Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Kader Abdolah's The King, a parable of politics in 19th-century Persia

This new novel from Iranian Dutch author Abdolah is written as an extended parable, and important moral lessons will be found within. That said, they are presented smoothly and not without compassion for the many characters.

The king of the title is Shah Naser, a nineteenth-century Persian monarch torn between his power-hungry mother, who encourages him to emulate his dictatorial forebears, and his forward-thinking vizier, who has ambitious plans for modernizing the country’s technological infrastructure, education, and health care, among other things.

Although the shah is fascinated by newfangled inventions like the telegraph, he remains woefully distanced from his impoverished populace, preferring to spend time with his cat and large harem and increase his personal wealth. This leaves Persia susceptible to foreign interests—British, French, and Russian—seeking control of its land and natural resources.

The direct, unadorned style makes for a fast-paced, entertaining tale about Iran’s internal and external power struggles during an era of significant change. In addition, the novel provides instructive background on the growing political influence of the country’s ayatollahs.

The King was published by New Directions in August in hardcover (352pp, $24.95).  The novel was translated from the Dutch by Nancy Forest-Flier.  This review first appeared in Booklist's 9/1 issue.  Receiving this book for assignment was a pleasant surprise, since I enjoy reading literature in translation and learning more about less familiar periods of history.  I also didn't realize, until finding a mention on the website of the author's Dutch publisher just now, that his great-great-grandfather was Mirza Kabir, Shah Naser's reform-minded vizier.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A trip back to the colorful, troubled 1960s

My library's in the process of running a semester-long program and exhibit series, "Revolutionary Decade," focusing on the 1960s.  It includes film screenings, panel discussions with Eastern Illinois University faculty and students, even an extravaganza of music and dance that will include a costume contest.  (I'll be attending, but not as a model)

Because I have a partiality towards historical fiction (probably no big surprise), I decided to put together a book display featuring fiction set during the decade.

While I was getting the display ready, I'd remembered Richard Sharp's guest post about the '60s as an important new frontier for historical fiction (which is one of my favorite essays on this site) as well as the conversation it provoked.  By now, a good part of the '60s fits the traditional 50-year-lookback definition for the genre, but some readers believe this time frame is just too recent.  Whatever your feelings, I wanted to pull together a collection of novels evoking the diverse experiences of people living through the political and social changes of the era.

For a list of the titles as well as annotations, plus some groovy book covers, there's also an accompanying online exhibit.

A couple of the books were written at the time they were set, so the list has a good mix of historical and classic fiction.  I've been observing how well the display is holding up and filling in gaps when it looks too picked over.  Although it hasn't been as immensely popular as the Downton Abbey display I arranged earlier this year, it's seen a lot of checkout activity, so it's been doing its job at making the novels (and the era) more visible.

Monday, September 29, 2014

New Perspectives on Old Stories, a guest post by David Ebsworth, author of The Kraals of Ulundi: A Novel of the Zulu War

David Ebsworth (the pen name of Liverpool-born writer, Dave McCall) has contributed an essay on the background to his third novel, The Kraals of Ulundi, and the reason that he chose some unusual perspectives to tell the story of the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War.


New Perspectives on Old Stories
David Ebsworth

I was filled with doubts during the eight months that it took me to write Kraals. Everybody had warned me not to write an “Africa” story. ‘Africa stories don’t sell any more,’ seemed to be the general advice. But most of my stories are those that I wished somebody else had already written – yet which so far seem to have been overlooked. And this tale of the Zulu War’s second half was high on my list. So I was delighted when, on publication, the Historical Novel Society reviewed the book as an Editor’s Choice and described it as “an accomplished, rich, beautifully produced and very rewarding read that brings a lesser-known era of history to life” – though I was even more delighted when the review picked up on the new perspectives with which the novel may help the period to be viewed.

As it happens, this marks the 50th anniversary of that iconic 1964 movie, Zulu, starring Michael Caine and Stanley Baker, as well as several thousand Zulus. It’s a beautiful piece of cinematography, produced jointly by Cy Endfield and Baker himself. It tells the story of the heroic and successful 1879 defence of the Rorke’s Drift mission station by 179 British soldiers against an attack of 4,000 Zulus, as a result of which eleven of the defenders were awarded the Victoria Cross. Yet, at the same time, and just a few miles away, on the slopes of the mountain called Isandlwana, the British army was suffering one of the worst defeats in its history, as 1,500 of their soldiers were massacred by the rest of the Zulu army, more than 20,000 warriors. And this action became the basis for a second film, Zulu Dawn, released in 1979.

