Friday, December 27, 2013

Book review: The Mountain of Light, by Indu Sundaresan

Indu Sundaresan’s newest novel opens with an author’s note on the events surrounding the 186-carat Kohinoor diamond’s controversial journey from India to England. It’s an unusual choice to include this information up front, but to her credit, the story isn’t any less dramatic for knowing its outline in advance.

What the author’s note tells, the rest of the novel shows. Gracefully written with an underlying somber tone, The Mountain of Light details the personalities, social concerns, and deeply felt emotions behind the politics.

Five distinct episodes are related in chronological order. In the first, set in 1817, Shah Shuja, the former ruler of Afghanistan, lives in Lahore’s lush Shalimar Gardens as a “guest” of Maharajah Ranjit Singh, who sets the Kohinoor as the price of Shuja’s freedom. The last, set in a Paris apartment in 1893, focuses on Dalip Singh, Ranjit’s son, the deposed last ruler of the Punjab. As an elderly man, he looks back on his arrival in England nearly forty years earlier when, as a 16-year-old boy, he was forced to watch his empire being dismantled and the Kohinoor taken away. Tying all of the strands together are the glorious diamond and the tightening grip of the British and their East India Company on India.

Seen from the viewpoints of individuals from both countries, the stories are full of both great and foolish men; intelligent, forceful women; cross-cultural romances that don’t pan out; and promises that aren’t kept. While many of the British are sympathetic to the Indian people and realize the destructive effects of their presence (“We’re not a very friendly people, are we?” remarks Fanny Eden, sister of Governor-General Lord Auckland), the tragedy of their situation is laid bare. Even the guardians of young Dalip Singh, as kind and loving as they are to him, are left powerless against the forces of imperialism.

Along the way, the Kohinoor changes hands multiple times, by means of deception and theft or as a gift given under pressure. One suspenseful chapter takes the form of an adventurous mystery in which the diamond is stolen aboard ship as it’s secretly transported to England. The writing is lush yet focused, with vibrant descriptions of India’s beautiful landscapes and sumptuous treasures.

With its wide-scale historical perspective, The Mountain of Light may not be the best choice for readers who like attaching themselves to a single protagonist; as literary fiction, also, it deserves to be read slowly and carefully. Most of the characters once lived, which makes the reading an enjoyable educational experience. All in all, it’s an insightful and enlightening look at historical change and how one of the world’s largest diamonds came to take its place in the British crown jewels, a status that’s still contentious today.

The Mountain of Light was published by Washington Square Press/Simon & Schuster in trade paperback in October ($16.00 / $18.99 Canada, 314pp, plus detailed afterword, glossary, and readers' guide).  Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy at my request.  See also Indu Sundaresan's guest post on this site: The Journey of the Kohinoor Diamond.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

My year-end wrap-up: 15 memorable reads of 2013

Over the past few weeks, I've enjoyed reading other bloggers' list of notable 2013 reads but have hesitated to write up my own list until nowmainly because December wasn't yet over, and I still had plenty of reading time ahead over the holiday break!  Now, as Christmas is nearly upon us and the year is truly winding down, I figured this was a good time for a year-end wrap-up post.

Here's a list of historical novels I read over the last year that I highly recommend and which stood out for one reason or another. I read many very good novels last year, so choosing them wasn't easy.  I decided to expand the list to 15 titles since narrowing it down to 10 left out too many I wanted to include.  I'll have more to say on a few of these books once the full reviews are published elsewhere.

Wishing all of you a happy holiday season and another good year of reading in 2014!

Susan Wittig Albert, A Wilder Rose - A meticulously researched, insightful look at a fascinating woman, Rose Wilder Lane, that grants her her rightful place as the ghostwriter for her mother's Little House books.

Patricia Bracewell, Shadow on the Crown - The author's skilled use of language and fine sense of dramatic timing brings to life the little-known story of Emma of Normandy, the “peaceweaver” bride of Æthelred II, King of England.

Jessica Brockmole, Letters from Skye - A romantic read set during both world wars that evokes the immediacy and intimacy to be found in the lost art of letter-writing.

