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Posts Tagged ‘historical fiction’

I spy a new novel by Kate Atkinson — Transcription (Little Brown, digital galley). Even if her name wasn’t on the cover, the tricksy writing style and off-center characters are so Atkinsonian. The setting — World War II London and after — is also familiar from Life After Life and A God in Ruins. But mostly it’s the sly subversion of genre expectations and unexpected plotting, as in the Jackson Brodie crime novels (Case Histories, etc.). Atkinson has her own GPS and trusts us to follow her lead; it’s so like her to start at the end. In 1981 London, a 60something woman is struck by a car while crossing the street, closing her eyes  as she murmurs, “This England.”

The story then neatly shuttles back and forth between 1950, when Juliet Armstrong is working as a BBC radio producer, and 1940, when she is an 18-year-old MI5 secretary transcribing audio recordings of German sympathizers who think they are talking to an undercover Gestapo agent. Actually, owlish Mr. Toby — picture Alan Guinness as George Smiley — works for MI5, which is why it’s so strange in 1950 that he denies knowing Juliet when she hails him in the park. Juliet begins noticing other oddities at the BBC that appear connected to her past. In addition to her transcription work in Dolphin Square during the war, she also spied on a society matron, learning undercover tradecraft and that “actions have consequences.”

Still, Atkinson is as devious as any secret agent, and nothing, then and now, is quite what it seems. Her touch is light, ironic, as she unfolds Juliet’s transformation from a naive teen with a crush on her gay boss to a seasoned pro who allows her flat to be used as a safe house after the war. As always, the historical aspects are well-researched — be sure to read the afterword — and if Juliet remains something of an enigma, isn’t that in the way of spies, hiding true identities, blending in? I read Transcription straight through, caught my breath, shook my head, then started again at the beginning disguised as the end.

Unsheltered (HarperCollins, digital galley) is the perfect title for Barbara Kingsolver’s timely and involving new novel, a tale of two families living in uncertain times and on the same corner a century and half apart. In 2016, the brick house at the corner of Plum and Vine in the New Jersey town of Vineland is falling apart. Willa Knox, an out-of-work magazine journalist, and her college professor husband, Iano Tavoularis, who lost his tenured job when his college closed, have moved into the inherited house with their grown daughter Tig and Iano’s ailing father Nick. It’s Willa who gets the bad news about the leaking roof and faulty foundation while Iano’s at his new job as an adjunct teacher at a nearby college. Not long after, there’s more bad news when son Zeke and his infant son must also move in the deteriorating structure. Hoping that the house has some historic significance and would qualify for a grant for necessary repairs, Willa begins researching its history in between changing diapers and taking cantankerous Nick to the doctor.

In the 1870s, the house on the corner is falling apart, too, because of mistakes made during construction. Science teacher Thatcher Greenwood has recently moved into the home with his new wife, her younger sister and his widowed, social-climbing mother-in-law who inherited the house from her family. Vineland was designed as a utopian community, but it’s really a company town for its bullying founder. Greenwood butts heads with him and the sanctimonious head of the school over the teaching of evolution and his championing of Charles Darwin, a correspondent of his brilliant neighbor Mary Treat (a real-life scientist). Greenwood’s friendship with Mary and a maverick newspaper editor also threatens his marriage and standing in the community. So not much good news there.

Still, Kingsolver is such a warm and witty writer that her pointed social commentary on crumbling dreams doesn’t get in the way of her very human story. Idealistic Tig is hiding a secret heartbreak, and the family is tender with profanity-spouting Nick, even when he tunes the radio to right-wing diatribes. Both families are vulnerable to the tides of change, “unsheltered” in the world. At least, Kingsolver leaves room for hope.

Most people who talk of skeletons in family trees are speaking metaphorically. But there’s an actual skeleton in the old wych elm tree at the Hennessey family home in Dublin. Who is it? How long has it been there? And what does it have to do with Toby, the nice-guy narrator of Tana French’s intricate and beguiling new stand-alone, The Witch Elm (Viking, review copy)?

