Saturday, December 28, 2019

Libraries and librarians take center stage in these works of historical fiction

Fellow librarians: the time for seeing our professional roles and collections depicted in historical fiction has arrived.  We've emerged from beyond the mousy stereotype and have even become trendy.  The titles in the following collage have clear appeal for all bibliophiles, not just those who work with books for a living.  Some were recently published, while you'll find the others appearing next year. Links go to their Goodreads pages.

Nancy Bilyeau's Christmas ghost story The Ghost of Madison Avenue (Amazon, 2019), a novella taking place in 1912 Manhattan, has the memorable setting of financier J. P. Morgan's opulent private library. The title of Janie Chang's The Library of Legends (William Morrow, May 2020) refers to a precious and rare centuries-old collection of myths and legends being transported across China by a group of brave university students as they flee Nanking during their country's war with Japan.  Marble lions flank the entrance of the New York Public Library, the setting for Fiona Davis's The Lions of Fifth Avenue (Dutton, July 2020), a dual-period novel of two women, eighty years apart, whose lives center around the landmark building, and who are both puzzled by mysterious book thefts.

In her multi-period novel Home for Erring and Outcast Girls (Crown, 2019), Julie Kibler, a librarian herself, focuses on a contemporary university librarian investigating the histories of two residents of a progressive home for fallen women in Texas a century earlier. Moyes' The Giver of Stars (Viking, 2019), set in a rural Kentucky mountain town, emphasizes female friendship in its depiction of the region's Depression-era Pack Horse Librarians. The importance of literature and literacy also emerges in The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles (Atria, June 2020), which heads to WWII-era Paris to acknowledge the valiant workers at the American Library of Paris, which remained open and supplying books during the Nazi occupation.

Richardson's The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek (Sourcebooks, 2019) centers themes of literacy and prejudice in the story of a young Appalachian woman, one of Kentucky's "blue people," who delivers books to mountain residents in the Depression years. Sarah Sundin, a prolific chronicler of WWII-era settings in her inspirational romances, has a librarian heroine for her moving, hopeful The Land Beneath Us (Revell, Feb. 2020), set at Camp Forrest, Tennessee, and overseas. Salley Vickers' The Librarian (Viking UK, 2018), described as "charmingly subversive" by the publisher, follows a young children's librarian in a small town in 1950s England which has its fill of gossip and secrets.

In addition, Publishers Marketplace includes a recent deal for Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray's The Personal Librarian, about Belle da Costa Greene, a woman of color who became J. P. Morgan's librarian in 1905; the novel will appear from Berkley in 2021. Greene also plays a prominent role in Nancy Bilyeau's novella, above.

Monday, December 23, 2019

The Oracle of Cumae by Melissa Hardy, a humorous romp through Italian history and folklore

In the central Italian city of Casteldurante in the late 19th century, a 99-year-old woman, Mariuccia Umbellino, summons a priest so she can unburden herself of a long-held secret. What she reveals isn’t your standard multi-generational saga fare; instead, Hardy’s short novel is a tongue-in-cheek romp through Italian folklore, mythology, and religious tradition.

The tale Mariuccia unfolds takes her back to her youth in the tiny village of Montemonaco, where her family tended olive groves and goats and guarded the shrine of the Lady Sibylla, the Oracle of Cumae.

Sibylla is the self-same prophetess from Virgil and Ovid. As Mariuccia and her mother discover, when they arrive to rescue her before a traveling priest and stuffy prior destroy the pagan cave where she lives, there’s nothing left of Sibylla but her voice – and she’s quite the talker. As if her presence doesn’t cause enough trouble – she gets to move around while tucked away in a jug – she stirs up plenty on her own. What happens next involves love spells (both failed and successful), ghosts, a marriage or two, and a tinker with the evil eye.

If the plot feels a little thin in places, Sibylla has some terrific wisecracking lines (she hates to be left out of the action). The novel’s a fun diversion on historical fiction’s lighter side, featuring two smart heroines who won’t be silenced.

Melissa Hardy's The Oracle of Cumae was published by Canada's Second Story Press in 2019, and I reviewed it from NetGalley for the Historical Novels Review.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes, a novel about books, dedication, and female friendship during the Depression years

Books provide people with education and entertainment; they change lives as they introduce different worlds and unfamiliar experiences. During the Depression, the women who transported books in their horses’ saddlebags to isolated Kentucky mountain residents, in all seasons, as part of the WPA’s Pack Horse Library Initiative provided a lifeline of literacy to their audiences.

Hearing about this unique job after a dull church service, Alice Van Cleve grows intrigued and immediately volunteers to join. After getting swept off her feet by Bennett Van Cleve, a burly, handsome Kentuckian visiting her native England, Alice feels stifled by the insularity in her new home of Baileyville, a small Appalachian town, and surprised by her new husband’s unexpected aloofness. Alice had never fit in at home, and with her clipped British accent and dislike for frivolous social pursuits, she’s an outsider in Kentucky, too.

She finds an unofficial new family with the four other pack-horse librarians, including fiery Margery O’Hare, who lives life as she pleases, and Izzy Bailey, a polio survivor with an overprotective mother. All the women face obstacles, not just the harsh elements on the trail, but also Alice’s controlling father-in-law, and townspeople threatened by the ideas the books contain.