Emma Donoghue, Frog Music - The seedy side of 1870s San Francisco features in this original literary mystery in which a French burlesque dancer pursues the killer of her only real friend, pants-wearing frog catcher Jenny Bonnet.  Watch for it next April.

Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly, The Tilted World - A suspenseful, emotionally moving novel about the Great Flood of 1927 that resurrects this nearly forgotten natural disaster and showcases the talents of both authors, who have won awards for their fiction and poetry, respectively.

Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things - A wonderfully old-fashioned epic, embodying the spirit of the transformative 19th century, that never tones down the intelligence of its scientifically-minded heroine.

Nancy Horan, Under the Wide and Starry Sky - Brimming with the same artistic verve that drives her complicated protagonists, this spectacular literary epic follows the loving, tumultuous partnership of Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson and his Indiana-born wife, Fanny Osbourne.

Dorothy Love, Carolina Gold - A beautiful evocation of the life of a female rice planter in Reconstruction-era South Carolina who gradually comes to terms with her changing world; based on a true story.  Full review to come.

Henning Mankell, A Treacherous Paradise - The unique historical setting (1905 Mozambique) and courageous heroine distinguish Mankell's suspenseful standalone novel, which depicts the tragic effects of colonialism.

Mary Miley, The Impersonator - In her debut mystery, Miley takes a world that has vanished into the shadows of nearly a century ago 1920s-era vaudeville and pulls it back onto center stage.

Shona Patel, Teatime for the Firefly - In this immersive, romantic historical novel, the author's warm storytelling invites readers to the tea plantations of Assam in 1940s India.

Timothy Schaffert, The Swan Gondola - Magical wonders abound in the former frontier town of Omaha as it welcomes visitors to the 1898 World's Fair, and a ventriloquist falls in love with a beautiful traveling actress  Look for it next February.

Lisa See, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan - A longtime book club favorite in which See consummately re-creates the inner lives, relationships, and rituals of women living in a remote province of 19th-century China.

Elisabeth Storrs, The Golden Dice - Recounting the perspective of three women of the warring lands of ancient Etruria and Rome, this second novel in a series (following the excellent The Wedding Shroud) offers a much wider view of the era than the first, and is an even stronger book as a result.

Victoria Wilcox, Inheritance: Southern Son, Book 1, The Saga of Doc Holliday - This first volume in a series reveals John Henry Holliday's little-known origins as a son of the Old South: a sensitive yet hot-tempered young man whose early life, in the hands of this talented storyteller, proves every bit as fascinating as his legend.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Book review: Under the Wide and Starry Sky, by Nancy Horan

Horan’s spectacular second novel (following book-club favorite Loving Frank, 2007) has been worth the wait. Brimming with the same artistic verve that drives her complicated protagonists, it follows the loving, tumultuous partnership of Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson and his Indiana-born wife, Fanny Osbourne.

Fanny, an aspiring artist still tied to her unfaithful first husband when they meet in 1875, is fiery, courageous, and the mother of two living children. Louis, a younger man whose frailty belies a joyous, energetic spirit, dreams of writing full-time. While he perfects his craft, she becomes his protector and editor-collaborator, accompanying him across Europe and America and finally to Samoa in hopes of healing his weak lungs.

This is more than just another novel designed to honor the unsung accomplishments of a famous man’s spouse, though. Equally adventurous and colorful, Louis and Fanny could each command the story singlehandedly. Together, they are riveting and insightfully envisioned, with moving depictions of how their relationship transforms over time. Horan also explores relevant social concerns, such as cultural imperialism and xenophobia, and how Stevenson’s life influenced his literary themes.

An exhilarating epic about a free-spirited couple who traveled the world yet found home only in one another.

