Thursday, December 31, 2020

An abundance of upcoming WWII fiction for the first half of 2021

Since I'd posted earlier about historical novels not featuring WWII, I thought it only fair to include a gallery of forthcoming fiction set during this prominent era.  All will be appearing in the first half of 2021. There are more where these came from; I selected a dozen out of personal interest and in an attempt to provide a variety of locales, without considering the cover designs.  As it happens, many offer a similar look: women in period-appropriate garb (and seriously spiffy hairdos) with their back to the reader.  Links go to the book's page on Goodreads.

Above we have a mix of debut novels and new releases from established historical novelists. Kristin Beck's Courage, My Love (Berkley, April) features two young Italian women who join the resistance during the Nazi occupation of Rome. The Historians (Harper Perennial, Jan.), from Swedish novelist  Cecilia Ekbäck, is a conspiracy thriller set amidst tensions surrounding Sweden's neutral status in the war. Saint-Malo, a historic coastal town in Brittany, is the locale for Mario Escobar's The Librarian of Saint-Malo (Thomas Nelson, June). It reveals the love story between a librarian and her longtime sweetheart and her determination to protect the library's book collections during the war.

Another debut, The Girl from the Channel Islands by Jenny Lecoat (Graydon House, Jan.), called Hedy's War in the UK, centers on a young Jewish woman, a refugee from Vienna, and the daring choices she makes to survive the Nazi occupation of the island of Jersey. Madeline Martin's first mainstream historical, The Last Bookshop in London (Hanover Square, Apr.), another novel with obvious appeal for bibliophiles, evokes the value of stories in its tale of Grace Bennett, a bookshop employee in wartime London. The Rose Code by Kate Quinn (Berkley, Mar.), her followup to The Huntress, promises to be another twisty historical novel, this time surrounding three women involved in codebreaking activity at Bletchley Park. I visited Bletchley on vacation last year, back when we could still travel, so this novel is high on my TBR.

Canadian author Jennifer Robson writes that her newest book, Our Darkest Night (Morrow, Jan.) is based on true events; it focuses on a young Jewish woman from Venice who takes refuge with a former-seminarian-turned-farmer to escape the Holocaust. Virginia Hall, an American spy who worked with Britain's SOE during WWII, is the subject of Erika Robuck's biographical novel The Invisible Woman (Berkley, Feb.). Bestselling thriller writer Lisa Scottoline's first historical novel is Eternal (Putnam, Mar.), which centers on three friends as Mussolini comes to power in Italy; it promises a story of love, loss, and tested loyalties in the heart of Rome.

The Codebreakers by Alli Sinclair (MIRA Australia, Mar.) is about the women covertly working for the intelligence organization called the Central Bureau in 1943 Brisbane, cracking codes that may shift the course of WWII in the Pacific. Deborah Swift's newest romantic WWII saga, The Lifeline (Sapere, Jan.), takes place in Nazi-occupied Norway and deals with the covert seafaring operation known as the Shetland Bus.  And the setting of S. Kirk Walsh's The Elephant of Belfast (Counterpoint, Apr.) should be obvious; the blurb reveals it's inspired by historical events and features a female zookeeper's bond with an elephant in the Belfast zoo during the Blitz.

This is my last post for this year, and I'll be glad to see 2020 gone. Thanks for reading my site, and I send my wishes for a peaceful 2021 and an upcoming year of great reading to everyone.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Fifty Words for Rain by Asha Lemmie, a dramatic coming-of-age novel set in post-WWII Japan

With her first novel, Asha Lemmie proves herself a talented writer unafraid to take chances. Her heroine’s situation is unique, and her journey to adulthood is one that won’t leave the mind quickly. 

Noriko “Nori” Kamiza is only eight when her beautiful mother brings her to her family home in Kyoto in 1948 and abandons her at the gates, making her promise to obey and keep silent. We soon learn why: Nori is illegitimate, the product of her aristocratic mother’s affair with a Black American GI, and her appearance and very existence are a deep source of shame.

For two years, Nori remains isolated in the mansion’s attic, cared for by her stern grandmother’s maid and educated well, but she’s subject to regular beatings and attempts to bleach her almond-colored skin. Her life changes when her teenage half-brother Akira arrives at the house to live after his father’s death. 

The dynamic that forms between them – the beloved heir and the accursed bastard – is mesmerizing. After being hidden away for so long, Nori is hungry for attention but afraid to misstep. She worships Akira for easing her restrictions and standing up for her, which nobody has done before. For his part, Akira clearly cares for his little sister, but he’s a brilliant violinist with plans of his own; she isn’t his entire world, like he is hers.

