Thursday, September 29, 2016

Book review: The Gustav Sonata, by Rose Tremain

Tremain’s (The American Lover, 2015) newest literary work, structured in three movements, traverses the shifting patterns of a remarkable friendship that runs deep and lifelong but isn’t always equally shared.

In 1948, Gustav Perle is a kindergartner in the undistinguished town of Matzingen, Switzerland, when he befriends Anton Zwiebel, a sensitive, musically talented classmate. Anton’s kind Jewish parents encourage their bond; however, a mystery arises when Gustav’s brittle mother, Emilie, discourages Anton’s visits to the sparsely furnished apartment where the two live.

Emilie instructs Gustav to “be like Switzerland . . . separate and strong,” and the novel affectingly explores the cost of remaining neutral in both a personal and political sense. In effect, Gustav becomes the emotional anchor for his beloved, conflicted friend, who dreams of being a concert pianist yet is held back by immense stage fright. The later sections look back to the 1930s, depicting his parents’ troubled marriage and a moral dilemma faced by Gustav’s late father, and then move ahead to the 1990s, as Gustav ponders his life choices and relationships.

An extraordinarily gifted writer, Tremain illuminates her characters’ lives with care and understated elegance. She finds great meaning in both world-changing events and smaller, quotidian moments. Though fairly short, her novel manages to capture the full range of a man’s interior life.

The Gustav Sonata was published on Tuesday by W.W. Norton in hardcover (288pp, $26.95).  This review first appeared in Booklist's August issue.  I was happy to be asked to review this one, since Tremain's Merivel was a favorite title, and I also enjoyed her earlier Music and Silence.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

A country's trauma made personal: The Memory Stones by Caroline Brothers

Los desaparecidos, the disappeared. That is the name given to those abducted by the military junta that took control of Argentina during the country’s Dirty War, an event that Australian writer Brothers’ (Hinterland, 2012) second novel renders devastatingly personal.

In 1976, Osvaldo Ferrero, an eye surgeon, must flee Buenos Aires for Paris for his own safety. His younger daughter, Graciela, a carefree, 19-year-old student, goes into hiding; she and her fiancé simply vanish from sight. Then news emerges that Graciela was pregnant.

The story honors the heroism of the mothers and grandmothers of the missing via the experiences of Yolanda, Osvaldo’s wife, who forms alliances with other women in her situation. The first half is tense and dramatic, yet the story becomes truly remarkable later on.

As decades pass, the family, scattered around the globe, continues searching for Graciela and her child while slowly reshaping their lives around their terrible losses. Evocative scenes at a Greek archaeological site emphasize the challenge of uncovering the past, whether it be more than two millennia ago or just two decades earlier.

The Memory Stones will be published in October by Bloomsbury in hardcover ($28, 480pp).  In the UK, it was published back in July by Bloomsbury Circus.  I wrote this review for Booklist's September 1st issue, and it's also my 4th post for the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge; I've met my goal to achieve the Miles level!  (I've read two other books and will post those reviews once they appear.)

Because this novel takes place between the '70s and '90s, it'll be categorized with General Fiction in the AWW review database.  What do you think; how far in the past should a novel be set before it's "historical"?

I remember reading this article in the Guardian two years ago so was familiar with the story of the "disappeared," and Brothers' novel brings readers right into this troubled time and the long aftermath.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Ann Howard Creel's The Whiskey Sea, about a Prohibition-era woman facing risky choices

Having grown up along the central New Jersey coast, Frieda Hope has a personal relationship with the ocean. When she goes out clamming with her foster father, the wind rushing through her hair, she feels alive and free. For Frieda, the sea has healing qualities. If she feels upset, the fury of its waves tempers her own, and in calmer times, “it was as if some almighty power had smoothed her rough edges while leveling the surface of the sea with big, broad hands.”

The sea is an energetic force, and Creel makes readers feel its vitality. Sparkling in the summer sun, quiet and crafty on moonless nights, it’s a character in itself, but an indifferent one: it can’t save Frieda from her choices.

Set during Prohibition, The Whiskey Sea presents the story of a tenacious young woman who finds herself taking risks. One is deliberate, while another catches her off guard.

Daughters of the town prostitute, who died when they were young, Frieda and her younger sister, Bea, were taken in by Silver, a crusty sailor, and raised as his own. When Silver breaks Frieda’s heart by selling his boat – he’s getting too old to be out on the waters – she goes against the advice of everyone, including her faithful admirer Sam Hicks, and takes a job as engineer for a rum-running operation. The sea “churned with opportunity,” and Frieda sees a way to earn cash to put Bea through teachers’ college, take care of Silver, and ensure she never has to resort to selling her body, like her mother did.

Transporting illegal booze may be lucrative, but it’s becoming more dangerous. In addition, when a classically handsome Ivy League grad on a summer break pursues a relationship with Frieda, she’s left feeling oddly vulnerable. She’d never thought of herself before in womanly terms.

