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Posts Tagged ‘historical fiction’

The Russia of Joseph Kanon’s Defectors (Atria, digital galley via NetGalley) is the Soviet Union circa 1961, gray and grim as the Cold War. Even the Party faithful have to wait in long lines for food and depend on the black market for basic amenities. Simon Weeks has often wondered why his older brother Frank, a CIA golden boy, chose to defect in 1949. Was it money, ideology, gamesmanship? Now Frank has written his KGB-approved memoirs and asks Simon, who became a publisher after his brother’s defection ended his State Department career, to edit the manuscript. Simon discovers his brother is as charming and wily as ever, even though he is accompanied everywhere by a minder, and the restricted, isolated lifestyle has turned his beautiful wife Joanna into an alcoholic. They consort only with other defectors, from famous figures like Guy Burgess to anonymous research scientists. A recent death in the group is presumed a suicide. When Frank begins to show his hand, Simon senses something is up and must fall back on old tradecraft. Betrayal is in the air, murder in a cathedral.

Kanon, who has written spy thrillers set in Istanbul, Berlin and Los Alamos, is at the top of his game. Defectors offers suspense and atmosphere galore, but it also explores the perplexing nature of a double agent, as well as enduring questions of loyalty to family and country. A timely tale.

I didn’t know much about World War I spies beyond Mata Hari until I read Kate Quinn’s compelling The Alice Network (HarperCollins, digital galley via edelweiss). The title comes from the name of a real-life group of female agents who operated in France during the Great War. American college student Charlie St. Clair first learns about the network in 1947 when she tries to find her cousin Rose, who disappeared in Nazi-occupied France during the more recent war. Eve Gardiner, a reclusive, ill-tempered alcoholic and former Alice spy living in London, initially resists Charlie’s entreaty for help — she draws a gun on her — before setting out for France in her vintage roadster driven by charming ex-con Finn.

Quinn expertly propels parallel storylines, alternating between the 1947 road trip with its twists and dead ends, and Eve’s recruitment as a spy in 1915 and her dangerous work for the Alice network. Both stories, which eventually connect, are absorbing adventures, although Eve’s is the more harrowing as she becomes the unwilling mistress of a powerful German sympathizer. Still, Charlie also proves to be a resourceful, conflicted character with a not-so-little problem. Suspense increases as secrets come to light in both narratives. The Alice Network is sad and heart-breaking but also hopeful and redemptive.

In Mark Mills’ deft cat-and-mouse game of a thriller, Where Dead Men Meet (Blackstone Audio, digital galley via NetGalley), someone is trying to kill Luke Hamilton. Or it could be a case of mistaken identity in 1937 Paris, where Hamilton is assigned to the British Embassy. He is grieving at the news of the murder in England of Sister Agnes, the nun who took him in as an abandoned baby 25 years ago. Readers already know Sister Agnes’ murder is connected to the attempt on Luke’s life, but it is the appearance of the mysterious Bernard Fautrier who warns Luke he is in real danger.  The race — to escape the killers and to find out their motives — takes Luke to Nazi Germany, to neutral Switzerland, to enigmatic Venice. There are moments of exquisite tension, although the resolution of the main mystery comes a little too early. Still, complications ensue as table turns. Revenge is cold and deadly.

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newsoftheworldI wanted to be a cowboy when I was little. Or a pioneer, or a rider for the Pony Express. These career choices were influenced by my love of horses, the Little House on the Prairie books and the many TV westerns that underscored my girlhood. But if I had known there was a living in riding from town to town reading newspapers to interested folks, I would have signed on for that job, too. My role model would be Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd of  Paulette Jiles’ heartfelt new novel, News of the World (HarperCollins, digital galley).

In 1870 north Texas, the captain is a 71-year-old war veteran, widower, father of two grown daughters. He once owned a printing press, but now he rides from one frontier community to another reading aloud the news to people willing to pay 10 cents to hear about politics in Washington, scandals in Europe and failed expeditions to the Arctic. In Wichita Falls, a cargo hauler offers him  a $50 gold piece to take a 10-year-old girl to her surviving relatives near San Antonio. Johanna Leonberger was taken captive four years ago by the Kiowa, who recently traded her back to an Indian agent for “fifteen Hudson’s Bay four-stripe blankets and a set of silver dinnerware.” If the captain is reluctant to take the blue-eyed girl with taffy hair on a 400-mile-journey south through the Texas Hill Country, the girl, “Cicada,” is even less enthusiastic. She remembers little of her former life, doesn’t speak English and runs away at the first opportunity.