This is literary fiction with many quotable lines and a cinematic, fast-moving plot. Nori’s path to maturity is unorthodox and beset by dramatic, often shocking shifts in circumstance. Nori is bright, curious, and – understandably – not in good control of her emotions. Readers may struggle with some of her choices. They also won’t fail to empathize with her as she learns self-acceptance, overcomes prejudice, and emerges as a powerful force of her own.

Fifty Words for Rain was published by Dutton in September (I reviewed it for November's Historical Novels Review). Its publication was moved up after it was chosen for the Good Morning America book club, and it subsequently became a NYT bestseller.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Snow by John Banville, a chilling historical mystery set in 1950s Ireland

Snow: cold, soft, brilliantly blinding. It muffles sound and casts a thick shroud over whatever lies beneath. The symbolism is apropos in Banville’s newest crime novel, the first to be written under his own name rather than the pseudonym (Benjamin Black) he’d established for genre-fiction purposes.

Snow takes place in County Wexford, Ireland, a time when the Catholic Church reigned supreme and buried its adversaries. One frigid day in 1957, Detective Inspector St. John (pronounced “Sinjun”) Strafford arrives at Ballyglass House to investigate a murder. The body of Father Tom Lawless, longtime friend of the Osborne family, lies on the floor of the ornate library, throat cut and private parts removed. A parish priest’s killing is bizarre enough on its own, and almost no one seems upset about it. Strafford shares the privileged Protestant background of the Osbornes but finds, to his annoyance, that this doesn’t gain him any ground in his sleuthing.

The story appears to follow a standard country-house mystery plot, with a closed-in setting and characters fitting familiar types: a refined patriarch, his attractive younger wife, their rebellious adult children. Banville peels away at these tropes as the personalities behind the theatrical parts make themselves known. Strafford is himself an intriguing figure, both in his career – most policemen in the Garda are Catholic – and in his reactions to the women he meets.

That said, he’s surprisingly slow on the uptake in pinpointing motive. An interlude late in the story, seen from Father Tom’s viewpoint, makes things clear for anyone who hasn’t yet figured it out. Banville has a consummate hand with establishing atmosphere, though, in sentences of chillingly ethereal beauty: “Surely such a violent act should leave something behind, a trace, a tremor in the air, like the hum that lingers when a bell stops tolling?”

Snow was published by Hanover Square Press in October; in the UK, Faber and Faber is the publisher. I reviewed it for the Historical Novels Review from a NetGalley copy. This novel seemed apropos for this time of year in the US Midwest. This is my first time reading one of John Banville's (that is, Benjamin Black's) crime novels; if you've read others you'd recommend, please comment.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Interview with Gillian Polack, author of History and Fiction: Writers, their Research, Worlds, and Stories

I'm pleased to have Dr. Gillian Polack here today for a Q&A about her book History and Fiction: Writers, their Research, Worlds, and Stories, which is newly out in paperback from Peter Lang ($22.95/£15.00). I'm glad to see it finally available in this format, since this will encourage more individual readers and writers to check it out and pick up their own copies. 

History and Fiction takes an in-depth look at the varied approaches that fiction writers take in incorporating history into their stories. This can depend on many factors, including the genre they're writing, the demands of the marketplace, their emotional involvement with their chosen subject or period, and more.

Gillian's background and expertise give her a unique perspective on the complex history-fiction relationship. A scholar based in Canberra, Australia, she writes historical and speculative fiction and has doctorates in both Medieval History and Creative Writing. Her research for the book was based on interviews she conducted with a wide spectrum of authors. I first reviewed History and Fiction for the Historical Novels Review in 2016 and was impressed by its insights. As I wrote in the original review, "This study will be an essential read for genre scholars, but the accessible writing style extends its appeal beyond academic circles. Historical novelists can consult it for deeper insight into their own writing and research choices, while anyone curious about how authors bring the past to life through fiction will come away with considerable knowledge of what goes into the crafting of the novels they enjoy."

I hope you'll enjoy this Q&A.  Please visit Gillian's website at for more background on her research and writings.

How did you first get the idea to write this book?

The relationships between history and different types of story are one of my lifelong interests. When I became a fiction writer, I read the scholarship on how history relates to novels and found a hole. I researched to fill the hole (mainly for my own benefit) and writers asked if I could explain my research to them, and History and Fiction was the result.

