Thursday, November 16, 2017

By Light of Hidden Candles by Daniella Levy, a multi-period novel of cultural heritage, faith, and love

Entertaining, culturally rich, and fearless in speaking of complex theological questions, American-Israeli author Levy’s debut novel delves into the history of Spain’s crypto-Jews—descendants of Jewish people who secretly observed their faith following expulsion or forced conversion. The story is structured into three intertwined narratives, two contemporary and one historical.

Alma Ben-Ami, a gregarious college student who defies the stereotype of observant Jewish women, gets excited after discovering an engraved gold ring and a box of ketubot—Jewish marriage contracts—covering 24 generations in her family’s female line. Her memory-impaired grandmother, who was born in Morocco’s Spanish protectorate, can no longer recall the ring’s history.

Shortly thereafter, at the family Judaica shop in Manhattan, Alma meets Manuel Aguilar, a Spaniard whose former priest had discouraged his curiosity about Judaism. When they enroll in the same NYU archives program and study abroad in Madrid to research their genealogies, their growing closeness affects their friendship, since Alma won’t date anyone outside her faith.

A separate strand presents the experiences of Míriam de Carmona, Alma’s ancestor, living with her spice-merchant father, Abraham, in the judería of Lorca in southeastern Spain in 1492. Abraham’s decision to sell kosher wine to a converso family attracts the Inquisition’s attention.

Young people often explore questions of religion and identity in college, so Alma and Manuel’s in-depth discussions about her Jewish customs, his Catholicism, and where they overlap and differ all feel honest and real. Their humorous banter keeps the pacing brisk.

It’s difficult for Alma to keep kosher in modern Spain, and the story explains the importance of these traditions and emphasizes the tenacious survival of the Jewish people. In the 15th century, Míriam faces her own romantic dilemma, and her fear of discovery by the Inquisition is terrifyingly palpable. The plotline relies on coincidence at times but has an enjoyably satisfying outcome.

By Light of Hidden Candles was published by Kasva Press in 2017; I reviewed it for November's Historical Novels Review based on a "read now" copy I found at NetGalley, which has become a worthwhile source for new book discoveries for me. The novel can be considered an example of New Adult fiction. It's also a good choice for Jewish Book Month, which runs this year from November 12 - December 12.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Blood Moon by Ruth Hull Chatlien, a tense fictional account of the Dakota War of 1862

Ruth Hull Chatlien spins a taut and believable tale in her second historical novel, Blood Moon, which dramatizes Sarah Wakefield’s six-week captivity among the Dakota people in 1862, along with her four-year-old son and infant daughter.

The wife of Dr. John Wakefield, a government physician at the Upper Sioux Agency in southern Minnesota, Sarah had previously formed friendships among the Sioux (as she calls them), relationships which stand her in good stead after hostilities break out between the white settlers and Indians. Sent away from their home by John for her safety, she and her children see their journey tragically disrupted; they are taken into the custody of Chaska, a friendly “farmer Indian,” and his not-so-friendly relative, Hapa.

Vowing to return her to her husband when it’s possible to do so, Chaska brings Sarah under his protection, and she comes to see him and his kindly mother, Ina, as adopted family members. Both are sympathetic characters, and it’s only thanks to them that Sarah survives. Still, there are many close calls, with many of Chaska’s compatriots vowing to kill all white settlers—she sees examples firsthand.

Through her narrative, Sarah deftly illustrates the political tensions that lead up to the U.S.-Dakota War: restrictions imposed upon the Dakota, combined with drought and their subsequent hunger, have driven the Indians to the breaking point. The complex situation is painted in many shades of gray, with many Dakota people wanting to avoid violence. “The longer I am with them,” she states, “the more I understand that their attitudes toward whites are neither uniform nor predictable.”

An intelligent and courageous woman, Sarah already knows how to speak Dakota to some degree, and the story shows how she learns to follow their ways and behave in a culturally acceptable manner, despite disdain from other white captives. The author provides considerable detail on the Dakota culture, including their dress, language, and kinship relations. That said, Sarah longs to return with her children to the white settlers’ world, and to her husband.

