Thursday, September 16, 2021

The Floating Book by Michelle Lovric, a sensual novel of 1460s Venice

Set mostly in 1460s Venice, the atmosphere of M. R. Lovric’s The Floating Book resembles dark chocolate: alluring, richly decadent, and somewhat bittersweet.

The novel is an older title which I’d bought just after its publication but hadn’t read until now – my bad. The copy on my shelves is the Virago (UK) edition, from 2003 (with the gorgeous painting at left), but it was also published in the US under the author’s full name, Michelle Lovric (below at right). The Goodreads reviews are all over the place: some readers adored it, while others couldn’t finish. I decided to ignore the critics and dive in, and I’m glad I did.

The story follows a collection of intriguing characters as their lives become entangled. Sosia Simeon, a troubled young Jewish woman from Dalmatia, has a series of sexual liaisons with men – she prefers Venetians – while ignoring the older husband she detests, a caring Jewish doctor. Wendelin von Speyer arrives from Germany with his brother, Johann, and they secure a monopoly on the newfangled, controversial trade of mechanical printing. Several men grow obsessed with Sosia, including Wendelin’s editor Bruno Uguccione (she becomes his first lover), while there’s one who doesn’t, to her dismay: the scribe Felice Feliciano.

In Italian, we learn, the word sosia means a lookalike, a theme Lovric skillfully plays with. The woman Sosia becomes the dark reflection of another character: Wendelin’s bright-haired Venetian bride, Lussièta, whose first-person narrative enters the story partway through. Their marriage, blissful at first, grows progressively more strained. Wendelin’s decision to publish the work of the Latin poet Catullus, whose frank eroticism shocked the ancient Romans and Renaissance-era Venetians alike, seems to shadow all the characters like a dark cloud. Letters from Catullus himself, in unrequited love with the scandalous Roman noblewoman Clodia, add interesting parallels, since Clodia and Sosia have much in common.

What hits you first is the language, which reads like poetry:

“In certain light-suffused mists, Venice deconstructs herself. One sees faint smears of silhouettes, and in these the architect's early sketches: the skeletons of the palazzi as he saw them on paper when they were only dreams. When the haze lifts, those buildings swell again with substance, as if freshly built. But until that happens the Venetians nose their way around their city…”

The Floating Book has as many moods as Venice herself: by turns romantic, industrious, seductive, joyous, and sinister. Lovric gives us many funny moments by introducing Wendelin’s thieving cat and a letter from Wendelin to his former mentor at home, in which he despairs of his patrons’ and employees’ involvement with unsuitable women, not realizing they all are Sosia. We also have a multi-page rant by a Venetian priest against the ungodly book, which is both hilarious in its over-the-top pomposity, and frightening in its fanaticism.

I confess I found the last part of the novel the least compelling, since the darkness that befalls nearly everyone doesn’t always make sense, other than it’s a plot direction the author wanted to take. In other ways, though, the mysteriousness of the Venetian setting adds to its fascination. Even with so many facets of the city brilliantly illustrated, some aspects remain filmy and tantalizingly unknowable.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Early Hollywood is a family affair in The Limits of Limelight by Margaret Porter

Margaret Porter’s newest historical novel introduces the early life of Helen Brown Nichols, a teenager from Oklahoma City whose family connections led her to modest success as an actress during the Depression – but who found enduring professional achievement in a different artistic field.

Helen’s Aunt Lela and her first cousin, Virginia “Ginger” Rogers, see potential in the dark-haired beauty, and it doesn’t take much convincing for Helen to accept their invitation to live with them in Hollywood, the idea being that the pair will look out for her while helping open doors to opportunities. Before Helen even arrives in the big city, Ginger persuades her to take the stage name “Phyllis Fraser,” and Porter refers to her as Phyllis from that point forward.

The tale moves with a light, steady pace as it nimbly illustrates Phyllis’s professional successes and disappointments, including her securing a contract with RKO and her hopes to appear on-screen beyond all-too-brief appearances (some of her initial performances end up on the cutting-room floor).

In a competitive atmosphere notorious for overlarge egos and backstabbing, The Limits of Limelight stands out as a story of female friendship and mentorship. Aunt Lela and Ginger steer Phyllis away from casting couches and other pitfalls, and Phyllis’s level-headed nature serves her well, also, even as a minor. Many future screen stars establish a firm presence on the page – Boris Karloff, Katharine Hepburn, Fred Astaire – giving readers a glimpse of their personalities and lives before they became famous.

Phyllis becomes good friends with Peg Entwistle and Mary Blackford, actresses whose lives and careers deserve to be better known. She also grows close to the actress Dawn O’Day/Anne Shirley.  Both of these are stage names, a practice that’s treated as nonchalantly as the rest of Hollywood does. Dawn/Anne takes her name from the part she played in Anne of Green Gables, and even her real-life mother adopts the last name of “Shirley” going forward! Although Phyllis does her best, she feels her true talent lies in writing and pursues opportunities as she’s able.

