Monday, October 30, 2017

In which I read my first Nordic noir: The Shadow District by Arnaldur Indriðason, a Reykjavik wartime mystery

Have you ever picked up a novel in an unfamiliar genre, expecting to be pushed out of your comfort zone, only to discover it fits your tastes very well?

As a librarian I’ve been aware of the popularity of Scandinavian noir but hadn’t read any of these books, figuring most were too dark and violent. Then a copy of Arnaldur Indriðason’s The Shadow District showed up. I began reading on Saturday morning and was finished by Sunday afternoon.

The subtitle says “a thriller,” but I’d call it more of a traditional crime novel, of the police procedural variety (sort of). The pacing is methodical, which disappointed some people on Goodreads, but I don’t think historical fiction readers will mind. The crimes aren’t graphically described, either.

The setting is Iceland, predominantly Reykjavík; the timeframe is both the present day and 1944. A ninety-year-old pensioner is found to have died in bed in his flat—not an unusual scenario. But when the hospital pathologist learns he was smothered, it becomes a police matter. Konrád, a retired detective, can’t resist getting involved when he learns about old news clippings in the man’s apartment about a young woman’s unsolved murder during WWII. Strangely, Konrád has a personal connection to that older case: his own father, a con man, had helped arrange a fake séance for the girl’s distraught parents.

The two murders, 70 years apart, are linked through more than just Konrád, of course, and it’s up to him to discover how. Back in 1944, during a late-night romantic tryst, an Icelandic woman and her American soldier boyfriend discover a young woman’s body behind the National Theatre in the city’s Shadow District. Two detectives, an Icelandic policeman and a Canadian-born man representing the American military police, team up to solve the crime.

“It’s not exactly a tough job… being a cop in Reykjavík,” remarks Thorson, the Canadian, to his unofficial new partner. The city’s population isn’t large, and there are a couple of “small world” scenarios in their investigation. The writing is deceptively straightforward. Midway through, I was surprised to note how complex the storyline had become. Good mysteries focus as much on character as plot, however, and The Shadow District emphasizes its characters’ humanity, the victims’ included.

All of their experiences draw in interesting elements from Icelandic history and culture, from the island’s American occupation during WWII, and the controversial romances between Yanks and local women (which becomes known as the “Situation”), to the deep-rooted beliefs in the “hidden people,” or huldufólk, in the country’s rural regions. Also, all Icelanders are addressed by their first names, and the author either assumes you know this or will pick it up from context. Similarly, the characters disdain excessive formality and, when called “miss” or “sir” by police, make it clear that it isn’t necessary.

There’s a bit of repetition early on, and the 1940s-set chapters aren’t noted as such, which creates some initial confusion. Taken as a whole, the novel stresses how the past is as alive as ever. The Shadow District is first in a new series, and I’ll be reading the others. Fans of other wartime mysteries, like those of Charles Todd, may want to try it.

The Shadow District, which is a LibraryReads pick for November, will be published by Minotaur in early November; Harvill Secker published it in the UK in May. It's translated from Icelandic by Victoria Cribb.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Gone Before Christmas by Charles Finch, a short Victorian holiday mystery

One nice consequence of the ebook revolution is that shorter works of fiction, like novelettes and novellas, can be published and bought as single titles. Charles Finch’s newest release, Gone Before Christmas, is one of these. While it may not be as long as other volumes in the Charles Lenox series (Goodreads estimates it as 80 pages), it’s a fully-fleshed-out historical mystery with the same intricate puzzling, dry humor, and Victorian ambiance.

In the days that lead-up to Christmas in 1877, Lt. Austen, of the British Army’s proud Grenadier Guards, is found to have vanished after entering the cloakroom at Charing Cross Station to retrieve a forgotten hat. His fellow officers, with whom he’d been lunching before their separate train journeys, are baffled.

So is Scotland Yard—who gets alerted because of the cloakroom’s blood-spattered wall. The situation appears grim. Austen worked in intelligence, and all conclude he never would have turned traitor, but it’s possible he was attacked and kidnapped by French spies. That’s why Lenox, partner in a successful London detective agency, is called in.

Meanwhile, Christmas preparations at Lenox’s home are in full swing, with his wife Lady Jane in charge, but the tree he’s been stuck with—a dried-up, spindly thing reminiscent of the one from the Charlie Brown Christmas special—may not last that long. The humorous banter between Lenox and his older brother, Sir Edmund, is a joy to witness, and some secondary characters, like Annie the housekeeper and even Mrs. Attlebury of Sussex, don’t need a lot of page-time for their personalities to impress.

The story’s full of details on subtle class distinctions, and you also get fun lines like this:

“France and England were rather like an unhappy couple out to supper at friends’: not presently at war, except in the sense that they were continually at war.”