On this topic, the depiction of Sarah and John Wakefield’s mismatched marriage deserves acclaim for its realism. Sarah, a six-foot-tall farmer’s daughter, has a scandal in her past that’s not of her own making. The historical character’s own memoir alludes to this, but without going into detail; the explanation given in the novel feels plausible.  John, from a blue-blooded New England family, is a talented, adventurous physician who’s prone to occasional violence and verbal put-downs. Keeping to the mindset of mid-19th century mores, Sarah is a caring mother who does her best to be a good wife, feeling that John saved her from a life that could have been worse. One specific scene toward the end, relating to their relationship, exudes power, meaning, and character.

Recommended for an in-depth look at a little-known but important event from 150 years ago that was tragic on many fronts and had lasting consequences.

Blood Moon was published by Amika Press in June; thanks to the author for providing me with an e-copy.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Wonders Will Never Cease by Robert Irwin, a fantasy of medieval history and lore

Irwin’s entertaining literary fantasy has a solid historical framework yet is stuffed to the brim with well-known myths, rumors come to life, and imaginative tales created of whole cloth. Its protagonist (or maybe antagonist) is Anthony Woodville, a figure from England’s Wars of the Roses.

After he appears to be killed at the Battle of Towton and later revives, his life becomes overlaid with occult happenings. A disembodied head prognosticates, and the dead walk again. Various characters, including “knight prisoner” Thomas Malory and the royal alchemist, relate episodes from Arthurian lore, the Welsh Mabinogion, the Canterbury Tales, and more.

Characters from stories appear in the tangible world and historical figures surface in paranormal realms. Anthony’s mother claims descent from the fairy Melusine, and his sister, a widowed commoner, secretly marries King Edward. With so much strangeness around, Anthony has trouble discerning what is real.

History and fiction are interlaced throughout with dexterity and wit. Perhaps best appreciated by medieval enthusiasts, Irwin’s novel invites discussion on the value of stories and how they communicate our place in the world.

Robert Irwin's Wonders Will Never Cease is published by Arcade in the US this month; in the UK, the publisher is Dedalus.  This review was submitted for the 10/15 issue of Booklist.

Other notes:

- The publisher describes it as "for fans of T. H. White, George R. R. Martin, and Philippa Gregory," who aren't usually authors you'd see compared with one another, so this gives you a sense of the book's potential cross-genre appeal. For those most familiar with Philippa Gregory's work, Anthony Woodville's sister, Elizabeth, is the "White Queen" from her novels.

- This is the author's first new novel in 17 years; he's best known for The Arabian Nightmare, an epic fantasy set in medieval Cairo.

- Although prior knowledge of the many myths and legends tucked within isn't necessary, I think that the more familiar readers are with these elements, the more they'll appreciate the novel.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

The Vineyard by María Dueñas, a 19th-century epic of reinvention, family, mystery, and love

Mauro Larrea has become a self-made man in 1860s Mexico City by means of courage and brawny determination. Over decades, this native Spaniard has risen from silver miner to wealthy entrepreneur, owning a lavish colonial mansion, but thanks to an investment mishap involving a deceased gringo, he’s lost most of his fortune. If knowledge got out, it would not only ruin him personally but also disrupt his grown children’s social prospects. Now, at 47, he’s faced with starting over.

Indebted to an unscrupulous moneylender, then traveling to Havana on an errand for a family friend, he gets caught up in a marital squabble, which leads, eventually, to his winning substantial properties in Andalusia—an abandoned house, vineyard, and winery—in a bold gamble. He travels to the small Spanish town of Jerez, at the heart of the sherry trade, hoping to quickly sell them to a new buyer. Then Soledad Claydon, the former owner’s cousin, makes her appearance.

