Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Unbound by John Shors, a novel of freedom, love, and the Great Wall of China

Meng was just a lone woman. She had been born with a voice but told by society not to use it, born with eyes but told not to see. Yet her feet and resolve were unbound. And she would travel onward, coming to better know the world that she was a part of, the steps she needed to take to consider herself free.

Seventh of John Shors’ Asian-set novels, Unbound reimagines a legend well-known in China but perhaps less familiar to Western audiences: that of a young wife determined to reunite with her beloved husband, who was pressed into service constructing the Great Wall.

This version of the tale unfolds during the Ming Dynasty, in the mid-16th century. A year after her husband Fan’s departure, his wife Meng, missing him desperately and concerned about his well-being during the harsh winter atop the wall, crafts a warm coat and sets out on foot from Beijing, in male disguise, to bring it to him. Meanwhile, Fan, a talented craftsman responsible for maintaining the Great Wall’s structural integrity over the six miles between Jinshanling and Simatai, struggles to do his task amid increasingly poor health, regular Mongol attacks, and his cruel commander’s jealous rages and threats.

Meng and Fan’s love never wavers throughout the course of this clearly and straightforwardly written novel. Other subplots soon take prominence, though, such as Meng’s friendship with a man she meets en route (their teasing banter is lively and fun) and Fan’s protectiveness toward Bataar, a twelve-year-old enslaved Mongol boy. The question also arises about whether Bataar’s father will find and rescue him. There are no givens about how any of these situations will play out.

Descriptions abound of the Great Wall’s impressive architecture, with its many crenellations and watchtowers spanning the rugged terrain (“like a dragon sprawled across the mountains”) as well as the strategy behind its design. At times the educational purpose slows down the plot—considerable time is spent explaining how the Wall is built, and the information on how a sedan chair operates feels overlong—but anyone interested in Chinese history should find the material fascinating.

The Great Wall of China at Jinshanling
Severin.stalder [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Although the lovers are Chinese, this isn’t a one-sided presentation. The Mongols are fierce fighters, proud of their culture and bounteous grasslands, who want to trade with their resistant southern neighbor. In contrast, the Chinese emperor (who is never seen, only talked about) comes off as rigid and xenophobic. The novel examines the various power differentials of the day: between men and women, the Chinese and Mongols, and the different classes in Chinese society. On her journey, Meng observes how regulations on dress and other customs are selectively relaxed the further one gets from Beijing: a nice touch.

A more thorough copy edit would have caught the occasional typos and misspellings. {Update, 12/21: these have been fixed in the latest version of the novel.] For anyone curious about the Great Wall or the lives of average people during part of its construction, Unbound is definitely recommended.

Unbound was published in August in trade pb and ebook. Thanks to the author for providing me with a review copy.

Friday, November 24, 2017

A Christmas Return by Anne Perry, a holiday mystery novella set in Victorian times

This compact little gem, Perry’s fifteenth Christmas novella, demonstrates her proficiency in writing Victorian-set mysteries. The protagonist is Mariah Ellison, grandmother of Charlotte Pitt from another of Perry’s series.

One day in mid-December, Mariah receives an unusually heavy Christmas pudding at her London residence. Cutting into it, she discovers an ornamental cannonball—a gift that signals events from her past. The sender is Peter Wesley, grandson of her estranged friend Rowena, and he desperately needs Mariah’s help.

Twenty years earlier, in the village of Haslemere in Surrey, Rowena’s lawyer husband, Cullen, had suddenly refused to continue defending his client. Dr. Owen Durward had been accused of raping and murdering a teenage girl, and nobody knew the reasons behind Cullen’s change of heart. Then that same night, Cullen himself was killed, and Durward was subsequently acquitted.

Now Durward has returned to Haslemere again, wanting to dispel any lingering sentiments about his guilt. This dredges up immense pain for the Wesleys, since he’s spreading rumors that Rowena was the cause of his past troubles. Rowena isn’t the fighting sort, so Mariah and Peter decide to take action.

A plain woman in her eighties, Mariah has a reputation of being sharp-tongued and tetchy. In one of many skillful unveilings of human nature’s many facets, the story delves into the origins of her bitterness—and the courage she must exhibit to overcome it.