Moyes strikes the right balance between the heartwarming details of the women’s friendship and the realistic threats they face. The mountainous landscape comes through beautifully as the women traverse rivers, ride their horses up through rocky forests and down into the hollers, and gaze up at the crystalline night sky. They have distinctive personalities, yet it’s easy to identify with all of them.

Anyone who has read Moyes knows her skill at writing moving, complex love stories, too. While one character is stereotypically evil, the novel is a fine tribute to the devoted, hardy librarians who served as knowledge ambassadors for their region.

The Giver of Stars was published by Pamela Dorman Books in the US and Canada, and Michael Joseph in the UK.  I reviewed it initially for November's Historical Novels Review.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Looking for a historical novel set in Paris around the WWII years?

If so, you have plenty to choose from. Most are set during the war, with some extending to just before or after.  These covers have a noticeable element in common, too.

Monday, December 09, 2019

The Land Beyond the Sea, Sharon Kay Penman's forthcoming epic of 12th-century Jerusalem and the Crusader states

Penman is justifiably renowned for her medieval epics. Working on a large canvas, she illustrates the era’s political movements and the personalities of its movers and shakers with equal dexterity. In this standalone work, she focuses on the twelfth-century Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem, ruled by relatives of England’s Plantagenets (her previous subjects).

Among many well-crafted characters, several quickly stand out, including Baldwin IV, the gifted boy monarch tragically stricken by leprosy; his stepmother, Maria Comnena, a courageous Greek princess scorned by her late husband’s first, discarded wife; and honorable nobleman Balian d’Ibelin.

As the Crusader states of Outremer (“the land beyond the sea”) defend their lands against Muslim military forces, which are led by the charismatic sultan Saladin, they struggle with internal strife. The royal succession is of pressing concern, since Baldwin can’t marry and expects to die young. The Muslims’ viewpoints are also relayed firsthand.

From fierce battle maneuvers to the emotional corridors of an unexpected love story, readers will feel intimately drawn into the characters’ dramatic lives in Penman’s splendid historical novel.

The Land Beyond the Sea will be published by Putnam in March 2020; I wrote this early review for Booklist's 12/1 issue. Reviewing this 688-page novel in 175 words or fewer was a particular challenge...

Penman's previous two historical novels, Lionheart (2011) and A King's Ransom (2014), which focused on Richard I of England, take place after The Land Beyond the Sea and feature some of the same characters once Richard heads to the Holy Land on the Third Crusade.  The cast of this latest book, and the historical events depicted within, will be less familiar to most readers.

Regarding the relationship of Baldwin IV to the Plantagenet kings of England, he was the cousin of Henry II, who ruled England at the time (and whose consort was Eleanor of Aquitaine). Baldwin's father, King Amalric of Jerusalem, and Henry's father, Geoffrey of Anjou, were half-brothers. Amalric appears in a few early scenes in this book. Going back even further in Jerusalem's medieval history, Amalric's mother, Melisende, was a reigning queen of Jerusalem and a fascinating historical figure. Her story was retold in fiction by Judith Tarr in Queen of Swords (2000). I'd first encountered Baldwin IV in fiction in two of Tarr's historical fantasy novels, Alamut and The Dagger and the Cross and later in Cecelia Holland's Jerusalem.  You may also remember Balian of Ibelin from the film Kingdom of Heaven. In all, for historical fiction readers in search of novels on the subject to whet your appetite for the period before Penman's novel makes its appearance, there are these to choose from, among others.

Monday, December 02, 2019

Nina MacLaughlin's Wake, Siren: Ovid's Metamorphoses for the #MeToo era

“The act of art is metamorphosis,” pronounces one woman in this eclectic collection, in which MacLaughlin daringly fashions a new artistic work that transforms female characters from Ovid’s Metamorphoses into the heroes (or anti-heroes) of their own stories.

While they take a feminist slant, similar to that in Madeline Miller’s Circe (2018), the 34 accounts in this multi-voiced mosaic, which range from a couple of pages to much longer, creatively diverge in approach and style. Some stories dazzle with their poetic eloquence, while others, written in slangy contemporary English, offer short, punchy lines and timeless themes.

Baucis, an elderly woman, tells a moving tale of enduring love and the gods’ power and gratitude, while a therapy-session dialogue ideally suits Myrrha’s disturbing story of her son’s conception. Medusa reveals the true tragedy of her plight, and in “Sibyl,” MacLaughlin converts the traditional tale into a paean to older women’s wisdom.

Many women in Ovid’s poems suffer unwanted male attention or sexual violence and find themselves silenced after being changed into animals, trees, or something else, but here they express their sorrow, fear, and rage. The free mingling of ancient characters with elements of workaday modern life won’t please everyone, but open-minded readers should applaud the virtuosity and find much worth discovering in these memorable reinterpretations.

Nina MacLaughlin's Wake, Siren: Ovid Resung was published by FSG on November 19th. I wrote this review for Booklist's October 1st issue, and it's the latest in a growing string of re-interpreted myths that I've been assigned to cover for that publication, including Miller's Circe as mentioned above, Maria Dahvana Headley's The Mere Wife (which re-imagines Beowulf in the suburbs; stunningly good, but not historical fiction), Kamila Shamsie's award-winning Home Fire (also excellent, but not HF).  With its mix of mythical and modern settings, whether you'd call Wake, Siren historical fiction is also up for debate as well, but it's worth reading, even if you don't think you're interested in shorter pieces.