That the skeleton isn’t discovered until a third of the way through the 500-page novel testifies to French’s talent at immersing readers in mysteries that go beyond those of old bones. Having written six layered police procedurals in the Dublin Murder Squad series, French now switches the perspective from police to crime victim.

I reviewed The Witch Elm for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. You can read the full review here https://tinyurl.com/y7k7ttbk 

 

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If you’re looking for escape from the world’s woes, look no further. Imogen Hermes Gower’s first novel, The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock (HarperCollins, digital galley), is a ribald romp through Georgian London, featuring the unlikely pairing of a middle-aged merchant and a golden-haired prostitute. They are brought together by a mermaid, actually two of them, and thereby hangs a witty, fulsome tale. Although it’s a long book at almost 500 pages, it reads fast. And it’s so good, I wished for more.

Jonah Hancock is a sedate widower who lives in the same Deptford house in which he was born, his simple wants looked after by a young maid named Brigid and his niece Suki, a bright 14-year-old. It’s 1785, and he’s waiting for one of his ships, Calliope, to come in after a long voyage to the South Seas.  Imagine his surprise when the ship’s captain shows up to say he’s sold the ship to buy a genuine mermaid — a small, wizened creature with a fearsome baby face, long fangs and a fish’s tail. Dead, yes, but it’s still a mermaid, and people will pay good money to see something so remarkable, although Hancock is initially dubious.

Meanwhile, in London’s SoHo, Mrs. Angelica Neal is contemplating her pretty face and an uncertain future. The duke who kept her the last three years has died and left her nothing in his will. Should Angelica return to Mrs. Bet Chappell’s famous bawdy house, where she grew up and learned her trade, or strike out on her own in hopes of attracting a new protector?

The wily Mrs. Chappell wants Angelica back; none of her current girls have the charms of a true courtesan. When Mr. Hancock’s mermaid becomes a popular sensation, Mrs. Chapell strikes a bargain with him. He will loan her his mermaid for a week, and she will make sure that he meets the lovely Mrs. Neal. But all comes to naught at a mermaid-themed party, where Mr. Hancock is appalled by the behavior of the gentleman in attendance, and self-involved Angelica spurns him, choosing to cast her fate with a handsome rake.

Enter a second mermaid. Not right away. Readers first encounter her through short lyrical passages, seductive siren songs of the sea. That she is very much alive only becomes apparent when Angelica jests to the now well-off Mr. Hancock that he needs to find her a second mermaid if he hopes to win her favor, and he immediately commissions an expedition to the North Sea. Magical realism meets historical realism with nary a seam showing. That a mermaid might swim in a shell-lined grotto behind a house in Greenwich seems just as possible as a prostitute marrying a merchant. Why Bel Fortescue, Angelica’s best friend, allows herself to be captured by an earl.

Gowar’s lively narrative is spiced with period cant and sparkling descriptions of life high and low in London, where birth is often destiny. She’s very good with domestic details — the houses, the fashions, the food — and populates the story with winning secondary characters: Suki, who reads Pope aloud to her uncle when she’d prefer a romantic novel; her mother Hester, for whom respectability is all; and Mrs. Chappell’s mulatto girl Polly, who discovers her own self-worth.

At one point, Angelica and Bel visit a confectionary, “a veritable temple of sugar,” with shelves of bottled liqueurs, salvers of jellies and cakes, caramels and custard tarts. “Angelica’s favourites are the millefruits, crisp clouds fragrant with orange water, their surfaces rugged with cochineal and gold leaf, almonds and angelico.”

Angelica thinks they are like jewels, “Delicious. . .I shall take some home with me.”

I suggest you do the same with The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock.

 

 

 

 

 

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A couple weeks ago I noted on Facebook that I was temporarily abandoning the palace intrigue of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury for Robert Harris’ new novel Munich (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley). There I was met on the first page with this: “He had listened to it on the BBC as it was delivered. Metallic, remorseless, threatening, self-pitying, boastful. . . it had been punctuated by the thumps of Hitler’s hands on the podium and by the roar of fifteen thousand voices shouting their approval. The noise was inhuman, unearthly. It seemed to well up from some subterranean river and pour out of the loudspeaker.”

