Saturday, June 25, 2022

In the Face of the Sun takes its characters on a wild road trip through Civil Rights-era America

In late May 1968, when Francine “Frankie” Saunders climbs into her Aunt Daisy’s gorgeous new Ford Mustang, her aim is to flee Chicago and her abusive husband. She fears for her safety and that of the unborn child he doesn’t know about. Frankie barely knows Daisy, an irreverent, weed-smoking woman of nearly sixty who’s been estranged from Frankie’s mother for forty years, but she desperately needs Daisy’s help.

On the wild road trip these two Black women take to Los Angeles, across two thousand miles with many bumps and detours, Frankie hopes to learn what caused the argument between Daisy and her mother. Daisy has another motive in mind for the journey’s end: revenge against someone from her past.

These two characters and their world jump off the page in radiant detail: their contrasting personalities, their distinctive looks (Daisy resembles a film star with her cat-eyed sunglasses, gingham dress, and perfect makeup), and their approaches to navigating America just two months after Martin Luther King’s assassination.

A second narrative, set in 1928, follows twenty-year-old Daisy Washington as she works as a chambermaid for L.A.’s Hotel Somerville, a prestigious facility catering to the Black elite. After her mother suffers a mental and physical breakdown, Daisy, a would-be journalist, aims to keep her younger sister, Henrietta, out of trouble while collecting celebrity gossip for a friend’s newspaper column. Both threads of this propulsive story ultimately lead to the same destination: the revelation of the terrible event that divided the Washington sisters.

In her second novel, Bryce shines light on notable people and events from American history, from civil rights activists Drs. Vada and John Somerville and the actor Stepin Fetchit to the painful wounds of Tulsa. The scenes are cinematically vivid, the language fresh and vibrant, the characters complicated and real.

Denny S. Bryce's In the Face of the Sun was published by Kensington in April (I'd reviewed it for the Historical Novels Review from a NetGalley copy). I also recommend her debut, Wild Women and the Blues.

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Marguerite Poland's A Sin of Omission evokes the repercussions of colonialism in 19th-century South Africa

A heart-wrenching story elevated through luminous writing, Marguerite Poland’s fictional tribute to a historical Black South African missionary was shortlisted for the 2020 Walter Scott Prize in its original edition.

In 1880, Stephen Malusi Mzamane, deacon at Nodyoba, a remote mission in the hills of the Eastern Cape, prepares for a difficult journey to inform his mother about his older brother’s death. Most of the novel, though, looks back to reveal the circumstances leading him to this point. Found in the Donsa bush while foraging for food at age nine, the boy baptized “Stephen” is educated at the Native College in Grahamstown and later sent to the Missionary College in Canterbury, England, as part of the Anglican church’s plans to “Christianise the native.”

Though Stephen excels with his assignments, Poland depicts, in evocative words ringing with truth, how his progress in the Church and life is agonizingly held back by the bitter, systemic effects of colonialism. As a member of the “heathen” Ngqika people granted the rare privilege of a British education, he must simultaneously confront others’ high and low expectations for his conduct.

Readers can’t help but be moved by the internal conflict Stephen feels and his reactions to the burden of gratitude weighing him down. He also feels torn because his parishioners are from a different nation than he, and his superiors assume this doesn’t matter.

All relationships are depicted with nuance: the two friendships Stephen cherishes across great distance; his challenging bond with brother Mzamo, once a promising scholar himself; and his preoccupation with a mysterious woman from a photograph. Respectful of her subject and his culture, Poland highlights the importance of Xhosa names and the language itself in Stephen’s world.

Remarkable on a sentence level and as a fully realized portrait of an honorable man, this is literary historical fiction of a high order.

A Sin of Omission was first published by Penguin Books South Africa in 2019, and the ebook version (which I had purchased) is available on Amazon (US). It was subsequently published by the British publisher EnvelopeBooks last month.  I reviewed it for the Historical Novels Review in May. In addition to the Walter Scott Prize shortlisting, the novel won the 2021 Sunday Times award for fiction.

This story is not quite biographical fiction. Stephen is based on a real person whose history was known to members of the author's family, prompting her interest and further research into his life.  Read more at the Sunday Times (South Africa) as well as Wanda Wyporska's interview with the author at the Historical Novel Society's website.

Monday, June 13, 2022

Sisters of the Sweetwater Fury evokes early 20th-century Great Lakes women's lives, at sea and on land

With a strong sense of verisimilitude, Bryan takes readers into the raging heart of a historic event best experienced through fiction: the devastating Great Lakes Storm of 1913. As November settles in, during what’s been a low-casualty shipping season thus far, three sisters with deep roots in the region quietly endure the weight of marital and family expectations, not realizing how high the stakes will soon be raised for their very survival.

For the last decade, Sunny Colvin has cooked alongside her husband Herb, ship’s steward, aboard the steel freighter Titus Brown as it plies Lake Huron. When she hears a cafĂ© is for sale in her home of Port Austin, Michigan, she fears disappointing Herb with her yearning to purchase it and leave shipboard life behind. Sunny’s younger sister Cordelia, a newlywed wanting to know her stoic lake-captain husband Edmund better, joins him on his journey across Lake Superior.

