Friday, May 19, 2017

Charmaine Craig's Miss Burma, an engrossing novel of family, politics, and a country's modern history

Miss Burma opens with an attention-grabbing prologue that sees fifteen-year-old Louisa, a young woman of mixed racial heritage, crowned in her country’s first national beauty pageant in 1956. This short scene raises many impossible-to-ignore questions. Why is her father under house arrest? Why do soldiers with rifles stand in the audience? Moreover, how does Louisa feel about representing Burma like this, at this time, and what are the consequences?

These issues, and many more, are addressed with striking perceptiveness and poignancy in Craig’s second novel, which is based on the courageous lives of her mother and grandparents. The storyline spans four decades in Burma, the ‘20s through the ‘60s, years which saw considerable political unrest and violence during the Japanese invasion in WWII and subsequent civil war—a lengthy conflict that remains largely hidden to the Western world. The author evokes the protagonists’ innermost selves with uncommon candor and provides a sense of realism so vivid that it feels like readers are living through the events themselves.

Louisa’s parents are an unlikely couple. Benny comes from a Portuguese Jewish family; Khin belongs to an ethnic group, the Karen (pronounced Kar-EN), who have long been oppressed by her country’s Burman majority but are favored by the British during their colonial rule. In their impulsive marriage’s early years, Benny and Khin need an interpreter to communicate. As Burman nationalism overtakes the country, their relationship and family life—which include relocations through beautiful but harsh terrain, concealments, and forced separations—are tied to Burma’s internal battles. The complicated history is coherently explained, and the novel offers powerful commentary on the Karens and their situation: pawns in the games of global power politics, yet with a determined “mandate to survive.”

This epic yet deeply personal novel about war, love, loyalty, and heroism deserves to be widely read, especially by anyone unfamiliar with this history.

Charmaine Craig's Miss Burma was published by Grove in hardcover this month; I reviewed it from NetGalley for the Historical Novels Review.  Back in 2002, I'd reviewed her first novel, The Good Men: A Story of Heresy, about the Albigensian heresy in medieval France. It's also well worth reading. The eras are very different, but both novels deal with political oppression and the lives of women at a pivotal point in history.

Historical fiction can serve to educate and inform readers, and this is definitely true of Miss Burma. The conflict in Myanmar (formerly Burma, and the novel explains why the nomenclature is controversial) has been described as "the decades-long civil war you've never heard of"; read more at CNN.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

A visit to Italy's medieval past with Melodie Winawer's The Scribe of Siena

Siena in 1347 may not seem the most desirable time-travel destination, since the Black Death arrived on Italian shores the following year. However, that’s exactly where American neurosurgeon Beatrice Trovato ends up, to her great shock.

Her late brother, a medieval historian based in Italy, had been investigating an intriguing question: Why did the plague hit Siena particularly hard? Following his research leads, Beatrice finds herself pulled into the past, employed as a scribe for a religious hospital, and in the frequent company of fresco painter Gabriele Accorsi, whose 650-year-old journal she had been reading.

Debut novelist Winawer, a neurologist by profession, has written an engrossing historical epic. Her wide-ranging, romantic story moves apace, yet it has considerable meat on its structural bones, with plentiful details on fourteenth-century Sienese daily life, customs, art, and travel.

Despite an overreliance on surprisingly well-preserved documents, clues to the central mystery wind carefully through both time lines as Beatrice gradually unravels a Florentine conspiracy and, always cognizant of what the future holds, takes risks to save those she loves.

The Scribe of Siena was published just yesterday by Touchstone/Simon & Schuster.  I had read it last fall from an Edelweiss e-copy, and the review appeared in Booklist's historical fiction issue, which was out on April 15th.  See it on Goodreads, and you can visit the author's website for more info.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Historical fiction picks at BookExpo 2017

Here’s my latest annual guide to BookExpo (formerly BEA) for the historical fiction reader. Please check back around a week before showtime for the most current updates (new entries will be labeled ~new~).

This post was last updated on May 15th and is based on BookExpo’s autographing schedule, PW's galleys to grab list, and publishers' listings. Updates are welcome. This information is correct as far as I’m aware, but please cross-check these dates/times with the BEA site and/or program book to avoid possible disappointment.

~Author Signings~

Thursday, June 1st

10:00-11:00am, Booth 1921 (Penguin Random House)
Jamie Ford, Love and Other Consolation Prizes (literary fiction about a "boy whose life is transformed at Seattle's epic 1909 World's Fair"; Ballantine, Sept.)