It’s September of 1938, and Hitler is threatening to invade Czechoslovakia. We know that he was dissuaded by British PM Neville Chamberlain at a last-minute meeting in Munich calling “for peace in our time.” Although this policy of appeasement didn’t sit well with many and only delayed World War II by not even a year, history acknowledges that the intervening months gave the Allies the crucial time to prepare for war. Knowing that Munich almost didn’t happen and the talks threatened to fall apart moment to moment doesn’t detract from Harris’ sleek and suspenseful narrative. Hugh Legat and Paul von Hartmann were friends together at Oxford. Now, Hugh is an aide with the British foreign office, and Paul, a German nationalist, is one of the civil servants and military officers plotting Hitler’s demise in Berlin. The two need to meet long enough in Munich for Paul to pass a message to British intelligence, but he is being watched by Hitler’s henchmen. Harris sustains the tension throughout, and his fictional characters have the solidity of the historical figures who come to life in the fast-moving pages.  A thriller of diplomacy and espionage, Munich’s a book for our times.

Seen from above, a garden maze is a miracle of symmetry and relatively easy to traverse. But when you’re in the maze, navigating the intricate loops proves more difficult. Oh, for a map! Gregory Blake Smith’s The Maze at Windermere is a miracle of symmetry from any perspective, an artfully constructed historical novel in which five stories are superimposed, one on top the other through time, in Newport, R.I. We begin in 2011, with a poor but handsome tennis pro romancing several women, one an heiress with cerebral palsy. In 1896, a closeted man-about-town woos a wealthy widow who owns the Windermere estate. Thirty years earlier, a young Henry James aspires to be a writer by observing Newport society. During the American Revolution, a manipulative British soldier plots to seduce the beautiful daughter of a Jewish merchant. And in 1692, a young Quaker woman feels she must marry after her father is lost at sea.

Smith nimbly braids these distinct narratives loosely at first, then tighter as the book progresses. Similar themes of race and class, love and money emerge and then converge. Past is prism and palimpsest. A familiarity with Henry James — Portrait of a Lady, The Wings of the Dove, The Heiress — deepens appreciation, but there’s nothing fusty or longwinded about The Maze at Windermere. Each character is true to his or her time and speaks accordingly. Still, it is the young James who seems to sum up their thoughts when he writes, “We each of us strive to understand who we are, why we are here, to love and be loved, and for all that striving, we are each of us lost in the mystery of our own heart.” I got lost in The Maze at Windermere and loved every page.

It’s been a good month for historical novels. One of my other favorites is Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s Peculiar Ground (Harper, review) which I reviewed for the Minneapolis StarTribune. (https://tinyurl.com/yc4mmrze). It’s the sprawling saga of a walled English estate depicted in gorgeous prose at specific points in the 17th century and then again in the 20th. In Fools and Mortals (Harper, digital galley), Bernard Cornwell takes a break from the Saxons and turns to Shakespeare, expertly evoking Elizabethan times. His adventure tale focuses on Shakespeare’s handsome younger brother Richard, an actor in Will’s troupe who is charged with retrieving the original script of A Midsummer’s Night Dream after it is stolen by a rival theatrical company. Enter complications pursued by hi-jinks. Seriously, it’s quite good. Rachel Rhys’ Dangerous Crossing (Atria, library hardcover)  pays homage to Agatha Christie as young Englishwoman Lily Shepherd, a former housemaid, books passage to Australia in the summer of 1939. There’s shipboard romance and intrigue as Lily’s fellow travelers include an amiable brother and sister with health issues, a Jewish schoolteacher who has fled her home in Vienna, a mysterious and wealthy American couple, an embittered spinster, a bullying bigot, a nervous mother and her teenage daughter, and a naive housemaid.  Lauren Willig’s a pro at romantic suspense, and sets her entertaining The English Wife (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley) in Gilded Age New York. Janie Van Duyvil uncovers family secrets when her older brother Bayard is murdered at a fancy dress ball and his English wife Annabelle disappears. A parallel narrative introduces readers to the music halls of London and a beautiful singer who calls herself George. Janie’s a shy, somewhat tiresome character in the beginning, but she finds confidence (and love) when a tabloid reporter joins her in a quest for answers.

