Friday, July 29, 2022

The Crimson Thread by Kate Forsyth tells a multilayered story of WWII Crete

Partway through reading The Crimson Thread, which takes place on Crete during WWII, I exclaimed to myself, This is a retelling of the Greek myth of Ariadne and the labyrinth! I had read the US publisher’s blurb, which didn’t include this, but the Australian publisher does. Kate Forsyth is known for her creative reworkings of ancient tales (she has a PhD in fairytale studies), so I should have figured this out sooner. Knowing the underlying structure added even more dimension to a story I had already been enjoying.

Among the abundance of WWII novels, I seek out those with underexplored characters or settings, and this one qualifies. The story focuses on the underground resistance on Crete and three young people caught in a love triangle while trying to survive and repel the Nazi invaders.

Alenka Klothakis lives near the Ariadne Villa in the village of Knossos and works as a translator for the curator at the archeological site there. With her mother near-mute after past trauma, and her twelve-year-old half-brother Axel, whose father was German, obsessed with Hitler and sympathetic to the Nazis, Alenka’s home life is tense. She is at heart a rebel (“It infuriated her that Greece was the home of democracy, but she was not allowed to vote”), and when her life becomes entwined with two Australian soldiers, she risks much to save them both.

Teddy Lloyd and Jack Hawke were childhood friends and fellow Classics students at the University of Melbourne before deciding to join up. Otherwise, the men are very different; Teddy is dashing and flirtatious, seeing Alenka as a possible conquest, while Jack is thoughtful though no less courageous, and he has a special affinity for the history and stories of the Greek isles—as does Alenka. Their connection ignites Teddy’s jealousy and leads him to lash out against his supposed “best mate.” Meanwhile, Axel moves from bratty adolescent rebellion to actual collaboration with the enemy.

author Kate Forsyth
The novel spans the entirety of the war, beginning with the German invasion and subsequent occupation to the Allied forces’ retreat over the White Mountains and the evacuation from Crete—which Teddy and Jack are unable to join, for separate reasons. The on-the-ground action feels vividly real, but what sets the novel apart is the cultural history and symbolism woven through the story in the form of music, dance, and colorful embroidery.

Jack has a talent for playing the lyra and finds that the stammer he has when speaking disappears when he sings. And Alenka, an experienced needlewoman, employs her skill in her work with the Resistance, literally and figuratively deciding which threads to spin—and which to snip. She is a wonderfully nuanced character, a young woman torn between caring for her family and saving her homeland, and she hates the idea of being any man’s possession.

Steeped in the alluring history of Crete, both ancient and modern, The Crimson Thread can be appreciated on many levels. It is a worthy addition to the author’s oeuvre and to WWII-era historical fiction.

The Crimson Thread is published in the US by Blackstone; it's also out from Penguin Random House in Australia. I reviewed it from a NetGalley copy as part of the blog tour with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.

blog tour banner

Saturday, July 23, 2022

A look at Addison Armstrong's The War Librarian and the courageous American librarians serving in WWI

If one can measure a novel’s success by the emotions it draws from readers, the sophomore work by Armstrong (The Light of Luna Park, 2021) is very effective indeed. The trials her protagonists undergo, while pursuing their dreams and holding onto their integrity, evoke admiration and passionate fury on their behalf.

In 1918, Emmaline Balakin leaves her sedate Dead Letter Office job to serve in France as a hospital librarian. The injured soldiers at Bazoilles-sur-Meuse are truly grateful for the reading material, though Emmaline is aghast at the treatment of Black servicemen and dismayed by the American government’s censorship regulations.

In 1976, Kathleen Carre, granddaughter of Emmaline’s friend Nellie, breaks gender barriers by enrolling in the U.S. Naval Academy. Between ridiculous uniform requirements (three-inch heels!) and torturous hazing from male classmates, the system seems determined to break her, but she persists.

Romance and long-held secrets provide additional intrigue in this increasingly powerful story. The values of intellectual freedom, antiracist activism, and female friendship are illustrated within their historical contexts, yet these themes couldn’t be timelier.

The War Librarian will be published on August 9th by Putnam in the US. I wrote the review above for Booklist's historical fiction issue (dated May 15th). My editor gave me the opportunity to select books from a list of options, and this was one of them. I chose it not only because the subject interested me, being a librarian myself, but also because the personal story of my library's namesake is relevant to the book's subject.