The atmosphere of close-knit village life in the 1890s feels pitch-perfect, from the homeliness of residents’ holiday decor to the gossip that spreads like a dreadful stain. The characterization is superb, and the work’s short length is perfect for the material. The spirit of the Christmas season is cleverly evoked through the underlying theme that it’s never too late for reconciliations and second chances.

Anne Perry's A Christmas Return was published by Ballantine this month (hardcover, 177pp). In the UK, the publisher is Headline. I reviewed it for November's Historical Novels Review.  This is my second experience with one of her Christmas novellas, the first being A Christmas Escape from 2015. You don't have to have read the Thomas & Charlotte Pitt novels to enjoy this one.

Want to win a copy for yourself? I have an extra, which I'll be giving away to an interested blog reader. Just enter your info in the form below by Friday, December 1st, and I'll draw a random entry after that.  This giveaway is open internationally.  One entry per household, please; void where prohibited.  Good luck!

Update, 12/2:17: Giveaway entries are closed, and a winner has been selected via Random.org. Congrats to Michael C!  I've sent you an email and hope you'll enjoy the book.
Thanks to all who entered!

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Women of World War II: a gallery of historical novels, new and old

Over the last few days, my husband and I have been getting into the historical crime drama series The Bletchley Circle on DVD, since we'd missed seeing it when it aired on PBS. Set in 1952, the show focuses on a quartet of women formerly part of the code-breaking team at Bletchley Park during wartime, and how they reunite to trap a serial killer. We've only seen the first season so far, and I can highly recommend it for its insights into the postwar era and women's lives and hidden talents.  Plus, there are scenes of almost unbearable suspense; you may not want to watch too late at night!

Along these lines, and per a reader's request, here are 10 historical novels evoking women's wartime efforts. This gallery mixes current reads, forthcoming titles, and some older novels which appeared before the period became trendy, and which are deserving of a second look.

In this inspirational novel, four women of different ages and economic backgrounds become friends during their work at a small-town Michigan factory contracted to build ships for the US war effort.  Bethany House, 2006. [see on Goodreads]

Baldwin's literary novel is based on the real life of Noor Inayat Khan, an Indo-American woman who became an undercover wireless operator for the British government in occupied France.  Knopf Canada, 2004.  [see on Goodreads]

Beard's debut dramatizes the story of ordinary women who traveled to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, in the 1940s to work on a clandestine mission whose true purpose was kept from them.  William Morrow, February 2018. [see on Goodreads]

First in a trilogy, The Chestnut Tree takes place in a small Sussex fishing village and follows the lives of a group of women determined to help with the war effort, and who participate in different ways. Thomas Dunne, 2003. [see on Goodreads]

Basing his novel on the wartime lives of his two grandmothers, Cleave depicts a young aristocratic Londoner who forges an inner strength through her traumatic experiences, and two men who love her. Simon & Schuster, 2016. [see on Goodreads]

An adventurous young Welsh singer travels the world during wartime, entertaining the troops, and is asked to assist the British Secret Service, a job she keeps secret from the man she loves. Touchstone, 2012. [see on Goodreads]

The immense courage and heroism of military nurses during WWII are depicted via the author's depiction of two friends half a world apart, one stationed in France, the other in the South Pacific. William Morrow, 2017 (this is the paperback cover). [see on Goodreads]

Called the "Night Witches" by the Germans, this all-female squadron of Russian military aviators was known for courage, daring, and precision. Runyan's third novel (after two historicals about the early settlement of Quebec) follows a young pilot who takes to the skies for her country. Lake Union, January 2018. [see on Goodreads]

From the 1930s through the postwar years, two young African-American women from Mississippi, lifelong friends, find that their destinies lead them across America and Europe; their story involves their wartime service.  BlueHen, 2002. [see on Goodreads]

In this novel about determination and identity, Ida Mae Jones, a light-skinned black woman from Louisiana, decides to pass for white to join the WASPs (Women's Airforce Service Pilots) when the United States enters the war.  The heroine is eighteen, and although this book is classified as YA, it should interest adult readers as well.  Putnam, 2009. [see on Goodreads]

Looking for yet more on this topic?  See Part 1 and Part 2 of my "women at war" lists, which I'd posted back in 2011.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

By Light of Hidden Candles by Daniella Levy, a multi-period novel of cultural heritage, faith, and love

Entertaining, culturally rich, and fearless in speaking of complex theological questions, American-Israeli author Levy’s debut novel delves into the history of Spain’s crypto-Jews—descendants of Jewish people who secretly observed their faith following expulsion or forced conversion. The story is structured into three intertwined narratives, two contemporary and one historical.