As for the mystery itself… looking back, I see that the clues are all there. Lenox caught them sooner than I did (but then, he’s the professional). One aspect that confused me, though: what’s Lt. Austen’s first name? Two versions are given, and if one was a nickname/middle name, that wasn’t obvious.

It may not seem so in the beginning, but the storyline’s warmth and generosity do suit the holiday season well. The ebook ($1.99) also contains a teaser for Finch's upcoming The Woman in the Water, a prequel to the Lenox series.  This was a personal purchase.

Monday, October 23, 2017

The Revolution of Marina M by Janet Fitch, an epic novel of the Russian Revolution

Timed for the centenary of the Russian Revolution, this mammoth epic from best-seller Fitch (Paint It Black, 2006) presents this tumultuous epoch from the viewpoint of a passionate, resilient young woman.

The daughter of a bourgeois St. Petersburg family in 1916, Marina Makarova finds herself caught up by revolutionary fervor. First enamored of her older brother’s friend, then irresistibly drawn to a Bolshevik poet, she finds her family relationships and friendships torn apart as the country’s political and social order ruptures.

With heightened immediacy, Fitch’s novel presents a richly described, on-the-street view of the revolution’s transformative, often violent throes in Marina’s “beloved and heartbreaking city,” from the behavior of newly emboldened servants to rampant hunger and poverty, and speculators negotiating backroom deals. Fitch provides an excellent sense of history’s unpredictability and shows how the desperate pursuit of survival leads to morally compromising decisions.

It’s unusual for a novel of this length to follow a single narrative thread, and the ending turns bizarre, but the momentum rarely slackens. Fitch’s cinematic storytelling and Marina’s vibrant personality are standout elements in this dramatic novel.

The Revolution of Marina M will be published by Little, Brown in November (hb, $30/ebook, $15.99, 816pp).  This review was submitted to Booklist for publication in the Oct 15th issue.

As you'll see, I was kept busy reading over the summer, with this lengthy novel, the previous one (Time's Betrayal, at over 1100 pages), and a couple of others whose reviews are forthcoming. For readers interested in the Russian Revolution of 1917 and its aftermath, I hope to post a reading list of additional historical novels in the near future.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Time's Betrayal by David Adams Cleveland, a unique American epic of history, family, and identity

How are our lives unknowingly motivated by our ancestral past? In its scope, artistry, and depiction of the interlinked cause-and-effect patterns spanning more than a century, Cleveland’s (Love’s Attraction, 2013) third novel raises the bar for multi-generational epics.

At its heart is one man’s quest to uncover the truth about his late father, John Alden III, who disappeared behind the Iron Curtain in 1953 for reasons unknown. Peter Alden’s recollections begin with his own 1960s youth at the Etonesque Massachusetts prep school co-founded by his abolitionist great-grandfather: a place where his father’s reputation as a star athlete, archaeologist, and war hero looms large.

The expansive yet tightly controlled narrative, in which numerous mysteries are compellingly unearthed, spins out to encompass post-WWII Greece, the race to decipher the ancient Greek script known as Linear B, the Vietnam War, the Berlin Wall’s dismantling, and a Civil War battle’s aftermath. The writing is gripping throughout, incorporating both haunting lyricism, in its characters’ yearning to recapture a lost golden age, and a high-stakes tension evoking the best Cold War thrillers.

Cleveland is particularly strong in presenting the complicated entanglements of love and betrayal and the barrier between freedom and oppression that each generation contends with. While its length may appear daunting, this unforgettable tour de force is well worth the time.

This (starred) review was submitted for Booklist's October 15th issue, which is just out - and the book itself is just out.  It was published in hardcover on October 1 by Fomite Press ($24.95, 1170pp).

Some other notes:

- This is the best book I've read all year, and I've read many excellent ones.  It's also the longest novel I've read, ever—see the page count above—but, after reading the first 100 pages, I was hooked and eagerly looking forward to the next thousand. I took a week off in mid-August, planning to catch up on work around the house and read maybe 100 pages a day so I'd have it finished by the deadline. Instead, I spent a good part of the week with this book and don't regret it.  (It does move quickly.)

- Condensing the reading experience into a review of just over 200 words wasn't easy; there's so much more that could be said. I could also note that there are two strong and multi-faceted female characters, and multiple complicated love affairs, and that the storyline delves deeply into the real-life history of the Cambridge Five spy ring who passed secrets to the Soviets up through the 1950s. I never considered Cold War thrillers to be my type of book, but this novel was.  For more information, you might read the publisher's blurb on Amazon.

- What to compare it to?  For the family saga aspect and mysteries related to it, it would appeal to Kate Morton's fans, although it's more ambitious than even her novels.  It should be on the radar of readers of spy thrillers, obviously. It's also a moving coming-of-age tale. Best of all is seeing how the multiple story lines, characters, and time periods come together.

