Saturday, October 25, 2014

A creepy country house gothic with a creepy hero

The Winter Folly, one of the choices in my recent gallery of new country house novels, is a massive, juicy gothic saga.  A splashy beach read, but with chills an intriguing combination.  I barely noticed its 500-page length and gobbled it up in just over a day. 

Unfortunately, the clueless behavior of its modern-day heroine and its warped interpersonal relationships made the book hard to digest.

This is a dual-stranded story, with one thread set in the '60s, the other set a generation later, in the present.  Both offered some shocking surprises I didn't see coming.  One concluded in a satisfactory enough manner, albeit with some High Drama along the way.  As for the other...

In 1965 England, the sheltered, young Alexandra Crewe agrees to an arranged marriage but quickly comes to regret it.  Her love affair with an old friend, Nicky Stirling, leads her to become the unexpected mistress of Fort Stirling, a castle in Dorset which loomed large in her childhood.  Alexandra's toddler son, John, nearly tumbles to the ground while climbing the ruined old tower on the property, and other horrors are still to come.  The historical backdrop doesn't come through strongly, but I can't say anything felt out of place, either.

Delilah Stirling, Alexandra's daughter-in-law, is the novel's second heroine.  Much younger than John, she becomes his second wife after a whirlwind romance and settles in with him at the castle, but she isn't entirely easy about the decision.  There's some mystery in his past that inexplicably turns her seemingly thoughtful and beloved John, who she barely knows, into a brusque, controlling man.

She quits her London job at his request (without too much objection) and isn't permitted to make the house her own.  The dusty attic, full of old trunks and secrets, is "the only place in the house that she was allowed free rein."  John has lost his taste for socializing, so Delilah is essentially isolated.  He also pressures Delilah to get pregnant.  He laughs at her contemptuously when she tries to help him with his problems.  Good thing their sex life is so amazing, because that makes it all worth it.

With so much time on her hands, she determines to uncover the trauma in his past.  Why is there no trace of his beautiful mother after 1974?  What terrible things happened at the old folly?  There are rumors that it was the scene of a suicide...

Suspense increases as the two stories, told in alternating chapters for the most part, wind together more closely.  I was curious about the underlying mystery, and it's for this reason that I had trouble setting the novel aside.  Two-thirds of the way through, though, we have this, from Delilah's viewpoint:

"For the first time, she wondered if her marriage had been a mistake.  John had been so awful to her lately and it seemed that despite all her efforts and all her love, her marriage was crumbling ... Can I still save it? she wondered.  Do I have the strength?  Can I fix him?  But, more than that, she wondered if she still wanted to."

I kept thinking:  Delilah, hon, your husband is a manipulative creep.  Your marriage isn't healthy.  You can't "fix him."  This isn't the way it works in real life.  You need to get away.

Let me also say that this isn't paranormal fiction.  If it was, maybe I could have bought into more of Delilah's storyline.  As it was, though, its resolution left me utterly disappointed.

The Winter Folly was published by Pan in 2014; this was a personal purchase.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

E. B. Moore's An Unseemly Wife: A different look at the American westward migration

In 1867, two visitors to Aaron Holtz's central Pennsylvania farm stop by to tell him enticing tales of free land out west.  With four young children and another on the way, he can't resist the opportunity to provide a prosperous future for his family even though he and his wife, Ruth, already have a happy, plentiful life.  To her shock and dismay, and even greater fear, Ruth gets pulled into Aaron's daring plan to uproot their family and livelihood and travel to distant Idaho by Conestoga wagon alongside a group of strangers.

This isn't your typical novel about a family's 19th-century westward migration, for Ruth, Aaron, and their "littles" are all members of a tight-knit Amish community.  Ruth has never so much as crossed to the other side of Lancaster County before, let alone spoken to one of the "English."  A dutiful wife who obeys the husband she loves, Ruth does her best to ready herself and her children for the months-long trek.  Knowing that they risk attack by Indians if they travel alone, she sees her forced interaction with non-Amish settlers as "one evil warding off a greater evil."