While it may lack the dramatic twists and turns of juicier Hollywood sagas, this shouldn’t be seen as a defect. The Limits of Limelight is solid, well-researched historical fiction providing a behind-the-scenes look at the screen stars who entertained Depression-era America.

The Limits of Limelight is published tomorrow, Sept. 14th, by Gallica Press; thanks to the author for a PDF copy.  [Find it on Goodreads]

Saturday, September 04, 2021

Gayl Jones's Palmares, an immersive epic of seventeenth-century colonial Brazil

After a 21-year absence, Jones makes a strong return with her mesmerizing epic of late 17th-century Brazil. Her narrator is a Black woman, Almeyda – a name spelled differently than that of a former Portuguese colonial governor (de Almeida), which she tells people who note the similarity.

Educated by a priest on the plantation where she is enslaved as a child, Almeyda soaks up stories and keenly observes everything. Following many significant and traumatic life changes, she flees to Palmares, a legendary community promising liberty for the enslaved, and marries her husband there. After Palmares is demolished, Almeyda travels widely to find him, hoping he survived.

Jones’s storytelling exerts a powerful pull, and readers will achieve complete immersion into a setting whose African and Indigenous cultures are memorably delineated. Through richly woven prose, Almeyda’s journey compels reflection on how freedom must always be defended and how women bear extra societal burdens.

The mystical sequences give the plot additional depth and texture. While overly long in parts, Jones’s novel is a superb reclamation of the historical narrative.

Gayl Jones' Palmares will be published by Beacon Press on Sept. 14th; I'd reviewed it from an Edelweiss copy for Booklist's September 1 issue. 

Some additional notes:

It's hard to encompass an epic novel of 500 pages in a review of 175 words. There are dozens of characters, with new people introduced in nearly every chapter, which has the potential for confusion. Each is so distinct, however, that they're not difficult to remember, and some make later appearances, too.

Palmares (or the Quilombo dos Palmares, "quilombo" meaning a community of former enslaved people) was a real settlement in eastern Brazil that thrived for most of the 17th century; read more at Black Past. My e-copy of the novel didn't have a map, but I made use of ones I found online as I was reading.

I especially appreciated how Palmares upends the traditional narrative about colonial history by centering the viewpoint of a multilingual Black woman along a personal journey, and by showcasing the cultures, religions, and languages (Portuguese, Tupi-Guarani, English, and more) mingling at this place and time. Almeyda's mother describes their family as "Sudanese with a touch of Moorish blood." Her grandmother also plays a memorable role.

Read more about Gayl Jones' life and literary accomplishments at Publishers Weekly and in The Atlantic ("The best American novelist whose name you may not know"), as profiled by Calvin Baker. Her first editor was Toni Morrison, who championed her work after reading her first manuscript in 1975. Jones wrote, revised, and polished Palmares over the course of more than 40 years, and readers will soon get the opportunity to experience it for themselves. She is reportedly a private person who doesn't do interviews, but you can expect to be hearing more about the book in literary circles after it's published in two weeks.

Monday, August 30, 2021

The Perfume Thief by Timothy Schaffert takes an original look at Nazi-occupied Paris

Incorporating the tense setting of Nazi-occupied Paris, Schaffert concocts a memorable work that oozes atmosphere and originality.

Her criminal past behind her, the stylishly dapper Clementine, a queer American in her early seventies, runs a thriving perfume shop supplying fragrances for the women of the cabarets. Then Zoé St. Angel, the headlining chanteuse at Madame Boulette’s, pleads for Clem’s help in retrieving a diary with the secret formulas used by a missing perfumer, Monsieur Pascal.

Clem accepts this dangerous challenge, which involves keeping company with the Nazi living in Pascal’s house, Oskar Voss, who adores French culture. “Perfume isn’t only about chemistry. It’s also about psychology,” she says, and the novel is redolent with exquisite scents, the meanings they convey, and the memories they evoke.

The plot sometimes gets buried underneath all the descriptions, but it boasts beguiling characters who gain depth with each unveiled layer. Schaffert creates a lasting impression through his tribute to these unique artists – the “alchemists of the city’s very soul” – and their courageous and creatively daring methods of resistance.

The Perfume Thief is published by Doubleday this month. I wrote this review for the July issue of Booklist, based on a NetGalley copy.  Even if you're feeling weary of WWII settings, this title is different and well worth reading.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

My Policeman by Bethan Roberts depicts a complex love triangle in 1950s Brighton

Roberts’ dramatic novel, first published in the UK in 2012 and now adapted for a forthcoming film starring Harry Styles, Emma Corrin, and David Dawson, poignantly depicts a love triangle that tears apart three lives.

In 1950s Brighton, England, schoolteacher Marion Taylor has had a longtime crush on her friend’s older brother, the blond, athletic Tom Burgess. They grow close as he gives her swimming lessons, but Marion ignores signs that something is amiss.