Isandlwana with a British cairn marking a grave from the Battle of Isandlwana

But those events took place during the first few weeks of the war – and the war then dragged on for a further six months. And while there has been a fair amount of excellent non-fiction written about the rest of the Zulu War, the subject remains virtually untouched by fiction writers – even though it covers some astonishing episodes. First, when news of Isandlwana reached Britain several weeks later, the reaction of the public was unexpected. The invasion of Zululand had not been endorsed by Queen or Parliament, and people were outraged that it had been undertaken as an overt land-grab by colonial officials in South Africa, almost without provocation. Within months, groups of Zulu warriors were being brought to England to appear on the London stage and to be fĂȘted on the streets of the Empire’s capital. The massacre could not go unpunished, of course, so reinforcements were sent out, and these included the French Prince Imperial, Louis Napoleon, Bonaparte’s great-nephew. Louis was killed there, in a Zulu ambush on 1st June 1879 – a monumental catastrophe for Queen Victoria that had repercussions all of its own.

The Prince Imperial

There were more battles, victories and disasters for both sides. And the Zulu king, Cetshwayo, was eventually captured in yet another bizarre series of incidents that finally drew the conflict to a close, even though its legacy still rebounds through South Africa’s contemporary politics.

It was a story that I couldn’t ignore. But the more I researched, the more I looked in vain for novels that told the Zulus’ side, or dealt with the six months after Rorke’s Drift, or explained why Britain was fighting the independent and friendly kingdom of Zululand at all. So I began to consider telling my tale from different perspectives. First, and most controversially, a semi-fictional Zulu Warrior, Shaba kaNdabuko. Second, a historical character, the British lieutenant, Jahleel Brenton Carey. Third, a purely fictional renegade white trader, William McTeague, who spans both the British and Zulu cultures. And fourth, the three women who stand alongside them and create the catalyst for much of the book’s interaction.

Naturally, it was the Zulu perspective that gave me both the greatest pain and the greatest pleasure. Long hours studying the culture of this extraordinary people, and learning some of their isiZulu language. And then a trip to South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal region – a beautiful part of the world – where I was able to talk with present-day Zulus still using oral tradition to pass down memories of the conflict, as well as their enigmatic relationship and affinity with the British, evident still today, exactly as it was when the Great Farini organized his Zulu Shows at the London theatres in 1879. And in KwaZulu-Natal I was also lucky to meet Mabusi Kgwete, who used her own considerable skills to help me finalise the book’s isiZulu Glossary and Pronunciation Guide.

As the Historical Novel Society review points out, the use of Zulu words in the text may seem daunting, although on most occasions they are simply there as additional colour, rather than being essential to understanding and, overall, “they were a well-placed constant reminder of perspective and showed how different were the two cultures that clashed with each other.”

I like to say that Kraals is the novel which picks up the story of the Zulu war where Michael Caine left off. But I hope that maybe readers will come away from the book’s closing paragraphs with the view that, in fact, it really picks up the tale from the perspective of the Zulus themselves.

Cosi, cosi yaphela! 


David Ebsworth has published three novels: The Jacobites’ Apprentice, Finalist in the Historical Novel Society’s 2014 Indie Award; The Assassin’s Mark, set during the Spanish Civil War; and The Kraals of Ulundi: A Novel of the Zulu War. Each of these books has been the recipient of the coveted B.R.A.G. Medallion for independent authors.

More details of David’s work are available on his website:

Friday, September 26, 2014

Communications in Wartime: Between the Lines, a guest essay by Deborah Lawrenson

I'm pleased to welcome Deborah Lawrenson here today.  Several years ago I reviewed her first US release, The Lantern, a Gothic mystery steeped in the atmosphere of rural Provence, and enjoyed it very much.  Her new novel The Sea Garden was published by HarperCollins this June, and while readers will recognize one of the characters from The Lantern, it also stands alone.  The Sea Garden contains three stories in one; one strand is present-day, while the others take place during WWII.  She has contributed an informed, sobering essay about the secret activities and immense courage of wireless operators in wartime.


Communications in Wartime: Between the Lines
Deborah Lawrenson

By 1943, the life expectancy of a wireless operator working for the French resistance and the British agents on the ground in Nazi-occupied France was down to six weeks. Sending and receiving vital messages between the sharp end and London to organize secret drops of agents and weapons, and provide the link between sabotage operations, was dangerous work.

Wireless signals were highly susceptible to detection, as were the aerials that had to be disguised as washing lines, or hoisted into trees. Hidden away, the operator tapped out messages in Morse and then waited for responses. This might take hours, but twenty minutes on air was enough to provide a signal that could be pinpointed by the enemy. Each transmission required sheer dogged bravery.

