Friday, January 29, 2021

The Blind Light by Stuart Evers, a British family saga of the nuclear age

Doom Town is the catchy yet grim nickname for a real site in Cumbria, England, used for simulating the aftermath of a nuclear strike. In Evers’ spacious and unusual saga, Drummond “Drum” Moore and Jim Carter run training rescue missions there in 1959 for their National Service, an experience that shakes them deeply and casts a shadow on their families henceforth. 

Evers excels at depicting the men’s strong, identity-shaping bond, which doesn’t quite surmount their class differences. Following their military commitments, Drum works at a Ford factory in suburban London and raises two children with wife Gwen, a former barmaid, while the arrogant, posh Carter weds and lives in rural Cheshire. Years later, Carter persuades Drum to take over his neighbor’s farm, thus keeping Drum’s loved ones secluded and safe, but in doing so, Drum loses sight of other family problems. 

The novel spans six decades, and the later generation’s stories aren’t as interesting, but the moody setting, rich in details reflecting social change in Britain, well suits this tale of lives eclipsed by fear.

Blind Light was published by WW Norton in October (I reviewed it for Booklist's 9/1 issue; reprinted with permission).  Some other notes:

I've seen reviews that call "Doom Town" a fictional location, but it was a real site, located at Millom Airfield in Cumbria. You can see a 1-minute video showing training missions there, as part of the British PathĂ© collections (the clip dates from 1955).  As the video mentions, and as the novel depicts, many men did a stint there at the end of their National Service, "learning all there is to know about rescue methods in the atomic age."

Sunday, January 24, 2021

In remembrance of historical novelist Sharon Kay Penman


The historical fiction community is in mourning following the loss of one of the great authors in our genre, Sharon Kay Penman, on Friday. I'd written up a short post for my Instagram at that time and thought I'd expand upon my reflections here. The outpourings of sorrow and memorials I've been seeing on social media since her passing have been enormous; she was a good friend and supporter of numerous historical novelists and a longtime cherished author of many more readers.

Sharon Kay Penman has been a favorite author of mine ever since I read The Sunne in Splendour, her masterwork about Richard III, when I was in middle school. It came out in 1992, and it was one of the first "adult" historical novels I'd read, along with Anya Seton's Katherine.  I also remember carrying the heavy hardcover of When Christ and His Saints Slept along with me on the plane to the campus interview for my first library job, since I was in the middle of reading and didn't want to leave the story behind.  Most recently, I had the privilege of reviewing her latest, The Land Beyond the Sea, focusing on the 12th-century Kingdom of Jerusalem, for Booklist.

Ten of her novels are deeply researched epics (massive tomes, which you can see from the book pile above) that brought the prominent personalities from the Middle Ages, especially England's ruling Plantagenet family and their close relatives, to amazing life. If I had to pick a favorite, it would be Here Be Dragons, about the marriage between King John's illegitimate daughter, Joanna, and Llewelyn "the Great" of Wales in the 13th century. Like Maria Comnena in The Land Beyond the Sea, Joanna was a fascinating protagonist whose story hadn't previously been told in fiction, and who I was glad to get to know. Sharon introduced her readers to the vivid landscapes and castles of medieval England and Wales and the complex relationships among the family members who ruled there.

Sharon also wrote four mysteries featuring sleuth Justin de Quincy in Eleanor of Aquitaine's time, starting with The Queen's Man. These are shorter novels, but also assiduously researched.  Reading the detailed author's notes at the end of her novels are a pleasure in themselves.  The one for The Land Beyond the Sea runs for eight pages.

Although I didn't really know her personally, I enjoyed hearing from her on Facebook (she was friends there with many of her readers) and via her blog, where she interviewed other novelists and spoke about her research.  I was glad for the opportunity to exchange emails with and meet Sharon when the Historical Novel Society conference committee invited her to be a guest of honor for our 2009 conference in Schaumburg, Illinois – and she returned to take part in later conferences. She leaves a wonderful legacy of stories for readers to discover and return to.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

The Gates of Athens by Conn Iggulden recounts ten pivotal years in ancient Greek history

This rousing series opener brings ten pivotal years in ancient Greek history to energetic life. Spanning from the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE to the Spartans’ valiant stand at the Battle of Thermopylae, the story moves nimbly among the perspectives of Athenian leaders, primarily the politician and general Xanthippus, plus their allies and Persian foes. 

A celebrated historical adventure writer, Iggulden (The Falcon of Sparta, 2019) illustrates both large-scale military maneuvers and minute details, from close-up views of bronze-armored Greek soldiers in formation to fearsome scenes of the immense Persian fleet, bent on destroying Athens. 

The intervening decade between major battles in the ongoing Greco-Persian Wars holds equal fascination as Athens is shaken by infighting that divides its statesmen. These inner political workings are vividly personified via courageous, intelligent, well-rounded characters. 

Iggulden has impressive command of period terminology and largely follows the historical record, filling in gaps with well-thought-out reasoning. This is also an inspiring read about the value of democracy, whose birthplace was classical Athens, and how people fought hard and long to preserve it for posterity.

The Gates of Athens was published in the US on January 5 by Pegasus, and I reviewed it for Booklist's Dec. 15th issue (reprinted with permission).  

