Friday, January 29, 2016

Midnight in St. Petersburg by Vanora Bennett - review and giveaway

Opening in Russia in 1911, Midnight in St. Petersburg features a young woman seeking refuge, a tense love triangle, the dangerous stirrings of revolution, and the subsequent destruction of ideals. Music plays a part, too. In her newest historical novel to reach an American audience, Vanora Bennett takes an understated, thought-provoking approach to what could have been a dramatically over-the-top plotline.

The heroine, Inna Feldman, is a sympathetic figure, at least to start. Alarmed by the growing anti-Jewish sentiment in Kiev, and having nowhere else to go after the distant cousins with whom she lived flee the country, Inna boards a train to St. Petersburg with stolen papers.  She plans to take refuge with Yasha Kagan, her relatives’ son, whom she’s never met.

En route, she meets up with a kind peasant who knows the capital city and guides her to her destination. It’s not difficult to guess the identity of “Father Grigori” – Rasputin has a way of inserting himself into historical novels of the period – but his is a different depiction than the usual, and his transformation over time fits the themes Bennett aims to convey.

Taken in by the boisterous Leman family of violin-makers, Yasha’s landlords and employers, Inna finds a tentative home in St. Petersburg. Attracted to Yasha despite his strong socialist leanings and hot-and-cold attitude towards her, Inna also feels drawn to Horace Wallick, an Englishman twice her age who crafts elaborate Faberge eggs and has members of the Russian nobility as customers. Some of the decisions Inna makes with regard to her two suitors won’t endear her to readers, and may discourage further reading through the novel’s long middle section, but her full character arc proves rewarding to follow in the end.

In this literary novel, expressive symbolism is found in minute details. One scene in which Yasha aims to restore Inna’s pride in her Jewish heritage through his violin, “trying to play away her fear,” is deeply moving in its insight – as is her reaction. Many aspects of life in revolutionary Russia turn out differently than its people intend.

Bennett puts her extensive knowledge of the place and period (she lived in Russia for seven years and is fluent in the language) to excellent use in her tale of ordinary people altered by treacherous, uncontrollable circumstances and discovering what matters most to them.

Midnight in St. Petersburg is published by Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's Press this month ($25.99, hb, 371pp, plus an informative author's afterword explaining Bennett's connection to the material; Horace Wallick was a relative). Thanks to the publisher for sending a review copy.

Update, 2/6/16: The giveaway has closed; it was one of my more popular contests! Congratulations to Brett C., and thanks to all who entered.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Peter Golden's Wherever There Is Light, a panoramic tale of romance and social change

Tinted with melancholy and yearning, Golden’s decades-spanning literary romance follows two individuals whose enduring love is tested by their personal histories and their tumultuous times.

Kendall Wakefield and Julian Rose are an unlikely couple, especially in South Florida of 1938: she’s the artistically minded daughter of an African-American college’s female president, while he’s a German-Jewish man who became wealthy via bootlegging during Prohibition.

While Julian’s personality can be disconcerting—his enemies soon discover his expertise in Mafia-style intimidation, and his thoughts about his lover occasionally feel clichéd—Kendall is captivating, and her resolve to push past racial discrimination and succeed on her own terms feels piercingly real. Both have uneasy relationships with their family members, who are all vivid characters.

Each setting is re-created with a socially conscious eye, from the horrifying racism of the Jim Crow South to the Greenwich Village art scene to postwar Paris, whose residents’ emotional suffering hasn’t dimmed their appreciation for beauty. Julian and Kendall are independent, courageous people who grow over time, and their story feels undeniably romantic.

Wherever There Is Light was published by Atria, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, in November (hb, $25.00, 368pp).  This review first appeared in Booklist's October issue. Read more in an interview with the author for the Gaston (NC) Gazette, where he discusses his inspiration for his work and the little-known story of how historically Black colleges gave refuge to Jewish academics fleeing Europe (such as Julian's father in the novel) in the 1930s.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Book review: Stephen Harrigan's A Friend of Mr. Lincoln

Harrigan’s newest epic adds to his reputation as a stellar historical novelist. Set mostly in Illinois in the 1830s and '40s, it takes a powerfully astute look at the public and private sides of the young Abraham Lincoln and the agonizing struggles he endured trying to reconcile the two.