SOE wireless set, disguised in suitcase

Communication, or the lack of it, is the unifying theme in my novel based on these events, The Sea Garden: coded wireless messages; torch signals; lighthouse beams; braille; the human senses, especially that of smell; information withheld; misinformation; differences in language; subconscious understanding.

The book is structured as a triptych so that the three distinct parts mirror the oblique connections between underground cells during wartime, when security was paramount and the best defence was limited knowledge of the activities of others in the organization. If you were captured, you had no knowledge that could endanger others. Different stories overlap but none are known to all those involved. It is only afterwards, sometimes many years later, that connections can be made.

Each section of The Sea Garden focuses on a strong, resourceful young woman being tested. In the title story, Ellie is a landscape gardener commissioned to work on a memorial garden on an island off the south coast of France, caught up in a history she has never known. In The Lavender Field, blind Marthe has to find new ways of communicating during wartime, and changes her life in the process. A Shadow Life follows Iris in bomb-blasted London, as she works behind the scenes recruiting and preparing the agents for their missions in France, and evaluating their wireless messages from enemy territory.

The starting point for Iris’s story was the real-life figure of Vera Atkins, the senior woman officer at SOE’s French Section in London (Mavis Acton, in my novel). A strong woman who provoked strong reactions, Vera Atkins was recruiting women for these risky operations, a fact that would have horrified the public, had it been known at the time.

What also seems inconceivable now is that despite the part women were playing in these do-or-die missions, the opinions and instincts of the women who worked in the secret London office were routinely disregarded as being of little value – a misjudgment that was to have grave consequences.

Silk scarf map and receiver

In the closing months of 1943, several of the wireless operators on the ground in France were becoming slapdash. Their messages back to London were missing their security checks, innocuous words like “Salut” and “Adieu” that had been agreed would show all was well. It was clear to London that operations were progressing to plan, so the only explanation was that the signalers were lax. Head of French Section, Maurice Buckmaster shot back furious volleys of Morse across the Channel, and the next messages settled down, carefully following instructions.

But some of the backroom women on the SOE staff were concerned. They compared notes as they met in the ladies’ washroom, and soon pieced together a worrying picture. Other sections – dealing with agents in Holland and Belgium – had also noticed irregularities which had been dismissed as unimportant. In some instances, personal questions had been asked of the wireless operators to ascertain if there was a problem, and the clumsy replies had been unsatisfactory but excused by the necessity of transmitting as quickly as possible.

SOE wireless set

Call it women’s intuition, or more potently, a subconscious understanding of nuance in language, but the young women joining the dots in the washroom were not convinced. The obvious explanation – that these transmissions carried warnings – was being dismissed. Yet no one in authority wanted to hear their protests. It was not their place to question or make waves; the men were in charge, and they knew what they were doing. 

Many months later came a message from France that made the blood run cold. It thanked London for the large deliveries of arms and ammunition and the invaluable help with insight into British intentions. It was signed: The Gestapo.

French resistants and radio operator on the ground

Many of the wireless operators had in fact been captured, several picked up from the landing grounds of secret flights organized by signals that had come in to radio sets that were already in the hands of the Germans. They were being held at Gestapo headquarters in Paris and forced to send and receive transmissions from there – London had been communicating directly with the Nazis in what became known with grim irony as “The Radio Game”.

When the radio operators were no longer useful they were executed or sent to concentrations camps. Few survived. It only made it worse that the linguistic signals that all was not well had indeed been picked up – but had gone unheeded.


Deborah Lawrenson spent her childhood moving around the world with diplomatic service parents, from Kuwait to China, Belgium, Luxembourg and Singapore. She graduated from Cambridge University and worked as a journalist in London.

She is the author of six previous novels, including The Art of Falling and Songs of Blue and Gold, inspired by the life of writer-traveller Lawrence Durrell, though The Lantern was the first to be published in the USA.

Deborah is married with a daughter, and spends as much time as possible at a crumbling hamlet in Provence, France.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Book review: Silent Murders by Mary Miley, a mystery of '20s Hollywood

Mary Miley’s smart and snappy follow-up to The Impersonator draws readers back to the glory days of America’s silent film industry, when attractive starlets dreamed of their big break, illicit booze flowed freely at exclusive gatherings, almost everyone in the business feared the coming of “talkies,” and, as the observant heroine Jessie Beckett tells us, “no one but cactuses lived in remote Beverly Hills.”

