Saturday, February 25, 2023

Dark Waters Rising reveals a complex web of mysteries in atmospheric 14th-century Yorkshire

In Clark’s twelfth and last mystery in the Hildegard of Meaux series, set in 1394 Yorkshire, tensions are nigh at breaking point.

The novices at Swyne Priory, where Hildegard is a Cistercian nun, are unhappy, and Hildegard can’t settle them down. A young royal minstrel, Master Leonin, appears on the convent’s doorstep in a terrible state, alleging his life is threatened—and he refuses to say much more. Richard II has just lost his beloved queen, and the nuns worry his barons are agitating again. Even more troublesome is the unnatural death of a lay sister.

Events in the natural world mirror the turmoil within: the rain is incessant, and the eccentric, bookish Sister Josiana predicts the Humber will break its banks, flooding the land. The priory is on high ground, but can they prepare in time, and will Hildegard solve the crimes?

It feels odd to describe a medieval mystery involving nuns as frenetic, but there’s so much physical movement that the plot gets muddled at times. Hildegard spends considerable time on the road, riding to and fro among Swyne, the monastery at Meaux, and nearby Haltemprice Priory during her investigations.

The Prioress suggests she wants Hildegard to succeed her, but it’s unclear why, since Hildegard is rarely there; plus, there are unresolved romantic tensions between her and Hubert, lord abbot at Meaux. The story and characters hold interest, though, and it comes through clearly that with limited options for women, many found homes in convents regardless of vocation (or willingness).

The sense of place is superb and appropriately eerie, with a full moon overhead as waters begin rising. Superstitions are rife, and many folks “trust portents more than facts,” but when Josiana’s measurements prove accurate—not really a spoiler—it’s a triumphant moment for all women of science.

Dark Waters Rising by Cassandra Clark was published in 2022 by Severn House, and I'd reviewed it initially for the Historical Novels Review. Unlike many readers, I don't mind beginning a series in the middle if the setting and storyline intrigue me, or at the end in this case, and this one stands alone well enough. Although Hildegard's sleuthing has wrapped up, Clark is continuing to explore medieval crime through her Brother Chandler mysteries.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

The Thread Collectors interweaves Black and Jewish perspectives on the U.S. Civil War

A collaboration between two longtime friends has resulted in a unique historical novel about two couples – one Black and one Jewish – whose stories come together during the chaos and destruction of the U.S. Civil War.

The feminine cover is somewhat misleading, since The Thread Collectors gives equal time to the male perspective. In 1863, Private Jacob Kling, a Jewish cornet player in the Union army stationed at Camp Parapet in Jefferson, Louisiana, is ordered to help with the intake of Black recruits for the Louisiana Native Guards. It’s in this role that he first meets William, a gifted flutist who took considerable risks fleeing enslavement to join the Union forces. Their fellow soldiers disparage interracial mingling, but the two form a bond over their passion for music.

Both men have left behind the women they love for the cause. Jacob’s wife, the former Lily Kahn, is the daughter of a German Jewish immigrant who made his fortune selling sheet music. From her Fifth Avenue apartment, Lily writes tender letters to Jacob expressing her pride in his service and recounting her work supporting abolition and the war effort. William’s beloved is Stella, a mixed-race free woman forced to become the mistress of a white Confederate officer – the same man who bought William and brought him to Louisiana from his home on Georgia’s Sapelo Island as a child.

With four viewpoints and many flashbacks to the recent past, the novel is a detailed collage of Civil War experiences, ranging from the domestic arena to battlefield courage and carnage. All are stitched together tightly into a coherent narrative, although since Lily’s viewpoint is shown through letters initially, it feels a touch unbalanced. A young woman of conviction, Lily finds a strong role model in suffragist Ernestine Rose, among others, though her stated admiration for Isabella of Castile feels odd, given her religion.

In addition to portraying the characters’ survival skills relative to gender and race, the novel exposes the racial prejudice they endure, some of which may be surprising – like General Grant’s anti-Semitic views and the slurs against Jews that pervade the army camps, as well as the Union army’s cruelly unequal treatment of the Black soldiers in its ranks.