I found myself unprepared for this novel's emotional heft.  Moore renders her heroine's physical and inner journeys with sensitivity and great depth, giving readers a sense of how wrenching it is for Ruth to disobey the Ordnung followed by the Plain People and leave everything she knows for parts and places unknown.  Through wagon mishaps, illness, personal betrayal, and periods of even more intense darkness, Ruth already a tough woman who had been "childbearer, cook, housekeeper, milker, horse trainer, sheep shearer, gardener, plowman, field hand" develops even greater strength and an independence that would have been previously unthinkable.  I very much enjoyed the poetic writing style but also wanted to turn the pages quickly to see where Ruth's journey was leading her.  This is a hard-hitting, courageous book.

An Unseemly Wife was published by NAL this month in trade paperback ($15.00 / Can$17.00, 320pp), including discussion questions and a Q&A with the author. I had picked up an ARC at a library conference earlier this summer and was also granted access via NetGalley.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Mañana Means Heaven, the story of the "Mexican girl" from Jack Kerouac's On the Road

Legendary Beat writer Jack Kerouac passed away in the wee hours of the morning on Tuesday, October 21st, forty-five years ago.  His autobiographical novel On the Road, chronicling his restlessness and search for identity on a cross-country trip he took in the late '40s, is perhaps his best-known work today; it's still widely read and studied in American classrooms.

One of his most memorable characters from that work is "Terry, the Mexican girl," a migrant farm worker from California's central agricultural region who he met at a bus station in Bakersfield when she was trying to escape her abusive husband.  She had left her two children behind, temporarily, in an attempt to earn some money and set up a new life for herself first.  In the book, Terry and Jack's fictional persona, "Sal Paradise," have a passionate two-week affair that plays out in Los Angeles and in the migrant labor camps of the San Joaquin Valley before they part and move on with their separate lives.

Some years back, poet, performance artist, and writer Tim Z. Hernandez, an admirer of Kerouac's, had begun writing a novel about Bea Franco, the real-life inspiration for "Terry."  Scholars knew her name (and her family members' names) from his journals and her letters to him, but she was otherwise lost to literary historyThat is, until Hernandez got stuck during the writing process and decided to do some firsthand research on his subject.

He looked around in public records, phoned around to area cemeteries, and even hired a private investigator... but got nowhere.  This is where the story really gets fascinating.

From a 2013 piece from Public Radio International:

"The private investigator said to me before we parted ways, 'In all my years of experience, dead people are very easy to find. It's people who are alive that are difficult to find. Have you ever thought that she was alive?'" said Hernandez. 

Hernandez ended up finding Beatrice (Renteria) Franco Kozera, who was nearly 90 and living with her daughter just a mile or so from his hometown.  Neither she nor her children had known about Jack Kerouac's subsequent fame, or that she was immortalized in his novel or that they themselves had been mentioned in numerous biographies and works of literary criticism.

His award-winning novel, Mañana Means Heaven, is an intermingling of fiction and fact, based on his native knowledge of the region and interviews with Bea toward the end of her life.  It's an unusual historical novel in that it couldn't have been written with such depth and meaning without the cooperation of its subject.  A photo of Bea (circa 1942) appears on the novel's cover.

You can read more about the story in an interview with the author from the Fresno Bee.

I read Mañana Means Heaven this past summer, and much of it has stayed with me. No knowledge of Kerouac or his work is needed; Bea is the focus here, and Hernandez demonstrates that her version of their story is an equally important contribution to the historical American experience.  In 1947, when they meet, Jack is an aspiring writer whose background and sensitive outlook makes him different from the men Bea knows from the campo.  In the company of the man she calls "Jackie," she dares to dream of a life in which poverty doesn't weigh her down, but she feels torn between him and her love for her innocent children.  It's an emotional story, both honest and melancholy, and yet hopeful at the same time.  The setting isn't one that was familiar to me personally, but the portrayals felt so true that I was able to identify with Bea every step of the way.  I highly recommend it.

