Tag: historical fiction

Third Blog Anniversary

Hard to believe, but I’ve only been blogging for three years as of today. It feels like something I’ve been doing forever, but at the same time I still consider myself a newbie. This is my 382nd post, so I’ve been keeping up an average of 2.5 posts a week.

By Joey Gannon from Pittsburgh, PA (Candles) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.
In general, if I think back to this time last year, I’ve been comparing/pressuring myself less – though I still push myself, e.g. to finish a few books on a topic by a certain date – and enjoying it more. I’ve had success in working towards certain goals like participating in shadow panels (for the Wellcome Book Prize and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award) and blog tours (I’ve done 11 so far and have another seven coming up by July).

I’ve particularly enjoyed doing author Q&As and highlighting seasonal reads, novellas, books about cats, and physical book traits. I especially like writing up bookshop visits and other literary travels, and discussing literary prizes. My supply of graphic novels seems to have dried up; for new releases I focus on literary fiction, historical fiction and memoirs.

Straightforward book reviews have always been less popular than book lists and other more tangentially book-related posts. Library Checkout posts are consistently well-liked, as were the “Books in Brief” sets of five mini-reviews I used to do. As I’ve noted before, my posts on abandoned books are always perversely popular.

Some of my favorite posts from the past year were on World Kidney Day, Mother–Daughter Author Pairs, and Book Hoarding, and my review in verse of Jonathan Eig’s Ali: A Life.

The numbers of likes seem to be less than informative as they simply reflect a growing number of followers – many of my recent posts have averaged 20–25 likes – so I prefer to look at comments, as it means people are truly reading and engaging. In terms of numbers of comments, my top posts of all time appeared in the last year and were:

Thanks to everyone who has supported me this past year, and/or all three years, by visiting the site, commenting, re-tweeting, and so on. You’re the best!


Blog Tour: The Secret Life of Mrs. London by Rebecca Rosenberg

I have a weakness for novels about history’s famous wives, whether that’s Zelda Fitzgerald, the multiple Mrs. Hemingways, or the First Ladies of the U.S. presidents. A valuable addition to that delightful sub-genre of fiction is The Secret Life of Mrs. London, the recent debut novel by California lavender farmer Rebecca Rosenberg. I’m pleased to be closing out the blog tour today with a mini review. So many thorough reviews have already appeared that I won’t attempt to compete with them, but will just share a few reasons why I found this a worthwhile read.

Set in 1915 to 1917, this is the story of the last couple of years of Jack London’s life, narrated by his second wife, Charmian, who was five years his senior. The novel opens in California at the Londons’ Beauty Ranch and Wolf House complex and also travels to Hawaii and New York City. Events are condensed and fictionalized, but true to life – thanks to the biography Charmian wrote of Jack and the author’s access to her journals and their letters.

Here are a few things I particularly liked about the novel:

  • A fantastic opening scene: September 1915: Charmian decides to fix Jack’s hangover with strong coffee and a boxing match – with her! – while their Japanese servant, Nakata, and their house guests look on with bemusement. “Nothing breathes vigor into a marriage like a boxing match.”
  • A glimpse into Jack London’s lesser-known writings: I’ve only ever read White Fang and The Call of the Wild, as a child. But in addition to his adventure stories he also wrote realist/sociopolitical novels and science fiction. At the time when the novel opens, he’s working on The Star Rover. This has inspired me to look into some of his more obscure work.
  • The occasional clash of the spouses’ ambitions: Charmian considers it her duty to hold Jack to his promise of writing 1,000 words a day. However, she is an aspiring writer herself, and she often needles Jack to talk to his publisher about accepting her books. (She eventually published two travel books, The Log of the Snark (1915), about their years sailing the Pacific, and Our Hawaii (1917), as well as her biography of her late husband, The Book of Jack London, in 1921.)
  • Charmian’s longing for motherhood: Jack London had an ex-wife and two daughters, Joan and Becky. In 1910 Charmian gave birth to a daughter, Joy, who soon died. Even though she is 43 by the time the book opens, she still wants to try again for a baby. Her hopes and disappointments are a poignant part of the story.
  • Cameos from other historical figures: Harry Houdini and his wife, especially, have a large part to play in the novel, particularly in the last quarter.

I wasn’t so keen on the sex scenes, which are fairly frequent. However, I can recommend this to fans of Nancy Horan’s work.

My rating:

The Secret Life of Mrs. London was published by Lake Union Publishing on January 30th. I read an e-copy via NetGalley.

Review: Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar

Salt Creek is one of the very best works of historical fiction I’ve read. All the harder, then, to believe that it’s Lucy Treloar’s debut novel. Since its initial release in Australia in 2015, it has gone on to be shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction and the Miles Franklin Award for Australian novels. We have Claire McAlpine of Word by Word to thank for helping this book find a publisher in the UK. I can particularly recommend it to fans of The Essex Serpent and English Passengers, and there are also resonances with Rebecca Winterer’s Australia-set The Singing Ship.

Hester Finch is looking back from the 1870s – when she is a widowed teacher settled in England – to the eight ill-fated years her family spent at Salt Creek, a small (fictional) outpost in South Australia, in the 1850s–60s. Her luckless father tried whaling in Adelaide before turning to cheese-making as his next far-fetched money-making venture. From Quaker stock, Papa believed the natives should be well treated and even all but adopted an aboriginal boy named Tully, getting him to bathe and wear clothes and educating him alongside his seven children. However, as Hester hints starting early on in the novel, having a white family monopolizing resources put an impossible strain on relations with the natives.

