Monday, June 19, 2017

Leslie Shimotakahara's After the Bloom, a thoughtful novel about the Japanese internment camps and their aftermath

In her contemplative first novel, Shimotakahara explores the long-lasting aftereffects of a disgraceful historical episode: the incarceration of people of Japanese ancestry during WWII. As she explains in an introduction, Lily Takemitsu is partly based on her paternal grandmother, who denied this part of her past.

In Toronto in 1984, Lily’s daughter Rita, a high-school art teacher and single mother, panics when she learns Lily has vanished. Her mother has the tendency to wander, but she’s never gone missing for days before. As Rita pursues leads to Lily’s whereabouts, she uncovers fragments of her hidden family history, including secrets about her father, Kaz, who she never met, and the time he and Lily spent in a place where “the sand blew so fiercely that stepping outside was like standing under a shower of pinpricks.”

The novel devotes equal time to Lily, a young woman once runner-up in the Cherry Blossom Pageant, who has been forced from one troubled living situation into another. The author paints a meticulous portrait of the dreary geography and fiery internal politics at the camp at Matanzas in California in the 1940s. Rescued by a rebellious photographer named Kaz after a fainting spell, Lily gets drawn into the ongoing animosity between Kaz and his father, the camp doctor.

Awareness of this novel’s topic is necessary for anyone living in today’s world. After the Bloom presents an affecting inside view of what Japanese-Americans endured, both within the camps and afterward. Indecisive and easily manipulated, Lily is an atypical heroine. While she loves her mother, Rita also feels frustrated by her silences and eccentricities. However, Lily’s character feels real, and her disconnections from reality are understood in the context of what she’s survived. Slow-moving at first, the story gains momentum as it continues, and the conclusion is especially satisfying.

After the Bloom was published by Canada's Dundurn Press last month (pb, 328pp).  This review also appears in May's Historical Novels Review and is based on my reading of a NetGalley copy.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Half-Drowned King by Linnea Hartsuyker, a terrific historical epic of 9th-century Norway

In mid-ninth-century Norway, power was dispersed among many petty kingdoms, while sea-kings gained wealth and status through plunder. Chronicling the time that saw Harald Fairhair’s rise as eventual king of a united Norway, Hartsuyker’s terrific historical epic, first in a projected trilogy, beautifully evokes the period and the mind-set of its warring peoples.

After his stepfather’s attempt on his life fails, Ragnvald Eysteinsson pursues revenge and a plan to regain his hereditary lands while finding his place amid the Norse kings’ shifting alliances and blood feuds. Meanwhile, his teenage sister, Svanhild, too strong-minded to be a peace-weaver bride, moves through challenging emotional territory after evading an unwanted marriage.

Posing thoughtful questions about the nature of honor and heroism, and devoting significant attention to women’s lives, the novel takes a fresh approach to the Viking-adventure genre. Hartsuyker also shows how the glorious deeds in skaldic songs can differ from their subjects’ lived experiences.

The multifaceted characters are believable products of their era yet relatable to modern readers; the rugged beauty of Norway’s farmlands and coastal landscapes likewise comes alive. The language is clear and eloquent, and the action scenes will have the blood humming in your veins. This is how tales from the old sagas should be told.

The Half-Drowned King will be published by Harper in August; the (starred) review above appears in Booklist's June 1 and 15 issue.  I read this ARC in February and have been eager to share the review of this book, which is among the best I've read this year.  Historical adventure novels aren't always my thing, but this one has me anxiously anticipating the second and third installments. And it was a story I hadn't previously known; even better.

The UK publisher is Little Brown, which gave it a cover design that strongly resembles those for Maurice Druon's Accursed Kings saga (check out the images and you'll see what I mean).

Friday, June 09, 2017

Alyssa Palombo's The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence, a novel of 15th-century noblewoman Simonetta Vespucci

Are you going to speak to me, signore, or merely gaze at me all evening as though I were a painting? I wondered crossly.”

When Simonetta Cattaneo walks into a room, conversations cease, and people turn to gaze in her direction. Love-struck swains gather in the streets beneath her window, hoping she’ll make an appearance. When first introduced to her, men pay her compliments so ridiculously flowery that she can’t help but stifle laughter.