Under the Wide and Starry Sky will be published by Ballantine in January (hb, $26.00, 496pp). I wrote up this starred review for Booklist's October 1st issue, then I reread the novel a second time in order to interview the author for next February's Historical Novels Review.  This is a long book, and it took me a good week and a half to read initially, time very well spent; I discovered many additional nuances upon a second reading.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Revolutionary Fiction: A Gallery of New and Forthcoming Titles about America's Founding

A story should, to please, at least seem true,
Be apropos, well told, concise, and new:
And whenso'er it deviates from these rules,
The wise will sleep, and leave applause to fools. 
Benjamin Stillingfleet, uncredited quote in 
Ben Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack (1757)

A few years ago, when my library hosted a traveling exhibit entitled "Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World," I put together a smaller exhibit on historical novels set around the time of the American Revolution.  To set off the display, which I called Revolutionary Fiction, I found a witty, relevant quote from Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack and included it on a placard alongside.  (As I discovered this week when trying to find the quote again, Franklin had actually borrowed the words of an English poet without crediting him, as many of his contemporaries did, but I hadn't known that!  I do like the quote regardless.) 

Just in the last year, many historical novelists have jumped onto the early American bandwagon.  While some have often made their home in this setting, such as Sally Cabot and Sharyn McCrumb, others are newcomers whose passion for their chosen period comes through on the pages.  I was also thrilled to see that Stephanie Dray, whose 3rd novel about Cleopatra's daughter Selene was published this month, will be coauthoring a novel about Patsy Jefferson, America's First Daughter, with novelist-historian Laura Kamoie.

If this is a new trend, it's a most welcome one in my view.  American settings often suffer from the perception that they're dreary and unexciting compared to those taking place in England or Europe, but nothing could be further from the truth!  Below is a gallery of nine new and forthcoming novels set during the Revolutionary years, and all present fresh angles on this iconic period.  If you enjoy this era, consider adding them to your reading list.

Benjamin Franklin – American patriot, diplomat, politician, writer, inventor – had an eye for the ladies.  In her fourth work of historical fiction set in early America (after three written as Sally Gunning), Cabot brings to life the little-known story of his illegitimate son William, who was raised by his stepmother, Franklin's common-law wife Deborah, and who took the Loyalists' side in the War of Independence.  William Morrow, May 2013.

Gabaldon's immensely popular historical fiction series needs no introduction, but the later volumes have served to introduce many new readers to the personalities and politics of the American Revolution.  The eagerly awaited 8th novel in her Outlander saga, a thousand-page doorstopper, opens in the year 1778, right in the middle of the war, as Jamie Fraser learns that his beloved wife Claire married another man during the time she thought he was dead.  From the blurb, Benedict Arnold is a major character here, too.  Delacorte, June 2014.

In Massachusetts in 1763, as revolution looms on the horizon, a learned young woman from a well-off background defies her family to pursue a relationship with a country lawyer with patriotic leanings.  I understand the plot is loosely based on the courtship of Abigail and John Adams.  Hedlund writes detail-rich romantic stories for the inspirational market, though mainstream readers can enjoy them too.  Bethany House, September 2013.

In her Ballad Novels, McCrumb has always delved deeply into the resonant folklore of the people from the Appalachian Mountains, but this is her first set during the Revolutionary era.  Here she recounts the heroic story of the Carolina Overmountain Men and of their leader, John Sevier, one of her ancestors.  Thomas Dunne, September 2013.

This debut novel imagines the life story of Deborah Samson, a strapping young woman from Middleboro, Massachusetts, who escapes her dreary life of toil in 1782 by disguising herself as a man and running away to join the Continental Army.  Myers' insightful novel is based on the extraordinary service of the real-life Deborah; I've read it and can recommend it.  Simon & Schuster, January 2014.

The name Peggy Shippen may not ring a bell for any but dedicated American history fans, but the name Benedict Arnold is another story.  Pataki's debut novel aims to change that; it reveals Peggy's role as the orchestrator of the plot that turned her decorated war hero husband into America's greatest traitor.  The publisher has been promoting the author's family connections (she's the daughter of former NY governor George Pataki).  Howard Books/S&S, January 2014.

