Tag: historical fiction

Blog Tour: The Floating Theatre by Martha Conway (Review & Excerpt)

The Floating Theatre, Martha Conway’s fourth novel, opens with a bang – literally. April 1838: twenty-two-year-old seamstress May Bedloe and her cousin, the actress Comfort Vertue, are on the St. Louis-bound steamboat Moselle when its boilers explode (a real-life disaster) and they must evacuate posthaste. Afterwards Comfort accepts a new role giving abolitionist speeches; May takes her sewing skills on board Captain Hugo Cushing’s Floating Theatre, where she will be a Jill of all trades: repairing costumes, printing tickets, publicizing the show in towns along the Ohio River where they moor for performances, and so on.

Conway gives a vivid sense of nineteenth-century theater life, both off-stage and on-, including just the right amount of historical detail so you can picture everything that’s going on. May is a delightfully no-nonsense narrator – she’d probably be diagnosed with Asperger’s nowadays for her literal approach and her initial inability to lie – and she’s supported by a wonderfully Dickensian cast of actors and crew members. The gripping plot takes on a serious dimension as May, too, gets drawn into the abolition movement: soon she’s helping to deliver runaway slaves from one side of the river to freedom on the other.

In America this was published as The Underground River, more clearly advertising its Underground Railroad theme. As it happens, I prefer this to Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, a novel to which it will inevitably be compared. (For one thing, Conway has a much more nuanced slave catcher character.) This is terrific historical fiction I can heartily recommend.

My rating:

 

The Floating Theatre was released in the UK by Zaffre, an imprint of Bonnier Publishing, on June 15th. My thanks to Imogen Sebba for the free copy for review.

 

 


An exclusive extract from The Floating Theatre:

 

Two figures were standing on the lower deck at the stern of the boat. One of them might have been Hugo, but as I got closer I saw that the other one was certainly not Helena—it was Thaddeus Mason, eating popcorn from a red-and-white striped bag.

“What ho, May!” Thaddeus called out when he saw me, as if he were practicing for a nautical part. I noticed he no longer wore his arm in a sling. The other man turned as I came up the gangplank; like Thaddeus, he wore his hair long, but his coloring was darker and he was half a head taller. There was a band of black crepe around his straw hat, and his shirtsleeves were rolled up past his elbows. Thaddeus introduced me.

“Captain Hugo Cushing,” the man said in a British accent, touching his hat.

“May and I were on the Moselle together,” Thaddeus told him—was that to be his introduction for me from now on? But he went on to say that Hugo’s sister Helena had been on the Moselle, too. “Do you remember the singer at dinner? Helena Cushing, of Hugo and Helena’s Floating Theatre?” Thaddeus took off his hat. “Sadly, she was not as fortunate as we were.”

I looked at Hugo and tried to think of something kind to say. I remembered the singer in her pink dress with the light shining behind her.

“The captain let her on to perform,” Hugo said. “We often made a few extra dollars this way. She was going to get off at the stop after Fulton. I was just pushing off to meet up with her there when the sky broke up with the explosion.”

“Oh,” I said. “That is—that’s very bad…” I trailed off awkwardly, but Thaddeus came in with a string of platitudes, which he spoke with great conviction and aplomb—a terrible disaster, an immense misfortune, the captain was a dastardly fellow.

“Where do you go?” I asked Hugo when Thaddeus finished. “Or do you stay here?”

He looked at me blankly.

“On this boat. Your theatre. Where do you perform?”

“Oh, well then, down along the Ohio, of course. We dock at a different town every day, put on a show, and then the next morning pull up and head for the next town. We go all the way to the Mississippi playing towns until the weather turns. Then we get pushed back up the river—I hire a steamer.” I could see that his boat, a flatboat, had no steam power of its own. “Fourth year at it,” he told me. “My sister and I put it all together. But now…” He made a gesture which I took to understand that for him, like me, his old partnership was over.