Mañana Means Heaven was published by the University of Arizona Press in 2013.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Wynfield's Kingdom: The making of a Neo-Victorian child hero, a guest essay by Marina J. Neary

Marina Julia Neary is here today with an essay about a literary archetype that appears in classic Victorian literature as well as in one of her own novels.  She also details her experience in seeing characters she created come to life on stage.  Details and photos below.

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Wynfield's Kingdom:
The Making of a Neo-Victorian Child Hero
Marina Julia Neary

When I started writing the first draft of what became Wynfield's Kingdom at the age of fifteen, I did not realize I was trying to create a Neo-Victorian child hero or resurrect an archetype that was so prominent in 19th-century literature. That term was not familiar to me at the time. I read a lot of literature but not a lot of literary criticism. I just knew what type of character I gravitated towards, and it was never the romantic brooding leading man. It was the spunky, street-smart, barricade-climbing child who navigates between social classes without belonging to either one of them and yet sympathizing with everyone, even his enemies.

They have impressive survival skills, yet paradoxically their self-preservation instinct seems to go out the window when they are presented with an opportunity to show off their heroism. They don't have to be saintly or altruistic, but they do possess a benevolent streak, meaning they do not bully those who are weaker, though they do derive a certain amount of pleasure of provoking authority figures.

We are talking about Gavroche Thenardier in Les Miserables and the lesser-known Jehan Frollo in Notre-Dame de Paris. In British literature we have a string of similar characters in Charles Dickens' novels, one of the most prominent being Oliver Twist. Over the decades, cinematic and theatrical directors have exploited these characters for sentimental purposes, simplifying them, making them one-dimensional, somehow more palatable to general audiences and, as result, somewhat cartoonish. Thanks to Boublil and Schönberg, I can no longer think of Gavroche without hearing "Little People" in my head. My hands itch to choke the performer. One of Hugo's most intriguing child characters has been reduced to a cute homeless puppy. A big part of Gavroche's cuteness is that he dies young.

Now imagine if Gavroche had not died on the barricades. Imagine if he had lived into his mid-twenties. Would he still be adorable and endearing? Or would he have turned into his father? The possibilities are numerous. Maybe Hugo had a good reason to kill his young hero before he had a chance to become a disappointment to his fellow-characters as well as the readers.

Little by little I started toying with the idea of evolving a child hero. At the age of twenty-seven I resurrected an old manuscript from the bottom of my hard drive and decided to reshape the protagonist, incorporating some of the archetypal elements, putting my own decorative twists on the classic frame. This is where the term Neo-Victorian comes into play a contemporary author reinventing and reimagining the 19th century. It was also an opportunity for me to engage my dark sense of humor to the fullest.

The result is before your very eyes. Meet Wynfield Grant the king of London slums, an overgrown street urchin, whose maturity level is that of a ten-year-old. A former gang member, savagely beaten for insubordination by the ringleader, he is taken in by a sociopath physician who had lost his medical license. The child blossoms into a romantic opium addict who steals and resells revolvers, puts on comedy skits at taverns and plays darts with his simpleton mates who look up to him for leadership. Immaturity, by the way, is a potent psychological defense mechanism. If you manage to convince yourself that you are still ten years old, the burden of your semi-criminal existence becomes a little easier to bear.

Wynfield's Kingdom, published in 2009 by Fireship Press, brought me modest critical acclaim. I ended up on the cover of the First Edition magazine in the UK and featured in the Neo-Victorian Studies Journal in Wales. There is a theatrical version of the same story, only told from Victor Hugo's perspective. The play opened in Greenwich in 2008 and was subsequently acquired by Heuer Publishing for licensing and distribution.

I am happy to share some of the most illustrative photos from the production. The character of Wynfield was brought to life by a talented young actor, John Noel, who is now gaining prominence on the stages of New York City. It was one of the most transformative and empowering experiences for me as a writer to see the character I conceived in high-school fleshed out on stage fifteen years later. Wynfield, my child-hero, became real to the audiences.