Still, the gradual, growing bond between the two is intensified by the obstacles they face on their bumpy road trip. For Johanna, it’s civilization embodied by dresses, shoes and bathtubs. For the captain, it’s some brothers who think the newspaper stories should be about their exploits. For both of them, there are the hardships of the trail — finding food, fording rivers — and the attack by outlaws intent on killing Kidd and selling Johanna into white slavery. Johanna proves to be a practical, practiced fighter, although the captain has to stop her from scalping the villains.

Jiles depicts their adventures with an assured ease and a poetic feel for the harsh and lovely landscape, the customs of the time. Readers of Jiles’ Enemy Women and The Color of Lightning will find a similar sensibility of time and place, affecting but unsentimental. Still, the relationship between the captain and Johanna is at book’s heart, and knowing that there must be a reckoning at road’s end caused mine to ache. These two belong together.

The News of the World is a deserved finalist for the National Book Award. But don’t just read all about it. Read it.

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moscowOh, I have such a crush on the title character of Amor Towles’ new novel A Gentleman in Moscow (Viking, digital galley). Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov may be a Former Person to the Bolsheviks who have sentenced him to permanent house arrest in 1922 at Moscow’s grand Metropol hotel, but he’s my new book boyfriend. Like the marvelous tale he inhabits, he has substance and style, intelligence and wit, elegance and charm. Forgive me while I swoon.

Rostov makes the best of his forced relocation from his luxury suite to a cramped attic room, paring down his possessions to the necessities. Still he worries the walls may soon close in on him like a biscuit tin. His solution is to make himself even more at home in the hotel, dining in its restaurants, receiving visitors in the grand lobby, making a standing Tuesday appointment with the hotel barber. He also forges strong ties with hotel chef Emile and maitre d’ Andrey, uniting with them against the conniving Party plant working his way up the hotel’s management hierarchy. A famous actress invites Rostov to her room, and thus begins a discreet affair.

But but before that is Rostov’s mentoring friendship with young Nina, the lively daughter of a bureaucrat temporarily living at the Metropol. Nina has a passkey, and she introduces him to the hotel’s secret storerooms and hidden closets. They eavesdrop on visitors and guests from the ballroom balcony, and when Nina finally leaves, she presents Rostov with an invaluable gift. She will return as a grown woman requesting a favor that will change his life forever.

All credit to Towles, who wrote the splendid The Rules of Civility, for crafting another layered period piece, this one suffused with a Russian sensibility studded with references to history, culture and literature. A Gentleman in Moscow is both expansive and intimate as it covers and compresses decades. Imagine a kaleidoscopic combination of  Casablanca and Chekhov, with a little bit of Eloise.

Almost all of the book takes place inside the Metropol — Rostov will be shot if he ventures over its threshold — but there is one heart-stopping hospital run, and another character makes a clandestine trip to Paris. The Metropol is in Theatre Square, near the Kremlin and the Bolshoi, so the outside world can be glimpsed from the windows, as when the mourners line the streets for Stalin’s funeral. And politics play out in the hotel itself; Khruschev is a dinner guest at an important meeting. There is intrigue and suspense, especially as the book nears its end.

I didn’t want it to end, to have to check out of the Metropol and bid farewell to Rostov and company. That being said, the finale was all I’d hoped it would be.

 

 

 

 

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herooffranceMathieu is his nom de guerre, and, like many of Alan Furst’s leading men, he’s something of a loner, a considered risk-taker who hides his intelligence and sophistication behind a quiet demeanor. He’s good at sizing up people, figuring out if they can be trusted. “And I’d better be,” he says, ”because I can only be wrong once.”

Mathieu is the capable leader of a small Resistance cell in A Hero of France (Random House, digital galley), Furst’s excellent new novel of the shadowy world of espionage. In previous books, he has focused mostly on the twilight years leading up to the war, but here it is March of 1941, and German-occupied Paris is dark and under curfew. Mathieu and his cell help rescue downed RAF pilots and crew members, hiding them in safe houses, securing false identity passes, providing disguises and escorting them to safety — perhaps by train through Vichy France and then to Spain, or in the back of a truck to the countryside and coast to await safe passage to England. It is dangerous, heart-stopping work, but these ordinary people — a professor, a nurse, a schoolteacher, a teen with a bicycle, a widow with a bureaucratic friend, a nightclub owner with connections — prove themselves over and over in extraordinary circumstances. But their actions can only go unnoticed for so long. A fatuous Brit wants to run the network from afar, encouraging riskier acts of sabotage. A German police detective is looking for an informer to penetrate the cell. Then there are the soldiers who will trip a man for no reason, and young street thugs playing at extortion.