- The book arrived with glowing blurbs from Robert Olen Butler and Bruce Olds, the latter of whom had said, among other things, "It is in a league of its own and a class by itself," which is true. I can't think of another novel quite like it.  If you read it, I hope you'll come back and tell me what you thought!

Saturday, October 14, 2017

A visual preview of the winter-spring 2018 season in historical fiction

Through reading historical fiction, readers have the opportunity to identify with characters from around the world, experiencing their cultures and personal histories along with them.   As such, here's a collection of 10 novels from my "want to read" list and the settings where they take place.  All will be published in 2018. Where will your historical fiction reading take you next?

Japanese-occupied Korea and Manchuria, in the story of a "comfort woman" during WWII and her sister, who searches for peace and healing in the present day.  Putnam, Jan 2018.

Early Maoist China, as a family is torn apart in the wake of consequential decision. Little A, March 2018.

Havana in 1958 and Miami in the present day, as a young writer uncovers her grandmother's life during the Cuban Revolution.  Berkley, Feb 2018.

1950s Iran, in the company of feminist poet Forugh Farrokhzhad, whose feminist, modernist poetry created controversy in her world.  Ballantine, Feb 2018.

Revolution-era America, as Eliza Schuyler meets a charismatic young officer and forges a place for herself in a fledgling nation. William Morrow, April 2018.

Early 17th-century Rome; a YA novel-in-verse focusing on Italian baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, a courageous woman who fought for artistic achievement in a world of controlling men. Dutton, Mar 2018.

1920s Bombay, with the first female lawyer in the city investigating whether a wealthy Muslim's three widows were deliberately misled into forsaking their rightful inheritance. Soho, Jan. 2018.

Philadelphia of 1918, at the height of the Spanish flu pandemic; a family takes in an orphaned child who gives them hope for the future. Berkley, Feb. 2018.

The years from 1492 to the present, as the history of Spain and Portugal's secret Jews unfolds via the story of Columbus's interpreter and his descendants, who come to settle in New Mexico. Doubleday, April 2018.

Albany, New York, in 1879; the heroine of Oliveira's earlier novel My Name Is Mary Sutter, searches for two sisters who have gone mysteriously missing. Viking, Feb. 2018.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Beyond the Pale by Elana Dykewomon, an immersive journey into Jewish women's history

First published in 1997, Elana Dykewomon’s Beyond the Pale came to my attention through an email newsletter from its publisher, Open Road, which had reissued the Lambda-award winning historical novel as an ebook in 2013. It was only $1.99 and had many positive reviews, so I snapped it up.

The title refers to its heroines’ eventual emigration to America from the Pale of Settlement, the region in western Russia where Jews had been allowed to live since Catherine the Great’s time.   The sentiment could also reflect the terrible anti-Semitism they and their families were forced to confront, again and again.

Beyond the Pale follows the coming-of-age stories of two women: Chava Meyer, born in 1889 in Kishinev, the capital of Bessarabia (modern Moldova); and Gutke Gurvich, who was brought to the city as a child by her mother a generation earlier, and who grows up to become a talented midwife. Unlike most tales of immigration, the novel devotes about equal time to their lives in Europe and the United States.

Their paths cross several times, firstly at Chava’s birth; Gutke is the woman who delivers her. Years later, they meet up again while traveling to Odessa, and finally once more amid the teeming working-class immigrant community on New York’s Lower East Side. There Gutke and her partner become role models of a sort for Chava, a teenager awakening to her love for another young woman.

Jewish life and traditions at the turn of the 20th century are re-created with depth and fullness, from the bathhouses of Kishinev to the sweatshops of the Lower East Side, and the varied social movements to improve labor conditions (and the pushback from employers). For anyone seeking a historical novel that “takes you there,” this will be your book. The novel has many scenes that will stay with me: the birth of Chava’s younger sister, Sarah, in which their rabbi father blames the spirit of Lilith for his newborn’s wandering eye; Chava and her cousin Rose’s dinner at the New York apartment of Gutke and her partner, who dresses like a man; plus other, more tragic moments, such as the 1903 pogrom that devastates Chava’s family (a historical incident). The only real drawbacks to the telling are a couple of disconcerting viewpoint switches.

October is LGBTQ History Month, and Beyond the Pale has become a classic novel in this field. It’s also an immersive read for anyone interested in Jewish history, immigrant themes, or a work that celebrates the supportive relationships between women of all ages.

Monday, October 09, 2017

The Research Journey, a guest post from Barbara Ridley, author of When It's Over

Barbara Ridley, whose debut novel When It's Over is just out from She Writes Press, is here with an essay about her research discoveries.