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Marina Julia Neary's Wynfield's Kingdom was published by Fireship Press in 2009 and re-released in 2013 in paperback and ebook with an attractive new cover (at top). 

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Illusionists by Rosie Thomas, a sojourn into the Victorian theatre world

Thomas’ follow-up to her wide-ranging romantic epic, The Kashmir Shawl (2013), takes place within the narrower confines of the Victorian theatrical world but is equally gripping. In 1885, when the charismatic Devil Wix meets Carlo Boldoni, a dwarf with undeniable magical skills, they become a dynamic team whose “box trick” electrifies audiences at a shabby venue in London’s Strand. Devil has grand ambitions, though—“to transform the Palmyra Theatre into a palace of illusions... it should be a place of wonderment.

The darkly compelling Devil, an unrepentant gambler with a haunted past, grabs readers’ attention from page one. Surrounding him is a varied cast that includes Heinrich Bayer, who unnervingly treats his mechanical dance partner like a real woman, and Eliza Dunlop, a smart, courageous artist’s model hoping for a starring role in Devil’s life. While the background details on stage magic and the theater business are captivating, Devil and Eliza’s ardent love story is the book’s emotional heart, and the ever-changing connections among all its intriguing performers fill it with genuine life and vitality.

The Illusionists was published by Overlook Press in hardcover in July ($27.95, 480pp).  This review first appeared in the June 15th issue of Booklist.

Some additional comments:

- Rosie Thomas is a prolific UK author who has worked with a variety of styles and settings.  Her earlier The Kashmir Shawl (reviewed here in 2012) won the Romantic Novelists' Association award for best epic romance, but The Illusionists isn't the same type of book.

- Although the British cover for The Illusionists (at right) is gorgeous and no doubt has the book flying off the shelves, I think the US version (at top) fits the tone of the story more appropriately.  Note the differences in color, subject matter, and font.

- The publisher's description for this novel has errors.  The novel takes place in the year 1885, not 1870, and Devil's partner is Carlo Boldoni, not Bonomi. The mistakes have crept into many other reviews, alas.  Naturally, the author's website has it right.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Ten new country house sagas filled with drama and family secrets

Possible subtitles for this post:  What to read while waiting for (1) Downton Abbey Season 5 to be shown in the US, or (2) Kate Morton's next book to be published.  Here's a short gallery of "house" sagas published in various locales throughout the English-speaking world the US, UK, Ireland, and Australia that I came across recently. 

Although I love this type of novel, I've only read one of them so far and will talk about it at greater length below.  Please chime in and add a comment if you've read any of the rest and can recommend them (or not!).



A forbidding-sounding title for a historically-based novel centering on the last conviction for witchcraft in Ireland, which took place in 1711.  Poolbeg, July 2014.



In this English saga set between the late 19th century and WWI, an ambitious fish merchant does his best to ensure that his daughter Annabel marries into money.  Per the author's intro, her setting was inspired by Gunby Hall and Gardens in Lincolnshire, which appears on the cover.  Pan, August 2014.



The second novel by the acclaimed author of The Sea House revolves around two couples in Derbyshire; secrets dating from the WWII era erupt when their children decide to marry.  The setting sweeps from England to Valencia to Madrid.  Corvus, September 2014.



An Upstairs/Downstairs-style saga set in County Durham before WWI, featuring a young woman who becomes assistant cook at Easterleigh Hall while dreaming of a better life.  Arrow, October 2014.



At an English seaside town in 1965, a runaway gets caught up in discovering secrets dating from the '20s, when a young man came to stay with his cousin at Castaway House.  I featured this in an earlier post and have since bought a copy.  Penguin UK, September 2014.



A remote island in Scotland's Outer Hebrides is the setting for an early 20th-century love triangle between a renowned painter, his much younger wife, and his unacknowledged son. Old secrets get stirred up, along with century-old tensions about land tenancy, when the last living heir to Bhalla House comes to the island in 2010 to assess the ruined property and decide whether it's worth restoring.