The narrative is episodic, and Furst splices tense, action-filled scenes with interludes of relative calm. Mathieu begins a love affair with a neighbor, and adopts — or is adopted by — a Belgian shepherd dog. The writing is atmospheric: a crippled plane tries to land in silvery moonlight, lovers share secrets behind blackout curtains, a cafe owner shrugs when asked about the Resistance. “Monsieur, do you know what goes on in the cafes of Paris? Everything. Of course, one may have a glass of wine, a coffee, and something to eat, but there is more. Love affairs begin, love affairs end, swindlers meet their victims, victims meet their lawyers. But, mostly, the cafe is a place for people to go.” Including the heroes of France.

everyonebraveThe London Blitz is a staple of wartime novels and films, offering a dramatic backdrop for stories of courage and romance. The writer Kate Atkinson called it “the dark beating heart” of her novel Life after Life, and the same can be said of Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave is Forgiven (Simon & Schuster, digital galley). His fierce re-imagining of the Nazi bombs shattering buildings and lives is both wide-screen and close-up. Perhaps because his story is loosely based on the letters and wartime experiences of his grandparents, it feels immediate and personal.

England’s entry into the war in 1939 is a call to arms for Britain’s youth, including 18-year-old debutante Mary North, fresh out a Swiss boarding school. Her notion of a glamorous wartime job is quickly dashed by her assignment to a school whose students are being evacuated to the countryside. But not all children are suitable evacuees, including some who are physically disabled or mentally challenged, along with Zachary, the 10-year-old child of a black American musician. Mary convinces nice-guy Tom Shaw, a school administrator turned down for enlistment, to let her teach a small class of these outsiders. Tom and Mary begin a whirlwind courtship that is threatened both by Mary’s attraction to Tom’s best friend, Alistair Heath, an art restorer before he joined up, and the war itself, which sends Alistair to France and those left behind to air raid shelters. Eventually, Alistair will wind up in Malta, under siege by Axis forces, and Mary and her friend Hilda will volunteer as ambulance drivers.

Cleave’s harrowing descriptions of the homefront and battlefield are leavened by witty dialogue and letters among the characters. He also raises issues of race and class that seem shocking by today’s standards. Mary, Tom, Alistair, Hilda, Zachary — and a host of others — come across as complex and believable. You remember the stubborn  pride of Zachary’s father, the pursed lips of Mary’s mother, the camaraderie between Alistair and a fellow soldier, the resilience of small children, the bravery of those scared to death. You won’t forget Everyone Brave is Forgiven.

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doctorow“You may think you are living in modern times, the here and now, but that is the necessary illusion of every age. We did not conduct ourselves as if we were preparatory to your time.”

That’s the narrator McIlvaine talking near the beginning of The Waterworks, my favorite of E.L. Doctorow’s novels. Out of a swirl of snow in 1871 New York City, a young man glimpses the face of his dead father in the window of a public omnibus going crosstown. This ominous vision is just a preview of mysterious events yet to come — the exhumation of a grave in a fog-draped cemetery, orphans exchanged for cash in city taverns, fearsome experiments in secret laboratories. But Doctorow has more on his mind than just chills and thrills. That The Waterworks works as a suspenseful mystery, an entertaining period piece and provocative social commentary on our own time is credit to Doctorow’s skillful melding of history and imagination. As Bruce Weber wrote in his comprehensive obituary in The New York Times, “a good part of Mr. Doctorow’s achievement was in illustrating how the past informs the present, and how the present has evolved from the past.”

It’s interesting to read all the admiring comments from readers, both in the Times and on Facebook. Everybody wants to mention their favorite Doctorow novel —  and there are many to choose from. Ragtime, of course, is the most famous, mixing historical events and figures with fictional ones in wildly inventive fashion. But then there’s Billy Bathgate, about a Bronx teen who becomes an errand boy for gangster Dutch Schulz, and The March, which reaches back to the Civil War and Sherman. World’s Fair is the most autobiographical, focusing on a young boy in the Depression-era Bronx. Then there’s his reimagining of the Rosenberg case, The Book of Daniel. A friend told me he started it twice and didn’t finish it because of the unfamiliarity of the narrative style, its mix of memories and documents. But on a third reading, he became totally immersed and found it brilliant.

Doctorow’s books are evocative, elegant, experimental. I met him a couple of times and interviewed him back in the early ’90s right before the movie of Billy Bathgate came out, coincidentally following other gangstercentric movies such as Goodfellas, Miller’s Crossing and The Godfather.

“For me, the book began with an image,” Doctorow said. “I kept having this mental image of several men in black tie on a tugboat at night. There was such a contrast between these elegant figures and the tug that I finally decided they had to be gangsters and what they were doing was something nefarious.”