Alma Ben-Ami, a gregarious college student who defies the stereotype of observant Jewish women, gets excited after discovering an engraved gold ring and a box of ketubot—Jewish marriage contracts—covering 24 generations in her family’s female line. Her memory-impaired grandmother, who was born in Morocco’s Spanish protectorate, can no longer recall the ring’s history.

Shortly thereafter, at the family Judaica shop in Manhattan, Alma meets Manuel Aguilar, a Spaniard whose former priest had discouraged his curiosity about Judaism. When they enroll in the same NYU archives program and study abroad in Madrid to research their genealogies, their growing closeness affects their friendship, since Alma won’t date anyone outside her faith.

A separate strand presents the experiences of Míriam de Carmona, Alma’s ancestor, living with her spice-merchant father, Abraham, in the judería of Lorca in southeastern Spain in 1492. Abraham’s decision to sell kosher wine to a converso family attracts the Inquisition’s attention.

Young people often explore questions of religion and identity in college, so Alma and Manuel’s in-depth discussions about her Jewish customs, his Catholicism, and where they overlap and differ all feel honest and real. Their humorous banter keeps the pacing brisk.

It’s difficult for Alma to keep kosher in modern Spain, and the story explains the importance of these traditions and emphasizes the tenacious survival of the Jewish people. In the 15th century, Míriam faces her own romantic dilemma, and her fear of discovery by the Inquisition is terrifyingly palpable. The plotline relies on coincidence at times but has an enjoyably satisfying outcome.

By Light of Hidden Candles was published by Kasva Press in 2017; I reviewed it for November's Historical Novels Review based on a "read now" copy I found at NetGalley, which has become a worthwhile source for new book discoveries for me. The novel can be considered an example of New Adult fiction. It's also a good choice for Jewish Book Month, which runs this year from November 12 - December 12.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Blood Moon by Ruth Hull Chatlien, a tense fictional account of the Dakota War of 1862

Ruth Hull Chatlien spins a taut and believable tale in her second historical novel, Blood Moon, which dramatizes Sarah Wakefield’s six-week captivity among the Dakota people in 1862, along with her four-year-old son and infant daughter.

The wife of Dr. John Wakefield, a government physician at the Upper Sioux Agency in southern Minnesota, Sarah had previously formed friendships among the Sioux (as she calls them), relationships which stand her in good stead after hostilities break out between the white settlers and Indians. Sent away from their home by John for her safety, she and her children see their journey tragically disrupted; they are taken into the custody of Chaska, a friendly “farmer Indian,” and his not-so-friendly relative, Hapa.

Vowing to return her to her husband when it’s possible to do so, Chaska brings Sarah under his protection, and she comes to see him and his kindly mother, Ina, as adopted family members. Both are sympathetic characters, and it’s only thanks to them that Sarah survives. Still, there are many close calls, with many of Chaska’s compatriots vowing to kill all white settlers—she sees examples firsthand.

Through her narrative, Sarah deftly illustrates the political tensions that lead up to the U.S.-Dakota War: restrictions imposed upon the Dakota, combined with drought and their subsequent hunger, have driven the Indians to the breaking point. The complex situation is painted in many shades of gray, with many Dakota people wanting to avoid violence. “The longer I am with them,” she states, “the more I understand that their attitudes toward whites are neither uniform nor predictable.”

An intelligent and courageous woman, Sarah already knows how to speak Dakota to some degree, and the story shows how she learns to follow their ways and behave in a culturally acceptable manner, despite disdain from other white captives. The author provides considerable detail on the Dakota culture, including their dress, language, and kinship relations. That said, Sarah longs to return with her children to the white settlers’ world, and to her husband.

On this topic, the depiction of Sarah and John Wakefield’s mismatched marriage deserves acclaim for its realism. Sarah, a six-foot-tall farmer’s daughter, has a scandal in her past that’s not of her own making. The historical character’s own memoir alludes to this, but without going into detail; the explanation given in the novel feels plausible.  John, from a blue-blooded New England family, is a talented, adventurous physician who’s prone to occasional violence and verbal put-downs. Keeping to the mindset of mid-19th century mores, Sarah is a caring mother who does her best to be a good wife, feeling that John saved her from a life that could have been worse. One specific scene toward the end, relating to their relationship, exudes power, meaning, and character.