This is the only Revolutionary-era novel in the bunch that isn't for sale in the US, which I find more than passing strange, especially considering it won the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger for 2013.  Andrew Taylor's historical thriller is set in Manhattan, a haven for British Loyalists whose lives were upended by American rebels.  Harper UK, July 2013 (this is the hardback cover).

In this romantic adventure novel set in Boston of 1775, a pirate's daughter takes her future into her own hands when she takes a British naval officer hostage on her family's ship in Boston Harbor.  Second in the Renegades of the Revolution series after The Turncoat.  NAL, March 2014.

Turner's new historical epic steps further back in time to the year 1729, when Resolute Talbot is stolen away from her Jamaican family and sold into slavery in Massachusetts.  As a talented weaver in the town of Lexington, she is ideally placed to play a major role in the coming revolutionary tumult.  The author's The Water and the Blood, set in '40s East Texas, is one of my favorite historicals, so my anticipation for this one is running high!  Thomas Dunne, February 2014.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Victoria Patterson's The Peerless Four, an inspiring look at sports and women's history

“I pulled a novel from my purse. Always, I had a book to read... I read to find out what it was like to be a man. To be Russian, Spanish, and French, to be a different race, to be royalty, dirt-poor, a wealthy New Yorker, a homesteader or a gold miner in the pioneer West… I read to find out what it was like in another’s skin.”

This may seem an odd way to begin a review of a sports novel. However, the wise words of Marybelle Eloise Lee “Mel” Ross, the tough yet perceptive woman who chaperones the Canadian women’s track team on their trip to the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, explain why I wanted to read Victoria Patterson’s The Peerless Four. Competitive sports have only ever interested me as a spectator, so I wanted this novel to take me somewhere I’d never been: into the mindset of a group of young women whose determination and physical prowess took their world by storm.

It should be said up front that this work is more thoughtful than action-oriented. It celebrates the women’s accomplishments and provides glimpses of them in practice and competition, but it also succeeds in illustrating the social expectations for women in the '20s. The era didn’t treat its female athletes kindly.  They were seen by many as unnatural creatures who might damage their uteri through vigorous exercise, destroying their chances of motherhood. Five track events at the 1928 Olympics were opened to women on a trial basis, so the future of the sport rested on their young shoulders. That they developed the mental stamina that let them thrive in these controversial circumstances is, quite simply, amazing.

Mel, who narrates most of the story, is a great character, a former runner and sports reporter who reads novels and keeps a personal journal – and who also keeps a flask of whisky hitched to her garter for the times when she needs it. She relates well to her charges and helps keep them focused as they train for victory and make their way by ship from Toronto to Amsterdam. Mel has her own gender-based expectations to surmount, since her husband, a bigwig in Canadian amateur athletics, would have preferred her to stay home.

The young women, dubbed the “Peerless Four” by the media, travel in a group that also includes Jack Grapes, their cigarette-smoking, Cadillac-driving sponsor, an ex-hockey player himself, and their team coach. Each of the four speaks in a short biographical segment in the beginning, providing background details on her life.

There’s Muriel Ziegler, nicknamed “Farmer,” the popular team captain who gets dinged by the press for her “masculine” attributes but is the most independent and grounded of the four. She has a terrific outlook on life, and I just loved her. Ginger Hadley is the team’s star high jumper, the enigmatic “Dream Girl” whose gorgeous looks attract swarms of admirers but who hates their misplaced attention and withdraws into herself as a consequence. High school student Bonnie Brody is a runner whose love for her married coach nearly crushes her, and Flo Smith is a single-minded athlete and good team player who hates academics but adores sports.

How everyone copes with the immense competitive and social pressures they all face is the novel’s main theme. For these groundbreaking women, as Muriel puts it, “We had to work things out for ourselves. We were the first ones to try, so there was no one to copy.” As their inspiring tale unfolds, Patterson’s spare, concentrated writing contains many subtle yet unmissable touches of irony. In her account, Mel shares relevant newspaper clippings she'd collected – such as an 1886 article about a race for women in which the prize was a silver dinner service! She also retells an instructive story about a distant relative which, at 16 pages, is unnecessarily lengthy, but nothing else in this short work feels out of place.