“And if that weren’t enough, his boat was damaged by the explosion,” Thaddeus added. “The captain was just telling me. Part of the Moselle’s paddle box shot in like a cannonball.”

“Even worse, my leather boat pump got punctured,” Hugo said. “Don’t know how I’m going to fix it, and a new one costs twenty dollars more than I have.”

“How much does a new one cost?” I asked.

He looked at me as if I were a fool. “Twenty dollars.”

“Where is your company?” Thaddeus asked him. “Maybe you could take up a collection.”

“They skittered off into town. Probably drinking their way into even more uselessness. Damn actors. Excuse me,” he said, but I wasn’t sure he meant the apology for me since he was looking out at the river. I wasn’t offended in any case. I had seen actors humiliate themselves in a variety of ways over the years.

 


I was delighted to be asked to participate in the blog tour for The Floating Theatre. See below for details of where other reviews and features have appeared.

Catching Up on Prize Winners: Alderman, Grossman & Whitehead

Sometimes I love a prize winner and cheer the judges’ ruling; other times I shake my head and puzzle over how they could possibly think this was the best the year had to offer. I’m late to the party for these three recent prize-winning novels. I’m also a party pooper, I guess, because I didn’t particularly like or dislike a one of them. (Reviews are in the order in which I read the books. My rating for all three = )

 

A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman

(Winner of the Man Booker International Prize)

“Why the long face? Did someone die? It’s only stand-up comedy!” Except that for the comedian himself, Dovaleh Greenstein, this swan song of a show in the Israeli town of Netanya devolves into the story of the most traumatic day of his life. Grossman has made what seems to me an unusual choice of narrator: Avishai Lazar, a widower and Supreme Court justice, and Dov’s acquaintance from adolescence – they were in the same military training camp. Dov has invited him here to bear witness, and by the end we know Avishai will produce a written account of the evening.

Although it could be said that Avishai’s asides about the past, and about the increasingly restive crowd in the club, give us a rest from Dov’s claustrophobic monologue, in doing so they break the spell. This would be more hard-hitting as a play or a short story composed entirely of speech; in one of those formats, Dov’s story might keep you spellbound through a single sitting. Instead, I found that I had to force myself to read even five or 10 pages at a time. There’s no doubt Grossman can weave a clever tale about loss, and there are actually some quite funny jokes in here too, but overall I found this significantly less powerful than the author’s previous work, Falling Out of Time.

 

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

(Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award and Arthur C. Clarke Award; longlisted for the Man Booker Prize)

Following Cora on her fraught journey from her Georgia plantation through the Carolinas and Tennessee to Indiana is enjoyable enough, with the requisite atrocities like lynchings and rapes thrown in to make sure it’s not just a picaresque cat-and-mouse battle between her and Arnold Ridgeway, the villainous slavecatcher. But I’m surprised that such a case has been made for the uniqueness of this novel based on a simple tweak of the historical record: Whitehead imagines the Underground Railroad as an actual subterranean transport system. This makes less of a difference than you might expect; if anything, it renders the danger Cora faces more abstract. The same might be said for the anachronistic combination of enlightened and harsh societies she passes through: by telescoping out to show the range of threats African-Americans faced between the Civil War and the 1930s, the novel loses immediacy.

Ultimately, I felt little attachment to Cora and had to force myself to keep plodding through her story. My favorite parts were little asides giving other characters’ backstories. There’s no doubt Whitehead can shape a plot and dot in apt metaphors (I particularly liked “Ajarry died in the cotton, the bolls bobbing around her like whitecaps on the brute ocean”). However, I kept thinking, Haven’t I read this story before? (Beloved, Ruby, The Diary of Anne Frank; seen on screen in Twelve Years a Slave, Roots and the like.) This is certainly capably written, but doesn’t stand out for me compared to Homegoing, which was altogether more affecting.

