Monday, August 31, 2015

The ambassador's controversial concubine: Alexandra Curry's The Courtesan

Curry’s debut is the first English-language novel about the controversial courtesan Sai Jinhua, whose unusual life path reached a crisis during the 1900 Boxer Rebellion.

At seven, after her mandarin father’s execution, she is sold to a cruel brothel-mistress, who trains her as a “money tree” (prostitute). “You do not own yourself,” the maid Suyin warns her, and their sisterly bond helps them survive.

Surprisingly, an official makes Jinhua his concubine, bringing her to Vienna just as Europeans, hated for their corrupt influence, are dismantling the Chinese empire. Buoyant with curiosity about Austro-Hungarian culture, Jinhua discovers her Western sympathies have a price.

The smooth-as-silk prose, flavored with details of Chinese customs and Jinhua’s favorite mythological stories, heightens the sense that we’re hearing a legend retold. At the same time, her pain and heartbreak anchor the telling in reality.

Multiple viewpoints add dimension and depth. The later sections feel rushed, and the novel doesn’t fully address the reasons for her celebrity, but this creative and haunting interpretation spurs interest in the real Sai Jinhua.

The Courtesan will be published by Dutton next week in hardcover ($26.95, 400pp).  This review first appeared in Booklist's August issue. Despite her fame, I hadn't heard of Sai Jinhua before beginning this novel, and it encouraged me to learn more - although (as noted in the book) it's hard to get a true picture of her life because it's difficult to separate history from the legend.  This version is one author's interpretation.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Book review: Orphan #8 by Kim van Alkemade

With her first book, Kim van Alkemade has struck a perfect balance that many historical novelists struggle to attain. The rapid, page-turning pacing is never impeded by the wealth of intriguing detail she includes on a little-known segment of history: the plight of children in Jewish orphanages in early 20th-century New York.

“From her bed of bundled newspapers under the kitchen table, Rachel Rabinowitz watched her mother’s bare feet shuffle to the sink.” The first sentence does its job well, setting the scene while posing questions about Rachel's situation. A four-year-old living with her older brother, Sam, and their parents and boarders in a shabby tenement on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1919, Rachel is an active, inquisitive child.

By the end of the day, their circumstances tragically altered, the siblings are put in the care of social workers. At the Hebrew Infant Home, separated from Sam, Rachel experiences horrifying treatment in the name of medical research. She and other orphans become the ideal subjects in an experimental X-ray lab under the supervision of Dr. Mildred Solomon, a woman seeking to make her mark in a male-dominated field. The scenes at the home are emotionally powerful and disturbing, whether seen from the viewpoint of an innocent child or the matter-of-fact, detached perspective of the doctors.

Years later, in 1954, the two meet up again, but this time Rachel is Dr. Solomon's nurse at the Old Hebrews Home where Dr. Solomon is dying of cancer. As Rachel’s faint childhood memories drive her to uncover her real role in the doctor’s research, she runs up against an ethical dilemma. While she’s doped up on morphine, Dr. Solomon can’t give Rachel the answers or the apology she seeks.

As Rachel contemplates her options, grasping the power she holds over another’s fate, the novel teeters on the edge of melodrama. The two timelines are well structured and contribute to the full picture of Rachel’s growth and development, and how her unusual upbringing in an orphanage, alongside a thousand other children, ultimately led to her career choice. Also, as a lesbian in the repressive 1950s, Rachel must keep her love life secret, and the novel depicts the different faces that Rachel presents to the world.

Both the experiments and young Rachel’s experiences are based on real-life history; the author’s grandfather (Victor, a friend of Sam's in the novel) grew up in a Hebrew orphanage, with his mother working as the Reception House counselor there. In addition to picking up a new angle on American history, readers will leave this compelling novel pondering choices and alternatives, responsibilities and their consequences. Orphan #8 is Target’s August book club pick, and with its courageous take on important ethical issues, it’s an excellent choice for book discussions.

Kim van Alkemade's Orphan #8 was published this summer by Morrow ($14.99/C$18.50, pb, 381pp). Thanks to the publisher for sending me an ARC.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Historical fiction paperback makeovers

Some historical novels first released in hardcover undergo cover redesigns for their paperback printings. This can be done for a variety of reasons. Maybe the hardcover design wasn't as successful as intended, the publisher wants to take the book in a new direction, or there's a feeling that a design reboot would bring in new readers, like book club audiences.  Trade paperbacks are a popular format for reading groups.

As you probably know, cover art is a favorite topic of mine, and I always find these design changes interesting for the new perspectives they provide.  Here are a dozen pairings below: original hardcover design on the left, new paperback on the right. I've listed just a snippet about the setting as background for readers not familiar with the books.  Which ones draw you in the most?

A dual period mystery centering on the ancient Amazons.

Gender-bending Civil War novel.