Mary J. Booth in her
WWI uniform
The library where I work, Booth Library at Eastern Illinois University, was named after Mary Josephine Booth (1876-1965). She was head librarian there for 41 years, from 1904-45, aside from the period (1917-19) when she served overseas during WWI as a volunteer with the American Red Cross and, later, the American Library Association.  During her tenure at Eastern, the library was housed in the main administration building, and she campaigned tirelessly for the campus to construct its own freestanding library. Plans were formulated in 1942, and the new Mary J. Booth Library was finally open for business in 1950, five years after her retirement.  

Over my own time at Booth Library, I've given many tours covering different aspects of the building's history, including Miss Booth's wartime service, but I hadn't realized how rare an accomplishment this was until I read The War Librarian. "Very few female librarians were sent to France before the end of the war," Armstrong writes in her author's note.  In Paris, Miss Booth worked to catalog American books shipped overseas for U.S. soldiers, selecting reading material for men in hospitals and in the trenches. She also cataloged the books at General John Pershing's headquarters at Chaumont.

Needless to say, I'll be purchasing a copy of The War Librarian for my library's recreational reading collection once it's published!

Read more at these external sites:

From NPR: When America's Librarians Went to War.
From the Library History Buff Blog: Women Librarians and ALA's Library War Service in WWI (which has a photo of Miss Booth)
From the Daily Eastern News: Booth's name honors former librarian 

Friday, July 15, 2022

Jessie Burton's The House of Fortune continues The Miniaturist in early 18th-century Amsterdam

Burton’s The Miniaturist (2014) was an international bestseller with a subsequent TV miniseries, and this keenly awaited sequel should more than fulfill expectations. Exhibiting the same finely etched atmosphere of historic Amsterdam, it deepens characterizations by bringing the action forward while illuminating the childhood of the original protagonist, Nella.

In 1705, secrets flourish in the Brandt house on the Herengracht canal. Nella’s mixed-race niece, eighteen-year-old Thea, who knows little about her mother or events before her birth, conducts a furtive romance with an unsuitable man. With money tight, Nella hopes to find Thea a rich husband who will improve their fortunes.

Thea’s father, Otto, has his own ideas, and their competing plans clash dramatically. Meanwhile, the miniaturist from the first book, whose designs are unnervingly perceptive, has returned, with gifts for Thea.

With an artistic eye, Burton explores women’s lives, socioeconomic concerns, and the ways they intersect. This volume has few supernatural elements; rather, the story emphasizes the effect of the miniaturist’s creations. Both heroines grow and change in this smartly written tale about family relationships and recognizing truth.

The House of Fortune was published on July 7 in the UK by Bloomsbury. North American readers will have to wait a little longer; it's published here on August 30th, also by Bloomsbury. 

I wrote this review for Booklist's historical fiction issue, which came out on May 15th.  You might notice a pineapple on the US cover, at the top, and (without providing spoilers), this plays a role in the story.

Saturday, July 09, 2022

Hilary Mantel examines her childhood via fiction in Learning to Talk

Two-time Booker winner Mantel explores the haunted landscapes of her childhood in this anthology, first published in Britain in 2003. The six stories, set in 1950s-70s industrial northern England, read like personal essays but sifted through a fictional lens: she calls them “autoscopic” rather than autobiographical.

The narrators closely observe their young lives amidst many adult tensions and secrets, such as marital scandals and class, racial, and religious differences. Children’s playground squabbles become a microcosm of Protestant-Catholic frictions, and two girls’ experience getting lost in a junkyard induces musings on emotional rootedness. Standouts are the title story, about elocution lessons for social mobility, and “The Clean Slate,” which delves into the mutability of historical memory through reflections on a drowned village.

Mantel carves beauty out of bleakness, crafting brilliant metaphors with penetrating human insights. “The country through which they move is older, more intimate than ours,” she writes about children’s innate knowledge of deducing truth about their world. Read this collection alongside her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost (2003), for additional insight into her life and creative process.

Learning to Talk was published in the US by Henry Holt in June and has been receiving a great deal of critical attention for a book nearly two decades old; this marks the first US publication. Can the stories be called historical fiction?  This depends on your definition. Some aspects take place close to 50 years before the time of writing, while other stories are more recent. I wrote this review for Booklist Online (published online on June 30). Mantel wrote a new preface for this latest edition.