It seems an inevitable irony of reviewing – or maybe it’s just me? – that the books you love the most are the hardest to write about. However can I do this book justice? I wonder about lots of 5-star books. It’s easier to put together a review when you have some mixture of positive and negative things to say, but I have no faults to find with Salt Creek. It flawlessly evokes its time period and somewhat bleak setting. Hester’s narration is as lyrical as it is nostalgic and matter-of-fact, and I sympathized with her desperation not to be drawn into a Victorian housewife’s cycle of endless pregnancies. The characterization is spot on, especially for figures like Papa or Tully who could have easily been reduced to stereotypes.

Most of all, this is the piercing story of a clash of cultures and the secret prejudices that underpin our beliefs. You might think notions of dominion and looking after ‘poor natives’ are outdated, but just listen in to what particular groups have to say about the environment and intervention abroad and you’ll realize that this is as relevant as ever. Salt Creek comes with my highest recommendation.

Some favorite lines:

“Poor Papa. He pitted himself against the land, yet it was impervious to all his learning and effort and incantatory prayers. The land had its own drives and they ran against Papa’s, blunting all his purposes.”

“I would not have a baby or that would be my life. There would be another and another and nothing left of my self; my life being decided for me.”

“Memories are just the survivors of complete events and are not easy to interpret; in the recalling they can be used to create a story that is only partially true or not true at all.”

“It seemed as if every part of the lagoon had a name and a story and a meaning. The stories were all around us wherever we went. There was scarcely a place without one and it felt as if we were nothing but one more story inside this world and the stories were without number.”

“The longer I looked the more that impression of civilization seemed an illusion.”

With thanks to Gallic Books for the free copy for review.

My rating:

Madness Is Better than Defeat by Ned Beauman

I’ve been a Ned Beauman fan ever since I read his debut, Boxer, Beetle, in 2011. Born in 1985, the Londoner is now the author of four novels and was named one of Granta’s 20 best British novelists under the age of 40. His books are madcap and complex; three out of four have historical settings (all broadly in the World War II era), but this is definitely not historical fiction as we know it. If I tell you that some common elements in his work are Nazis, pharmaceuticals and gay sex, and that his first two books reminded me most of Nick Harkaway, you’ll get some idea of the niche he’s working in.

Madness Is Better than Defeat takes its title from a line in Orson Welles’s never-filmed screenplay of Heart of Darkness. We open in 1959 with Zonulet, a 43-year-old alcoholic CIA officer, writing a tell-all memoir about what happened when two parties set out to find a Mayan temple in Honduras in 1938. Sadistic business magnate Elias Coehorn, Sr. sent his feckless son, Elias Jr., to dismantle the temple and bring it back to New York City, while Arnold Spindler, chairman of Kingdom Pictures, tasked Jervis Whelt with directing a movie on location at the temple: Hearts in Darkness, a comedy about a spoiled society boy who’s sent on an archaeological dig to a Mayan temple and opens a nightclub when he gets there.

The scene is set for a clash of cultures: the New York faction bent on destruction versus the Los Angeles crew intent on creation. They’re joined by Joan Burlingame, a stuffy Cambridge anthropologist, and Leland Trimble, a gossip journalist who was formerly Zonulet’s colleague at the New York Evening Mirror. To start with the screwball plot is uncannily similar to that of Hearts in Darkness itself, and it seems the stalemate between the two groups will be mined purely for comic potential. But as the years pass and the deadlock continues, this becomes more of a psychological study of a community in isolation, rather like The Lord of the Flies or T.C. Boyle’s The Terranauts.

Alliances are formed and broken based on blackmail over the characters’ past and present indiscretions; routines and workarounds are developed (though an attempt to recreate Bloody Marys and Eggs Benedict fails); soon a whole new generation is being raised with little knowledge of what’s happened outside this jungle for more than a decade; all they have to go on is false information about the outcome of World War II conveyed by an ex-Nazi.

They spoke in American accents and they had all been taught a sort of eschatology in which they would one day return with their parents to Hollywood or New York. But they belonged to the rainforest and to the temple. And the geometry of the latter … was so primal to them that any talk of disassembly or reassembly struck them as abstract, almost paradoxical.

One of the hardest things to believe about the story line – so you’ll simply have to suspend your disbelief – is that no one was overly concerned when these two groups failed to reappear after assignments that were meant to last only a matter of weeks. Not until Zonulet gets to Honduras in 1956 to learn more about a secret CIA guerrilla training camp in the area is there sustained interest in what became of these exiled Americans, and it’s another two years before their jungle idyll comes to an explosive end.

What we have here is a twist on the Mummy’s Curse trope, with the temple causing many to lose their minds or their lives. I wish the novel could have retained its initial screwball charm without going quite so dark and strange, but that’s Beauman for you. I also thought that this was a good 100–150 pages too long, with many more secondary characters, subplots and asides than necessary. Ironically, even after nearly 500 pages, its conclusion left me wondering about some loose ends. But the writing is consistently amusing, particularly the voices captured in letters or diaries and the wacky metaphors:

  • “The sky in the west was mixing an Old-Fashioned”
  • “All her blood had thickened in her head like the last of the catsup”
  • “They were so slathered in mulch that their two bodies together might have been some octopod newly burped from a mudpot.”
  • “To describe the truck as temperamental would have been condescending; rather, I had the impression it had been earnestly wrestling with a deep crisis of personal faith about the very principle of internal combustion as a motive power.”

If you’re new to Ned Beauman, I’d suggest starting with The Teleportation Accident, my favorite of his novels. From there you could move on to Boxer, Beetle or Glow; this one can wait until you’re a confirmed admirer.

My rating:

Madness Is Better than Defeat is published in the UK today, August 24th, by Sceptre and will be available in the USA in February. With thanks to Ruby Mitchell for the free review copy.

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.