To achieve respectability and hide his romantic relationship with museum curator Patrick Hazelwood, Tom, a police constable, marries Marion. Jealousy soon rears its head.

Roberts tells the story through Patrick’s journal and Marion’s confessions, which she pens in 1999 while caring for Patrick following his stroke. Their accounts make for riveting but occasionally uncomfortable reading. Marion doesn’t seem particularly kind, while Patrick endangers himself by writing about his feelings and actions, since being gay was illegal at the time.

Both call Tom “my policeman,” and one senses love and defiant possessiveness in the word my. Scenes of seaside Brighton and the era’s repressive attitudes are skillfully rendered.

My Policeman is published by Penguin this month in the US; I reviewed it for Booklist in July. According to IMDB, the film version is currently in post-production. Read more about the film at Vogue UK.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Painting the Light by Sally Cabot Gunning examines women's freedoms on Martha's Vineyard in 1898

Gunning’s sixth historical novel, set on Martha’s Vineyard in 1898, is a luminous portrait of a woman regaining her independence.

Ida Pease wasn’t always a farm wife; she had grown up on Boston’s Beacon Hill and trained as a watercolor artist. After the tragic deaths of everyone in her family, Ida had been charmed by a sheep farmer from Vineyard Haven, Ezra Pease, and chose to marry him – thus giving him access to her money.

Two years later, left in charge of the lambing and harvest while Ezra occupies himself elsewhere, she regrets her hasty decision. When the Portland is wrecked in a storm while sailing to Maine, and Ida learns Ezra and his business partner, Mose Barstow, were aboard, she is stunned but can’t muster up grief for her unpleasant late husband.

Ezra’s death, however, opens a Pandora’s box of secrets, the gradual revelation of which drives the plot along. Ida abruptly finds herself without means and dependent on others for support and answers – among them Ezra’s flinty Aunt Ruth and Henry Barstow, Mose’s brother and executor, to whom Ida has always felt an inexplicable connection.

The pacing is unhurried, but this isn’t a weakness: depictions of the island’s pastoral beauty and the hard work of rural life encourage lingering. The characters have significant depth and multiple rough edges, Ida included.

Eager to return to Boston and resume painting, Ida is forced instead to fight for every inch of emotional ground and every dollar owed to her. She also takes up bicycling – these scenes feel wonderfully freeing – though many island residents find her actions unladylike. The background details on the women’s suffrage movement are a natural fit for this intricate tale of a woman learning to observe the true colors of the world around her.

Painting the Light is out now from William Morrow; I reviewed it from an Edelweiss e-copy for the August issue of Historical Novels Review.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Julie Klassen's A Castaway in Cornwall takes a romantic escape to Poldark country

A castaway, the dictionary tells us, is “a person who has been shipwrecked and stranded in an isolated place.”

Both the heroine and hero of Julie Klassen’s historical novel are castaways, literally or figuratively. With its picturesque backdrop of North Cornwall’s rocky shores during the Napoleonic Wars, it’s tailor-made to draw in Poldark fans, though the love story is more of a gentle, slow burn than one of smoldering passion.

In 1813, Laura Callaway, a young woman of 23, is a lost soul of sorts. Orphaned as a teenager, she had moved to Cornwall eight years earlier to live with her late aunt’s husband, Matthew Bray. Unfortunately, Matthew’s new wife has never truly accepted Laura as part of the family. As a pastime, Laura wanders along the shoreline, collects objects washed up on the sand after shipwrecks, and tries to identify their rightful owners. After the Kittiwake runs aground off the coast one evening, she guards the life of the survivor of the wreck. He calls himself Alexander Lucas and claims to be from Jersey – but he speaks English with a slight accent, and signs point to something hidden in his background. With Britain at war with France, what could his secret possibly be? And Alex may not, in fact, be the only passenger who survived…

Both Alex and Laura are wholeheartedly good people, and their falling in love, despite the obstacles thrown in their path, is a foregone conclusion. Laura’s principal flaw is that she lets her pride get in the way of getting to know her neighbors. Her discoveries over the course of the book eventually set her to rights and give her a sense of belonging.

A Castaway in Cornwall is a story where the setting is a character in its own right, and it’s the most intriguing and multifaceted one of all. The author establishes a sense of community through her large cast while blending Cornish history and customs credibly into the plot. We learn, for example, about St. Enodoc in Trebetherick, a quaint old church partly buried underneath the dunes, and how its minister (Laura's Uncle Matthew) is lowered via rope through a hatch in the roof in order to conduct services there once a year. There are more authentic Cornish names than you can shake a stick at, and the shipboard action scenes are first-rate; I wouldn’t have minded more of them.

Though marketed as Christian fiction, the biblical content is very light overall. It’s an enjoyable story, though there is one scene toward the end that adheres to genre conventions but made me uneasy, given everything that happened beforehand.

A Castaway in Cornwall was published by Bethany House in December 2020; I read it from a NetGalley copy.