The Research Journey
Barbara Ridley

When I embarked on the journey of writing my novel When It’s Over, I had no idea how much research would be involved, where that research would lead me, or how much fun it would be. I was writing a novel based on my mother’s experience as a refugee during World War II, and I had recorded an oral history with her twenty years before her death, so I figured I had most of what I needed. Plus, as a child growing up in Britain in the 1950s and ’60s, I was raised on so many anecdotes about “The War," I often felt as if I had lived through it myself.

As I began to write, however, I realized my knowledge just scratched the surface. There was so much I didn’t know. When did rationing go into effect? When did the bombing start? How did ordinary people cope with the war dragging on for 6 years? Maybe because my father had been a historian, it was in my blood somehow: I felt compelled to understand what life was like and to get the details right.

So I researched. I read books, both fiction and non-fiction, found wonderful resources online, and did some good old-fashioned on-the-ground research in the British Airways Museum at London’s Heathrow Airport, the “Mass Observation” archives at the University of Sussex, and walking the streets of Prague, Paris and London—the settings used in the novel.

But then I made a remarkable discovery that changed the focus of the second half of the novel: I came upon boxes of letters that my father had written during the last two years of the war. By then it was clear that Hitler would be defeated, so the burning question became: what kind of society should be created out of the ruins of war?

I had always known the Labour Party had won the election of 1945, with a huge majority, and had gone on to pass landmark legislation that established the National Health Service and other pillars of the welfare state. But how was it that Churchill, the heroic war leader, suffered such a huge political defeat immediately after the victory parades were over? My father was active in the progressive political movement of the time, and his letters provided unique insights, which I was able to incorporate into the novel.


credit: Limor Inbar
Barbara Ridley was raised in England but has lived in California for more than thirty years. After a successful career as a nurse practitioner, which included publication in numerous professional journals, she is now focused on creative writing. Her work has appeared in literary journals, such as The Writers Workshop Review, Still Crazy, Ars Medica, The Copperfield Review and BLYNKT. This is her first novel.

Ridley lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her partner and her dog, and she has one adult daughter, of whom she is immensely proud. She enjoys hiking, backpacking and cross-country skiing in the mountains. Visit her online at, Facebook, and Twitter.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

The Seed Woman by Petra Durst-Benning, a novel of the seed trade in mid-19th century Germany

I enjoy reading novels that focus on “microhistories” – that is, a narrow aspect of social history and its impact on the surrounding world. Petra Durst-Benning’s The Seed Woman, first published in 2005 in German and recently translated by Edwin Miles, narrows its gaze on the seed-traders of Gönningen in the Swabian Mountains of southwestern Germany.

Many residents of this small village made their living in the seed trade. These enterprising men and women used various methods of travel to distribute their goods on established routes (their “Samenstrich,” or seed-line) around the country, throughout Europe, and even abroad.

The book will whisk you away on its characters’ journeys on foot and via cart and aboard ship to the Netherlands and across the Black Sea to distant Odessa. Farmers and gardeners depended on this regular commerce to grow fruit and vegetable crops and plant heirloom bulbs to beautify their environment.

The novel’s heroine is Hannah Brettschneider, an innkeeper’s daughter from Nuremberg who had become pregnant after a one-night stand with one of the hotel guests. When she makes her way to Gönningen to find her baby’s father, Helmut Kerner, he’s astonished to see her again. Her presence creates instant tension, because Helmut’s already agreed to marry the beautiful Seraphine. A woman with her head in the clouds, Seraphine had been told from a young age that she was a child brought by the fairies… and she actually believes it.

Pulled in two directions, Helmut ultimately decides his responsibility lies with Hannah and her child. What’s more, Hannah’s cheerful personality meshes well with his, and as they get to know each other better, they make a good couple. Helmut’s engagement to Seraphine gets broken off, but he doesn’t seem to mind; with her disconnection from reality, I couldn't blame him. However, Seraphine refuses to give up on Helmut. Her disturbed, obsessive behavior sends the book down many dramatic, often ridiculous avenues.

The storyline would have been more believable if Seraphine’s personality had been more nuanced. Despite the issues with character development, the rest of the plot was interesting enough that I kept turning the pages. I enjoyed viewing the changing of the seasons along with the Kerner family, learning more about the seed trade, and seeing Hannah’s ongoing transformation from city girl to “seed woman.”

The Seed Woman will be published next week by AmazonCrossing in pb and ebook. This was a Read Now title on NetGalley, and thanks to the publisher for enabling access to it.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

A gallery of autumn historical fiction reads

Julie Wright, the lovely blogger at the Hungry Bookworm, invited me to write a guest post for her site. I came up with a gallery of autumn-themed reads - six historical novels incorporating the theme of autumn, either literally or symbolically.

Jump on over to the Hungry Bookworm to take a look, and thanks to Julie for the opportunity!