10:00-10:30am, Booth 2831
Rachel Hauck, The Writing Desk (parallel narratives involving a modern-day author and an aspiring writer born into a wealthy family during the Gilded Age; Zondervan, July).

10:30-11:30am, Table 4
Betsy Carter, We Were Strangers Once (immigrant life in 1930s NYC; Grand Central, Sept.)

10:30-11:30am, Table 15
Ellen Marie Wiseman, The Life She Was Given (women’s lives and family secrets involving a traveling circus, moving from the ‘30s through the ‘50s; Kensington, Aug.)

11:00-11:30am, Booth 2554
Bradford Morrow, The Prague Sonata (epic, decades-spanning novel surrounding the manuscript for a long-lost sonata; Atlantic Monthly, Oct.)

11:00-11:30am, Table 2
Joseph Kanon, Defectors (thriller involving "defected American spies in Moscow during the height of the Cold War"; Atria, June).

11:30-noon, Table 15
Barbara Lynn-Davis, Casanova's Secret ("tale of lush desire and risk" set in 18th-c Venice; Kensington, Aug.)

1:00-2:00pm, Table 1
Adriana Trigiani, Kiss Carlo (an Italian-American family in the post-WWII years; Harper, June).

1:30-2:30pm, Booth 2521 (Sourcebooks)
Marie Benedict, Carnegie’s Maid (an Irish immigrant maid inspires Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropy; Sourcebooks, Jan. 2018.)

1:30-2:00pm, Table 15
Susan Holloway Scott, I, Eliza Hamilton (first-person narrative of Alexander Hamilton's wife, Eliza; Kensington, Oct.)

2:00-2:30pm, Table 11
Fiona Davis, The Address (secrets of a famous NYC residence; multi-period novel set in 1884 and 1985; Dutton, Aug.)

2:00-2:30pm, Booth 2833 (HarperCollins)
Eleanor Henderson, The Twelve-Mile Straight (literary epic set in rural Georgia during the Depression; Ecco, Sept.)

~new~ 2:30pm, Booth 2539 (Midpoint Trade)
Sherry Ficklin, The Canary Club (YA novel about "star-crossed lovers in gritty Prohibition-era New York"; Crimson Tree, Oct.)

2:30-3:30pm, Booth 1921 (Penguin Random House)
Lisa Wingate, Before We Were Yours (multi-period novel, based on the true story of the Georgia Tann child trafficking scandal in the ‘30s South; Ballantine, June.)

3:30-4:00pm, Table 6
Brendan Mathews, The World of Tomorrow (“love, blackmail, and betrayal culminating in an assassination plot, set in prewar New York”; Little, Brown, Sept.)

Friday, June 2

9:00-10:00am, Booth 1921 (Penguin Random House)
Melanie Benjamin, The Girls in the Picture (the creative partnership between Hollywood notables screenwriter Frances Marion and superstar Mary Pickford; Delacorte, Jan. 2018.)

10:00-10:30am, Table 15
Sophfronia Scott, Unforgivable Love (a retelling of Dangerous Liaisons set in 1940s Harlem and Westchester County; William Morrow, Sept.)

10:30-11:00am, Table 14
Linnea Hartsuyker, The Half-Drowned King (epic about a brother and sister in Viking-era Norway, based on characters from the Norwegian sagas; Harper, Aug.)

11:00-11:30am, Table 4
Sharyn McCrumb, The Unquiet Grave (the legend of the Greenbriar Ghost in late 19th-century West Virginia; Atria, June.)

11:30-12:00pm, Table 4
Taylor Reid, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo (a film icon’s scandalous 20th-century life; Atria, June)

1:00-2:00pm, Table 15
Christina Baker Kline, A Piece of the World (literary novel about Christina Olson, who was depicted in Andrew Wyeth’s portrait Christina’s World; William Morrow, Feb.)

2:00-2:30pm, Table 6
Christina Baker Kline, Orphan Train Girl (the bestselling Orphan Train retold for a younger audience; Harper, May.)

2:00-2:30pm, Table 15
Sarah MacLean, The Day of the Duchess (Regency-era historical romance; Avon, June.)

3:00-3:30pm, Table 14
Eloisa James, Wilde in Love (Regency-era historical romance about a nobleman who's a celebrity; Avon, Oct.)