Paralleling his character development is that of Springfield, the prospective state capital, where hogs roam the dirty streets while speculators and political men muscle in, all seeking to “live a life of consequence.” Among the most prominent is Lincoln, a lanky and popular member of the General Assembly with a talent for off-color jokes and capturing a crowd’s attention.

The events are seen from the perspective of fictional poet Cage Weatherby, who becomes his close friend. This works well, for Cage also has a riveting personal story and can hold his own in scenes with Lincoln.

Full of wild ambition, yet awkward around women and prone to depression, Lincoln takes his time working out his approaches to the polarizing issue of slavery and to the ebullient and refined Mary Todd. In addition to fine character depictions, readers get a firsthand glimpse of early Illinois politics, a physically dangerous and occasionally bloody affair, while experiencing a tale about ethics, morality, and the nature of courage that feels as vital as today’s news.

A Friend of Mr. Lincoln will be published in early February by Knopf ($27.95, hb, 415pp).  This is the version of a starred review that I'd submitted to Booklist for their January issue.  I was so pleased to be asked to review this book; I had been seriously impressed by the author's earlier Remember Ben Clayton, plus this new novel takes place close to home.  And for those familiar with the current state of Illinois politics, you'll want to read what it was like in Lincoln's time.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Historical fiction award winners: ALA Reading List, Langum Prize, Scott O'Dell Award

'Tis the season for book prize announcements.  The American Library Association's Midwinter conference wraps up today, and many book award winners were made public at the event.  In addition, two additional prizes for historical novels were announced in recent days.

First comes the ALA's Reading List award, which covers eight genre fiction categories, including Historical Fiction.  The 2016 winner is Lissa Evans' Crooked Heart, published by Harper.

From the press release:  "Raised by his eccentric ex-suffragette godmother to be a free-thinker, young Noel is thrown into chaos when the London Blitz forces him into the home of a scam artist loyal only to her layabout son. Thrust together, the two oddballs are forced to find a way through the wartime landscape."

The short list is as follows:

Jam on the Vine, LaShonda Katrice Barnett. Grove Press.
The Nightingale, Kristin Hannah. St. Martin’s Press.
Paradise Sky, Joe R. Lansdale. Mulholland Books.
The Truth According to Us, Annie Barrows. The Dial Press.
Girl Waits with Gun, Amy Stewart. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

I didn't see any historical novels among the winners in the other seven categories (although some appeared in the shortlists, like Kate Alcott's A Touch of Stardust, set in 1930s Hollywood, in the Women's Fiction category).  For more, see the ALA press release.

Also announced at ALA:
The Sophie Brody Medal for Achievement in Jewish Literature went to:  The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard (the Warsaw Ghetto, through a child's eyes)
The Book of Aron was also named to the 2016 Notable Books List.

The winner of the 2015 Langum Prize for American Historical Fiction was announced as Faith Sullivan's Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse, from Milkweed Editions.

From the press release:  "Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse is an exquisite gem. Nell Stillman, the protagonist, is an Everywoman. She lived almost her entire adult life in an apartment above a meat market in the small town of Harvester, Minnesota ... The time of Nell's adult life, c. 1900-1961, saw many historical changes of significant character, for example, numerous improvements in appliances and other implements of women's work, W.W.I, women's suffrage, electrification, prohibition, W.W.II, and so on. The book does not neglect these historical events but presents then from the satisfying perspective of what they meant to this little town, and what they meant to Nell Stillman. Highly recommend."

Receiving an Honorary Mention for 2015 is Meg Waite Clayton's The Race for Paris, about American female war correspondents on the front lines overseas during WWII.

Finally, the winner of the 2016 Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction, which covers titles for children and young adults set in the Americas, is Laura Amy Schlitz's The Hired Girl, about a 14-year-old Catholic girl sent to work for a Jewish family in Baltimore in 1911.  More at the Horn Book site.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Faith and balance: Nicole Dweck's The Debt of Tamar

Set in the 16th century and in modern times, The Debt of Tamar isn’t your standard multi-period novel. Rather than alternating between eras, Nicole Dweck breaks the story into two parts – earlier and later – with an arching connection between them. Its appealing New Agey premise, that a debt incurred by one generation must be discharged by another to achieve karmic balance, is illustrated through her novel’s characters.