Indeed. Readers are not likely to forget the chilling scene that Billy witnesses after slipping aboard a tugboat where members of Dutch Schulz’s notorious gang are bidding farewell to colleague Bo Weinberg. “Now not just his feet but his legs to the knee were exposed. Irving rose from his kneeling position and offered his arm, and Bo Weinberg took it, like a princess at at a ball, and delicately, gingerly, placed one foot at a time in the laundry tub in front of him that was filled with wet cement.”

For all that the novel centers on Billy’s apprenticeship to the Schulz gang, Doctorow said it’s not really a book about gangsters. “It’s about a boy’s life and the ambiguous fascination with evil that people have.”

Still, he didn’t know what direction the book would take when he began writing.

“I write to find out what I’m writing,” he said. “It’s a process of discovery. An image that I use to explain it to people is that it’s similar to driving a car at night. You can’t see any further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

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readingwomanWhen I first read in British novels about Oxbridge students’ reading parties, I was disappointed that they were really talking about study groups. “Reading party” sounds much more elegant, with everyone sitting around comfortably, inside or out, sipping an appropriate beverage, communing with their book of choice. My vision is no doubt influenced by the beautiful paintings reproduced in The Reading Woman calendar, which I gave my mother for Christmas.

I thought about reading parties when I heard that that this Saturday has been designated National Readathon Day by the National Book Foundation, with fundraising activities going on at bookstores, libraries, schools and universities across the country. The hosts are providing quiet areas where participants are asked to read from noon to 4 p.m. Oh my — what punishment! Please, please don’t throw me in that briar patch!

Still, four hours of non-interrupted reading time seems quite lovely, even for people like me who read like we breathe. A readathon sounds too much like work, though, or that you have to read while walking on a treadmill. So I’m planning my own reading party for Saturday afternoon, when I hope to make a dent in my towering TBR stack. Maybe I’ll invite some friends to join me. I have comfy chairs and, goodness knows, I have books, including these two involving novels.

traingirlThe hype regarding Paula Hawkins’  The Girl on the Train (Riverhead/Penguin, purchased e-book) is mostly well-deserved. It’s fast-paced, well-written psychological suspense with three unreliable narrators — hence the comparisons to Gone Girl — but I saw its twists coming, and you will, too, if you know your Hitchcock films and Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine books.

The titular narrator, Rachel Watson, is a mess: lonely, alcoholic, divorced, still in love with her ex, Tom. Although she was fired from her London job months ago, she still travels back and forth from the suburbs to London on the train, passing her old home where she sometimes sees her husband’s new wife Anna and baby. Just down the street are a golden couple that she imagines are everything she has lost, but her fantasies are shattered when she sees the pretty blonde wife kissing a dark, handsome stranger. Rachel’s drink-fortified decision to see what’s going on results in her waking the next morning with no memory of the night before, only to hear the news that the blonde woman, Megan, has gone missing. Megan is the book’s second narrator, and Anna is the third. Hawkins neatly splices their stories together, time-shifting so as to increase the suspense, piecing out what everyone is up to before and after Megan’s disappearance. Rachel, in hopes of recovering her memory, inserts herself into the investigation, which brings her into contact with the police, Megan’s husband Scott, a mysterious man who keeps showing up on the train, as well as Tom and Anna, who want no part of her. Rachel is undeterred.

“I feel like I’m part of this mystery, I’m connected,” she thinks to herself. “I am no longer just a girl on the train, going back and forth without point or purpose. I want Megan to turn up safe and sound. I do. Just not quite yet.”

pariswinterUnlike Hawkins’ tale, which hooks you from the first page, Imogen Robertson’s historical thriller The Paris Winter (St. Martin’s Press, paperback ARC) takes awhile to build up a head of steam. Young Englishwoman Maud Heighton is having a tough time in 1909 Paris as she struggles to pay the fees at a school for women artists. Her paintings won’t feed or clothe her during the coming winter, but she is befriended by the model Yvette and fellow student, Tanya, a Russian heiress. They direct her to a charity that helps her find a job with a French gentleman, Christian Morel, who needs a companion for his fragile sister, Sylvie. All is more than well, even after Maud discovers that Sylvie is addicted to opium, and she vows to keep the Morels’ secret while Sylvie tries to wean herself from the drug. But the Morels are playing a long game, and Maud becomes a pawn in a plot involving stolen jewels, secret identities and murder.

If the book’s first half is a leisurely stroll through belle epoque Paris, the second half is an action-packed adventure when Tanya and Yvette again come to Maud’s aid. As floods threaten to engulf the city, the three friends seek revenge in a fight for their futures. Hawkins is very good at evoking both the romance and squalor of the City of Light’s dark side.