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The Russia of Joseph Kanon’s Defectors (Atria, digital galley via NetGalley) is the Soviet Union circa 1961, gray and grim as the Cold War. Even the Party faithful have to wait in long lines for food and depend on the black market for basic amenities. Simon Weeks has often wondered why his older brother Frank, a CIA golden boy, chose to defect in 1949. Was it money, ideology, gamesmanship? Now Frank has written his KGB-approved memoirs and asks Simon, who became a publisher after his brother’s defection ended his State Department career, to edit the manuscript. Simon discovers his brother is as charming and wily as ever, even though he is accompanied everywhere by a minder, and the restricted, isolated lifestyle has turned his beautiful wife Joanna into an alcoholic. They consort only with other defectors, from famous figures like Guy Burgess to anonymous research scientists. A recent death in the group is presumed a suicide. When Frank begins to show his hand, Simon senses something is up and must fall back on old tradecraft. Betrayal is in the air, murder in a cathedral.

Kanon, who has written spy thrillers set in Istanbul, Berlin and Los Alamos, is at the top of his game. Defectors offers suspense and atmosphere galore, but it also explores the perplexing nature of a double agent, as well as enduring questions of loyalty to family and country. A timely tale.

I didn’t know much about World War I spies beyond Mata Hari until I read Kate Quinn’s compelling The Alice Network (HarperCollins, digital galley via edelweiss). The title comes from the name of a real-life group of female agents who operated in France during the Great War. American college student Charlie St. Clair first learns about the network in 1947 when she tries to find her cousin Rose, who disappeared in Nazi-occupied France during the more recent war. Eve Gardiner, a reclusive, ill-tempered alcoholic and former Alice spy living in London, initially resists Charlie’s entreaty for help — she draws a gun on her — before setting out for France in her vintage roadster driven by charming ex-con Finn.

Quinn expertly propels parallel storylines, alternating between the 1947 road trip with its twists and dead ends, and Eve’s recruitment as a spy in 1915 and her dangerous work for the Alice network. Both stories, which eventually connect, are absorbing adventures, although Eve’s is the more harrowing as she becomes the unwilling mistress of a powerful German sympathizer. Still, Charlie also proves to be a resourceful, conflicted character with a not-so-little problem. Suspense increases as secrets come to light in both narratives. The Alice Network is sad and heart-breaking but also hopeful and redemptive.

In Mark Mills’ deft cat-and-mouse game of a thriller, Where Dead Men Meet (Blackstone Audio, digital galley via NetGalley), someone is trying to kill Luke Hamilton. Or it could be a case of mistaken identity in 1937 Paris, where Hamilton is assigned to the British Embassy. He is grieving at the news of the murder in England of Sister Agnes, the nun who took him in as an abandoned baby 25 years ago. Readers already know Sister Agnes’ murder is connected to the attempt on Luke’s life, but it is the appearance of the mysterious Bernard Fautrier who warns Luke he is in real danger.  The race — to escape the killers and to find out their motives — takes Luke to Nazi Germany, to neutral Switzerland, to enigmatic Venice. There are moments of exquisite tension, although the resolution of the main mystery comes a little too early. Still, complications ensue as table turns. Revenge is cold and deadly.

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newsoftheworldI wanted to be a cowboy when I was little. Or a pioneer, or a rider for the Pony Express. These career choices were influenced by my love of horses, the Little House on the Prairie books and the many TV westerns that underscored my girlhood. But if I had known there was a living in riding from town to town reading newspapers to interested folks, I would have signed on for that job, too. My role model would be Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd of  Paulette Jiles’ heartfelt new novel, News of the World (HarperCollins, digital galley).