~Galleys to Grab~

This section excludes the author signings mentioned above.

Bloomsbury (Booth 3003)
Natasha Pulley, The Bedlam Stacks (Victorian-era historical fantasy; Aug.)

Grove Atlantic (Booth 2554)
Sarah Schmidt, See What I Have Done (novel of Lizzie Borden and the infamous murders; Aug.)

Hachette (Booth 2502-03)
Hannah Kent, The Good People (three women in 19th-c rural Ireland try to rescue a child in danger; Little, Brown, Sept.)

HarperCollins (Booth 2833)
Devin Murphy, The Boat Runner (a young Dutchman coming of age during WWII; Sept.)

Macmillan (Booth 3008-09)
Alice McDermott, The Ninth Hour (Irish-Americans in the '40s and '50s; FSG, Sept.)

Also see the following giveaways at the Macmillan booth, which are set for specific times, per their website:

6/1, 1:45pm
Andrew Gross, The Saboteur – advance listening copy (audiobook; WWII thriller about the Norwegian resistance; Minotaur, Sept).  Note the 12:00pm ticket drop at the booth to receive this galley giveaway later.

6/1, 3:00pm
Jim Fergus, The Vengeance of Mothers (sequel to One Thousand White Women, set in the West in the 1870s; St. Martin's, Sept.)  Note the 12:00pm ticket drop at the booth to receive this galley giveaway.

6/1, 4:15pm
Daren Wang, The Hidden Light of Northern Fires (Civil War-era story about "the little-known, true history of the only secessionist town north of the Mason Dixon Line"; Thomas Dunne, Aug). Note the 12:00pm ticket drop at the booth to receive this galley giveaway.

Penguin Random House (Booth 1921)
John Boyne, The Heart's Invisible Furies (one man's life in postwar Ireland; Hogarth, Aug.)

Soho (Booth 1932)
Sujata Massey, The Widows of Malabar Hill (1st in new mystery series about a female lawyer in 1920s Bombay; Jan. 2018.)

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Secrets abound in 1920s Yorkshire in Frances Brody's A Death in the Dales

“I have had some strange requests for my professional services over the years, but this is the first time the summons had arrived from beyond the grave.”

Frances Brody’s seventh and newest Kate Shackleton mystery (in the US) has such an intriguing premise, and the way the storyline plays out is completely absorbing. This is the seventh book in the series – I’ve read four – and the best so far. I loved pretty much everything about it, from the quaint English village setting with all of its interpersonal tensions, to the well-developed characterizations of both adults and children, to the pacing – which is leisurely enough to reflect rural life in the Yorkshire Dales in the mid-1920s, but with sufficient activity that the novel is never dull.

And, as in the previous entries, Kate’s subtly sarcastic observations on life, and especially on the eccentricities of the people she interacts with, are wonderful. Everything about the book works well in unison.

Kate, a private investigator by profession, has arrived in Langcliffe to spend two weeks with her adolescent niece, Harriet, who’s recovering from diphtheria. Her beau, Dr. Lucian Simonson, arranges for them to stay in the house formerly owned by his late Aunt Freda. Before she passed on, Freda had wanted to meet Kate, not only because Lucian spoke highly of her, but because she’d hoped Kate would clear the name of a man she believes was put to death unjustly a decade earlier. Late one night, from an upper-storey window, Freda had seen the murder of the owner of the pub across the street. She was the only witness. It was politically convenient to blame an Irishman who’d had too much to drink, but Freda knew he wasn’t guilty. Her testimony for the defense had caused some folks to ostracize her.

Kate’s reputation has preceded her. Because she is who she is – curious, determined and tenacious – Kate finds herself quietly looking into this case as well as two others. One involves finding a mill girl’s younger brother, who’d ran away from the farm where he’d worked (for good reason). The third is a surprising request to retrieve some love letters from a long-ago affair.

Needless to say, Kate’s supposed holiday is more eventful than expected, but Harriet – delightfully so – enjoys following in her aunt’s footsteps. (Harriet had been introduced to series fans earlier, in Murder in the Afternoon, but this volume stands alone nicely.) Period atmosphere is blended in well. Telephones are still too new for everyone to own one, and Kate’s motorcar generates excitement since motor travel is still a novelty, especially for kids.