Known as the most beautiful woman in late 15th-century Florence, Simonetta has gotten used to these and other reactions. She occasionally uses her looks to her advantage – who wouldn’t? – but, as a lover of poetry and literature in general, she yearns to be noticed for her mind.

Alyssa Palombo’s sensitively written second novel imagines the perspective of the stunning young woman depicted in multiple Renaissance-era paintings. It’s subtitled “a story of Botticelli,” but make no mistake, this is Simonetta’s tale. She comes from a minor noble family from Genoa, and at sixteen, she marries banker Marco Vespucci of Florence, and moves into his parents’ home. (Curiously, the senior Vespuccis are mostly absent.) Simonetta’s marriage gives her entrance into a world she longs to join: the intellectual circles of the powerful Medici family.

In Florence, which is presented in its gilded splendor, Simonetta befriends Lorenzo de’Medici and his wife, Clarice, and loves browsing the volumes in their palazzo’s library. Palombo paints Simonetta as a gentle personality eager to embrace the world opening up before her – and to fall in love with her kind, handsome husband. Still, she becomes intrigued by Sandro Botticelli, an artist who acknowledges her beauty but doesn’t flatter her.

Clever and level-headed, Simonetta is aware of the dangerous temptations Florence holds, and comes to learn that her beauty can’t protect her from deceptive behavior or, sadly, ill health – but she refuses to be a victim. Instead, she takes a bold step towards independence and passion that results in the glorious painting known as The Birth of Venus.

The Birth of Venus (close view), Botticelli, ca. 1484-86

Little is known of the historical Simonetta, and Palombo fills in the blanks with a romantic story about women’s agency, the consequences of beauty, and the communicative power of art. In keeping with its focus, the larger political issues of the day remain mostly in the background. It’s smoothly written from start to finish, and the inevitable finale will have you thinking about the life of this inspiring young woman for days afterward.

Alyssa Palombo's The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence was published in April by St. Martin's Griffin ($15.99, 320pp). Thanks to the publisher for sending a review copy earlier this spring.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

A Daughter's Courage by Renita D'Silva, a saga of south India past and present

Renita D’Silva takes the popular parallel-narratives format to a new level with her engrossing saga intertwining four women’s stories. They all center on a secret temple in south India, but the points where they meet, and how, aren’t easy to predict.

In 1924, Gowri is only fourteen when her parents dedicate her to the service of the goddess Yellamma in hopes of saving her younger brother’s life. She yearns to continue her education but, as a devadasi, instead she’s installed in a newly built temple, made to live alone at the jungle’s edge, and forced to sleep with the local landlord. Her pain and confusion are poignantly expressed in letters she writes to the goddess, questioning why she was sacrificed, and wondering why Yellamma doesn’t intervene on her behalf.

In another strand, a privileged Londoner named Lucy decides to marry a man she barely knows, an heir to a coffee plantation in India, in the wake of a scandalous love affair. Left to follow the trail of their secrets in the modern day is Kavya, who returns to her Madras home after major heartbreak. While there, she faces pressure from her overbearing mother to get married and learns about her ajji’s (grandmother, in Kannada) connection to a newly discovered temple that’s been attracting national attention. Introduced later on is the viewpoint of Sue, a recent war widow, whose link to the others is less obvious but critical.

This novel bursts with rich, sensual descriptions of southern India, though the word choices are sometimes odd (“the navy autumn scent of smoke”). All the women are fully rounded characters with well-developed personal histories, and the narrative skips briskly along as it ensnares readers in a story designed to keep them up far too late. The emphasis on women’s resilience and agency is subtle yet unmistakable.

A Daughter's Courage was published by Bookouture in late May in ebook format ($2.99/£1.99) and trade paperback ($12).  I requested it on NetGalley and reviewed it for the HNR's May issue.  This is my first experience with a Bookouture title, and my impression so far is quite positive.  The ebooks are certainly priced competitively. Renita D'Silva has written a number of other novels, some historical and some contemporary, set predominantly in India.  I enjoyed this interview with her about her publishing journey at Writing.ie.