Without losing sight of the big picture, the story emphasizes the varied means of communication that draw the characters together. These include Jacob and William’s shared love of music; Lily’s mailing of letters and new tunes, which boosts morale at the camp; Jacob saying Kaddish (the Jewish mourner’s prayer) for the souls of Black men; and, most of all, Stella’s dexterity in stitching maps with colored threads, unpicking stitches from other fabrics to create visual guides pointing the way to freedom.

Civil War-era novels are common, but this isn’t a story that’s been told before. In all, this book speaks to the courage to trust and how the ties of friendship can make people stronger.

The Thread Collectors by Shaunna J. Edwards and Alyson Richman was published last August by Graydon House (I read it from a NetGalley copy).

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Stealing by Margaret Verble, set in the 1950s, introduces a courageous, unforgettable young Cherokee heroine

This short, compassionately written, and powerful novel is told in the unquenchable voice of Karen “Kit” Crockett, who is raised by her white father in the 1950s South after her Cherokee mother’s death. At nine, Kit spends much time alone, fishing in the bayou and eagerly awaiting each bookmobile visit; she has an abundance of sorrows but knows her family loves her.

When she spies an unfamiliar car at her late Uncle Joe’s cabin, Kit grows intrigued. Her attractive new neighbor, Bella, is divorced and has two “boyfriends” she doesn’t much like (“Kit, you won’t understand this yet, but they pay the bills,” Bella says). Despite the age difference and the hostility of a reclusive old woman down the lane, the pair become good friends.

It isn’t to last. From the beginning, Kit makes clear that she’s no longer home and is setting her thoughts to paper years later, after being taken (stolen) from her family and enrolled in a religious boarding school, where other schoolkids are cruel, and teachers lecture them about original sin. Even worse, the director, Mr. Hodges, is an unctuous hypocrite who saves his worst punishments (sexual abuse) for the Indian students.

An enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation and a Pulitzer finalist, Verble is a magnetic storyteller – the book is difficult to put down – who has created an indelible heroine in Kit, who gradually unspools the tragic backstory of how she landed in such a despised place. The themes of prejudice and of religion as a controlling force are strongly felt.

Kit’s personality bursts through every line: vulnerable, traumatized, honest, scrappy, and resolved to survive and escape. While she’s raised to be respectful to adults and doesn’t always understand their world, she can tell in a second if they’re lying. You won’t forget meeting her.

Stealing was published by Mariner/HarperCollins this month; I reviewed it from an Edelweiss e-copy for February's Historical Novels Review.

Margaret Verble is the author of three previous historical novels: Maud's Line (a Pulitzer finalist in 2016), Cherokee America (a Spur Award winner for Best Western), and When Two Feathers Fell from the Sky.

Saturday, February 11, 2023

A monster reenvisioned: Natalie Haynes' feminist retelling of Medusa's story

Feminist retellings of Greek myths are all the rage, and Haynes stands among the foremost authors in this area. Her third such novel melds her grounding in the classics with a conversational style and biting humor.

With snakes for hair and a petrifying gaze, Medusa has been considered a horrible monster, but Haynes makes us rethink this belief. 

The only mortal among the Gorgons along Libya’s shores, Medusa is an attractive, curious young woman growing up under her loving older sisters’ care. Her rape by Poseidon in Athene’s temple traumatizes her; so does Athene’s act of revenge. Perseus, the supposed hero seeking to decapitate a Gorgon, is an incompetent adventurer without the sense to ask for directions.

Seen from multiple perspectives, including Perseus’s mother, Danaë; prickly goddesses; and the Gorgoneion (Medusa’s head), which speaks with candor, the tale evokes passionate fury on behalf of its heroine, a tragic victim of male violence. Her death scene is utterly heartbreaking. It all begs the question: how could we have gotten Medusa’s story so wrong?

Stone Blind was published this past week in the US by Harper.  Mantle published it in the UK last September. I wrote this review for Booklist's Jan. 1 issue.

Genre-wise, this novel could be considered historical fantasy. Several other novelists have recently turned their own gaze to Medusa's story. Claire Heywood's forthcoming The Shadow of Perseus, from what I understand, removes the supernatural elements and recasts the tale as historical fiction, as seen from a trio of women's viewpoints, including Medusa's.  The Miniaturist author Jessie Burton's Medusa is a YA retelling. Lauren J. A. Bear's upcoming Medusa's Sisters (Ace, Aug. 2023) centers on Stheno and Euryale, Medusa's immortal Gorgon sisters, who are often left out of the myth (they do play significant roles in Natalie Haynes' version, too).  