 

The Power by Naomi Alderman

(Winner of the [Bailey’s] Women’s Prize)

I read the first ~120 pages and skimmed the rest. Alderman imagines a parallel world in which young women realize they wield electrostatic power that can maim or kill. In an Arab Spring-type movement, they start to take back power from their oppressive societies. You’ll cheer as women caught up in sex trafficking fight back and take over. The movement is led by Allie, an abused child who starts by getting revenge on her foster father and then takes her message worldwide, becoming known as Mother Eve.

Alderman has cleverly set this up as an anthropological treatise-cum-historical novel authored by “Neil Adam Armon” (an anagram of her own name), complete with documents and drawings of artifacts. “The power to hurt is a kind of wealth,” and in this situation of gender reversal women gradually turn despotic. They are soldiers and dictators; they inflict genital mutilation and rape on men.

I enjoyed the passages mimicking the Bible, but felt a lack of connection with the characters and didn’t get a sense of years passing even though this is spread over about a decade. This is most like Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy – Alderman’s debt to Atwood is explicit, in the dedication as well as the acknowledgments – so if you really like those books, by all means read this one. My usual response to such speculative fiction, though, even if it describes a believable situation, is: what’s the point? As with “Erewhon,” the best story in Helen Simpson’s collection Cockfosters, the points about gender roles are fairly obvious.

 

I’d be interested to hear if you’ve read any of these books – or plan to read them – and believe they were worthy prize winners. If so, set me straight!

Summer Reads: The Women of the Castle and The Nest

What do you look for in your summer reading? Terms like “beach read” tend to connote light, frothy stories—especially from genres like romance, mystery, and chick lit—but for me a summer read is any book that happens to be totally absorbing, whatever its length. These two novels I recently read are perfect for the summer because you can sink right into them. Whether a trio of widows in postwar Germany or a dysfunctional family in modern-day New York City, the characters and setting come fully to life and tempt you to settle in on a sofa or a beach towel and stay for a while.

 

The Women of the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

Like Virginia Baily’s Early One Morning and Caroline Lea’s When the Sky Fell Apart, this is a female-centered World War II story that focuses on a lesser-known aspect of history. The main characters are three German women, Marianne, Benita and Ania, who were aligned with different sides in the Nazism vs. Resistance conflict but have all suffered grave losses. These widows band together to raise their children at Burg von Lingenfels, the dilapidated ancestral castle of Marianne’s late husband’s family, but as the years pass regrets and unburied secrets start to come between them.

Apart from a short prologue from 1938 and a final section that jumps ahead to 1991, the novel is mainly set in 1945–50. I appreciated the look at postwar Germany, a period you rarely encounter in fiction. Refugees, rape victims, and Russian soldiers are everywhere, while American propaganda heaps shame on Germans for supporting Hitler. As with Barbara Yelin’s Irmina, though, there’s an acknowledgment here that it was never a clear-cut matter of pure evil or utter ignorance; “They had known but not known,” is how Shattuck puts it.

What is most intriguing to watch are the shifting relationships between the three main characters. Marianne, as the widow of one of the conspirators in the plot to assassinate Hitler, feels a compulsion to rescue her fellow widows from work camps and to keep the history of the Resistance alive. When her friends disappoint her—Benita falls in love with a former Nazi officer; Ania admits to a past she’d rather forget—Marianne doesn’t know how to absorb the shocks without judgment. A black-and-white thinker, she has trouble seeing life’s gray areas. Only in her old age is she finally able to realize that people are not simply “good or bad, true or false. They have been laid bare, a collection of choices and circumstances.”

You might think that all the WWII stories have been told by now, yet this novel feels fresh and revelatory. I found it both melancholy and hopeful, with strong characters and a haunting atmosphere:

The next week, a heatwave settled over Burg Lingenfels, a shaggy animal brushing against the hills, panting along the river, quieting the birds and making the castle sweat. The ditches were alive with milkweed, nettles, and creeping phlox. In the warmth, the forest looked soft and dense, a black lump against blue sky.

My rating:


The Women of the Castle was released in the UK by Zaffre, an imprint of Bonnier Publishing, on May 18th. My thanks to Imogen Sebba for the free copy for review.