The narrative is eventful, the translation is nimble and smooth, and each of the three settings is presented in abundant, skillfully realized detail. It’s also refreshing to see mature people in leading roles. However, what prevents The Vineyard from being an engrossing story from start to finish is that Mauro doesn’t demonstrate significant depth in the beginning, and the story is his alone for nearly half the book.

The strong and intelligent yet vulnerable Soledad, a London wine merchant’s wife who insists on telling Mauro about her lost family legacy, is the novel’s real star. Through the pair’s interactions, many nuances get added to his character. Finding her company intoxicating, Mauro gets drawn deeply into the Montalvo family’s affairs, which conceal many secrets.

As a romantic epic with a hint of mystery, The Vineyard works well, though it takes a while to hit its stride.

The Vineyard, which has been translated from Spanish by Lorenza Garcia and Nick Caistor, was published by Atria in October. In the UK, the title is A Vineyard in Andalusia. This review first appeared in November's Historical Novels Review.

Monday, October 30, 2017

In which I read my first Nordic noir: The Shadow District by Arnaldur Indriðason, a Reykjavik wartime mystery

Have you ever picked up a novel in an unfamiliar genre, expecting to be pushed out of your comfort zone, only to discover it fits your tastes very well?

As a librarian I’ve been aware of the popularity of Scandinavian noir but hadn’t read any of these books, figuring most were too dark and violent. Then a copy of Arnaldur Indriðason’s The Shadow District showed up. I began reading on Saturday morning and was finished by Sunday afternoon.

The subtitle says “a thriller,” but I’d call it more of a traditional crime novel, of the police procedural variety (sort of). The pacing is methodical, which disappointed some people on Goodreads, but I don’t think historical fiction readers will mind. The crimes aren’t graphically described, either.

The setting is Iceland, predominantly Reykjavík; the timeframe is both the present day and 1944. A ninety-year-old pensioner is found to have died in bed in his flat—not an unusual scenario. But when the hospital pathologist learns he was smothered, it becomes a police matter. Konrád, a retired detective, can’t resist getting involved when he learns about old news clippings in the man’s apartment about a young woman’s unsolved murder during WWII. Strangely, Konrád has a personal connection to that older case: his own father, a con man, had helped arrange a fake séance for the girl’s distraught parents.

The two murders, 70 years apart, are linked through more than just Konrád, of course, and it’s up to him to discover how. Back in 1944, during a late-night romantic tryst, an Icelandic woman and her American soldier boyfriend discover a young woman’s body behind the National Theatre in the city’s Shadow District. Two detectives, an Icelandic policeman and a Canadian-born man representing the American military police, team up to solve the crime.

“It’s not exactly a tough job… being a cop in Reykjavík,” remarks Thorson, the Canadian, to his unofficial new partner. The city’s population isn’t large, and there are a couple of “small world” scenarios in their investigation. The writing is deceptively straightforward. Midway through, I was surprised to note how complex the storyline had become. Good mysteries focus as much on character as plot, however, and The Shadow District emphasizes its characters’ humanity, the victims’ included.

All of their experiences draw in interesting elements from Icelandic history and culture, from the island’s American occupation during WWII, and the controversial romances between Yanks and local women (which becomes known as the “Situation”), to the deep-rooted beliefs in the “hidden people,” or huldufólk, in the country’s rural regions. Also, all Icelanders are addressed by their first names, and the author either assumes you know this or will pick it up from context. Similarly, the characters disdain excessive formality and, when called “miss” or “sir” by police, make it clear that it isn’t necessary.

There’s a bit of repetition early on, and the 1940s-set chapters aren’t noted as such, which creates some initial confusion. Taken as a whole, the novel stresses how the past is as alive as ever. The Shadow District is first in a new series, and I’ll be reading the others. Fans of other wartime mysteries, like those of Charles Todd, may want to try it.