In 1870 north Texas, the captain is a 71-year-old war veteran, widower, father of two grown daughters. He once owned a printing press, but now he rides from one frontier community to another reading aloud the news to people willing to pay 10 cents to hear about politics in Washington, scandals in Europe and failed expeditions to the Arctic. In Wichita Falls, a cargo hauler offers him  a $50 gold piece to take a 10-year-old girl to her surviving relatives near San Antonio. Johanna Leonberger was taken captive four years ago by the Kiowa, who recently traded her back to an Indian agent for “fifteen Hudson’s Bay four-stripe blankets and a set of silver dinnerware.” If the captain is reluctant to take the blue-eyed girl with taffy hair on a 400-mile-journey south through the Texas Hill Country, the girl, “Cicada,” is even less enthusiastic. She remembers little of her former life, doesn’t speak English and runs away at the first opportunity.

Still, the gradual, growing bond between the two is intensified by the obstacles they face on their bumpy road trip. For Johanna, it’s civilization embodied by dresses, shoes and bathtubs. For the captain, it’s some brothers who think the newspaper stories should be about their exploits. For both of them, there are the hardships of the trail — finding food, fording rivers — and the attack by outlaws intent on killing Kidd and selling Johanna into white slavery. Johanna proves to be a practical, practiced fighter, although the captain has to stop her from scalping the villains.

Jiles depicts their adventures with an assured ease and a poetic feel for the harsh and lovely landscape, the customs of the time. Readers of Jiles’ Enemy Women and The Color of Lightning will find a similar sensibility of time and place, affecting but unsentimental. Still, the relationship between the captain and Johanna is at book’s heart, and knowing that there must be a reckoning at road’s end caused mine to ache. These two belong together.

The News of the World is a deserved finalist for the National Book Award. But don’t just read all about it. Read it.

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moscowOh, I have such a crush on the title character of Amor Towles’ new novel A Gentleman in Moscow (Viking, digital galley). Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov may be a Former Person to the Bolsheviks who have sentenced him to permanent house arrest in 1922 at Moscow’s grand Metropol hotel, but he’s my new book boyfriend. Like the marvelous tale he inhabits, he has substance and style, intelligence and wit, elegance and charm. Forgive me while I swoon.

Rostov makes the best of his forced relocation from his luxury suite to a cramped attic room, paring down his possessions to the necessities. Still he worries the walls may soon close in on him like a biscuit tin. His solution is to make himself even more at home in the hotel, dining in its restaurants, receiving visitors in the grand lobby, making a standing Tuesday appointment with the hotel barber. He also forges strong ties with hotel chef Emile and maitre d’ Andrey, uniting with them against the conniving Party plant working his way up the hotel’s management hierarchy. A famous actress invites Rostov to her room, and thus begins a discreet affair.

But but before that is Rostov’s mentoring friendship with young Nina, the lively daughter of a bureaucrat temporarily living at the Metropol. Nina has a passkey, and she introduces him to the hotel’s secret storerooms and hidden closets. They eavesdrop on visitors and guests from the ballroom balcony, and when Nina finally leaves, she presents Rostov with an invaluable gift. She will return as a grown woman requesting a favor that will change his life forever.

All credit to Towles, who wrote the splendid The Rules of Civility, for crafting another layered period piece, this one suffused with a Russian sensibility studded with references to history, culture and literature. A Gentleman in Moscow is both expansive and intimate as it covers and compresses decades. Imagine a kaleidoscopic combination of  Casablanca and Chekhov, with a little bit of Eloise.

Almost all of the book takes place inside the Metropol — Rostov will be shot if he ventures over its threshold — but there is one heart-stopping hospital run, and another character makes a clandestine trip to Paris. The Metropol is in Theatre Square, near the Kremlin and the Bolshoi, so the outside world can be glimpsed from the windows, as when the mourners line the streets for Stalin’s funeral. And politics play out in the hotel itself; Khruschev is a dinner guest at an important meeting. There is intrigue and suspense, especially as the book nears its end.