In 1925, America’s blonde and petite sweetheart, Mary Pickford, and her debonair husband Douglas Fairbanks reign as queen and king of Hollywood at their jointly run studio and at their Tudor-style mansion known as Pickfair. Having wrapped up her role as a rich heiress, as told in Miley’s previous book, Jessie aims to make a new start by taking on her former character’s name for real and relocating to L.A. She can hardly believe it when she, a mere script girl, gets asked to step in as Fairbanks’ assistant and when famed director Bruno Heilmann invites her to a party (as a guest, to her amazement, not as hired help).

When Heilmann and an old friend of Jessie’s mother are found murdered the morning after in their homes, though, Jessie gets nervous. The victims have little in common besides the party and Jessie herself, but maybe they share a killer as well. Fairbanks knows that in these difficult years following the Fatty Arbuckle incident, the industry may not survive another morality scandal, so Jessie gets asked to do damage control – which leads to yet more trouble.

This is more of a traditional mystery than The Impersonator, since it lacks the suspenseful dread of discovery that Jessie endured throughout that novel. That said, there’s little that's traditional about Jessie herself, much as she’d like to pretend otherwise. Having grown up in vaudeville, her street-smarts and creative talent for deception are part of who she is. Her saucy narrative voice makes her good company, and there are two men who’d definitely agree with that – one a perceptive WWI vet who may be that rarity in corrupt L.A., an honest policeman, and the other an old flame from Portland who’s Jessie’s match in deceit and then some.

It all makes for fun entertainment, one with well-integrated appearances by both familiar and lesser-known names from the era, like Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford’s two high-maintenance siblings, newcomer Gary Cooper, and his former Montana neighbor-turned-Hollywood-ingĂ©nue, Jessie’s good friend Myrna Loy.

Silent Murders was published this week by Minotaur in hardcover ($25.99/C$29.99, 311pp, incl. historical note).  Thanks to the publisher for sending me an ARC.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Whole Lotta Shakespeare Going On: A guest essay by Lois Leveen

Author Lois Leveen is here today with an essay about the contemporary relevance of William Shakespeare's plays and how modern audiences are continuing to respond to his characters and themes. Her second novel, Juliet's Nurse, set in 14th-century Verona, Italy, and imagining the events from Romeo and Juliet from a new perspective, was published yesterday by Atria/Emily Bestler in hardcover.

Whole Lotta Shakespeare Going On
Lois Leveen

I've spent the last couple of years in isolated obsession with the Bard. My new novel, Juliet's Nurse, imagines the fourteen years leading up to the events in Romeo and Juliet, as told by the character who has the third largest number of lines in William Shakespeare's play. Although much of my research focused on fourteenth-century Italy (in which the novel is set), I always kept my edition of Romeo and Juliet within arm's reach while writing, so I could cull from the characters, lines, settings, and scenes Shakespeare provided. Yet even as I wove material from Shakespeare throughout the novel, I was careful to craft Juliet's Nurse so that a reader wouldn't need to know anything about the play to enjoy the book. After all, I thought, Shakespeare can seem daunting, and I didn't want readers to be intimidated.

But a funny thing happened once the novel was done: I looked up from my manuscript, broadened my focus beyond my own copy of Romeo and Juliet, and suddenly realized Shakespeare was everywhere. Visiting the Helsinki City Museum shop, I happened upon a graphic novel version of Romeo and Juliet. Watching the 1960s TV sitcom The Odd Couple, I recognized three Shakespeare allusions in two episodes. While a professor friend and I sat discussing Shakespeare in the Chinese garden in downtown Portland, Oregon, passersby who overheard us kept stopping to share stories about particular Shakespeare productions they'd seen, or to advocate for characters who were their personal favorites. When I read from Juliet's Nurse at a small cabaret-style gathering last spring, the woman whose turn onstage came after mine responded by reciting from memory the entire Shakespeare scene I'd riffed on. Soon other performers and audience members began offering Shakespeare lines and speeches that they knew by heart.

Romeo & Julia - Finnish graphic novel (credit: Lois Leveen)

Perhaps the most serendipitous Shakespeare concurrence for me is the Complete Works Project. Seventeen theater companies in the city where I live—ranging from the most established performing arts venues to shoestring-budget groups who perform wherever they can find space—have committed to staging every Shakespeare play within two years. This feat requires an intense level of coordination across organizations, for a period stretching from April 2014 (the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth) through April 2016 (the 400th anniversary of his death). Thanks to their efforts, this summer I was attending as many as four plays a week, including many I'd never seen or read before, and others I hadn't been exposed to in years.