 

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museumMagic by Alice. Over the course of more than two dozen books, Alice Hoffman has created her own brand of magical realism, often tethering the fantastic to the everyday in lyrical, luminous prose. In her new novel The Museum of Extraordinary Things (Scribner, digital gallery), she takes a slightly different tack, telling of the outwardly weird who wish their lives more ordinary, the freakish fascinated by the more mundane. Coralie Sardie is the Human Mermaid in her father’s small Coney Island museum in early 20th-century New York. Born with webbing between her fingers, she hones her swimming skills in the Hudson River by night, then slips into a glass tank by day. Water is her element. For Russian immigrant photographer Eddie Cohen, it’s fire, from the flames that burned his boyhood home to the horrific blaze that consumes the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Eddie and Coralie, each yearning for a different life, meet over his search for a missing woman and her father’s obsession to create a river monster for his failing museum, overshadowed by the amusement park splendor of Dreamland.

The story’s rich in atmosphere and glittering details — the “living wonders” of the museum like an armless girl painted to resemble a monarch butterfly, the red-throat hummingbirds let out of their cages on leashes of string, an ancient tortoise who rocks himself to sleep. It’s also a dark valentine to an early New York, where the rich ride in carriages and the poor strive in factories. It ends with the actual conflagration of Dreamland, imagined with a terrible beauty. Magic by Alice.

lostlakeSarah Addison Allen writes a more gentle kind of magical realism than Hoffman. Lost Lake (St. Martin’s Press, paperback ARC) is a sweet tale of second chances among characters who are mildly quirky instead of wildly eccentric. Kate Pheris, a widow of one year, impulsively takes her 8-year-old daughter Devin to visit her great-aunt Eby’s south Georgia resort camp, Lost Lake, where she spent her 12th summer. But the cabins are mostly unoccupied now, and Eby is ready to sell the rundown resort to a local developer. Devin is enchanted by the lake and the mysterious Alligator Man only she can see, and Kate begins to reclaim her life from her manipulative mother-in-law. That her first love is still around and available adds to Lost Lake’s charms. Several old-timers are also reluctant to leave Lost Lake, including a retired teacher, her va-voom husband-hunting friend, and a socially awkward podiatrist with a yen for Eby’s French cook, mute and haunted. But my favorite character is bespectacled Devin in her pink tutu and neon green T-shirt, who still believes in magic.

poisonedLloyd Shepherd’s eerie The Poisoned Island (Washington Square Press, digital galley) is an historical mystery with a hint of horror. In 1812, the ship Solander arrives at London’s dock bearing botanical treasures from Otaheite, aka Tahiti. Soon after, sailors from the Solander begin turning up dead with blissful smiles on their murdered corpses. Charles Horton of the Thames River Police suspects the deaths are somehow connected to the Solander’s exotic cargo, which is destined for Kew Gardens under the supervision of Sir Joseph Banks of the Royal Society. Meanwhile, Sir Joseph’s librarian, Robert Hunter, is impressed by a breadfruit tree from the ship that is showing exponential growth and tries to get answers from his employer, who sowed wild oats as a young man visiting Otaheite 40 years ago. It all makes for a good yarn with a bounty of fascinating facts about botany, Tahiti and detection.

mist“Rain, rain all day, all evening, all night, pouring autumn rain.” So begins Susan Hill’s Victorian ghost story The Mist in the Mirror (Vintage, digital galley), appropriately moody and melancholy. Sir James Monmouth returns to the barely remembered England of his childhood after years of living in Africa and traveling in the Far East in the footsteps of the explorer Conrad Vane. Monmouth sets out to research Vane’s life and his own family history with plans to write a book, but is discouraged by odd events and persons. Seems Vane is not the hero he supposed. Indeed, he may be the very embodiment of evil. Is he behind Monmouth’s panic attacks and deteriorating health? And what of the strange apparition of the sad boy in rags? Is he warning Monmouth to keep away, or is he beckoning him onward?

starterhouseSchoolteacher Lacey and her lawyer husband Drew think they’ve found their dream home in Sonja Condit’s creepy Starter House (HarperCollins, digital galley), but dontcha know the charming Southern cottage is haunted? Locals call it the murder house because of its dark past, but Lacey, pregnant with her first child, isn’t bothered, even after encountering a neighbor boy called Drew, who becomes increasingly possessive of her time. At first she tries to amuse him with games and placate him with cookies, but Drew’s odd behavior escalates to the threatening. Coincidentally, Brad is representing a client in a custody case who has ties to the house. Things go bump in the night — and during the day. Shiver!

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