One of the book’s highlights, for me, was the honest commentary provided by the many authors you interviewed, and your analysis of their thoughts. How did you decide which authors to talk to?

I sent out a request through my networks for authors who had an interest in the Middle Ages to answer questions for my research. From those who expressed willingness, I chose those who represented the biggest possible range of author experience. I didn't want to focus on only famous authors or on a group of writers who were all as yet unpublished. I wanted a clear cross-section of experience and interest.

Why the Middle Ages? My first doctorate was in Medieval History, so I had the best skills for evaluating answers relating to knowledge and sources used by focusing on that period. I admit, having the Middle Ages as a focal point also gained me responses from a wider range of writers, for some writers back then knew me as a Medievalist and others as a writer of science fiction and fantasy.

I appreciated the broad focus on the types of authors who incorporate history in their fiction. This may be an American thing, but there doesn’t seem to be significant overlap between writers of historical fiction and speculative fiction, or their readerships – even though storytelling and detailed world-building are important to both genres, and authors of both are frequently inspired by real-world history. I was a fantasy reader long before I was a historical fiction reader – one genre led me to another – though that doesn’t seem typical. The genres diverge, of course, on the type of research involved, the purposes of the research, the level of historical accuracy, and other factors, as you’ve explained in the book. Do you feel that these two groups of writers (and/or communities of readers) could benefit from a greater acquaintance with one another, and if so, how?

I suspect the overlap between the two groups of writers is greater than it used to be. I am active in both, and I often find friends/fellow writers who are also. I will catch up with a couple of friends at a science fiction convention and a couple more at the Historical Novel Society Australasia conference. Our overlap group is not large in number, but it’s definitely growing. 

The genres diverge and we talk about that a lot when we meet up. Who writes what kind of story for what kind of audience, is what it boils down to. One thing that’s really clear about writers who work in both genres is that we’re all very aware of genre and how the history we need is different in each. Good editors are aware of this. I discovered this personally when I wrote a story for a mixed-genre anthology. I know the editor (Sherwood Smith) through speculative fiction but wrote historical fiction for It Happened at the Ball, because I wanted to explore what might happen after a couple of waves of plague (ironically, given this year). Sherwood edited it very much as historical fiction.

I probably should explore this area more one day. Where research meets and produces different types of fiction, and how editors handle the genre differences are fascinating questions.

The area with much less overlap is historians and historical fiction. More historians who are also fiction writers write historical fantasy, romance or literary fiction than historical fiction. I used to worry about how historians would deal with my Medieval time travel novel (Langue[dot]doc 1305) because of this, but other historians have enjoyed it. Such a relief!

As you read over the responses from the authors, did they take you in any unexpected directions with your research?

I love research because there are always unexpected directions!

It still strikes me that I went in thinking about historical fiction and historical fantasy, and that now I feel very strongly that we should not be neglecting other genres. Historical romance is critical for the way many people interpret history and why someone falls in love with one period or another, for example. It’s understudied. Too many people say, “Oh, romance,” and miss its importance. 

The responses also reminded me, over and over again, that writers are each and every one of them individuals with personal responses to history and with different publishing experience. I'm very good at interpreting the wider cultural patterns in narrative: those responses taught me that wider cultural patterns should never be divorced from real people.

Why a writer chooses a time and place and genre is critical. Who they are and what they experience plays a part in those choices. Elizabeth Chadwick's memory of her childhood has become my personal trigger for remembering that writers matter and that who they are affects what stories they tell.

Many historical fiction fans enjoy reading authors’ notes and learning more about the research and writing choices undertaken. You wisely point out, though, that the presence of bibliographies or notes doesn’t always indicate that the author has interpreted history correctly. What in your view makes for a good (or helpful, trustworthy, etc.) author’s note in a historical novel? (Feel free to provide specific examples if you’d like.)

I love this question. I don’t have a lot of opinions about the good, the helpful, the accurate, or even the trustworthy in author’s notes. I do, however, have opinions. Some writers want me to evaluate their notes. I have annoyed several of my friends because of this.

I was an historiographer before I became a Medievalist. The way historiographers interpret history is one of my favourite things, and so I don't judge bibliographies and notes on how they compare to the equivalent given by a specialist historian. This is why good and bad, helpful and unhelpful aren’t the categories that inform my judgement. 

For me, author's prologues and epilogues and notes are tools to find out how the writer thinks about the history they've used in a given novel. I want to know where their insights come from and what writers want readers to think about in relation to their stories. 