Magical Regency-era adventure.

A female illusionist in Gilded Age America.

A family in Depression-era and WWII Appalachia.

Story of a Rembrandt painting, set during the Dutch Golden Age.

Literary family saga, set in Revolutionary-era North Carolina.

The tragedy of the Great War, as seen through four men's eyes.  UK edition.

A teenage girl in an 1840s Shaker community.

A US army nurse in WWII Italy.

Novel-in-stories centering on an English country house.

Multi-period romantic mystery set in 2009 and in pre-Raphaelite England.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Sunrise by Victoria Hislop, a splashy beach read turned war story

In the summer of 1972, the city of Famagusta on Cyprus is a sun-lit paradise for wealthy vacationers. Victoria Hislop’s The Sunrise opens with the feel of a splashy beach read.

The title comes from that of a 15-storey coastal hotel being constructed by Savvas Papacosta and his wife, Aphroditi, a classic power couple blessed with wealth, attractiveness, and perfect taste as they cater to their guests’ every whim. The “holidaymakers,” cocooned in their carefree life of R&R, remain ignorant of the tensions between Turkish and Greek Cypriots.

There’s a lot of exposition piled on, and the storyline in the beginning offers all the glamour and depth of a dishy soap opera. If you don’t mind broad-brush characters, though, it’s worth sticking around to see what happens. The setting and history are both fascinating, and a timeline and note serve to alert readers of what’s to come.

In 1974, following a coup d’état in favor of annexation by Greece, and Turkey’s subsequent invasion of Cyprus, Famagusta was abandoned. Today its former tourist quarter, called Varosha, is a decaying ghost town. Seen from the viewpoint of three families – the Papacostas, Georgious, and Özkans – The Sunrise takes readers step-by-step on a dramatic journey from Dynasty-style decadence to devastation.

It turns out the Papacostas’ marriage isn’t as solid as would seem, especially when Savvas’ suave right-hand man, Markos Georgiou, gets closer to Aphroditi. While lonely Aphroditi is a sympathetic figure, the novel’s most compelling aspect deals not with the ultra-rich but with the lives of ordinary citizens of Famagusta. In spite of their ethnic differences, Irini Georgiou, Markos’ mother, and hotel hairdresser Emine Özkan are firm friends, the matriarchs of their respective clans. Both fear they’ve lost sons to violence.

After the rest of the city’s residents flee in droves, only the Georgious and Özkans remain in Famagusta, in hiding from marauding soldiers. Together, they take up residence at the Sunrise, with its luxurious rooms and seemingly limitless food stores. It's a bit idealized; issues about electricity and sanitation aren't really addressed.

Their interactions, hesitant at first, become warmer as they bond over traditional meals and the shared tribulations of family life. On the outside, however, the situation is dire. The suspense never lets up, as danger is ever-present.

Despite the shaky start, The Sunrise is a fast-paced, haunting novel about ambition, betrayal, love for family and place, and the commonalities shared among people on both sides of an ethnic divide. There are many poignant moments of togetherness and others of somber reflection, all evoked with sensitivity. As one character observes toward the end, looking out on her once-beautiful home: “This was not the city she knew. It was a place she did not recognize. Its soul had gone.”

 The crumbling hotels of Famagusta, untouched and behind barbed wire since 1974.
"Famagusta2009 2" by Julienbzh35 - Own work.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

The Sunrise was published in July by Harper Paperbacks ($15.99, 339pp).  It was previously published by Headline in a different form (so says the title page) in the UK in 2014.  Read more about "The Ghost Town of Cyprus" in the Famagusta Gazette; the experiences reported in the article echo those depicted in the novel. See also a February article from Newsweek discussing the history of Famagusta and recent talks on possible reunification.

For another novel about the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, see my review of Christy Lefteri's A Watermelon, a Fish, and a Bible.

Monday, August 17, 2015

P. J. Brackston's Once Upon a Crime, a fairy-tale spoof with personality

A fairy tale sequel and crime novel with a light, humorous twist, P. J. Brackston’s Once Upon a Crime is hard to pigeonhole. For her premise, she takes the character of Gretel, first made famous by her childhood appearance with brother Hansel in the witchy Brothers Grimm story, ages her a few decades, and installs her as a private detective in 18th-century Bavaria.

I’ve always gone for novels taking place in historical Germany, but must say up front that the setting here is quasi-historical at best. There are many willful anachronisms – waxing appointments, for example, and vodka martinis – plus a host of imaginary creatures, but the wacky combination of elements is part of its charm. When I heard the name of the place where Gretel hangs her shingle, the sleepy backwater of “Gesternstadt,” I was intrigued enough to read it.

