her privilege for good.

In contrast with the Victorian nobility’s mannered world, Margaret moves through life with disarming candor. The pages turn swiftly, and as Margaret travels from London to Scotland, Ireland, and New York City, readers will bask in the lush details on fashion and architecture. The writings interspersed throughout the narrative – gossipy society columns, letters, and more – heighten this captivating novel's theme of a woman gaining confidence and learning to direct her own story.

Her Heart for a Compass will be published by William Morrow (US) and Mills and Boon (UK) in August. I reviewed it for Booklist's May 15th issue from an Edelweiss copy.  There aren't many reviews out there so far, but I'm sure we'll be seeing more as the pub date gets closer. 

At the end of the novel, Sarah Ferguson writes her own author's note, explaining how she's been wanting to write Lady Margaret's story for fifteen years, and that her heroine was the daughter of her 3x great-grandparents. Both authors also contribute a historical note, detailing which parts of the book are historical and which are invented.

Read more about the book and the authors' collaboration at Town and Country and The Bookseller, where the publication was originally announced.