What gets neglected is Kate’s relationship with Lucian, but then there isn’t much romantic tension between them anyway. A war widow, Kate’s too independent to settle for anything less than the perfect partner. I couldn’t help but wish she’d find happiness with Lucian, but (I have to admit) that’s partly because Freda’s house is a lovely place to stay. As a reader, I reveled in the time I spent there.  I just wish Kate could have met Aunt Freda, since I think they would have gotten along famously.

For readers who enjoy sagas or historical novels about long-buried secrets but don’t think they enjoy crime novels, this book would be a great choice as “gateway” to the historical mystery subgenre.

A Death in the Dales was published by Minotaur in February (thanks to the publisher for sending an ARC).

Friday, May 05, 2017

Women of science and mathematics: a gallery of historical novels

Inspired by Kaite Welsh's The Wages of Sin, about a female medical student in 1890s Edinburgh, here are ten other historical novels about women who pursued achievements in the STEM fields while fighting gender discrimination and the strictures of their time. Some are new, one is forthcoming, and others are out of print and worth seeking out.

There are a number of other novels that fit this category, particularly those featuring female doctors, but depictions of women scientists in other fields are lacking in comparison -- there should be more!  Please leave your own recommendations in the comments. I'd searched for fiction about historical scientific women of color, a la Hidden Figures, which is a nonfiction book, but they seem few and far between; I'd be especially interested to know about titles that fit this description.

Physics:  The fictionalized story of Serbian scientist Mileva Marić, Albert Einstein's first wife, and her contributions to his early discoveries. Sourcebooks, 2016. [see on Goodreads]

Climatology/Glaciology:  Lucybelle Bledsoe, who spent many years as an editorial assistant at the Geological Society of America, also undertook a secret work assignment in the '50s. Her personal life, as a lesbian during the McCarthy years, was by necessity equally clandestine. University of Wisconsin Press, 2016. [see on Goodreads]

Astronomy: In the 18th century, Caroline Herschel, a German-born woman who served as her more famous brother William's assistant, was an accomplished astronomer in her own right, with a number of comet discoveries to her credit.  She lived to be 97.  Pantheon, January 2016. [see on Goodreads]

Paleontology: Chevalier's literary novel profiles Mary Anning, who made important discoveries of fossils around her home in Lyme Regis, England, but who was prohibited from joining the Geological Society due to her sex.  See also Joan Thomas' novel Curiosity for another perspective on Anning's life [see earlier review]. [See on Goodreads]

Math & Computer Science: The story of Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron's daughter, who is credited as being a pioneer in computer programming. Dutton, November 2017. [see on Goodreads]

Chemistry: This first book in a historical mystery series features analytical chemist Libby Clark, who gets hired in 1942 to be a scientist for a top-secret project in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Severn House, 2014.  [read earlier review] [see on Goodreads]

Botany: Gilbert's exuberant epic about personal and scientific discovery centers on Alma Whittaker, born with the 19th century, a young woman bursting with intellectual curiosity about the botanical world.  Viking, 2013.  [read earlier review] [see on Goodreads]

Medicine (Cardiology): The heroine of Rothman's novel is based on the first female physician in Canada in the late 19th century. Agnes White dares to study the field of cardiology at a time when few cures were available and she had few role models to emulate. Soho, 2011. [see earlier review] [see on Goodreads]

Mathematics: A mathematician herself, Spicci's debut novel follows the historical facts in the life of Sofya Kovalevskaya in mid-19th century St. Petersburg; she was the first European woman to receive a doctorate in mathematics.  Forge, 2002. [See on Goodreads]

Neuroscience & Medicine: Melodie Winawer's debut novel follows a modern American neurosurgeon who finds herself trapped 650 years in the past after she travels to Siena, Italy, to settle her late brother's estate and follows the research trail he left.  Touchstone, May 2017. [see on Goodreads]

Monday, May 01, 2017

Elizabeth Kostova's The Shadow Land, a Bulgarian road trip adventure with history and some mystery

Kostova’s third novel (after The Historian and The Swan Thieves) is a road trip adventure mixed with mystery, literary fiction, and a little suspense, but even that doesn’t encompass its full cross-genre appeal. The story opens in the spring of 2008, as Alexandra Boyd, fresh off a plane to Bulgaria to take an English teaching job, finds herself unintentionally entangled in another family’s private business.