Recommended for an in-depth look at a little-known but important event from 150 years ago that was tragic on many fronts and had lasting consequences.

Blood Moon was published by Amika Press in June; thanks to the author for providing me with an e-copy.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Wonders Will Never Cease by Robert Irwin, a fantasy of medieval history and lore

Irwin’s entertaining literary fantasy has a solid historical framework yet is stuffed to the brim with well-known myths, rumors come to life, and imaginative tales created of whole cloth. Its protagonist (or maybe antagonist) is Anthony Woodville, a figure from England’s Wars of the Roses.

After he appears to be killed at the Battle of Towton and later revives, his life becomes overlaid with occult happenings. A disembodied head prognosticates, and the dead walk again. Various characters, including “knight prisoner” Thomas Malory and the royal alchemist, relate episodes from Arthurian lore, the Welsh Mabinogion, the Canterbury Tales, and more.

Characters from stories appear in the tangible world and historical figures surface in paranormal realms. Anthony’s mother claims descent from the fairy Melusine, and his sister, a widowed commoner, secretly marries King Edward. With so much strangeness around, Anthony has trouble discerning what is real.

History and fiction are interlaced throughout with dexterity and wit. Perhaps best appreciated by medieval enthusiasts, Irwin’s novel invites discussion on the value of stories and how they communicate our place in the world.

Robert Irwin's Wonders Will Never Cease is published by Arcade in the US this month; in the UK, the publisher is Dedalus.  This review was submitted for the 10/15 issue of Booklist.

Other notes:

- The publisher describes it as "for fans of T. H. White, George R. R. Martin, and Philippa Gregory," who aren't usually authors you'd see compared with one another, so this gives you a sense of the book's potential cross-genre appeal. For those most familiar with Philippa Gregory's work, Anthony Woodville's sister, Elizabeth, is the "White Queen" from her novels.

- This is the author's first new novel in 17 years; he's best known for The Arabian Nightmare, an epic fantasy set in medieval Cairo.

- Although prior knowledge of the many myths and legends tucked within isn't necessary, I think that the more familiar readers are with these elements, the more they'll appreciate the novel.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

The Vineyard by María Dueñas, a 19th-century epic of reinvention, family, mystery, and love

Mauro Larrea has become a self-made man in 1860s Mexico City by means of courage and brawny determination. Over decades, this native Spaniard has risen from silver miner to wealthy entrepreneur, owning a lavish colonial mansion, but thanks to an investment mishap involving a deceased gringo, he’s lost most of his fortune. If knowledge got out, it would not only ruin him personally but also disrupt his grown children’s social prospects. Now, at 47, he’s faced with starting over.

Indebted to an unscrupulous moneylender, then traveling to Havana on an errand for a family friend, he gets caught up in a marital squabble, which leads, eventually, to his winning substantial properties in Andalusia—an abandoned house, vineyard, and winery—in a bold gamble. He travels to the small Spanish town of Jerez, at the heart of the sherry trade, hoping to quickly sell them to a new buyer. Then Soledad Claydon, the former owner’s cousin, makes her appearance.

The narrative is eventful, the translation is nimble and smooth, and each of the three settings is presented in abundant, skillfully realized detail. It’s also refreshing to see mature people in leading roles. However, what prevents The Vineyard from being an engrossing story from start to finish is that Mauro doesn’t demonstrate significant depth in the beginning, and the story is his alone for nearly half the book.

The strong and intelligent yet vulnerable Soledad, a London wine merchant’s wife who insists on telling Mauro about her lost family legacy, is the novel’s real star. Through the pair’s interactions, many nuances get added to his character. Finding her company intoxicating, Mauro gets drawn deeply into the Montalvo family’s affairs, which conceal many secrets.

As a romantic epic with a hint of mystery, The Vineyard works well, though it takes a while to hit its stride.

The Vineyard, which has been translated from Spanish by Lorenza Garcia and Nick Caistor, was published by Atria in October. In the UK, the title is A Vineyard in Andalusia. This review first appeared in November's Historical Novels Review.