Apart from a few fantastic touches, the plot is grounded in real-world issues, both historic and contemporary, and hinges on how Jews were forced to conceal their faith to survive. In Portugal in 1544, José Mendez, raised as a devout Catholic by his wealthy aunt, Dona Antonia, is told about his true heritage as a Sephardic Jew after experiencing a tragic shock. Later circumstances force his family, including his beautiful cousin Reyna, to flee Lisbon for the enlightened city of Istanbul, whose sultan, Suleiman, lets his Jewish subjects live and worship in peace. However, for saving not only their lives but those of his future progeny, José owes Suleiman a great obligation, one which affects the life of his cherished daughter, Tamar.

Four centuries later, in 2002, it’s up to descendants of both families to set things right, although neither is aware that the debt exists. The protagonists here are Selim Osman, the “sole living descendant of the last Ottoman sultan” (an invented scenario) and Hannah Herzikova, daughter of a man rescued from the Holocaust as a baby by a French Christian family. The descriptions of Istanbul, richly ornamented and cosmopolitan in its past and present, are worth savoring, and to the author’s credit, the setting isn’t idealized; it’s not an idyllic paradise in either era.

However, the novel’s premise and fixed structure poses problems for character development. Some of their stories, like that of David Herzikova, Hannah’s father, are cut off abruptly, and the romantic connections between others aren’t fully explored. The story is emotionally gripping regardless, and all ends on a satisfying note. Anyone who enjoyed Naomi Ragen’s The Ghost of Hannah Mendes, about the brave historical figure on whom Dona Antonia is based, will want to dive in, too.

The Debt of Tamar was published in September by Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's Press ($25.99/hb/304pp).  Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015 wrap-up - and on to 2016

Back in April of last year, I signed up for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.  Even though I'm not Australian, I'd seen so many interesting historical novels written by women from Australia that it seemed like a worthwhile challenge to pursue.  I had chosen the Miles level: reading six titles, and reviewing four of them.

After I glanced through everything I'd read and reviewed during 2015, I was amazed to discover that I'd completed the challenge and then some.  What a nice surprise!

The four five! books previously reviewed here that fit the criteria are:

Geraldine Brooks, The Secret Chord (which I absent-mindedly forgot to count at the time) - Biblical fiction about King David
Karen Brooks, The Brewer's Tale - medieval fiction about a female brewer
Kim Kelly, The Blue Mile - cross-class romance during the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge
Josephine Pennicott, Currawong Manor - gothic/art mystery set in the Blue Mountains in 1945 and the present
Anna Romer, Lyrebird Hill - dual-period mystery set in rural New South Wales

plus I'd read three others which I hadn't reviewed yet.  So here's a bit of info on each.

Kimberley Freeman, Ember Island.  I read this some time ago and didn't take notes so will do my best with a recap.  In the 1890s, Tilly Kirkland flees England in desperation and takes a post as governess to Eleanor (Nell) Holt, the daughter of the prison superintendent on Ember Island, a remote isle in Moreton Bay.  Paralleling her story is that of Nina, a bestselling novelist from Sydney who hopes to break the logjam of writers' block by staying at her late great-grandmother Eleanor's house on the island while getting it repaired.  Nina comes across Nell's childhood diaries and also gets close to Joe, her neighbor.  I didn't expect Nina's story to lead where it did; congrats to Freeman for creating such a daring plot twist for her heroine.  And, hey, Nina writes medieval mysteries, and how many times do you find historical novelists as protagonists?

Di Morrissey, The Valley.  This is a contemporary saga with significant historical segments set in a small artsy town in Australia's Manning Valley. Danni, a city woman, moves there to take up a new painting career and quickly makes a place for herself, almost like she belongs there.  To be fair, it's the town where her grandmother grew up, and she and her mother find themselves researching some hidden family history.  Their story is interspersed with that of Isabella Mary Kelly, a legendary (and real-life) cattle rancher who had a hard time of it as an ambitious female settler in the 1840s. A good part of the novel is taken up by Danni's explorations of the area and mingling with the local residents, and although it doesn't advance the plot hardly at all, I didn't mind because I came to feel at home there myself.

