Friday, January 31, 2020

Historical fiction award winners from ALA Midwinter 2020

The American Library Association Midwinter conference took place last weekend in Philly. I'm a bit late in reporting on the book awards there, so without further ado: here are the historical novels that garnered honors at the conference.

On the Reading List for 2020, which selects the best in genre fiction for adult readers:

In the Historical Fiction category, the winner was Lara Prescott's The Secrets We Kept (Knopf), focusing on two women on a secret mission to smuggle Pasternak's manuscript of Dr. Zhivago out of the USSR so it can be published and finally reach readers worldwide.

On the shortlist for Historical Fiction are: City of Flickering Light by Juliette Fay (1920s Hollywood), The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins (Georgian London), The Song of the Jade Lily by Kirsty Manning (WWII-era Shanghai), and Where the Light Enters by Sara Donati (late 19th-century NYC).

Also for the Reading List awards, the winner in Fantasy was Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, set in Mexico during the Jazz Age.  The Mystery winner was Alison Sinclair's The Right Sort of Man (see my review), taking place in post-WWII London.

On to the ALA Notable Books for 2020, which (in the Fiction category) are principally novels of a literary bent. Those receiving accolades include:

Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Water Dancer (slavery in 19th-c America)
Michael Crummey, The Innocents (19th-century Newfoundland)
Colson Whitehead, The Nickel Boys (Jim Crow-era Florida)

Among the winners of the Alex Awards, adult books suitable for young adults, was Dominicana by Angie Cruz, an immigrant story set in 1960s New York.  The Nickel Boys appears on the winners' list here, too.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Review of Cesare: A Novel of War-Torn Berlin by Jerome Charyn

The 1920 German silent horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari featured a mad scientist and a somnambulist named Cesare who did his bidding. Adding to his repertoire of unique historical interpretations, Charyn transplants this scenario into Nazi Germany, a setting with nightmarish qualities made real.

His “Cesare” is Erik Holdermann, who survives childhood trauma to become the henchman of Wilhelm Canaris, head of Germany’s military spy network, after saving the older man’s life. Acting against the Nazi regime from within, they quietly try to help individual Jews escape, but in a place rife with revenge murders and double and triple agents, discovery is inevitable; the only question is when.

The taut story line is full of surreal visuals and elaborate illusions, from Berlin’s Weisse Maus cabaret, reborn as a Gestapo club, to the purported Jewish cultural center at Theresienstadt. The toxic atmosphere distorts everyone’s nature, and if that’s not disturbing enough, there are too many superficially depicted, sex-obsessed female characters who enjoy physical abuse. Inventive, intense, and repellent in equal measure.

Cesare was published this month by Bellevue Literary Press, and I wrote this review for Booklist's Nov 15th issue.

Charyn writes in many styles and has specialized in creative mixtures of fact and fiction focusing on historical characters, such as Teddy Roosevelt (The Perilous Adventures of the Cowboy King) and writers Jerzy Kosinski (Jerzy) and Emily Dickinson (The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson). This was one of those novels I admired more than I enjoyed. It received starred reviews in Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, and is getting raves elsewhere, but I haven't seen other reviews that mention its depiction of women. I appreciated the creative thought behind the presentation of the setting, and the blurb described it as a love story, in part, but I can't say I read it that way.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Remembrance by Rita Woods, a unique debut saga of American history

In Rita Woods’ imaginative debut novel, the title refers to an important state of being and a special place.

Remembrance is historical fiction more in the vein of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad than a traditional narrative, although little from the blurb gives this away. It has a firm thread of fantasy within, or what you might call magical realism. Several of its central female characters – there are four – have abilities, perhaps related to the ancestral practice of Haitian vodun, they can use to protect themselves and others from harm, if they’re able to control them (not always possible). The secret haven called Remembrance, created by one strong-willed woman for this purpose, sits within the borders of antebellum Ohio and shelters a group of the formerly enslaved; white people aren’t permitted to enter.

These four women, past and present, all face varying degrees of racism and its devastating effects and must rely on themselves and one another. Gaelle, an aide in a modern-day Cleveland nursing home, still deals with the tragic aftermath of the Haitian earthquake while devotedly caring for an elderly resident who has the odd ability of dispersing heat, which she also shares. In 1857, in defiance of the freedom she was promised on her 18th birthday, a house slave named Margot and her younger sister are sold away from the Hannigans’ Louisiana plantation after the family’s fortunes fall into ruin. And back in 1791, an African-born enslaved woman called Abigail – not her birth name – is forced to leave Saint Domingue with her mistress, leaving her sons behind, as maroons (escaped slaves) on the island join forces in violent rebellion.

The themes of unpredictable futures, empty promises, and family separations emerge in all three eras. Most beguiling here are the elements of Creole culture woven into the women’s experiences, the original mélange of time periods, and Woods’ ability to describe sights, sounds, and feelings so evocatively. For example, a scene with Abigail encountering brutal cold for the first time in ice-encrusted New Orleans: She blew out a breath and watched it fog in the frigid air, both intrigued and horrified, as it hovered a moment in front of her lips, like some restless winter spirit.