It's not about how accurate the history is, it's about how credible it is. How much do we want to believe it when we read the novel? A list of books, or an explanation of research, or a description of how an event is seen by an historian - all these things help me see a writer's relationship to history.

Some of the authors you interviewed described their strong emotional links to the periods and/or characters they wrote about, and you spoke about how this can color their research choices and their writing. Even more, they may not be aware this is happening. How can the average reader gain awareness of these potential biases? 

Reading those author’s notes is an excellent start. I also read interviews (like this one!) and blog posts by writers. I look to see where they come from and how they define that magic word ‘research’. I always, always check for their emotional response. In History and Fiction Wendy Dunn’s answers to my questions are a perfect litmus test for emotional responses. 

Emotional responses to the past are not bad things at all. What they do is help us follow a line of decisions a writer makes. If Writer A loves George IV passionately and will never hear a bad thing said about him, then they will write a very different story to Writer B who wants to express all their anger about how he treated his father or Writer C who refuses to write anything set after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Each of these writers may have identical characters, but the books will be vastly different. That’s where we see these responses at work in fiction.

The easiest way to find potential biases is to look for the trails they leave, in other words. Not all biases are bad, but we can make our own decisions about them if we understand them.

One of the statements you made in the first chapter, “The role of the fiction writer in exploring history, in creating new interpretations and in exploring old ones, cannot be underestimated,” struck me as being particularly true and relevant. What are some works of fiction you feel have been particularly influential in this respect, either for you personally or on a larger cultural level?

I have so many answers to this question.

I generally start with Lord Dunsany, William Morris, JRR Tolkien and the fantasy Middle Ages or Sir Walter Scott and the historical Middle Ages. Recently I added Maurice Druon and an entirely different historical Middle Ages to my answer, because what happens in French language historical fiction is quite different to what happens in English. I cannot count how many conversations I’ve had about the effect of Georgette Heyer and the entire rewriting of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century in the minds of many. 

This is something I teach. I ask students to imagine a Richard III without Thomas More’s “History of King Richard III.” Even people who hate it and who despise Shakespeare's play and every other offshoot from More’s satire are affected by it. We can write stories that love Richard and stories that hate Richard and alternate histories that cut him out of history, but all of them are influenced by More and his followers.

I also love talking about it, because every culture uses story based on history to help shape what it is. Sometimes we take from the influential work and we add to it, but treasure its form and cultural function. Sometimes we do the opposite. This question is a well that never runs dry.  

Friday, December 11, 2020

Looking at the "best of" historical fiction lists for 2020

As the year winds down, media outlets, bloggers, and other review venues are compiling lists of their favorite novels of 2020.  Not all include historical fiction as its own category, but here are some sites that do.  I enjoy looking over these lists to see which books I've read already (usually not many, since my tastes are eclectic and my reading is partly based on what I'm assigned), to get introduced to new titles, and to see whether I agree with the choices made.

In the Goodreads Choice Awards, Brit Bennett's The Vanishing Half won the historical fiction category handily with over 100K votes.  The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner took second place.  I loved both books.  And I've actually read 7 out of the 16 that were finalists, which isn't typical.  My favorites among the finalists are The Vanishing Half, The Jane Austen Society, and Ariel Lawhon's Code Name Hélène.

The New York Times lists 10 standout novels of historical fiction.  My favorite among them is Daniel Kehlmann's Tyll.  There are a couple novels on this list I was lukewarm about.  Only two titles overlap between the NYT list and the Goodreads list (Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet and Hilary Mantel's The Mirror and the Light).

Kirkus Reviews also posted their Best Historical Fiction of 2020, with a dozen selections (Hamnet is the only one I've read).

NPR's Book Concierge is always fun to explore.  I like how they intermix adult and children's titles in their historical fiction collage, along with historical romance. This site uses the broadest umbrella for the genre, which appeals to me.  

Glancing at these lists so far, Alice Randall's Black Bottom Saints (Black Detroit from the early 20th century), Emma Donoghue's The Pull of the Stars (the 1918 flu epidemic), Jess Walter's The Cold Millions (early 20th-c Spokane), and Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet (Shakespeare's England) make multiple appearances.

She Reads has two lists of best historicals for 2020, ones chosen by their historical fiction reviewer, Cindy Burnett, and another of their winners in the official She Reads awards.