 

 

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

Leo Plumb has really blown it this time. He’s had problems with drugs and womanizing before, but this time he got behind the wheel of a car after his cousin’s wedding reception with coke and alcohol in his system and a nineteen-year-old waitress, Matilda Rodriguez, at his side. Matilda is injured in the ensuing accident, and after her hefty payout it looks like the four Plumb siblings’ collective trust fund, “the nest,” will be severely diminished.

They’re all counting on this money: Melody to send her twin daughters to a good college; Jack to save his floundering antiques business; and Bea to keep her afloat until she can write a long-delayed novel to follow up on the success of her “Archie” short stories (based on a figure suspiciously similar to Leo).

The short chapters switch between the siblings as they tweak their plans for the future. The novel also spends time with Melody’s twins, Nora and Louise, who at 16 are just figuring out what they want from their lives; and with Matilda and her new friend Vinnie as they cope with permanent injuries. All of these characters feel like real people who might be in your neighborhood or your extended family. I especially liked Stephanie, the old girlfriend Leo returns to after his wife finally kicks him out.

In places this reminded me of Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, Delia Ephron’s Siracusa, and especially Hannah Rothschild’s The Improbability of Love due to a subplot about a stolen sculpture. There’s a rather silly set piece involving the sculpture later on; leaving that aside, I thought this was a compelling story about what happens when the truth comes out and we must readjust our expectations. Realistic rather than rosy, this is a novel about letting go. A nest is, of course, also a home, so for as much as this seems to be about money, it is really more about family and how we reclaim our notion of home after a major upheaval.

My rating:


The Nest was released in paperback in the UK by The Borough Press on June 1st. My thanks to Emilie Chambeyron for the free copy for review.

Books in Brief: Five I Loved Recently

Here are mini-reviews of five books I loved recently: two I originally reviewed for other websites and three stellar library reads; three works of historical fiction and two nonfiction books.

Known and Strange Things: Essays

By Teju Cole

known-and-strangeThis collects 55 short pieces under three headings: literature, visual arts, and travel. Alongside straightforward book reviews are essays in which Cole engages with his literary heroes. A 400-page book of disparate essays is a hard ask, and even photography aficionados may struggle through the long middle section. All the same, patience is rewarded by Part III, “Being There,” in which he deftly blends memoir and travelogue. Again and again he reflects on displacement and ambiguity. Born in Michigan but raised in Nigeria, Cole returned to the States for college. Though erudite and wide-ranging, these essays are not quite as successful as, say, Julian Barnes’s or Geoff Dyer’s in making any and every topic interesting to laymen. Still, Cole proves himself a modern Renaissance man, interweaving experience and opinion in rigorous yet conversational pieces that illuminate the arts. (See my full review on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette website.) 4-star-rating

 

Winter

By Christopher Nicholson

winterA perfect novel about a few months of Thomas Hardy’s later life. On the surface it’s the story of a rather odd love triangle: the octogenarian Hardy was infatuated with Gertrude Bugler, a local Dorset actress who had agreed to play his Tess on the London stage; his neurotic second wife, Florence, got wind of his feelings and jealously decided to sabotage Gertie. Underneath, I found this to be a deeply moving book about fear – of death, but also of not having lived the way you wanted and meant to. The perspective moves between Florence and Gertie in the first person and an omniscient third-person narrator. Chapters 1, 6 and 8, in particular, are a pitch-perfect pastiche of Hardy’s style. A bleak country winter is the perfect setting for a story of personal decay and a marriage grown cold. This brought back vivid memories of my visit to Hardy’s house in 2004 and coincided with my own vision of who Hardy was. 5-star-rating

 