Never having heard of the novel before, I grabbed a copy at Waterstones in York in early September and spent my vacation reading it instead of the books I'd brought with me.  The stunning, almost eerie atmosphere, full of the cries of wild birds and the rush of the blue-gray sea, is a character in itself. As often happens with multi-period novels, the historical strand is the most compelling (the modern thread suffers from a female protagonist with little agency), but it's still very much worth reading.  Freight Books (Scotland), March 2014.



A modern-day Irish couple uncover a crime dating from the turn of the century in the course of shooting a docudrama set at Armstrong House during its "golden age."  Poolbeg Press (Ireland), September 2013.



Australia's Blue Mountains are the setting for this expansive saga about 1940s-era artist Rupert Partridge, called "the devil of Australian art," the mystery surrounding the tragic deaths of his wife and daughter, and a modern photographer, Rupert's granddaughter, who's charged with writing a book about his home, Currawong Manor.  This looks to be in the vein of the author's twisty gothic saga Poet's Cottage.  Pan Macmillan Australia, May 2014.



Two women, two eras (1933 and the turn of the century), and a house full of secrets. Fiercombe Manor in rural Gloucestershire is the scene for mystery and tragedy.  The publisher is gearing this novel toward fans of Rebecca and The Little Stranger.  The UK title is The Girl in the Photograph. Harper, February 2015; Penguin UK, January 2015.



A folly, in architectural terms, is a building designed primarily for decorative purposes.  Lulu Taylor's novel spans two generations and has two strands, one set in the '60s and the other in the present day, and deals with a beautiful old castle, an old folly that's supposed to be bad luck, and the ramifications of an illicit love affair.  Pan (UK), December 2013.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Book review: Night of a Thousand Stars, by Deanna Raybourn

One thing that must be said about Deanna Raybourn’s heroines: they lead thrilling lives. As they succumb to the allure of suspenseful mysteries and unusual locales, they draw readers vicariously along with them.

English-born socialite Poppy Hammond has a knack for finding adventure. One might even say it’s in her blood. After a surprisingly witty curate calling himself Sebastian Cantrip helps her flee her wedding to a stuffy aristocrat she doesn’t love, Poppy feels obligated to seek him out and thank him properly, only to find that he’s left England on a mysterious journey to the Holy Land.

Sensing he might be in trouble – which feels like an excuse – she finds a way to pursue him there, taking a convenient position as secretary to an elderly army colonel who’s traveling to Damascus to write his memoirs. Her formidable lady’s maid, Masterman, worries (rightly) about her safety and secretly arranges to follow her trail.

Throughout this entertaining romantic adventure, almost no one is who they seem, and Raybourn keeps us guessing about who they really are. Damascus in 1920 is an ancient, multicultural city that sits on the brink of revolution against the French ruling class. The cuisine is scrumptious and the exotic scent of jasmine pervasive, and Poppy is nearly seduced by it all. She also grows curious about two men who seek out her company: Hugh, her employer’s sexy valet, and the handsome Armand, Comte de Courtempierre, who has a slightly smarmy air to him.

As Poppy gets progressively closer to discovering Sebastian’s whereabouts, the danger level increases. She also learns more about the plight of aviatrix Evangeline Starke, the protagonist of Raybourn’s previous novel, City of Jasmine, who was believed to have gone missing in the desert. The way it’s written, those who haven’t read the earlier book should be curious about it rather than lost.

Although Poppy’s instincts are generally good, and her dialogue is sharp and clever, her spontaneity sometimes lets her down. Granted, she’s led a comparatively sheltered life, but Sebastian in particular is very tolerant of her impetuous nature. The enigmatic Masterman steals the show from her on more than one occasion; she's a fabulous character who deserves a book of her own.

While imperfect in several respects – the ending in particular is over the top – Night of a Thousand Stars offers witty escapism to a fascinating setting not often seen in fiction.

Night of a Thousand Stars was published this month by Harlequin MIRA (368pp, $14.95 pb / $10.99 ebook).  Thanks to the publisher for granting me NetGalley access.  This review forms part of a blog tour via Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.