Gretel’s a hefty gal who loves her Weisswurst and a good beer or two, and her perpetually inebriated brother Hans, who has never truly recovered from their childhood trauma, contributes to the household by cooking delicious meals. When Gretel agrees to help Frau Hapsburg locate her three kidnapped cats, she gets drawn into a web of danger involving a treacherous princess, a troll (the lives-under-a-bridge type) who has the hots for voluptuous women, and several unexplained murders. She also discovers that the fiery destruction of a local carriage-maker’s workshop is related to her case.

The storyline took a while to grab me.  While I like a well-done spoof, I prefer historical fantasy novels with more actual history than this one offered. However, Gretel’s smart and sarcastic attitude soon won me over. A fashionista who appreciates the finer things in life, Gretel also detests the innate twee-ness of the world she’s forced to live in. I confess to being so distracted by all the amusing whimsy that I neglected to pay attention to the clues in what turned out to be a pretty decent mystery.

Historical purists may want to steer clear, but for those looking for an entertaining diversion from more serious fare, this could be just the ticket.

Once Upon a Crime was published by Pegasus in hardcover in July ($24.95/C$27.95, 245pp). The author also writes historical fiction with a mystical spin as Paula Brackston.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Mystery, medicine, society, and scandal in 1850s Toronto: Janet Kellough's The Burying Ground

In 1851, there are odd goings-on at the Strangers’ Burying Ground outside Yorkville, a growing community north of Toronto. Graves are being disturbed, which infuriates sexton Morgan Spicer, but because the bodies are left intact, “resurrectionists” can’t be blamed. When Spicer runs into Luke Lewis, the new assistant physician to the elderly Dr. Christie, he realizes who can help him: Luke’s father, Thaddeus, an old acquaintance of Spicer’s who is known to love puzzles. On his return trips to Yorkville after preaching along the Yonge Street circuit, Thaddeus tries to catch the culprit.

The principal viewpoint in this 4th in the series, though, is Luke’s. He’s a charming character with aspects of his past he’d prefer to keep secret, even from his father, but a chance encounter with two young women draws him into situations that become steadily more worrisome. Luke is a straight-laced fellow, which creates some amusing episodes. True to his shy nature and Methodist upbringing, he’s alarmed at the thought of attending a soiree downtown (“If there was to be dancing, it was a good excuse to stay home”), but his employer knows that his mixing with the wealthier classes will help him fit in and increase their income. Dr. Christie’s burly and irascible housekeeper, Mrs. Dunphy, adds more doses of humor.

At times the historical backdrop gets lecture-y, particularly the long recap of the 1837 Rebellion, but otherwise mid-19th-century Toronto is richly evoked, with its political and religious divisions, bouts of deadly illness, the beginnings of urban sprawl, and the reputed miracle cures of Irish-born “Holy Ann” (a real person). Americans in particular may appreciate seeing how their country’s antebellum policies on slavery play out north of the border. Kellough also keeps readers on their toes by fleshing out her plot with unexpected turns throughout.

The Burying Ground was published in July by Canada's Dundurn Press, which sells books to both Canada and the US (304pp, paperback, $11.99 in both countries).  I reviewed this for August's Historical Novels Review from a NetGalley copy.  This is the first in the series that I've read, and I'd be interested to hear if anyone here has read the others.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Shona Patel's Flame Tree Road, a rich journey toward social change in 19th-century India

Historical novels can give us the opportunity to experience distant times and places through the eyes of another. The most talented historical novelists can immerse us in an unfamiliar culture so completely that we become part of it, gaining empathy and understanding for the dilemmas its characters face.

This is the case for Shona Patel’s Flame Tree Road, which is set mostly in 19th-century India. While it was written as a prequel to her debut, Teatime for the Firefly, it can also stand independently. Biren Roy, whose story is told from the early days of his parents’ marriage through his old age, is the man who becomes the beloved grandfather – Dadamoshai – of Layla from Teatime.

Biren’s character is formed through his experiences in both rural India and the hallowed halls of Cambridge. Due to his unique educational background, Biren serves as a bridge between these different cultures, members of whom occasionally treat him like an outsider, but he comes to embody the noblest qualities of both. He is immensely likeable, a man of gentle demeanor and refined manners.  I rooted for him to overcome the obstacles he faced and find personal happiness.

For Biren, observing the shameful treatment of widows in his East Bengal village is the catalyst that directs the flow of his life. In his childhood, he sees how an old woman who lost her husband is forced to live under a banyan tree, while an old fisherman tells him bluntly that widows are “the cursed ones… the most wretched creatures on earth.” After the tragic early death of Biren’s father, he sees his beautiful young mother shunned and brought low, an action supported by the in-laws who loved her. The choice of ancient traditions over love and family is a pattern that repeats.

Fired up by this injustice, Biren knows that education is the key to social transformation and determines to become a lawyer and fight against the oppression of women in this regard. While the British educational model is highly respected, it’s also mistrusted, and Biren learns later that Britain has its own social problems to contend with. He forms friendships overseas and in India, but it’s only when he meets a schoolteacher's daughter named Maya that he finds the love he had sought.