Monday, February 06, 2023

The Magic Kingdom by Russell Banks, his elegiac novel about early Florida

The quest for a perfect society is woven into the American experience. Through his bittersweet novel, Banks explores the flaws in the design of an early 20th-century utopia—and by extension, perhaps all utopias—through one man’s mournful regrets.

The premise is that the author discovered a collection of reel-to-reel tapes in a dingy Florida library basement and transcribed and edited their forgotten narrative: the confession and catharsis of Harley Mann, an elderly real estate investor, who speaks in 1971 about his long-ago past.

As a twelve-year-old boy in 1902, Harley is eager to please but has an independent mind. After his father dies, his mother moves the family from their secular Georgia commune to a plantation whose cruelty becomes apparent. Rescued by the charismatic Elder John, the Manns head south to abide with the Shakers in his community, New Bethany, in central Florida.

The children, too young to formally become Shakers, all learn the ways of the oddly compelling religion. Harley trains in beekeeping and becomes Elder John’s protégé, though his obsession with Sadie Pratt, a tuberculosis patient seven years his elder, threatens his devotion to his Shaker family—who are celibate—and the group’s very stability.

The Shakers are industrious, but their focus is neither charitable nor commercial, and the plot evokes these tensions. While The Magic Kingdom is an engrossing morality tale, Banks is equally concerned with how the characters live day-to-day alongside their beliefs and nature. The land and waters—which intermingle in this swampy country—are gloriously described, as are the native birds and other animals.

Contrasts with the profitable artifice of the Walt Disney Company, which we’re told eventually purchased the Shakers’ land, quietly underlie the entire novel. It all leaves the reader, like Harley, yearning to return to this unspoiled, vanished paradise, imperfect as it was.

I wrote this review for February's Historical Novels Review, and it was published by Knopf last fall (and No Exit Press in the UK). The Magic Kingdom is Russell Banks' final novel. Several days after I finished it, I read online that he had passed away at age 82.  Read the obituary at NPR, which describes him as a writer who "found the mythical in marginal lives."

Wednesday, February 01, 2023

Historical fiction award winners announced at the 2023 ALA LibLearnX conference

The 2023 Book and Media Award announcements from the American Library Association's LibLearnX conference in New Orleans were broadcast on Sunday afternoon, so I'm behind in getting this news posted.  It's been a busy week with a lot of meetings, and there are more to come.  I watched the ceremony via the Reference & User Services Association's Facebook page. Many adult-level historical novels received accolades.

Here are the details:

On the Reading List, the ALA's annual awards in eight genre fiction categories, the award for Historical Fiction award went to By Her Own Design by Piper Huguley, a biographical novel about Black designer Ann Lowe, who designed Jackie Kennedy's wedding gown, among other exquisite creations.

The Forty Elephants by Erin Bledsoe (1920s London, about an all-female criminal gang)
The Good Wife of Bath: A (Mostly) True Story by Karen Brooks (Chaucer's bawdy heroine reveals her story)
The Swift and the Harrier by Minette Walters (female-centered adventure during the English Civil War)
Two Storm Wood by Philip Gray (WWI thriller about a woman seeking her missing fiancé)

On the Listen List for excellence in audiobook narration:

The Bangalore Detectives Club by Harini Nagendra, narrated by Soneela Nankani. (mystery of 1920s Bangalore, India)
The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn, narrated by Saskia Maarleveld.  (thriller about a real-life Ukrainian woman who became a celebrated WWII sniper)
A Lady’s Guide to Fortune-Hunting by Sophie Irwin, narrated by Eleanor Tomlinson (aka Demelza from the most recent Poldark TV adaptation; this is a witty Regency romance)
Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins-Valdez, narrated by Lauren J. Daggett. (a terrible injustice perpetrated on Black girls in '70s Alabama, based on a true story)

On the Notable Books List are these two historical novels:

Horse by Geraldine Brooks (about a champion race horse, a painting, and racial injustice across time)
Trust by Hernan Diaz (four alternating tales create a puzzle set in 20th-century NYC)

Congrats to all the winners!