I found The Peerless Four well worth reading for its convincing characterizations and its eye-opening look at what early women athletes had to overcome, and the paths they blazed for their present-day successors. That said, it's never stated that the characters are fictitious.  The 1928 Canadian women’s track team was actually called “The Matchless Six,” and Ginger Hadley is obviously based on Ethel Catherwood, the pretty “Saskatoon Lily” whose gold medal-winning high jump is shown on the cover (the photo description on the jacket gives her name).

This technique may have been ethically liberating for its author, and it doesn’t diminish the power of the writing, but the real Olympians whose lives are borrowed for the story deserve to be acknowledged in it. An author’s note would have gone far in preventing confusion between fact and fiction.

The Peerless Four was published by Counterpoint in October ($23.00, hb, 212pp).  Thanks to the author's publicist for sending me a copy at my request.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Bits and pieces: Staycation edition

Happy December!  Today's the last day in a five-day stretch where I did very little except read, sleep, eat, and go shopping a break I seriously needed. I don't normally get the chance to get this much reading done, but I've finished a book for every day I've been home.

First up was Mary-Rose MacColl's In Falling Snow, set at the Royaumont field hospital in France during WWI and in 1970s Australia. I wrote up my thoughts for the Historical Novels Review and will post them here later.

Next was Lynn Shepherd's A Treacherous Likeness, a twisting literary mystery in which London private detective Charles Maddox is asked by Sir Percy Shelley, son of the poet, and his wife Jane to investigate a case of blackmail.  This sets him into looking closely at members of the Shelley Circle and into his own family history.  The plot held my attention to the end, and the author was very clever in inserting her mystery into known events. All the same, I found some revelations historically unconvincing and the depiction of one real-life character ethically troubling.

Third was Barbara Davis' The Secrets She Carried, a family saga/mystery in which secrets (as you can guess from the title) from a small town in 1930s North Carolina emerge in the present day.  Just my type of thing.  This was a Kindle purchase; I hadn't requested a review copy for the HNR since I hadn't known the historical component was so prevalent, but since it was, I decided I should review it.

Finally, and to mark the halfway point in my TBR Pile Challenge, I read Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.  By far it was my favorite choice out of the five I've read so far. It's the type of book that left me feeling somewhat dazed after I finished because I was so immersed in the story of Lily, her laotong bond of friendship with Snow Flower, and the author's consummate re-creation of the inner lives, relationships, and rituals of women in their remote province of 19th-century China.  It's easy to see why it was a bestseller and book club favorite. See has taken a place and time that very few outsiders know and made it not only accessible but movingly real. 

Now I'm on to a fifth book in five days, Victoria Patterson's The Peerless Four, about the Canadian women's track and field team in the 1928 Olympic Games, and hope to have a review up soon.

Some other news updates:

I learned some sad news via Facebook recently.  T.D. (Tim) Griggs, who contributed a guest post here in April ("The Boer War: Britain's Vietnam"), passed away suddenly in October.  Tim was the author of numerous works of fiction, most recently Distant Thunder, set in India, Britain, and the Sudan during Victorian times.  He had won a book in my giveaway for Small Press Month and, in the course of our correspondence, kindly offered to write a post for my site.  My sympathies to his wife and family.

I've been debating whether to commemorate Small Press Month again next March. If I do, I'll include some reviews of non-small press books during that time because removing an entire month from my blog schedule created a backlog, but I'm unsure how much effort to put into it otherwise.  Any thoughts?

On this topic, one of my more popular small press giveaways was for Sarah Kennedy's The Altarpiece, about a nun living through Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries; the author contributed a guest post in May.  Her book came out in paperback ($14.00) in October.

Finally, since I've gotten questions about this here and elsewhere on social media I did send a note to the Library of Congress via their website comment form about the "Puritan maiden's diary," with a citation and link to Mary Beth Norton's article.  It may be a little while until it reaches the right person and gets investigated by their staff, but I've found LC quick to respond to questions and comments in other instances and am hopeful that will be the case here too.