The Complete Maus

By Art Spiegelman

mausThe only graphic novel to win the Pulitzer Prize, this brings the Holocaust home in a fresh way. Like Animal Farm, it uses the conceit of various animal associations: Jews are mice, Poles are pigs, Nazis are cats, and Americans are dogs. Spiegelman draws what, from a distance of decades, his father Vladek remembers about his almost unbelievable series of escapes, including time in Auschwitz. Spiegelman gives the book an extra dimension by including his 1970s/80s recording sessions with his father as a framing story for most chapters. The narration is thus in Vladek’s own broken English, and we see how exasperating Spiegelman finds him – for pinching pennies and being racist against blacks, for instance – even as he’s in awe of his story. You can see how this paved the way for comic artists like Roz Chast and Alison Bechdel. I recommend it to absolutely anyone, graphic novel fan or no. 5-star-rating

 

Golden Hill

By Francis Spufford

golden-hillBawdy, witty, vivid historical fiction; simply brilliant. You’ll never doubt for a second that you are in 1746 New York – an English colony with a heavy Dutch influence, and slavery still the standard. The novel opens suddenly as twenty-four-year-old Richard Smith arrives from London with a promissory note for £1000. He won’t explain how he came by the money or what he intends to do with it, but the order seems legitimate. This puts the merchant Mr. Lovell in rather a bind, because that kind of cash simply can’t be come by. Before he can finally get his money, Smith will fall in and out of love, fight a duel, and be arrested twice – all within the space of two months. In a book full of fantastic scenes, Smith and Septimus’ narrow escape via the rooftops on Pope Day stands out. The finest thing about the novel, though, is the authentic eighteenth-century diction. Spufford writes very good creative nonfiction, with five books to date, but with his debut novel he’s hit a home run. 4-5-star-rating

  

Resolution

By A.N. Wilson

resolutionFrom a prolific author of both fiction and nonfiction, a meticulously researched novel about George Forster, one of the naturalists on Captain Cook’s second voyage. Rather than giving a simple chronological account of the journey and its aftermath, Wilson employs a sophisticated structure that alternates vignettes from the voyage with scenes from about 10 years later, when George is unhappily married to Therese and struggling to find suitable work. This is the second novel I’ve read by Wilson, after The Potter’s Hand. I find his fiction to be thoroughly convincing as well as engaging. This reminded me most of Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann, another rip-roaring tale of exploration with prose emulating the more detached narrative style of the eighteenth century. Recommended to any readers of historical fiction and adventure stories. (See my full review at The Bookbag.) 4-star-rating


Have you read any of these? Which one takes your fancy?

Mini Reviews Roundup for the Summer

Here’s a quick look at some of the book reviews I’ve had published elsewhere on the web over the past few months, with a taster so you can decide whether to read more by clicking on the link. These are all 4-star reads I can highly recommend.


The Bookbag

Triotrio by Sue Gee: Sue Gee’s tenth novel is a sensitive portrait of life’s transience and the things that give us purpose. In the late 1930s, a widowed history teacher in Northumberland finds a new lease on life when he falls for one of the members of a local trio of musicians. My favorite passages of the book are descriptive ones, often comprised of short, evocative phrases; I also loved the banter between the musicians. The novel has a reasonably simple plot. We delve into the past to discover each main character’s backstory and some unexpected romantic entanglements, but in the 1930s storyline there aren’t a lot of subplots to distract from the main action. I was reminded in places of Downton Abbey: the grand hall and its village surroundings, the build-up to war, the characters you come to love and cheer for. [Thanks to Elle for piquing my interest in this one.]

How to Set a Fire and Whyhow to set a fire by Jesse Ball: Lucia Stanton is a cynical 14-year-old misfit who lives with her elderly aunt in a garage. At first she only supports the idea of arson, but events draw her into getting personally involved. This is one of those fairly rare novels that stand out immediately for the first-person voice. Lucia reminded me of Holden Caulfield or of Mim Malone from David Arnold’s Mosquitoland. She’s like a cynical philosopher. For as heartbreaking as her family history is, she was always either making me laugh or impressing me with her wisdom. Although this is his sixth novel, I hadn’t heard much about Jesse Ball prior to picking it up. His skill at creating the interior world of a troubled 14-year-old girl leads me to believe that the rest of his work would be well worth a look.