The novel delves into the technical aspects of rum-running – who knew there was such sophisticated precision behind it? – and makes clear the hazards that bootleggers face not just from the police and Coast Guard but from murderous pirates. The supposed closeness between Frieda and Bea doesn’t come through as strongly as it could have, and Frieda’s love life turns out a bit predictably, but the novel wraps up in a satisfying way. Scenes of working-class 1920s New Jersey contrast vividly with the lifestyles of upper-crust New York – a city that's unfamiliar to Frieda, despite its geographic proximity.

With fluid language that lays bare its characters’ tumultuous emotions, The Whiskey Sea realistically brings to life a young woman grappling with a new side to her nature.

Ann Howard Creel's The Whiskey Sea was published by Lake Union on August 23rd ($14.95 pb/$3.99 ebook, 300pp).  Thanks to the publisher for access via NetGalley.  This review forms part of the novel's blog tour via TLC Book Tours.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours and the publisher, I was able to offer one copy as a giveaway.  Congratulations to Liz P., and thanks to all who entered!

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Heroes: a guest post by Rachel Hall, author of Heirlooms

Today Rachel Hall, author of Heirlooms, is stopping by with a moving essay about her family history, its relationship to her new book, and the type of historical fiction she prefers to write and read.  I hope you'll enjoy reading it, and I'd be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments.  Heirlooms, winner of the G. S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction, is published tomorrow by BkMk Press/The University of Missouri-Kansas City (trade pb, 190pp, $15.95).


Rachel Hall 

1. Myth and legend, a man of great strength and courage, favored by the gods and in part descended from them 2. Any man admired for his courage, nobility, or bold deeds 3. Any man thought of as an ideal or model 4. The central male character in a novel, play, etc. 5. A central figure who played an admirable role in any important event or period.

When I explain the family history behind my collection of linked stories, Heirlooms, people assume that my biological grandfather, a French Resistance fighter, is the protagonist. In fact, the character based on my grandfather makes only brief appearances in two stories, and in another his death is observed by a character who doesn’t know him. None of the stories in the collection are told from his point of view.

In his life, my grandfather was a hero. He died fighting to free France of tyranny and fascism. This past summer, my mother, brother and I attended the yearly commemoration for him and the other political prisoners held in Montluc prison and executed on August 20, 1944. The solemn two-day event is attended by dignitaries from all over France and Europe.

Of course, I’d known my grandfather was a hero, long before attending the ceremony. I’d grown up hearing stories of his bravery—how he’d returned to his comrades in Lyon, aware that there was an information leak, and knowing that they were likely to be found out; how once captured and imprisoned, he’d managed to pass a precious bit of bread to a comrade in need; how his final word to another comrade was “courage.”

In short, a real hero, so why hadn’t I written about him more, given him a bigger role in Heirlooms? We are taught in literature classes that every story has a hero, after all. Had I missed an opportunity? Perhaps, but that wasn’t the book I wanted to write.

As far as I know, the only thing that one might hold against my grandfather is the very thing that made him a hero: when he died for France, he left behind a little girl with wispy curls and dark, inquisitive eyes, my mother. Her biological mother had died of illness at the beginning of the war, so she’d been living with her paternal aunt and uncle, who would later adopt her. My grandfather’s absence in my mother’s life required others to step up, fill in, pick up the pieces. To me, her aunt and uncle were heroes, too—unsung, work-a-day, not the focus of history lessons or ceremonies, but heroes nonetheless.

In the fiction that I write and read, I’m less interested in those who make history and drawn instead to those who live it—backstage, downstairs, on the sidelines, those overlooked in history textbooks. Put another way, not the stars, but the supporting cast. Thomas Mallon’s Henry and Clara beautifully illustrates this perspective or angle and reveals what fertile ground this is for the writer of historical fiction. In this novel, we witness Abraham Lincoln’s assassination from the point of view those seated with him in the Ford Theater balcony, Henry Rathbone, a young army officer and his fiancĂ©e, Clara Harris, daughter of New York Senator Ira Harris. These are people that most readers know little about, but who are, in Mallon’s capable hands, fascinating.

Not surprisingly, they are forever changed by the events of April 15, 1865, and the reader is permitted to see how they cope—or don’t—in the aftermath. From this perspective, too, we understand the consequences of history. This is my focus in Heirlooms—the war, certainly, but also what came after for those who survived.

Another historical novel that uses this approach to excellent effect is Emma Cline’s The Girls. Inspired by the Manson murders, The Girls is told from the perspective of Evie Boyd, a fourteen-year-old, who is attracted to the cult in the way that one might be drawn to any group: The other girls, when Evie encounters them in a park, seem sophisticated, cool, sure of themselves in a way that Evie envies. By chance, she doesn’t participate in the murder, but she easily could have, and the impact of the event will ripple through her life forever after. These characters’ proximity to historical event is a reminder, too, of how big a role chance and luck and happenstance play in the making of history and individual lives.

Readers identify with characters like Evie or Clara and Henry because they resemble us. Indeed, they could be us! They have conflicts and concerns like ours—personal rather than national or international, but important to us, nonetheless. This identification allows us a kind of entry (time travel?) that brings history to life by reminding us that while much has changed since 1865 or 1944 or even 1969, humans want the same things—to be loved, for instance, and to love. This, to me, is the beauty of historical fiction.