As if often the case in multi-period fiction, the historical settings and personages hold the greatest interest. Gaelle’s story, set so much later than the other two, is less fully developed and seems tangential to the plot at times, while Abigail’s account, which sees her from young womanhood through old age, is an affecting tale that also presents the mysterious legacy she leaves behind. There are also some subtle mistakes in French usage.

Don’t expect to have all your questions answered about how the supernatural world-building works, but for anyone interested in a unique presentation of American history and heritage, the novel is impressively detailed and worthy of note.

Remembrance is published today by Forge; thanks to the publisher for sending me an ARC.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Orphans are everywhere in today's historical fiction

From Oliver Twist to Anne Shirley, and from Jane Eyre to Cosette from Les Misérables, orphans play starring roles in many classic works of literature. The hooks for these stories practically write themselves: what circumstances left these young people alone in the world, and how do they learn to survive? Their coming-of-age and ongoing character growth can result in gripping fiction.

And so it may not be surprising to see orphans trending in historical novels. Helping to spur this focus is the huge success of Christina Baker Kline's Orphan Train (2013), a multi-period novel about the homeless and abandoned children from America's eastern cities who were sent out West on trains, in hopes they'd find a better life with foster parents there (the reality, though, was sometimes grim).

Here are a dozen recent historical novels with a distinctive title commonality. Many, though not all, take place during the early decades of the 20th century.  How many have you read?

Here are a few more — all very popular with historical fiction readers and book clubs — that incorporate similar themes: children who endure traumatic circumstances during historical times.

For a full list of authors, titles, and settings in the collages above, here's a historical orphan reading list.  Please add additional suggestions in the comments.

Elizabeth Brooks, The Orphan of Salt Winds (Tin House, 2019). 1939 England.

Shirley Dickson, The Orphan Sisters (Bookouture, 2019). WWII-era England.

Joanna Goodman, The Home for Unwanted Girls (Harper, 2019).  1950s Quebec.

Stacey Halls, The Lost Orphan (MIRA, April 2020).  1750s London.

Pam Jenoff, The Orphan's Tale (MIRA, 2017). WWII-era Europe.

Jeanne Kalogridis, The Orphan of Florence (St. Martin's Griffin, 2017). 15th-century Florence, Italy.

Lauren Kate, The Orphan's Song (Putnam, 2019).  18th-century Venice.

Natasha Lester, The Paris Orphan (Forever, 2019).  WWII-era Paris.

Gemma Liviero, Pastel Orphans (Lake Union, 2015).  1930s Berlin.

Kristina McMorris, Sold on a Monday (Sourcebooks, 2018).  Depression-era Pennsylvania.

Glynis Peters, The Secret Orphan (One More Chapter, 2019). WWII-era England.

Sandy Taylor, The Little Orphan Girl (Bookouture, 2018). 1901 Ireland.

Kim van Alkemade, Orphan #8 (William Morrow, 2015). 1920s Manhattan; multi-period.

Ellen Marie Wiseman, The Orphan Collector (Kensington, July 2020). WWI-era Philadelphia.

Lisa Wingate, Before We Were Yours (Ballantine, 2019). 1930s-40s Tennessee; multi-period.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

The Daughters of Ironbridge by Mollie Walton, a saga of friendship and class differences in 1830s Shropshire

This is the debut saga from Walton, a successful transition for the author, who also pens historical fiction under her real name, Rebecca Mascull. She writes with admiration for the ordinary people whose toil fueled industrial growth in mid-19th-century England.

The setting is Shropshire in the 1830s, over 50 years since the world’s first iron bridge—which gave the nearby town its name—was constructed over the River Severn. The two protagonists, Anny Woodvine and Margaret King, are unlikely friends. Anny is the amiable, well-loved daughter of a furnace filler at the ironworks, while Margaret, whose ironmaster father despairs of her shyness, lives in privilege at Southover, the wealthy estate overlooking the town.

When the girls first meet by accident in the woodland, Anny, whose mother taught her to read and write, has just taken a job running errands for Mr. King’s estate manager. She is nervous about speaking with the daughter of the house, but Margaret, a lonely girl abused by her older brother, Cyril, tries to put her at ease. They get to know one another through meetings and secret letters, but problems arise years later due to Cyril’s actions, and when a handsome artist comes to town.

Their story is rooted in the history of Ironbridge and the local region, with many examples of the class divide. Anny’s parents take pride in a good day’s work, while Mr. King (somewhat stereotypically) is cold and stern, aiming for profit above all. There’s also some mystery about a baby whose young mother died while carrying her across the iron bridge late one evening, but the plot doesn’t take the obvious route here. Despite some head-hopping which gives away people’s motives too early, The Daughters of Ironbridge is an engaging read with surprising twists, and the ending sets events up nicely for the next in the series.