Other notes: This book was a revelation. Historical military adventure isn't normally my thing, but this novel is much more than that. It focuses on character development and theme as much as technical details and who-does-what-to-whom. Readers seeking nonstop action may be disappointed by the middle sections that delve into Athenian politics and how its policies were implemented, such as the process by which men could be forced into exile.  Reading it as a PDF on my iPad turned out to be a great advantage, too, since for any unfamiliar terminology I encountered, I could highlight a term, and I had my choice of the Kindle's internal dictionary or Wikipedia for a definition. There was no glossary in my ARC. My appetite is whetted for book two.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes, a women's retelling of the Trojan War

“Sing, Muse,” commands a poet, invoking inspiration for his Trojan War verse, but Calliope, goddess of epic poetry, has her own purpose in mind. She offers a tale not of men’s glory but the experiences of all the women. Except maybe Helen, who annoys her. 

Haynes tells a witty, unapologetically feminist story of women’s suffering, courage, and endurance, which demands that we reconsider our concept of heroism. Following a ten-year siege, Creusa, a young wife, wakes to see her city aflame, while other women of Troy wait along the shoreline to be parceled out as slaves to the Greek victors. 

Showing Haynes’ comedic touch, Penelope writes letters to her husband, Odysseus, growing exasperated as she learns the reasons for his delayed voyage home to Ithaca. Some characters are familiar, others less so, including Oenone, Paris’s abandoned wife. Cassandra’s account is especially wrenching. 

The telling is nonlinear, but the varied stories flow naturally together, ensuring readers won’t be lost. Grounded in the classics, this freshly modern version of an ancient tale is perfect for our times.

A Thousand Ships will be published on January 26th by Harper in the US.  In the UK, the novel has been out for a while (2019) and was shortlisted for the 2020 Women's Prize for Fiction. I submitted this review for the December issue of Booklist. I'd read A Thousand Ships last October and began noticing the number of new and upcoming publications retelling ancient Greek myths from the women's viewpoint, spurred on by the success of Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls and Madeline Miller's Circe. Look for a post about this soon! Haynes is also the author of The Children of Jocasta, fiction based on the stories of Sophocles' Oedipus and Antigone

Monday, January 11, 2021

Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms by Anita Heiss sees the WWII home front from the Indigenous Australian perspective

On August 5, 1944, hundreds of Japanese POWs in a compound on the outskirts of Cowra, a small town in central New South Wales, Australia, organized a mass breakout, driven by the shame brought on their families due to their captivity. With her historical novel using this pivotal event as a starting point, Anita Heiss imagines a gentle romance between an escaped Japanese soldier, Hiroshi, and Mary Williams, eldest daughter of an Aboriginal family that grants him refuge. 

Dr. Heiss, a member of the Wiradjuri nation, makes a unique contribution to WWII literature by depicting the Indigenous Australian perspective on the home front. She warmly depicts the interactions among the Williams family members, their friends, and neighbors, as well as the growing rapport between seventeen-year-old Mary and Hiroshi, who must spend long, lonely days concealed in an air raid shelter, his only respite being Mary’s visits with the meager rations she’s able to give him. 

I found aspects of the love story somewhat far-fetched, but the couple’s ongoing dialogue enables the author to relate the characteristics of their substantially different cultures. Above ground, the story highlights the strength of the Williams parents, Banjo and Joan, who raise their family with dignity on Erambie Mission, knowing that white authorities won’t hesitate to take their children away if they’re found slacking on household cleanliness. 

They take huge risks in sheltering Hiroshi but – not without some disagreement among them – choose to act out of human kindness, and with the knowledge that they and the Japanese are both fighting against the Australian government at the time. Forbidden to own their hereditary lands, Aboriginal people have their lives strictly controlled and aren’t able to vote – the people at Erambie have less freedom than even the Italian POWs working on farms nearby. The writing flows easily throughout this sensitively drawn story.

I read this from a personal copy. Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms was published by Simon & Schuster Australia in 2016.  The novel may not be easy for non-Australians to find these days, but it's worth seeking out for its storyline, history, and viewpoint.

Monday, January 04, 2021

The Last Garden in England by Julia Kelly, a multi-period novel centered on an Edwardian garden

A country house in rural Warwickshire is the scene for Kelly’s touching, immersive read, which has definite appeal for aficionados of Downton Abbey and Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’ The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2008). Over a century, five distinctive women are connected through a historic Edwardian garden, each struggling in different ways between family and societal expectations and achieving their hearts’ desires. 

In 1907, Venetia Smith arrives to design an elaborate new garden for Highbury House’s wealthy residents. Decades later, the British home front comes alive through the tales of Highbury’s widowed young owner, her restless cook, and a neighboring land girl as the estate is requisitioned during wartime. Lastly, a contemporary designer uncovers mysteries while aiming to replicate Venetia Smith’s original plans.

Subplots involving love, loss, and hope for new beginnings gracefully intertwine, and readers will be enraptured by the garden theme, from the labor and artistic expression involved in their craftsmanship to the therapeutic power of nature’s beauty. Like gardens themselves, these pages invite lingering and thoughtful reflection.

The Last Garden in England is published by Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster on January 12th.  I read it back in August last year and reviewed it for the 10/15/20 issue of Booklist from an Edelweiss e-copy. Isn't the cover beautiful?