BookBrowse

[Non-subscribers can read excerpts of my reviews]

Imagine Me Goneimagine me by Adam Haslett: Mental illness plagues two generations of an Anglo-American family in Haslett’s moving second novel. Narration duties are split between the five members: father John, mother Margaret, and siblings Alec, Michael, and Celia. By giving each main character a first-person voice, Haslett offers readers a full picture of how mental illness takes a toll not only on sufferers but also on those who love and care for them. John’s descriptions of what mental illness is like are among the most striking passages in the book. Michael’s sections are wonderfully humorous, a nice counterbalance to some of the aching sadness. The multiple points of view fit together beautifully in this four-decade family symphony, although I sometimes felt that Celia was one main character too many – her story doesn’t contribute very much to the whole. A powerful read for fans of family stories.

Dinner with Edwarddinner with edward by Isabel Vincent: In this heartwarming memoir, a journalist tells how friendship with an elderly gentleman rekindled her appetite for life. New to NYC and with a faltering marriage, Isabel received an unusual request from her friend Valerie: Would she look in on Valerie’s father, Edward? In his nineties, he’d recently been widowed and Valerie was worried about him losing the will to live. If he could have a guest to cook for and entertain, it might give him a new sense of purpose. As it turned out, it was a transformative friendship for the author as much as for Edward. Each chapter opens with a mouth-watering menu. Although Edward is now deceased, when we see him for the final time, he is still alive and well. This is a nice way to leave things – rather than with a funeral, which might have altered the overall tone.


Nudge

Rubyruby by Cynthia Bond: When Ruby Bell returns to Liberty Township, her east Texas hometown, in 1964, her fellow black folk turn her into a victim of derision. The churchgoing men of the town get the idea that they can use her body however they want. In part this is because her mental health is deteriorating, and the more she struggles to stifle traumatic memories the stranger she acts. The only one who continues to see Ruby as a human being rather than a demon or a subhuman object is Ephram Jennings. I found their relationship, reminiscent of that between Sethe and Paul D. in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, very touching. The novel moves fluidly between the past and present to give all of the central characters’ backstories – most of them unremittingly tragic. As difficult as some of the later scenes are to take, you feel entranced into continuing because of the touches of magic realism. Out of the darkness Bond weaves enchanting language and scenes. I highly recommend this to fans of Ayana Mathis’s The Twelve Tribes of Hattie and Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House.

The Hatred of Poetryhatred of poetry by Ben Lerner: This fluid essay asks how poetry navigates between the personal and the universal. Socrates famously wanted to ban poets, fearing poetry might be turned to revolutionary purposes. Lerner wonders whether poetry still has a political role. Whitman’s goal was to create a new American verse style. But was it realistic for him to think that he could speak for everyone? The same might be asked about the poets who read at presidential inaugurations. Can different races and genders speak to and for each other, or is it only white males who are assumed to be able to pronounce on humanity’s behalf? Those are some of the questions addressed in this conversational yet unabashedly highbrow essay. Lerner’s points of reference range from Keats and Dickinson to Claudia Rankine, with ample quotations and astute commentary.


Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Before the Fallbefore the fall by Noah Hawley: The key is in the title: perhaps playing on the theological implications of “the Fall” and Scott and JJ’s “salvation” from a plane crash, the novel toggles between build-up and aftermath. Disasters bring disparate people together to make superb fictional setups. Crucially, Hawley doesn’t make the mistake of conflating characters under easy labels like “victims” and “survivors.” Instead, he renders them all individuals with complete backstories. Some of their potted histories are relevant, while others throw up red herrings in the ensuing enquiry. Readers’ task is to weigh up what is happenstance and what is destiny. This lies somewhere on the continuum between crime and literary fiction; if it’s not quite Jonathan Franzen, nor is it Robert Ludlum. It’s a pretty much ideal summer vacation read – though you might think twice about taking it on a plane.