As a writer who'd been riffing on a single Shakespeare play, watching so many of his works was revealing. His plots can be convoluted, and his characters sometimes have abrupt changes of heart that challenge believability. But his language – line after line that are so beautiful, biting, witty, memorable! Turns out, we all know more Shakespeare than we realize, because he shaped the English language in profound ways. But what impressed me most were the audiences, particularly at the many free performances put on in parks across the city. 

One park, two plays, many Portlanders atttending (credit: Lois Leveen)

Children under the age of two remained mesmerized for three hours. Teens skateboarding by stopped to watch. An older couple walking past with their Labrador retriever lingered until the dog got restless, then returned twenty minutes later without the dog to catch the final act. (Other dogs sat happily through entire performances). Technically, we were all groundlings, but the viewers sporting an array of tattoos, mohawks, and body piercings cheek-by-jowl with those who had wheelchairs, walkers, or bottles of expensive Chardonnay nestled within high-end picnic baskets testified to the Bard's astoundingly broad appeal. I was especially impressed at how the actors handled lines that strike audiences today as misogynistic, anti-Semitic, or racist; to admire and love Shakespeare doesn't mean we should ignore what he got wrong. 

Portland families, mesmerized by William Shakespeare (credit: Lois Leveen)

Recognizing the ubiquitous appeal of Shakespeare was reassuring to me as I waited for Juliet's Nurse to be released. In the months to come, I'll have the chance to talk about his work, and how it influenced me, with readers around the world. One city has already chosen the book for its Community-Wide Read, timed to coincide with Valentine's Day – a perfect season for re-examining the world's most famous love story. But the library director and I are planning a series of events that extend well beyond the conventional "Why I Wrote This Book" author talk. There will be a program about medieval and Renaissance Italian art and architecture, a mother-daughter reading group, classroom writing workshops for high school and college students and teachers, perhaps a session in which actors coach community members as they take their turn at speaking Shakespeare's lines—and my own. It's always a thrill for me to engage audiences in discussions about themes like love, loss, suffering, and hope that run through my novels. But it's especially exciting to bring new perspectives to cultural conversations we're already having, thanks to Shakespeare.

I'm delighted to be reminded in so many ways that Shakespeare can be inviting, rather than intimidating. Finding so much Shakespeare in the world around me provides an important lesson about not writing off anyone's ability to appreciate his work, or mine.

Author bio:

Author Lois Leveen
(Credit: John Melville Bishop)
Award-winning author Lois Leveen dwells in the spaces where literature and history meet. In addition to the historical novels Juliet's Nurse and The Secrets of Mary Bowser she has written prose and poetry appearing in numerous literary and scholarly journals, as well as The New York Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Chicago Tribune, Huffington Post, Bitch magazine, The Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, and on NPR. A former faculty member at UCLA and Reed College, Lois gives talks about writing and history at universities, museums, and libraries around the country. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with two cats, one Canadian, and 60,000 honeybees. Visit her online at and

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Book review: Gutenberg's Apprentice, by Alix Christie

This gorgeously written debut, set in the cathedral city of fifteenth-century Mainz, dramatizes the creation of the Gutenberg Bible in a story that devotees of book history and authentic historical fiction will relish.

When scribe Peter Schoeffer gets called home from Paris by his foster father, Johann Fust, to be trained by the headstrong, brilliant Johann Gutenberg in the groundbreaking art of movable-type printing, he is resentful and apprehensive. With a confident hand, Christie illuminates the daily life and religious mindset of late medieval Germany as Peter grapples with new ideas. In an era that sees manuscript copying as an act of spiritual communion, is the mass production of letters blasphemous or an efficient way of spreading God’s word?

As tensions flare between the wealthy archbishop and the reform-minded pope, and as local guilds rise in power, Gutenberg establishes a secret workshop where he, Peter, and Fust, his financial backer, become an unstoppable trio. Readers are offered a captivating view of early printing techniques and the obstacles encountered over the several years in which each successive line of the Bible is inked onto vellum and paper.

An inspiring tale of ambition, camaraderie, betrayal, and cultural transformation based on actual events and people, this wonderful novel fully inhabits its age.


I wrote this starred review for Booklist's August issue, based on an e-galley available from Edelweiss, which goes to show that the power of the written word remains constant despite the continuing evolution of technology.  I've since received a hardcover copy in the mail, and it's a beautiful physical specimen, too.  

Gutenberg's Apprentice is published today by Harper (hardcover, $27.99, 416pp) and in the UK by Headline (£13.99).  You can also watch a video in which the author describes why she calls the development of the Gutenberg Bible "the world's first tech start-up."