Kate Morton, The Lake House.  This gets my vote for "most unputdownable," and because it came out around my birthday, I considered it a gift to myself!  In the present day, Sadie Sparrow, a detective with the London police on leave after getting too personally involved in a case, comes upon an abandoned, overgrown mansion when visiting her granddad in Cornwall.  The old estate, known once as Loeanneth ("Lake House"), was the scene of an unsolved crime in the '30s; Theo, the beloved toddler son of the Edevane family, disappeared after the family's summer party and was never found. As you can expect from Morton, this is a massively complex and multi-layered mystery, and the characterizations, particularly that of the mother, Eleanor Edevane, were superb.  Maybe because I read so many of these "family secret" novels, I figured out the central mystery and the final twist once a crucial bit of information was revealed partway through.  It seemed the only logical answer, and I knew I was right when I found the story leading in an entirely different direction.  So, perhaps not Morton's best (The Distant Hours holds that spot for me), but still very good.

So there we have it: eight novels by Australian women writers read in 2015.  And maybe now I can count eight books reviewed in all? 

This post will also serve as my sign-up post for the 2016 challenge, in which I'll declare the same goal: the Miles level, with four titles to be reviewed and at least six of them read. 

Sunday, January 03, 2016

A visual preview of a dozen historical fiction debuts for 2016

It seems appropriate that my first post for 2016 is focused on first novels.  Look for these debut historical novels to be published in the upcoming months.

What a beautifully original setting for a family saga; there aren't many set in France.  This novel about a family from the bourgeoisie, their involvement in the flourishing Impressionist art movement, and the secrets they hide from one another is set in Belle Époque Paris.  St. Martin's, July 2016.

The books in this post are in alphabetical order by author surname, so it's a coincidence that this second novel in the list is also situated in the 19th-century art world: but this time in Gilded Age New York, where a family of four artistic sisters seeks to make their mark.  Harper, May 2016.

The first novel from Hungarian film director Péter Gárdos is a hot commodity; rights to his story, a fictionalized version of his parents' unlikely post-WWII romance, have been acquired in 30 countries.  And, according to IMDB, the film version is in post-production in Hungary. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, April 2016.

Yaa Gyasi's debut novel moves us over to Ghana with a saga about history, race, and identity that begins in the 18th century, with the lives of two sisters, and continues through the 20th century in Harlem.  Knopf, June 2016.

This coming-of-age novel set in the racially turbulent American South in the '50s and '60s focuses on the friendship between two children of farming families, one White and one Black, and the complications that develop in their relationship as they mature.  Kensington, July 2016.

Johnson's time-slip novel, a love story set in rural southern France, sweeps from the present day to the 13th century at the time of the Albigensian Crusade. Really looking forward to this one.  Sourcebooks, February 2016.

The lives of three women—a New York socialite, a member of the Polish resistance, and a German physician—come together in war-torn Europe in this saga about women's courage and heroism in World War II. Ballantine, April 2016.

A novel of war, friendship, and difficult new beginnings that follows a Canadian girl of Japanese heritage who's deported with her father to American-occupied Tokyo after WWII.  The author is a Japanese-Canadian librarian. Doubleday, April 2016.

Personal adventure, self-discovery, and the search for love are themes in this debut about a young man from Harlem who loses then finds himself amid the heady jazz scene of Paris in the '20s.  Kensington, May 2016.

First in a series entitled "Daughters of New France," Promised to the Crown is billed as an exploration of the female experience in the Canadian colony of New France in the 17th century, as seen through the eyes of three young women sent there to find husbands and populate the new land.  Kensington, April 2016.

First-century Britain, just prior to the Roman invasion, is the setting for this story about a young woman destined for a leadership role in her matriarchal society.  Tampke is based in Australia, where her debut has the title Skin.  Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's, April 2016.

From this publisher's blurb, Williams' debut is "based on a true story of the only fatal nuclear accident to occur in America"; an ominous premise. Set in Idaho Falls in 1959, it evokes the communications breakdown in a marriage when the husband, an Army Specialist, learns about problems with the nuclear reactor there and the subsequent cover-up.  Random House, January 2016.