I didn’t want it to end, to have to check out of the Metropol and bid farewell to Rostov and company. That being said, the finale was all I’d hoped it would be.

 

 

 

 

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herooffranceMathieu is his nom de guerre, and, like many of Alan Furst’s leading men, he’s something of a loner, a considered risk-taker who hides his intelligence and sophistication behind a quiet demeanor. He’s good at sizing up people, figuring out if they can be trusted. “And I’d better be,” he says, ”because I can only be wrong once.”

Mathieu is the capable leader of a small Resistance cell in A Hero of France (Random House, digital galley), Furst’s excellent new novel of the shadowy world of espionage. In previous books, he has focused mostly on the twilight years leading up to the war, but here it is March of 1941, and German-occupied Paris is dark and under curfew. Mathieu and his cell help rescue downed RAF pilots and crew members, hiding them in safe houses, securing false identity passes, providing disguises and escorting them to safety — perhaps by train through Vichy France and then to Spain, or in the back of a truck to the countryside and coast to await safe passage to England. It is dangerous, heart-stopping work, but these ordinary people — a professor, a nurse, a schoolteacher, a teen with a bicycle, a widow with a bureaucratic friend, a nightclub owner with connections — prove themselves over and over in extraordinary circumstances. But their actions can only go unnoticed for so long. A fatuous Brit wants to run the network from afar, encouraging riskier acts of sabotage. A German police detective is looking for an informer to penetrate the cell. Then there are the soldiers who will trip a man for no reason, and young street thugs playing at extortion.

The narrative is episodic, and Furst splices tense, action-filled scenes with interludes of relative calm. Mathieu begins a love affair with a neighbor, and adopts — or is adopted by — a Belgian shepherd dog. The writing is atmospheric: a crippled plane tries to land in silvery moonlight, lovers share secrets behind blackout curtains, a cafe owner shrugs when asked about the Resistance. “Monsieur, do you know what goes on in the cafes of Paris? Everything. Of course, one may have a glass of wine, a coffee, and something to eat, but there is more. Love affairs begin, love affairs end, swindlers meet their victims, victims meet their lawyers. But, mostly, the cafe is a place for people to go.” Including the heroes of France.

everyonebraveThe London Blitz is a staple of wartime novels and films, offering a dramatic backdrop for stories of courage and romance. The writer Kate Atkinson called it “the dark beating heart” of her novel Life after Life, and the same can be said of Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave is Forgiven (Simon & Schuster, digital galley). His fierce re-imagining of the Nazi bombs shattering buildings and lives is both wide-screen and close-up. Perhaps because his story is loosely based on the letters and wartime experiences of his grandparents, it feels immediate and personal.

England’s entry into the war in 1939 is a call to arms for Britain’s youth, including 18-year-old debutante Mary North, fresh out a Swiss boarding school. Her notion of a glamorous wartime job is quickly dashed by her assignment to a school whose students are being evacuated to the countryside. But not all children are suitable evacuees, including some who are physically disabled or mentally challenged, along with Zachary, the 10-year-old child of a black American musician. Mary convinces nice-guy Tom Shaw, a school administrator turned down for enlistment, to let her teach a small class of these outsiders. Tom and Mary begin a whirlwind courtship that is threatened both by Mary’s attraction to Tom’s best friend, Alistair Heath, an art restorer before he joined up, and the war itself, which sends Alistair to France and those left behind to air raid shelters. Eventually, Alistair will wind up in Malta, under siege by Axis forces, and Mary and her friend Hilda will volunteer as ambulance drivers.

Cleave’s harrowing descriptions of the homefront and battlefield are leavened by witty dialogue and letters among the characters. He also raises issues of race and class that seem shocking by today’s standards. Mary, Tom, Alistair, Hilda, Zachary — and a host of others — come across as complex and believable. You remember the stubborn  pride of Zachary’s father, the pursed lips of Mary’s mother, the camaraderie between Alistair and a fellow soldier, the resilience of small children, the bravery of those scared to death. You won’t forget Everyone Brave is Forgiven.

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