The Shadow District, which is a LibraryReads pick for November, will be published by Minotaur in early November; Harvill Secker published it in the UK in May. It's translated from Icelandic by Victoria Cribb.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Gone Before Christmas by Charles Finch, a short Victorian holiday mystery

One nice consequence of the ebook revolution is that shorter works of fiction, like novelettes and novellas, can be published and bought as single titles. Charles Finch’s newest release, Gone Before Christmas, is one of these. While it may not be as long as other volumes in the Charles Lenox series (Goodreads estimates it as 80 pages), it’s a fully-fleshed-out historical mystery with the same intricate puzzling, dry humor, and Victorian ambiance.

In the days that lead-up to Christmas in 1877, Lt. Austen, of the British Army’s proud Grenadier Guards, is found to have vanished after entering the cloakroom at Charing Cross Station to retrieve a forgotten hat. His fellow officers, with whom he’d been lunching before their separate train journeys, are baffled.

So is Scotland Yard—who gets alerted because of the cloakroom’s blood-spattered wall. The situation appears grim. Austen worked in intelligence, and all conclude he never would have turned traitor, but it’s possible he was attacked and kidnapped by French spies. That’s why Lenox, partner in a successful London detective agency, is called in.

Meanwhile, Christmas preparations at Lenox’s home are in full swing, with his wife Lady Jane in charge, but the tree he’s been stuck with—a dried-up, spindly thing reminiscent of the one from the Charlie Brown Christmas special—may not last that long. The humorous banter between Lenox and his older brother, Sir Edmund, is a joy to witness, and some secondary characters, like Annie the housekeeper and even Mrs. Attlebury of Sussex, don’t need a lot of page-time for their personalities to impress.

The story’s full of details on subtle class distinctions, and you also get fun lines like this:

“France and England were rather like an unhappy couple out to supper at friends’: not presently at war, except in the sense that they were continually at war.”

As for the mystery itself… looking back, I see that the clues are all there. Lenox caught them sooner than I did (but then, he’s the professional). One aspect that confused me, though: what’s Lt. Austen’s first name? Two versions are given, and if one was a nickname/middle name, that wasn’t obvious.

It may not seem so in the beginning, but the storyline’s warmth and generosity do suit the holiday season well. The ebook ($1.99) also contains a teaser for Finch's upcoming The Woman in the Water, a prequel to the Lenox series.  This was a personal purchase.

Monday, October 23, 2017

The Revolution of Marina M by Janet Fitch, an epic novel of the Russian Revolution

Timed for the centenary of the Russian Revolution, this mammoth epic from best-seller Fitch (Paint It Black, 2006) presents this tumultuous epoch from the viewpoint of a passionate, resilient young woman.

The daughter of a bourgeois St. Petersburg family in 1916, Marina Makarova finds herself caught up by revolutionary fervor. First enamored of her older brother’s friend, then irresistibly drawn to a Bolshevik poet, she finds her family relationships and friendships torn apart as the country’s political and social order ruptures.

With heightened immediacy, Fitch’s novel presents a richly described, on-the-street view of the revolution’s transformative, often violent throes in Marina’s “beloved and heartbreaking city,” from the behavior of newly emboldened servants to rampant hunger and poverty, and speculators negotiating backroom deals. Fitch provides an excellent sense of history’s unpredictability and shows how the desperate pursuit of survival leads to morally compromising decisions.

It’s unusual for a novel of this length to follow a single narrative thread, and the ending turns bizarre, but the momentum rarely slackens. Fitch’s cinematic storytelling and Marina’s vibrant personality are standout elements in this dramatic novel.

The Revolution of Marina M will be published by Little, Brown in November (hb, $30/ebook, $15.99, 816pp).  This review was submitted to Booklist for publication in the Oct 15th issue.

As you'll see, I was kept busy reading over the summer, with this lengthy novel, the previous one (Time's Betrayal, at over 1100 pages), and a couple of others whose reviews are forthcoming. For readers interested in the Russian Revolution of 1917 and its aftermath, I hope to post a reading list of additional historical novels in the near future.