Patel’s settings are evoked through richly woven images, from the generations-old craftsmanship at a potters’ village to the sensual fall of a woman’s hair.  Her descriptions make the river of Biren’s home village easy to visualize: “crescent-shaped fishing boats skim the waters with threadbare sails that catch the wind with the hollow flap of a heron’s wing.” That’s just from the first page. The landscapes through which Biren moves come alive with a sense of wonder.

The last few chapters speed through Biren’s later life much too quickly, and I regretted that the novel wasn’t longer.  The fact that I was left wanting more demonstrates the appeal of the characters. There are many moments of joy in Flame Tree Road, and others of abject sadness, all recounted with the flair of a natural storyteller as Patel brings us deeply into the life of an admirable man who dedicates himself to reshaping his world.

Flame Tree Road was published on June 30 by Mira ($14.95/C$17.95, 396pp).  Thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy at my request.  For readers curious about Teatime for the Firefly, I reviewed it two years ago.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Amy Snow by Tracy Rees, a delightful and engrossing Victorian-era debut

Last year, Tracy Rees’ debut novel won Richard and Judy’s “search for a bestseller” competition. Completely engrossing, it was a worthy selection.

Set in England in 1848, it’s full of romance and mystery, taking the form of a scavenger hunt in which the heroine, Amy Snow, follows a trail left behind in letters by her late friend and mentor, ebullient heiress Aurelia Vennaway. Seventeen-year-old Amy owes her life to Aurelia, who had found her as a newborn, abandoned in the snow on her wealthy family’s Surrey estate.

Lord and Lady Vennaway had acceded to their daughter’s wishes in letting Amy grow up at Hatville Court but always resented her presence. Before Aurelia’s tragic early death from a heart ailment, she developed a clever way of ensuring Amy’s future livelihood while broadening her social horizons – and attempting to make up for her family’s hateful behavior.

The clues Amy finds (some of which take time to figure out) lead her around the country, introduce her to fascinating people, and prove that the kindness, love, and the family life she craves exist outside of Aurelia’s sheltering wings. Along the way, she learns surprising revelations about Aurelia and a lot about herself. Amy’s journey – and, consequently, the novel’s structure – may be contrived, but the author wisely makes her aware of it. The obligations of her mission chafe from time to time, as does her burden of secrecy, especially when enticing alternatives present themselves.

While the story is fanciful in spots, Amy Snow is written with warmth and attention to detail, particularly on Victorian geography and modes of travel. Best of all, it offers a tenderly poignant portrait of true friendship, a rare thing that both young women rightly treasure.

Amy Snow was published by Quercus earlier this year in paperback (£7.99, 551pp).  Don't be put off by the page count since it moves very quickly!  This was a personal purchase that I reviewed for August's Historical Novels Review.  For now you'll have to get it from the UK, but I hope a US publisher will pick it up.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Karen White's The Sound of Glass: Southern warmth, family reconciliation, and a creepy mystery

As a fan of Karen White’s Tradd Street series, which mixes quirky characters with family lore and Southern ghosts, I’ve been migrating over to her standalone works as well. They’re equally as enjoyable, although more serious in tone and issue-driven. Recounting a woman’s journey to recharge her unsettled life, her latest is also a creepy mystery wrapped in Southern style – and a book that had me dreaming of vacationing along the picturesque Carolina coast.

The dread-inducing opening poses many questions, and answers are revealed over the course of this smartly constructed novel. In 1955, Edith Heyward sets aside an unusual art project when an explosion tears through the skies above her home in Beaufort, South Carolina. Among the debris falling from above is a battered brown suitcase, which lands in Edith’s garden. It contains news so devastating that Edith can barely react when she learns her husband was killed in a car crash that same night.

Flashbacks to Edith’s later life appear throughout the main storylines, which are seen from the viewpoints of Merritt, widow of Edith’s grandson, Cal; and Loralee, the young stepmother Merritt hasn’t seen for years, a sassy Alabama native with big hair and perfect makeup. After Merritt drives from Maine down to Beaufort after inheriting Edith’s house, she’s obliged to take in Loralee and her ten-year-old son, Merritt’s half-brother – and she also learns about the past that Cal kept hidden.

Merritt’s gradual warming up to life is a delight to witness, and Loralee is hardly the stereotypical airhead Merritt thinks she is. While I wished for more emphasis on the history and less obvious imparting of important life lessons, I still found The Sound of Glass an affecting story about love, reconciliation, and the dangerous patterns that blight families over generations.

The Sound of Glass was published in May by NAL ($26.95/C$32.00, hardcover, 432pp).  Thanks to the publisher for granting me NetGalley access.  This review first appeared in the Historical Novels Review's August issue.