The Times (London) lists their favorite novels set in the past. You'll need a login (which gives access to some free articles) to read it.  This list includes one title I hadn't come across before, All Our Broken Idols by Paul M.M. Cooper, set in ancient Assyria and the present day.  Mantel and O'Farrell are here too.

If I missed any lists, please let me know in the comments. I'm still debating about whether to post my own list, plus my year of reading isn't over yet.

Monday, December 07, 2020

A secret WWII history comes to light in Aimie K. Runyan's Across the Winding River

I’ve revisited this novel so many times in the past few months that the characters feel like old friends. First I read it back in June, but before I could gather my thoughts together and write a review, I was assigned a different book with a very short deadline – then the same thing happened in September. After finding some time over the Thanksgiving weekend, I got my writeup done at last.

Aimie K. Runyan’s fifth novel is anchored in two historical periods – California in 2007, and Germany during WWII – and told from three perspectives. The story combines a classic plot pattern of a young woman discovering her father’s secret wartime history with his first-person account of that history, along with a third strand from the viewpoint of a German woman, a female pilot and aircraft designer who’s an aristocrat by marriage, and who has secret Jewish heritage. The stories interlock, but not the way you’d assume.

In the modern era, Beth Cohen is startled to discover a decades-old snapshot of her father, Max, gazing into the eyes of a pregnant young blonde. At the end of his life, at age 90, Max Blumenthal is finally ready to reveal his involvement with the woman he loved and lost before he met Beth’s mother, hoping to solve a mystery that’s lingered for decades. In 1944, as a newly minted dentist, Max decides to enlist rather than wait to be drafted, feeling an obligation to do his part for the war because of his lost relatives from Latvia. Part of a medical detachment during the Battle of Hürtgen Forest near the German border, he gets pulled into the resistance movement after one night when he intercepts a young woman stealing medical supplies for a friend she claims is working against Hitler. He chooses to let her go.

Of the three protagonists, Johanna Schiller is the most intriguing. As a skilled test pilot, she doesn’t fall into the Nazis’ preferred role for women, and she grows uneasy about her brother’s quick absorption into the Hitler Youth and fellow Germans’ reporting on each other’s “unpatriotic” activities. Johanna also has a younger sister, Metta, who seems resigned to the life planned out for her as a loyal wife to the Reich. The story moves from the sexism German women faced under Nazi rule to the heroism of the resistance, and the courageous paths traveled by those who actively yet covertly rebelled. The plot has a couple of incredible coincidences but wraps up in a way that enables the characters to heal from the wounds of the past.

Across the Winding River was published by Lake Union/Amazon in August (reviewed from a NetGalley copy).

Tuesday, December 01, 2020

The WWII home front from the Cherokee viewpoint: Even As We Breathe by Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle

Clapsaddle’s debut, the first novel by an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, is an impressive work of literary historical fiction. Her protagonist’s journey of first love and coming-of-age is embedded in an Appalachian setting that feels both mysterious and tangibly real. She also pens a moving ode to the many conduits of human history – people’s memories, writings, bones, the very ground under our feet – and how we learn what they teach us.

In 1942, nineteen-year-old Cowney Sequoyah, eager to escape his overbearing uncle and his home on the Cherokee reservation in the Smoky Mountains, takes a job with the grounds crew at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, two hours away. Accompanying him on the drive is Essie Stamper, a young woman whose beauty, sophistication, and self-confidence unsettle him.

Born with a twisted foot, Cowney is ineligible for military service, but he gets entangled in wartime intrigue, nonetheless. The inn is being used by the U.S. Army to house high-ranking POWs, including foreign envoys and their families. While Cowney’s immediate supervisor treats him well, others on site exhibit racist attitudes towards Indians. He and Essie become good friends and frequently meet in an unoccupied hotel room to talk and play dominos, but Essie is keeping a secret from him, and the disappearance of a Japanese diplomat’s daughter threatens to destroy his freedom. As Cowney struggles to prove his good name, he gradually learns the truth about his late father’s death in WWI.

Through Cowney, Clapsaddle presents warm, lyrical observations of Cherokee family life and traditions, such as the comfort of his grandmother Lishie’s quilts and the holiness of “ladies in boldly colored headscarves [who] sang ‘Amazing Grace’ in our language.” The concluding message about the characters’ ties to their homeland is also beautifully affecting.

Even As We Breathe was published by Fireside Industries, an imprint of the University Press of Kentucky that publishes on Appalachian themes, in July. I reviewed it from Edelweiss for the Historical Novels Review