The novel was published by Zaffre in 2019; this was a personal purchase I'd reviewed for the Historical Novels Review. The next book, The Secrets of Ironbridge, will be published in April 2020. Some history: the town of Ironbridge is described and promoted as the "birthplace of the Industrial Revolution."

View of the Iron Bridge, 2015, with its previous grey color.
Photo by Simon Hark, via Wikimedia Commons - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Monday, January 06, 2020

Written in Their Stars by Elizabeth St. John, her newest English Civil War family saga

Spanning fifteen years, from the height of the English Civil War to after the Restoration, Elizabeth St. John’s third volume of her Lydiard Chronicles is the most complex yet. It continues to add new shadings of personality to her ongoing cast of characters while homing in on three women from her family tree whose actions strongly influenced their times, and vice versa.

Luce Hutchinson, daughter of Lucy (St. John) Apsley, heroine of the first book, The Lady of the Tower, sits firmly on the side of Parliament and yearns for a world without oppressive monarchical rule. As one of the signers of the warrant for Charles I’s execution, Luce's husband Colonel John Hutchinson, a well-known Puritan leader, makes a mark on history that can’t be undone.

With that action, John further alienates Luce’s brother, Allen, a fervent Cavalier who chooses to go into exile in France rather than remain in Cromwell’s England. With him goes his wife, Frances, and young daughter, Isabella; they risk being called traitors for joining the court of Charles I’s queen in Paris, but Allen has his eye on the long game, planning to bide his time and working toward the restoration of Prince Charles. Their cousin Nan Wilmot, the intelligent and crafty Countess of Rochester, does what she must to survive the tumultuous era, playing both sides to ensure her sons’ inheritance is kept intact. Nan sits at the heart of a spy network and enlists Frances in her secret mission to re-establish the monarchy.

For readers most familiar with the English Civil War though its accounts of battles and prominent men, this evocative saga will shift your impressions. St. John has based her novel on family memoirs, and their stories are worth knowing. She also weaves in other little-known facets of history, such as the unsung role of Susan Hyde (sister of the Earl of Clarendon, the future James II’s father-in-law). Barbara Villiers looms large in history as Charles II’s favorite mistress, but in Written in Their Stars, readers also see her as the lissome St. John cousin who comes to play a surprising part not just in the royal court but in her family’s future.

Despite the political leanings that divide them, the characters remain emotionally close to each other as family—a delicate balance evoked well in the writing. The relationships between three sets of spouses are also a highlight. While this novel can stand alone, I recommend reading the previous two books first to fill in all of the background to the characters, and what led them to the paths they chose.

Written in Their Stars was published by Falcon Historical in November (ebook and paperback, 384pp).


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Written in Their Stars

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

Emuna Elon's House on Endless Waters, a unique and ruminative WWII novel

Yoel Blum, a prominent Israeli writer, had promised his mother that he’d never visit Amsterdam, the city where he was born. But she has passed on, and when his agent persuades him to attend a literary event there at his Dutch publisher’s invitation, he feels obliged to accept. Yoel knows little about the circumstances of his birth, other than that his mother left the Netherlands with him and his older sister, Nettie, during WWII, never speaking of the place where she lost her husband and other relatives.

While there, Yoel and his wife, Bat-Ami, pay a visit to the Jewish Historical Museum and, in a film clip from a long-ago wedding, catch a glimpse of his mother as a young woman with her husband and daughter, and holding an unfamiliar male infant. This spurs Yoel to visit Nettie back in Israel to find out who the baby was. The startling story Nettie tells him inspires him to return to Amsterdam alone, several days later, on a journey to research and craft a very personal novel he feels will be his most significant work.

Elon chooses to withhold the full details of Nettie’s revelations, a decision that feels frustrating initially for a character-centered literary novel, since it creates even more distance between readers and the protagonist. Yoel, we learn, has closed himself off emotionally throughout his life, even from his wife, children, and grandchildren. But what the author does instead is use a technique, I decided later, that proves to be much more original.

While perambulating around Amsterdam and observing venues central to his family story, Yoel hand-writes scenes for his novel in a series of notebooks. These imagined scenes follow his young mother, Sonia, who he now feels he never really knew; her physician husband, Eddy; and their two young children, who live in a basement apartment owned by a wealthy couple, the de Langes, as increasing restrictions are imposed upon Amsterdam’s Jewish residents. Both families believe they’ll be immune from the dreadful events happening to Jews elsewhere.

Yoel’s thoughts and experiences are closely intercut with episodes from his manuscript, which increases the pacing of this ruminative work and creates continual interactions between today and the past, often multiple times in the same chapter. This enhances Elon’s themes about the long-term effects of trauma, the suffering and persecution carved into Jewish collective memory, and mothers’ desperate instincts to protect their children. For me, one aspect of the mystery in Yoel’s past was never in doubt from one point forward, but the images of wartime Amsterdam are beautifully evoked and heart-rending.

House on Endless Waters, translated from Hebrew by Anthony Berris and Linda Yichiel, will be published by Atria/S&S on January 7th; thanks to the publisher for sending the review copy.