Back in Port Austin, a picturesque town on Michigan’s “Thumb,” oldest sister Agnes Inby, a widow of thirty-six, spends her days painting pottery and caring for her difficult mother, not letting herself dream about anything more, such as her unexpected feelings for the lighthouse-keeper’s sister, Lizzie. Adding to the already palpable tension of suppressed words and desires, the storm erupts at sea.

This is a real hang-onto-your-seat read. The action is nonstop intense as Sunny and Cordelia endure howling winds and freezing temperatures as water seeps in and fills their living spaces while the ships pitch from side to side. Inside at the Port Austin Life-Saving Station, where she grew up, Agnes prays the building will continue to hold. Bryan illustrates the interior lives of early 20th-century Great Lakes women as adeptly as she describes a ship’s layout and the visceral experience of this destructive storm.

Sisters of the Sweetwater Fury was independently published last October; I reviewed it for May's Historical Novels Review. An author I know recommended it to me, and the subject intrigued me because part of my family is from Michigan.  It's definitely worth reading! This is the author's debut novel, and it's also received positive mentions from Publishers Weekly and the Blue Ink Review. I look forward to seeing what she writes next.

Thursday, June 09, 2022

Prepare for a TBR explosion with these guides to new and forthcoming historical novels

It's nearly summer in the US, a time when media outlets are recommending novels to read over the warmer months and through the rest of 2022 as well.  Here are links to roundups that center on historical novels.

Library Journal's first historical fiction preview, compiled by Melissa DeWild, includes a whopping 86 upcoming titles, with short blurbs and comments from publishers. They're grouped mostly by category, with considerable focus on the world wars and subgroups thereof, plus others that span a wider range of eras and global settings. If you get paywalled, try registering for a free account with LJ.

Alida Becker's New York Times review roundup with new historical fiction to read this summer includes a good mix of commercial and literary historical fiction.

In Cosmopolitan, check out their choices of best historical fiction for 2022; most of these titles are already out, but not all.

The list at Business Insider mixes classic favorites and past award-winners with brand new selections: 28 in all that, they say, promise to "whisk you away to a different world."

Book Riot's coverage of historical fiction has been particularly strong lately. Last month, writer Kelly Jensen offered a guide to the best historical fiction organized by era, subgenre, age group, and other useful categories.

Historical mysteries are a favorite subgenre of mine. Writing for CrimeReads, novelist Christopher Huang has a piece responding to the question: "How do you decolonize the Golden Age mystery?" He recommends a wealth of new novels that examine the 1920s and '30s from viewpoints other than white and/or European.  I especially liked these comments:

"... diversity is desirable because it represents a larger experience of the world and a fresh take on what we think we know. Especially in the context of historical fiction, an alternate viewpoint gives us a clearer understanding of what the world looked like. And why do we read fiction at all, if not for fresh experiences outside of what we know?"

Back in April, BuzzFeed published a guide to historical romances for Bridgerton fans.

In the Times (London), Antonia Senior has monthly roundups of the best new historical novels out that month (in the UK). Her May column is here, with settings ranging from ancient Greece to the 18th century. You can sign up for a free account to read these columns as they appear.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the Historical Novel Society's guides to forthcoming historical novels, compiled by Fiona Sheppard and Susan Firghil Park.  The guide for adult titles goes through March 2023, and the children's/YA list goes through next January; these are regularly updated.

Tuesday, June 07, 2022

Geraldine Brooks' multi-period latest novel, Horse, intertwines horse racing and hidden Black history

With exceptional characterizations, Pulitzer winner Brooks (The Secret Chord, 2015) tells an emotionally impactful tale centering on the life and legacy of Lexington, a bay colt who became a racing champion in mid-19th-century America.

Present at the horse’s birth is Jarret, an enslaved groom on Dr. Elisha Warfield’s vast Kentucky farm, and the pair develop an enduring bond. Jarret’s nuanced conversations with traveling equestrian artist Thomas Scott about the horse are mutually enlightening. Through Jarret and his father, a free Black man and expert horse trainer, readers encounter a wide range of injustices experienced by people of their race.

This perennially relevant theme extends into the 21st century via Theo, a Nigerian American art PhD student. His path intersects with Jess, an Australian-born scientist at the Smithsonian, after Theo saves an old equestrian portrait discarded by his neighbor.

Among the most structurally complex of all Brooks’ acclaimed literary historical novels, the narrative adroitly interlaces multiple eras and perspectives, including that of 1950s New York gallery owner Martha Jackson, who appears midway through.

From rural Kentucky to multicultural New Orleans, renditions of setting are pitch-perfect, and the story brings to life the important roles filled by Black horsemen in America’s past. Brooks also showcases the magnificent beauty and competitive spirit of Lexington himself.

Horse is published next Tuesday (June 14) in the US by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House. I submitted this starred review for Booklist, and it was published in the magazine's April 15th issue. 

For those interested in seeing what Lexington looked like, below is a portrait by American painter Edward Troye in 1860, when Lexington was in his tenth year:



This novel is strongly based in history, although the modern-day characters are fictional, and little has come down to us about the real Jarret (meaning Brooks had to invent much about his character). Read more about the novel's historical background in a Q&A at Geraldine Brooks' website.