Heirlooms, by the way, is dedicated to the memory of mother’s adopted parents, my heroes.


Rachel Hall's short stories and essays have appeared in a number of journals and anthologies including Black Warrior Review, Crab Orchard Review, Gettysburg Review, Fifth Wednesday and New Letters, which awarded her the Alexander Cappon Prize for Fiction. She has received other honors and awards from Lilith, Glimmer Train, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Ragdale, the Ox-Bow School of the Arts, and the Constance Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. Hall is a Professor of English in the creative writing program at the State University of New York at Geneseo, where she holds the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. She lives in Rochester, New York with her husband and daughter. Visit her website at

Monday, September 05, 2016

Mary Volmer's Reliance, Illinois: small-town life, social change, and secrets

Most historical fiction about small-town life involves quirky residents coping with social change. Volmer’s second novel fills the bill yet is hardly formulaic. It’s set in a picturesque hamlet sitting alongside the Mississippi (Reliance, a fictional place, is described as near Alton). In 1874, women’s suffrage is fiercely debated, and the Civil War’s horrors are a still-recent memory. While the plot sometimes meanders as slowly as the river on a calm day, the characters’ interactions and discoveries make it worth following to the end.

When Rebecca Branch arrives in Reliance to marry Mr. Lyman Dryfus, a businessman whose Matrimonial Times ad she’d answered, she brings a surprise guest along: her 12-year-old daughter, Madelyn, who she says is her younger sister. Rebecca means to start her life over, “to be a lady,” and her illegitimate child doesn’t fit the plan. We see events unfold through the eyes of this feisty girl: her anger about her Mama’s betrayal; her awkwardness about her appearance, with a dark red birthmark covering half her face and body; and her desire for belonging. Maybe, sometime in the future, she might marry charming photographer William Stark. For now, she accepts Miss Rose Werner’s offer: to care for her ailing father, the town’s founder, in exchange for an education. Wealthy Miss Rose, a former actress, has a social agenda that attracts covert interest from women. In addition, one of Madelyn’s finds along the riverbank dredges up unpleasant secrets.

Madelyn’s coming of age is enjoyable to observe. While she starts off wanting desperately to be beautiful, like her mother, she comes to learn that beauty has its own disadvantages. Even more satisfying is the gradual emergence of Rebecca’s true story, which Madelyn is too young to recognize for what it is. Each woman’s journey in this charming, deceptively quiet novel is one of depth and courage.

Reliance, Illinois was published by Soho in May ($27, hb, 354pp).  This review first appeared in August's Historical Novels Review.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

The Confessions of X by Suzanne Wolfe, a novel of St. Augustine's unnamed lover

The narrator of Wolfe’s poignant novel is nameless, for this detail was never historically recorded. A poor young woman from Rome’s African provinces, she willingly becomes the concubine of the man she adores, a scholar with an auspicious future. The two remain faithful to one another, raising a beloved son, and stay together until her presence becomes an obstacle to his career advancement. He goes on to acquire fame as Augustine of Hippo, early Christian theologian and future saint. His biography is well known, but what burdens did his lover endure?

Her imagined story of romance, loss, and courageous sacrifice begins in 4th-century Carthage, a city of many gods ruled by a distant Christian emperor. The daughter of an itinerant mosaic-layer, she and Augustine share a special bond, but her humble birth means they can never marry. The secondary characters are equally well-crafted, especially Augustine’s mother, Monica, a kind, practical woman who abhors her son’s early Manichean beliefs.

The central couple’s moment of parting is almost unbearably sorrowful, though the heroine, who cares too much to hold Augustine back, sees no other choice: “For us to love without measure is not enough. The world has a measure. It has weighed us in the scales and found us light.” What she accomplishes in her remaining years is a testament to women’s strength.

The richly descriptive writing involves all five senses in its evocation of the ancient Roman world: the glint of sunlight on a church floor, the gentle clink of tiles, the delicate scent of lemons at the market. Moving beyond this, it harnesses literature’s power to create soaring imagery conveying universal truths. Her story will break your heart several times over, but in Wolfe’s telling, it’s also intensely beautiful. More than a well-researched novel that humanizes its real-life characters, this is a poetic work of art.

The Confessions of X was published in 2016 by Thomas Nelson ($15.99, pb, 304pp).  This review was first published in August's Historical Novels Review.  I hadn't heard of the novel until receiving an email from one of the lists I'm on for discounted ebooks.  I promptly bought it and got caught up in the language and story right away.  Thomas Nelson is a Christian-focused publisher, and St. Augustine is a famous figure in the history of Christianity, but the tone of the book isn't religious.

Back in 2013, I'd done an analysis of the centuries which were most popular in contemporary historical fiction (which looked at titles reviewed in the HNR over the previous year).  The figures showed that the 4th century had been essentially neglected.  Out of the over 14,000 books reviewed in the HNS database, just 27 are set in the 4th century.