After briefly encountering an elderly couple and their middle-aged son outside a hotel in Sofia, Alexandra is horrified to discover she mistakenly took one of their bags into her taxi: a satchel with a carved box containing an urn filled with ashes. The box is labeled with the name of an elderly man, Stoyan Lazarov, who had died two years earlier. Alexandra’s determined quest to find the family and reunite them with their loved one’s remains is as deep and multi-layered as Bulgaria’s own history.

Although she’s cautious about strange men, Alexandra slowly befriends her taxi driver, Bobby, who becomes an active participant in her mission when it becomes clear that someone’s putting up roadblocks in Alexandra’s way.

As they travel across the country, from tiny villages left nearly unchanged by time to the steep outcrops of the Rhodope Mountains, they encounter warm hospitality and also many signs of danger. Stoyan’s neighbors and relatives share memories that shed light on the talented violinist who suffered under Bulgaria’s communist regime. The country’s painful past is revealed through periodic flashbacks and through Stoyan’s own account, which is powerfully moving.

Kostova’s ability to paint images in the reader’s mind is exquisite. She clearly loves Bulgaria and writes passages that show its mesmerizing beauty. The plot fits the definition of “meandering,” and Alexandra’s and Bobby’s travel route sometimes feels overlong, but this is a book in which the journey matters as much as the destination.


The Shadow Land was published last month by Ballantine in the US (hardcover, 496pp); the UK publisher is Text, who had made it available on NetGalley as a Read Now for a while -- so I had snagged it there.  This review appears in May's Historical Novels Review as well.

This is my first experience with one of Kostova's novels. Both The Historian and The Swan Thieves have been on the TBR for way too long. I've read that The Shadow Land is a departure since the pacing is more leisurely and the suspense novel not as high. I'd be interested to hear what other readers think of this book, or of her earlier ones.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Kaite Welsh's The Wages of Sin, a feminist crime novel of late 19th-century Edinburgh

Kaite Welsh’s debut, The Wages of Sin, is described as a “feminist Victorian crime novel.”

What this means: the story is seen from a female perspective and features women battling against gender inequality at a time, the Victorian era, when they weren’t accorded equal rights or treatment. Today’s women often forget what their forebears endured, but reading about Sarah Gilchrist’s experience will remind them.

As one of twelve “undergraduettes” at the university medical school in Edinburgh in 1892, Sarah faces disdainful treatment from her instructors, bullying from her male counterparts, and a definite lack of understanding from her stern Uncle Hugh and Aunt Emily, who treat her like an adolescent in need of discipline rather than a mature 27-year-old woman.

They feel their behavior is justified, based on Sarah’s traumatic past—which adds more facets to her character. Once a young woman in London society, she was sent away to Scotland to avoid ruining her younger sister’s marriage prospects. Her narrative doles out the details slowly, as if she must work up sufficient courage to reveal the truth.

The mystery subplot involves the death of a sex worker named Lucy. Four days before her corpse shows up on Sarah’s operating table, her neck with visible signs of bruising, she’d been a strong-willed, mouthy, and surprisingly literate patient at the charity clinic where Sarah volunteers.

When a novel opens mid-dissection, you know you’re in for a reading experience that oozes atmosphere—among other things. The differences between now and then are grimly emphasized. This is a time when women wore gloves for society outings, but took them off when wielding scalpels and digging into people’s innards. Late 19th-century Edinburgh is shown in all its contrasts, from the city’s elegant parlors to its opium dens and underground boxing venues. Life is clearly rough for the lower classes, with people aging long before their time. The plotline is intricate and not predictable, although one clue is essentially given away before it’s explicitly revealed later.

There are some hints of possible romance, too, with the love interest in question being one of Sarah’s superiors—a dicey situation in academia. The mysterious Professor Merchiston, one of her few supporters, clearly has an unusual past.

In the end, Sarah finds hope in female solidarity—despite the many examples of women holding back their own progress—and comes to see the plight all women share in this day and age, regardless of social status: “Why were we so desperate to believe that anything separated the people in drawing rooms from the people in the slums other than sheer luck?”

Although Sarah's a forward-thinking woman, the author avoids making her an overly feisty anachronism. The story remains in its temporal place, while its message rings out clearly. At a time when men in power seek to shut down women’s choices, the themes in The Wages of Sin couldn’t be more relevant.

The Wages of Sin was published by Pegasus in March in hardcover; thanks to the publisher for approving my Edelweiss access.